One of the prevailing stereotypes in 19th and 20th century European history is of the Balkans as a tragic and fated land, riven by infighting, feuds, diabolical plotting, ethnic hatred and outright war. There were notable examples of this kind of behavior throughout the region on multiple occasions over the past two centuries. Yet the same could be said for much of Europe during that time.
Bias & Backwardness – The Traditional Balkan Narrative
The reputation of the Balkans took a turn for the worse during the 1990’s. Following the collapse of Communism and Eastern Europe’s peaceful return to democracy and economic development, the former Yugoslavia went in a very different direction, it imploded. What followed became known as the Yugoslav Wars. The fighting was broadcast via television and internet to a western world stunned to see that large scale violence and ethnic cleansing could still occur in post-modern Europe.
The popular press covered the fighting with a wide range of preconceived notions. Among these were several recurring themes including that the violence was endemic to the area’s history, feuding and plotting was a way of life that rose almost to the level of a profession and it was a backward land infused with oriental despotism. Whether these were true or not hardly mattered, they fit into a traditional narrative that had a long history reaching back a couple of hundred years. Trying to identify the origins of this bias against the Balkans has been the subject of many book length studies. This is not the time, place or space for such a study. Yet an understanding of how the Balkans came to be viewed today as a land of despotism can be easily understood through the action for which it was most famed in the late 19th and early 20th century, the act of assassination.
Murder & Intrigue – A European Phenomenon
Assassination seems to be the prototypical Balkan crime. It hits on all the derogatory stereotypes given to the region: radical politics, ethnic strife, extreme nationalistic sentiments and subversive conspiracies. It as though the Balkans had the market cornered on this type of behavior. In reality it did not. At the height of an assassination phenomenon lasting from 1900 to 1913, no less than twenty-eight different politicians, diplomats and heads of state were shot, stabbed or blown up in Europe, yet the Balkans accounted for only eight of these. That is less than three out of ten in the supposed powder keg of Europe.
One of the main reasons the Balkans became tarred with a reputation for murderous intrigue was because of two famous assassinations which occurred in the area during the early 20th century. One is still well known today, the other relatively forgotten even though it caused a sensation at the time it occurred. The more famous of the two was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. It goes down as one of the most improbable and important events in modern times. The reverberations from that murder led to World War One. People who haven’t the slightest idea about the Austro-Hungarian Empire or its annexation of Bosnia are still aware that a strange character known as an Archduke was gunned down in Sarajevo. Many still believe such crimes to be typical of a backward region consumed by ancient hatreds.
The other, lesser known political murder which informed the popular image of the Balkans took place in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia in 1903. In what is now called the May Overthrow, a group of Army officers led a coup against King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga. The conspiracy is said to have grown to the point that it included an astounding 160 people. On the 29th of May, just a few hours past midnight, in the damp, chill air of Belgrade, the Royal Palace was surrounded by officers and soldiers determined to kill the King. They had a difficult time getting access to the royal quarters, but were determined enough to blow the King’s bedroom door open with dynamite. After searching in vain for a considerable amount of time, the royal couple was discovered hiding behind a secret door. What happened next is open to debate, but it seems that both the king and queen were almost immediately shot. The conspirators then took turns sabering them, accounts state that up to twenty-eight slashes were inflicted upon their bodies.
To add a final humiliation, the bodies were dumped out of a second story window of the palace onto manure piles in the gardens. The report of the coup made headlines all across Europe. The vindictive violence done to the corpses was shocking and bestial. This helped cement a popular impression of the Balkans as a land of backwardness, where royalty was treated with utter contempt. Interestingly, both famous Balkan assassinations took the lives of royal spouses. In this land, even the wives of royal heirs and monarchs were not safe.
Alternative Reality – European Backwardness
The two assassinations still inform how the Balkans is viewed today. The region has never really been able to escape the popular perception of what happened in Belgrade and Sarajevo over a century ago. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s only tended to exacerbate matters. Ignorance by the general public in this case lends itself not to bliss, but to fear. Many avoid travel to Bosnia or Serbia due to its violent reputation. Those who do travel to the region are pleasantly surprised. Despite the fact that it is still developing economically it is one of the safest places in the whole of Europe with incredible natural and cultural history on offer.
Those who do bypass the Balkans would do well to remember that the rest of Europe was plagued just as much or more by political murder in the early years of the 20th century. For instance, in 1900 the King of Italy was shot dead, pierced by the four bullets of an assassin. Four notable Russian politicians were murdered from 1900 – 1911 and even in Finland (a land which today conjures up images of placid serenity) three notable public figures were murdered in a seven year period beginning in 1904. Yet no one much recalls those acts of violence. There is something about the Balkans that brings to mind smoke filled coffee houses, populated with saboteurs plotting to bring down the powerful. Whether this is true or not, hardly matters. That is the perception in the western world and that perception has created its own reality.