Monday, September 18, 2006

As bad as they wanna be

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

In 1990 I hitched down the fabulously named Brotherhood and Unity Highway, which stretched the length of Yugoslavia from Austria to Greece. Everyone I got a life with agreed the country was in trouble; "War in two years" said a Serb doctor, shaping an imaginary pistol with his fingers.

All history books are products of their own time period, and you feel that Misha Glenny's book was written to answer the questions most interested Britons were asking at the time: who are these people and why are we bombing them?

Glenny's history starts in 1804 with a rebellion of (Orthodox Christian) Serb pig farmers against the (Muslim) Ottoman Turks who had ruled the Balkans since kicking over the late Mediaeval Christian kingdoms. The next century saw the declining Ottomans unable to keep order in the provinces while their subjects lacked the power to kick them out. The sponsorship of a great power - such a British admiral acting without sanction from London to save the Greek fleet - could save independence, but the other powers generally counter-balanced this. Without exception the Great Powers acted in their own interests, rather than those of the inhabitants.

Russia's long term strategy was to expand down the Black Sea coast to that ancient and warm-watered centre of Orthodoxy, Constantinople. Austria desired a Balkan empire to replace the primacy in Germany it had lost to Prussia. Britain sought to prop up the Ottomans to thwart the Russians. So, for instance, when the Russians looked to have the game won with the creation of a huge Bulgaria, the other moved in unison to stop them.

By the end of the First Balkan War, the Ottomans had been removed from almost all of Europe, and their successors - Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania - were learning to live with each other. This they did by bushwhacking Bulgaria and then launching into the First World War.

If the 1800s were grim, the 1900s were worse. The slaughter of the First World War led to some ugly, tyrannical monarchies. Mussolini's insane and incompetent invasion of Greece led to the darkest period of all, Hitler's German conquest of the entire peninsula. The Red Army marches in in 1945 and a surprising variety of Communist regimes come to power - populist but brutal in Yugoslavia, brutal and insane in Rumania, xenophobic and insane in Albania. Then the Berlin Wall comes down in 1989 and a brief burst of happiness and optimism (see 1912) is quickly quelled as Yugoslavia descends into bloodshed and partition, which is where we came in.

Glenny concentrates on the Balkans' two most impenetrable problems - the Bosnian question and the Macedonian question. Macedonian Slavs could be Bulgarians, or Macedonians, or Serbs or even - in the 1800s at least - Greeks. Bosnia's mainly South Slav was divided by religion (Muslim Bosniak, Catholic Croat, Orthodox Serb) and, much more in the eye of the beholder, ethnicity. So for a Croat nationalist, the Bosniaks might be Muslim Croat or they might be Muslim Serb unless the Croats were going through a phase of pan-Slav union, in which case all might be considered to be one people. And one of Glenny's most important points is that these nationality issues were far from unchanging: the modern antipathy between Croat and Serb, for instance, goes back no further than World War Two, a far cry from the mediaeval hatred theory of Balkan conflict.

He goes a little way to dispelling the notion of the Balkans as especially violent: the actions of the distinctly Western European Nazi Germany beats anything the Balkans (even the squalid Croatian regime of Ante Pavelic) could match: the Nazis' most horrific action probably being the deportation and murder of the entire Jewish population of that old Sephardic city, Salonika.

Even without the Nazis, there's enough horror to be going round. The brutality, rapine and massacres take us from Napoleon to Bill Clinton. We witness military actions which appear to have been dreamed up after sinking twelve pints: Serbia's pointless 1885 attack on Bulgaria, Rumania's disastrous entry again the Central Powers in the First World War and, saddest of all, the catastrophic 1919 attack by Greece on Turkey. The forced population exchange in 1923 meant the expulsion of Greeks who had lived in Asia Minor since the time of Pericles and the death of the Megali Idea, the reunification of all the Greeks under the rule of their greatest city, Constantinople, henceforth Istanbul.

But however idiotic this invasion was, even it couldn't match Austria's catastrophic 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina which, by only making sense as the first stage of an imperialist frogmarch down to Salonika, turned Serbia into Austria's sworn enemy and led to Gavrilo Princip assassinating Franz Ferdinand (not the band, sadly) on the streets of Sarajevo, pitching Europe into the First World War.

And one of this books many sad images is that of the remorseful Princip dying fettered in Theresienstadt, trying to convince himself that the war would have come even without his actions.

Even the moments of light relief are dark: the widow of a murdered Bulgarian politician silencing barrackers at his funeral by waving the pickled remains of his severed hands.

As Glenny's book comes to an end, NATO has just bombed the crap out of Serbia to stop Slobodan Milosevic expelling the entire population of Kosovo. Glenny, obviously without the benefit of seven extra years, doubts the wisdom of this, though, given Milosevic was a serial invader, the only mistake was not doing it years earlier when Milosevic, having already started one war with Croatia, turned his attention to Bosnia.

The attack on Serbia perhaps had one further unintended consequence - the over-confidence of Tony Blair. Never known for his lack of self-belief, his correct decision to go ahead against substantial opposition, stripped away his caution when other more consequential but far less justified wars came his way.

The surfeit of violence and warfare is this book's main problem. The portrayal of the Balkans is as an endless Molvania of the soul: violent, treacherous and meritless. Unlike, say, Neal Ascherson's atmospheric and beautiful Black Sea, Glenny doesn't spend time looking at art, literature or popular culture, except in as far as their creators conflict with political leaders. Without giving space to the better side of human nature, Glenny's Balkans end up looking like an irredeemable hellhole.


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