Some Damn Fool Thing Called The Balkans (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 2)

The Balkans, to balkanize, the balkanization of, a balkanizing influence – all of these are different usages of that singular, dreaded word Balkan. In the strictest sense it defines a geographic region which usually (italics are mine) includes Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria. The region also can be defined by political, cultural or geographic terms as well. That is at least the official line.

For purposes of the 20th and now 21st century the word Balkan has actually come to mean some or all of the following: ancient feuds, economic backwardness, martial tendencies, religious intolerance, ethnic cleansing and underdevelopment. The borders of its nation-states are assumed to be fluid, based more upon facts on the ground than lines on a map. It is a place where empires falter and small states disappear or reappear depending upon the ill-fated region’s own inertial logic. Balkan can include the following entities which all no longer existed or only existed in the fertile imaginations of crypto-nationalists: Yugoslavia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Greater Greece, Greater Bulgarian, Greater Serbia and on and on and on.

The Balkans by Mark Mazower

The Balkans by Mark Mazower

The word Balkan is the nastiest two syllable word a Great Power ever heard. The German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck said that the great European war would be caused by, “some damn fool thing in the Balkans.” He did not live to see his words come true, but that made them no less true. On my shelf I have a copy of The Balkans: A Short History by Mark Mazower. It measures in at just 156 tidy pages. That may seem a trifle thin for a place you could spend a lifetime attempting to understand. How in the world can anyone do justice to such a complex place in so few pages? Well from what I remember – it has been about three years since I read it – Mazower does a pretty good job. I am not going to give a formal book review here, those are available elsewhere. What I want to talk about is one particular thing I found enlightening in the text. This made the entire book worth the reading.

Let me start by saying, isn’t it funny how one can read an entire book and hardly remember anything about it right offhand. That could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps it was indifferently written or indifferently read, it could have been that the subject matter was boring (the Balkans can never be called that though) or because the reader did not want to read it, in other words it was required reading. Let us settle one thing right now, I did not read the book because I had to, I read it because I wanted to. I did not read it indifferently, but I cannot say that I read it very actively either (i.e. I was not taking notes or pondering the author’s interpretations). I read it for information and to gain insight into the Balkans without spending my time sifting through scholarly works. I could not tell you now the main points Mazower was trying to make, but I did learn one thing which continues to fascinate me, so much so that every time I look at the book I think about it. That one thing was an explanation of how the term Balkan as we know it today came about.

In the book’s opening, Mazower spends several pages talking about the genesis of the term Balkans. The Balkans as we know the term today is a  product of the late 19th century. That’s right, this place which has become synonymous for ancient feuds and age old hatreds has been given a name about as old as the state I live in, South Dakota. I find this astounding. How can it be? Well the original term Balkan was nothing more than a geographic feature, a mountain range that runs from eastern Serbia through the central Bulgaria all the way over to the Black Sea. The region was known as Rumeli when the Ottoman Turks ruled it for centuries. According to Mazower, the term Balkan first began to be used incorrectly by geographers who wrongly believed the mountain range ran all the way across southeastern Europe. This started happening in the mid-19th century, by highly educated people no less. The common term for the region used in the 18th and most of the 19th century was either European Turkey or Turkey in Europe. This was a somewhat apt description, until the Ottomans were booted out of Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia among other areas.

Following these upheavals, the term used in reference to the region began to change. By the turn of the 20th century, diplomats, journalists and geographers were referring to “the Balkans” as a critical geopolitical region with increasing regularity. A new nom de guerre (quite literally) was born. This region which had been under the sway of the dreaded Turk for centuries on end could not escape the condescension of “civilized” western and central Europeans. From almost the start, the term became a synonym for a primitive place filled with primitive people who practiced a primitive way of life. Two World Wars and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia only added to this bias. Today, the term Balkan is firmly ensconced in the world’s geopolitical lingo. Perhaps the Balkans as a term will fall out of style, then again there is probably a much greater chance that it continues to be used in to denote a region as well as reaffirm prejudice and cliché.

How strange to think that not so long ago, it had a separate and largely unknown meaning. The word went from defining a little known mountain range to being a pejorative term for a wild, savage place that was hardly European at all except for its geographical proximity.  Just a century and a half ago, monarchies ruled most of Europe. Turkey in Europe was fast becoming an anachronism. The great powers of Europe rushed to fill the power vacuum. None of them suspected at the time that a region they hardly knew anything about or even had much of a name for, would cause the dissolution of an entire continental order. The Balkans only had definition after the tide of history turned, swept all before it and gave new meaning both to a region and also what happened to Europe in the 20th century.

One thought on “Some Damn Fool Thing Called The Balkans (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 2)

  1. Thanks for the overview regarding the history of the “Balkans” name. In Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan makes the case that no other term better describes the region…

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