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

Misha Glenny

Granta 1999

The Balkans

Mark Mazower

Phoenix 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Misha Glenny and Mark Mazower take very different approaches to the modern history of the Balkans. Glenny, a journalist, offers a long but lively narrative of war, politics and people, with generalisations used to help make sense of that. Mazower, a historian, offers a short but insightful account of long-term processes and trends, with details used to illustrate those. Both seem reasonably objective — neither is himself in the grip of any nationalist fervour — and both provide references, an index, and an excellent selection of maps (essential for following the complexities of border changes). Which you prefer will depend on what you are looking for; I found reading one after the other rather instructive.

In The Balkans 1804-1999 Glenny provides a lively narrative account of the last two centuries of Balkan history. The focus is on wars and political conflicts, but he also includes biographical material, with portraits of key individuals, and he quotes from contemporary documents and sources to give the reader some idea how people thought and felt at the time. The approach is chronological, with Glenny trying "to avoid reading or refracting Balkan history through the prism of the 1990s", and covers separate episodes in often largely self-contained sections. The following is a selection of highlights rather than a comprehensive summary.

A six-page introduction takes 1999 Kosovo as a starting point. Glenny then launches straight into narrative history: the Serbian uprisings and the creation of an effectively autonomous Serbian state, the Greek war of Independence, the 1848 Hungarian Revolution and the complex politics of the Slavs within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the unification of Wallachia and Moldavia to form Romania. The second chapter focuses on the Ottoman Empire down to 1878, covering such topics as the millet system (where communities were organised by religion and given considerable autonomy), the Tanzimat and other reform movements, and the growth of Ottomanism and Turkish nationalism. The end of the period saw the first confessional cleansings, the Russian defeat of the Ottomans and the resulting treaties of San Stefano and Berlin, which created Bulgaria.

Two parallel chapters cover the period from 1878 to 1914 — the first focusing on the Ottoman Empire and the Macedonian question, the second on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the complexities of its internal Slav politics. To give you an idea of the level of detail Glenny provides, there are fifteen pages on the First and Second Balkan Wars, with narrative such as:

"Despite facing the weakest opposition in their thrust north to Epirus and east to Salonika, the Greeks were unable to take Ioannina, which was fiercely defended by a Turkish garrison. As they pushed north through Macedonia in the direction of Bitola, which according to the Serb-Greek understanding the Greeks were supposed to occupy, they became the only army in the Balkan Alliance to suffer a serious military reverse at the hands of the Ottomans. For this reason, and much to the irritation of the Serbian command, it was the Serbs who had to push on to confront the Ottoman army at its last stand near Bitola.
The battle for this small town, the inglorious end of Turkish rule in Macedonia, was the largest single confrontation of the Balkan Wars. ..."

The World Wars take on a different appearance when viewed from the Balkans. It was the collapse of the Bulgarian army on the Salonika front which forced the Germans to sue for peace in the First World War, while the Balkans played a critical part in the execution and timing of Hitler's attack on Russia in the Second, as well as being central to German economic planning. The First World War saw bloody battles across the region and forced population exchanges; the Second saw the genocidal destruction of Jewish communities throughout the region, with those in Salonika and Serbia almost completely destroyed, while almost all the Bulgarian Jews survived. And neither war ended "with the whistle" in the Balkans: the war between Greece and Turkey (inspired by Wilson and Lloyd-George) didn't end until 1923, while the Greek civil war lasted until 1949.

The treatment of the post-war period is particularly patchy. Romania and Ceausescu are covered in detail but Bulgaria gets only a few paragraphs, while the chapter on the ten years from 1989 to 1999 only covers the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Glenny does touch on social and economic history, but usually only where it is relevant to understanding the politics. Little or no ethnographic background is provided: there is no attempt, for example, to describe the linguistics of the region. And even where he goes into detail, Glenny's approach is descriptive, offering some generalisations but making little use of broader theory. There is no attempt to deploy a model of nationalism, for example, or to connect with peasant studies. Though his research seems solid enough and he provides references, it remains obvious that Glenny is a journalist rather than a historian.

Glenny also focuses almost exclusively on negative features of Balkan history — on the nationalisms, wars, and Great Power interventions of his subtitle along with coups, civil wars, assassinations, genocides, and every other kind of violence. In his conclusion he complains that the Balkans are only reported to the outside world in times of terror and trouble and otherwise ignored, but he himself hardly sets a good example here.

Mazower takes a complete different approach, in a work which is barely a fifth the length but which in some ways covers more. The Balkans opens with an introduction that explores the history of the term "Balkan" and of European attitudes to the region and to the Ottoman Empire. A chapter "The Land and its Inhabitants" begins with Balkan geography and its consequences for communications and trade. After a broad demographic history, Mazower then introduces the region's peasants (who until quite recently formed the vast bulk of the inhabitants), rural elites, pastoralists and brigands. He also looks at town dwellers and economic changes, in particular the growth in trade and the spread of a cash economy, and the effects this and political independence had on peasant life.

Chapter two surveys the social and political background to Balkan nationalisms. Mazower begins by describing the linguistic mosaic of the region and the complexities of its religious beliefs, where local practice tended to be more concerned with pragmatics than with doctrinal questions, often blurring the borders even between Christianity and Islam. Ottoman policy and administration (notably the millet system) provided the political context for nascent nationalisms, along with external interventions. At some distance from peasant beliefs were debates over religious doctrines and Enlightenment ideas, largely the province of a Greek-speaking intellectual elite.

Having devoted more than half the volume to background, Mazower turns in chapter three to an account of "the unpredictable process of Ottoman decline and national insurgence", the international management of which was "the Eastern Question". This covers events down to 1923: the Greek and Serbian uprisings, the union of Wallachia and Moldavia to form Romania, the creation (and immediate reduction in size) of Bulgaria, the role of the Great Powers, Macedonia and the First and Second Balkan Wars, the First World War, and the Greek-Turkish war and resulting population exchange. Mazower makes no attempt at a detailed narration of events: the following paragraph, for example, is all he has on the course of the Balkan Wars:

"In the First Balkan War of 1912-13 Ottoman power in Europe vanished in a matter of weeks. Serbia and Greece were the main victors, both acquiring huge new territories. Bulgaria won much less, and was soon even worse off after she declared war on her former allies in the Second Balkan War and was defeated by them. An independent Albania was recognised by the Powers, and defended against its hungry neighbours. The biggest loser in many ways — apart from the Ottoman Empire — was Austria-Hungary, which now faced a successful and expansionist Serbia. Austria tried to build up Albania as a counter-weight but could not prevent Kosovo and neighbouring lands being assigned to Serbia and Montenegro."

Chapter four covers the consolidation of nation-states over the last three-quarters of the 20th century. Mazower starts by looking at the treatment of minorities, with assimilation and ethnic repression driven by nationalism but taking on new forms during the Nazi-controlled interval of the Second World War. He outlines the political shifts over the period, from royal dictators in the 1920s to fascist and communist regimes and democracies, and the long-term economic trends, notably agrarian reform and urbanisation, and touches on the accompanying social changes. Mazower sees the ethnic conflicts of the last decade in Yugoslavia as the final phase in the creation of nation-states rather than the harbinger of more violence: few in the Balkans now dream irredentist dreams and the main problem facing states in the region is not minorities but engagement with the international economy.

In an epilogue "On Violence" Mazower traces the history of Western perceptions of Balkan bloodthirstiness. This cements the excellent job the work as a whole does of making us rethink stereotypes of the region.

January 2002

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%T The Balkans 1804-1999
%S Nationalism, War and the Great Powers
%A Glenny, Misha
%I Granta
%D 1999
%O paperback, maps, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1862070733
%P xxvi,726pp

%T The Balkans
%A Mazower, Mark
%I Phoenix
%D 2001
%O paperback, notes, maps, index
%G ISBN 1842124633
%P ix,160pp