The Balkans by Mark Mazower

As part of a series published by the Modern Library, Mark Mazower wrote a 200-page history of The Balkans, and it appeared back in 2000. It’s a handy little book, and it makes me want to take a look at the rest of the series, which feature well-known and opinionated authors writing about subjects on which they are experts, but writing for a general audience, and at a length that encourages them to concentrate their arguments.

I’ve read and enjoyed two of his longer books (Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, which I read right around the end of said century, and Salonica — City of Ghosts, which I read but did not review back in 2007), and I have his World War II book Hitler’s Empire on my to-be-read shelf.

The Balkans fits in squarely with the rest of the oeuvre: carefully researched, fluently written, clearly argued. The argument in this particular case is that the Balkans are not noticeably more barbaric than the rest of Europe, and that understanding broader currents of European is more important to understanding the Balkans than vice versa. In particular, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political groupings in the region have harnessed the interests of the Great Powers for their own ends, and trying to grasp Balkan politics without keeping the Great Powers in mind is a fool’s errand.

In this argument, Mazower was reacting against widely held views in Western policy circles that the massacres and atrocities of the wars of Yugoslav succession were incomprehensible to outsiders, driven by ancient hatreds, and that therefore the best course for Europe and the West was to stand aside. Mazower shows how events in the Balkans fit in with larger European patterns, arguing against their separateness and in favor of locating local understanding within larger categories.

For just as Europe gave the Balkans the categories with which its people 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. (p. xliii)

Mazower sketches the history of the peninsula in four chapters, bookended by a long introduction that lays out his contentions and a short essay “On Violence.” The first chapter discusses “The Land and its Inhabitants,” emphasizing the roles certain geographic aspects played in cultural and political development. Rain shadows mean that apart from a narrow coastal strip, much of the inland Balkans is very dry. The mountainous terrain made communication with areas outside the region easier than within it. Dubrovnik, known as Ragusa for much of its history, had closer relations with Venice than with Belgrade. The second, “Before the Nation,” addresses how people in the Balkans saw themselves during the centuries of Ottoman rule, and how that polity dealt with the various communities under its rule. He pays particular attention to how the Christian communities saw themselves, and how that changed over time. Considering that the term used to describe many Orthodox was a Greek word for “Roman,” the situation could be very opaque. Practices high in the mountains were often even more muddled, as wily villagers described themselves as Christian (and therefore exempt) when it came time for military service, but as Muslim (and therefore exempt) when it came time to pay taxes. In some regions, Ottoman rule served as a bulwark protecting the Orthodox against Catholic incursions. With carefully chosen but colorful examples, Mazower gives a sense of the complexity of actual practice alongside themes commonly found across the region. He even spares a few lines for small ethnic groups, such as the Vlachs and Sarakatsani.

The third chapter, “Eastern Questions,” takes up the waning of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, as part of the larger topic of the general decline of Ottoman power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He makes two main arguments: that “despite the empire’s decay, Balkan Christians were too weak to win independence without foreign support” (p. 81) and that the choices of the Great Powers shaped the states that did emerge from the slow Ottoman withdrawal from southeastern Europe. For example, if Russia had lent support to a Greek uprising in the Danubian principalities in 1821 (there was a thriving Greek world around all of the Black Sea, and the Moldavian princes were Greek rather than Romanian), “the Danubian uprising might have heralded the Byzantine imperial renaissance of which the Phanariots dreamed. But in fact the Tsar was anxious to preserve the peace in Europe.” (p. 85) Where the Russians declined to intervene in the north, the British were not as reticent in the south. “The eventual success of [the southern] rising rather than Ypsilanti’s meant that when a Greek state did emerge, it was not as a new Byzantium spread across Europe and Anatolia, but as a modest little kingdom with a capital eventually based in the small Ottoman market town of Athens.” (p. 85–86)

The fourth chapter, “Building the Nation-State,” discusses how the various Balkan states faced the challenges of the twentieth century: war, overpopulation, attempted industrialization, global economic depression, war again, Communism (or, as in Greece, a bloody civil war over Communism), urbanization, and more. He pays special attention to the role/plight of minority populations, whose generally poor treatment is either ironic or all too predictable, given that every titular nation started as a minority within one state or another. Looking toward the European Union, Mazower concludes by wondering whether the Balkan countries hadn’t finished the project of creating nation-states at exactly the time when such states were looking like old answers to outdated questions.

For a quick primer on the region, The Balkans is terrific. Despite its brevity, it does not shy away from deep questions or from making a strong argument. By choice, Mazower has written a mostly political history, but he shows how social conditions drove and were driven by political developments. He also points to how economic and technological change affected questions of power. The fifteen years since publication have seen increasing influence for the European Union, and it would be interesting to see what Mazower thinks of that development, and how it ties to longer-term themes of Balkan history.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.