Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"The Wars of the Balkan Peninsula: Their Medieval Origins" by Alexandru Madgearu

This book was originally published in Romanian in 2001; the author updated the original text (including information, unavailable in Romanian, he acquired through further research in the years following publication) for this English-language translation, published in 2008.

I did not know exactly what to expect from The Wars of the Balkan Peninsula, although based on the title I was worried that the author would provide an academic foundation for the sort of historic fatalism which is all to often applied to the Balkans. I am happy to report that this is not the case.

To quote the back cover:

"The Balkan Peninsula is often referred to as the "powder keg of Europe," but it is more accurately described as the "melting pot of Europe." In The Wars of the Balkan Peninsula: Their Medieval Origins, Alexandru Madgearu discusses the ethnic heterogeneity in modern-day Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia and traces its history."

Madgearu's thesis is well-developed over five chapters and nearly two hundred pages, but it is essentially this (again from the back cover):

"The Wars of the Balkan Peninsula argues that the current ethnic structure is the basis for the solution of the disputes between the Balkan states and that history should be used to explain, not legitimize, the conflicts."

In the Introduction, Madgearu states that

"The ethnic mosaic is the deepest cause the of the endemic state of conflict in the Balkan Peninsula. It is therefore necessary to clarify the circumstances that led to such an unique ethnic configuration."

It is important to note how he defines the Balkans--he sets the geographic parameters narrower than many--no Slovenia, and he considers his own country, Romania, as being both of and not of the Balkans. His reasons are essentially geographic rather than cultural, which is anything but a random choice, as he notes that:

"The ethnic configuration of the Balkan Peninsula is the result of the interaction of several geographical and historical factors. Although the role of geographical factors in historical processes should not be overestimated, undestanding of geographical determinations is necessary for any historical inquiry into the medieval Balkans."

The geography of the Balkans encourages localism and fragmentation as well as allowing for the survival of displaced cultures by retreat to the highlands, while there are a couple of extremely important routes across the region, the control of which is vital for any attempt at lasting political unification.

Because the book is so dense with information and rich with detail, I will not attempt anything like a thorough synopsis. However, the Table of Contents by itself serves as a useful outline. Below is the complete contents of the TOC, with brief commmentary in brackets after each chapter:

Part I The Past

Chapter 1. The Ethnic Aspects: The Slavization of the Balkan Peninsula - The Expansion of the Albanians - The Vlachs (Aromanians)--A People Without a State - Deportations and Colonizations Made by the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires

[Sketches not only the different ethnic groups inhabiting the region during the medieval period, but also the processes by which different groups moved around within the area, partially but never completely displacing each other, and moving from highland to lowland and from region to region]

Chapter 2. The Political Aspects: The Downfall and Recovery and the Byzantine Domination and the Rise of Bulgaria - The Small Slavic States from the Central and Western Balkans - The Byzantine Offensive (Ninth-Eleventh Centuries) - Pax Byzantina and Centrifugal Trends in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries - The Inheritors of Byzantine Imperialism - The Rise and the Breaking Up of Great Serbia - The Ottoman Conquest - Pax Ottomana

[A political history of the Medieval Balkans as well as periods before and after the Middle Ages proper. Consider the importance of "poles of power" such as the late Roman Empire, the Byzantines, the short-lived Bulgarian and Serbian Empires, and finally the Ottomans. The author stresses that modern nationalist ideologies often base territorial claims on the maximal extent of medieval empires. He also illustrates that medieval societies were built on a variety of ties other than ethnic solidarity, which means that modern nationalist claims for continuity with medieval empires are at the very least flawed, if not misguided.]

Chapter 3. The Religious Aspects: The Confrontation between Rome and Constantinople in the Balkans - The Spreading of Islam in the Balkans: A New Differentiation

[Fairly obvious topic. Recounts in some detail the history of Catholic/Orthodox competition within the region (the lines dividing Rome's sphere of influence from Constantinople's were fluid and far from clear-cut for many centuries--both Bulgaria and Serbia flirted with the Vatican even after conversion). And, of course, the arrival of Islam in the region further stirred the pot.]

Part II The Present. Historical Propaganda and Balkan Nationalist Ideologies

Chapter 4. Theories of Ethnogenesis with Political Implications: The Greeks - The Albanians - The Bulgarians - The Serbs and the Croats - The Vlachs (Aromanians)

[An examination of competing ethnic histories used by different nationalities and ideologies as a way to "prove" the primacy of one's own nationality to a given geographic area.]

Chapter 5. The Legitimation of Expansionism by the Abuse of History: Kosovo--Serbian or Albanian? - The Historical Macedonia--The Apple of Discord among Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia

[For any student of the Balkans, the general subject of this chapter should be obvious from the title and subtitles alone. This chapter is a very good brief summary of the conflicting arguments for Greater Serbia, Greater Albania, Greater Greece, Greater Bulgaria, and even Greater Macedonia.]

The three chapters in Part I are relatively straightforward and recount in as much detail as the author's knowledge and recent research will allow the facts of the respective matter in some detail. The author has looked into a very fundamental issue in the Balkans--who are the peoples of the Balkans, and where and when did they come from?

Part II is more analytic and critical, as the author admirably takes the penchant among Balkan peoples to abuse the historic past as a way to legitimize contemporary geopolitical ambitions without taking into consideration the very different circumstances of the different eras.

The Conclusion contains some good final insights, none better than the opening sentences:

"The great obsession of Balkan policy and propaganda was and continues to be ethnic purity (of the Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, Albanians, and Greeks). This ethnic purity is an illusion in this most mingled European region,the scene of a long series of ethnic and cultural changes, where there are no pure ehtnies and races."

Some of the other points are also interesting. He argues that the intense centralization of Balkan medieval states had a centrifugal effect, where areas on the periphery were pushed away. In Western Europe on the other, fragmented medieval polities slowly evolved towards centralization in a process that favored the development of national identities and ultimately relatively uniform nation-states. It is generally understood that nationalism came late to the Balkans, but often the focus is on the Napoleonic period and later, when Balkans peoples were subsumed in multinational empires. Madgearu's contention that the root cause of stunted Balkan nationalism can be located further back, in the medieval period, is worth considering.

I do have some reservations about this book. The most serious concern is that I am not quite sure what the author believs the solution to Balkan is exactly; his later statement that

"Only the present ethnic configuration could be the starting point for the resolution of the international disputes."

invites more questions than it answers, and some of those questions are troubling.

Still, this book contains the sort of sober, demythologized academic study of the Balkans that we need more of. Finding the explanation for the region's history and ethnic mosaic in specific historical and geographic peculiarities rather than in romantic notions of an impossibly "complex" and romantized region populated by savage, indecipherable others is a step in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

It is possible that the sensationalist title is a concession to the publishing house...

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have said it better myself, "history should be used to explain, not legitimize, the conflicts." Unfortunately, when I go the library and pick 5 different books on the topic of the 2nd World War, I get 5 different perspectives (not necessarily facts) and always depending on the author's ethnicity, background, political leanings (right, left, center, or between), etc. History is largely based on personal perspectives and, in cases of dead, estimates. But what can we do? History is by no means a science like math or physics.

For example, in the case of Jasenovac, 30,000-40,000 Serbian victims were grossly inflated to numbers of 700,000 and in some cases to figures over a million, while tens of thousands of dead Bosniaks and Croats, who were also victims of Jasenovac, were deliberately "hid" under the carpet of historical recognition. Not to mention well discredited Serbian lies about 3,000 Serb "victims" around Srebrenica - a lie condemned even by the UN's Court ICTY on numerous occassions. Serbs used those fake numbers to deny genocide of more than 8,000 Bosniaks Muslims in Srebrenica.

As I was reading your review of Alexandru Madgearu book, I noticed that he hadn't taken time to write about Bosniaks - one of major ethnic groups in the Balkans. Am I missing the point here?

He seems to contradict himself. In Chapter 4, he explains theories of ethnogenesis without even mentioning Bosniaks - as if we never existed. What about language? Is he aware that the first dictionary of Bosnian langauge was published 200 years (two centuries) before the first dictionary of Serbian language? Is he aware that Byzantine emperor Constantine VII, in De Administrando Imperio, also mentioned Bosniaks (something Serbs and Croats hate to admit and have been trying to hide through manipulative "translations" of the original script.)

Kirk Johnson said...

Daniel, you should be less concerned with the contents of the book and more concerned with my lazy, incomplete synopsis!

I believe that the reason he doesn't spend any significant time discussing the Bosniaks is because he is interested in how various national groups have used theories of ethnogenesis and a selective ethnicity-focused history to justify maximalist territorial claims. The Bosniaks have tradtionally not engaged in this sort of intellectual project. No long-standing "Greater Bosnia" project to speak of, in other words.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I think your writing is excellent. This is, by far, one of the best academic blogs around. I would not be surprised if your Google Analytics stats showed many students and universities visiting this blog.

You're correct. Bosniaks never had any major ideological project, e.g. to conquer Serbia or Croatia or similar nationalist objectives. I guess, the main objective of Bosniaks throughout history was preservation of Bosnia, considering that Islamic institutions helped Bosniaks lose their Bosniak identity for the sake of Muslim brotherhood (aka: "All Muslims are Brothers and Sisters" <- yeah right).