Facing the Balkans. South-East Europe in photographs by Harald Schmitt – Virtual exhibition

Annual exhibition 2021 of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

Harald Schmitt | © Thorsten Baering
Harald Schmitt | © Thorsten Baering

The Balkans actually are a mountain range in Bulgaria and Serbia, but their name has prevailed as the term designating the region between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. Which countries belong to the Balkans is quite contentious. It depends on the viewpoint taken whether or not Slovenia, Croatia or Moldova form part of them. In any case, the term South-East Europe, which is often used synonymously, encompasses all of these states.


There are many definitions of the Balkans: There are those who regard them as the interface between the Orient and the Occident. There are others who regard them as a historical region, which is characterised by its ethnic and religious variety and changing affiliations to various empires, among them Byzantium, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.


The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova takes the position that Western Europe invented the Balkans in order to create its own identity. They were already used by western authors as a negative reflection in the 19th century. The Balkans were constructed as a primitive, violent and incomplete region – not quite European, but not quite foreign either – and thus regarded as inferior to Western culture. Todorova calls this phenomenon as Balkanism.


The photographer Harald Schmidt also noticed that our mental image of the Balkans is strongly influenced by stereotypes. In 2015, he therefore decided to get to the bottom of his own preconceptions of South-East Europe and to document this venture by photograph. He travelled across the Balkans a total of six times, together with his wife Annette in order to get acquainted with the countries and their people.


The photographer Harald Schmitt introduces himself.
► Audio commentary  (in German)
(MP3 file, 1.21 MB) 


"Facing the Balkans" is an invitation to follow Harald Schmitt on his journey through South-East Europe. The exhibition takes the visitors from Slovenia in the north to Albania in the south, from Croatia in the west to Moldova in the east. Eight sections show the topics the photographer took a particular interest in.


The images on display are characterised by Schmitt’s self-concept as a photo reporter. For more than three decades, he worked for the journal STERN; among other things, he spent six years as accredited correspondent in the German Democratic Republic. During the 1980s and 1990s, he travelled to the countries of Eastern Europe several times, in order to document the historical changes taking place there, such as the Velvet Revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia or the August Putsch of 1991 in Russia. He won the World Press Photo Award, the most important award in the field of press photography, six times for his work.

Travelling the Balkans

Tourism in South-East Europe has a long tradition: Already in the mid-19th century, the upper class from Austria-Hungary spent the summer in the mundane sea resorts of the northern Adriatic. The era of beach tourism started in the 1960s and 1970s. The socialist governments in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania wowed the sun-hungry tourists from the West, who brought foreign currencies into the countries. Today, the countries of the Balkans offer a large variety of holiday offers, ranging from culture trips to bathing holidays, up to holidays in nature.


The tourism sector has meanwhile become one of the economic sectors with the greatest growth potential. However, its expansion also includes some risks: Increasing environmental pollution, rising property prices and the privatisation of entire locations pose a threat to nature habitats and societies. In addition, transnational cooperation is a great challenge, for sites of natural beauty and cultural heritage extend across the national borders of today. Currently, some promising initiatives are being founded for developing sustainable tourism for the entire region. One example is the long-distance hiking trail Via Dinarica, which connects seven countries between Slovenia and Albania.


Harald Schmitt explains how he succeeded taking photos of wild bears in the Carpathian Mountains.
► Audio commentary  (in German)  (MP3 file, 1.27 MB)


Many travellers associate Transylvania with unspoilt nature. The brown bears which tourists can spot during guided tours contribute to this notion.
Near Braşov, Romania, 2015
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Near Braşov, Romania, 2015 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Crossing the Balkans

In the 1980s the term "Balkans route" was still associated with drug trafficking from Turkey to Western Europe. Today, it designates the network of migration paths on which people, primarily from the countries of the Middle East and Afghanistan, flee from war and misery in the direction of Western Europe via the Balkans. The refugees have to traverse national borders irregularly in the process, as there are practically no possibilities for asylum seekers to enter lawfully. Over one million illegal border crossings on the Balkans route were counted by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, between 2009 and 2019, with 90% of them registered in 2015.


While transit countries still enabled refugees to pass through in the spring of 2015, Hungary and North Macedonia started building border fences in the summer of the same year. Together with Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, they also decided in March 2016 to permit entry only to persons holding a valid visa. At the same time, within the scope of an agreement with the EU, Turkey undertook to re-admit migrants who had managed to illegally enter Greece. As a consequence of these measures, the number of refugees decreased substantially, but due to a lack of alternatives, many people still take on the dangerous overland route to Western Europe.


Harald Schmitt gives an account of his stay at the Bosnian-Croatian border.
► Audio commentary  (in German)  (MP3 file, 2.41 MB)


A Bosnian border guard on patrol.
Near Izačić, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2018
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Near Izačić, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2018 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Faith in the Balkans

The socialist states limited the free practice of religion to various degrees for many decades. Since the system change, the various religious communities have been held in great esteem again. The construction of new churches and mosques is a visible sign of this. Opinion polls show as well that a significantly higher number of people in South-East Europe characterise themselves as religious than, for example, in Germany.


It is characteristic for the region that national and religious identities frequently overlap. There are historical reasons for this, as for example the Ottoman Empire already subdivided the individual population groups on the basis of their religion. Moreover, the languages of the region were suitable only to a limited extent for differentiating individual nations. The experiences of war and crises of the 20th century further strengthened affiliation to a religion as an important characteristic of identity. This is particularly pronounced in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the Yugoslav wars, Catholics usually identify as Croats, Orthodox Christians as Serbs and Muslims as Bosniaks.


The photographer reveals how he was allowed to meet the religious leader of the Bektashi.
► Audio commentary  (in German)   (MP3 file, 2.76 MB)


Edmond Brahimaj is the supreme leader of the Bektashi, an Islamic order of dervishes.
Tirana, Albania, 2016
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Tirana, Albania, 2016 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Remembrance in the Balkans

A series of armed conflicts made an impact on the history of South-East Europe during the past one hundred years: Before the First World War, which was triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne, in Sarajevo, the Balkans wars of 1912 – 1913 shook the region. During the Second World War, South-East Europe was devastated by the Third Reich and its allies. The Yugoslav wars and the Transnistria war raged in the 1990s.


How can this and earlier suffering be remembered? There is no consent about this, neither among the populations of the individual countries, nor among the states. The nations concerned pass very different judgement as to who were the heroes and who were the victims of one and the same conflict. This becomes particularly clear with respect to remembrance of the Second World War: In all countries, it is an important part of remembrance culture, but the narratives vary strongly. They range from the open reverence of fascist perpetrator organisations to the continuation of the socialist tradition of remembrance, up to differentiated reappraisal.


Harald Schmitt reports how he accompanied troops of the German armed forces in Kosovo.
► Audio commentary  (in German)  (MP3 file, 2.49 MB)


Soldiers of the German armed forces on patrol at the border to Serbia.
Near Podujevo, Kosovo, 2016
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Near Podujevo, Kosovo, 2016 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Transforming the Balkans

The past thirty years brought comprehensive transformations for South-East Europe, which have encompassed society, politics and the economy alike – democracy and capitalism replaced the socialist systems; the disintegration of Yugoslavia created new, independent states.


The change brought new chances and for many people also better living conditions: Innovative enterprises were founded, the infrastructure was modernised and the arts and culture flourished. For many citizens, however, the transformation meant insecurity: Jobs were cut and social systems were re-structured. Also as a reaction to the changes, a return to traditions occurred, which made it possible to define one’s own identity in an increasingly globalised world. Today, following international trends, the rich tradition of the South-East European countries frequently serves tourism and is marketed in the sense of an "authentic experience" for tourists.


The photographer gives an account of his stay at the eco-village of Butuceni.
► Audio commentary  (in German)  (MP3 file, 1.92 MB)


The hotel owner Anatol Butnaru on the rooftop of a house, which he is converting into a guesthouse for tourists.
Butuceni, Moldova, 2015
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Butuceni, Moldova, 2015 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Rural life in the Balkans

The breakdown of socialism led to far-reaching changes of rural life. Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, where agriculture had been collectivised in the 1950s, re-privatised property. However, the returned estates where very small and frequently located far apart from one another. In Romania, for example, 90% of all farms each own a maximum of five hectares of land today. The small size of the enterprises is combined with a comparatively weak mechanisation. As a consequence, many farms produce merely for their own consumption and sale on local markets. The quality of the food products grown is very high, but the enterprises often suffer from poor economic profitability. More and more farmers therefore decide to give up farming and move to the city.


Besides the very small farms, there are highly efficient large enterprises in South-East Europe, which work vast areas of land with the most modern technology. Thanks to these, Romania and Bulgaria are among the largest producers of sunflower seeds in Europe, whereas Serbia is the world’s third-largest producer of raspberries.


Harald Schmitt reports about the hay making in Romanian Transylvania.
► Audio commentary  (in German)  (MP3 file, 1.52 MB)


Hay making in Transylvania in the summer
Măgura, Romania, 2015
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Măgura, Romania, 2015 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Getting Together in the Balkans

The social status of the family has remained very high in the countries of South-East Europe up to the present. This becomes particularly visible in religious tradition: On the occasion of the "Slava" festival, Serbian-Orthodox families revere their patron saint, whose figure is handed down from father to son over generations. Muslims celebrate the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan with their relatives. For members of all religions, weddings are an occasion for the entire family to come together. Couples who have lived abroad for a long time also frequently decide to marry in their native country.


The comparatively great relevance of kinship relations has economic reasons, among other things: The countries of the Balkans, including the EU member states Bulgaria and Romania, are among the poorest countries in Europe. The welfare state structures are often weak here, so that the family acts as a safety net. Due to the high unemployment rate, which concerns young people in particular, an increasing number of people choose to emigrate and take up jobs in western EU countries.


Harald Schmitt reveals how he was invited to a birthday party in Albania.
► Audio commentary  (in German)  (MP3 file, 1.66 MB)


A family celebrates the 75th birthdays of the two grandparents by going to a restaurant.
Erseka, Albania, 2016
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Erseka, Albania, 2016 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Revisiting the Balkans 2021

In July 2021, Harald and Annette Schmitt travelled to the Balkans again – to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, and Serbia. They were particularly interested in the social, economic, and environmental issues the countries are currently facing.


Harald Schmitt reports how he portrayed an environmental activist from Moldovița.
► Audio commentary  (in German)  (MP3 file, 1.97 MB)


Tiberiu Boșutar fights against illegal logging. He rented a small apartment on the main street to film the bypassing wood transports
Moldovița, Romania 2021
© BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt

Moldovița, Romania 2021 | © BSB/STERN Photo Archive/Harald Schmitt


The exhibition was curated by Dr. Gudrun Wirtz and Caroline Finkeldey (Department of Eastern Europe).

Cooperation partner

The cooperation partner of the exhibition is the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS).


Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
Phone:  +49 89 28638-2115/-2980

Information overview

Conditions of access
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
Ludwigstrasse 16, 80539 Munich
Grand staircase and Fürstensaal, 1st floor

Proof of vaccination or recovery (2G) together with an
identification document is required for access to the building.
FAQ on the current situation
Opening hours11 November 2021 – 4 March 2022
Monday through Friday 11:00 – 19:00
Closed on weekends and bank holidays, on 24 and 31 December 2021
and on Shrove Tuesday, 1 March 2022.
Please consult this web page or phone +49 89 28638-2115 or -2980 prior to your visit to obtain information about possible changes of the opening hours and the current access conditions.
AdmissionAdmission is free.
Public transportUnderground lines U3/U6, bus lines 58/68/153/154, station/bus stop Universität
Bus line 100/153, bus stop Von-der-Tann-Strasse
CatalogueOn the occasion of the exhibition a richly illustrated catalogue will be published at a price of € 35.00.
Guided toursGuided tours free of charge every Wednesday at 17:00.
(not on 22 and 29 December 2021 and on 5 January 2022)
The attendance is limited. Please register by e-mail to
veranstaltungen@bsb-muenchen.de or by calling +49 89 28638-2115 oder -2980.