The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day by Mark Mazower

(First published 2000)

The “Eastern Question” in Western parlance refers to the Balkans or, broadly speaking, Southeastern Europe. For long Western intellectuals have tried to create a context for the history of the mostly Christian Orthodox former colonies of the Ottoman empire and their relative place in Europe as a whole. The book under review also attempts to do just that but with a different perspective.

The main thrust of the argument of this book is two-fold: First, to show that the Ottoman ruled Balkans were thriving societies; culturally, socially and economically as opposed to miserable and backward ‘lost lands’ of Europe under the brutal and barbarian rule of the Turks, a view famous with Western intelligentsia well into the second half of the 20th century.

Second, the genesis of the political and social upheavals which have marked the Balkans since their independence from the Ottoman rule (the latest being the Serb-led genocide of Bosniaks and Croats in the ’90s) lay not in their cultural barbarity borrowed from their previous Ottoman masters, but rather it is rooted in the European ideology of language and race-based nationalism, whose ultimate aim is to create centralised, homogenous nation-states. Time has come to expand on both.

One marked difference between the peasant societies of the Balkans and their North European counterparts was that there was near-absence of feudal holdings in the former. The land belonged to the Sultan, people tilled it and shared the produce in the form of taxes with the imperial government. In North Europe, feudals held sway and literally owned their serfs like chattel. Through this the writer concludes that peasants in Ottoman Europe had far greater social and economic freedom than anywhere in the Europe (This however, changed a good deal in the latter part of Ottoman rule when things began to go awry for the Imperial state).

The dividing factor between the people was solely religion. Muslims, by virtue of the nature of the system, had it better. Christian and Jews were protected religions as per official view of Islam. This sanction allowed the Christians to retain not only their religion but also their languages, and consequently, their cultures. So neither the imperial religion nor the imperial language was forced down the throats of the masses. So much so that at one point Christians in the service of imperial court in Constantinople were so numerous that Greek, and Slavic languages were given preference over Turkish in official proceedings. In part due to geography, in part economy and in part the policies of the imperial state, the Balkans became diverse, racially, linguistically and religiously.

The weakening hold of Ottomans on their colonies in the Balkans coincided with increasingly assertive Tzarist Russia and Austro-Hungarian empires as well as rising powers of Britain and France. As Balkan countries started to gain independence, the first one being Greece, the new linguistic nationalists were posed with a problem. How to create homogenous nation-states with a single language (and later with a single language and a single ethnicity) in a landscape so diverse and mixed. In the end they ended up creating nation-states, spread over a period of many decades, which had large linguistic, ethnic and religious minorities (Albanians and Turks in Greece, Albanians in Serbia, Bulgarians in Romania, Greek, Turks, Jews in Macedonia, Greeks in Anatolia and in all major urban ex-Ottoman towns) and didn’t know what to do with them.

The writer argues that the ideology of language and/or race based nationalism which took root gradually in Northern Europe was suddenly thrust upon the whole population of the ex-Ottoman Europe. This led to large scale population exchanges (Greeks in Anatolia were sent to Greece and Turks and Albanians driven to their respective lands. Similar exchanges took place in other Balkan countries as well), massive uprooting of people, destruction of their economic lives, and finally a violent conflict with perpetuates itself to this day.

The newly independent countries adopted capitalist economics after the total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. This failed as democratic institutions were weak and under the sway of larger powers who used them as their pawns in the larger struggle for their respective empires. Further, the Wall Street collapse of the ’30s put an end to all hopes the nascent democracies of the Balkans might have of delivering to the people. The WWII changed things when the Balkans save Greece came under the control of Communism. It led to massive industralisation and rapid urbanisation, ending the peasant nature of their economies and lifting the peasantry out of their perpetual hunger. The three decades after Stalin-Churchill pact were most productive period for the Balkans until Communist system began to loose out to globalised Capitalist economy led by the US.

The writer puts forth the observation that the fissures and fractures induced by nationalism since the independence of Greece in the 1830s, through mid-19th century and until the WWII, when maps and populations in the Balkans changed every few years, didn’t die away during the Communist period. They were harshly controlled as Communism saw itself beyond language, race and culture. But as soon as Communism gave way, the old questions surfaced again. The experiment of Yugoslavia is an example of that. The situation in Bosnia and Kosovo was another sorry chapter of the same phenomenon.

Ironically, the author says, just as it appears that the Balkans might have solved their language and ethnic-based nationalist issues, the rest of the world (read developed West) has moved on. The creation of what is today called “multicultural societies” is the exact opposite of what the Balkans have been fighting for all along, until a couple decades ago, and much more closer to how they had lived under the Ottoman rule, i.e, in multi-x societies – a label which fits a typical Ottoman town of, say 1730, to a tee.

History repeats itself?

Having all things considered, the book categorically rejects the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the cultures of the Slavs which, having been ‘cut off’ from the ‘civlised European motherland’, have been tainted and brutalised during the 500 or so years of Muslim rule, a view which has been the mainstay of mainstream Western academia until recently.

There are so many other fascinating things which I must leave out and end this review or it will go on and on. My only criticism is that the author has tried to pack too much info in such a small volume – and my review reflects it. The book should have been the double of its meager size.

My book rating: 5/5. Find it on AMAZON.

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