Misha Glenny The Balkans: Nationalism, War & the Great Powers, 1804-1999
Sunday was the four hundred and fifty second anniversary of the seizure of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turkish armies of Sultan Mehmet II. It is hard to overstate the importance of this event in European history. For over a thousand years Constantinople had been one of the great centers of Christendom, the Byzantine emperors the most legitimate inheritors of the mantle of the Roman Empire. Constantinople was the very heart of Eastern Christianity, the life blood of Orthodoxy. Yet for centuries Byzantium's glory had been dimming, with the emperors powerless to stop the loss of vast swathes of territory in the Middle East and North Africa to the armies of Islam that exploded out of the Arabian desert in the eighth century. Infamously sacked by Western Catholics during the Fourth Crusade, by the fifteenth century the Byzantine Empire was a shadow of its former self, and was ripe for the picking by Turkish armies that for the previous century had been sweeping across Anatolia.
The fall of Constantinople was the moment when the Turkish people stepped on to the center stage of European history. The final conquest of the Byzantine Empire was merely the beginning of Turkey's role in European history. In the following centuries the Turks would fight their way as far as the gates of Vienna, while conquering and ruling over a vast swathe of south-eastern Europe. From the imperial throne at Istanbul the Sultan ruled over European territories that encompassed what are today the states of Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania, as well as a vast expanse of territory in the Middle East and North Africa. Triumphant on the battlefield, fantastically rich through East-West trade, and culturally, socially, and scientifically advanced, for a time the Ottoman Empire was one of the greatest imperial powers in all of Europe.
However, with the defeats at Lepanto and Vienna, and their failure to keep up technologically with their Christian rivals, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of decline and decay, the adoption of Western advances in technology and administration blocked by the entrenched conservatism of the ulema (Islamic scholars) and the military leadership. By the start of the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was in deep trouble. Nowhere were its problems deeper or more intractable than in its Balkan colonies. It was here that the Turks found themselves confronted by an increasingly restive Christian majority and the destabilizing machinations of the surrounding Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. This crisis of Ottoman legitimacy, this cauldron of nationalist, ethnic, and religious passions, is the very core of this wonderfully scholarly book.
A remarkably ambitious undertaking, this book attempts the difficult task of providing an overview of the last two hundred years of Balkan history. Fortunately, Misha Glenny succeeds triumphantly. The chaotic disintegration into fratricidal warfare of Yugoslavia in the early 1990's forced wider world attention onto a corner of Europe that, for much of recent history, has been mostly ignored. As Glenny explains in the introduction, for most intellectuals and politicians in Western Europe and the United States the Balkans was, at this time, a mysterious and ill-understood place where obscure historical events that outsiders knew little about were waved as banners for the grievances of particular groups. Working as a journalist in the region Glenny realized that he was quite ignorant of the background to what was going on, the complex weave of events that so informed the decisions of the actors on the ground. For many in the West it was convenient at the time to see what was occurring in the Balkans merely as the latest manifestation of bizarre primeval hatreds, as if the ethnic slaughter happening was some kind of occasional pestilence that swept the land and could not be explained or understood. Rejecting this thinking meant that Glenny set off on an intellectual journey to show what had happened in the region in the previous two centuries, how the road to Srbrenica was built. This was truly a Herculean task, as it required him to become versed in the stories of a dozen local ethnic groups, and understand how they saw themselves, each other, and the major regional powers of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Turkey, as well as the global powers further to the west.
One of the essential points that Glenny makes is that the carnage that has repeatedly wracked the region, from Greece's War of Independence and the Serbian uprisings of 1804 and 1815 to the genocidal WWII regime of Croatia’s poglavnik Ante Pavelic to the more familiar wars of the 1990’s, is that events on the ground in the Balkans have often been strongly influenced by policies pursued elsewhere. A good example of this can be seen in the first Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1804. What initially began as a revolt by Christian peasants and traditional Ottoman landlords against the janissaries became, by 1805, an all-out war with the Ottoman state. What initially seemed to be a brief flair-up that would lead to the Sultan Selim giving in to Serbian demands for greater autonomy and a larger Christian role in the administration of Serbia, was utterly changed when, in 1806, war broke out between Russia and Turkey. The Tsar, who had previously mostly ignored events in Serbia, suddenly rushed to the aid of his Orthodox brothers, who, led by the charismatic leader Karadjordje (Black George), seized control of the Belgrade pashalik (administrative district) and cast out the Turkish authorities. Unfortunately for them, though, when the Tsar withdrew his troops in 1812 in order to face the Napoleonic threat it was only a matter of time until the Ottoman forces re-took Serbia, which they did a year later. Thus began a long pattern of Balkan nations being used as pawns in the game of Great Power politics, at the mercy of events in foreign capitals, always only one step away from being ruthlessly discarded.
Glenny also makes the crucial point that what are often seen as inflexible ethnic identities are usually nothing of the sort, that instead these hard and fast boundaries between peoples are comparatively recent creations. Exactly what being Greek or Romanian or Bulgarian or so on and so forth has meant has never been a fixed proposition, and that the modern forms of these identities has been heavily influenced by the nation-state fixated nationalisms of Western Europe. Indeed, Western Europe (and its child, the United States) has played an enormously influential role in the region over the last century, from major events like the post-World War I settlement that hacked up the defeated Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires into a series of new ethnically-based nation-states (with the obvious exception of Yugoslavia) to horrors like the Nazi annihilation of Salonika’s thriving post-1492 Sephardic Jewish community to smaller things like the way in which the 1920’s Romanian elite took many of its cues from French culture as a way of affirming a common Latin heritage and distinguishing themselves from the Slavs that surrounded them.
By necessity, this is quite a long book. It is not a quick read at all, because it is simply impossible to reduce the region’s story to, say, two hundred pages. Yet it is deeply compelling, a dizzyingly complex tale that manages to show both a wide-angle view of how abstract political forces played out at the national level, and also how these events affected ordinary people. A triumph.