A complicated region’s history

A legitimate first question a reader might ask when perusing Mark Mazower’s The Balkans (London: Phoenix Press, 2000) is, How did he manage it? The task of compressing 500 years of the political and social history of one of the most complicated regions on earth into a slender volume of 135 pages, organized into four chapters and a brief epilogue, would seem to be either beyond any reasonable effort or a recipe for superficiality, yet somehow Mazower, a professor of history at London’s Birkbeck College, has pulled off this feat in a handsome fashion. And the result works both for the general reader seeking an erudite overview and for those with more specialized interests in the area. Such a volatile region, where history is bound up with powerful myths and myths help sustain cultures, badly needs detached, non-ideological historical treatment. His axes to grind appear to be mainly scholarly in nature (the kind that often come with particularly sharp edges, however well sheathed). His main enemy is humbug as he sets out, gently but firmly, to cut through long-propagated stereotypes. This refusal to ingratiate himself may not make him the most popular historian in some parts, but his scholarly integrity can hardly be disputed. In the process he reveals, in measured terms, the rich core of complexity of a region to which simplistic labels adhere with numbing regularity. Its brevity notwithstanding, Mazower’s book is no easy page-turner. His approach is broadly thematic, emphasizing the slow evolution of social structures where continuity and peaceful accommodation have been defining characteristics no less than upheaval and discontinuity from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the present. One point repeatedly driven home is that the Balkans, for all its ancient rivalries, is in fact a rather new and emergent (sub-)region, with nation-states that developed late and intermittently and have complex but traditionally stable population mixes. A second underlying theme is the powerful influence of the Ottoman Empire in shaping societal structures. To Mazower, 400 years of dominance was self-evidently pivotal. But most historians, especially European, regard them as an aberration from the imputed European norm of linear development and modernization, as the Balkans became sucked into the vortex of Eastern influence. As for the modern impact, to be European has meant nothing less than denying the legitimacy of the Ottoman past. (p. 14) For those familiar with Mazower’s Dark Continent (reviewed in this newspaper on Feb. 15, 2001), he is no apologist for inherent European virtue. He eschews both the Eurocentric prism and normative history – which regards the Balkans as caught between an enlightened West and a barbarous East, where its peoples labored under a blanket of darkness rather than developing in their own, not necessarily inferior, ways. Unsurprisingly, he considers Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations argument inapplicable to the Balkan past, given the separate but parallel development under Ottoman rule that was disrupted, in part, by the introduction of European standards and values. The first two chapters examine formative (e.g. geopolitical) factors in the area’s development, such as poor transport routes, and how they retarded communications between isolated communities or rural hamlets. But the basics do not mean basic but essential; and he delights in uncovering little gems (e.g. the thriving mountain trade in selling snow to the lowlanders, often for salt in return). Equally, he revels in puncturing comfortable myths, like that of the colorful Balkan peasant, or any tendency to romanticize brigands as dashing, Robin Hood-type heroic figures. The reality was far less savory, if not necessarily less interesting. Under the Ottoman thumb, religious affinity more than politics or language bound peoples, for example Greeks and Bulgarians. Mass Islamization did not occur, largely for economic reasons; Christians paid high taxes, and mass conversion would have impoverished the empire (p. 52). Considerable autonomy (but hardly equality) for Christian peoples was allowed, and Muslims did not proselytize or force conversions on subjugated peoples, thus being less a threat to Orthodoxy than was Catholicism and Rome. Diehard believers might find this hard to swallow even after the pope’s reconciliatory visit to Greece in July, but the evidence of earlier, peaceful coexistence sustains such claims. In closing Chapter 2 he holds that in southeastern Europe the modern nation-state… has entirely defeated the old Orthodox values. Archbishop Christodoulos (and his 3 million fellow signatories to the call for an ID card referendum) might argue otherwise, but to Mazower, the theocratic figures on nightly television are more populist than powerful. The latter half focuses on the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the 20th-century consequences of ideology replacing religion as a driving force. Nationalism came slow, frustrated by geographical impediments, tiny and elitist intelligentsias and factionalism and divided loyalties among constituent peoples, notably in Serbia and Greece. In southeastern Europe, Mazower writes, the leaders of new states had to create the Nation out of a peasant society that was imbued with the world view of its Ottoman past. (p. 86) Great Power maneuvering produced the important Congress of Berlin in 1878, ensuring the entanglement of outsiders that changed complexion, rather than disappeared, after 1918. Mazower emphasizes that however colorful the history of klephts and peasant activism may be, the sober truth is that Balkan statehoods were won with conventional armies and powerful interventionist forces pursuing their own interests, specifically the expulsion of the Ottoman Empire from Europe, which occurred quickly with the two Balkan wars of 1912-13, and the scramble for (and among) its constituent parts. The 20th century is covered in 20 rather sweeping pages: the impositions of fascism and communism, the destructive effects of World War II and occupation, the Churchill-Stalin carve-up of southeastern Europe, and the descent of the Iron Curtain, all superimposing powerful but artificial influences. Yet rapid economic growth marked societies throughout the region, with the transformation of Greece, helped by dollops of foreign aid, being especially dramatic. Mazower concludes with a brief epilogue, On Violence, a reflective essay on the Yugoslav breakup. He questions pervasive assumptions that violence, especially in cruel and virulent forms, is a defining characteristic of, or somehow unique to, the region. While some might consider this deflective, historical accommodation (and plenty of horrific behavior far from Balkan shores, notably this week’s terrorist attacks on the US) again lends credence to such assertions. Mazower provides an admirably concise guide through a fascinating maze, supplemented by a brief chronology and genuinely helpful maps. Diligent readers may still want, however, to fill in some of the cracks elsewhere.