29 August 2010

West European Interference in the Balkans in the Era of Balkan Decolonialization: The Outcome


(See The Timeline for part I.)
(See The Context for part II.)

West European intervention in the Balkans up until the 1880s worked well toward its desired outcome. The extent of Ottoman retreat was less than would have been without the involvement of the Western powers. Russia in this period demonstrated both the willingness to fight the Ottoman Empire and the ability to defeat it. Had the West Europeans stood aside Russia would have almost certainly be able to free the region from the Turks and pave the way for the establishment of independent Balkan national states. As it was the completion of liberation of the Balkan's Christians had to wait for several decades more and had to be achieved by the Balkan peoples themselves.

The decisive West European intervention in 1878 in Berlin meant the Balkan peoples were to derive only minimal benefit from the Russian victory in the 1877-78 Russian-Turkish war which Russia had fought more for their benefit than its own. Before that European stance in international diplomacy and the consequences and the memory of its invasion of Russia in the Crimean War kept St. Petersburg from perhaps launching a general attempt at freeing the Balkan peoples not in 1877, but perhaps earlier in the 1860s or the 1850s.

Western meddling thus made much of the sacrifice of the Russian soldier in 1877 in vain and prolonged Ottoman oppression and human tragedy in the Balkans for a further generation – until the region was freed of its imperial overlords with the First Balkan War in 1912. As H. N. Brailsford noted a century ago:

"We did not think that the affairs of Turkey were no concern of ours in 1878, when we tore up the Treaty of San Stefano and were ready to use "the ships, the men," and "the money too" in order to prevent the liberation of Macedonia by its inclusion in a free Bulgaria. The actual situation is of our making, and the Macedonians have endured a generation of oppression because we conceived that their emancipation was inconsistent with our own Imperial interests."

The Balkan Christian nations in this period demonstrated their desire to be freed of Turkish rule and their willingness to take up arms and fight to this end. However they were not jet strong enough to eject the Turks on their own. Thus while Western intervention in this time greatly limited the extent of liberation won for the Balkans by Russia it can not be said to had thwarted its liberation by its native peoples.

Nor can this be said of European interventions of the 1890s and 1900s. The attitudes of the intervening powers was to favour the preservation of the Ottoman Empire and this was the spirit that their intervention was conceived in. But the reality of these interventions was that they were confused, dimwitted and half-hearted affairs. As such they accomplished next to nothing, and did not meaningfully reinforce the status quo. Having failed at what they set out to do they can not be blamed for prolonging the subjugation of Balkan peoples. They deserve attention however as early interventions of the multinational variant rampant in our time.

In Crete the coalition of the intervening powers for longer than a decade embarrassed itself by flaunting its helplessness. It was one thing to decree what status the island henceforth would have, quite another to enforce their decision. Clearly foreign troops would have to leave some day and clearly the moment they did so the Cretans would renounce their suzerainty to the Porte and be voluntarily annexed by Greece. The occupiers for the sake of appearances stayed on for over a decade, lest their decree be annulled immediately and thus their shame be that greater, but were wisely timid enough to take a step back and granted partial concessions when the collective ire of the occupied Greeks became too great. Then took advantage of the rise of the reformist Young Turks in Constantinople as a welcome excuse to wash their hands of the whole affair and extricate themselves from the self-imposed task.

In Macedonia the grand total of their efforts was to harm their relations with the Ottoman Empire and bring it closer to Germany. The Turks naturally resented the affront to their prestige and the danger to their sovereignty the intervention represented. Thus regardless of the motivations of the intervening powers their relations to the Porte suffered. Germany which had stayed out of Macedonia profited. As for the other aspects of the intervention in 1909 Russia and Britain in essence admitted the failure of the preceding reform programme when they came to briefly flirt with the idea of securing for Macedonia autonomy under a Christian governor. Naturally the idea was quickly abandoned with nothing to come of it.

The reform programme in Macedonia was presented as a humanitarian intervention. By way of improving the lot of the downtrodden Christian subject in Macedonia the powers would deflect criticism that they helped perpetuate his subjugation. Not just via their role at the Congress of Berlin but also by continuing to prop up the Ottoman Empire financially. Even so the improvements to the Christian subject's position were not in the end to be done for his benefit, but for the benefit of the status quo to be achieved by alienating him from his protector and champion – the Committee guerrilla.

In the course of the implementation of their reform programme they all along the way met passive resistance from the Ottoman authorities that was grounds for numerous disputes. Thus they soon discovered that in truth they valued their relations with the Sultan, or better put the commercial concessions he was apt to grant them, more than the specifics of the implementation of their programme. The sway they held with the Porte was better invested into their economic interests than in their programme of reform for Macedonia. Or as the perceptible Brailsford then bluntly put it:

"... her Ambassador threatens Abdul Hamid with the dire wrath of a humanitarian Republic if he fails to buy from the Creusot forges, the cannon destined to crush the last hopes of the Bulgarian race. Official France objects to Turkish excesses only when they are perpetrated with Krupp guns."

In the end they allowed the Ottoman officials to effectively sabotage their proposed programme with delay and deception. Thus it produced nothing but phony reports, based on volumes of even phonier Ottoman records, about its many successes. The only way in which the intervention was a success is if we think of its goal as a way for the powers to congratulate themselves for benefiting the Macedonian Christians without the need to actually adjust their policy toward the Ottoman Empire. The intervention was what enabled Europe to continue on its course of propping up the Turks even though the ugly consequences of such a stance had exploded to the surface.

For the Turks the sum of their dealings and entanglements with the West European powers was that they sacrificed their independence for a shoddy, receding empire. They entered into debt with the powers to preserve their empire and to try breathe vitality into it. This first helped them maintain the territorial extent of the empire but ultimately sent them into a debt spiral which increased their dependence on the powers until their state was a semi-colony of the European powers akin to China. Jet even sacrifice such as this did not in the end save them the cherished empire. Finally after it was lost the Turks were even required to fight a war to regain their independence from the very powers of the Crimean Coalition they first came to lean upon in the 1850s.

In 1912 the Balkan states stunned the world by decisively defeating the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War in which they all but expelled Turkey from Europe. A contemporary American diplomat Jacob Schurman wrote in his 1916 work The Balkan Wars: 1912-1913:

"The first Balkan War, the war of the Allies against Turkey ended in a way that surprised all the world. Everybody expected a victory for the Turks. That the Turks should one day be driven out of Europe was the universal assumption, but it was the equally fixed belief that the agents of their expulsion would be the Great Powers or some of the Great Powers. That the little independent States of the Balkans should themselves be equal to the task no one imagined, no one with the possible exception of the government of Russia."

Then, an outcome such as this was one that outsiders had always expected would come about, however they were certain it would be brought about by the action of one or the other of the Great Powers. Jet here it was the Balkan nations which accomplished their own liberation and fully on their own. Without even such external aid as enjoyed by the Ottomans, which had been for decades employing German military expertise.

The decolonialization marked a new era for the Balkans not only in that the Ottoman Empire was evicted from the peninsula after centuries of presence. But also in that it severely limited the extent of influence of the great powers in the region. No more could the concert of powers at some grand hall in one of their capitals, or a remote holiday cabin decide the fate of whole provinces and thousands of people in the Balkans. The powers could woo the small Balkan powers and tie them to themselves in this way, but the days when their diplomacy could employ the means of coercion, pressure and threats was no more, and not to return until 1940 with the rise of German mastery in Europe.

It was after the Ottoman Empire had been defeated in the First Balkan War that West Europeans added to their vocabulary the term "Balkanization". Then, as now, the word was understood to have a meaning deeply negative. It denoted political fragmentation which would have to bring about weak states with no choice but to become dependencies of larger powers. Jet that was rather the reverse of what had happened. Balkanites post-independence showed far less need for West European patronage than had the rickety Ottoman Empire. And even were that not true partial dependency is surely an improvement over outright subjugation.

With this in mind it is not hard then to trace the distaste for "Balkanization" felt by those who embraced the term. Could it be that rather than fragmentation it was the decolonialization which disagreed with them? Balkan Decolonialization had been the first successful example of a process that would later on spell the end of European colonial empires. Like the European Balkanites so too the Asians and the Africans would in the 20th century expel foreign lords and establish their own independent states – at the expense of the empires of the West Europeans. This too was "Balkanization", instead of so much of the globe carved up between a handful of colonial empires, numerous states of the aborigines would rise up in their place.

But the word had additional meaning, it denoted reversion to the primitive and savage. West Europeans had helped maintain the Turkish empire, erected obstacles in the path of Balkan freedom and prolonged the Balkanites' struggle for independence then held the violence levels in the region against them. As proof of their primitivism and perhaps the justification to meddle still further. They held the preponderance of fighting in the region as well as the casualty count of the Balkan Wars as proof of the savagery of the Balkanites, jet these were the same nations which would just a few short years later stage the bloodlettings of Marne, Somme and Verdun and which held on to their colonial empires overseas with barbaric methods. Indeed if anything good can be said of the Turkish rule in this time in the Balkans is that it did not approach the cruelty of the Western colonial empires, of the Germans in Namibia, Americans in the Philippines or the British in South Africa.

The situation in the Balkans after the liberation was far from ideal, the Balkan national states were eager to squabble and compete, including on the battlefield, jet in this they merely mimicked the European powers themselves. There was more than a few parallels in the dynamic between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece and the dynamic between France, Germany and Great Britain.

As to what fate the Balkan's Christians avoided by winning their freedom can be perhaps seen by examining what was the fate of the Empire's Christians which stayed within its confines. In the course of First World War Armenians, the Assyrians and the Pontic Greeks were subject to horrendous persecution which killed around two million among them. Had the powers been more successful in their endeavour to prop up the Ottoman Empire such fate might had been shared by Bulgarians, Serbs and Greeks of the Turks' Balkan possessions.

Likewise after the Balkan Wars the newspapers in West Europe complained about the "Balkan cauldron" or the "powder keg of Europe" with renewed vigour. Jet if some happenstance in the Balkans could indeed ignite a European war it was only because the European powers intended to involve themselves with the region. It was not the Balkans that were a threat to European peace, but the attitude of the Powers that what goes on in the area must continue to concern them.

It was in this meddlesome permanent quest for status quo and avoidance of a mayor war that powers of Europe succeeded in gutting themselves. The seeds of the events that would trigger the disastrous First World War war had been sown at the Congress of Berlin which had set back Balkan liberation for the sake of interests of European powers and the balance of power on the continent. Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismarck, the prime actors of the Congress of Berlin, as they were interfering with the fate of thousands of Balkanites unwittingly helped set the stage for the very general European war that their intervention would supposedly make less likely. As the great AJP Taylor put it:

"Macedonia and Bosnia, the two great achievements of the congress, both contained the seeds of future disaster. The Macedonian question haunted European diplomacy for a generation and then caused the Balkan war of 1912. Bosnia first provoked the crisis of 1908 and then exploded the World war in 1914, a war which brought down the Habsburg monarchy. If the treaty of San Stefano had been maintained, both the Ottoman empire and Austria-Hungary might have survived to the present day."

Even today Bismarck receives credit from fellow conservatives as a man who correctly predicted a general war would come out of "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" and who had advised against German involvement in the region. Jet if his prediction came true it was because while interfering with the Balkans he helped ensure it would come about when he authorised the Habsburg Empire to expand into South Slav lands.

In the end for all the alarmism about the "Balkan cauldron" the feared general European war came about after a European power attacked a Balkan state. So it was rather the non-Balkan Europe that brought war to the Balkans and not the other way around.

Winston Churchill is attributed with the quip that the trouble with the Balkans is that it produces more history than it can consume locally. As we have seen the reality is that at least a part of Balkan's troubles is that the West insists on producing its history for it.


Further reading:
Taylor, AJP: The Struggle For Mastery In Europe 1848 – 1918
Kent, Marian: The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire
Barbara Jelavich: Russia's Balkan Entanglements, 1806-1914
Brailsford, H.N.: Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
Savich, Carl: International Intervention in Macedonia, 1903-1909: The M├╝rzsteg Reforms
Todorova Maria: Imagining the Balkans
Argyll, George Douglas Campbell: The Eastern question from the Treaty of Paris 1836 to the Treaty of Berlin 1878 and to the Second Afghan War

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