Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999

Misha Glenny’s The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999 aims to provide a unified history of that troubled part of the world and the book does indeed offer a reasonable introduction to a fearsomely complex subject.

Glenny rejects the idea that the violence and instability that has plagued the region can be blamed on ancestral hatreds going back to the Middle Ages. He believes the trouble started much later - at the beginning of the 19th century. The slow but inexorable decline of the Ottoman Empire created a serious power vacuum which was exploited by the Great Powers in a manner that was selfish, cynical and short-sighted. Worse, the Great Powers entirely ignored the ethnic, linguistic and religious complexity of the region. Drawing borders in a way that suited the interests of the Great Powers more often than not created nations that were inherently unstable.

At the same time the newly developed ideologies of nationalism found their way to the Balkans. Nationalism (in the 19th and 20th century sense of the term) was something that simply did not exist in this part of the world before the 19th century.

Under the Ottoman Empire the various ethnic and religious groups had managed to co-exist quite successfully. Christians and Jews might not have enjoyed the same rights as Muslims but they had security and stability. In fact Christians often had a good deal more security than they had under Christian rulers. 

The major problem with Balkan nationalism was that, even without the interference of the Great Powers, creating coherent ethno-nationalist states was an impossibility. The various religious and ethnic groups were hopelessly mixed together. There were Serb minorities in Croatia and Croatian minorities in Serbia. There were huge Turkish minorities in Greece and equally huge Greek minorities in Turkey. There were Greek minorities everywhere. There were Albanians in Serbia and Serbs in Albania. Religious and ethnic differences were not clear-cut. There were Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims who spoke the same language and were ethnically identical. There were Orthodox Christians who belonged to different ethnic groups. There were Croats who regarded Muslims as fellow Croats and Croats who regarded the same Muslims as non-Croats. In some places there was no majority group at all. There were cities like Salonika that were coveted by several different nations but were almost entirely Jewish. In some regions the city-dwellers were predominantly Muslim while the rural populations were Serb or Bulgarian or Greek or Croatian. 

The nationalist aspirations of the newly emerged nations such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania were entirely incompatible - no line drawn on a map could possibly satisfy everyone.

The end result was that a comparatively peaceful corner of Europe became a powder keg. And the Great Powers displayed an uncanny ability to make a bad situation worse. Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908 was the first step on the road to the catastrophe of the First World War.

By the 1990s the Great Powers were no longer intervening in the Balkans for the traditional reasons of territorial greed. They were now doing so for humanitarian reasons. The results were equally disastrous.

Glenny weaves together the stories of the various Balkan peoples with considerable skill. The narrative is perhaps to complex for a single volume but it’s a brave attempt.

He also endeavours to be as even-handed as possible. Just about everyone in the region has at one time or another been both oppressor and oppressed, both perpetrators and victims of atrocities. Every Great Power (even China!) has at some stage tried to interfere in the region, with lamentable consequences. Trying to divide the various actors in good guys and bad guys is a pointless exercise and in general Glenny avoids that pitfall. He does display a touching child-like faith in democracy as a cure-all but overall he tries not to  over-simplify inherently complex problems that simply do not have straightforward solutions.

I have no doubt that there are better and more scholarly works on this subject but as a general introduction this is a stimulating and fascinating book. 

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