The Balkan States
A Long History of Intrigue and Slaughter

By J. W. McConaughy

[Munsey's Magazine, February 1916]

The Balkan problem, as it is reproachfully called by the great powers of the world who are chiefly responsible for it, is, in a sense, not a problem at all. In our present state of civilization, and under the immutable laws of physical geography, it is an entirely natural and logical situation.

For some centuries the Balkan peoples have been obstructing traffic. They occupy one of the narrow highways of the Old World, and one of the most important. Whenever any Asiatic race has felt the call to pass the blessings of its civilization on to the benighted lands of Europe, it has at the outset always been confronted with the bothersome problem of massacring a lot of Balkan peasants before it could reach the real goal. Inversely, when a great Christian power has been impelled to "protect its vital interests in the Near East," it has ever been its painful duty to step upon one or more of the Balkan states as a preliminary move.

Inexplicable as it may seem, the Balkan races have at times vigorously resisted when the process of clearing the road was under way. They have even gone so far as to fight when they heard the call, "One side—step lively!" For which reason it is proper that we should look upon them as a turbulent and untrustworthy lot, constantly making trouble for great and kindly nations who never did them any harm.

If you and your family were sitting quietly at breakfast, and a number of strangers armed with large clubs surged through the house, upset the table, chased the children up-stairs, and threw you down the cellar steps, explaining the while that they had found your house a convenient way to get at a gang in the street behind, it is quite possible that you would go in for some disorderly conduct on your own account—especially after the thing had happened about four or five times. You would probably be one of the most turbulent people of that neighborhood.

Then, if you had rows with your brothers or cousins as to why they had not helped, or had not tried to help, to keep the marauders out of your house, it would be quite logical for the said marauders to shake their heads and exclaim sadly.

"Dear, dear! Isn't it disgraceful, the way that family carries on? Eventually we shall have to settle down there and run that house ourselves, to keep the peace of the neighborhood."

It would also be quite logical—whatever the moral aspect of the proceedings—for each gang to try to bribe a member of your family to let his crowd through at any time and keep the house locked against all the others.

Well, in a broad sense that has been the complete history of the Near East. The Balkan peoples have reached the point where they cannot trust one another or any one else. They are the keepers of the great gateway between Europe and Asia. When any one has felt strong enough, he has tried to rush the gate. When it looked as if the gatekeepers would put up too much of a fight, he has intrigued and bribed to get them fighting among themselves. No wonder they are "warlike" and "unruly."

If you will take a look at an ordinary map of Europe you will notice that the Balkan peninsula is like a stubby hand of welcome stretched out toward Asia Minor. This invitation has been frequently accepted. It is like a huge landing stage for great expeditions to and from Asia. This illusion is carried out even to three long fingers of land thrust into the Ægean, like mighty docks for the landing of whole peoples. And at this point is the ancient Thessalonica, now Saloniki, where large fragments of whole peoples have landed in times past.

Saloniki is one of the three points that form the great strategic triangle of the Balkan peninsula. The other two are Constantinople and the Serbian plateau. This is a strategic triangle not only in the narrow meaning of military operations, but in the broader alignment of race and international politics.

Any one strong power holding those three points holds the very citadel of Asia Minor and continental Europe. It can stretch a sword over the head of Austria and threaten Germany. Eastward, it is master of the country to the Persian Gulf. The Black Sea becomes a landlocked lake, and the great mass of Slavs are cut off forever from their opening on warm water. It would take Egypt by the reaching out of its hand, and the Suez Canal could be operated only on its sufferance.

To understand the importance of this triangle, turn to a relief map of the Balkan country. You will see that in Rumania and Bulgaria the trend of the mountain ranges is almost due east and west. These great walls form an impenetrable barrier which forces the Danube, on leaving Hungary, to flow eastward, away from the Ægean, and at last even northward, to find an outlet in the Black Sea.

But in Serbia all this is different. From the Danube south there is a wide and gently rising valley, down which flows the Morava. This is a smooth and fertile highway to Nish. At Nish another river-valley opens out accommodatingly to the southeast, forming an easy gateway to the Maritza Valley, the plains of Thrace—and the Golden Horn. This is the route of the Orient Railway. Following the Morava southward from Nish, we presently cross over to the valley of the Vardar, down which run the roads to Saloniki. Then from Saloniki there is a roadway along the shores of the Ægean to the Dardanelles and the Bosporus.

It was this last highway that the ancient Persians followed in their disastrous invasions. In those days the two southern points of the triangle were most important, because the dark hinterland of Europe was unknown and undesired. The wealth and booty of the Western world was huddled around the shores of the Mediterranean. So it was that Darius and Xerxes seized first the narrow straits that divide Europe from Asia, and crossed there. Their vast hosts marched along the northern coast, through Thessalonica. In Xerxes's expedition, which was the better organized of the two, huge fleets of supply-ships met the armies at Saloniki.

From that time down to the present day Saloniki has been just that—a meeting-place, a gateway. It is probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. It belongs to all nations and no nation. It even has a language of its own—a tongue known as Vladino, a sort of Hispaniate argot that is spoken by a majority of the native population.

The simplest proof that Constantinople is the key to all things in that part of the world is that it has been besieged more than thirty times.

The importance of the Balkan triangle is best illustrated by the history of the great Mohammedan advance into eastern prepared advance of a highly organized Europe. In those days the movement of the Turkish armies was more like the immigration of a people than the carefully prepared advance of the highly organized military force. They lived on religious fanaticism and loot, and won battles by their fury and numbers. But, even without making allowance for these facts, it is interesting to see how their larger operations were affected by their control—or lack of control—of the three strategic points.

In the middle of the fourteenth century the hordes of the Prophet surged across the Dardanelles in irresistible masses. They spread out over the Thracian plains, and pushed up the natural highways to the Serbian plateau. They "masked" Saloniki, and laid siege to Constantinople, leaving both of these points uncaptured in their rear. But they had no field armies to fear from any direction excepting the front—in those broad uplands toward which they were advancing as naturally as water follows a valley.

The Serbians met them at Kossovo in 1389, and were crushed. Because of its position just west of the great highway I have described, Kossovo will ever be the Thermopylae of the Serbs. There they made their last heroic stand against the Turk, and as I write this there is beside me a morning newspaper with a headline announcing that the fighting remnant of that heroic people has gathered on that haunted plain to make a last stand against the Teuton. The only difference is that the Mohammedan was going west. The Christian is going east.

What was left of the Serbians took refuge in the mountains, and the tides of Islam flowed past. After Kossovo there was no need for hurry. The key to eastern and central Europe was in the hands of Islam, but the first fever of fanaticism had died away.

The next wave, more than a hundred years later, carried the Turks down the Morava valley to the gates of Belgrade, where John Hunyadi and the Hungarians faced them with magnificent courage. But Belgrade was taken in 1521, Constantinople and Saloniki had long since fallen, and the whole of the strategic triangle was now in the hands of the Sultan.

The sequel to the fall of Belgrade is significant. It explains to a great degree the uneasiness of the Hapsburgs about the Serbians with Russian influence dominant in Belgrade. For, less than eight years after the fall of the city on the Danube, the Turk was pounding at the gates of Vienna!

And for generations thereafter Vienna was never free of this menace. The threat of the Turk hung over its head until the Turk lost the impetus of conquest. The first siege was in 1529, and in 1683 the city was in greater peril than ever before. It was in that year, that John Sobieski, the hero king of Poland, led his splendid little army down through the Carpathian passes and hurled the Moslems back across the Danube when no other power could have saved the Austrian capital.

It is plain from this brief review of the Mohammedan invasion why none of the great powers of Europe has ever been willing to let any other power gain a predominant position in the Balkans. For defensive reasons, if for no other, Austria, remembering the Turk, has felt that she must control the Serbian plateau. Russia has for more than a hundred years aimed at Constantinople, because there is her natural gateway to warm water. England has been against both, because of the menace to Egypt and her route to India.

Two Russian armies have been at the gate of Stamboul, and twice the concert of Europe has forced them back. Austria wooed Serbia to her side and egged her on to attack Bulgaria in 1885—the idea being that with Serbia in control of the situation it would be easier to make a mouthful of the whole business. Russia immediately stiffened Bulgaria, and Serbia was defeated.

Austria did a right-about-face, and courted Bulgaria, with a German prince on the Bulgarian throne. Then she egged Bulgaria on to attack Serbia—and again she was backing the wrong horse. Finally, in June, 1914, the murder of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand gave her a pretext for taking over the job on her own account.

This more recent harvest of slaughter grew directly from a seed planted in the Balkans thirty-eight years ago by the Congress of Berlin. At the close of the war of 1877-1878, Russia had Constantinople in her grasp, and her armies dominated the peninsula. Turkey had signed the treaty of San Stefano, which sealed the doom of Turkish power in Europe. But the other powers instantly awoke, and by aiming the sea power of England and the military power of the rest of Europe at the head of the Czar, induced Russia to come into the Congress of Berlin. Here she was apologetically but firmly relieved of the onerous task of controlling Constantinople and the Balkans.

In vain she protested that she was willing to risk it. The powers forced her to recognize that it would be much better for all concerned if several little independent and semi-independent states were created. The independence of Rumania was recognized; Serbia and Montenegro were made independent countries; Bulgaria became an autonomous principality, with the Sultan as overlord. To Eastern Rumelia was given a lesser degree of independence, which later developed into full union with Bulgaria. Bosnia and Herzegovina passed under the administrative power of Austria, while the district of Novibazar remained Turkish, with the provision that Austria could build roads and maintain troops in it.

Almost every one in Europe was carefully consulted about these arrangements, with the unimportant exception of the Balkan peoples themselves. As "half-civilized" fighters they had some rating at that time, but no one saw them as distinct peoples, each with a language, a tradition, an ideal, and aspirations of its own. If they had been in a position to set forth these views, it would have been considered a startling exhibition of impertinence.

As to their status as fighters, half-civilized or otherwise, there has been very little question, particularly of recent years. There has been a wealth of expert testimony on the subject from commanding officers of armies who have met them in the field. The Austrian generals are practically of one voice in declaring that the Serbs in particular are beyond all doubt the greatest fighters in the world. One of them. General Borievic, is quoted as saying that the Russian will hang on as long as there is anything to hang on to, while the Serbian will hang on whether there is anything to hang on to or not.

In other directions the civilization of the Serbs may not measure up to Western standards. They know nothing of the blessings of child labor, and there is not a poorhouse or a community of paupers in the entire kingdom. Pauperism, as the western nations understand it, is unknown.

In this connection it must be remembered that Serbia has been out from under the Turkish yoke only a little more than a third of a century. Under Turkish rule it was not allowed to have schools or to build roads. Good roads would have offered the Serbs a certain facility of movement, which might have enabled them to get together and fight their oppressors. Education would have pointed out to them the need and the means for such a struggle.

Consequently, all that has been done in Serbia in the way of enlightenment has been done in a little more than one generation. Take it by and large, the record is not bad. The government of this small and landlocked state has so managed its affairs that it is practically impossible for a Serbian to become rich enough to oppress his fellow men, or poor enough to accept oppression.

The Serbs are naturally a race of small farmers, and their constitution was framed with the idea of preventing any one from making them a nation of farm-laborers or peons on the ground that once they owned in freehold. No matter how badly a Serbian manages his financial affairs, those with whom he deals understand that under no circumstances can they obtain a mortgage on his home, on his farming implements and beasts of burden, or on the land that can be plowed by a span of oxen in a long summer day.

Freedom of conscience and of the press, and the right of peaceable assemblage, are also guaranteed. They have a king, but no aristocracy, no nobles, no idle rich. One of their kings was a swineherd, and Serbia alone of the Balkan peoples has chosen her reigning house from families of her own blood. Every man who pays three dollars a year in taxes and is over twenty-one years of age is a voter, and helps to elect the members of the national assembly, which has the power to raise and appropriate funds, the king having a veto somewhat like that of an American President.

One king sought to override his limitations. He and his wife, and their principal friends and backers, were murdered with a calm and painstaking thoroughness which shocked the western world, but left Serbia unruffled by so much as a tremor of revolutionary spirit.

According to our standards, this sort of thing is, of course, indefensible. When an English or French king has been guilty of treason, it has usually been necessary to kill off a few hundred thousand entirely innocent people before he could be brought to justice. And at this writing Greece seems to be threatened with a similar experience because of a faithless ruler who is ignoring the constitution that he has sworn to uphold.

Serbia doubled her territory as a result of the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. This made her a little larger than the State of Maine. It also pretty nearly doubled her population, and there are now in the kingdom—or were a year ago—almost as many inhabitants as there are within twenty miles of the New York City Hall. There is little definite information about the annexed territory, which has so recently been redeemed from Turkish rule. In the older half of the kingdom there were more than four thousand miles of good roads and nearly two thousand schools when the great war broke out.

Among the farmers, the German system of cooperative credit has grown up. It is often necessary for the Serbian farmer, as for the American, to borrow money for legitimate farming purposes. It is evident from the inalienation law, that the borrowing capacity of the individual agriculturist must be extremely limited; therefore ten or so pool their interests. When one wants to borrow, he must obtain the consent and indorsement of the other nine. In this way there is no reckless borrowing, and no defaulting. There is a low interest rate on loans, and the terms of payment are reasonable.

The Serbs live almost entirely on the surface of the land. Back in their mountains are untouched treasures of coal and iron. This, again, to the apostles of modern progress, stamps them as a backward people, it being the accepted idea to rip the riches out of the earth and use them up as rapidly as possible, without a thought for future generations.

And there is another treasure there that has been but too little touched. Among the hills of the Morava and the Drina were born all the quaint folklore and song and the unsoiled poetry of an unspoiled breed.

The Serbians have taken care that their breed shall remain unspoiled. In the matter of consanguinity they have set up an astonishing standard. Not only are marriages of cousins or second cousins or third cousins or any manner of relatives frowned upon and forbidden, but generally a young man is required to seek a wife in a village at least a day's journey distant from his native hamlet.

The result is that they are a sturdy race physically, with an unusual mental sprightliness and a powerful and poetic imagination. The result of all which can be summed up in one simple statement. There are practically no Serbian emigrants.

It might be gathered from this that the Serbs are the lonely flowers of the Balkan wilderness. That is not the case. In many respects their Bulgarian neighbors are an even more remarkable people. The last of these small nations to escape Turkish degradation, they are the most energetic and pushing. They have a commendable lust of learning, and are filled with the spirit of western progressiveness. Unlike the Serbs, they are not pure Slav, nor yet are they as pronounced hybrids as the Rumanians. There is an admixture of Tatar blood which gives the typical Bulgarian countenance more of an Asiatic cast than is found elsewhere in the Balkans.

But Bulgar and Serb are one in their traditions of a past more glorious and inspiring than that claimed by any of the Slavic peoples, save only the Poles. Both challenged the might of the ancient Byzantine Empire, and out of this early rivalry grew a bitter race antagonism that is still one of the factors in Balkan diplomacy. In the fourteenth century the Serbian Empire of Stephen Dushan absorbed nearly all of the peninsula excepting Constantinople and the Peloponnesus. Twice the domains of the Bulgarian Czars were nearly as great. They touched the Black Sea, the Ægean, and the Adriatic, and challenged the Greek at the Golden Horn. Their heyday was in the tenth century.

At one time the Bulgars were under the temporal rule of the Turk and the spiritual rule of the Greek Church, and they complained that they did not know which was the more irksome and oppressive. They finally insisted, as did the Serbs, on an orthodox church of their own, and this ecclesiastical division has added to the bitterness of race antagonism. But from the fourteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth they lay quiescent under the foot of the Turk, and their development as a people waited and waited through generations.

A half-hearted uprising in 1876, and the attendant "Bulgarian atrocities," furnished Russia with the excuse for her second march to the gates of Constantinople. Bulgaria emerged from the Congress of Berlin with substantial independence and a German prince, Alexander of Battenberg. With the newly discovered taste of liberty on their lips, the Bulgars of Eastern Rumelia, a few years later, threw off the Turkish yoke and united themselves with the parent seed of a Bulgar nation.

Serbia, as a result of this operation, saw herself become numerically an inferior people, and, goaded on by Austria, attacked her neighbor to prevent the union. Serbia was badly beaten, but Bulgaria's troubles were just beginning. Russia had been opposed to the union of the two Bulgar provinces on the ground of Bulgaria's "ingratitude." This was another way of saying that as soon as they had a chance the Bulgars had set out to live a national life of their own.

The Czar began making trouble for Prince Alexander as the ruler of the country, and by conscienceless intrigue forced him to abdicate. A delegation of these simple peasants went about from court to court begging some prince to come and be their king. But the job was not inviting in the face of Russia's disapproval. Finally, Ferdinand of Coburg agreed to tackle it. He literally sneaked into the country to reach his throne, and was promptly greeted with Russia's refusal of recognition.

But Ferdinand had in him the making of a successful ruler. He clung on desperately with the help of Premier Stambuloff, one of the few outstanding figures in modern Balkan history. Most of the storm centered on the strong premier, and when he was finally forced to resign, and was assassinated—and still Ferdinand clung on—there grew up a better understanding. Ferdinand agreed to have his son baptized in the Greek faith, and Russia "forgave" him.

In these later years Bulgaria has made astonishing strides. Compared with most other peoples of the Near East, the Bulgarians are almost overeducated. When the country was first organized, and its external troubles were adjusted, it was as illiterate as Mexico. Considerably more than ninety per cent of the population could not read or write. To-day the percentage of illiterates is well under five.

In 1912 the Bulgarian government spent one dollar and twenty cents a head for the education of the people. Serbia's appropriation was a little more than half as much, and Greece spent only fifty cents per capita in the fields of learning. There are more than five thousand primary schools in the country, and the University of Sofia is slowly putting itself on the map as an enterprising institution working on western lines.

There is very little that is Oriental about the Bulgars. Their attitude toward their womenfolk is the test. The Bulgarian girl has every opportunity to get an education, broaden her view-point, and develop her powers. The result is that she puts up her braids, dons western clothes, and takes an active interest and part in the affairs of the community.

The Bulgarians have been known as the Peasant People. In so far as the clean simplicity and honest industry of their lives makes for a peasant people, this is a good description. If possible, they are even more democratic than the Serbs. The Serbs abolished their nobles. The Bulgars never had any. They are true children of the earth in which they delve, unswerving of purpose, obstinate as rock, sparing of speech and money, as practical as a plow, and as immovable as rent-day.

They have the instinct of solid organization, and when they take a slow and well-considered forward step, it is taken. There they stand, and that is all there is to it. It is a strange paradox that into this breed is woven a deep love of song. They have none of the Latin lightsomeness of the Rumanians or the warm glow of the Serb, but their songs are a very part of them. One of their greatest poets wrote of his peasant countryman and his songs:

These, in truth, are always with him through the changes of life, from the cradle to the grave. If he plows or if he sows, if he gathers in the harvest or garners his grain, there is no help-meet like a song; it is the royal comrade of his journey; when he lies on the bed of sickness it consoles him.

Usually the song lives in the voice of the singer. Of instruments it is the flute he loves the best, for it will sing to him more truly than all of them what melodies contain of softness and Oriental sorrow.

The Bulgarians are like the Serbs in that they have no idle rich class and no pauper class, and in that they are jealous of their natural treasures beneath the hills. They are also like the Serbs in that they are formidable fighting men. It was the Bulgarian army that accepted and held the post of honor when the Balkan League attacked Turkey in 1912.

The Rumanians have not had quite so bitter a time since they have become the Rumanians, but the travails of their land while the race was being hammered out of raw and rough materials were multitudinous and painful. This country north of the lower Danube was far enough south to be in the pathway of all the early and bloody immigrations of the savage peoples of central Asia as they poured into Europe in successive waves.

It was known as Dacia when the Emperor Trajan established a Roman colony there, to the great discomfort of "the Dacian brother" and his "young barbarians," as Byron remarked. But Byron evidently had his history twisted, for his verses fit a later period, when the Goths had overrun the land. The Goths were followed by Attila and the Huns. Then came the Tatars and then the Turks, and then some Slavs; and out of all this fusing and hammering was forged the present Rumanian race.

But it is a singular fact that the tongue of Trajan's colonists has survived under the crushing weight of barbaric hordes. The Rumanian language, corrupted and modified by injections of other speeches, is still Latin, and the people are proud to bear the glorious name of Rome.

Beyond these facts, the early history of Rumania is naturally somewhat vague. In the early part of the last century it was governed by hospodars, or viceroys, appointed by the Sultan of Turkey. The hospodar paid so much for the job, and was expected to reimburse himself, getting his profit out of the speculation by piling on taxes. Naturally, this did not make for a happy land.

When the Rumanians had made the country too warm for the hospodars, they had even a harder time than Bulgaria in landing a king that suited. Charles of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a prince of the non-regnant branch of the German imperial house, finally accepted. In 1866 he mounted the throne of a chaotic, roadless, lawless land; but in fifty years Rumania—now ruled by his nephew and successor, Ferdinand I—has come forth with proud attainments in government, education, commerce, and all that makes for progress in a modern state.

Rumania has not solved economic problems in the naive and direct fashion of her Balkan neighbors. The peasants of Rumania are farm-laborers. The land is owned by wealthy landlords, and these are seldom to be found at home; so not only is there the curse of closely held property in the hands of the few, but there is also the evil of what is known all over the world to-day as "absenteeism." This problem is giving Rumania grave concern—or, rather, was doing so until the great war flamed through Europe.

Rumania has her stake in this war, and at this writing the world is hourly expecting her to strike in for it. It is another of the endless complications resulting from the conflicting claims of Balkan earth-hunger. She holds a strip of land wrested from Bulgaria in the war of 1913, and the Bulgars want to take it back. From Austria Rumania wants Transylvania and the crownland of Bukowina, both chiefly Rumanian in population. From Russia, on the other side, she would like to receive a part of Bessarabia, which was hers from 1856 to 1878.

If Rumania could get all that she wants, she would become, at least in a military sense, the most important of the minor states of Europe, ranking next—with the possible exception of Spain, and excluding Turkey as no longer a European nation—after the six great powers in population and armed strength.

Besides the strip taken by Rumania three years ago, Bulgaria wants Thrace and Macedonia, contending that their inhabitants are chiefly Bulgarian. She wants Saloniki "because the people in a hinterland should not be deprived of a seaport," and she is not content with Dedeagatch. She also wants to get to the Adriatic, because she was there long ago.

Serbia claims Macedonia on practically the same grounds as Bulgaria—because it once was hers. She wants Saloniki for the same reason. She wants to get to the Adriatic because she "has a right to a seaport there"—especially if she cannot have Saloniki. She wants Bosnia, Herzegovina, and possibly Croatia from Austria, because most of their inhabitants are of her blood.

Greece, the present owner of Saloniki, wants all the coasts and islands of the Ægean, because they "always were Greek." She dreams of being the modern heir of the old Byzantine Empire.

It might be risky to undertake to define the precise purposes and desires of Russia, but there is no doubt that she wants Constantinople. I might as well state here that this goes for all concerned. Everybody wants Constantinople.

Austria wants to get through, by way of Serbia, to Saloniki and the Ægean. She also wants to keep Russia out of the Balkan peninsula.

Germany has to get through Serbia to establish herself in Asia Minor and secure the highway to the East of which she dreams—a highway from Berlin to Bagdad, and beyond.

Italy wants to keep everybody off the Adriatic, including Austria. She has not forgotten that the whole Mediterranean was once a Roman lake.

France, Britain, and Italy are all opposed to the idea of Teuton or Slav getting a strong hold anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean, where they could threaten the holdings of those powers in northern Africa. And so it goes—a constant criss-cross, check, and countercheck.

There is an ancient game called "tit-tat-toe" that is played two-handed with pencil and paper. You draw two parallel lines, bisected at right angles by two other parallel lines. One player uses a cross for his sign, the other a circle. The object is to establish a continuous row of three of your own signs in the angles of the figure, either in a straight line or on the diagonal. Of course, your opponent sticks in one of his signs as soon as you have two in a row, and seldom does either player complete the row of three.

That game illustrates Balkan history of modern times, only there are a half-dozen players; the signs are lies, intrigues, bribes, blood, and broken pledges, and the game is played for greed, ambition, and the "will to power."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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