THE BALKANS: HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT
Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor,
Kiev National University of Trade and Economics (Ukraine, Kyiv),
Professor of the Department of philosophic and social sciences,
The development of the Balkan region in historical context is researched in the article. The Balkans have always been and still are the mystery of Europe. That’s why they continue to attract attention of scientists.
The aim of the article was to investigate the development of the Balkans taking into consideration the Ottoman and Greek periods in the history of this region.
The man attention is paid to the peculiarities of state formation in the Balkans. Geographic, economic, political, religions, social, cultural aspects of the state formation process are analysed. Interrelations and interdependence of ethnic groups which lived in the Balkans in different historic periods are characterized. Etimological changes in the name of the Balkans Peninsula are explained. Means of influence of the Islamic religion adepts on the social-historic events in the Balkans are defined. Some prerequisites of political crisis in Kosovo are described.
Results of the research and conclusions made in this article will be interesting and useful not only for those who studies the problems of the Balkans but for a wide circle of readers.
Key words: Balkans, population, state, empire, Islam, Christianity, country, war.
БАЛКАНИ: ІСТОРИЧНА ҐЕНЕЗА
УДК 94 (497)
доктор політичних наук, професор,
Київський національний торговельно-економічний університет (Україна, Київ),
професор кафедри філософських та соціальних наук,
У статті досліджується розвиток Балканського регіону в історичному контексті. Балкани завжди були і досі залишаються таємницею Європи. Тому вони продовжують привертати до себе увагу науковців.
Метою статті було прослідкувати генезис Балкан, враховуючи османський та грецький періоди в історії цього регіону.
Головна увага приділяється особливостям формування держави на Балканах. Аналізуються географічні, економічні, політичні, релігійні, соціальні, культурні аспекти процесу державотворення. Характеризуються взаємовідносини і взаємовплив етнічних груп, які проживали на Балканах в різні історичні періоди. Пояснюються етимологічні зміни в назві Балканського півострова. З’ясовуються важелі впливу послідовників ісламської релігії на суспільно-історичні події на Балканах. Визначаються певні передумови політичної кризи в Косово.
Результати дослідження і висновки, зазначені в даній статті, будуть цікавими та корисними не лише для тих, хто займається проблемами Балкан, а й для широкого загалу.
Ключові слова: Балкани, населення, держава, імперія, мусульманство, християнство, країна, війна.
At the end of the twentieth century, people spoke as if the Balkans had existed for ever. Two hundred years earlier, they had not yet come into being. It was not the Balkans but ‘Rumeli’ that the Ottomans ruled, the formerly ‘Roman’ lands that they had conquered from Byzantium. The Sultan’s educated Christian Orthodox subjects referred to themselves as ‘Romans’ (‘Romaioi’), or more simply as ‘Christians’. To Westerners, familiar with classical regional terms such as Macedonia, Epiros, Dacia and Moesia, the term ‘Balkan’ conveyed little. ‘My expectations were raised’, wrote one traveller in 1854, ‘by hearing that we were about to cross a Balkan; but I discovered ere long that this high-sounding title denotes only a ridge which divides the waters, or a mountain pass, without its being a necessary consequence that it offer grand or romantic scenery’ .
‘Balkan’ was initially a name applied to the mountain range better known to the classically trained Western traveller as ‘ancient Haemus’, passed en route from central Europe to Constantinople. In the early nineteenth century, army officers like the Earl of Albermarle explored its little-known slopes. ‘The interior of the Balcan,’ wrote a Prussian diplomat who crossed it in 1833, ‘has been little explored, and but a few, accurate measurements of elevation have been undertaken.’ Little had changed twenty years later, when Jochmus’s ‘Notes on a Journey into the Balkan, or Mount Haemus’ were read to the Royal Geographical Society. It was across these mountains that the Russian army advanced on Constantinople in 1829 and again in 1877. ‘The crossing of the Balkans’ wrote the author of a popular history of the Russo-Turkish war of that year, ‘must be reckoned one of the most remarkable achievements of the war’ .
By this time, a handful of geographers had already stretched the word to refer to the entire region, mostly on the erroneous assumption that the Balkan range ran right across the peninsula of southeastern Europe much as the Pyrenees demarcated the top of the Iberian. In the eighteenth century, geographical knowledge of the Turkish domains was very vague; as late as 1802, John Pinkerton noted that ‘recent maps of these regions are still very imperfect’. Most scholars, including the Greek authors of the earliest study from the area, used the much commoner term ‘European Turkey’, and references to ‘the Balkans’ remained scarce long into the nineteenth century. They are, for instance, absent in the writings of the savant, Ami Boue, whose minute exploration of the entire region – La Turquie d’Europe of 1840 – set standards of accuracy and detail not matched for generations .
Nor before the 1880s were there many references to ‘Balkan’ peoples either. The world of Orthodoxy encompassed Greek and Slav alike, and it took time for ethnographic and political distinctions between the various Orthodox populations to emerge. In 1797, the revolutionary firebrand Rhigas Velestinlis, inspired by the French Revolution, predicted the downfall of the Sultan and proclaimed the need for an ‘Hellenic Republic’ in which all the peoples of ‘Rumeli, Asia Minor, the Archipelago, Moldavia and Wallachia’ would be recognised as citizens, despite their ‘different races and religions’. In Rhigas’s vast future republic, Greek was to be the language not only of learning but also of government. As late as the 1850s informed commentators were still scoffing at ‘superficial observers, who consider the Slavonic races as "Greek" because the great majority of them are of the "Greek" religion’. Even the German scholar Karl Ritter proposed calling the whole region south of the Danube, the ‘Halbinsel Griechenland’ (Greek peninsula). ‘Till quite lately,’ wrote the British historian E.A. Freeman in 1877, ‘all the Orthodox subjects of the Turk were in most European eyes looked on alike as Greeks.’
Well after the unmistakable rise of Slav nationalisms, it was hard to discern what pattern of states and peoples would succeed the Turks. Some commentators imagined a variety of self-governing Christian polities under overall Ottoman suzerainty, while others foresaw the partition of the region between a Greek state and a south Slav federation. Almost none anticipated the process of fragmentation that actually occurred. ‘Even in our days,’ wrote a French writer in 1864, ‘how often have I heard people ask who the Christian populations of Turkey belong to – Russia, Austria, France? And when some dreamers replied: “These populations belong to themselves” – what amusement, what pity at such utopianism’ .
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘Turkey in Europe’ was the favoured geographical coin of the day. But by the 1880s, the days of ’Turkey in Europe’ were evidently numbered. Successor states – Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro – had emerged during the nineteenth century as contenders to carve up what remained. Between 1878 and 1908, diplomatic conferences whittled away Ottoman territory, and subjected what remained to Great Power oversight. Western travellers, journalists and propagandists flocked to the region and popularised the new, broader use of the term ‘Balkans’. By the time of the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912 – which ended Ottoman rule in Europe (outside the immediate hinterland of Constantinople), it had become common currency. Purists were annoyed. One German geographer talked crossly of ‘the southeast European – or as people increasingly say, perpetuating the error of half a century – the Balkan peninsula’. A Bulgarian expert complained about ‘this region ... [being] wrongly called the Balkan peninsula’. But the tide was against such pedantry. In less than half a century, largely as a result of sudden military and diplomatic changes, a new geographical concept rooted itself in everyday parlance. By 1917, a standard history of the Eastern Question talked about the ‘lands which the geographers of the last generation described as “Turkey in Europe” but for which political changes have compelled us to seek a new name. The name generally given to that segment is “The Balkan Peninsula”, or simply, “The Balkans” ’ .
From the very start the Balkans was more than a geographical concept. The term, unlike its predecessors, was loaded with negative connotations – of violence, savagery, primitivism – to an extent for which it is hard to find a parallel. ‘Why “savage Europe”?,’ asked the journalist Harry de Windt in his 1907 book of the same name. ‘Because . . . the term accurately describes the wild and lawless countries between the Adriatic and Black Seas.’ Attuned to a history of revolt and revenge stretching back almost a century and climaxing after 1900 in the terrorist bombings of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, the Serbian regicide of 1903 and the widespread massacres carried out by all sides during the Balkan Wars, Europe quickly came to associate the region with violence and bloodshed. A decade of further fighting – ending in 1922 with the Greek defeat by the Turks in Asia Minor, and the forced population exchange of nearly two million refugees – did little to alter the picture. True, the Balkan peoples now ruled themselves, as so many Western advocates on their behalf had wished. But what was the result? A panoply of small, unviable, mutually antagonistic and internally intolerant states. This looked exactly like the kleinstaaterei which opponents of the unrestricted spread of national states had feared. Liberals found it hard to reconcile their happy ideal of national self-determination with the realities of a fragmented and destabilised world. In the case of new states such as Germany and Italy, nineteenth-century nationalism had welded together tiny antiquated statelets into larger and economically more rational units; in the Balkans the outcome had been the opposite .
Between the wars, novelists and film-directors turned the region into a stage set for exotic thrillers of corruption, quick killing and easy crime. For Eric Ambler, in “The Mask of Dimitrios”, the Balkans symbolised the moral decay of interwar Europe itself. For the less sophisticated Agatha Christie, in her 1925 “The Secret of Chimneys”, it provided a home for the villainous Boris Anchoukoff, who came from: ‘one of the Balkan states ... Principal rivers, unknown. Principal mountains, also unknown but fairly numerous. Capital, Ekarest. Population, chiefly brigands. Hobby, assassinating kings and having revolutions.’ As Rebecca West wrote at the start of her travelogue “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”: ‘Violence was indeed all I knew of the Balkans: all I knew of the South Slavs.’ Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 film noir, “Cat People”, went even further and turned the Balkans – through the troubled persona of the film’s Serbian heroine – into the seedbed of an ‘ancient sin’ that turned humans into lethal sexual predators who threatened to destroy the ‘normal, happy lives’ of ordinary Americans .
In the postwar era, some of these cliches became less powerful. The Balkans disappeared from the Western consciousness during the Cold War, and the Iron Curtain ran through southeastern Europe, separating Greece from its communist neighbours. Albania became virtually impenetrable. Tito’s Yugoslavia was idolised by American policymakers and by the ‘New Left in Europe; the language of international non-alignment and of workers’ self-management at home fell on receptive ears abroad. Ceausescu’s rule in Romania was known more for its pronounced anti-Sovietism in foreign policy than for its extreme repression of its own population. In general, Greece became a marginal part of ‘the West’, while the other Balkan states formed the least studied part of communist Eastern Europe. Mass tourism brought millions to the regions’ beaches and ski-slopes, and turned peasant culture into after-dinner entertainment. The picturesque replaced the violent, and the worst problems most tourists anticipated were poor roads and unfamiliar toilets.
These were the benefits of the long peace which fell over Europe with the Cold War. To many today they appear not only distant but illusory, a hiatus in which the true character of the Balkans was temporarily obscured. Since the collapse of communism, it has become easier to see southeastern Europe again as a single entity, but its well-established derogatory connotations have also re-emerged. Indeed, the fighting precipitated by the break-up of Yugoslavia has probably left these more entrenched in the popular imagination than ever: it is now not only Tito and communism that are blamed for mass violence, but ethnic diversity itself, and long-standing historical cleavages between religions and cultures. It is hard to find people with anything good to say about the region, harder still to discuss it beyond good or evil.
If the intellectual history of Western stereotypes of the Balkans were no more than one century old, it would be hard to explain the grip they still have on us. But the term, though of relatively recent vintage, rests upon a foundation of other associations which reach more deeply into Western thought. One of these is the tension between Orthodox and Catholic Christianity that was crystallised by the Crusaders’ sacking of Byzantine Constantinople in 1204. But more important still is surely the deep rift of incomprehension that lies between the worlds of Christianity and Islam, which for more than a millennium – from the seventh century until at least the end of the seventeenth – were locked in a complex struggle for territory and minds in Europe.
To the first jihad, which swept Muslim culture into an area extending from Spain (and much of Africa) to the borders of India and China, Christendom responded with the Iberian reconquista, the recovery of lands in southern Italy, and most importantly, the Crusades. The ‘Holy Wars of the Mediterranean’ may have been ultimately, in the words of Eric Christiansen ‘a sad waste of time, money and life’. But though two centuries of struggle against the Saracens failed to regain Jerusalem for Christianity, they contributed enormously to strengthening a tradition of martial intolerance in Christian Europe to heretics, pagans and above all, to Muslims. While Muslim polities accepted non-Muslims as subjects – non-Muslims were always a majority of the population in the Ottoman Balkans – Christian states expelled Muslims (and strictly controlled the settlement of small communities of Jews from medieval times on), and regarded them as a threat .
The second Islamic campaign against Christendom was spearheaded by a central Asian nomadic people, the Turks. Between the eleventh and the seventeenth centuries, Turkic peoples gradually overran and defeated the Byzantine Empire, conquering Christian outposts in the eastern Aegean, and round the rim of the Black Sea, eventually pushing up through Hungary to the Germanic heartlands of central Europe. Twice, Ottoman armies besieged Vienna. Christians interpreted the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as proof of the degeneracy of Orthodoxy, the ultimate failure of Byzantium as an imperial system, and a divine punishment for men’s sins. As Turkish ships cruised off the coast of Italy, pious Catholics were told to ‘pray for the undoing of Islam’. The Ottoman dynasty might have seen itself as the successor to the universal monarchies of Rome and Byzantium, ‘the shadow of God on earth’. But to many Christians, like the Elizabethan historian Richard Knolles, it was the latest incarnation of the Islamic peril and ‘the present terror of the world’ .
For all the religious antipathy between Christian and Muslim, sixteenth-century Europeans respected and feared the power, reach and efficiency of the Turks. The ‘Gran Signore’, as the Ottoman Sultan was commonly known, was regarded as perhaps the most powerful ruler in the known world. Renaissance observers described him as the successor to Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors, and drew unfavourable contrasts with the disorganised state of Christian armies. In 1525, Christendom’s always shaky united front broke down when Francis I, the king of France and ‘Eldest Son of the Church’ sought an alliance with Suleiman the Great against the Holy Roman Emperor. ‘The sacrilegious union of the lily and the Crescent’ was the beginning of a long association between Catholic France and the Turks. The Venetians too were impressed by the seemingly boundless territorial and human resources of an imperial machine built for war. Their ambassador Marco Minio had already warned in 1521 that the ‘Gran Signore’ ‘seems to have in his grasp the keys to all Christendom’ .
For Thomas Fuller in 1639, the Sultan’s empire was ‘the greatest and best-compacted that the sunne ever saw. Take sea and land together ... and from Buda in the West to Tauris in the East, it stretcheth about three thousand miles ... It lieth in the heart of the world, like a bold champion bidding defiance to all his borderers, commanding the most fruitfull countreys of Europe, Asia and Africa.’ With two metropolises – Constantinople and Cairo – which awed visitors by their size, and dwarfed London, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, its magnificence overshadowed its squabbling neighbours in Christendom. And its power attracted as well as repelled Europeans. ‘Seeing how many goe from us to them,’ commented Sir Henry Blount on Christian converts to Islam, ‘and how few of theirs to us; it appeares of what consequence the prosperity of a cause is to draw men unto it’ .
Gradually this tone of respect for the Ottoman regime began to disappear. From the second half of the seventeenth century onwards, even before Montesquieu’s writings on the theme appeared, Ottoman rule was increasingly described as a ‘tyranny’ or a ‘despotism’, earlier allusions to its religious tolerance diminished, and there was a growing emphasis on its lack of legitimacy, its reliance on corruption, extortion and injustice, and the inevitability of its eventual decline.
This shift in sentiment took place at a time when the balance of power between the Turks and their opponents was visibly altering and it looked as though Ottoman armies were approaching their limits. Christian Europe itself was growing stronger thanks to the growth of trade and empires across the Atlantic, the emergence of mercantile capitalism, and the construction of a new state system after the Thirty Years War. In particular, the rise of Russia and Habsburg Austria as military threats capable of going on to the offensive against the Ottomans fundamentally altered the balance of power in eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. From the second siege of Vienna in 1683, Ottoman power in Europe waned: Habsburg armies captured Hungary, Croatia and adjacent areas which they repopulated with Christian settlers and turned into a military frontier zone. The empire was also becoming weaker internally. Ottoman officials themselves noted the central state’s growing loss of control over the provinces; mourning for the Golden Age of the sixteenth century turned into a topos in Ottoman political literature. Life in much of the empire, and certainly in the Balkans, became less secure.
Broad shifts in values accompanied these political and economic developments. After the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the rise of science and the Enlightenment brought a new secularism to Europe which unified elite culture and made the politico-religious structure of the Ottoman Empire seem old-fashioned. From this point on there emerges a Western condemnation of overweening religious power – applied to corrupt Orthodox prelates as much as to Islamic ‘fanatics’ – which has lasted into the present. In the writings of travellers, pundits and philosophers, powerful new polarities emerge – between civilised West and barbarous East, between freedomloving Europe and despotic Orient. Sensual, slow-moving, dreamlike – the latter acted as a mirror to the self-regarding Western visitor.
The Balkans themselves occupied an intermediate cultural zone between Europe and Asia – in Europe but not of it. Nineteenth-century travellers had a far sharper and more value-laden sense than their predecessors that they were leaving Europe for Asia the minute they crossed into Ottoman lands. Standing in 1875 on the banks of the river Sava, the border between Habsburg Croatia and Ottoman Bosnia, the youthful Arthur Evans began ‘to realise in what a new world we were. The Bosniacs themselves speak of the other side of the Save [sic] as “Europe” and they are right; for to all intents and purposes a five minutes’ voyage transports you into Asia. Travellers who have seen the Turkish provinces of Syria, Armenia, or Egypt, when they enter Bosnia, are at once surprised at finding the familiar sights of Asia and Africa reproduced in a province of European Turkey.’ Westerners noted the insecurity of private property, the mysteries of Ottoman law and the sharp and all-important distinction between ruling and subject religions. Above all, they were struck by a set of aesthetic, almost theatrical impressions – the unexpected colours, smells, mixtures of peoples. Landing in Prevesa, opposite the Ionian islands, in 1812, the young Henry Holland wrote: ‘Entering these regions, the scene is suddenly shifted, and you have before your eyes a new species of beings, with all those gaudy appendages of oriental character and scenery which have so long delighted the imagination in the tales of the East. The uniform habits of the Turk, derived from his religion and other circumstances, render this change almost as remarkable in the first Turkish town you may enter, as in those much further removed from the vicinity of the European nations.’ One century later, a young Russian journalist – later to achieve fame as Leon Trotsky – looked out of his carriage window as he travelled by rail from Budapest to Belgrade on the eve of the First Balkan War, and enthused: ‘The East! The East! – what a mixture of faces, costumes, ethnic types and cultural levels!’ .
The disconcerting inter-penetration of Europe and Asia, West and East, finds its way into most descriptions of the Balkans in modern times. Europe is seen as a civilising force, a missile embedding itself in the passive matter of the Orient. Travellers routinely comment on signs of ‘European’ life such as houses with glass windows, cutlery, cabarets, or hotels with billiard rooms. Balkan cities are usually described as having a European facade behind which hides an oriental – meaning picturesque but dirty, smelly, wooden and unplanned – reality. Railways are European, cart tracks are not; technology is definitely European, but not religious observance. The social fabric is almost always divided into a modernising surface and a traditional substance. Oriental realities – the power of religion, the prevalence of agrarian poverty – are assumed to be phenomena which have not changed for centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century, as numerous accounts testify, it was virtually impossible for Western travellers – exposed to the heady delights and sensuous Orientalism of writers such as Pierre Loti – not to see the Balkans in this way.
Diplomatically – and despite the link with France – the Ottoman Empire was long regarded as lying outside the European concert of powers. It had not been represented at the Congress of Vienna, for instance, in 1815 and was excluded by commentators on international law from ‘the Christian family of nations’. Only realpolitik – produced by the empire’s own evident decline, and the worrying rise of Russia – brought it in. Having essentially fought the Crimean War to save the Turks from the Russians, the victorious powers in 1856 finally declared ‘the Sublime Porte admitted to participate in the advantages of the Public Law and System of Europe’. But in return the Porte was compelled to introduce reforms with regard to property, justice and religious equality which the Christian powers insisted were necessary for a modern, civilised state.
The Turks themselves were never accepted as Europeans. In the increasingly racialised vocabulary of the nineteenth century, they were ‘Asiatics’, ‘nomads’ and ‘barbarians’ ruling over the ‘lands where European civilisation had its birth’. ‘The Turks’, wrote Lord John Russell in 1828, ‘appear to be distinguished from the nations which occupy the rest of Europe in nearly every circumstance.’ Even for Latham, among the most levelheaded Victorian ethnographers, ‘the Turk is European, as the New Englander is American, i.e. not strictly.’ While Latham poured scorn on the idea that the Turks were ‘newcomers’ to Europe, or ‘Asiatic’ in any meaningful sense, he felt their religion made them ‘impracticable members of the European system’. Muslims were widely regarded as more prone to acts of barbarism than their Christian subjects. ‘No war, ancient or modern,’ wrote an American diplomat in 1842, ‘was ever carried on with such unrelenting fury and such cruelty as the war against the Greeks by the Turks. It is a matter of astonishment that the Christian nations of Europe could have so long remained silent spectators of its atrocities.’ Despite the writings of men like George Finlay, whose history of the Greek War of Independence pulled no punches in describing a mutual ‘war of extermination’, in the popular imagination the violence ran only one way. This one-sided outrage was harnessed effectively by Gladstone in his denunciations of the ‘Bulgarian horrors’: it proved, on the whole, impervious to any evidence that Christians too committed atrocities, or on occasions deliberately provoked them. ‘When a Moslem kills a Moslem, it does not count,’ was how Edith Durham summed up Western attitudes. ‘When a Christian kills a Moslem, it is a righteous act; when a Christian kills a Christian it is an error of judgement better not talked about; it is only when a Moslem kills a Christian that we arrive at a full-blown atrocity’ .
Christian Europe’s blindness to Muslim victims overlooked the huge movements of populations triggered off by Ottoman decline. ‘People often talk in the West about transporting all the Turks, in other words Muslims, to Asia in order to turn Turkey in Europe into a uniquely Christian empire,’ Ami Boue had written in 1854. ‘This would be a decree as inhumane as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, or of Protestants from France, and indeed scarcely feasible since the Europeans always forget that in Turkey in Europe the Muslims are mostly Slavs or Albanians, whose right to the land is as ancient as that of their Christian compatriots.’ Yet according to one estimate nearly five million Muslims were driven from former Ottoman lands in the Balkans and the Black Sea region in the century after 1821; from the Balkans themselves between 1.7 and 2 million Muslims emigrated voluntarily or involuntarily between 1878 and 1913 to what would later become the republic of Turkey. The Turkish language declined as a regional lingua franca, urban settlements were taken over by Christian incomers and Ottoman buildings were deliberately demolished or left to rot. The dynamiting of mosques and other architectural masterpieces in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the early 1990s was thus the continuation in an extreme form of a process of de-Islamicisation which had begun decades earlier .
When in 1912-13, the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans collapsed, many in the West saw this as the final expulsion of ‘Asian’ power from Europe and the triumph of the religious and racial vigour of Christendom. According to the American journalist Frederick Moore in the “National Geographic”, the Asiatic Turks had blighted their European subjects by imposing Islamic rule upon them. They had tried to invigorate their own racial stock through conversion, but had ultimately been unable to prevail over the biologically superior European breeds they ruled. Now ‘[the Turk] will make his way back to Asia as he came, centuries ago, little changed by his association with the peoples of Europe – whom he has kept as he found them, in a medieval condition, with all the barbarity of medieval Europe, with all its picturesqueness, its colour, squalor and unthinking faith.’ As for the future, Moore predicted little change among the empires’ former rulers since ‘[the Turk] is a Moslem, and the soul of the true Moslem is indifferent to progress’. But ‘for the enlarged Balkan States it seems safe to predict rapid development along modern lines, for we have seen how all of them under great difficulties have already fulfilled partially, at least, their aspirations to adopt the civilising institutions of Europe’ .
Moore’s prediction was entirely in line with commonplace Liberal expectations of the relative civilisational capacities of Islamic and Christian peoples. It reflected the reasoning which had created powerful and influential lobbies in the rest of Europe for Bulgarian, Serbian and Greek liberation from Ottoman rule. But it was precisely this attitude which bred the almost inevitable disappointment that followed. As early as 1836, after Balkan nationalism's first triumph, a French traveller to Greece had registered the emotional shift. ‘The Greeks as slaves of the Turks were to be pitied,’ he wrote. ‘The Greeks once free merely horrify. Their life is a sequence of thefts and assaults, fires and assassinations their pastime.’ In similar fashion, the Liberal optimism of 1912 was quickly and even more rudely to be dashed. The victorious Balkan states, fresh from beating the Ottoman army, immediately turned on one another in the Second Balkan War. News emerged of the brutality waged by their regular armies against civilians, especially in Macedonia, Kosovo and the borders of Montenegro. ‘That’s how all this looks when you see it close up,’ reported Trotsky. ‘Meat is rotting, human flesh as well as the flesh of oxen; villages have become pillars of fire; men are exterminating “persons not under twelve years of age”; everyone is being brutalised, losing their human aspect’ .
Above all, in June 1914, came the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Serbian nationalist student Gavrilo Princip. The second Bosnian crisis, and the third Balkan war, of the twentieth century turned into the continental bloodbath which finally destroyed Europe’s old order. For this, if nothing else, the Balkans were henceforth cursed in the European consciousness. Only those most committed to one or other of these small nations continued to argue that they were worth supporting. Even fewer bothered to argue that they should not be loaded down with the cultural assumptions of the West but understood on their own terms.
A truer and less jaundiced understanding of the Balkans requires us to try to unravel the ways in which attitudes to the region have been shaped not only by events which took place there but by more sweeping narratives of the development of European identity and civilisation. The basic historiographical challenge is how to fit the centuries of Ottoman rule into the story of the continent as a whole. For many eminent scholars of Europe the answer has been obvious. Sir John Marriott begins his sober history of the Eastern Question with the stark assertion that ‘the primary and most essential factor in the problem is the presence, embedded in the living flesh of Europe, of an alien substance. That substance is the Ottoman Turk.’ Ottoman rule, in other words, sundered the Balkans from the rest of the continent and ushered in a new Dark Ages for the region, since – in the words of Polish historian Oskar Halecki – ‘throughout the whole course of European history in its proper sense, Europe was practically identical with Christendom.’ The fact that before the Turks, the region formed part of the only marginally less despised Byzantine Empire simply reinforced this way of looking at the problem .
Not everyone buys this straightforward equation of Europe with (Catholic) Christianity. Arnold Toynbee and the eminent Romanian historian, Nicolae Iorga, both argued – following, after all, the claims of Mehmed the Conqueror himself – that it was actually the Ottoman Empire which was the successor to the ‘universal state’ of Byzantine Orthodoxy. Iorga in particular suggested that there had been a ‘Byzantium after Byzantium’ surviving under the rule of the Sultans. But this assertion of the affinities which might bind Christianity and Islam has largely fallen on deaf ears. Many more scholars – and probably the mass of popular opinion – have followed Halecki, who insists that ‘from the European point of view, it must be observed that the Ottoman Empire, completely alien to its European subjects in origin, tradition and religion, far from integrating them in a new type of culture, brought them nothing but a degrading foreign dominance which interrupted for approximately four hundred years their participation in European history’ .
Following this logic, successor states in the Balkans look back to the medieval or classical past for their national roots, and encourage their historians to pass over the period of Ottoman rule as quickly as possible, as though nothing good can have come out of those years. ‘When at the end of the fourteenth century Bulgaria fell under Ottoman domination,’ asserted Todor Zhivkov in 1981, ‘the natural course of her historical development was stopped and reversed.’ Such a view pre-dated Zhivkov’s communist regime, and survives it too. The Serbian legend of the battle of Kosovo in 1389 reflects the same obsession with the question of legacy. Greek historians and preservationists are much more likely to work on ancient, Byzantine or modern history than on the Ottoman period. Historians of Britain do not, on the whole, spend much time wondering how much their country owes to its Anglo-Saxon, Norman or Hanoverian heritage; but questions of continuity, rupture and historical legacy are inescapable in the Balkans for what Halecki calls ‘the European point of view’ has shaped many of the preoccupations of scholars and popular opinion in the region itself. And this is not because people there have some peculiar propensity to lose themselves in the mists of time, but rather because to be European has meant nothing less than denying the legitimacy of the Ottoman past. Reconstructing a respectable record of nationalist struggle and resistance against imperial oppression became necessary for membership of the European club. Nationalist passions and anxieties are, in other words, expressions of the effort to produce the kind of historical pedigree once – if not still – required by Europe itself .
Because the Balkans have had a bad press for so long in Europe, it has been hard for some scholars to resist bringing out the region’s virtues. National histories – until very recently – presented the past as the inevitable and entirely deserved triumph of the Nation over its enemies. More recently, a disillusionment with nationalism has bred nostalgia for the days of empire; a new trend in Ottoman historiography emphasises ethnic and religious coexistence under the Sultans, and turns the empire into a kind of multi-cultural paradise avant la lettre. But the glossy version of Ottoman rule is not much of an improvement on the old negativity, except as a corrective to it. The truth is that while for many centuries religious coexistence was undoubtedly more accepted under the Ottomans than almost anywhere in Christendom, there was certainly no sense of religious equality. If there was no ethnic conflict, it was not because of ‘tolerance’ but because there was no concept of nationality among the Sultan’s subjects, and because Christianity stressed the ‘community of believers’ rather than ethnic solidarity.
Normative history sets up one pattern of historical evolution as standard and then explains deviations from that. The nineteenth-century mind took it for granted that history worked in this way, and that what one was describing was the success or failure of any given society in climbing the path of progress from backwardness and barbarism to civilisation. In preferring to talk about the path from tradition to modernity, twentieth-century scholars have changed the terms but retained much of the same linear view. They have drawn on supposedly universal models of economic development and political democratisation in order to understand why Balkan states and societies remained poor and unstable and have not turned out as they should have done. But it is questionable whether relative poverty in southeastern Europe, or indeed the politics of ethnic violence, can really be explained as marks of backwardness.
The ethnic mix of the Balkans has remained remarkably unchanged for centuries – during most of which there was no ethnic conflict at all: why was it only in the last one or two centuries that the cocktail became politically volatile? Contemporary contingencies of mass politics and urban, industrial life, the rise of new state structures and the spread of literacy and technology may well turn out to be as important in the Balkans as the supposed eternal verities of religious fracture, peasant rooted ness and ethnic cleavage. We might find then that the story we tell does not so much affirm as undermine any sense of European superiority. For just as Europe gave the Balkans the categories with which its peoples defined themselves, so it gave them also the ideological weapons – in the shape primarily of modern romantic nationalism – with which to destroy themselves. Trying to understand the Balkans, in other words, challenges us to look at history itself as something more than a mirror which we hold up, blocking out the past to reflect our own virtues.
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