Myths of the Balkans

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

by Misha Glenny
Viking, 726 pp., $34.95

Explaining Yugoslavia

by John B. Allcock
Columbia University Press,499 pp., $30.00

The Balkans: A Short History

by Mark Mazower
Modern Library, 188 pp., $19.95


Not much work. Only a stream of telegrams about Turkey and the Balkans, which I can not understand. These esoteric speculations as to the backstairs intrigues of that deplorable part of the world are quite beyond my comprehension, and I’m afraid I ignore them.1

So Sir Alexander Cadogan, the senior civil servant in the British Foreign Office, confided to his diary on July 10, 1940. His successors of the 1990s cannot afford these luxuries of ignorance or neglect; the Balkans, it seems, are always with us. In the post–cold war world “that deplorable part of the world” not only persuaded NATO to fire its first shots in anger but has, some would argue, brought about a redefinition of the nature and function of international relations. Whether the Balkans are “deplorable” or not, no one would dispute their importance. That being so there is every need to understand them. And understanding the Balkans means trying to master their history.

The Balkan crises of the 1990s have already prompted a number of useful additions to our knowledge and understanding. Specific regions have been examined by scholars such as Noel Malcolm and Miranda Vickers2 and by journalists such as Tim Judah and Marcus Tanner,3 while an admirably objective study of the period between the world wars has come from Professor Stevan Pavlowitch.4 Other useful contributions have been provided by participants in the crises such as David Owen, Richard Holbrooke, and the EU official Carl Bildt.5 But before Misha Glenny’s book The Balkans, the only post–cold war attempt to interpret the entire region that has received widespread attention was Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History,6 which is said to have influenced President Clinton. Kaplan’s book seemed to me indisputably “deplorable” in arguing that all Balkan problems were caused by indigenous and ineradicable “ancient ethnic hatreds.” This analysis was useful for politicians looking for a convenient formula or an excuse for inactivity, but it was an outrageous oversimplification in the eyes of anyone who had anything more than a superficial acquaintance with the region.

It is Glenny’s avowed intent to refute Kaplan’s interpretation. Violence among ethnic or religious communities is, according to Glenny’s reasoning, more the consequence than the cause of Balkan instability; and that instability is itself more the consequence of malign external interference than internal shortcomings. During the long centuries of the pre-modern period different ethnic communities, many of them under Turkish domination, cohabited in most Balkan towns and villages, and if they did not attain harmony then they practiced toleration and occasionally indulged in cooperation. This mutual toleration was ruined, Glenny argues, by the arrival from Europe of nationalist ideas which were embraced by the new Balkan intelligentsias and foisted onto a peasantry that lacked the education to interpret them in any but the most basic and unsophisticated fashion. He supports his argument with evidence that in the nineteenth century Serbs and Croats were as likely to cooperate as to compete.

Glenny highlights three examples of malign external interference, first during the nineteenth century with the decline of Ottoman power, and then during this century. The first, which set the pattern for all three, was the great eastern crisis between 1875 and 1878. In 1874 the harvest failed in much of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and conditions were made worse by a harsh winter. In 1875 peasants in the region revolted against the taxes imposed on them by Ottoman authorities. It was not an ethnic revolt; the suffering peasants were both Christian and Muslim, while many of the tax gatherers working for the Ottoman administration were Christians.

In June 1875 Christian peasants in the Nevesinje area of eastern Herzegovina, who were ethnic Serbs, again refused to pay their taxes and inflicted a severe defeat on Ottoman forces sent to bring them to order. The revolt spread rapidly to the rest of Herzegovina and Bosnia, helped by an influx of exultant volunteers from neighboring Serbia and Montenegro. In Serbia itself the ruler, Prince Milan, refused to bow to growing pressure for military intervention, not least because the great European powers—Britain, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, and Germany—wanted a peaceful solution. In April 1876 the situation became yet more febrile when nationalist elements in the Ottoman Empire’s Bulgarian lands also decided they would take advantage of the current instability and stage an uprising. It was crushed quickly but so ruthlessly that European opinion was mobilized. Gambling that the powers would not now dare to condemn intervention, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire in June. The Bosnian and even the Bulgarian problems, however, had now become subsidiary to the growing confrontation between the European great powers and the Ottoman government. Eventually the Ottoman regime agreed to put its decaying house in order but balked at allowing the powers to oversee the implementation of the agreed reforms. That was too much for the Russians, who declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24, 1877. The Tsar’s armies, helped by the Romanian army and by Bulgarian nationalists, eventually forced the Turkish Sultan to sign a peace at San Stefano in March 1878 in which it was agreed that a large new Bulgarian state would be created.

Britain and Austria-Hungary, fearing that the new Bulgaria would be a large zone of Russian interest in the eastern Mediterranean, were strong enough to force a redrawing of boundaries at the Congress of Berlin in July 1878. Glenny puts much emphasis on the consequences of this congress, which, among other things, placed Bosnia and Herzegovina under Austro-Hungarian administration. The congress left all the Balkan states dissatisfied. Romania’s reward for helping the Tsar’s armies was that it had to cede Bessarabia to Russia, while receiving northern Dobrudja from Bulgaria as compensation. Bulgaria resented the loss both of northern Dobrudja and of the large areas returned to the Ottoman Empire; the Serbs fumed because the Austro-Hungarian presence in Bosnia closed off a supposedly easy way for Serbia to gain access to the sea. Both Montenegro and Greece were unhappy with the small amounts of territory given to them. The strongest powers—Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bismarck’s Germany—had redrawn the boundaries, and had naturally done so with their own interests in mind.

The fault of the great European powers, in Glenny’s view, was not merely that they pursued their own selfish ends but that the goals they sought—national expansion and greater national influence—and the means they adopted to achieve them—military and diplomatic pressure—were transferred to the Balkans, a region which was not sufficiently developed to be able to cope with them. No surprise, therefore, that the Balkan states that thought they had been shortchanged in the crisis of 1875–1878 aped the most successful of those powers, Prussian Germany, in the pursuit of their own interests. The result, Glenny writes, was the arms race of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a race that not only made the Balkans an infinitely more dangerous place but, equally importantly, diverted capital from economic modernization to military expenditure. Because most of the money was borrowed on the European stock exchanges the process also plunged the Balkan states into debt.

The second instance of malign intervention was World War I. With the obvious exception of Serbia, which was allied with Russia, the Balkan states wanted to keep out of the conflict but they were offered bribes in the form of promised new territory that eventually proved too much to resist. The third intervention was the German invasion of the Balkans in 1941. This brought with it the pernicious new ideologies of fascism and racism. The collapse of the German empire made way for yet another imported great power ideology: Soviet-style state socialism.

Although Glenny highlights these three interventions he does not neglect others. In the struggle for Serbian separation from the Ottoman Empire, with which Glenny’s book begins, the decisive factor was Russia. When the Russians were able and/or willing to fight the Turks, the Serbian cause prospered, and when Napoleon put the Russians on the defensive, the Serb cause declined. In the 1820s Britain, France, and Russia combined as midwives to assist in the birth of the new Greek state, to which they then stood as guardians. In the Crimean War of 1853–1856 Britain and France combined to contain a feared Russian expansion into the Balkans.

In the twentieth century Western promptings brought about the tragic Greek incursion into Asia Minor. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, feared that as the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the wake of its defeat in World War I, Italy might be tempted to establish itself on the coast of Asia Minor. This the British did not wish to see, so Lloyd George encouraged his Greek counterpart, Eleftherios Venizelos, to use the fact that there was a large Greek population in the region, particularly in such cities as Smyrna, to annex it to the Hellenic Kingdom. Military leaders in both Britain and Greece were aghast at the idea and forecast the disaster that was to befall the Greek forces. What they did not forecast was that the political leaders would invoke a new principle, population transfers, to cope with the civilian consequences of the military debacle. As a result, 1.3 million Greek civilians were forced to leave Turkey and move to Greece. The great powers had set a precedent which could easily be invoked in later years by nationalist extremists in the Balkans.

Glenny’s criticism of the role of external forces in the Balkans deserves attention. Even after the fall of President Milosevic there are danger points in and around Yugoslavia, and the Western leaders would do well to question the need for and the objectives of any further intervention; recent experience has shown that involvement is far easier than extrica-tion. Despite their posturings and their claims of success, the recent policies pursued by NATO leaders give weight to Glenny’s accusation that the European powers and the US are all too quick to intervene in pursuit of their own objectives, and all too ready to abandon the Balkans to stew in a juice not of their own making when the going gets tough. What they should be doing, in Glenny’s view, is investing in the region in order to raise living standards and end the ignorance and poverty which have enabled so many reprehensible nationalists to prosper. Glenny writes that the only power that systematically invested in the Balkans was Nazi Germany. Certainly the NATO powers that were quick to carry out their threats to blast part of the Balkan infrastructure into smithereens have been remarkably slow in making good their promises of financial help for reconstruction.

The argument that European intervention was the ruination of the Balkans is not a new one. Its most recent and brilliant presentation was made by Traian Stoianovich.7 He saw the Balkans as the “First World,” which since Neolithic times was inward-looking and self-supporting, and which suffered only occasional incursions from elitist cultures such as Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire. After 1850 came the doctrines of capitalism and then socialism. These political conceptions, however, were not suited to the Balkans. Their terrain was unproductive; the Danube flowed in the wrong direction—away from the center of Europe, not toward it—and the peasantry was still psychologically bound to self-sufficiency and not drawn to foreign trade.

To see the powerful Western nations as the cause of suffering in the poorer ones conforms to currently fashionable notions, and no doubt is in many respects a justified interpretation. But it does not tell the whole story. There were weaknesses, divisions, and inadequacies in Balkan societies before the impact of the West. The brutality with which one Balkan group, religious or ethnic, can persecute another was not always of Western making. As Glenny himself notes, the system of ethnic cleansing practiced by the Serbs in Bosnia in the 1990s began during the Serbian revolt against the Ottomans between 1804 and 1815; the untutored Greek peasants of the 1820s slaughtered “tens of thousands” of Muslims. Similarly, the bashi-basouks, or irregular Ottoman troops, who massacred Bulgarians in 1876 had little acquaintance with modern European notions of conduct.

Furthermore, when Balkan political entities emerged in the nineteenth century and after, many of their faults were home-grown rather than imported. The weakness of central authority in the face of often tyrannical local warlords was an indigenous phenomenon, particularly in the Serbian and Greek kingdoms, though by no means lacking in Albania; and the “clientelism”—the patronage system by which the political faction in power controlled all contracts and administration appointments at whatever level of government—that bedevils most Balkan states to the present day was not transplanted from elsewhere; it grew strongly from local roots. Finally, and most importantly, the subservience of Church to State, which characterizes the Orthodox half of the Balkans, was the product of the Byzantine Empire and contrasts sharply with the vitality of the Catholic and later the Protestant churches in the West. This fact must explain to some considerable degree the weakness of civil society in the eastern Balkans.

Glenny’s determination to make his analysis relevant to contemporary problems is one of his book’s strengths. Another strength is that it highlights the long-term importance of Bosnia, which, again and again, has been the scene of major conflict, from the great battle of the 1840s between Muslim conservatives and the would-be centralizing reformers of the Ottoman Empire to NATO’s action in the 1990s. In Bosnia and elsewhere Glenny recognizes the importance of social factors. He is particularly good at pointing out the contrast between the countryside and the towns, which, in the Balkans as elsewhere, was not merely a difference between peasant and intelligentsia, and between conservative and reformer, but could also be the basis for a distinction between eth-nic groups; in the nineteenth century, for example, the largest urban center in the Bulgarian lands, Plovdiv, appeared as a Greek island in a sea of Bulgarians, while well into the twentieth century Trieste was Italian but the surrounding countryside was Slovene; similar examples could be found throughout the Balkans. What is particularly valuable in Glenny’s treatment of this issue is his argument that the differences between the backward peasants and the towns persisted in Yugoslavia well into the Tito era and beyond: it was from the peasantry, not the towns, that Arkan and other warlords recruited their thugs.

Another of the strengths of The Balkans is that the author has drawn on the comments of the people he met working as a journalist in the Balkans in the 1990s. In explaining the shameful indulgence the West showed to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausåüescu, for example, Glenny quotes a source within the US embassy in Bucharest as saying that “in the event of war, we think we can turn him.”

Glenny’s most fruitful contacts, however, were in Yugoslavia, and this is one reason why his book is at its best when dealing with the post-1945 history of that country. He gives a fascinating account of the revolt by peasants in the Cazin area of northwest Bosnia in 1950, brought about by the idiocies of agricultural collectivization and the insensitivity with which it was applied. The details of this uprising were previously confined to the archives of the UDBa, the Yugoslav secret police. Glenny also provides a first-rate analysis of the gradual decay of the Titoist system. He argues powerfully that one of the most important turning points was the so-called “Croatian spring” between 1968 and 1972. Tito had always seen the greatest danger to federal Yugoslavia in “unitarism,” usually a code word for Serbian aspirations to dominate the federation. When cultural nationalism, particularly the movement to promote Croatian as an individual language distinct from Serbian, flourished in Croatia in the late 1960s, Tito welcomed and encouraged this, seeing it as an ideal counter to unitarism. By 1971, however, nationalism in Croatia had become political as well as cultural, with students demanding a separate Croatian army and separate Croatian representation at the United Nations. The leaders of the Yugoslav National Army became frightened and at the end of 1971 Tito insisted that the Croatian Communists dismiss their nationalist leaders. Soon after, he insisted on a purge in Serbia in which the chief victims were liberals. The point that Glenny rightly emphasizes is that the liberals were often nationalists and thus when Serbian nationalism later triumphed it was no longer liberal.

Glenny’s book covers an enormous range of subjects. It aims to provide not only a history of the Balkans from 1804 but also of the interrelationship between the region and the outside world. Inevitably when treating so many matters there will be weaknesses as well as strengths. Glenny’s knowledge of general European history is at times insecure. He refers to Bismarck’s new German empire as “a centralizing state” when in fact imperial Germany’s central government could not levy direct taxes and technically did not have an army. There was no such thing as a German army before 1918, the land forces being those of the German states—Prussia, Bavaria, etc.

Nor does Glenny have an intimate knowledge of the history of international relations. This shows in small but telling details, such as referring to Sir Stratford Canning, arguably the greatest of all nineteenth-century British diplomats, as a consul, when he enjoyed full ambassadorial rank. Glenny does not analyze fully British objectives in the eastern Mediterranean, and most critically he does not discuss the British decision taken in 1895 that it was no longer in Britain’s interest to go to war over the Dardanelles Strait and Constantinople. Could Britain and Russia have been allies in World War I had that decision not been taken? There are also occasional mistakes. Ferdinand of Bulgaria was not “a very popular monarch” before 1913; had he been so popular the anti-monarchist Bulgarian Agrarian National Union could not have become the most successful political organization in the country.

In the first part of Glenny’s book, up to the end of World War I, the reader feels that the author is in charge, marshaling historical facts to suit his purposes. After World War I the balance begins to shift, and by the post-1945 period it seems Glenny is on the defensive. Indeed, one senses feelings of desperation as he struggles to prevent himself from being swamped by detail, and of panic as he strives to finish the book before yet another Balkan crisis forces him to add yet another section.

The loss of control is important because it means that Glenny also loses his sense of proportion. Though he includes much that is excellent, particularly on Yugoslavia, he omits important regions. There is no discussion in depth of Greece after 1974, of Bulgaria after 1956, and of Romania after 1989. A balanced treatment should have found room to consider the attempts by Bulgaria in the 1980s to impose Bulgarian national consciousness on the country’s Turkish minority, and the reversal of that policy in the 1990s. The position of Romania after 1989 with its pseudo-democratic system and unreformed economy is equally worthy of consideration.

These omissions would be less serious if Glenny were pressed for space, but he has written a book of 662 pages, excluding notes, and he treats several issues at excessive length. For example, Glenny argues that the effect of D’Annunzio’s incursion into Fiume in 1919 has been neglected and should be recognized as an incident in which all the features of fascism were extravagantly displayed. This is entirely valid, but it does not justify spending eight full pages on the subject. The Cazin revolt in Communist Yugoslavia, however fascinating the new evidence, takes up too much space, especially since some of that space might have been used to discuss similar outbreaks in Romania and in the Kula region of Bulgaria.

The second compounding factor is excessive color and detail. Glenny’s general approach is to introduce each section with an anecdote or a pas-sage evoking a particular place or incident, and after that to provide historical narrative and analysis. The stories consume too much space; and the ones chosen frequently take place well into the episode with which the section is dealing; the result is that the narrative and analysis become staggered, jumping forward and then backward.


In his book Explaining Yugoslavia, John Allcock, a professor at the University of Bradford, uses a much smaller canvas than Misha Glenny, and provides far less by way of colorful anecdote. He, too, deplores writers who try to explain Yugoslavia by referring to “ancient ethnic hatreds.” Indeed, he dismisses such explanations as “sociological nonsense.” But he is much more ready than Glenny to recognize that violence is not merely an imported phenomenon. In what is probably his best chapter Allcock points to the internal sources of violence in blood feuds, in traditional epic poetry, in the folk memories of peasant uprisings, and in practices such as the mutilation of dead and wounded opponents. He argues, moreover, that mass killings with the knife rather than with the bullet, together with the use of the words klanje (slaughter, usually of cattle) for the killings and zrtva (sacrifice) for the victims, are practices peculiar to Yugoslavia and should be understood as “atrocity raised to the level of sacrament.”

Allcock contends that no explanation of Yugoslavia which “does not place at its heart economic factors deserves to be taken seriously,” and he has much that is perceptive to say about Yugoslav economic history; but the most interesting sections of his book are those on Communist Yugoslavia, where in fact economics and politics are virtually inseparable. The critical period, he argues, was between the early 1960s and the early 1970s. In the first half of the 1960s the constitution of 1963 gave greater financial autonomy to the constituent republics and the country was moved closer to market economics by a series of reforms that abolished some price controls, brought the Yugoslav currency down to a more realistic level, and made it possible for private entrepreneurs to employ a limited amount of wage labor. But the political consequences of these reforms were unforeseen: the changes encouraged technocrats and managers to be more assertive. Since these new forces were not drawn from the Partisan elite which had dominated the country since 1944, the “conservatives” in office—i.e., the older officials of the Party-state—were alarmed. The conservatives fully supported Tito’s crackdown on the liberal reformers in 1971 and 1972, and in a series of “amendments” chipped away at some of the market reforms of the preceding years. “It was not only nationalism,” Allcock concludes, “but perhaps more significantly realistic economic reform which was suppressed in 1972.”

Any major change of policy in a Communist state, of course, had to be justified on ideological grounds. The regime therefore claimed that inflation and other economic problems of the late 1960s and 1970s were caused by the fact that the working class had been elbowed aside from its leading role. The solution was to restore the working class to its rightful domination. This was done by reinforcing “worker self-management,” the doctrinal rabbit that the Yugoslav Communist theorists had pulled out of their hats in the early 1950s to justify their taking a different socialist road from that of the Soviet Union. The 1974 constitution and the law on associated labor of 1976 purported to restore power to the working class. But in fact these changes created new industrial and labor organizations of staggering complexity; and the privilege of interpreting how they should be run remained in the hands of the political elite that administered them. These maneuvers, Allcock concludes, “contributed as much as any other feature of Yugoslavia’s history to its eventual collapse.”

The changes of the 1970s, however, did not reverse the trend, set in the 1960s, for economic decentralization. The federal government gave over to the republics some of its powers to control investment and other economic processes, though it retained the power to shift valuable foreign-currency earnings from the richer northern republics—Slovenia and Croatia—to the poor regions of the south—primarily Macedonia and Kosovo. Inevitably resentment grew in the richer republics, where economic modernizers saw their precious capital being, as they saw it, frittered away in supporting unworkable, unmodernized, socialist systems in the south. Thus, the self-assertion of the republics was linked, in the north at least, to the demand for economic liberalization and modernization. Furthermore, decentralization left republican and even municipal institutions, including banks, free to conclude foreign loans. Local political leaders had no qualms about borrowing foreign money to buy their way out of local difficulties; but this was a dangerous policy, as became apparent in the 1980s when the international financial institutions began demanding repayment. Yugoslavia as a whole never recovered from the huge debt problems created primarily by the different republics.

These failings were, says Allcock, those of Yugoslavia’s political elite. Created during and immediately after World War II, the political and bureaucratic leaders drawn from the Partisans or installed by them faced their most severe test when Tito and the other founding fathers faded from the scene. At this point the elite leaders were “unable to grasp, let alone to address” the issue of how the country was to manage the transition from “charismatic to legal-rational authority.” In the 1980s therefore as the submerged problems broke through to the surface, the faults of the Yugoslav system were revealed; and there was no effective central guidance about how to deal with them. This is a persuasive argument even if, contrary to some of Allcock’s claims, it suggests that in “explaining Yugoslavia” political factors may be just as important as economic ones.

There is much more of interest in Allcock’s sophisticated and intelligent book. He has sensible and reasonable arguments for the weakness of civil society. He stresses, for example, the fact that the royal, centralist dictatorship imposed on Yugoslavia in 1929 meant that civil groups such as the trade unions and the cooperatives were not able to produce experienced, capable leaders. Also, before World War II Yugoslavia did not enjoy a period of stability long enough for it to produce from its constituent elements a unified legal code or a fully developed, independent legal profession. Not surprisingly, in view of Allcock’s previous work on the history of tourism, he has interesting passages on the relevance of landscape in the national consciousness. He writes that in the twentieth century the Slovenes discovered the Julian Alps “as a primary symbol of Slovene identity” and that “the crystallisation of Montenegrin identity can be said to have come about in significant measure in relation to landscape.” He also points out that the politics of the successor states may not always be explicable by traditional distinctions between left and right or in the conflict between ex-Communist hard-liners and liberalizers, or even by national divisions. Modernization, for example, which in this context should be seen as the desire to dismantle the old socialist mechanisms—state planning and a Communist or socialist monopoly of political power—can be equally important. In Serbia, Milosevic’s Serbian Socialist Party is traditionalist and nationalist, while Ibrahim Rugova’s policies in Kosovo were nationalist but in favor of modernization. Macedonia’s coalition government of former Communists and Albanians cuts across the nationalist divide. (To which one might add that the results of the April 2000 local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina indicate a lessening, at least among Muslims, of the propensity to vote on nationalist lines.)

Like Glenny’s, Allcock’s book could be better organized. By approaching his subject through themes such as traditional violence and economic modernization, and by not giving a chronological account, he sometimes makes it difficult to link political issues and ideas in a historical setting. And his prose can be heavy. Glenny, true to his journalist past, keeps the general reader in mind and tries to tell a colorful, if often tragic, story. Allcock is an academic writing for academics, and his strong insights are sometimes buried under too much theorizing. Still, a present-day Cadogan would find plenty of enlightenment in both books; and many Balkan backstairs intrigues, including those of the last few years, would be made more comprehensible by them.


In fact Cadogan would find enlightenment most easily and most rapidly in Mark Mazower’s book, The Balkans: A Short History. It is different in kind and intent from Glenny and from Allcock. Whereas they are expansive and attempt a definitive explanation of some, or all, aspects of Balkan or Yugoslav history, Mazower is much shorter and aims to give not a full narrative history but rather the general flavor of what the Balkans were. He manages to portray the Balkans as a concept as well as, or perhaps more than, a cockpit for conflicting ideas. It is a gem of a book, packed with illuminating information, observation, and judgment.

In many of his judgments Mazower differs little if at all from Glenny and Allcock, but his command of history is more assured than Glenny’s and his writing is incomparably more lucid than Allcock’s. Like the other two writers Mazower will not accept that the awful violence the peninsula has endured is the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. It was, he argues, the only means modern nationalists could find to break apart a society that was otherwise capable of ignoring the mundane divisions of class and ethnicity. Like Glenny and Allcock he sees nationalism as a Western or Central European import into the Balkans; and if this import 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. Mazower, like Glenny, also shows how romantic, European-style nationalism was given its political opportunity by peasant anger at declining living standards.

Where Mazower is best and where he differs from Glenny and Allcock is in the relative coverage he gives to the pre-modern period. He produces a masterful and wonderfully succinct picture of the Ottoman Empire in the earlier centuries of its rule in Europe. It was an empire which was amazingly polyglot, especially in its capital. It may not have accepted religious equality—which was almost coterminous with ethnic equality—but it practiced tolerance and accepted coexistence. Despite the lurid pictures of Muslim persecution painted by many nineteenth-century European Christian observers or commentators, there was a great deal of intermixing in the Ottoman Empire. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and others became members of the same guilds, and would even, in nineteenth-century Salonika, for example, join the same labor organizations or gentlemen’s clubs.

Moreover, forced conversions to Islam were rare, not least because infidels paid more tax than the faithful and the Ottoman government was seldom in a position to afford a diminution in its sources of revenue. In many instances, as Mazower points out, conversion took place to preserve landholding or other economic or social privileges, and it was by no means unknown for women to convert to Islam to escape an unhappy marriage. There was, as he shows, usually more hostility between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics than there was between Orthodox and Muslim: “better the Sultan than the Pope” was a sentiment entertained by many of the Orthodox throughout the southern and eastern Balkans after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople, modern Istanbul, in 1204.

It was the advent of modern economic development and modern thinking that partially upset the equilibrium. As central and western Christian Europe grew more powerful economically, Balkan Christians—or rather the small urban, Christian intelligentsias—became more self-confident; they acquired the insuperable advantage of believing that the future lay with them. They were convinced that progress was ineluctable and would equally inevitably bring political reform and a constitution from which they would be the chief beneficiaries. The Muslims in turn acquired a heightened sense of self-defensiveness which could lead to occasional outbursts of irrational behavior and violence. When Sultan Abdulhamid II, known sometimes in the West as Abdul the Damned for his alleged condoning of the massacres of Armenians in 1894 and 1896, first traveled by train, Muslim Ottoman traditionalists were shocked. Railways, like constitutions, marked the disruptive intrusion of Christian values into the hierarchical world of Ottoman Islam.

Mazower, again as with Glenny and Allcock, brings his analysis right up to the end of the twentieth century. He warns us against any feelings we in the West might have of moral superiority. Taking a long view, he argues, the Balkans are no more violent and disturbed than any other part of Europe. I was reminded of an instance, not cited by Mazower, when a Transylvanian Romanian deputy bored the Hungarian Diet in the 1870s with complaints of Romanian sufferings at the hands of the Hungarians. A Hungarian rose to his feet and told him, in not quite so many words, to shut up lest the Romanians be given the same treatment as what he called the North American Indians. Today, when most of the Balkan nations seem, at least, to be taking a turn toward more peacefully inclined democratic governments, Romania remains a troubled site of potential conflict.

Those who already know something of Balkan history will be delighted by Mazower’s sober judgments, his measured style, his breadth of knowledge, and his telling anecdotes. For those who as yet know little of this history there could scarcely be a more reliable or a more appetizing introduction to it than Mazower’s book.

  1. 1

    The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, 1938–1945, edited by David Dilks (Putnam, 1972), p. 312.

  2. 2

    Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History (New York University Press, 1994) and Kosovo: A Short History (New York University Press, 1998); and Miranda Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo (Columbia University Press, 1998).

  3. 3

    Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Yale University Press, 1997) and Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale University Press, 2000); Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War (Yale University Press, 1997); and Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997).

  4. 4

    A History of the Balkans, 1804–1945 (Longman, 1999).

  5. 5

    David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (Harcourt Brace, 1995); Carl Bildt, Peace Journey: The Struggle for Peace in Bosnia (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998); and Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (Random House, 1998).

  6. 6

    Vintage, 1994.

  7. 7

    Traian Stoianovich, Balkan Worlds: The First and the Last Europe (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).