Published Date

September 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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


Tottering Turkey

So far we have been considering Turkish occupation of the Balkans from the Balkan point of view. But all the major European states were concerned with the situation.

Throughout the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, the great powers of Europe were faced with a complex series of problems presented by the breakup of the Turkish Empire—which at that time included Libya, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, as well as the Balkans. These problems of what to do with outlying Turkish possessions when Turkey could no longer control them were collectively known as “the Eastern Question.”

Turkey was called “the sick man of Europe” largely because of the corruption, inefficiency, and intrigue that characterized Turkish administration and politics. It was frequently pointed out that “the sick man” never died, although people kept predicting that he would. Every time that he seemed about to die, and every time it looked as if the Balkan peoples were about to gain their independence, something happened to give him a new lease on life.

The Turks for many centuries ruled almost the whole of the Balkan Peninsula, and a small part of it, at the extreme eastern corner, is still Turkish. Turkey-in-Europe is of crucial importance today because it includes the whole European side of the famous Straits—the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus—which connect the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Because the Turks have controlled them, because the Russians have traditionally wanted to control them, and because the British have opposed Russian ambitions, Constantinople and the Straits—the crossroads of two continents—have always been a focus of diplomatic and military activity.

Great Power Politics

From time to time the attitudes of the powers most concerned in Balkan affairs were revised somewhat, but their basic positions can be summed up in this way:

Imperial Austria, ruled by the Hapsburg family, was a Roman Catholic state dating back to the Middle Ages. Over the centuries the Hapsburgs had acquired through marriage and treaty many lands in central Europe. Vienna, one of the great capitals of Europe, was the center of a cosmopolitan empire which included Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, many Italians, many Poles, and some Romanians. In the Balkans the Hapsburgs ruled the Croats and Slovenes among the South Slavs.

Most of this sprawling assortment of peoples were never satisfied with Austrian rule. But only the Magyars, or Hungarians, were powerful and stubborn and numerous enough to gain any degree of autonomy. Hungary became a partner in the Austrian Empire and, as the junior half of Austria-Hungary, continued to rule tyrannically over the Croats.

Austro-Hungarian dominion over the Slovenes and Croats brought the Hapsburg Empire right up against the Turkish Empire in the Balkans. For centuries after the Balkans fell to Turkey, Austria stood off Turkish military expansion and always stopped it short of Vienna. Though Hapsburg emperors coveted the sultan’s Balkan lands, they were perhaps just as concerned lest his Slavic subjects, especially the Serbs, gain their independence. For if the Serbs should get freedom from the Turks, the Hapsburgs reasoned, the other Slavs within their own empire—Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks, Czechs, and Poles—might agitate for it too and the whole Hapsburg structure would fall apart.

Russia under the czars was an imperialist and expansionist state which desired to control its only outlet to the Mediterranean and wanted a chance to challenge British supremacy in India. The Straits were the key to the fulfillment of these wishes. And the independence of the Balkan peoples was the key to the Straits. Moreover, Russia as the foremost Slavic and Orthodox state had two excuses for intervention in the Balkans. Russia regarded itself both as the protector of the Balkan Orthodox Christians and as the elder brother or uncle of the Slavic Serbs, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians. Sometimes Russia openly advocated Pan-Slavism—the union of all the Slav peoples under Russian leadership.

Thus it was to Russia’s interest to free the Balkan Slavs. It was to Austria’s interest to keep them under the Turks or to annex them herself—but not to let them become free. This made the two countries suspicious of each other and they continually worked at cross purposes in the Balkans.

Great Britain, well into the 1900’s, was anxious to keep Russia out of the Mediterranean and to prevent the Russians from offering any serious threat to the Empire. This put Britain in the curious position of having to oppose the liberation of the Balkan peoples, because their independence was Russia’s means of getting into the Mediterranean. So Britain, over the protests of many liberal Englishmen, generally supported Turkey and tried to keep “the sick man” at least well enough to maintain his control over the Straits. It was principally Britain, sometimes with the help of France, who helped him to keep alive long after his time.

Italy too is closely linked to the Balkans. The merchant-warriors of Venice once possessed a whole series of trading posts and ports along the Balkan coasts. Fascist Italy, with its ambition to build again the ancient Roman Empire, has looked greedily across the Adriatic to the Balkans. Even before Mussolini, when the Allies in the first World War were anxious to get Italian help, they promised Italy territory on the Balkan side of the Adriatic—land then belonging to Austria-Hungary, but inhabited by Yugoslavs. The Allies did not keep their promises in full, but Italy was given a lot of Yugoslavs to rule. In this war she got even more, and kept them until Mussolini’s regime collapsed.

Germany has invaded the Balkans twice in a generation. A highly industrialized country. Germany has been in search of food surpluses, raw materials, and markets. A highly aggressive country, it has felt the urge to conquer and seek “laving space” in eastern Europe. In several of the Balkan countries there are German minorities, who, according to Hitler’s racial theories, belong to Germany.

When you consider that the wretchedly poor Balkan farmer, under Turkish oppression, was the pawn in an international game where the players were the heavily armed, rich, and independent powers of Europe, you will see the truth in the saying: If the Balkans are the powder keg of Europe, it is the great powers who supply the powder.

Two Wars in the Balkans

We have already seen that by the 1880’s the Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, and Bulgarians, but not the Albanians, had succeeded in varying degree in winning independence, Nationalist ideas had spread all over Europe after the French Revolution, and were nowhere more eagerly received than in the Balkans. When the Balkan peoples had won some of their territory for themselves, they naturally wanted to liberate the rest of their compatriots still under the yoke. But Turkey still held Albania, Macedonia—where Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgars lived—and Thrace (the northern shores of, the Aegean).

In 1912 Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece declared war on the Turks and drove them back to the Straits. Serbia and Bulgaria had agreed beforehand on the division of the territory to he conquered. Bulgaria was to get a large part of Macedonia, and Serbia was scheduled to get northern Albania and an outlet on the Adriatic.

Naturally the Austrians were alarmed at this projected expansion of Serbia, and so were the Italians, who wanted a chance to exploit Albania. So the great powers got together and in a typical refusal to let the Balkan peoples work out their own destiny, created an independent Albania. Thus deprived of most of her gains, Serbia then wanted to discuss with Bulgaria the possibility of readjusting the division of Macedonia. Much of this region had been captured and was still being held by the Serbian army.

The Bulgarians, however, attacked the Serbs and their Greek allies without warning in June 1913. Some people believe they had been urged on to do this by the Austrians. While the Serbs and Greeks were repelling the attack and driving the Bulgars back, the Romanians and even the Turks joined in the war against Bulgaria. Unequal to this coalition, Bulgaria was quickly beaten. Serbia and Greece divided most of the disputed area, and Romania and Turkey also acquired some territory from Bulgaria. Thus in 1913, after the two Balkan Wars, Serbia was powerful and confident, Bulgaria weak and embittered.

Sparking the First World Explosion

The very next year, World War I, which was to cost so many millions of lives and to drag in all the powerful nations of the world, started in the Balkans.

Once the Turks had been driven out, Serbia’s main enemy was Austria. Already ruler over the Slovenes and Croats, and. jealous of every Serb step toward power, the Austrians had in 1908 annexed from Turkey the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They were largely Serb in population and Serbia wanted them herself. On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, and his wife were shot and killed in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

The occasion of his visit, a review of Austrian troops, was timed to fall on the Serb national holiday. It seemed, at least to the Serbs, that he had gone out of his way to insult them. It seemed to the Austrians that the Serb government was to blame.

The assassin was a student who was connected with a Serb secret society. This group, whose head was also the chief of military intelligence in the Serb army, believed in political assassination as a means to gain its ends. It is now thought probable that the Serbian premier, Pashich, knew of the plot in advance, and some believe that although he sent a warning, he did not do all he might have done to stop it.

The Powder Catches

At any rate, Austria presented a harsh ultimatum. The Serbian government gave in to all but the most extreme demands. But Austria, determined to fight Serbia and punish her once and for all, declared war just the same. The Germans gave the Austrians full promise of help. The Russians had encouraged the Serbs to stand up to the Austrians. The Austrians thought the Russians would back down. The Russians mobilized. France backed Russia. Germany attacked France through Belgium. Britain, as the ally of France and Russia, came in against Germany and Austria.

For years the powers with their system of alliances, which divided Europe into two armed camps, had been getting ready for this war by engaging in armament and naval races against each other. They had poured the powder into the powder keg. And the assassination at Sarajevo was the spark that touched it off.

The Serbs fought bravely, but ultimately the country was occupied by Austro-German troops, and the army retreated in the dead of winter over the Albanian mountains to the Adriatic. It was re-formed in the Greek island of Corfu, and joined the Allies in their triumphal march up the Vardar Valley from Salonika in 1918.

In October 1915 Bulgaria joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria to get back the Macedonian territory retained by the Serbs in 1913. Greece, against the will of King Constantine, came in on the Allied side in 1917, as did Romania, the enemy of the Hungarians.

Aftermath of the War

For the Balkan countries the most important consequence of the first World War was the breakup of the Hapsburg Empire. Romania got great areas of former Hungary, and became the biggest state in southeastern Europe.

Even more significant, the Croats and Slovenes were freed. Sentiment was strong for joining the Serbs, and the Italians were eyeing the Dalmatian coast so eagerly that Croats and Slovenes rushed into union with Serbia and Montenegro.

Their new state was called at first “Kingdom of the Serbs, the Croats, and the Slovenes.” Later its name was changed to “Yugoslavia.” The Serb Karageorgeviches became its royal family. Its capital was the Serb capital, Belgrade. The majority of its people were Serbs (about 8,000,000 Serbs to 5,000,000 Croats to 1,500,000 Slovenes in 1941). Its ruling group was largely composed of nationalist Serb politicians, who looked down on the Croats and Slovenes. Here were the seeds of trouble.

Although the Croats hated Austria, they had been accustomed to think of themselves as western European people. They looked to Vienna and Budapest as their cultural capitals. Their own capital, Zagreb, was always a center of intellectual life. They tended to think of the Serbs, who had spent so many years under the Turks, as Oriental and as nothing but warriors. The Serbs, on the other hand, were proud of their tradition of rebellion against the Turks and were apt to look upon the Croats as perhaps a bit too polished. The overwhelming majority of both peoples were and are poor peasants of the same race who speak the same language. The differences in alphabet and religion were nevertheless allowed to emphasize the difference in cultural outlook.

The real trouble was that no constitutional understanding had been reached in advance as to what kind of state Yugoslavia would he. The Serbs, being more numerous, tended to dominate the country. They used taxes paid by the Croats to improve backward Serb areas and the Croats resented it. Our federal government uses taxes paid in one state to build a dam in another and nobody thinks anything about it. That is because the people of the forty-eight states are all conscious of being Americans and have felt that way for a long time. Many Croats and Serbs had not yet learned to think of themselves as Yugoslavs at all.

Moreover, Italy, which always had wanted Yugoslav territory, came under the rule of Mussolini in 1922. He did everything he could to make Serb-Croat trouble worse. Hungary, which had lost land to the Yugoslavs, did the same. And for many years Bulgaria did nothing to call off terrorists in the Yugoslav part of Macedonia who were agitating for a cession of that region to Bulgaria.

Democracy under Difficulties

All this led to the establishment in 1929 of a dictatorship under King Alexander, with all the trimmings of police terror. Most thoughtful Serbs, as well as Croats and Slovenes, opposed it, but their opposition had to remain underground. In 1934 a Macedonian terrorist, believed by some to have been coached by a violent Croat nationalist, Pavelich, and to have been hired by agents of Mussolini, assassinated King Alexander at Marseilles in France. Alexander’s cousin, Prince Paul, was made regent and the dictatorship continued for his son, Prince Peter.

The world-wide depression, the rise of Hitler, and the apparent inability of the League of Nations to act effectively, as well as the economic advantages Germany seemed to offer, helped to draw this Yugoslav dictatorship closer to Berlin. Its peasant-farmer people dissented.

As in Yugoslavia so in the neighboring countries democracy had a rapid upsurge at the end of World War I and then suffered a relapse. Under the influence of Wilsonian idealism all the Balkan states were enthusiastically committed to democratic institutions with unrestricted political parties and free elections. But difficulties arising out of the postwar settlements and bitter feuds rooted in wartime disagreements contributed to split up the parties into factions and groups.

Parties and Personalities

In a two-party system like our own, one party or the other is almost sure to have a clear majority. But each of the Balkan countries had many parties, sometimes even ten or twenty. Often they rallied around particular personalities or leaders rather than principles or platforms. So elections frequently resulted in stalemates when no party got a working majority and it was only possible to form a government by making a coalition of several groups—usually short-lived and unsatisfactory.

This resulted in a succession of weak governments unable to take positive action and settle urgent problems of the day. Sometimes a faction temporarily in power was tempted to rig an election or tamper with it in an effort to show a majority.

Balkan democracy also had to contend with such examples of strong, one-man governments as those created by Kamal Ataturk in Turkey, by Mussolini in Italy, and later by Hitler and Franco. Sometimes politicians, but more often dissatisfied army officers, were led to attempt to overthrow a government and establish a dictatorship. Democratic processes were subjected more and more to attack and disrespect as being feeble and inefficient.

In the meantime, also, acute economic ills, local as well as world-wide, added their disturbing complications to the general political disease. The unfortunate Balkan countries, whose peoples longed only for a chance to live and work in peace and safety, were forced to meet one crisis after another.

Down the Road to Dictatorship

What happened in Yugoslavia has already been told.

In Romania, first King Carol became the dictator with German support, and then General Antonescu. The Iron Guard, a fascist group helped by Hitler, aping the extreme Nazis in their racial and nationalist theories, exercised a powerful influence in the state. In Greece the monarchy was replaced in 1924 by a republic. It had an unstable career until 1935 when the king was recalled and the monarchy restored. Within a year the prime minister, General John Metaxas, established a military dictatorship that lasted until the German invasion in 1941.

In Bulgaria violence and bloodshed characterized the various regimes. King Boris skillfully balanced the army, the farmers, the urban classes, and the Macedonian forces, and became dictator himself. All political parties were abolished in 1934.

In Albania an energetic tribal chief named Zog became president in 1925, and made himself king in 1928. As king, he too exercised dictatorial powers until the Italians conquered his country in 1939.

In Turkey the sultans were thrown out. All non-Turkish territory was lost. A vigorous reformer, Kamal Ataturk, built a new nation, stripped of its traditionally corrupt character. But he too did it with a certain amount of ruthlessness and violence. He built a modern Turkey, which has tried, on the whole successfully, to overcome the ancient hatred of her Balkan neighbors, and has renounced all claims and desires to reconquer them.

Ferment on the Farms

In the troubled period between the wars, there were at least two developments in the Balkan countries that seemed to offer hope for the future.

The first was the rise of agrarian parties and a cooperative movement. In Bulgaria it was led by Stambuliski, in Yugoslavia by a Croat, Radich. Though both these men met violent deaths, the work they had started was not seriously interrupted. In Romania a similar party arose under Julius Maniu, who is still alive. Serb and Greek peasant or “agrarian” parties developed also.

None of their leaders was ideal by pure democratic standards. Some of them used the methods of terror; some were unreliable and even unbalanced. Still, the mere fact that these men existed and had popular support might in time have meant the substantial strengthening of democracy, for they aimed at social as well as political democracy. Improvement of conditions for the small farmer, increase of education, establishment of cooperatives—all were supported by these men.

They generally favored abolition of tariffs between their countries, and growing international understanding with each other. But none of them had power long.

Talking over Troubles

The second and most hopeful development was the founding and holding of a series of annual Balkan conferences. The first meeting in Athens in October 1930 was attended by unofficial representatives of Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. The delegates met in a friendly atmosphere for a frank and open exchange of views on many common problems. Committees were appointed to deal with a great variety of subjects, political, social, economic, as well as with communications and intellectual cooperation.

A second meeting was held in Istanbul in October 1931. Two hundred delegates from the six states were present and the discussions were again carried out in a spirit of reconciliation. In the following years a third meeting took place in Bucharest (1932) and a fourth in Salonika (1933).

Since these conferences were entirely unofficial and private in character they had no authority to make treaties and agreements binding on the six countries. But they brought together many of the leading men of the Balkan states representing all principal fields of activity, who were able to talk together in a quiet and friendly way. By beginning with the easier and less controversial questions and proceeding to the more difficult, they made substantial progress toward mutual understanding. These conferences established a tradition of Balkan cooperation that held out much promise for the future.

International developments in the 1930’s, such as the rise of strong dictatorships, the loss of authority and prestige by the League of Nations, and the spread of ruthless aggression, had alarmed the small countries of Europe (as well as large states) for their own security.

The Balkan Entente

This fear was felt particularly in the Balkans, and in 1934 an official Balkan pact was signed by Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, and Turkey. It was in part the fruit of the Balkan conferences and in part the outcome of official diplomacy. In brief it guaranteed the existing Balkan boundaries and obligated the four states to agree on action in case of war.

Bulgaria thought it was not possible for her to sign and thereby forever abandon the hope of bettering her frontiers; Albania was not asked.

Every effort was made to persuade Bulgaria to join the pact. Finally in 1938 she signed a treaty of friendship and nonaggression with the four states of the Balkan entente. It recognized Bulgarian right to rearm and freed her from the limitation of armaments imposed nearly twenty years earlier after World War I: In return Bulgaria agreed to submit any disputes with her neighbors to arbitration and not to try to modify her frontiers by force of arms.

This treaty seemed to mark a great step forward toward unity in the Balkans and led to the hope that other outstanding problems could be solved in a friendly way. Unfortunately World War II came along the next year to blight the flower in the bud.

Of course, conditions in the world outside have also helped to check the progress of democracy in the Balkans. The Balkan countries, not too sure-footed themselves in democratic practices on a national scale, fell victims to neighboring dictatorships which flouted democracy and proclaimed its inefficiency. It is hard to say how much the shadow of Mussolini and then of Hitler over the Balkans forced abandonment of the democratic practices still followed in faraway France, Britain, and the United States. Certainly the former Allies of the first World War were not blameless—in quest of their own security they left the Balkans largely to the mercy of the Axis.

But security, many think, is indivisible. Because the world failed to learn that lesson thoroughly, they say, it is now fighting another war against aggressors whom it permitted for nearly ten years to ignore the rule of law. Into that war the Balkan countries have been drawn, though they did not want it or have any part in starting it.

Next section: Maps of the Balkans