Andrew Hammond’s literary romp through the Balkans is a real insight – his mix of diary collage, historical context and deconstruction a very illuminating commentary on British perspectives of the late 19th and 20th Century perceptions of Balkans
I’m looking forward to getting a copy of the anthology – Through Another Europe - which he published in 2009 based on his work and findings
Few (if any) of these travellers’ tales bothered to attempt to put the scenes they saw in a wider political perspective but it is this which Hammond occasionally offers us -
At the end of the nineteenth century, once their ties with the Porte finally loosened, the Great Powers had advanced loans to Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria and, with much of that money being spent amongst the western arms manufacturers (strong national armies being deemed as useful an obstacle to Russian advance as a strong Ottoman Empire), bankruptcy and western control over domestic economies began to prevail throughout the region.' (p83)…..
Clearly, with the Dual Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire now ranged on the enemy side, and the former's `Drang nach Osten' assuming more sinister prospect since its alliance with Germany, the only means by which to protect Allied interests in the region, both during and after the war, was to carve out strong, resilient independent territories, moulding them into nation-states through all the signs, images, tropes and evaluations of a nationalist discourse, and reassigning them the value of national ally rather than cultural other (p163)…..
But, as Hammond shows, British writers’ generally sympathetic treatment of the area changed once again very dramatically after the Second World War
And as I shall go on to explore, the economic difficulties of the period, the political relations between the West and the authoritarian regimes of south-east Europe, the redrawing of boundaries after the two world wars, all showed that the West was not about to be a benevolent master, a point the war generation often exemplified personally. The traces in their work of a lingering authority, and readiness to condemn the locals when they failed to obey that authority, both indicate that a very British attitude to abroad was still at work (p165)…….
Misha Glenny has given us quite a few (historical) books on the Balkans and offered a good angle in a London Review of Books piece on 2 other books which detail and critiques how outsiders have created images of the Balkans - Inventing Ruritania by Vesna Goldsworthy and Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova -
The First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 are widely believed - writes Glenny - to offer definitive proof of ‘medieval’ behaviour on the part of Balkan warriors. But the Balkan nationalism and militarism expressed in these wars were much more closely related to the practices and morality of Great Power imperialism than to local traditions. The Balkan armies were largely funded by Western loans, Western firms supplied them with weapons and other technology, their officers were schooled and organised by Frenchmen, Germans, Russians and Britons. The armies were staffed, and in the case of Turkey commanded, by Westerners. Representatives of Krupp, Skoda, Schneider-Creusot and Vickers participated in the wars as observers and wrote reports on the effectiveness of their weaponry which were used to advertise the superiority of their products over those of their competitors.
Anything anyone in the West knows about the Balkan Wars has been learned from the report published in early 1914 by the Carnegie Endowment’s Commission of Inquiry into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars. It is an important document and the Commission’s members were serious and well-intentioned. This is a passage from the introduction:
"What finally succeeds in bringing armed peace into disrepute, is that today the Great Powers are manifestly unwilling to make war. Each one of them, Germany, England, France and the United States, to name a few, has discovered the obvious truth that the richest country has the most to lose by war, and each country wishes for peace above all things. This is so true that these two Balkan wars have wrought us a new miracle, – we must not forget it, – namely, the active and sincere agreement of the Great Powers who, changing their tactics, have done everything to localise the hostilities in the Balkans and have become the defenders of the peace that they themselves threatened thirty-five years ago, at the time of the Congress of Berlin.
Five months later, despite the Commission’s belief in the inherent wisdom of the Great Powers, imperialist rivalry reached its zenith, persuading the club’s senior members to divert their enormous economic and technological resources into one vast industrial conglomerate of death".
The vast massacres of the First World War relegated the ruinous social and economic impact of the Balkan Wars to the background. But those who witnessed or participated in them were afforded a unique insight into what the 20th century had in store. Several battles pitted forces larger than Napoleon’s mightiest army against one another. This despite Serbia, for example, having a population of less than three million. The Bulgarians mobilised 25 per cent of their male population, just under half a million men. The fighting was characterised by trench warfare and merciless sieges; and by pitiless artillery assaults on unprotected infantry and civilians. All sides, except Montenegro and Romania, deployed aeroplanes against the enemy, mainly for reconnaissance or dropping leaflets but also for the occasional bombing raid. For the first time, technology enabled fighting to last 24 hours a day, as huge searchlights illuminated enemy defences. This was not Balkan warfare – this was Western warfare.
The violent capriciousness of the Balkans was used as an alibi by the Great Powers for covering up their own role in various crimes and for pointing the finger at countries who were acting as unwilling or unwitting proxies in a broader Great Power struggle.
‘The Balkans was never the powder-keg but just one of a number of devices which might have acted as detonator. The powder-keg was Europe itself.