The East! The East!

Mark Mazower’s The Balkans, subtitled “From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day”, is a 176 page (including detailed guide to further reading and index) overview of the history of the Balkans over the past 550 years or so. It is a masterpiece of concision that sheds light on a complex and fractured history, while at the same time passionately arguing for a view of the Balkans rooted in European reality rather than easy mythology. To Mazower’s credit, heavy reference is made to primary sources, resulting in a book usefully illustrated with quotes from travellers to the Balkans and the people themselves.

Mazower examines, in surprising detail given the limited space he allows himself, the conditions of the Balkans under Ottoman rule, the perceptions in the West of the Christian subjects of the Sublime Porte and the implications our concepts of Orientalism had on our understanding of Balkan territory. He also addresses how, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, old divisions based on religion came to be replaced with imported concepts of nationalism – with ultimately horrifying results (though, as he is at pains to point out, results echoed in many other parts of Europe).

Mazower investigates too the root causes of the relative lack of development in the Balkans, focusing (among other factors) on the lack of major navigable rivers and the presence of geographic barriers to the development of rail networks, which coupled with membership of a declining and backward-gazing empire during the key years of the nineteenth century led to the region missing out on much of the development experienced further West.

Coupled with late industrialisation were slow patterns of urbanisation, with a relatively late continuation of the peasantry as dominant social group. That, in turn, led to generations of Western travellers romanticising a peasant population onto which they projected their own ideologies.

In other words, the emergence in the Balkans of urban populations at a level close to the European norm, with its characteristic pattern of small families, high consumption, industry and services, is entirely a product of the last five or six generations. Until well into this century, the peasant predominated, for few people lived in the towns, and few of those who did lacked close ties to the land.

Looking at the peasants dressed in their picturesque costumes, foreign visitors were struck by the persistance of what they regarded as an antiquated life form. ‘In most ways the native seems to have changed little since Biblical days,’ wrote two British students of Macedonia in 1921, ‘so that it may almost be said that in observing the modern Macedonia one is studying the type amongst whom St. Paul preached and travelled.’ Their view that ‘the primitiveness of the native peasantry is their most marked feature’, was one shared implicitly both by travel writers and by postwar modernisation theorists and social anthropologists. Ethnographers, enthralled by the nineteenth-century romantic view of peasants as the respository of national tradition, charted what they took to be the pagan origins of their beliefs, ornaments and customs; American classicists heard in the oral epic poetry of Serbican guslar players the direct descendants of Homer.

On that last note, Ismail Kadare’s novel The File on H uses the 1930s efforts of American academics to study then contemporary epic poetry to explore issues of censorship and surveillance in Hoxha’s Albania as well as to discuss the nature of oral traditions. Ismail Kadare is a superb writer, and I recommend The File on H (and equally Broken April, which deals in blood feuds, the Albanian code known as the Kadun and more broadly on how to live with knowledge of mortality) unreservedly.

Returning to The Balkans, Mazower is also excellent on the role of Orthodox Christianity in the region, how it was preserved in part by the fact of Ottoman conquest from the threat of the Catholic powers. Under the Ottomans, there was a spread (despite growing and eventually endemic corruption) of an Orthodox world within the Ottoman world – “a world of Balkan orthodoxy whose horizons stretched from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, from Northern Italy to Russia.”

Key here is how under the Ottomans communities were generally governed by members of their own faith. The Orthodox were ruled by in the main the Orthodox, though close contact and intermingling with Moslems and Jews often led to a pragmatic blurring of faiths…

We read, for example, of a sixteenth-century Istanbul man who vowed in the midst of a dangerous fever that if he recovered he would give up his taste in young boys. Cured, he thought better of it, but hesitated to break his vow. Having been advised by the ulema of Istanbul that he could not wriggle out of an oath once made, he sought the advice of the rabbis of Salonika to see if they could find a loop-hole. (They suggested he try women).

This promiscuity of faiths matters because for Mazower it puts the lie to Samuel Huntington’s famous concept of the ‘clash of civilisations’, which “situated the Balkans on one of the global fault-lines of this clash.” Mazower is clear that whatever the future may hold, Huntington’s thesis is in no way true of the past, that there was a cross-traffic of conversions, practices, beliefs and traditions – and a degree of cohabitation – that have no reflection in a Huntingtonian world.

Continuing the remarkable combination of brevity and precision that characterises this book, Mazower lucidly explains the background to and causes of World War I in around six pages, a tremendous feat in my view. Naturally there is a loss of detail, but in a title coming in at just 176 pages any topic is necessarily just an introduction. That he sheds light on the conflict at all, I consider no small achievement.

In dealing with the twentieth century, Mazower deals also of course with more recent history, and with the bloody internal conflicts and ethnic cleansing that have characterised it. For Mazower, the concept of there being a “peculiar propensity to violence among the people of the region” is a myth, he is at pains to place Balkan conflicts in the context of wider European conflicts and to show a pattern of massacres over our joint history.

Writing off Balkan violence as primeval and unmodern has become one way for the West to keep the desired distance from it. Yet, in fact, ethnic cleansing is not a specifically Balkan phenomenon. It took place through much of central and eastern Europe during and immediately after Hitler’s war: more than fifty forced population movements took place in the 1940s, involving the death and transplantation of millions of Germans, Poles, Ukranians and many others. The roots of its ferocity lie not in Balkan mentalities but in the nature of a civil war waged with the technological resources of the modern era. Unlike national wars, civil wars do not unify society – in the way, for instance, the Second World War helped unify British society. On th econtrary, they exacerbate latent tensions and differences, and are fought out amid a total breakdown of social and governmental institutions.

Mazower reminds the reader more than once that ethnic cleansing is not unique to the Balkans, quoting also in this light Hitler’s comment ‘Who now remembers the Armenians?’. This refers of course to the 1915-1916 massacres of hundreds of thousands (perhaps more) Armenians by the Ottomans – still controversial today.

For Mazower, the difficulty with understanding the Balkans lies not in its history being unusually complex or fractious, but rather in the perceptions we have built up of it as somewhere Easternised, alien. Its long existence under Ottoman rule and the widespread nineteenth (and indeed more recent) view that Europe is synonymous with Christendom have resulted in its being seen as outside our culture and history, apart from us. But of course, as with Turkey itself, any attempt to separate the Balkans from the rest of Europe is based on fantasy, there is no clear line to be found.

The disconcerting inter-penetration of Europe and Asia, West and East, finds its way into most descriptions of the Balkans in modern times. Europe is seen as a civilising force, a missle embedding itself in the passive matter of the Orient. Travellers routinely comment on signs of ‘European’ life such as houses with glass windows, cabarets, or hotels with billiard rooms. Balkan cities are usually described as having a European facade behind which hides an oriental – meaning picturesque but dirty, smelly, wooden and unplanned – reality. Railways are European, cart tracks are not; technology is definitely European, but not religious observance. The social fabric is almost always divided into a modernising surface and a traditional substance. Oriental realities – the power of religion, the prevalence of agrarian poverty – are assumed to be phenomena which have not changed for centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century, as numerous accounts testify, it was virtually impossible for Western travellers – esposed to the heady delights and sensual Orientalism of writers such as Pierre Lodi – not to see the Balkans in this way.

Mazower’s book is excellent, a fascinating introduction to the region and its history and one that shed for me considerable light on both. I learnt much that I did not previously know, and was inspired to read further (I have a copy of Misha Glenny’s much longer book of the same name and of Mazower’s history of Salonika, now known as Thessaloniki). This is a tremendous work of popular history which carries the depth of its understanding on light and easily read prose.


The Balkans. My copy had a better cover than that, showing a bomb-thrower being taken into custody in Sarajevo in 1914. The cover linked to for me is redolent of the Orientalism Mazower is so keen to dispel, which is a bit of a shame in some respects.


Filed under History

6 responses to “The East! The East!

  1. GB Steve

    This sounds very interesting. I’m a big fan of Kadare, everything I’ve read of his has been good, Broken April, the Palace of Dreams, the Successor … I fully expect him to win the Nobel in the next decade.

    The first book I read about Albania was Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains which whilst informative was spoilt by his sheer hatred of the place.

  2. Excellent review, Max — it almost defies belief that someone could describe the history of the Balkans in only 176 pages, but this book does seem to do it. Like you, I have Glenny’s book on hand and will get to it eventually. And I will again recommend Ivo Andric’s Nobel Prize winning novel, The Bridge on the Drina, as a wonderful piece of fiction that brings all these stories to life. It is one of my favorite books.

    Consider also Tony Judt’s Postwar in your history reading. It is a bulky book but does an excellent job of looking at how all of Europe has made its way through the last half-century. The sections on the Balkans are quite good, if a little dated.

  3. I’ll look out for that Carver book, if you’ve read that this may not throw much additional light though.

    Kadare is simply brilliant, one of the best living writers we have. I’ve not read The Palace of Dreams, I’ll add that to the pile. The Successor I agree was excellent.

    Keven, Ivo Andric’s book arrived today funnily enough, along with another Manchette, a Pushkin and a Ross Macdonald. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’ll look into the Judt too, that sounds very interesting though more a holiday than home read I suspect given the time I imagine it would require.

  4. Can’t wait for your thoughts on Andric. And Judt may qualify as a home read — he organizes his thoughts by country in manageable chunks. So while the volume looks daunting (and it does) it is a much more friendly read than you would think.

  5. Nick

    I already have that book… I think it just jumped on the top of my reading pile !
    That’s not a small feat considering the height.

  6. Let me know how it goes Nick, particularly if you disagree with my take…

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