The Balkans in World History

The Balkans in World History

The Balkans in World History

The Balkans in World History

Synopsis

In the historical and literary imagination, the Balkans loom as a somewhat frightening but ill-defined space. The Balkans should probably be defined as that borderland geographical space in which four of the world's greatest civilizations have overlapped to produce a complex and dynamic civilization.

Excerpt

The region known as the Balkans has long been a crossroads of the world. Traders, armies, messengers, and migrating tribes traveled the Balkans’ varied landscape pursuing their livelihoods or searching for land on which to settle. Peoples of many ethnicities— Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Gypsies, and many others—layered their cultures atop one another as they set up residences and intermingled. As a result, these diverse inhabitants of the Balkans often spoke multiple languages in order to communicate with neighbors and the wanderers or invaders who traversed their lands. Kings in medieval times established multiethnic states, making the Balkans a model for the ways in which dynasties (and in the twentieth century, determined rulers such as Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia) could meld ethnicities rather than pit them against one another.

Imitating the splendor of Constantinople, Balkan rulers built lavish palaces and well-adorned places of worship. Rulership passed among the differing ethnicities and faiths, but most residents of the region did not care, worrying only who was in charge locally and how high the local lord would make taxes. Under Ottoman rule, prior to 1914, the capital at Constantinople dictated a policy of religious and cultural toleration so long as citizens paid their taxes and were willing to surrender some of their sons to be trained for the Ottoman armies. Complexity of peoples and cultures was a major characteristic of Balkan life for hundreds of years—which is not to say there were not tensions and even violent disagreements.

This layered society came under the influence of the great powers in the nineteenth century, as intellectuals and nationalist politicians sought to import the idea of the nation-state to their region. For their part the great powers were only too happy to interfere in Balkan affairs, with an eye to the advantages that restructuring of the region could bring to their own empires, which were crucially connected to the eastern Mediterranean. As the nationalist ideal took hold, in 1914 a nationalist youth, Gavrilo Princip, ignited World War I by assassinating an heir to Balkan territories so that he might free his homeland. In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by that war, Balkan politicians succeeded in dividing their region into distinct nation-states, among them the state . . .

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