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

  • Title: The Balkans 1804 - 1999.
  • Author: Misha Glenny
  • Publisher: Granta Books
  • Reviewer: M A Sherif

    This 600-page encyclopaedic study of the Balkans begins with a series of maps. The first of these provides the boundaries in 1804, when Sultan Selim's custom officials were stationed along a border that included Belgrade and Bucharest, and all the regions of the lower Danube and encircling the Black Sea. By 1918 the area had been carved into 7 nation states. By 1999 there were 13 national boundaries, the logical culmination of a consistent policy of the Western European powers and Russia towards the perceived threat of Muslim influence and power.

    The Ottoman order however was far more tolerant and civilised then its replacement. Glenny notes, "the [Ottoman] empire had always welcomed persecuted peoples. The magnificent Sephardic community in southern Europe with its centre in Salonika was founded in 1492 by the Jews who fled (the Inquisition in) Spain. The majority of these Jews eventually fell victim in the twentieth century not to Islamic fundamentalism but to a peculiarly perverted ideology from a Christian culture. The Islam of the Empire excluded nobody on grounds of faith, a fact often obscured by twentieth-century view of Islam. In the nineteenth century, there was even a substantial flow southward of Poles and Hungarians, whose descendents can still be found in Anatolia, escaping the tyranny of Russian and Austria".

    The key to the stability of the Ottoman order was the millet system, a method for governing multicultural and multiethnic societies which warrants closer study in our times. The author notes, "For the Ottomans, nationhood meant religious affiliation, so that Bosnian, Turkish and Albanian Muslims for example, would all speak different languages and enjoy widely different cultural traditions but would still be part of the same 'nation' [millet]. This also held true for the diverse peoples gathered in the [Christian] Orthodox millet….during the first four of the Ottoman's five-century domination of south-eastern Europe, serious disturbances among and between the millets of the Empire were rare…the Empire's borders were guarded by the great Ottoman armies. But internal peace and stability were chiefly the product of this ordered millet system…".

    Gleny identifies three events that shattered this stability and has resulted in untold suffering and loss of life in the tragic Balkans. All have to do with external interference. "The first was at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 when European diplomats agreed to replace Ottoman power by building a system of competing alliances on the Balkan peninsula. The second began with the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in the summer of 1914 and culminated in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne and the Great Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey. The third started with Italy's unprovoked attack on Greece in March 1940 and ended with the consolidation of unrepresentative pro-Soviet regimes in Bulgaria, Romania and a pro-Western administration in Greece".

    This book includes a brilliant chapter on the Great War and insights into the thinking of the Young Turks including Enver Pasha and Mustafa Kamal. Glenny has the journalist's eye for detail, and records that on either side of his desk Enver had mounted the portraits of his heroes- Napolean and Frederick the Great. A telling observation for the book's Muslim readers. Equally pertinent is this account at the aftermath of the Great War, "The delegations at the Paris Peace Conference [in 1919] saw the Ottoman Empire in one key respect just as they saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire - as a 'prison of nations' ; and now the inmates deserved recompense in the form of their own states. In another respect, however, the Ottoman Empire was very different - it contained large reserves of oil, especially in the Mosul region (now in northern Iraq), and much territory which both the British and French considered strategically vital. So significant were parts of the Empire that it could not, unlike the territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, be handed over to the locals".

    The book also warrants to be read for its accounts of the atrocities committed by the Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians and Serbs on Muslim communities once released from their so-called 'prison of nations', and also for the shameful cruelties inflicted by the East Europeans on the Jews during the Nazi era. Misha provides a detailed account of the rise and fall of Tito - a man who curbed the Muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina through the largely Serb-dominated paramilitary security force 'UDBa'- while also being feted as a great statesman by Boumedienne and Nasser.