Back in print

The Balkans Since 1453

L S Stavrianos <em>C Hurst, 970pp, £19.50</em>

ISBN 1850655510

War and scholarship march hand in hand. The professional study of modern European history in Britain was created by the First World War and stimulated by the Second. The modern American understanding of Europe has been shaped largely by the works of the astonishing array of historians who served in the wartime Office of Strategic Services. Although the OSS was the precursor of the CIA, these men were mostly of the left, though usually not communists. Among them was a young academic, Leften Stavrianos, born in Canada of Balkan descent. In later life, he became a pioneer in global history, encompassing an enormous range of continents to break down traditional Eurocentric notions of world development. But this is his classic book, and its London-based publisher should be applauded for giving a new lease of life to a work of rare comprehensiveness, power and readability. Still standing head and shoulders above all competitors, Stavrianos's survey of the past five centuries of Balkan history combines the detail and clarity of a textbook with the analytical bite of scholarship at its best.

Like many liberals of his generation, Stavrianos saw history as the passage of societies from traditional peasant ways to modern industrial urban life, giving his work on the Balkans two great merits. First, he was free of the nationalist sympathies and inclinations from which almost all historians of the region seem unable to free themselves. In particular, a great strength of the book is that it takes the Ottoman presence seriously as part of Balkan history. For Stavrianos, it was the Ottomans who ushered in the modern age by sweeping away the residues of the Byzantine feudal order. While the bulk of the book charts the emergence of nationalist movements and national states in the 19th and 20th centuries, the reader gets a strong sense of the fundamental importance of Ottoman institutions and modes of imperial governance in Balkan history.

The book's second great strength is the way it weaves politics and diplomacy history - the traditional fare of the "eastern question" that bored generations of history students to death - with social, economic and cultural trends. Travel accounts, in particular, give colour to his portrayal of Ottoman Balkan society and to the realities of life in post-independence states. Peasants, brigands and merchants are all given their due, and yet there is no pandering to the western appetite for massacre, atrocity and other evidence of Balkan primitivism, which so many other writers have seemed unable to avoid. Covering a vast canvas in admirable detail, this book still contains almost everything an informed reader might want to know at the outset about the history of south-eastern Europe before 1950.

First published in 1958, this reissue does not carry the story further. This may be frustrating for readers who want a detailed explanation of the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but they do not have to look far for excellent accounts of these conflicts. Rather than criticising this work for what it does not do, it is more pertinent to ask how it looks in the light of the inevitable changes in scholarship and attitudes of the past half-century. In some ways, these changes look to have made little difference. We still think that the main historical narrative of the Balkans over the past few centuries should focus on the rise of the nation state and the decline of the Ottoman empire. But perhaps we are more inclined to stress ethnicity than Stavrianos, and have a clearer sense of its ambiguities. Perhaps, too, we are readier to admit the presence of a parallel history of western stereotypes of the Balkans, and keener to ask how the ways we have "imagined the Balkans" have influenced outcomes there. For Stavrianos, all this is very much secondary to the bigger story of the transition to modernity - a story that he fleshed out further in his later works on global history. Perhaps this really is the more important issue. Today, after the social revolution in the Balkans engineered over the past 50 years under both communist and capitalist regimes - the radical and irreversible shift from agrarian to urban society - it is salutary to be reminded that not everything can be reduced to the fashionable obsession with ethnicity.

The only area where one might say that scholarship is now moving against Stavrianos is in what concerns the Ottoman empire itself. Gradually scholars are shaking themselves free of the obsession with imperial decline. They are keener to stress the elements of inter-faith symbiosis that held the empire together almost to the end, and to show its own capacity for reform and modernisation. Other empires, too, are being reassessed; like them, it is less obvious than it once was that the Ottoman empire perished because it had to. Indeed, the 19th-century empire was a flourishing and attractive business environment, in which many Balkan Christians continued to live and do well. This makes the story of national independence less one of historical socio-economic inevitabilities and more about political thrust and counter-thrust.

The recent round of wars in the former Yugoslavia has produced a new crop of writings on Balkan history; but none matches that of Stavrianos in vigour and sheer enjoyability. Its republication is a reminder of the intellectual challenge facing us as we try to live up to the quality of insight into European affairs achieved by the writers of the wartime generation that is now passing away. We remain in their debt and in their shadow.

Mark Mazower, the author of the forthcoming The Balkans (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, London