Published Date

September 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 43: The Balkans—Many Peoples, Many Problems (1944)

Is Peace a Balkan Problem?

The making of real peace will not be an easy problem anywhere. But from the past record there is nothing to indicate that it will be more difficult in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe. It is true that the defeat of the Axis will settle only the immediate issues while disclosing that many unsolved prewar problems are still in existence, complicated by some new ones.

Romania and Bulgaria are Axis satellites; Greece and Yugoslavia are members of the United Nations; Albania is occupied territory; and Turkey has been a fairly consistent nonbelligerent. Bulgaria was happy with German permission to occupy Yugoslavian and Greek Macedonia and Thrace. Obedient to its master’s voice, Romania did not complain out loud when Hitler ordered the cession of northern Transylvania to Hungary in 1940. But Romania has not forgotten this enforced loss of territory, and underneath the surface of common membership in the Axis, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria are seething with territorial jealousies and ambitions. Greece and Yugoslavia are also insistent that their seized provinces shall be restored to them.

Such trouble spots as Transylvania, Thrace, Macedonia, Northern Epirus, Kossovo, and the Banat may be just words to other people. But to the people of the Balkans they have been fighting words. Much had been done before the war, however, to make boundary disputes less dangerous to peace. Only one of the six Balkan states, Bulgaria, was still unreconciled, and even Bulgaria had undertaken not to try to modify its frontiers by force of arms.

Added to these disputes between the nations are the internal divisions between various groups within (or exiled from) each country. That between the Chetniks and the Partisans is only the most spectacular and most publicized conflict. In Greece and Albania as well, struggles are in progress between the popular, forces of resistance and liberation on the one hand, and the elements of reaction and collaboration on the other, although the latter are almost negligible. The real fight is rather between bands with conflicting ideas of patriotism. Some people think there are pro-Allied movements in Bulgaria and Romania too, awaiting the opportunity to throw out pro-Axis governments. In all the Balkan countries, as in the rest of Europe, there are seeds of civil strife.

Nationalism Run Wild

In this pamphlet, much of the blame for past Balkan troubles has been freely placed on the great powers. But of course they are not solely responsible.

Uncritical nationalism is particularly strong in the Balkans. And it is just in the Balkans, a small area crowded with many different peoples, that unbridled nationalist rivalry is perhaps most dangerous. The great powers have been as much motivated by nationalism as the small ones—and perhaps will continue to be. But if it is questionable whether they can afford to prolong a system in which aggressive nationalism is curbed only by the force of opposing nationalism, it is certain that the Balkan countries cannot afford it.

To put it the other way around, if the great powers have had to “recognize the necessity of establishing … a general international organization … for the maintenance of … peace and security,” in the words of the Moscow Declaration, the Balkan nations are still more obliged to seek for peaceful ways of settling conflicts through cooperation or else destroy themselves.

In the settlements after World War I it was clearly not possible to draw national boundaries in the Balkans according to the wishes of all the people. Unavoidably a great many people in the mixed populations had to be left on the “wrong” side of the line wherever it was drawn. To resolve this difficulty, population exchanges were suggested and tried as the easiest and most durable solution.

In one instance—between Greece and Turkey after 1923—that method proved, in its outcome, highly successful. It removed the cause of incessant quarreling between Turkey and Greece who have since become good friends instead of bitter enemies. In a second instance—between Greece and Bulgaria—it was also beginning to show good results.

Population exchange might work as well in other instances and again in some it could not be applied. To uproot the half-million or so Albanians who live in the Kossovo region of Yugoslavia and dump them into an already poverty-stricken Albania would be no real solution. Yet the reverse of population exchange, territorial cession, would not work in this case either. To Yugoslavia it would be unthinkable to give up Kossovo, a sacred national shrine.

Enough has been said, perhaps, to indicate that the problems of peace in the Balkans are smaller and more intense counterparts of the problems of peace in Europe and peace in the world. As long as the armies of the great powers march and countermarch across the face of Europe they will use the Balkan bridge and they will bring trouble along with them to the Balkans. Unless and until the threat of general war in Europe can be checked it is futile—and more than a little naive and inconsistent—to hope for peace in the Balkans.

Can There Be a Balkan Federation?

Even in the uneasy atmosphere of Europe during the 1930’s, as we have seen, annual Balkan conferences were held to discuss mutual problems. Not all their achievement was beyond complaint, but they did some very good work—which could be used and may be used when peace comes again.

They had research committees which prepared memoranda on all sorts of political, legal, social, economic, and intellectual problems to be solved on the road to Balkan unity. Nonaggression pacts, tourist bureaus, agriculture, transport and communications, a postal union, the social position of women, steps toward uniform law codes, banks, chambers of commerce, customs unions, hospitals, research in Balkan historical problems, the movie and radio industries, press relations, shipping—these were only some of the many problems considered by the delegates and discussed in an atmosphere of friendly frankness.

The researches of these groups support the conclusion that a federation would offer great advantages for the Balkans in the social and economic fields. In many spheres they laid the groundwork for a genuine federation. Theoretically at least it would be possible for the Balkan states, once peace has been established, to resume such discussions looking toward a federation.

The Zone of Quarantine

One point should be noted, however. After the last war the Allies were frightened by the revolution in Russia and by the new system adopted there. They were anxious to keep Bolshevism out of Europe. Consequently they endeavored to construct of the states bordering on Russia a “zone of quarantine” against the Soviet Union (the French phrase cordon sanitaire is customarily used in this instance). Several utterances of the Soviet leaders in this war make it clear that Russia does not want this to happen again.

By reason of its achievements on the battlefields against Nazi Germany, its relative nearness to the Balkan Peninsula, and its traditional concern for the smaller Slavic nations, Russia will have something to say as to the future Balkan settlements. If Russia believes that a Balkan federation would be a new cordon sanitaire, she will doubtless oppose it and there will probably be none. But if Russia is convinced that such a federation would operate in her interest, as well as in that of the other United Nations, for the peace of Europe and the Balkans, then the federation may come into being. Again, the future of the Balkans seems to hinge on the desires of the great powers—and not least on the desires of one great power, Soviet Russia.

The People Will Choose

It seems reasonable to suppose that the Balkan peoples, given an opportunity now to choose freely their future governments, would pick the leaders of the anti-Axis resistance movements. It is probably safe to say that these men would be also acceptable to Moscow. Certainly the United States and Great Britain are committed by the Atlantic Charter to accept the form and personnel of government freely chosen by liberates peoples.

In this sketchy unity may perhaps be seen the glimmerings of hope that the Balkan peoples will be able at last to work out for themselves a peaceful destiny. They will need patience, wisdom, and restraint if they are to deal successfully with the complications this pamphlet reveals.

A major contribution that the rest of the world can make to a happier future in the Balkans will be noninterference in internal problems by the great powers. Any solution acceptable to the great masses of the Balkan peoples should be accepted by powers who for over a century have too often masked their own selfish interests behind conflicting factions and nations in this peninsula.

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