War zone

The Balkans 1904-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers

Misha Glenny <em>Granta, 726pp, £25</

Where does the Double Eagle come from? You can see it on crests, anywhere between Bogota and the Caucasus. Common sense might tell you that it is the eagle of Rome, which was given two heads when, in the 4th century, the Empire was divided between western and eastern (Byzantine) halves. It fits that the neck itself would run down the Balkans, where the worlds of Catholicism and Orthodoxy (later, Islam) collided. Common sense is, in this case, wrong: the Double Eagle is a very old device, and it can be seen on a Hittite monument, created around 2,000BC, in the splendid Ankara Museum of Ancient Civilisations. However, the worlds of east and west did indeed collide in the Balkans, each leaving its traces: four language groups, four world religions, three alphabets and, as the Yugoslavs used to say, one party. The history is accordingly very complicated indeed.

Misha Glenny brings many qualities to his study of the subject. In the first place, the languages are not a problem for him. And he knows the region, not from departments of political science, but from chain-smoking conversations in grimy Balkan tower blocks. The last ambitious history of the Balkans - by a couple called Jelavich - is valuable, but rather bloodless and boring. Glenny is never boring, and although I noticed the odd slip or two (the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff in 1914 is properly referred to as "Conrad", the real surname, not "Hotzendorf", a gentry-predicate), the level of accuracy strikes me as high. The chosen method is chronological and anecdotal. As the Balkans became liberated from the Ottoman Empire, starting with the Serbian uprising in 1804, one state after another took the running until liberation in 1913.

Liberation for some. Millions of Balkan and Caucasus Muslims fled to Anatolia. Kemal Ataturk himself, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in Salonica. These refugees, many of them educated, formed well over half of the urban population of Anatolia, and they were determined to set up their own national state. Many of them blamed Islam, generally, for the decay of the Ottoman Empire (Ataturk was careful in public, but in his cups he would say: why should the dead hand of some Bedouin of long ago dictate the daily, even hourly, action of people centuries and centuries later?). Now here is a good question that Glenny ought to have tackled. When Serbs of today contemplate largely Muslim Bosnia or Albania, they often say that Islam inhibited state-building. So what went wrong with Islam, and is that the right question to ask anyway? I should like to have had Glenny's thoughts on that. I should also like to have had his thoughts about Orthodoxy. It remains strangely true that the Latin-Christian countries, including Croatia (for all the bad publicity), have done better in "transiting" to democracy than Orthodox ones, such as Romania or Bulgaria. If you are prepared to read between the lines of a work such as Steven Runciman's Great Church in Captivity (1968), about the Orthodox Church under the Ottomans, you can see something of the problem. Its discussion of the theological differences between Orthodox and Latin is the best that I know. It does not help that Orthodoxy is strangely barren when it comes to socio-religious thoughts: its prime exponent remains Fyodor Dostoevsky, although, come to think of it, that is not such a bad thing to say.

Still, if he is mainly silent on the role of religion, Glenny is very good on the process of national liberation - first Serbia, then Greece, then Romania, then Bulgaria, then Albania. He is astonishingly fair-minded. Greek liberation, in the 1820s, was an atrocity-studded affair, enough even to disgust some of the romantic British Hellenophiles, some of whom turned Turk as a result. He is careful to avoid gratuitous offensiveness about the more absurd aspects of nation-building and has, accordingly, missed a trick or two. Building a native language out of peasant dialects is a difficult business. You have to invent words for modern things. Thus, in modern Greek, "foreign bus travel" becomes metafora esoterika, and "journalism" is efemeristika. The Croats came in for much hilarity because they refused to use the word "radio" for "radio", and have, instead, krugoval, which is a direct translation of the German Rundfunk, literally "round spark".

Minorities were a challenge to such state- building, and one of the great offences of the Ottoman Empire in nationalist eyes was precisely that it tolerated such minorities - Jews and gypsies, whose status counted (and, in Turkey, still counts) much higher than elsewhere. Once Ottoman control was removed, Macedonia - the Balkans in miniature - became unmanageable: on this, John Koliopoulos's new book, Plundered Loyalties, is excellent. The rest of the world did not understand, back in 1991, why the Greeks refused to let the present-day former Yugoslav Macedonia use that name, and a flag to match. But Greeks understood all too well. The confusions of Macedonia - Greek, Bulgarian, Turk, Albanian, Romanian, gypsy - had provoked Europe's very first international police force in 1903. The Greeks claimed it, on the grounds of ancient civilisation, and got most of it in 1912. Great numbers of Greeks, evacuated from Asia Minor after the defeat of the Greek invaders in 1922, flooded in. The result, in the second generation, was a large communist presence which, after the second world war, formed the basis for the communist side in the Greek civil war of 1945-49.

This is an exceedingly complicated story, not for the uninitiated. But if you have an interest in the region at all, or, even more, if you want to learn how communists could use minority issues, Plundered Loyalties is an important book, a book of which Nicholas Gage's Eleni is a fictional form.

Official Greece certainly exaggerated, with the fuss that it made over the name of Macedonia, but there were quite legitimate fears, to some extent already realised, that communists and criminals would pour back into Greece to upset its very uneasy present-day stability. This explains the extraordinary overreaction to Anastasia Karakasidou's Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood, which Cambridge University Press was too cowardly to publish in Athens, but which, thanks to Chicago, is an unimpeachably strong anthropological account of the Hellenisation of parts of once-Slav Macedonia. Of the Slavs, some left after terrible fighting in the second world war or with the retreating communists in 1949. A great many others became Hellenised, because Greece was, in the end, a much more attractive and civilised place than the alternatives. Modern Turkey has a somewhat parallel problem with the Kurds, and it would be a kindness, on the part of Greek spokesmen, to acknowledge that this is the case.

C M Woodhouse, a veteran of Greece's wartime resistance and author of a very good history of modern Greece, contributes a foreword to Koliopoulos's book, indicating the problems which Greece has had with Macedonia. Which reminds me of how many very good writers from England and Scotland have been drawn to study the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. We are easily the leaders in the field - as if the oldest nation state in Europe called to the youngest. Glenny is the latest in a distinguished field.

Norman Stone is professor of international relations at Bilkent University, Ankara

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser