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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Balkan journeys

Despite the name of this blog, I’m actually on the periphery of the Balkans and do not even begin to try to understand its history. I’ve travelled (very briefly) in Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia; spent several years in Bulgaria and have known Romania for 20 odd years but have read few books about the countries in the Region. Lucian Boia is the only serious history historian of the last country with a book currently available (Romania – Borderland of Europe 2001 (although I noticed that the Frost English bookshop has a couple of slim histories in English); if you look really hard you may unearth in Sofia a copy of Richard Crampton’s A Short History of Modern Bulgaria (1987).
Otherwise I’ve read only Mark Mazower’s very brief The Balkans; and Dervla Murphy’s typically punchy description of her cycles through the disintegrating Yugoslavia of the early 1990s Through the Embers of Chaos – Balkan journeys.

However, Christopher Clark’s recent The sleepwalkers – how Europe went to war in 1914 is the first book which really helps me make sense of the region. It is a stunning and gripping read which has also altered my understanding of the respective roles of France, Germany, Russia and England in letting loose  murderous and senseless violence on the peoples of Europe -  
We are introduced to a shadowy world of fanatical terrorist cells engaged in plots that range across state borders, funded and armed by secret organizations that are connected, with carefully constructed plausible deniability, to official government ministries. The fanatics in this case are Serbian nationalists rather than Islamic fundamentalists (though it should be said that Serbian nationalism has long had strong religious overtones), but their outlook and methodology seem startlingly modern. So too are the polarizing pressures and media attention their activities generate, especially in terms of a positive feedback loop in which even presumably moderate figures feel compelled to emphasize their militancy for fear of appearing weak. When, after a series of botched attempts, one youthful member of an organization known as the Black Hand finally succeeds in murdering the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it triggers a war in which many of the participants have only a peripheral relationship to its proximate cause. Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly don't seem so far away from the Balkans.
The second part of The Sleepwalkers is a traditional diplomatic history reminiscent of A.J.P. Taylor's classic 1954 study The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1914. Clark reconstructs the realignment of European great-power politics in the four decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War. The hallmark of his approach is pluralism: he demonstrates that for every national player in this drama, decision-making power was decentralized. In parliamentary societies, there were considerations of party politics, as well as the relationships between the military, the diplomatic corps, and a nation's political leadership. But even in presumably autocratic societies like Russia, policymaking was hardly straightforward; figures like Tsar Nicholas II or Kaiser Wilhelm were often managed by their ministers rather than leading their countries, and public opinion could influence strategic considerations no less than it did in France or England.
The final segment of The Sleepwalkers returns to Sarajevo in 1914, opening with a depiction of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that spools with cinematic clarity. Clark then proceeds to chart the sequence of decisions -- more like miscalculations -- that culminated in catastrophe. In light of his preceding analysis, it's clear that he rejects the notion of an overriding cause or a principal villain. As he explains in his conclusion, "The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over the corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol.And yet the weight of his own analysis makes clear that Clark blames some figures more than others. Serbian nationalists were not only irresponsible in the intensity of their fervour, but in their insistence on the legitimacy of territorial claims flatly denied the realities of history and the presence of non-Serbs in places like Albania and Bosnia. (Serbian conquests in the Balkans in 1912-13 were followed by atrocities strongly reminiscent of ethnic cleansing.)
Russia's support of the Serbs was part of a larger pan-Slavic strategy that had less to do with mystic chords of memory than trying to realize a long-term goal of succeeding Ottoman Turkey as the master of the Straits of Bosphorus, one that led the Russians to take dangerous risks. And French desperation for a strong partner to counter Germany virtually goaded the Russians to take those risks.
Conversely, Clark rejects the view that Austria-Hungary was an empty husk of an empire lurching toward collapse -- indeed, Franz Ferdinand had a plausible scenario for a reformed and federalized polity that reduced the disproportionate influence of Hungary and gave more representation for Slavs, including Serbians (one reason why radicals wishing to see the empire break up were so intent on killing him). Vienna's demands in the aftermath of the assassination were not unrealistic, though its delay in issuing them -- here again the baleful influence of internal divisions, one of which were foot-dragging Hungarians -- led rivals to mobilize their opposition. Germany is often portrayed as ratcheting up the pressure by giving the Austrians the notorious "blank check," but Clark depicts Berlin as believing the crisis could be resolved locally long after everyone else had concluded otherwise. British Conservatives welcomed war as a means of preventing Irish Home Rule, since fighting Germany would deprive Liberals of the military tools to implement a policy that had vocal, and possibly violent, opponents
Those wanting a brief overview of the origins of the war can do worse than the Authentic History reference. And the masochists who want to explore the representation of the Balkans in various writings can attempt these two academic pieces Imagining the Balkans and Balkanism in political context

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