The Balkans by Mark Mazower

The fact that the recent troubles in the area only get a couple of the 135 pages shows what a complicated history it is. It’s almost a shame then that it’s crammed into such a short book. A real whizz through a fascinating region.

Introduction: Names

10 Latham, mid 19th century: “The Turk is European, as the New Englander is American, ie not strictly.”

11 Edith Durham: “When a Moslem kills a Moslem, it does not count; When a Christian kills a Moslem, it is a righteous act; when a Christian kills a Christian it is an error of judgement better not talked about; it is only when a Moslem kills a Christian that we arrive at a full-blown atrocity.”

14-15 People now tend to look back on the Ottoman period (from late 14th century) as a break in the area’s natural historical development. Nationalist struggle against imperial oppression is almost seen as a requirement of the European club.

The Land and Its Inhabitants

17-18 Mountains make contact difficult in the area. Weather varies enormously: 10-20 inches less rain east of mountains than further west. Droughts common on the plains. Barren mountains. Other parts heavily forested.

19 Rivers aren’t positioned well for transport.

20 Mountains made canals impossible. Rail only really began after 1880s and networks were sparse. Inherited Roman roads made for a good postal service, but this collapsed by 18th century. Very poor roads by mid 19th century.

21 The Turks used camels which gave them a huge advantage.

24 Population change kept pace with Europe (although density was comparatively sparse) until late 17th century — plague, war, famine and political instability.

25 Unlike Europe no effective quarantine measures, so plague was especially bad — last great epidemic 1835-8. By early 19th century the population was back to late 16th century levels. By early 20th century there were high birth rates, falling death rates. In 1920 population rising faster than rest of Europe.

26 After 1960 birthrates down to European average.

27 Farming and food technology changed little over time. As late as 1868 there were no public clocks in Montenegro. But things did change, despite backwards stereotypes: experimentation with different crops, fashions. Farmers often migrated long distances for work.

28-9 Ottoman rule probably benefitted peasants (contrary to popular belief). 200 years of Byzantine instability had been harsh. Ottomans swept away Christian landowners. Old noble families did convert to Islam and remain, but all arable land now belonged to the rule. Therefore estate holders never formed a strong enough class to challenge rulers. They oppressed peasants, but didn’t own them. Things were fairly stable.

29 After 2-300 years the Ottoman Empire was in trouble — hard to raise tax revenues for war. Rest of Europe became more commercial — private.

32 19th century — life in mountains increasingly hard due to over population. Brigandage offered a way to make money.

33 Shepherds did OK. Some (used to dealing in cash) became merchants.

34 After Ottoman conquest towns were often rebuilt and public buildings constructed. Towns seen as important. New towns emerged (including Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Tirana, Mostar) — mostly Muslim populations while countryside mainly Christian.

35 By 1600 Constantinople was the largest city in Europe (250k population). London had 200k, Paris 220k, Rome 105k, Berlin 25k, Madrid 50k, Vienna 50k.

36 Cairo was even bigger. Administrative centres. Fires devastated towns as late as the early 20th century due to slow movement of brick and stone frontier from northern to southern Europe. There was little industrialisation (poor communication, little printed material).

38-40 Mid 19th century, British pressure to liberalise trade and promise equality before law for all subjects. 1850s: possible to buy and sell land. Commercial agriculture. Capitalism. State more efficient at collecting taxes. Older patterns of social relations disrupted. Peasants demanding abolition of landowners. Nationalism emerged at some time as agrarian population demanding fairer taxes. 1875 Hercegovina revolt. Independence increased security of Christian majorities. Growing populations. More land cultivation. Forests cleared. Land used for cash crops — shepherds largely vanished. Land passed on to heirs, resulting in fragmented and inefficient holdings.

41 Mass emigration, many to US, around 1900.

42-3 Peasants disliked the modernising towns. Bureaucracy expanded in place of the old Turkish landlords and officials. More civil servants per capita than Britain or Germany. Peasants never managed to organise politically. Crops wen down in price between the wards. Little work then.

44 Now no economic way for village settlements to continue, except tourism and remittances.

Before the Nation

45-7 Early 20th century. Much of the population had little concept of nationality — they were Muslim or Christian (Orthodox). History has largely been written by the descendants of nationalist patriots who wanted people to be Bulgarian, Greek, Serb, etc.

47-9 Despite ebb and flow of populations, basic ethnographic composition was established around 7th century. Slavic tribes invaded and settled over 200 years. Split western and eastern halves of Roman empire, eventually contributing to split between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Greeks (who called themselves ‘Romaioi’ — of the Roman Empire) were only left in towns and islands. Greeks were Christian, Slavs pagan. 9th and 10th century, Slavs became Christian. Greek was the language of Christian culture, learning and ruling class.

49 13-15th century — collapse of Byzantium. Defeated by Turkish-speaking Muslims.

50 1453 — Collapse of Constantinople. Muslim rule over the area “more closely resembled patterns evident in the British takeover of India than in the German invasion of Poland.” There was no Ottoman hereditary aristocracy. Meritocratic.

51 Some Christians converted.

52 Approx 80% remained Christian. Christians and Jews were tolerated but discriminated against: not allowed to ride horses, wear green or build churches over a certain height. PAid higher taxes (so there was less reason to enforce their conversion).

53 Islamic rule was less damaging than Catholic (destruction in crusades of 1204 and 1444).

54-6 Orthodox church charged with tax collection among its people. A few individuals became very wealthy. Church became very corrupt around 15th century. Created bitterness between Church and flock. Where peasants weren’t Greek speakers they felt exploited by the ‘Greek’ church, paving the way for Balkan nationalism.

57-66 Coexistance of religions. Superstitions. Picking and choosing bits from other religions.

63 In a Christian couple, if a woman converted to Islam, but the husband declined, the marriage was annulled.

66 People giving themselves two names — Christian and Muslim. “What better way — they urged in self defence — to prevent a witch laying a curse on one than concealing one’s real name? … Revelation of one’s real name thus marked decisive moment of individual assertion against power.” [cf, Spirited Away and True Names]

67-8 More tolerance in country. Cities more difficult for non-Muslims.

68-9 From mid 18th century Orthodox and Catholic relations worsened (with the rise of Catholic Austria and Orthodox Russia). 19th century — Greek and Serbian nationalist movements challenged Ottoman attitudes to Orthodoxy. From 1876 Islam defined as “the religion of state”. Reaction to Western “meddling” provoked more defensive and hardline Muslim attitudes.

69-76 Decline of Orthodoxy, rise of nation states. Intellectuals spreading ideas of European Enlightenment. Preached virtues of science, learning, philosophy. New secular understanding of time as national history. Resistance (popular and elite) to the new learning.

73 Early 19th century. Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian intellectuals define themselves in terms of cultural communities for first time. Chafe under what they saw as Greek domination.

75 Balkan states emerged after 1830, couldn’t tolerate religious direction of citizens being in hands of Ottoman official. National churches created.

76 “Religion became a marker of national identity in ways not known in the past.” No room for the anti-church secularism that emerged in Western Europe in the struggle against Catholicism.

Eastern Questions

77-8 Austria and Russia had plans to divide Balkans between them in 18th century.

78 Theodore Kolokotronis, Greek fighter: “According to my judgment the French Revolution and the doings of Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. The nations knew nothing before, and the people thought that kings were gods upon the earth and that they were bound to say that whatever they did was well done. Through this present change it is more difficult to rule the people.”

79-80 First Serb Uprising in Belgrade — Muslims vs Sultan’s Christian representatives. Took nine years for Ottoman Empire to put it down. Around 1800.

80 1815. Second Uprising. With Napoleon defeated, Russia got involved. Serbs given concessions by Ottoman Empire. 1828-9 more, after Russo-Turk war. Autonomous Christian principality within Ottoman Empire. 1878 — Serbian independence at Congress of Berlin.

81-2 1821. Greek uprising in the Danubian Lands. Failed.

82-4 1821. Greek uprising in the Peloponnese. Thousands of Muslims killed. Asked for help from Europe. 1825, Turco-Egyptian invasion. Great Powers sent a flotilla. Turkish fleet destroyed. Greek state formed 1830.

84 Ottoman Empire modernised army.

85 Serbia and Greece impoverished and rural. 800k greeks in the state, 2 million outside as Ottoman subjects.

86-7 Princes of Wallachia and Moldavia elected. Ottoman Empire accepts in 1826. Russian imposed military rule in 1829, although Provinces nominally under Ottoman Empire. But Russia changed many things. Russia defeated in Crimea. France encouraged union of principalities: Romania. 1859 (international recognition in 1878).

88-90 Establishment of Bulgarian Church in 1870. Various uprisings in Bulgaria. 12-15k Christians killed by Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Empire rejects European call for reform. Russia invades, 1877. Romania, Serbia, Montenegro establish independence, and large Bulgaria (San Stefano Bulgaria). Latter only lasted months. Non-Russian powers weren’t keen. Congress of Berlin, 1878. Disraeli insists Bulgaria should be smaller. Macedonia returned to Ottoman rule. East Rumelia created (soon annexed back to Bulgaria). Bulgaria fully independent of Ottoman Empire 30 years later. Bulgarians still regarded Macedonia as their “lost lands”.

90-3 Great Powers meddling in the states they helped create. Not always going their own way.

93-5 Macedonia. Pro-Greek and pro-Bulgarian factions. Indifferent peasants. 1908, Ottoman Empire finally restores 1878 constitution. Rejoicing.

95 But Austria worried same will happen in Bosnia-Hercegovina, so moves to annex it.

96 Russians and Serbs oppose.

97-8 Turkish nationalism increased Christian enmity. Albanian uprisings against Ottoman Empire. Albanian nationalism alarms Greece and Serbia. Austria and Italy eager to expand. Serbia and Bulgaria unite against intervention of Great Powers. Greece and Montenegro join. Russia thinks Balkan League is against Austria, but it attacks Turkey. 1912-13, Ottoman Empire vanishes. Serbia and Greece gain new territory. Bulgaria attacks allies (Second Balkan War) and loses territory. Albania recognised by Great Powers and defended against neighbours.

99 Third Balkan War — Austria attacks Serbia after Franz Ferdinand assassinated… WWI.

101 After WWI ended, Greece invades Asia Minor. Turkish Forces push Greeks back. Republic of Turkey emerged.

102 Serb officials dominate in the new Yugoslavia.

Building the Nation-State

104-9 Killing, conversion and movement of people to create more homogenous nations.

107 1915-16 Ottoman Empire killed up to 1 million Armenians. Hitler in 1939: “Who now remembers the Armenians?” 1923 — Greece and Turkey swapped nearly 2 million people between them. Greek Orthodox and Muslims.

110 “Liberal state-building … of the state.” Not much explicit anti-semitism until Nazi occupation (after 1941).

111 Croatia won independence under Axis. Several hundred thousand Serbs and Jews killed. More ethnic civil wars in other countries.

112 By 1950, 50k Jews left in Balkans (850k in 1930). Countries generally more homogenous.

113-6 Political parties failed to gain a hold. Economic crises.

116-7 Right-wing kings ruled most states after 1929.

117-121 Greek civil war finished in 1949. UK/US had Greece — Soviets had the rest. Development was extensive in both regions. Huge investment in Greece. (Peasants moved to rapidly growing cities. Industrialisation. In all countries.)

122-3 From mid-1970s on, differences between Greece and rest greatened — Communist countries couldn’t compete with Western industries.

125 Tito had balanced different “nations” within Yugoslavia. After his death, and with the rise of Serb nationalism in 1980s, this began to break down. International support for separate Croatia and Bosnia. NATO warred with Serbia to create Kosovo for the Albanians.

On Violence

128-9 Despite many saying the recent Balkan wars were inevitable, and a continuation, the area had been no more violent than elsewhere in the past. The West imposing a model of nationalism in the 20th century was the problem.

129 “‘Ethnic cleansing’ — whether in the Balkans in 1912-13, in Anatolia in 1921-2 or in erstwhile Yugoslavia in 1991-5 — was not, then, the spontaneous eruption of primeval hatreds but the deliberate use of organised violence against civilians by paramilitary squads and army units; it represented the extreme force required by nationalists to break apart a society which was otherwise capable of ignoring the mundane fractures of class and ethnicity.”

129-134 Some think of the Balkans as more violent/bloodthirsty/cruel than the West. Mazower just sees it as different. The West has had a modernised, impersonal attitude to (particularly state) violence for longer. Prison population in, say, US and Russia are higher than the Balkans. US has death penalty.


  • I read Mazower’s The Balkans as well, and found it very useful since it opens up the broad perspectives and at the same time is on level with the lived lives of individuals. Your notes give the points very well, so thanks for that.

  • The above summary gives, in my opinion, a generally white-washed view of the Ottoman empire. The most glaring evidence for this, although there are others that are less obvious, is the total omission of what many balkan slavic and non-slavic peoples see as perhaps the most insidious institution in the Ottoman empire - the jannisaries conscripted by devrsime, a tax on rural christian households of the first-born boy. In an interesting turn where historian/academic is trumped by the wikipedia:

    “Devşirme or devshirme was the practice by which the Ottoman Empire enslaved boys from Christian families, who were then forcibly converted to Islam and trained as Janissary soldiers. The practice was motivated by the desire to create an elite class of warriors loyal only to the Sultan, rather than to individual Ottoman nobles…. Because the Sharia prohibits a Muslim state from enslaving its dhimmi subjects, the targeted families were usually Slavs or other populations whose ancestors in the time of Muhammad were not yet Christian…” (şirme#cite_note-14).

    By most accounts this institution lasted from the late 14th Century to the 18th Century - over 300 years. Most Greeks and Serbs would see this omission as practically criminal, as it is stories of this institution which were often passed down by families up to the present that influence feelings toward the Ottoman empire, and in fact contributed greatly to mobilising nationalist resistance to the empire (not sure about Albanians because later in the empire’s history they became a more privileged cultural group, perhaps because of a higher rate of conversion to Islam, but I honestly do not have the knowledge at hand to discuss this in great detail).

    For any who question the importance of this, just imagine losing your oldest son to a tax system which never allowed you to see him again or for him to return to you. It is not something that historians of the balkans or of the Ottoman Empire should take lightly.

  • Dear Rad,

    The devşirme is a widely discussed topic and there seems to be quite a lot information available due to the recent research.
    Losing you first born to the state sounds of course horrible, but we also must remember that many Christian families were actually willing to let the sons go. Becoming a janissary was a huge social leap for a farmer’s boy. These boys were also old enough to remember their families, and many of the helped their relatives after they gained some power; many even returned to serve the sultan from their birthplaces.

    And what comes to the Ottoman empire in general, Mazower doesn’t argue that is was a paradise on earth. He merely states that it wasn’t as bad as it’s often been described in the Balkan national histories, and in some levels it was more tolerant (especially in the early years of the empire; for example the arrival of the Sefardic Jews from Catholic Spain) than the West.