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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.3 (2001) 152-154

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Book Review

The Balkans

Mark Mazower: The Balkans. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 176 pages. ISBN 0-679-64087-8. $19.95.

Mark Mazower, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a former faculty member at Princeton University, has written a cool and dispassionate, if short, history of the Balkans that is remarkable for its academic objectivity and historical awareness. In today's world of megaspin, where skilled if not particularly knowledgeable wordsmiths churn out assertions that are taken seriously despite their lack of validity, a calm reading of history is not only refreshing but an essential antidote to the misperceptions that spring up so quickly.

Mazower makes clear that the age-old ethnic enmities of the Balkans are not really age-old. Throughout the more than four hundred years of Ottoman rule, the Balkan peoples were identified by religion, not by race or language. One was either a Muslim (Sunni or Shiite, it did not matter), a Christian, or possibly a Jew. Mazower cites an early twentieth-century Greek activist, M. Avgerinos, as asking some Macedonian peasants whether they were Greek or Bulgarian. The response was, "Well, we're Christians. What do you mean, Greek or Bulgarian?" Although the church service they attended was in Greek and they spoke a Slavic dialect, they were happy with the way things were. Christianity was important, not language differences. To Avgerinos, and other members of the intellectual elite who looked to the West for inspiration, their answers appeared naive, but they represented a worldview that had worked well for centuries.

Nationalism as we know it today originated in the French Revolution and found its way only slowly to the Balkans. The rebellions that marked the nineteenth century were grounded more on economics--Christian peasants against Muslim landlords--then on nationalist aspirations. It should be noted that modern Serbia began in the tiny Pashalik of Belgrade when the ruling Janissaries, who were corrupt and extortionate, murdered the sultan's representative and then began to kill his supporters among the Christian notables. The latter took up arms in the name of the sultan and in their own self-defense. Because the sultan was loath to arm Christians against Muslims, no matter who was loyal and who was rebellious, the Serbs were obliged to ask the Russians for help, thus turning the struggle into one of independence. Although the Russians refused to help (because of their own foreign relations problems) and the Serbs lost that particular fight, subsequent revolts brought autonomy and finally independence. Certainly there was a concurrent nationalist awakening, but the slow dissolution of the Ottoman Empire helped bring that about.

As Mazower reminds us, the Turks arrived in the Balkans not as conquistadors [End Page 152] seeking gold and the souls of the newly conquered but rather like their own brigand forefathers, concerned with loot and privilege. They were not eager to convert their new subjects, because under the laws the empire operated under it was the Christians who paid taxes. Muslims did not. Consequently, approximately 80 percent of the population remained Christian, as much the Muslims' choice as their own.

In its early years, the Ottoman Empire was a surprisingly efficient and active enterprise. Taxes were collected with only a moderate amount of skimming, and though they were heavy they were not impossibly so. The peasantry was content and agriculture flourished. The Porte, anxious to keep the cow it milked with such success healthy, welcomed talented émigrés from every direction. Sephardic Jews fleeing from the Inquisition found safe havens in the urban areas of the empire, particularly in Sarajevo and Thessaloniki. The latter actually earned the unique distinction of having a majority of its population Jewish. These two cities became vital entrepots, which facilitated trade throughout the Ottoman territory.

When the empire's expansion ended, as was inevitable, and military setbacks occurred, both taxes and corruption rose, with a resultant social disequilibrium. One of the peculiarities of the Ottoman tax system was that villages were assessed a particular amount based on historical precedence, regardless of the...


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