A Sense of History
The long and bloody history of the Balkans is like any other hotly-contested region of the world, where various groups or states have ‘interests’ which unfortunately (for the general population) overlap… The original hotchpotch of petty feudal states evolved after the fragmentation of the old Roman Empire, and continued a precarious existence on the edge of Europe’s two enormous medieval power-blocks, namely the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires. Up until the mid-15th century all the states were ‘clients’ of one or the other to some extent, even if their levels of national pride and independence would have been more suited to a Chinese Emperor! Much of this continued independence owed less to their fighting ability than the ‘cost benefit’ to the other powers to take them out. All this changed quite rapidly with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks…
Following rapidly in the political shockwave of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a relatively young and vigorous Ottoman Empire conducted several campaigns which at times threatened the borders of central Europe itself. In the process, of course, the Balkan states were wiped from the political map – often faster than necessary, given their propensity to ‘back the wrong horses’! The romantic, often fanatically Christian Victorians would have us believe that virtually all progress now stopped for the next 400-odd years under the ‘dead hand of the [Muslim] Turk’. However, whilst it is true that there were occasional rebellions (bloodily crushed, when the Turks could get around to it), at least the Ottomans stopped the interminable ‘border wars’ in these rich provinces, and many Balkan subjects could and did achieve training, fame and fortune serving the Sultan. But by the early 19th century a new political force, ‘nationalism’, was on the rise among small (and not-so-small) states everywhere – and it coincided with the decline of the very Ottoman power which held the precarious balance of peace/terror throughout the eastern Mediterranean…
Beginning with Greece in the 1820’s, throughout the next 90yrs gradually a combination of Turkish political, economic and military exhaustion, combined with local national fanaticism (not to say bloody-mindedness) to wrest chunks of territory from the Ottoman Empire. But none of this would have happened, however, without the various ‘Great Powers’ in the wings, either bullying, cajoling or encouraging the different parties for their own ends. The only problem was, no-one noticed that their newly-independent ‘clients’ were becoming difficult to control until the ‘July Crisis’ of 1914, when it was too late…
The wars began in 1912 with a secretly-formed ‘Holy League’ (known only to Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia – oh, and The Times, plus every government west of the Alps). Their objective was to grab some more slices of real estate from around the edges of the remaining Turkish provinces while the latter were still reeling from being kicked-out of Libya by Italy (using, among other things, the first use of aerial recce and bombing). They were each told, by their respective ‘backers’ to hold off, but decided to go ahead anyway. Well there then followed a series of stop-go actions which unexpectedly rolled over the entire peninsula with even Montenegro jumping in on the bandwagon! Action was eventually halted more by dire winter conditions and no logistical facilities than decisive results in the field, rather than obeying the orders of the Great Powers. However, even though they had all done spectacularly well by their original plans, none of the combatants other than Bulgaria had achieved what they perceived as a ‘fair’ distribution – plus of course Turkey was used to playing ‘The Great Game’ many times before, and they knew that real success was decided around the peace conference tables….
This lack of control (from outside or within), competing historical and national demands led to the two-and-a-half Balkan Wars – yes, that’s right, 2.5 wars?! The half-war is the ‘middle one’, (re)started by a new revolutionary Turkish govt while the others were still arguing about the peace conditions of the first war! Unfortunately, the Turks had not quite replaced the means to actually prosecute the war (men, supplies etc), and thus simply gave their squabbling neighbours a common enemy one last time?! The third war saw everyone (plus Romania) gang-up on Bulgaria whose appeal to ‘friend’ Russia was rejected, increasing their turn to the Kaiser’s Germany and completing the line-up for 1914…
Why refer to all this now? Surely, like WW1 this was all a long time ago? Well, the competing interests, fuelled by extreme nationalists exploded once again in the mid-1990s when Yugoslavia broke-up. And even though some of the younger generations have a more ‘European’ view, only last month more than one Balkan government announced that they would veto the EU application of Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYRM), as ‘Macedonia’ is claimed as the fabled ancestral home by several countries...
Peter is one of our senior consultants and has many years of programming and software consultancy to call upon, having ‘seen the light’ and changed careers from the Public Sector back in the early 1980s when computers less powerful than your watch filled a room! More about Peter.
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