Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Aggression versus Apathy: The Limits of Nationalism during the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Aggression versus Apathy: The Limits of Nationalism during the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913

Article excerpt


Eruption of war in the Balkans during the 1990's revived attention for nationalism which had been demoted by many observers to an atavistic phase through which societies passed on their way to modernization. Suddenly nationalism again seemed critical to western civilization. Balkan behavior in the 1990's was traced back to Balkan history and notably the nationalism which had been regarded as the salient feature of the first and second Balkan Wars.

The earlier conflicts have implications beyond their serving as a cause of the 1990's wars--"Nationalism is most frequently cited as a force impelling Europe toward war in 1914." (1) Those Balkan events "set the precedent in this century for massive wars and ethnic cleansing." (2) Balkan Christian sub-nationalities in the Ottoman Empire were "filled with a natural desire for political freedom and national unity." (3) War was seen to have been caused by conflict between status quo and "growing nationalist sentiment." (4) Thus the national ferment of 1912-13 was critical not only for the Balkans but also for the world. Nationalism is simply "one of the basic elements of modern history." (5) In the last analysis evaluation of nationalism is critical to our system of periodization in being regarded as a distinguishing feature of modern history.

Any discussion of a concept as complex as nationalism requires a precise and candid definition. The present study starts with "loose and comprehensive concepts of the nation and nationalism--roughly defining 'nation' as the ethnic-cultural group of 'people,' and 'nationalism as self-centered collective resistance to foreign rule to preserve the group and its culture." (6) In short, nationalism is the effort of nations/peoples to defend/extend their power. It is first judged by the breadth of support for the nation and second by its influence on decision-makers and thereby the course of events. Conversely nationalism is viewed as limited to the extent that leaders disregard, manipulate and/or fabricate public opinion as a tool of policy. This definition is as critical in suggesting what nationalism is not as what it is. Accordingly mass, defensive behavior related to the nation is designated as patriotism, while elite, aggressive behavior related to the nation can be denoted as cabinet diplomacy.

Balkan Nationalism

Conventional wisdom holds that the first and second Balkan Wars were caused by mass, aggressive nationalism which is perceived as the engine driving events and "the arrow of causality." Accordingly the Balkans have been conceived as proverbially fractious because of "ancient hatreds." This view is contested by recent criticism which attributes 20th century Balkan history more to specific circumstances and "manipulative leaders." (7) Not surprisingly the received wisdom is widely attested. The Balkan wars were "significant in providing a classic case study of the forces of nationalism at work." (8) Emblematic is George Kennan's assertion that "the strongest motivating factor involved in the Balkan wars was not religion but aggressive nationalism," what the Carnegie report condemned as "the megalomania of the national ideal." (9) Balkan nationalists and parliaments were supposedly enthusiastic about war and expressed "general rejoicing and outbursts of popular gratitude." (10) "The outbreak of war was welcomed in the Balkan states with an overwhelming public acclaim; huge demonstrations in its support took place in the allied capitals and other cities and towns." (11) The process and period were idealized as "the national-romantic-patriotic atmosphere of the years leading up to the Balkan Wars." (12) In short, nationalism was regarded as ubiquitous and taken as a given.

More significantly nationalism is presented as influencing official policy. There were "popular demands in Sofia, Athens and Belgrade" for "bellicose" policies. (13) Bulgaria seemed to have the most blatant popular influence on policy in favor of an immediate war, and even accepted the assassination of the king and prime minister if they sought to avoid the second Balkan War. …

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