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Military Operations Macedonia: The Official British History


Military Operations Macedonia (Part 2), From the Spring of 1917 to the End of the War

The Imperial War Museum and The Battery Press (1935, reprinted 1997), 365 pp. 21 appendices, 10 sketches and maps (including 1 fold-out) and 6 pictures

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Rescuing long-forgotten details of the First World War in the Balkans, this official monograph of the British government (one part of an extensive series commissioned to document each theater of operations) is indispensable for historians, and indeed is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the Balkans during the Great War.

Drawing on an impressive range of primary sources, Military Operations Macedonia is a very able synthesis (if one affected by the Modernist sentiments of its day) of the political, logistic and strategic decisions that influenced the course of the campaign in the Balkans, and specifically in Aegean Macedonia, a triangular theater between Bitola and Dojran with its axis in Thessaloniki.

Although obviously reflecting the British point of view and largely devoted to the British contributions to the war, Military Operations Macedonia analyzes throughout the moves and counter-moves of all the other players in the field, including the French, Italians, Greeks, Germans and Bulgarians.

Although we tend to recommend most books that are reviewed, there is not enough that can be said about the present work. We give it a wholehearted two thumbs up and recommend it to any and all having an interest in the period.

An Impressive Range of Sources

With that classical erudition and precision that have always marked British scholarly ventures, the compiler of Military Operations Macedonia (the late Captain Cyril Falls) sets about his task by consulting British records and those of other combatant countries. These include official military histories of France, Germany and Austria, as well as other memoirs of active military men who took part in the operations. In addition to the 20 printed sources consulted, Falls also circulated drafts of the text among some 200 British officers who had taken part in the Macedonian campaign.

This painstaking attention to detail paid dividends, as it allowed the author to provide a blow-by-blow account of the war from multiple perspectives, set firmly within the greater context of far-ranging events taking place simultaneously in other theaters.

Style and Synthesis

Indeed, despite the sheer mass of information considered, the narrative of Military Operations Macedonia is presented in a lucid, straightforward manner that succeeds in presenting and analyzing the decisions made by British combatants in the context of larger events, including the political and other constraints under which they labored. Thus to some extent the book is also interesting as a study of strategy and tactics. We should also remember that one of the reasons why the narrative is “light” in a certain sense is of course because for contemporary readers (that is, of 1933) the events of the “Great War” were only too recent and thus widely remembered.

Thus a lot of events that are now forgotten or obscure are passed over in silence, but this should not prove a real hindrance to the attentive reader willing to do a little side research on peripheral events mentioned.

Obviously, this 72 year-old work is a tad dated, but in some of its presumptions this can seem amusing or even charming, depending on the reader’s point of view. The revealing opening description of the topography and place-names of northern Greece, highly reflective of the romantic Modernist view and almost aspiring to the poetic, has a lot to say about both the British mindset and the Macedonia that was then:

“…journeying by rail northward from Athens, the traveller is borne by Helicon, by Parnassos, through the vale of Tempe below the peak of Ossa, and along the shoreward flank of Olympos. He passes through the birthplace of the fairest and most splendid mythology ever conceived, the finest source of inspiration to the poetry of all ages. As he continues on his way, Olympos behind him, Greek names, lovely as music, still accompany him, and still lofty peaks and bold ridges, with pine-woods and flowering shrubs on their flanks and green valleys between, look down upon the bright waters of the Aegean. Names and scenery alike still seem to belong to Hellas and to accord with its legacy of history and myth.

Yet thenceforward even upon the shore west of the isle of Thasos, names like Olympos, Aponomi, Kassandra and Athos are mingled with those of the harsher Turkish tongue; east of Thasos the names are all Turkish. If he goes north from Salonika Slav names appear, holding divided sway with the Turkish, having driven out the Greek. He is reminded that Macedonia, not Greek in origin, has been mainly Slav under Turkish rule for hundreds of years” (p 1).

The Beginning of the Great War: Serbia

The book continues after its flowery introduction to consider briefly the events leading up to the allied occupation of Thessaloniki. Chief among these are the two Serbian-Austrian campaigns, the first of which saw Serbia humiliate and push back the Austrians with their characteristic Inat, the second of which saw bloody revenge that drove the Serbs to flee to the Adriatic and thence to Corfu where they regrouped before being sent to Thessaloniki the following spring.

The author marvels at the first stage of the war, which pitted the two armies against one another on the Drina in September 1914. In the course of 16 days, the Austrians suffered 30,000 casualties; “…there can have been few bloodier battles in the course of the war,” he concludes (p. 13).

Indeed, today’s readers, sensitive to the sheer folly and waste of war, must be struck by the colossal casualties of the Great War – and at how this was a relative non-issue then. Now, in just over two years of fighting in Iraq, huge outcry has been generated by American losses of approximately 1,500 soldiers. Falls describes several battles in the Macedonian theater in which the same number of casualties occurred in only a day.

In his narrative, the author does do a considerable service in providing graphic reminders of the miseries of war and life in camp. We hear of everything from the usual bayonetings to gas attacks and malaria. Austrian soldiers in Serbia are described as being “bootless and in rags” (p. 16).

British soldiers in the Strumica area, devastated by the cold, are outfitted in uniforms that are so frozen they “split like boards,” and have to stay walking all night just to stay alive (p. 64). Throughout, the sheer pointless of war is reiterated through detailed descriptions of battles in which a few feet of ground might be lost, retaken and lost again, all at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of casualties. The spectre of trench warfare is time and again blamed for the high casualty rates.

The second chapter, entitled “The Crushing of Serbia,” describes the successful Austrian-Bulgarian campaign that drove the Serbian Army to the Adriatic in November 1915. The protecting ranks were forced to leave behind “…the thousands of women and children who had accompanied them hitherto, but who were now dying in great numbers and could go no further” (p. 34).

The remainder of the chapter considers how the concomitant Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia swung British foreign policy, then concerned with Gallipoli and other frontiers, to send troops to Thessaloniki and nurse the Serbians back to health. And this discussion leads to the beginning of one of the books most vexing enduring themes – the relations of the Allied powers with Greece, then split between the Royalist factions answering to King Constantine and the liberals under the larger-than-life, Cretan-born Eletfherios Venezelos. This civil strife and resulting balancing act would prove one of the key influencing factors on the Allied campaign in Macedonia.

The Morass of Interventionism

Modern-day Western critics of Balkan designs on neighboring territories and intractable, age-old disputes would do well to consider their own legacy of feeding such discontent. An example is the brief account provided (on pp.24-26) of the overtures made to Bulgaria in 1914 to win its support for the Allies through vague future promises of mostly Macedonian territories that would, according to the plan, be extracted amicably from neighboring Greece, Serbia and Turkey after the dust had settled and the war been won.

Having grown mistrustful of such empty promises from allies in the past, Bulgaria naturally enough chose to fatefully throw in its lot with the Central Powers. But the brazenness and desperation of the Allied overtures really come through, and serve as yet another proof of the long legacy of meddling that has characterized the sanctimonious Western powers in the Balkans.

The book mentions several such examples throughout, closing on the most extreme of all, the forced abdication of the Greek King Constantine by the Allied powers in June 1917.

Today’s reader may also marvel at the perceived vitality of archaic events in supporting the Allied case for meddling in Greek affairs. Their case centered on the treaties of 1832 and 1863 that had established Britain, France and Russia as “Protecting Powers,” sworn to protect the nascent kingdom from any tyrannical tendencies of its monarch (pp. 219-22 and elsewhere). That such outdated agreements still held sway in 1915 – 83 years on – exemplifies once again the colonial presumptions underlying the First World War.

The Unpopularity of the Macedonian Front in Britain

Contemporary unease with interventionism in the Macedonian theater at the highest ranks of the British government is recounted throughout. By stating the other demands present on the British forces in December 1915, when the Gallipoli campaign had reached its nadir, when Sinai and Kut were under pressure, not to mention the whole escalating war in Western Europe, we understand why the prospect of getting bogged down on a Balkan front unlikely to lead a favorable result was so unappealing to the British.

Indeed, from the moment when they agreed to the French plan for the defense of Thessaloniki, it became clear that Britain sought to maintain nothing more than a defensive posture, to avoid grand offensives far into Macedonia, and to get out as quickly as possible.

This attitude contrasted with the flamboyant spirit of the French, and especially their vivacious General Sarrail, who was in command of the general Allied forces in Macedonia and who would lobby for more vigorous actions.

These diametrically opposed viewpoints would become a source of tension and confusion, as the book reveals, but never pushed relations to breaking point. The author argues at different points the relative merits and drawbacks both approaches had at different times, but in the end comes down in favor of British caution, which allowed the Allies to succeed in their main objective of holding the Bulgarian forces tight to their southern front while guaranteeing the safety of the crucial seaport of Thessaloniki, and with it the fledgling Venizelos government.

In essence, Falls’ argument is that the largely defensive operations of the Allies in Macedonia helped buy time and drain enemy resources, until such a time when external events such as the entry of Romania and, more importantly, the USA, into the war could make the abdication of King Constantine possible without a civil war. Thus the Greeks, whose Royalist supporters had strong Germanic sympathies, were finally officially brought on board in a peaceful manner and a real disaster averted for the Allies:

“…British hesitations were therefore in some sort justified, because they had delayed action until the best moment for action was come. That the British government had not followed this line of reasoning is true; nevertheless their scruples had had the same effect. Instinct, we say, luck, say our critics, has often served this country well in like cases” (p. 361).

Military and Logistical Detail

Despite being unpopular to the British, they had accepted the responsibility of supporting the French in Macedonia and doggedly stood by their duties. In Military Operations Macedonia, the reader gets extraordinarily detailed descriptions of every skirmish and battle that took place in this theater through June of 1917. The book excels in blow-by-blow descriptions that explain the exact munitions used, commanders, contingents and battalions involved, as well as precise casualty counts, and also provides operational timetables, often right down to the minute.

Such detailed descriptions allow the author to indulge in a fair amount of tactical analysis that explains why successes and failures alike occurred and how situations could have turned out differently than they did.

A key influencing factor in this regard turns out to be logistical issues. Falls does an admirable job of describing how transportation and military outfitting were affected by shipping problems (for example, the high success rate of German submarines in the Aegean), the relative availability of mules, horses, train cars, etc., and the state of roads, wells and victuals relative to weather conditions. These limiting factors are described on almost every page that deals with military engagements, as well as in the detailed Chapter 12 (“The Working of the Machine).”

Availability of food also turns out to have been a highly strategic factor, as in the case of the decision to requisition the Thessaly grain harvest of 1917, key to the fortunes of both the Royalist and Venizelist Greek factions, and therefore to the Allied powers themselves (p. 349).

Life in Macedonia: Diseases, Spies, Creature Comforts

The same chapter discusses a subject that recurs repeatedly and had a huge impact on the whole campaign: disease. Everything is mentioned, from sunstroke to venereal disease to the preponderance of mosquito-borne malaria that decimated the ranks on both sides. Malaria in fact became almost another enemy position that affected strategy, for example in May 1917, when British General Milne ordered his troops to fall back to a “summer line” away from the fetid River Struma, thereby giving up territory but also saving thousands of lives (p. 338).

The previous summer had seen hospitalization rates of over 100 men per day – and this from a single battalion. On average, 1 percent of those infected would die that summer (though this rate was subsequently lowered in 1917 and 1918 to 0.3 percent through preventative tactics). Nevertheless, says the author, despite “…every known method of combating the breeding of mosquitoes being adopted,” still “…the work was in great part wasted” (p. 145):

“…Southern Macedonia is probably the most malarial country in Europe, and it is one in which, owing to the vast area of marsh and lake and the countless streams feeding the great rivers, such as the Vardar and Struma, a campaign against the mosquito is almost fruitless.”

Weather also forced illness and postponements, such as in Spring 1917 when the French campaign was slowed by snow (p. 340).

Yet it wasn’t all bad for the troops who were in the field and, in some cases, the towns. Thessaloniki is described as being a bustling and “tawdry” city (p. 105), Europe’s most overcrowded, “swarming with spies” (p. 99) and outfitted with two breweries for the provision of beer for the Allied forces. And then there were the city’s public houses, of which the author is rather dismissive:

“…there were several indifferent but lively music-halls, filled each night with an audience that kept up such a din as to make its title a mockery; and, for the officers especially, cafés and restaurants, though the prices were exorbitant.

…In its tawdry fashion Salonika undoubtedly was gay, but the tawdriness was more notable than the gaiety; the very women of pleasure were the last reserves of the Army of Aphrodite” (p. 105).

Maybe he just didn’t know where to look. In any case, despite the later mention of venereal disease (though, humorously, not seen on the scale of for example the French theater), the author is quick here to add that “…the legend of the Salonika Army as an army sitting in cafés is, however, ludicrously false… hard work and exposure to heat, dust, mosquitoes and flies, or to bitter cold and searching winds, according to the season; a sick-rate higher than in any other major theatre of the war; very little leave home; very poor prospects until the end of three long years of a decisive victory-these were the conditions of the Macedonian campaign, for which the attractions of an occasional visit to Salonika were no great recompense” (p. 105).

However, even despite these hardships, life in the field could be enjoyable. The author describes how British and French troops guarding Thessaly from a feared Royalist incursion “…procured sporting guns and enjoyed woodcock shooting such as Ireland at its best cannot match” (p. 229). How sporting!

Limitations: Maps and Names

All in all, there is very little criticism to be made of Military Operations Macedonia. The only problems that arise with following the well-documented action described have largely to do with the place-names employed and maps available. There is a great deal of confusion here because the maps in the book use a smattering of Turkish, Greek and Slavic toponyms, and most military strategic points are riotously described in French or English (“Grande Couronne,” “Kidney Hill,” etc.), or simply as coordinates (P1, P2, etc).

This bewildering heterogeneity of nomenclature makes it very difficult to compare precisely, should one decide to do so,where events took place. Since many of the place-names have changed since the population exchanges of 1922, and the English and French ones were of course never recognized by anyone except the soldiers temporarily stationed there, it is necessary to laboriously compare to modern maps, which can be hard to find in the detail required.

When it was initially published, Military Operations Macedonia included an extra volume of full-color maps. Cost considerations led to these not being included in the 1997 reprinting (though apparently they are still available on demand to anyone who writes the Imperial War Museum). The one fold-out map included is in black-and-white and in any case makes for very laborious examination: the letters are so small that it can’t be read without a magnifying glass, and in any case the blurring of thick black lines indicating mountains and prevalence of long-extinct Turkish place-names makes this map of very limited immediate value to the reader.

Fascinating Tidbits

Aside from its main strong points, Military Operations Macedonia also includes the inevitable unusual side details that pop up now and again and which pique the reader’s curiosity. Thus we hear of mules being imported from South America, of Senegalese and Indians conscripted into the imperial armies, and of the United States donating train cars to the beleaguered Serbs. We imagine the sight of Scottish bagpipers leading the charge in Macedonia, of French troops commandeering the Acropolis, of the deployment of soldiers on horseback simultaneously with the primitive aerial bombardments from “machines,” as the author calls airplanes.

Political changes also play a part. We learn of the “disintegrating and contagious influence of Bolshevism” in the Russian contingent under French command in May 1917, even as their home country was being swept by revolution, as well as the secret workings of the Black Hand in the Serbian ranks (p. 343), and come across what is said to be the first mention of Yugoslavia in military annals (p. 121).

All in all, the words and deeds described in the narrative largely bolster the existing stereotypes of European nations: we are given an impression of the grandiose French, with sweeping visions of conquest; the cynical, cautious Brits; the untrustworthy Italians, brave Bulgarians, efficient Germans and fractious Greeks. In exaggerated form, this gives some opportunity for comedy but also points to real differences that affected relations in complex ways.


Military Operations Macedonia was written as the first part of a two-volume series that describes the full British campaign in that theater during World War I. It leaves off with the abdication of Greek King Constantine in June 1917, in the process doing an admirable job of synthesizing, with much detail and analysis, the engagements and political machinations on the Macedonian front, within the larger context of the war.

Written in 1932 from original sources and interviews, the work both benefits from hindsight while also taking its testimony directly from those involved in the fighting. As such, it is a unique work of history, and also at times an entertaining read – an indispensable addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of the Balkans during the Great War.


Military Operations Macedonia (Part 2), From the Spring of 1917 to the End of the War

The Imperial War Museum and The Battery Press (1935, reprinted 1997), 365 pp. 21 appendices, 10 sketches and maps (including 1 fold-out) and 6 pictures

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

“”if ever it should come about that a British Government finds itself hesitating between two theatres of war, the balance ought to be heavily weighted against that which, for climatic, physical, or medical reasons, is the less suited to the qualities and aptitudes of its troops” (p. 305).

So wrote Capt. Cyril Falls in 1935, in concluding his second volume of Military Operations Macedonia. Needless to say, considering that the campaign took two volumes to finish up, Macedonia fell into the category of the “less suited.” In the annals of flawed Balkan interventions, this one would rank high; though the author bravely defends Britain’s valiant efforts to safeguard northern Greece from the Bulgarian threat, it’s clear that he shares the latent pessimism of the British authorities at the time of the war, who were constantly conflicted between desires to slog it out in Macedonia, or reassemble their forces in more promising theaters of war.

The book, the final part of the British government’s official history of the First World War in Macedonia, picks up where the first volume left off- the spring of 1917, when victory, emerging slowly and tentatively at first, started to appear within sight for the Allies.

However, when the book begins, it’s with a vexing problem that haunted the first volume- malaria season in southern Macedonia. Once again, the reader is made to appreciate the significance of this peripheral but disastrous side of warfare in the Balkans. The Allies, and to a lesser extent their Bulgarian and German enemies, lost thousands of casualties in the war of attrition against the mosquito.

The first military movement described in the book – a tactical withdrawal from the banks of the River Struma – was in fact made to get away from malaria, in June of 1917; the author curses the “fever-haunted floor of the valley” that had taken so many lives in the previous two years (p. 4).

However, the British had started to learn by this point, and taken preventative measures that ultimately meant a reduction of losses to the disease. Hastily handed out mosquito nets are deemed “as important as the rifle” in the Macedonian campaign (p. 7).

Methods of Approach

There are several different ways in which this book can be approached. For those who want to follow the action as it unfolds, reading straight through is the obvious way to go. For military historians or those looking for specific details about specific engagements, the book excels in providing precise, blow-by-blow descriptions of the battles, the geographical and climactic conditions that affected them, as well as the larger political and strategic dimensions at work. Military Operations Macedonia also regularly reflects the British accounts with Bulgarian, German and other sources, noting where there is consensus between battle descriptions and figures and what the likely truth of the matter was in cases of discrepancy.

Some readers may be better served, however, by reading the book’s Conclusion (p. 285) first. This chapter puts the events of the Macedonian campaign discussed throughout both contexts into the big picture, comparing the decisions made there to other strategic decisions made in all the theaters of war and by all the actors involved. Although this in a way “spoils the ending,” everyone knows how the Great War ended up and having in mind the bigger picture and the ultimate lessons of that campaign for the British is invaluable for making a coherent picture of sometimes confusing, microcosmic descriptions of a ambivalent series of attacks and counter-attacks fought in obscure terrain, in the greater part of which no headway was made by either side.

Unusual Details

As was the case in the first volume, numerous odd little details pop up here and there that add color and interest to the retelling. A couple of these come up with the differing fortunes of Allied troops; while the British are enjoying even a spot of foxhunting in their area of operation, the Russians, hearing of revolutionary goings-on back home, are mutinying in Ohrid in October, 1917 (p. 10).

The volatility of the western Macedonian frontier, on which were located an uneasy alliance of French, Greek, Serb, Italian, Russian and Albanian troops, was illustrated by other unique details such as the decision of the short-lived “Koritsa Republic” to issue postage stamps, which the author claims are “much sought after” by collectors at the time of writing (1935).

Finally, there are a few moments when the intractable “Macedonian question” is mentioned, if unwittingly, by the author. By and large it is clear that he considers the Serbian armies to be liberating “their” lands when advancing over the mountains to Bitola and up the Vardar. The occasional mention of the term “Macedonians” is also slightly ambivalent. There is the “picturesque little body of Macedonians” recruited by the British in the Dojran area, “whose early training as banditti proved useful and who carried out their duties fairly satisfactorily under two British officers” (p. 27). And then there is the description of the “Macedonian troops” under Bulgarian command, who “had for some time had an indifferent reputation, as the numerous soldiers of Serbian nationality among them had no desire to fight for Bulgaria” (p. 161).

The Salonika Fire

Although it is brief, the vivid description of the great Salonika fire of August 18, 1917 (pp. 21-23) succeeds in capturing something of this tragedy. The author recounts how the fire began within the “flimsy old houses” of the Turkish quarter (today’s Ano Poli, Upper Town) and swooped down on the rest of the city with the malicious help of a strong “Vardar Wind.”

Most interesting, perhaps, was the popular perception at the moment that while “the Turkish quarter might be doomed, [it] was not thought probable that the flame would cross the Rue Egnatia, the main east-to-west street, which divided the old town from the new. Actually, when they reached it, they leapt across it with scarcely a check” (p. 21).

Even keeping in mind the classic Greek disinterest in acting until the final moment of need arrives, it is strange to note how indifferent they were to the descending inferno. The fire had started after three o’clock in the afternoon, and by dinner time people “were snatching up what belongings they could carry and running for safety, joining a great throng, wailing and terror-stricken, which had poured down from the upper town.” The author’s description of the fire is evocative:

“The sight was a ghastly but magnificent one; the area of the fire was now one red glow, topped by enormous pillars of smoke, and the sound of the burning had become a continuous crackling roar, above which could be distinguished ever and anon the crash of roofs falling in.

Finally, the water-front caught fire, despite the efforts of the Navy, which played hoses on the buildings from lighters… the tragic splendour of the scene was heightened when some light inflammable matter was blown out over the sea and fell upon a lighter filled with petrol. The burning oil then spread over the surface of the sea, which seemed itself to be afire, and the flames illumined the whole harbour and the dense crowds massed upon the water-front.”

The disaster resulted in the destruction of “between one third and one half of the city,” the author states, noting that the finest old homes and some historical buildings, such as the 5th century church of St. Demetrius, were also sacrificed to the flames. The tragedy disproportionately affected certain ethnic groups; aside from the aforementioned Turks, the author claims that “eighty-thousand people, two-thirds of them Jews, were rendered homeless.” He adds the interesting fact that “the fire was said to be the most costly in the history of insurance, the damage being estimated at [pounds] 8,000,000” (p. 22).

The Impact of Outside Events

A noteworthy aspect of both volumes of Military Operations Macedonia is the author’s continual contextualization of the campaign in the big picture, that is, against the external military and political events that one could reasonably argue affected the outcome of operations in Macedonia.

One of these key trends was the unstable situation of Romania throughout the war. As the northern neighbor of Bulgaria, with Black Sea ports and an arch-enemy on its western flank (Hungary), Romania held out the prospect of pulling Bulgarian forces away from Macedonia while helping the allies to bottle up Istanbul and hopefully take it over. If both Bulgaria and Turkey could be squeezed out of the war, the Allies would have a much easier and more concentrated time of taking on the Axis on the more central fronts.

However, Russia’s descent into near civil war in the fall of 1917, and Romania’s forced truce with the Germans in December 1917 prevented this from happening. Further, the Austrian defeat of the Italians at the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo on October 24, 1917, forced the Allies to convene an emergency meeting with the immediate goal of preventing the loss of Venice. As a British general wrote in his diary, “the loss of Venice means the loss of the Adriatic, and a serious threat, therefore, to Salonika and Egypt, but I am afraid that is coming” (p. 40).

At the same time, the British offensive in Palestine was a “bright spot,” the author attests, but one with a more deleterious effect on the prosecution of the war in Macedonia than the Italian defeat in the Julian Alps had been.

The victory “had the effect of hardening the views of the British political and military authorities against the Salonika venture – Palestine seemed to the British Government to promise yet richer rewards to endeavour. They now hoped to be able to drive Turkey out of the war and perhaps by this means cause the defection of Bulgaria, which they had given up hoping to do by means of operations in Macedonia” (p. 41).

Another persistent theme in the narrative is directly related to this ambivalence in strategic thinking. In Macedonia there was low-level but persistent tension between the French, who with typical bombast were calling for a dashing offensive against the Bulgars and Germans, and the British, who with typical caution were wishing they could just pull out and relocate their troops to more promising theaters. In his generally sympathetic portrayal of the removal of energetic French General Sarrail (p. 47), the author depicts him as a good general who fell victim of a confused policy, and notes much later that the eventual winning battle strategy had a lot in common with the one Sarrail had advocated.

A potential bright spot to counter this gloom had been the return of Eleftherios Venizelos to power in June, 1917, which would bring those Greeks loyal to him – especially important, the crack mountain troops from his stronghold of western Crete – into the services of the Allies in Macedonia. England, France and the US donated some $10 million to rebuild the Greek army, which would play an important part in the eventual victory. The author describes the Greek soldiers thus:

“brave and dashing but volatile, likely to be better in attack than in defence and to be subject to fits of depression if kept too long in reserve or on a very quiet front. Few troops improved more rapidly under active service conditions. The countrymen, especially mountaineers and islanders, were superior to the townsmen, but in general the troops proved themselves second only to the Serbians as marchers” (p. 68).

A New Start

The “new start” that began with the arrival of French Gen. Guillaumat in December 1917 was notable for its pessimism. The “new orders” for the allied forces stated that the key goal was not offensive action, but the protection of “Old Greece”- that is, the Greek lands south of those conquered in the Balkan Wars (p. 49). The contemporaneous events outside were having a sobering effect even despite the entrance of the Greeks and the inspirational arrival of 10,000 Bosnian Serb fighters (and 80 from Australia) who had been press-ganged into Austrian service and then captured by the Russians in the early stages of the war.

“The Serbians were inspired by the sight of these men of their race who had dared and suffered so much in its cause, had journeyed such vast distances to fight by their sides, and were obviously fine troops” (p. 69). On the next page we hear of Croat and Slovenian prisoners held in Italy, whose sympathies lay with the Austrians.

Nevertheless, the prosecution of the war in Macedonia was slow and marked only by minor skirmishes and counter-parries that, so far as their casualty counts went, were exceedingly wasteful. The Supreme Allied War Council in Versailles seemed concerned by March that the abandonment of Thessaloniki was not being considered seriously enough. And the German offensive on the Western Front, beginning on March 21, pulled French and British troops from Macedonia, destined to never return (p. 76).

However, in May the tide began to turn. The French and Italians made inroads in western Macedonia and Albania, and on the 30th a well-prepared French-Greek force scaled the heavily fortified rock face of Skra (or Ljumnica, southwest of Gevgelija), taking it but suffering 2,700 casualties in the process. The victory was mostly symbolic; nevertheless, says the author,” few actions so small have made so much stir [the victory] “not only filled the Venizelist troops with great pride, not only inspired the Royal Greek Army – and that at a moment when the troops of the doubtful Morea were being mobilized – but greatly enhanced the prestige of M. Venizelos” (p. 91).

Early the next month, however, the relatively recently arrived Gen. Guillaumat was recalled to France, then under strong pressure from the German offensive (p. 101). In his place was sent Gen. Franchet D’Esperey, who took over command on the 18th of June and who would take the credit for the final Allied victory several months later.

Guillaumat, however, exerted a strong influence from France where the war council was dictating operations and lobbied the allied leaders for more vigorous action in Macedonia, which the Serbs and some of the Greek also supported. After the tide began to turn in France in July, the powers decided to give the all-clear for offensive action on September 10, 1918, through the vigorous efforts of the French general to bring the British, French and Italian governments around (p. 112).

Some Possible Drawbacks

The rest of the book narrates the breathtaking speed of the Allied breakthrough that won the war in Macedonia- paradoxically, taking over 150 pages to do so. This owes to the very detailed description of each military engagement and periodic reflection on events happening elsewhere. For readers impatient with such minutiae, the retelling might seem a bit of a slog, and the back-and-forth nature of the narrative, constantly informed by references to past and future events, can make it a jarring read. But the author’s job of making sense of such a mass of complex and often contradictory information was a difficult one, and it can be said that he did a better than adequate job in contextualizing the material. And while general-interest readers might choose to skim them, for war historians the detailed descriptions of close-quarters fighting right down to the hour of engagement will prove indispensable.

For today’s reader, the topographical descriptions and map references are likely to be a bit baffling. Turkish and Macedonian village names long plastered over by Greek ones sometimes make it hard to locate the action; this problem is more serious with the topographical names of operational areas, where the author shows a fondness for the English-language and French-language names given to the hills and valleys of southern Macedonia, which obviously didn’t stick.

Further, while there are numerous maps (including one large fold-out map tucked into the back of the book) the text is so small and the original colors, not reproduced, that it sometimes requires a microscope to make out the names. However, some of the historical pictures included are quite interesting, and the appendices- with full lists of the order of divisions on both sides of the battlefield, with all key officers named – are very useful for historians.

The Bigger Picture

Because of its conclusive and definitive nature, the second volume of Military Operations Macedonia naturally does a better job than the first of contextualizing the significance of the Macedonian campaign in terms of the war as a whole. The author also frames it in relation to the events that would happen immediately afterwards, such as the military occupation of Istanbul by the Great Powers and the disastrous Greco-Turkish war. In addition, non-military events that had an impact, including the Salonika Fire and the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918 are also stressed.

The main question throughout the operation, from the British point of view, was the relative worth of the campaign compared to other theatres of operation which seemed more promising, especially the Middle East (p. 291). Another key to understanding the British mindset of caution and strategic deployment is the philosophy of maritime advantage, which had been demonstrated during Britain’s long centuries as a seafaring power: “never, if you have an alternative, go where the Navy cannot hold out a hand to you” said a British Lieutenant-General at the time (p. 260).

Macedonia, alas, was not such a place. British pessimism would be sustained throughout the course of the campaign also because there was for a long time a stalemate situation in their sector of operation, near the heavily fortified Lake Dojran area. The French and Serbs, on the other hand, took part in the most exciting breakthroughs from Bitola and through the Vardar valley (there is a very moving description on p. 152 of the Serbian and French troops singing the Marseillaise as they took the initiative in September 1918), and the author frequently states that the endurance and toughness of the Serbian troops was the key factor in the Allies’ rapid advance.

Beyond the questions of strategy to be pondered by the armchair generals of yesterday and today, perhaps the most compelling aspect of Military Operations Macedonia is the attitude of the author – and thus, his society – towards war in general. For us, it amounts to unwitting nonchalance when enormous casualties are brushed off as inevitable, if to be lamented. All things considered, it’s not surprising that nothing is said of the suffering and exploitation of the faceless civilian population.

The rapid technological advances that made WWI the first modern war are also depicted with the same apparent indifference. The modern reader is struck by the almost mundane description of modern gas attacks – and at the same time, the good old bayonet – and by the curious combination of old and new technologies that saw both aircraft and donkeys play an indispensable role in the prosecution of the war. In fact, throughout the book, occasional mention is made of air power as being a decisive factor. The R.A.F. is credited by May 1918 with giving Britain “mastery of the air” (p. 89). A grisly depiction of this “mastery” that has been exploited more and more viciously with all subsequent wars is provided several chapters later:

“The aircraft flew over the [Bulgarian transport] columns in relays, dropping bombs upon them and then returning to their aerodromes for another load. In some cases they swooped down to within fifty feet of the ground, the rake troops and transport with machine gun fire. The target was an extraordinary one. There is in existence a set of aeroplane photographs which show a solid stream of transport, for the most part double-banked, between Valandova and the Rabrovo cross-roads and also south and east of the latter point” (pp. 294-295).

The First World War is often considered one of the most, if not the most pointless wars in modern history. Although most studies of it consider the suffering and destruction wrought by the more famous battles that took place in Western Europe, Military Operations Macedonia shows that the same was true for the less discussed Balkan theaters of war.

The work is, finally, an educational resource for those who have always wondered why the war lasted as long as it did. It would be going too far to say that the Balkan theater was a pivotal one for anyone except the local inhabitants; but the perceived need to hold the line in Macedonia by both sides did, however, necessitate the costly and difficult diversion of hundreds of thousands of troops and accompanying staff to a relative hinterland- even though they arguably could have been better used elsewhere. Exactly why the dueling Great Powers believed Macedonia was worth the trouble is a vexing question that the study only partially answers.

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Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete

Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete: A Complete Guide to the Sacred Places of Crete, with an Attached Map of Each Route

By Nikos Psilakis

Karmanor (1994), 205 pp., numerous color illustrations and fold-out color map

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Important note: this book is not available from Inserted title links refer to ordering instructions- please see bottom of review for full info.

Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete is a lovingly prepared and fully illustrated book, and not merely a documentary collection of churches on Greece’s biggest island; much more than that, it tells the spiritual history of Crete, weaving together legends, myths and vivid historical facts into a narrative that both recounts and guides. It is thus both a wonderful book to browse while at home, and an indispensable companion for travelers headed for Crete and interested in the Orthodox heritage, so vital to Greece and its people.

A Portable Classic

Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete benefits from the local expertise of historian Nikos Psilakis, and its wealth of glossy color photos that depict churches, monasteries and the frescoes that adorn them – as well as vintage shots of monks ‘in action,’ ringing bells, perusing manuscripts, and appearing otherworldly beneath long white beards. The book was put together with the help of the Archbishopric of Crete, and the author was thus granted unique access to almost all of the monasteries (many of which are well off the beaten track and rarely open) as well as their movable treasures.

While it has over 200 pages, the book comes in a handy paperback format (24×17 cm.) and is thus a portable guide that travelers can easily bring with them to Crete, set in a durable binding containing all glossy pages throughout. Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete is thus an elegant item for the home bookshelf as well as a sturdy companion for travelers.

A real benefit of the book is that the author not only provides detailed descriptions of the churches and monasteries, he also provides walking directions within the sites to make sure you don’t miss the important things. He also provides 16 optional tours all around the island which connect the monasteries in an efficient manner, and the fold-out map on the last page of the book, complete with all the monasteries described as well as the major towns and villages of Crete, also provides a helpful reference for visitors to get their bearings.

An Introduction: History, Myth, Treasure

Before getting into the major portion of the book, author Psilakis provides an indispensable short overview of the history of Cretan spirituality and in indeed the island from the time of Zeus’ birth in a cave on the celebrated Mt. Psiloritis (2,456 m) through the Byzantine period, the brief period of Arab control, the renewed rule of Byzantium, and finally of Venice, the Ottoman Empire and modern Greece. This introduction thus provides a succinct overview of Cretan history for those visitors who may not know much about the island and its rich history.

Finally, the author devotes 3 pages to the Historical Museum of Crete in Heraklio, detailing its rich collection of ecclesiastical art, ancient coins and jewelry, works of art by the likes of native son El Greco, examples of clothing and other traditional Cretan items, as well as a full model of what Crete’s capital looked like in the 17th century. The introduction also discusses icon collections and contemporary churches of Crete before continuing on to the main section of the book.

On to the Monasteries

As the author relates, Crete boasts over 800 frescoed churches, and therefore, “it is impossible to visit them all.” Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete thus concentrates on the top 137 – in any case, many more than most visitors will have time for.

In all cases, the author provides detailed information in clear and straightforward prose regarding the history of each structure, to the extent to which it is known. Indeed, many of the older churches and monasteries have their roots in the distant past, and date back well over 1,000 years. But the scarcity of information in some cases only adds to their mystique.

Some standout examples include the Convent of Kalyviani, near Mires in south-central Crete (p. 62). While some of the frescoes found in the crumbling church date to the 14th century, the exact founding date is unknown. However, Kalyviani has a vital history for the Cretan people. During the hardships brought on by a bloody Turkish crackdown following the breakout of the Greek Revolution in 1821, the Ottomans burned down scores of churches and used Kalyviani as a stable.

But, in 1865, an islander discovered a miraculous icon inside, which instantly attracted throngs of pilgrims from all over Crete. When the Turks began to repress the visitors, the incident roused the attention of the Great Powers, especially Russia, who pressured the Turks to allow the Cretans access. The incident was such an embarrassment that the Ottoman governor in Heraklio was fired, but since that day the Cretans have venerated Kalyviani and its icon and the convent remains “one of the most important religious centres on Crete.”

Two other famous examples of Cretan spirituality, though vividly contrasting, are the Monastery of Chrysoskalitsa and the Monastery of Arkathi (Arkadi). The former, a sublime contemplative space located on a sheer cliff above the sea, on the southwestern extremity of the island, has (or had) according to legend a golden step (p. 142). Now this whitewashed, elegant structure is inhabited by a few monks, its location attesting once again to the Greek appreciation of harmony with nature when choosing their locations to build churches.

As for the former, Arkadi is revered as the site of a seminal moment in modern Cretan history (p 156). In November 1866, 900 Cretans, including 600 women and children, took refuge in the church in the face of 15,000 Turkish besiegers. Rather than face torture and death at the hands of the Turks, the Greeks inside set off massive stores of gunpowder- killing themselves and hundreds of Turkish soldiers at the same time.   Says the author, “that incident is regarded as one of the most important ones in the modern history of Crete.” Today, the monastery is fully restored, replenished with flowers and purring cats.

The Monastery of Gdernetto (Gouverneto) on the northwestern Akrotiri Peninsula is another standout monastery with unique stone carvings and a cave church nearby where hermit monks lived since Byzantine times (p. 121). In fact, it is associated with the cult of St. John the Hermit and inhabits a beautiful craggy spot on one of Crete’s isolated promontories.

Interesting Legends and Stories

Gouverneto’s cave church, Arkouthiotissa, is also marked by legends that are both unique and exemplary of similar traditions throughout the monastic world – and no less significantly, which show the continuity with Greece’s pagan religious past.

The church is named after a bear, the frozen form of which hovers over an imaginary cistern deep in the cave. While the ‘bear’ is probably a stalagmite, the author says, the Byzantine monks added to it the following legend:

“the bear was alive once and [it] used to drink all the water of the cistern, thus depriving the thirsty monks of it. The monks and the other representatives of the
district couldn’t see the bear drinking the water, still when they went to the cave they always found the cistern completely dry. One day they lay in wait and saw the bear approaching. It was so big that the cave became dark. The people who saw it were scared to death. One of them immediately started to beg the Virgin for help. No sooner had he finished his prayer than the bear was petrified! The stone bear has been in the cistern for many centuries since…”

However, there’s more to the legend than this: as the author recounts, the ancient Greeks used to venerate the goddess Artemis – in the form of a bear – in the cave. And even after faith in the ancient gods “had faded,” the locals continued to treat the cave as sacred. The feast day in the Orthodox calendar- February 2 – also happens to coincide approximately with the ancient celebration day for Artemis.

Many other legends and tales are identified with monasteries in Crete, as are historical accounts. The most vivid of these recount, as with Arkadi, the repression and bloodshed of the Ottomans following the frequent revolts of the feisty Cretans, especially in 1821 and 1866. However, no matter how many times the Turks butchered the monks and razed their churches, the insuppressible Cretans were quick to rebuild them. Yet other legends exist attesting to more distant periods, such as that of the Venetians (1204-1669) and the Byzantine ages before that.

Some of these tales are told in the context of the individual churches and monasteries, others in the author’s brief survey of the history of monasticism on Crete (pp. 26-31), which also provides helpful distinctions between the two types of monastic life, the communal and solitary (coenobitic and idiorrhythmic).

Legacy: the Cretan School and Renaissance Standouts

Finally, the photos and documentation of ecclesiastical art and jewelry attest to the Cretans’ historic creative powers, which due to the primarily religious direction of society found their primary expression through ecclesiastical art. Ioannis Kornaros and the great El Greco are two of the most famous painters mentioned, but numerous other anonymous frescoes also attest to the distinctive style of the Cretan School of painting, marked by its expressiveness and sensitivity.

The mixed tradition that grew up following the Venetian conquest of 1204 resulted in a unique combination of Italian and Byzantine influences, which helped create a paradigm for Italian Renaissance painting of the 15th century. Not incidentally, artistic Cretan calligraphy also contributed to the rise of printing in the West, the most famous example being Markos Mousouros, type designer for the legendary Aldus Manutius, 15th century humanist and the first great book printer of Greek and Latin classics. Crete also produced intellectuals, all of which received strong education via the schools and learned monks, most notable being the fiery polemicist and intellectual Georgios Trapenzountios. The author Vitsentzos Kornaros also produced the best-known work of Cretan literature, the Erotokritos. Thus it can justifiably be said, as scholars have long attested, that a veritable renaissance occurred on Crete parallel with the Italian one.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

To conclude, Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete is a beautiful and informative guide to some of Crete’s most important cultural places. Visitors to the island seeking to appreciate its history will do well to start here. The book is succinct, concise and straightforward, and most importantly, recounted by a local expert active in the fields of history and archaeology. It is a better choice even than the celebrated Blue Guides, being better illustrated, a quicker and more informative read, and just as portable. All visitors to Crete should come equipped with the book and, even for you armchair fans of Greek culture and the Orthodox tradition, reading the vivid accounts and fantastic photos will inspire you to make the trip to Greece’s biggest and best island.

Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete is not available on You can buy it safely, quickly and easily online, through the CretaShop website.

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Guns for the Sultan

Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire

By Gábor Ágoston

Cambridge University Press (2005), 277 pp., 20 illustrations, 4 maps, 32 tables

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Hungarian scholar Gábor Ágoston, an Associate Professor of History at Georgetown, has in Guns for the Sultan done marvelous work in using the empirical data regarding the Ottoman weapons industry to tackle larger theoretical issues in historiography – thus showing a mastery of both. Despite the peril that any such a richly detailed text could end up disintegrating into minutiae, the author’s thoughtful and straightforward prose allows the reader to navigate this complex and little-known world.

Indeed, while the Ottoman Empire has long been celebrated for having been a military superpower, the tangible structure on which its success was achieved – its weapons production industry- has never been adequately investigated. Until now, that is: in Guns for the Sultan Gábor Ágoston has achieved a work which will no doubt become standard reference for a long time to come.


Guns for the Sultan is divided into 6 chapters and a conclusion, which methodically cover the following Ottoman weapons industries: gunpowder technology; cannons and muskets; saltpeter; munitions and ordnance, as well as the role these technologies had on extending Ottoman power.

The accompanying charts and tables provide extremely precise data from the Ottoman archives dealing with weights, measures, inventories, dates and provenances of weapons, gunpowder and other ‘ingredients.’ The interesting historical illustrations show everything from the layout of fortifications to cannons to camel transport for guns. A few photos from modern museums show relics of Ottoman artillery. The author uses all of this supplementary data to convincingly back up his major thesis, which can be spelled out as follows.

A Fundamental Rethink

Representative of an “emerging strand” of new military history, ˆšÃ…goston’s book sets out to challenge the prevailing “Eurocentric” views about the Ottomans which blacken the latter for their “extreme conservatism,” allegedly due to Islam, and “the military despotism which … militated against the borrowing of western techniques and against native inventiveness” (p. 7, quoting K.M. Setton, Venice, Austria and the Turks in the Seventeenth Century and E.L. Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia).

However, according to the author,

“…the adoption or rejection of firearms technology by Islamic societies had very little to do with Islam. Rather, it was a decision of the political and military elites of the respective societies, and was influenced by the social fabrics, economic capabilities, geopolitical realities and constraints, as well as by military and political objectives” (p. 8).

Moreover, argues the author, the “pragmatism” of the 14th and 15th century empire

“…made it relatively easy to adopt firearms technology and to come up with the organizational frameworks necessary to integrate and operate these weapons… when Ottoman technological receptivity was coupled with mass production capabilities and superior Ottoman logistics, the Sultans’ armies gained clear firepower superiority over their immediate opponents by the mid-fifteenth century” (pp.8-9).

The author argues persuasively that since the prevailing Western views on the Ottoman Empire have been to write its history from the point of view of its eventual decline, even the grandest of victories must somehow carry within it the seeds of future decay or destruction. However, the extent to which the new generation of scholarship is beginning to change has been shown by Edward J. Erickson, who in starting out from the true jaws of Ottoman defeat – the Balkan Wars – provocatively argues for the previously unheralded positive side of Ottoman arms.

Gábor Ágoston is, however, generally dealing with a much earlier period, when Ottoman power was sending tremors across Europe and the military machine was at its most productive.

In the process of dispelling old myths, the author also discloses more minor but no less interesting details, for example that hard-riding tribal cavalrymen who did not use guns were hardly making this choice because of Islam. Actually, the use of firearms was perceived as being beneath them; a ‘real man’ used proper bow and arrow. This had more to do with marital valor than religion.

A Legacy of Innovation

In Ágoston’s treatment, the reader is reminded that from the beginning the Ottomans sought both to benefit from technological innovations in the West, as well as their own native ingenuity and Byzantine precedents. The besiegers under Murad II in Constantinople in 1453 were perhaps the first to use mortars with parabolic trajectories. And an apparent adaptation of the famous ‘Greek fire’ that bedeviled Byzantine enemies so was employed in the form of flying projectiles in the battle of Rhodes in 1480.

Interestingly enough, the Ottomans even appear to have used a sort of cluster bomb in the 1521 siege of Belgrade; an observer described it as a weapon liable to “…explode into seventy or more or fewer pieces… each of these shards breaks and cuts and smashes what it hits” (p. 69).

Throughout, the author gives exhaustive and comprehensive treatment to the entire range of cannons, muskets and other firearms used and produced by the Ottomans, showing that throughout their long run of dominance they were at least as good and in some cases better than those of their Western rivals.

A View Across the Empire

Guns for the Sultan tells numerous fascinating stories in passing, and sheds light on the local realities of far-flung mining and military production towns. We hear of Ohrid and Kratovo in Macedonia, Novo Brdo in Serbia, Srebrenica in Bosnia and Kastamonu in Asia Minor, to name but a few.

Referring to archive information, the author narrates the headaches suffered by Ottoman officials who were often cheated by local producers of sulfur, gunpowder and saltpeter, who filed false figures or didn’t come through on their obligations. This kind of local level testimony is very interesting and unusual. On the one hand, it shows the empire’s great resources and reach; on the other, it shows that coordinating and regulating the components of the vast military machine was something that required careful and constant attention. In general, these details coalesce around one important theme: the difficulties encountered by the state in keeping control of a state-dominated military industry.

One example of the snafus typically encountered occurred in Izmir in 1697, where the nearby villages had been tasked with producing large amounts of saltpeter. “…It soon became obvious, however, that the villages in question were
incapable of producing the anticipated quantities” (p 159). The officials in charge then asked if they could purchase on the open market; first in Izmir the merchants did not have enough, and when the search was extended to Salonica, the official reported that it was impossible, “…because at his disposal was just a small fraction of the total funds allocated for the purchase of saltpeter” (p. 159).

More devious were the wily Ohrid villagers (of modern day Leskoec), who “undertook work that they were subsequently unable to fulfill,” hoping to get tax exemptions, pledging to provide a required amount of sulfur. However, a contemporary official reported that, “there were no sulfur deposits on the lands belonging to the village and that the local inhabitants had no knowledge of extracting sulfur from ore” (pp.100-101). However, on the whole, Macedonian producers accounted for “considerable amounts” of sulfur in the 17th century.

Guns for the Sultan is crammed with details that show how difficult the challenges faced by military officials in getting the most out of their production sites and in utilizing the appropriate natural resources (rocks, minerals, trees, etc), during the appropriate seasons and storage conditions. And, as the story of Berham the saltpeter producer of Erzurum in 1576 shows, officials were constantly thinking of how to get more from their resources- in part because local officials were awarded bonuses for doing so.

In this case, Berham suggested moving the production site from Erzurum to the newly-acquired Oltu, “…where water was sufficient and peter could be produced for nine months of the year as opposed to three months in Erzurum” (p. 104). According to the author, this kind of thinking showed “…how quick the Ottomans were in drawing immediate economic benefit from newly conquered territories” (p. 105).

Imperial Ingenuity

Far from being an inward-looking creature of slow progress, the Ottoman Empire displayed remarkable abilities to adapt and especially to learn from outsiders’ expertise. As the empire grew larger, the author states, it attracted all sorts of mercenaries, who became “celebrated defectors and Christian renegades in the service of the Ottoman Sultans” (p. 55). More often, however, the Christian populations didn’t have a choice. Wherever the crafty Ottomans went, they utilized the skills and abilities of their subjugated peoples. Greek shipbuilders are a famous example; less well known but equally important for the military effort were

“…Christian smiths, stonecarvers, carpenters, masons, caulkers and shipbuilders in the conquered Balkan fortresses, towns and mines. Ottoman pragmatism and flexibility not only enabled these craftsmen to continue their former occupations, but rewarded them with privileges. Through them the Ottomans acquainted themselves with Serbian and Saxon technologies of ore mining… the population of mining towns and of entire regions was predominantly, in the fifteenth century exclusively, Slavic. No wonder Ottoman technical language regarding ore mining is full of German and Slavic terms” (pp. 44-45).

The author points out the vital assistance Ottoman rulers received from Jewish and Muslim trained craftsmen expelled from Spain (p. 43). An Italian writer in 1556 lamented that the Spanish Jews taught the Ottomans “…most of what they know of the villainies of war, such as the use of brass-ordnance and fire-locks. And one Jewish author active in the same century claimed that the Sultan Selim I “…loved the Jews very much because he saw that by means of them he would beat nations and kill great kings, for they made for him cannons and weapons” (p. 45).

This example of Ottoman religious tolerance, as well as pragmatism, had clear military advantages: despite being a great power, the Spanish found themselves without domestic cannon founders in the 16th century. Without their Jews and Muslims, “…Spanish monarchs were repeatedly forced to employ Italian, German and Flemish foundrymen. ‘I do not think,’ the Venetian ambassador to Spain wrote in 1557, ‘there is another country less provided with skilled workers than Spain’” (p. 46).


However, that said, the author does not shrink from acknowledging the eventual decline of Ottoman power and the ascension of the West. Yet he does not locate these in military technology specifically, but rather in the classic overextension that taxes any empire, and in related fields such as “administrative-bureaucratic reforms” and logistics. “…Such factors as double-front engagement and overstrained communications,” the author writes, “were obviously of greater significance in an empire where weaponry and ammunition manufacturing plants were scattered from Cairo to Buda, often thousands of kilometers from the theaters of war. More importantly, it became increasingly difficult to maintain a thriving manufacturing sector in an empire where the economy as a whole experienced the contractions plaguing the entire Mediterranean region” (p. 201).

Costly wars against the Holy League tied down the Ottomans on four frontiers and, even though they won back Belgrade in 1690, pushed the empire decisively out of Hungary. The following century’s long wars with Russia drained the treasury and decreased morale and order. After this, reform would be stymied until the abolition of the janissary corps in 1826. But by this time the final decline was inevitable.

Recommendation: a Comprehensive , Innovative Study

All in all, Guns for the Sultan makes for a fascinating read, even if the very precise technical nomenclature and statistics might not interest the general reader. For the historian, however, they are essential. The book will become, as the publisher’s note says, a “classic in the field.”

Yet even for the generalist, this brand-new study is well worth a read, because even if it is not a social history, per se, the author’s excellent ability to synthesize statistics with theory and specific examples culled from the long Ottoman centuries provides remarkable insight into not only the empire’s military machine but into the minds, motives and works of those countless individuals who were responsible for maintaining and enhancing it.

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Music of the Ottoman Empire: Turkish Classic Music

Music of the Ottoman Empire: Turkish Classic Music

ARC Music (2001), 1 CD: 10 tracks (57:10)

Music Review by Christopher Deliso

Released by world music specialist ARC Music of Great Britain, Music of the Ottoman Empire is an invigorating compilation of Turkish classical music by 19th century Ottoman composers. This is big music, regal music; one hears, in the rich, plunging melodies and deep intonations, the sound of empire.

Of course, it could not be any empire or any classical music: while there is some Western classical influence, the sharp strains punctuated by oriental percussion and the kanun (plucked box zither) intimate the near east; the listener imagines on one side, the grand palaces of Dolmabace and Topkapi over the Bosphorus, and on the other, the elliptical movement of the caravanserais coming in from the desert.

The CD, which clocks in at just under one hour in length, contains 10 tracks, the works of 9 different composers born between the years 1831 and 1899. Short biographies of each are given in the liner notes, as our descriptions of the instruments and other interesting stories about Turkish classical music in general.

Along with the kanun, other instruments found on the album include the tambur (a ‘long-necked lute’ with four double courses of strings. As with the kanun, these are usually plucked with a plectrum. The kemençe, or short-necked fiddle, has three strings and is played with a bow. The ney, or rim-blown reed flute, is an instrument common to the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia, and is also used in ensembles of the Mevlevi (whirling dervishes). Finally, the darbuka, a goblet-shaped drum that can be played while tucked under the arm, is familiar to everyone and found across North Africa and the Middle East.

The mysterious eastern sound of the kamun gets full expression on the second track, ‘Nihavent Saz Semai.’ Erkan Dedeoglou is the master kanun player on the CD; according to the liner notes, he has been playing the instrument for almost 30 years after having learned it from his father. Erkan “gave numerous concerts all over Europe and is still working as a kanun teacher at the Marmara University in Istanbul.” The instrument itself is a classical music of the Arab world and Turkey, and introduced into Turkey during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839).

Track 7, ‘Mahur Saz Semai’ is remarkable for its combination of a slippery, Mediterranean tambur introduction segueing into a pretty, Western-sounding movement that at parts almost sounds like a television ad for butter. Along with the fourth track, Hicaz Saz Semai, this song was composed by Refik Talat Alpman (1894-1947), who is regarded as one of Turkey’s best composers.

Among the other composers represented in this compilation are Tamburi Cemil Bey (1871-1916) and his student, Tamburi Refisk S. Fersan (1893-1965), the latter having been at one point head of the Turkish Instrumental Orchestra, Misirli Ibrahim Efendi (1872-1933) who was Jewish, and Tatyos Efendi (1858-1913), who was of Armenian descent. The oldest composer, Haci Arif Bey (1831-1885) “was know for his marvelous voice and for his excellent musical memory.” Of the over 1,000 compositions he created, only 338 remain.

Almost every track features a soloist introduction from one of the instruments featured. The roughhewn, brooding intensity of the kemençe comes alive on track 3, ‘Hicaz Pesrev,’ which almost evokes the low-end sounds created by “the wild man of Cretan music,” lyra master Psarantonis.

The CD’s subtitle, “Darus Music,” has an interesting story behind it as well. Darus-Sifa, the producers say, was in fact a hospital, built in 1484 under the reign of Sultan II Beyazit. “…The patients, especially those suffering from mental problems, were treated with music. According to Evliya Celebi mental patients listened to classical music three days a week… it was believed that rhythm and melody in the music had a healing effect.”

Recounting that using music for healing was invented by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, the notes add that Muslim doctors would later apply his wisdom. By Ottoman times diagnoses became categorical. “…The different musical forms and harmonies are called makam in Turkish. Each harmony has a special healing power attributed to it. Rast Makam for example is said to be good for patients with paralyses. Isfahan Makam seems to clear the mind, Zirffgent Makam is good for back problems, Rehavi Makam is said to alleviate headaches, Bûselik Makam is used for people with a high temperature, Zengule  Makam is said to help a weak heart, to give just a few examples.”

While these harmonies are not identified with specific tracks, chances are good that most of them are there. So whether you are looking to evoke bygone Ottoman grandeur in your imagination, perform some self-healing, or simply enjoy an hour of bold and unusual eastern classical compositions, Music of the Ottoman Empire is a great investment for Balkan music lovers.

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Crimes of the Fascist Occupants: the Holocaust in Yugoslavia

The Crimes of the Fascist Occupants and their Collaborators against the Jews in Yugoslavia

Jasenovac Research Institute, 2005 (in Serbian, with summary in English)

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Originally compiled by a former Yugoslav army captain and concentration camp survivor and published by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia in 1952, this detailed account of war crimes against Jews during the Second World War has always been attacked by Croat and other former Nazi collaborators as nothing more than Tito’s Communist propaganda.

However, as the preface to the new 2005 edition makes clear, very few copies were printed and when in the early 1960’s a newspaper editor wanted to republish it, he “…quickly received a sharp rebuke and strict orders from government authorities not to publish a second edition under any circumstances, because it would ‘open old wounds and it would have a negative impact on brotherhood and unity.’”Thus the ‘Black Book’ as it was dubbed “…was known mostly by reputation only, for just 1,000 copies were published, and therefore few people ever had a chance to read it.”

With this new printing, the New York-based Jasenovac Research Institute hopes to increase world awareness of the magnitude of war crimes committed by Yugoslavia’s Nazi collaborators, especially against the 60,000 Jews of the country, 83 percent of whom lost their lives during the war.

The Foreword

Old critics of the book have also said that it was a central piece of Communist propaganda wheeled out for “show trials” under the Yugoslav State Commission for Investigation of Crimes of the Occupants and their Collaborators. While it is true that together with the Jewish groups the State Commission did inaugurate the work, the original 1952 preface laments that by April 1948 the Commission had wrapped up, leaving the Holocaust research incomplete and the book unpublished. At that point the Jewish groups of Yugoslavia had to continue by themselves, says Dr. Albert Vajs, then President of Yugoslavia’s Federation of Jewish Communities in the 1952 foreword.

A further caveat to the claims of state propaganda, at least by the implication of the original authors, was the discerning scholarship of David Anaf, who “…entered deeply into the whole complex of the problem and with the studiousness characteristic of him and pointed to the flaws with an expert confidence, insisting on their being removed for further investigation and personally participating in the gathering of new documentary evidence” (p. xv).

It should be noted that the old ideals of rigor in documentation have long since been lost. A look at any of the modern Yugoslavia’s war crimes trials shows a frantic zeal to uncover ever more evidence and, though numerous snafus have emerged in the Hague due to its presentation of erroneous or even willfully fraudulent information, few whether in the media or the “international community” take much notice of the inconsistencies.

Vajs Crimes of the Fascist Occupants show further restraint when disclosing that the researchers were at time of publication aware of a great amount of evidence that they could not, for reasons of insufficient time or money, include in the book. This is again in sharp contrast to the modern flair for excess, but it only makes the book’s case stronger.

A strong sense of having been forgotten permeates the final pages of the foreword. While Vajs seems resigned to their fate of having to publish the book themselves, he laments that individual war criminals – chief among them former Ustasha leader Ante Pavelic – remained at large. Waxing rhetorical, he complains, “…is it not almost incomprehensible that such arch-criminals as Pavelic and [Andrija] Artukovic are still enjoying freedom, and that our country has been vainly fighting for months to obtain their extradition although their responsibility is thousandfold proved?!” (p. xvii). Vajs goes on to mention others, who received sentences out of all proportion to their crimes: “…is not incomprehensible that Franz Rademacher, guilty for so many grave crimes, and for the deaths of several thousands Jews in Serbia, should have been sentenced recently to only 3 ¬Ω years imprisonment?!” (p. xvii).

Based on this reality, Vajs ponder something which, as it turns out, was eerily prophetic for the future of the country:

“…are we not to wonder then that fascism and Nazism are raising their heads again and glorifying the odious crimes of the past, sometime timidly at present but each day more and more conspicuously, thus preparing the atmosphere for new crimes and acts of genocide in the future?!” (p. xvii)


Crimes of the Fascist Occupants is divided into six major sections, covering crimes against the Jews committed in each of the Yugoslav republics. An annex of revealing photographs is also included; “…these photographs represent only a comparatively small choice from the huge materials of that kind available are meant to serve only as further documentary illustrations of some passages in the text” (p. xvii).

The English section of the book corresponds to this organizational design. In part one, covering Serbia, the subjects of the deportation of the Banat Jews, internment and shooting of Jews in Belgrade, murder of Jews in the hospitals of Belgrade and Kovin are covered, as are the seizure of Jewish property and the destruction of signs of Jewish culture.

Part two, which covers Croatia and Bosnia, discusses the concentration camps of Sanica, Jadovno, Jasenovac, Stara Gradiska and more. Anti-Jewish activities in Bosnia are also discussed, as well as seizure of property, destruction of Jewish cultural and religious objects and anti-Jewish laws.

The third part, on Slovenia, is only two pages long- despite the statement that “…of 1000 Slovenian Jews less than one hundred survived” (p. 21).

Part four covers the parts of Yugoslavia under Italian control – chiefly, Montenegro and Kosovo, though there is mention of Italian concentration camps in Croatia. Following the capitulation of Italy, Germany moved in to Kosovo, which is when the bulk of crimes against Jews were committed. This period is also discussed.

Part five is far lengthier than the previous two combined and covers the German and Hungarian mass murder of the Jews in Backa and Vojvodina. This, along with the second chapter, shows unbelievable barbarity and delight in torture that most people could not have expected outside of the more “famous” areas of German occupation in northern Europe.

The final part covers Macedonia and the efforts of its German and Bulgarian occupiers to eliminate the Jews there. Of over 7,000 Jews living in Macedonia then, only 6 remain there today.

While being just a summary of the Serbian original, these sections provide very detailed statistics and survivor testimony. A full picture of the horrors suffered by Yugoslavia’s Jews is painted. Again, since most of the world is unaware of the scale of the Holocaust here, this book – compiled when the dust had not yet settled, and when far more survivors and other witnesses were still alive – is an indispensable resource for historians. One note of the warning: the many gruesome photos are not for the squeamish.

The Lone Drawback

That said, the one great drawback is that only a summary was published in English – barely 20 percent of the full 268 pages. The bulk of the book is still in the original Ser
bo-Croatian- therefore making it inaccessible on the level of detail to any reader who does not know that language. It is unclear why this decision was made, but it unfortunately seems that it will limit the use of the book as a historical source.

Nevertheless, readers who are interested in this period and this history, whether or not they can read the full text, will find Crimes of the Fascist Occupants a compelling and provocative read. The Jasenovac Research Center has performed an important service in re-issuing the book; we can only hope that in the future they will publish a complete English translation.

Or, even better, would be to honor the memory of Dr. Albert Vajs, who apologized for not releasing a more comprehensive work. But he stated that “it is our intention, however to study and publish these new materials one day” (p. xvi). Perhaps over time an even fuller account may be told. In any case, even this re-issue of the Crimes of the Fascist Occupants, in addition to re-introducing a primary source to the modern public, gives some measure of justice to the murdered and forgotten Jews of the former Yugoslavia.

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Military History of Macedonia

Military History of Macedonia

By Dr. Vance Stojcev

Skopje Military Academy (2004), 2 volume box set; 775 pages, 115 full-color maps and 13 appendices, ISBN: 9989-134-05-7

In this interview/review by Christopher Deliso, emeritus member of the Macedonian Military Academy Dr. Vance Stojcev discusses his career as a military historian in the former Yugoslavia and in modern-day Macedonia, as well as his detailed and controversial tome, Military History of Macedonia, and what went into the research for it. There are many unusual details that emerge for the first time in this eye-opening article.

Contents and Format

Military History of Macedonia is a two-volume hardcover box set, containing almost 800 pages of text and 15 full-color maps.According to the author, this format made the book very expensive to produce, and to ship. However, we believe that it is worth it, because the book contains detailed discussions of very obscure and patchily-known events of Balkan history, which can only be found in dusty and distant archives or, in hundreds of cases, from sources that had never been published previously. Needless to say, none of these are in English.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, which cover the period from ancient Macedonia (Philip II, Alexander the Great) up through the Second World War. This massive undertaking, says the author, is a result of two decades of research.

Dr. Stojcev was in the Yugoslav military for 20 years, and became a colonel. For much of that time he was working in Belgrade, in the military archive there, and his predictably shocking experiences with research under Communist conditions are recounted below.

Some Flaws

As could be expected with a book translated into English from another language, there are certain flaws in spelling and grammar; however these do not pose any difficulty in comprehension. Stylistically, there is also a certain repetitiveness and simplicity of style which again does not present a problem, but is rather typical of Macedonian writers in general.

The colorful maps provided are a useful asset to the book, though in some cases the lines referring to directions of troop movements can be a bit hard to follow.

In short, the reader should not expect a “scholarly” book according to the Western model, but that may be just as well; after all, the pretentiousness and subtle presuppositions one often encounters in the latter tend toward deception. With Military History of Macedonia, what you see is what you get- a formidable collection of data pertaining to some of the least-known events in European military history.

Disgruntled Denouncers from Abroad

As could be expected, Dr. Stojcev’s book has been denounced by both Bulgarians and Greeks, who accused him of ’stealing’ their history. He speaks of receiving angry emails from the latter, and of the near-impossibility of conducting primary research on Macedonian history in these neighboring states, lest it disrupt their own national narratives.

The author believes that part of the reason Macedonian historians have been left in the dust is that the Greeks and Bulgarians have had the advantage of a much longer experience of statehood, bringing with it certain organizational and institutional advantages. Since the 19th century, official funds have been lavished on research and collection of archival material by both governments.

Yet even today, Macedonia continues to lag behind, and this represents one of the main problems for researchers as well as for the country’s feeble attempts to promote itself abroad. Indeed, the author laments, “we have no state military archive. Our information is scattered in all different archives of other states.”

The Bulgarians especially have had the advantage, Dr. Stojcev maintains, of theft: “…in every war the Bulgarians have invaded, they have formed a special commission for historians to find and take all important documents, archaeological pieces, etc.,” he says. “For example, [they took] the crown of the Ohrid archbishopric, the gravestone of Tsar Tsamoil, a lot of flags from the Ilinden Uprising in 1903, and one from the 1876 Radovci Uprising.”

“A lot of documents from local military leaders that had been saved in home collection, the Bulgarians took them. Everything which they found with Serbian or Macedonian characteristics that they could they destroyed.”

Macedonian researchers frequently state that Bulgaria keeps a close eye on documents that might instill controversy, as does Greece. Has Dr. Stojcev experienced anything in this regard?

“I have not been to the Bulgarian archive,” he says, “but my colleagues had and have had bad experiences there. They won’t give you access.”

“Everything they asked to see about Macedonia, they were not told that it didn’t exist – even though you could point to books where Bulgarian authors had referred to it!”

When asked for specific examples of such “hot” material, Dr. Stojcev referred to “…over 100 letters by [revolutionary leader] Goce Delcev, where he speaks about the Macedonian people. I didn’t see them, but [they appear] in the memoirs of other fighters who were together with him.”

Of course, since all Balkan history-writing is complicated by excessive nationalism and apparent contradictions, these issues are bound to occur. Goce Delcev, for example, referred to himself on some occasions as a Bulgarian. The author’s comment on this – “he had to say he was a Bulgarian because he was a student in the Bulgarian military academy” – reflects the fundamental argument that modern-day Macedonians have forwarded, that theirs was a people whose national identity was always sacrificed depending on the state in which they lived, or the influence under which they came, because they were divided and powerless compared to the Ottomans and neighboring successor states.

For an example of this ethnic versatility, Dr. Stojcev speaks of one Macedonian turn-of-the-century educator, Krste Misirkov, who started out as a Bulgarian while studying in a Thessaloniki gymnasium, became a Serb while in Belgrade, and when in Odessa was even called a Russian!

But in the end, says the author, “he wrote the most beautiful book about the independence of Macedonia in the Macedonian language in 1903.”

As far as Greece is concerned, the author says that he had “no chance to work on these things, but I have cooperation with Macedonian historians from Greece.” Besides, because Greeks and Serbs are in good relations, he is aware of Greek scholarship via Serbian translations.

But as for primary sources, Dr. Stojcev says, “my colleagues tell me it is very difficult to find material about Macedonia in Greek archives, if you are interested in the Macedonian point of view.”

Strengths in Specificity

However, it is not necessary to be a Macedonian nationalist, or even to share the author’s belief in a Macedonian national narrative, to enjoy this book. And specifically because it covers the best-known period of Macedonian history, the opening chapters on ancient Macedonia are by no means the most important; after all, detailed discussions of the campaigns of Philip II and Alexander have long existed in myriad languages. So there’s nothing new to say there.

Where the book becomes exceptional, however, is rather in its coverage of military uprisings and related events from the period of Ottoman domination through the Second World War. This coverage takes up the latter six chapters of the work- some 560 pages.

In documenting the major and minor military events to have transpired on Macedonian soil during these centuries, Stojcev sets them in the context of larger events and phenomena that shaped the Balkans: the creation of the Ottoman Janissaries, the Haiduk anti-Ottoman rebel movement, the 17th century Austro-Ottoman war, the Congress of Berlin, the Ilinden Uprising, the Balkan Wars, etc. Although the book might have included slightly more detailed description, a certain depth of reader knowledge is presupposed; in any case, the scope of the book would have made it impossible to be more detailed.

That said, where the book excels is in its detailed descriptions of obscure uprisings, for which little or nothing is usually said by the historians. Such is the Mariovo-Prilep Rebellion of 1564-65, apparently started because of Ottoman taxation demands and “…most probably very bloody, because two villages were burned. Today we are still searching for their grounds” (p. 135).

The author is also very well informed regarding organizational structures of rebel cells, committees and militia formations. He discusses everyone from well-known leaders of the Ilinden Uprising to secret agents at work in turn-of-the-century Salonica. A real strength of the book is in specifically naming participants in various uprisings and the villages from which they came, something which would also presumably benefit genealogists and people looking into their family histories.

A Surprising Wealth of Sources

While the majority of the 20,000 documents Dr. Stojcev consulted were gleaned from various Macedonian archives, the Belgrade military archive, and other Bulgarian, French, German and Turkish sources, about 300 others were previously unpublished and even unknown. The author thus does a very important service in bringing to light these forgotten documents testifying to centuries of military history in Macedonia.

Since Dr. Stojcev worked for 20 years in Belgrade, he has many interesting stories regarding working conditions for historians under Communism. According to him, the Yugoslav authorities, seeking to check nationalist trends, suppressed and limited access to certain periods for researchers:

“In 1987-88, I specifically requested to research the Balkan Wars. But because Macedonia did not exist yet as a state, I was not allowed to.

It was forbidden to research in those archives. Only military institutions could research there during Yugoslav times. For all civilian researchers special clearance was required. I worked in the Belgrade Military History Institute, and they allowed me to work only on World War II history, because this was when the modern Macedonian state as a part of Yugoslavia was formed.”

In other words, there was officially no such thing as Macedonian history until 1944: “no one could speak of Macedonia and then in obviously controlled and limited context. Then it was simply Communist history. Now, the last 10 years we have had to start from the beginning.”

According to Dr. Stojcev, “only Serbians were allowed to write about the material we had on the Balkan Wars and World War I.” At the time, he was the only Macedonian researcher at the institute. He could read these texts, but not write about them. “Still, many remained secret,” he recalls.

But the intrepid researcher did find a way to see that certain rare and vital documents emerged to the light of day. During the Balkan Wars, he says, Macedonian soldiers under Serbian command would write letters to their loved ones from the field, and the commanders were supposed to send them. However, for different reasons they often weren’t sent, and the commanders held on to them personally.

Fast forward to the late 1980’s when, chiefly for financial reasons, the descendents of those commanders sold some of these letters (or donated them) to the Serbian military archive. These are letters that reveal intimate details of soldiers’ lives in the campaign, their thoughts for their families, and their sense of Macedonian self-identification. Although these (like the other pre-WWII documents) were meant to be forgotten, Stojcev was appeal to make copies of 20-30 of these letters- a very unique and interesting find which he uses in the book.

After the selective looting by Bulgarian and other occupation forces over the years, the remaining bulk of the Macedonian military archives were removed after WWII and taken to Belgrade and Sarajevo. While everything brought to the former remains there, unfortunately part of the materials brought to Sarajevo were destroyed in the fighting of the 1990’s.

A State Military Archive?

So why haven’t the documents come home, 15 years after Macedonia’s independence? “They don’t give them to us because in order to take them, Macedonia is supposed to have a military archive, but doesn’t.”

According to the author, this is something that the Ministry of Defense must initiate and fund. “I raised the issue 3 or 4 times since 2000,” Dr. Stojcev says. “When [now Prime Minister Vlade] Buckovski was minister of defense, he said, ‘OK’ and signed the order. But when he left, they stopped the procedure, because of the usual excuse – ‘no money.’”

Considering the level of alleged patriotism exhibited by many in the Macedonian political arena and diaspora, Dr. Stojcev finds this disinterest mildly ironic. After all, he says, “here is a book with a lot of new information, and it could be helpful regarding the name issue [with Greece].” However, while the MoD did provide some money toward costs, Dr. Stojcev had to fund the initial production himself, because the government claimed it didn’t have money. “Here we have Greece using all its lobbying and money against us,” he laments, “and they aren’t using this resource in our own defense!”

Re-discovering the War of 2001?

So what does Macedonia’s foremost military historian think of the mysterious war of 2001, about which so many questions still remain?

“I am working on it,” says Dr. Stojcev. However, he concedes that it is very difficult to find documents, “because the people who were involved are still alive,” and because the former enemy [the Albanian NLA] is now the government coalition partner. If you start asking too many questions, either as a journalist or a historian, “they can easily stop you,” he says – referring not just to the Albanians.

However, it is possible that the future will see new revelations. There are many generals who wrote their memoirs about the war, says Dr. Stojcev, and some would even like to publish them- “but they are afraid.”

So, will we ever know the truth about this vexing quasi-civil war? Dr. Stojcev is optimistic. “Yes, maybe not next year, or in 5 years, but maybe in 10 or 20 years,” he says.

Conclusion: a Stimulating Read

In conclusion, no matter what use you wish to make of it, or what ideological or national sentiments you may have, we recommend Military History of Macedonia for its sheer amount of rare data and little-known events, all told in a straightforward and detailed manner. At 800 pages, the book is probably too long for anyone to read cover-to-cover, but selectively dipping into it to learn about specific periods and events makes for an engrossing and rewarding experience.

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Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1183-1365

Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1183-1365

By István Vásáry

Cambridge University Press (2005), 230 pp., 3 appendices, incl. 4 maps

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

In terms of Balkan history, they could be called the Turks before the Turks – those hard-living nomad warriors from beyond the Ukrainian steppes who descended on horseback in their multitudes, pillaging as they went and changing the course of history in the process. In Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1183-1365 (released very recently, on 24 April) we are treated to a fascinating and unmatched account of two Turkic peoples who played a large part in the political and military developments of their day – in the process contributing considerably to the creation of today’s Balkan Peninsula.

Drawing both on primary sources from the period in question and the latest scholarly investigations, author István Vásáry makes a persuasive case for how these enigmatic tribes who would later all but disappear from history actually played a major role not only in medieval military affairs, but also in establishing viable political entities in what are now Bulgaria and Romania. The Cumans and Tatars not only made their presence felt as troops under their own command, or as mercenaries in foreign armies, but were also assimilated by the societies with which they came into contact, in some cases inhabiting the uppermost reaches of government and society. They married into the nobility of all adjacent societies, including even that of the Latins who held Constantinople from 1204-1261.

An important point that Cumans and Tatars establishes is that while the Ottomans tend to get all the credit (or, all the blame) for wresting control of the Balkans, there were other Turkic peoples who had established a strong presence there far before they had ever dreamed of an empire in Europe.

At the same time, Vásáry makes a convincing case that the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans was neither accidental nor particularly tragic, in comparison with the prevailing anarchy of the time – a situation partially caused by the unpredictable military depravations of the transient Cuman and Tatar tribes that swept down from the steppes with unsettling (for the local inhabitants) regularity. In his retelling, the Pax Ottomanica finally brought a long period of peace and stability to a region that had been sorely lacking in these qualities for centuries.

And so in the end, the fate of the Balkans was somewhat a matter of pick your poison- the invasion of Turkic peoples from the northeast (Ukraine) or from the southeast (Anatolia). Had the former tribes been as ideologically motivated and driven to urbanization by geographical concerns as were the latter, then perhaps they and not the Ottomans would have established an empire in Europe. That they didn’t does not mean that the Tatars and Cumans and their legacy should be ignored.

Dueling Nationalisms

The author is a former Hungarian ambassador to Turkey and currently professor of Turkic and Central Asian Studies at the University in Budapest. Considering that his book focuses on Turkic nomads who operated largely on the terrain of modern-day Romania and Bulgaria, two historic enemies of Hungary and Turkey respectively, it might seem that certain implications could be drawn from these facts, and unfortunately this is the case, as the reader increasingly finds throughout the book.

Indeed, Vásáry’s third major quest is to prove that various medieval Bulgarian and Romanian dynasties were either established by or heavily involved Turkic Cumans and Tatars, as well as Vlachs from southern Macedonia, something that brings him into constant collisions with historians from the former nations. In addition, Vásáry aims to “…disperse the rosy clouds of nostalgia that hang over the medieval golden age of the pre-Ottoman Balkans, depicted with so much zeal by the historiographies of the Balkanic nation states” (p. 167).

A nice goal, but whether the author is the man for the job is questionable at best, as he himself displays latent nationalistic motivations. As anyone familiar with contemporary scholarly literature knows, Western authors have just learned to be more subtle in expressing their prejudices, a lesson that has not been lost on academics from nations eager to imitate them.

The Situation of Sources

In any case, Vásáry has an excellent command of the sources, many of which are written in obscure and intractably difficult languages. It is a rare polymath these days that can display such versatility. Cumans and Tatars is also very well-written, especially since it comes from a non-native writer of English.

Vásáry relies on Byzantine Greek accounts as the main basis of the narrative, for the simple reason that they are more plentiful and complete, while bolstering his treatment with Hungarian, Turkish, Arabic, Slavic, Latin and other medieval sources. A nice touch at the beginning is the inclusion of short biographies of these main Greek historiographers (Choniates, Akropolites, Pachymeres, Gregoras and Kantakouzenos), and the presuppositions and tendencies that characterized their writings. This is useful because for the general reader Byzantine scholars are little-known and some explication goes a long way.

The major problem a historian runs in to when studying nomadic peoples like the Cumans and Tatars, the author makes a point of mentioning, is these peoples’ failure to write their own histories. Being the kind of society that they were, the nomadic warriors of the Eurasian steppes could hardly be faulted for this, of course; but the lack of self-descriptive sources does make the researcher’s job more difficult. On this point, Vásáry reminds that contemporary descriptions of the Cumans and Tatars have to be filtered according to the prejudices and predilections of the people describing them. A Muslim Arabic account of nomadic deeds might stress different aspects than would, say, a Christian Hungarian one. And the Byzantines, with their habit for using archaic and sometimes confused terminology, have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis: when does a ‘Scythian’ really mean a ‘Cuman?’ Or when does a ‘Cuman’ really mean a Tatar?

That said, no matter how many sources a historian has at hand, they are useless he knows how to use them. With his great linguistic knowledge of obscure medieval Turkic dialects as well as the other relevant languages, VˆšÂ°sˆšÂ°ry is well-equipped to tackle these problems of nomenclature and makes convincing arguments in the majority of cases regarding which peoples are/are not being described correctly at different periods in time. He does this by matching linguistic evidence with the historiography and with established knowledge regarding the Mongol and Turkic migrations to the west.

This leads us to one of the problems of the work. While extremely detailed and eminently lucid throughout, what is missing is a more basic understanding of who Cumans and Tatars were, and how they lived. We know that they were nomad pastoralists, were excellent horseback riders and fighters, and migrated seasonally in search of pasturage. We know that they were considered barbarians by their neighbors, and oftentimes lived up to the reputation. But what we don’t learn much about is how these qualities established limiting factors in Cuman and Tatar society.

With the exception of Vásáry’s assertion that these tribes did not fight in the summer because of their need to return to the crops, something which he uses to help in dating battles and other events, the brief survey given in the first chapter of Mark Whittow’s The Making of Byzantium is far more informative about the origins of the nomads and the prevailing factors that drove their social and political development. While Vásáry tells us of the importance of the clan structure, it is Whittow who quantifies the exigencies of nomad life by assessing the acreage required to sustain populations with an enormous livestock count – and the implications this had for the precise acentralized character of Cuman and Tatar political structures.

Other things we don’t hear about are the more revealing details of Tatar and Cuman social life. This is not to say that the author misses them altogether, of course. One of the most fascinating is the description, given in passing, of the burial rite for a Cuman prince who, “…being a pagan, was buried outside the city walls of Constantinople in a tumulus. In the pagan burial ceremony, eight volunteer warriors and twenty-six horses were sacrificed to his memory” (p. 66).

This is the kind of thing we would like to hear more of. The remarkable detail only increases the reader’s curiosity regarding other, unmentioned practices with a similar capacity to astonish.

A Compelling Narrative

All things considered, however, the author does a fine job in identifying and locating the Cuman and Tatar presence in very specific events and political metastases from the 12th-14th centuries. He sets this account within the wider context of Byzantium, the Crusades, Western and Ottoman expansionism, and the internal forces of kingdom-building among the Balkan peoples. Pages 4-12 of the introductory first chapter are indispensable for their linguistic explications of Tatar and Cuman origins and their relations with related Turkic tribes such as the Kipchaks, Pechenegs and Uz. The following chapters go on to discuss the effect that the former tribes had on their Bulgarian, Wallachian, Serbian, Byzantine and Hungarian neighbors during an extremely turbulent and complex period in the Balkans.

All of this is accomplished with a perspicacious attention to detail and a sense for narrative that is only tempered by the limitations of the primary source material. As such, Vásáry’s text makes for enjoyable as well as edifying reading. When he makes assertions that are sure to stir up controversy (such as the Cuman-Vlach roots of the Asenid Bulgarian dynasty in chapter 2 or the Tatar origins of the Romanian Basarabid dynasty in chapter 9), the author does so on the basis of sound reasoning and with diligent attention to the source material.

A key point frequently emphasized is that though they lacked permanent state structures such as their more sedentary neighbors enjoyed, the Cuman and Tatar were indispensable to all of them because of their martial skills. In the age before gunpowder, the fast, concentrated force of light cavalry bowmen was the most devastating weapon any army could wish to have, and here the battle-hardened Cumans and Tatars were the best in the business. Vásáry embellishes the point with a vivid description by the Byzantine writer Niketas Choniates:

 ”…They [i.e. the Cumans] fought in their habitual manner, learnt from their fathers. They would attack, shoot their arrows and begin to fight with spears. Before long they would turn their attack into flight and induce the enemy to pursue them. Then they would show their faces instead of their backs, like birds cutting through the air, and would fight face to face with their assailants and struggle even more bravely. This they would do several times, and when they gained the upper hand over the Romans [Byzantines], they would stop turning back again. Then they would draw their swords, release an appalling roar, and fall upon the Romans quicker than a thought. They would seize and massacre those who fought bravely and those who behaved cowardly alike” (p. 56).

That said, it is easy to understand that when they weren’t running in headlong panic from them, all of the neighboring Balkan states found it sensible to employ these warriors in their service. As mercenaries, such nomads were responsible for many decisive victories and indeed, as Vásáry reminds, it was all but impossible for a state to prevail without their help.

This brings us to another important point the author makes in his bid to wipe out the “rosy clouds of nostalgia”- the fact that every state in the region was dependent on large numbers of mercenaries, not always steppe nomads, but who in all cases shared with the latter the characteristics of unpredictable and erratic behavior and a tendency towards brigandage. There was no such thing as national or ethnic armies fighting patriotically for states, as latter-day historians sometimes read anachronistically back into past events.

This dependence on mercenaries often invited disaster. As Byzantine power ebbed away throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, for example, large numbers of mixed mercenaries were required for any major operation, oftentimes incurring unexpected results. Thus we hear of Catalan mercenaries in Byzantine service who, after liberating Anatolian Philadelphia in 1303, went on the rampage, sacking Byzantine towns and even Mt. Athos (pp. 108-109) together with Tatar and other mercenary elements. And we also hear of the time when in 1275 the Byzantines, looking to put down a rebellious Thessalian lord, sent a huge army of Greeks, Cumans and Turks under the command of the brother of Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos. Everything was going fine until “something unexpected happened.” In Vásáry’s retelling, the Cuman “mischief” acquires comic dimensions:

“…The Cumans began to plunder the churches and monasteries and set them on fire. They seized the nuns and made them their slaves, and desecrated the holy objects, using the icons as tables for eating” (p. 117).

But it was not all fun and games to be a barbarian pagan warrior in the Middle Ages. Another Byzantine campaign, this time against the Serbs in 1282, saw the unfortunate, accidental mass drowning of Tatar mercenaries in the River Drim in Kosovo (p. 102). Then there was always the chance of group deportation. To lessen the chances of more Thessaly-style “mischief” in the form of a palace coup, the Byzantine emperor in 1327 relocated 2,000 Cuman warriors to three Greek islands in order to minimize their potential for trouble-making (p. 117). And while being a feared member of medieval society had its advantages, the dictum about there always being a bigger fish held true, as was seen by the waves of Cuman refugees that swept south through Bulgaria on the heels of the Tatar invasion of 1236.

Of course, even though they were refugees in true nomad style the Cumans carried on pillaging as they went (p. 64). Finally, Vásáry describes scenes where Cuman mercenaries, hired by opposing sides, were actually fighting one another. Small wonder that the price Cumans and Tatars would pay for establishing viable political entities was, according to the author, assimilation by the dominant ethnic group, whether Bulgars, Romanians or Greeks.

Some Missing Info: Maps

Considering that Cumans and Tatars assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, and especially concerning the origins of the Turkic peoples in Central Asia and Mongolia, it would have been nice to have more maps. For the general reader, and even for scholars of the Balkans or Byzantium, this is very remote territory and a little bit of visual orientation would help the reader considerably.

First of all, the inclusion of only political maps is unfortunate, considering that Cuman and Tatar movements were dictated largely by geography. While the 4 maps that are included (Balkans general, northwestern Balkans/Hungarian Kingdom, northeastern Balkans, and southern Balkans/Aegean) are very useful, they are not dated. Considering that the author is talking about frequently changing borders over a 200-year period, adding more and specifically dated maps would be useful.

Further, the author is unclear in his map methodology, seeming to utilize a combination of modern understandings of territory (i.e., ‘Macedonia’ conforms roughly to the territory of the modern-day Macedonian Republic, not to the boundaries of the various medieval Serbian or Bulgarian states, nor to the borders of the previous Byzantine thema of Macedonia) and medieval ones (i.e., the identification and location of tiny banates in the Serbian-Hungarian borderlands). These issues open up on to the topic of nationalism and politics, which we return to presently.

The Bitter End

Despite his impressive erudition and engaging treatment of the source material, the way the author chooses to conclude the book leaves a rather sour taste. Unfortunately, like so many Western authors writing on the Balkans, Vásáry can’t resist the temptation to pontificate. This would not be so questionable were the author not tacitly involved in undermining rival nationalistic claims in historiography partially to propagate those of his own nation.

Of course, the 19th century creation of nation-states that did not correspond with any previous historical model – and the scholarly “justifications” for this practice – are rightly seen as anomalies with regrettably destructive legacies. The author does well to point out that life in the Middle Ages was, in the Balkans as elsewhere, still nasty, brutish and short, filled with the uncertainties of plagues, crop failure, anarchic political leadership and the constant threats of plunder and pillage from steppe nomads and other marauders.

It would have been one thing had the author left things having made this observation. However, Vásáry draws the now tired conclusion of so many American and British writers assured of the Balkanians’ obdurate backwardness:

“…the Balkans have yet to find the key and meaning of their historical existence and to decide whether they want to belong to the mainstream of European development or to insist on their Byzantine and Ottoman autocratic traditions. This process of clarification will be the chief task of the third millennium.” (p. 167)

This is heady stuff indeed. It could almost be another EU directive.

This resounding conclusion is actually foreshadowed long before, in the introductory description of the Balkans. Here specifically excluded from the peninsula are Croatia “…which surely belonged to Western European civilization” (p. xiii) and Romania. However, the Balkans has always been characterized by diversity, which for better and for worse is a defining trait that has always driven the fate of the region. In the broad cultural, social and historical view, Croatia and Romania cannot be extricated from their certifiably Balkan neighbors.

Yet these omissions serve another purpose, too. After all, despite the stylistics and mindset, the author is not American, British, German or French. He belongs to the subject matter he is discussing, and whether or not Croatia may have always “belonged to” Western European civilization, in a tangible sense it once belonged to Hungary. And the Croats chafed under the Hapsburg Empire – especially hating the chauvinistic and assimilatory nature of Hungarian rule.

Hungarian nationalism today has retained a soft and sentimental spot for the “true” Hungary, which would see the “return” of Transylvania and Vojvodina (conveniently if subtly affirmed by the author’s inclusion of a map of the medieval Hungarian Kingdom). Of course, the author does not extol the rosy glow of Hungary’s past, but neither does he try to extinguish it as he does with the luckless Bulgarians and Romanians. We can suppose that EU and NATO member Hungary has through these institutions somehow found the “key and meaning” of its historical existence – as we can assume by implication – even if it has come at the expense of its Balkan neighbors.

Yet by taking Romania and Croatia out of the Balkans, Vásáry forfeits in advance; he withdraws from entering into rougher terrain, from opening up issues that would spawn arguments that could hit very close to home- and prove that the Hungarians can hardly claim to be above the fray. Unfortunately for the author, despite the pontification and the strenuous attempts at discretion, it is not hard to see through it. Despite the appearance of being an objective history (as if such a thing were possible) written by the detached academic, it is the lurking nationalism of the former civil servant that really jumps out in this abrasive conclusion, one that mars what is otherwise an excellent and informative treatment of a little-known but vital topic.

With that excepted, there is still plenty to be recommended in Cumans and Tatars. It will appeal to a wide-range of readers with interests in Byzantium, the Turkic world, and the Balkans in general. It does a service in providing a whole new dimension on one of the most exciting and turbulent, though obscure, periods of European history, and the mysterious nomadic people who fueled its evolution.

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Stjepan Radic, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization

Stjepan Radic, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization, 1904-1928

By Mark Biondich

University of Toronto Press (2000), 344 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

This invaluable contribution to Croatian political life in the early twentieth century, centered on the towering figure of Stjepan Radic (1871-1928), chronicles the development of Croatian political and national identity from the waning years of the Hapsburg Empire and the Great War through the first decade of the fledgling Yugoslav kingdom.

Throughout this comprehensive work, the author relies on numerous primary as well as secondary sources, some unpublished, including copious excerpts from the writings of Stjepan Radic and his brother Antun, close partners in the making of the Croat Peasant’s Party that would dominate the nation’s political imagination following 1918.

Who was Stjepan Radic? For non-Croats, he might be just another one of those obscure and forgettable Balkan politicians of yesteryear who met a violent death owing to his political beliefs. For Croats, however, he is considered as a national father, an eloquent statesman and passionate proponent for Croatian independence during the complex period of transition between Austro-Hungarian domination to the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after 1918. In fact, as author Biondich notes, Radic proved so popular throughout the twentieth century that his legacy was re-appropriated several times by subsequent (and diametrically opposed) political players in Croatia, sometimes in defense of deeds that would have had Radic spinning in his grave.

A Helpful Introduction

The book is divided into seven chapters and a conclusion, which lay out in a generally chronological fashion Radic’s personal and political development, as he went from poor village boy to student activist to opposition party leader, and finally to the central figure in Croatian politics before his untimely death in August 1928, two months after an assassination attempt in Belgrade’s parliament.

Compared to the following chapters, the first introductory chapter is quite compressed, necessarily so, as it endeavors to summarize the entire 19th century history of Croatian nationalist currents, starting with the inclusive Illyrianist movement of Ljudevit Gaj (1836-49), which climaxed with a rousing call for “…a single culture for the South Slavs under the neutral Illyrian name” (p. 7) before fizzling out under Austrian centralization efforts.

This movement, and the literally “Yugoslav” one of Josip Juraj Strossmayer and Franjo Racki that followed in the 1860s, were primarily supported by Croats and arose in reaction to aggressive assimilation attempts by the Hungarians (whom the author somewhat strangely refers to throughout as ‘Magyars,’ though no other peoples mentioned are referred to as they call themselves).

The other strain of Croatian political thought, exclusive nationalism, emerged in 1861 with the creation of the Party of Right by Ante Starcevic and Eugen Kvaternik. These essential two positions on Croatia’s political future would remain at the forefront of the debate throughout Radic’s life, and at different times he would embrace both possibilities while remaining committed to Croatian self-determination, and especially increasing the leadership and rights of the peasant class whose support he sought above all.

Besides continuing to lay out the political background for 19th century Croatia in its relations with the Hapsburgs and neighboring states such as Serbia, this first chapter also creates a context in which the later Radic phenomenon can more easily be understood. Biondich discusses the anger caused by Hungarian chauvinism and oppression of the local population through tax increases, political decisions, voting manipulation and manufactured animosities between Croatia’s Croat and Serb populations. The author associates much of the villainy with the reign of the Hungarian Ban, Count Károly Khuen-Héderváry (1883-1903), and presents economical statistics that show a growing rate of peasant indebtedness wedded with distrust of the urban elite created the right conditions for a viable (and previously unexploited) populist movement – that of Stjepan Radic – to emerge at the turn of the century.

The Formation of a Political Visionary: the Early Years

Chapter 2, which concentrates on Radic’s early education, travels and political development, is perhaps the book’s most interesting segment. We are treated to the unlikely story of how a boy from an impoverished peasant family in the Croatian hinterland developed an insatiable desire for study and travel. Radic’s lifelong dream of peasant emancipation from foreign overlords and the Zagreb intelligentsia alike, and for national self-determination on a political level, was propelled by an invincible, sometimes naive sense of self-belief and a restless need for constant action. From an early age, Radic was certain both of the righteousness of his quest and of the head-on way in which he would achieve it.

The detailed summary of the young and poor Radic’s determination to get an education and travel throughout Europe, all in the name of fulfilling a grandiose national ambition, a scenario so incongruous with the modern Western world, is very revealing. When he first came to Zagreb against his family’s wishes in 1883, to study in the gymnasium, he was so poor that he was often found “…obtaining his daily meals from the public kitchens of Zagreb’s charitable institutions” (p. 29).

Despite the hardships of living in orphanages, fainting from hunger and suffering beatings and run-ins with the powers-that- be, Radic finished his schooling and went on to enroll in the Zagreb law faculty in 1891. During this time he also tapped the pulse of the peasantry by traveling extensively throughout his native Croatia. He also satisfied his somewhat starry-eyed Pan-Slavic dreams with trips to far-away place such as Ukraine and Russia.

Indeed, there was no doubt that young Radic was precocious; however, it is pushing it a bit to say, as Biondich does, that the ardently nationalistic youth “broke with” the veteran politician Ante Starcevic in 1892 (p. 33). Whoever heard of a 21 year-old “breaking with” anyone? This is to look at things a bit in retrospect.

Stjepan Radic developed a reputation as a nationalist student agitator through acts like his public denunciation of Hungarian Ban Károly Khuen-Héderváry, a deed for which he was rewarded with 4 months in jail and termination from the university. Never to be deterred, Radic decided to continue his studies in Prague, where he would, in his own words, prepare to one day “…unify and liberate Croatia with the help of the just and eternal God and sincere and faithful friends” (p. 35).

In Prague, Radic would develop a strong admiration for the Czechs (and corollary dislike of the Germans). Before being expelled yet again for agitating and sent home, Radic made a fateful meeting with a young village schoolteacher – his future wife, Marija.

Back in Zagreb, Radic continued to demonstrate his flamboyance by leading a group of student demonstrators to burn a Hungarian flag before the grand appearance in Zagreb of the Emperor Franz Joseph. While the stunt got Radic jail time yet again, it also increased his stature as a future political leader.

After more travels abroad, and studies in Russia and France, Radic began working with his student peers to realize some of their political goals. Turning from his earlier, hardline nationalist pro-Starcevic orientation, Radic and his peers embraced the concept of narodno jedinstvo (national oneness) so as to include the Serbs in their anticipated project of “political education and practical work” (p. 44) for improving the condition of the rural population.

Indeed, national or religious affiliation mattered far less for Radic than did one’s place in society (which is why his party was originally mistakenly condemned as Socialists). His view of the peasantry as the core of the Croat nation and the upholders of the nation’s culture, traditions and identity versus the foreign overlords and disaffected intellectuals/bureaucrats in Zagreb was romanticized, but there was a ring of truth to this contrast. Yet despite its vibrancy, the electorate Radic chose for himself had its limitations. As the author notes,

“…Despite his emphasis on realism, he tended generally to idealize the peasantry. This romanticized vision of the village in turn led him grossly to exaggerate the peasantry’s potential and actual political strength” (pp. 56-7).

By the end of the second chapter, we reach the point at which Radic’s political career can really be said to begin in earnest – the creation of the Croat People’s Peasant Party (HPSS) in December 1904. Although the party would, always under Radic’s control, undergo various permutations of doctrine and tactical shifts, it was essentially committed to a certain set of political values in vogue at the time in Europe’s growing agrarian and populist movements.

Paradoxes of Political Belief

The remainder of the book is devoted to chronicling the ups-and-downs of Radic’s 24-year career as a political leader, in terms of his party’s successes and failures. The author always sets the narrative in the context of larger regional events, which means that the reader learns quite a bit also about Austro-Hungarian policy and Serbia under Nikola Pasic, Radic’s more famous contemporary. The topic that provides the thread of the narrative is the attempt to elucidate Stjepan Radic’s sometimes almost paradoxical political views, and how he sought to make them conform into one platform.

For example, Radic was a devout Christian, and based his politics in Christian ethics, but he was equally adamant in his opposition to clericalism, opposing cultural chauvinism and conversion tactics, whether they come from the Croatian Catholic clergy or that of the Serbian Orthodox. He was also friendly to certain forms of capitalism, strenuously defended the right to private property, and opposed statism.

Yet at the same time, Radic also sought various protective measures to be enforced so that economic manipulation of the peasantry would be lessened. And though he lobbied in defense of the rural poor, Radic did not give much thought to the urban poor or workers; indeed, he spoke out harshly against Communism, which he distrusted for its opposition to private property, the lifeblood of the landed peasantry.

Radic was also an anti-imperialist, yet at various points he proposed, in vain, a settlement with the mortally wounded Austria for Croatia to remain part of the empire as an autonomous republic. He instinctively sensed imperialism behind Serb attempts to dominate the first Yugoslav kingdom. Yet despite many of his countrymen, he was not anti-Serb, and sought to protect the rights of Serbs living in Croatia.

Indeed, in a 1902 riot, Radic had even prevented a mob of angry Croats from gutting the store of his neighbor (a Serb). Rather uproariously, he then suggested that the real enemies of the Croatian people were not the Serbs but the Hungarians, and could the mob please follow him along to the railway station where they could protest against the latter (p. 59). Once again his zealousness was rewarded with a short trip to jail.

At various times throughout his life, Radic looked favorably on the idea of Slavic national unity. However, during his whole life there were certain peoples who were not seen as being friendly: the Hungarians, as we have seen, and the Germans, whom Radic feared for their perceived expansionist desires. The author does also consider at various points apparent anti-Semitism in some of Radic’s proclamations, but notes that this attitude is part of a larger denunciation of all those connected with the kind of urban capitalism and liberalism that was ruining the peasantry (p. 76).

He also echoed a common view that the Jews were the agents of “Magyarization” (p. 110). And some of Radic’s anti-Jewish statements were made specifically in the case of Josip Frank, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who bizarrely enough went on to become the head of Starcevic’s Party of Right. Radic, along with many others, observed that it was somewhat remarkable for a non-Croat religious convert to be leading the ultra-nationalistic Croat party. In the end, what the HPSS claimed to stand for was for the Croats “…to work alone, and without the Jews… that is our anti-Semitism” (p. 77). Radic was also motivatedIn an interesting passage, Radic contrasts this position “…we cannot be anti-Semites like the Germans” (p. 53).

A Commitment to Peace

Finally, the mature Radic’s most attractive quality was his firm commitment to non-violent change. He condemned any attempts to change the Croatian political situation through violent means, even in the post-WWI years when the situation became much more tense due to the Serbian King Aleksandar’s centralizing proclivities, as well as the fact that more extreme youth elements were emerging from among the ranks of the HDSS peasant poor.

It was no accident that Radic’s pan-Slavism cooled after seeing the revolutionary events in Russia. He was firmly set against Bolshevikism, and more often than not his proposals were for how to realize his dream of national self-determination within a larger confederation, whether it be the Austrian Empire, a Yugoslav state, or even something more fanciful such as a “Trans-Danubian Federation” of Central European countries stretching as far as Poland.

It is a real testament to the man that, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never counted on war or ethnically chauvinistic views to sell his agenda. After 1918, when the HPSS started polling well for the first time (eventually becoming the second-largest party in the whole Yugoslav kingdom), the authorities became more and more anxious about the party’s potential for revolt. Clampdown tactics such as banning rallies, dissolving meetings and electoral fraud ensued, but Radic always remained patient and committed to peaceful political change. Few leaders would have been able to resist the temptation to start a civil war when they achieved optimum strength. Radic was one.

Confused Tactics

This is not to say that Stjepan Radic was always sincere or motivated by the high ideals he endlessly voiced. Radic was, essentially, a man driven by the single goal of making Croatia an independent (or at least autonomous), peasant-run state, and he proved very versatile in employing all available means towards this goal. Yet sometimes he was too clever by half, to the point of bewildering colleagues and observers. As one perceptive critic, the Scottish historian R.W. Seton-Watson, put it in 1924:

“…the trouble with Radic is that he flutters like a butterfly from one idea or policy to another. Whenever I talk with him, I find myself almost always in agreement with the principles and views which he lays down. I even think that we have the same aims, and I certainly believe in his honesty. But he has no political ballast, and I never feel sure that he will not say something quite contradictory to the next person he meets” (p. 207).

Indeed, Radic’s policies can only be considered consistent in that they always supported what wasmost expedient for Croatian interests, as he perceived them. So while he criticized excessive nationalism as well as imperialism, and visibly chafed under Austro-Hungarian rule, Radic was happy to scavenge what he could from their victories-   for example, Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908. In this light it is a bit nauseating to hear him say “…Bosnia is nationally and historically Croatian, and political circumstances have brought it under the same ruler as the rest of Croatia” (p. 111). This is far from the only iteration presented in the book that is rich with unprincipled opportunism.

Sometimes Radic’s best-laid plans simply backfired. His opposition to communism did not prevent him from making a high-profile trip to Soviet Russia, where he entered his Croatian Peasant’s Party into the Krestintern in the hopes of getting more international prestige for the Croatian cause. Instead, this just provided more ammunition for his Serbian rivals, who accused the HPSS of being secret Communist sympathizers (only a few years after the Yugoslav kingdom had banned the official Communist party), thereby giving the authorities more apparent justification for interfering with the party’s activities.

By the far the greatest test of Radic’s credibility came however in 1925, when after several years of principled abstention his party officially entered the parliament in Belgrade – thereby legitimizing the Yugoslav government, which they had previously refused to do – and simultaneously dropped its federalist platform (Chapter 7).

That Radic did not become his country’s Michael Collins following this capitulation can be attributed both to his firm control of the party he had created, as well as to an apparent passivity and fatalism among the people, who had never really expected they would prevail. Although angry dissidents started questioning why Radic could not deliver the goods for Croatia, he was also the only significant leader the nation had.

In the final 3 years of his life, Radic became more radicalized due to increasingly authoritarian tactics from King Aleksandar. His tragic death in August 1928 elevated him to an almost mythic status that was felt immediately (some 300,000 people attended his funeral). Unfortunately, however, Radic’s commitment to peaceful protest would be forgotten by the increasingly radical strain of Croatian nationalism that manifested itself in the fascist Ustashe regime of WWII.

Two Critiques

There is much more that can be said about this factually-rich, well-sourced work, but space does not allow us to go into more detail. We might conclude by making two small criticisms.

As author Mark Biondich states, the book grew out of a PhD thesis, which would seem to account for a certain repetitiveness that pervades the work. I estimate that some 20-30 pages could be eliminated from the text, without causing any harm to the argumentation, simply by weeding out repetitive passages.

More seriously, where Stjepan Radic, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization, 1904-1928 falls short is in that it occupies a somewhat uncertain space between political biography and political history. After the second chapter on Radic’s early development, we are presented with less and less information on the man himself, in regards to his personal relationships and interactions with others.

Did the man become a demagogue, as indeed some believed? One might get this impression from the few cited letters to his wife, who is addressed almost as a party member receiving political truths. Did he not have something more intimate to say? We don’t know. Similarly, we hear little of his family or his relationship with his children. Did they have no influence on him? To take another example, we learn that his beloved brother and close collaborator Antun died suddenly in 1919 – but nothing is said of the effect this must have had on Stjepan.

It seems likely that the author was simply forced, by the sheer mass of data and accelerated pace of events post-1918, to devote full coverage to political events instead of personal. Yet we to some degree lose sight of Radic the person in this way- even in the very era when he was making his most crucial decisions. In a way, by the final chapters the book becomes more a biography of elections and ephemeral coalition governments than of a person.

To be fair, it is clear that the author set out to do more than document one politician’s life. Biondich is essentially interested in Radic in the context of how he helped to consolidate a Croatian national political consciousness. Yet even in this case, it would be really useful to find out how Radic – by all accounts, charismatic and compelling – interacted with specific leaders or party members on the rural level, considering that his party’s entire raison d’etre was the peasantry

How did he gain, and then keep the trust of that peasantry? How was he able to ensure that violence did not break out? How was he able to ensure party unity? Who were the most important local leaders, and to what extent did their party efforts employ the “education” and professionalization Radic brought with him from his studies and experiences abroad, and to what extent did they rely on existing clan and other rural systems of power?

Finally, were there perhaps any local leaders who should share some of the credit with Radic for creating a juggernaut that became the second largest party in Yugoslavia, with ambitions to branch out to Macedonia and Serbia? These are all key questions for the matter at hand.

Despite these shortcomings, however, this engrossing study proves its value abundantly. It offers an excellent and detailed introduction to Croatian politics in the first third of the twentieth century, and is laden with facts and citations from hard-to-find statistics and sources from a variety of languages. Biondich has made an admirable attempt to bring to life one of the most enigmatic and striking political figures in modern Balkan history, sadly one whose caution and patient dedication to peaceful change went unheeded in the 2 decades after his death.

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The Nazis in the Balkans: A Case Study of Totalitarian Politics

The Nazis in the Balkans: A Case Study of Totalitarian Politics

by Dietrich Orlow  

University of Pittsburgh Press (1968), 235 pp.

Reviewed by Carl K. Savich

In The Nazis in the Balkans: A Case Study of Totalitarian Politics, Dietrich Orlow examined the Sudosteuropa-Gesellschaft or SOEG, the Southeast-European Society, a Nazi organization or agency created to exploit the Balkans during World War II.The SOEG planned, coordinated, and executed the Third Reich’s blueprint for the New Order in Southeast Europe, or the Balkans. It was founded in 1940 to formulate wartime policy in Southeast Europe and the exploitation of Balkan resources. It also established long-term economic designs for the Balkans after the war, assuming Germany would win the war.

Neu Ordnung: The New Order and the New World Order

Aside from its importance as a historical source, this analysis has value in that it allows a comparison of the policies in the Balkans of New Order of Nazi Germany/Axis and the New Word Order of the US/NATO/EU. Both have similarities and differences. But the bottom line remains that new orders are created to allow for the exploitation and control of a sphere of influence which benefits the exploiter and impoverishes the exploited. The Nazi German New Order destroyed and looted the economies of the Balkan states to enrich the citizens of Germany. The US/EU/NATO New World Order in the Balkans, likewise, loots and exploits the economies of the Balkans. The result in both cases has been the economic exploitation and ruin of the Balkan states. Moreover, Nazi Germany recruited hundreds of thousands of Balkan citizens to fight as “volunteer” soldiers in the Nazi armies. Similarly, the US/EU/NATO have recruited Balkan citizens to “volunteer” as soldiers in US military occupation forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. This book is invaluable in showing the similarities and differences between all New Orders. Any person who has an interest in the Balkans will find this book of immense value. It shows that the paradigm or modus operandi are very similar.

A possible flaw of the book as a historical work is that it does not examine the activities and relations of the SOEG in the Balkans in much detail. Orlow restricts and focuses his analysis on the SOEG itself, offering only sketchy and incomplete analyses of its role in the Balkan states themselves. Since there was a long and complex history of German involvement in the Balkans, above and beyond the SOEG, one might have expected a fuller treatment.

Revisionist versus Antirevisionist States: 1930s Europe

In the 1930s, Europe was divided into two camps: The revisionist powers or nations, such as Bulgaria and Hungary, versus the antirevisionist nations, such as Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania and Czechoslovakia. The antirevisionist nations benefited from the Versaille Treaty and the Trianon, St. Germain, and Neuilly Treaties, while Hungary and Bulgaria lost territory following World War I. In 1922, the Little Entente was created by Yugoslavia, Romania, and Czechoslovakia with France as a defensive pact against the revisionist powers, which at that was targeted against/versus at Hungary. In 1934, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey established the Balkan Pact as a defensive Treaty. Fascist Italy emerged in the 1930s led by Benito Mussolini, who had an anti-France policy and sought to establish a sphere of influence in the Balkans, particularly in Albania, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Italy and Germany thus were economic and political rivals in the Balkans during the 1930s.

Nazi German foreign policy, unlike that of the Weimar Republic, sought to gain greater economic and political ties to the Balkan states. Nazi Germany became the largest and most important trade partner for most of the Balkan states in the 1930s. In many instances, politics superceded economics. Nazi German foreign policy sought to establish diplomatic and political links to the Balkan states. To achieve these political ties, Germany did not always negotiate the most advantageous and most profitable economic deals.

By the end of the 1930s, Germany sought a greater political and economic role in the Balkans. To achieve this goal, an agency or organization was established. The goal of the SOEG was to establish German economic penetration in the Balkans. The SOEG was created in February 8, 1940 by the Reich Ministry of Economics with headquarters in Vienna. In The Nazis in the Balkans: A Case Study of Totalitarian Politics, it is described as “neofeudal” by Orlow.

The SOEG was created in the context of a totalitarian society and regime. The Weimar Republic of the 1920s was based on the Rechtsstaat principle. Rechtsstaat is a state based on law, requiring a bureaucracy. This was how it was during the Weimar Republic when there was a line between the state and the citizen. On January 30, 1933, a totalitarian, Nazi regime emerged in Germany which abolished the distinction between the state and the citizen. Nazi Germany was also a “racial state,” based on race as the defining criterion of citizenship.

The SOEG was formed and led by Walther Funk, the Reich Minister of Economics, Josef Burckel, the president, who was also the Reich Commissioner for Reunification of Austria and the German Reich, and August Heinrichsbauer, the executive secretary. Alfred Rosenberg’s Foreign Policy Office oversaw the SOEG. The object was to obtain Grossraum, or a sphere of influence in the Balkans.The New Order in the Balkans.

The first entity that emerged was The Black Sea Trading and Industrial Company, which was formed in the Balkans. The Nutrition and Agriculture Group was formed as well. A Corn Committee was established to do research on the corn plant in the Balkans. It was headed by Sawa Ulmansky in Zagreb. The SOEG worked jointly with DAM or the German Academy (Deutsche Akademie). DAM was engaged in propagating German culture and the German language abroad. It had cultural goals. It established with SOEG: 1) the Society of Friends of the German Academy in Vienna (Gesellschaft der Freunde der Deutschn Akademie in Wien); 2) the Southeast Seminar (Sudost-Seminar); and, 3) the Prince Eugene Institute, which was never formally organized.

The SOEG used the Dachgesellschaft approach, which meant that it was organized as an umbrella and coordinating body, one which was decentralized. The SOEG published a newsletter on Balkan economics which contained confidential information. The SOEG published a newssheet with confidential data, organized meetings, workshops, and seminars on the Balkans. It addressed import-export issues, and cultural issues. This coordination of the economic, political, military, cultural, and scientific aspects of the New Order reflected the gleichschaltung policy, or coordination, of the Nazi regime. All aspects of the New Order were coordinated and synchronized and harmonized.

Volksdeutsche Auxiliaries

The ultimate goal of the SOEG was to implement the New Order in the Balkans, where it worked together with the SS to bring this about. The SS controlled Volksdeutsche or ethnic German life in the Balkans. Heinrich Himmler formed four SS divisions in the Balkans and planned to form a fifth Albanian SS division. In Yugoslavia, Himmler formed the 7th SS Mountain Division “Prinz Eugen,” consisting of volksdeutsche from the Serbian Banat, Yugoslavia, Romania, and other Balkan states.  Himmler created 12 central offices or Hauptamter by 1944.

In 1935, the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (VoMi), the Ethnic G
erman Aid Office, was founded, which was a Nazi party organization closely associated with the SS responsible for coordinating all official activities among the ethnic Germans outside of the Reich. VoMi was headed by SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Werner Lorenz from July 4, 1942 to November 9, 1944. There were approximately 10 million ethnic Germans outside the Reich in the 1930s. There were 750,000 volksdeusche in Romania, 700,000 in Yugoslavia, and 500,000 in Hungary, the Transylvania Germans. The Reichskommisar fur die Festigung Deutschen Volkstums (RKFDV) was also established for the strengthening of “Germandom.” The RKFDV was headed by SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Ulrich Greifeit, which focused on the resettlement of ethnic Germans. The Lebesborn or Well of Life Society was also created to maintain racial purity.

Nazi Germany also sought support for its Eastern European policies by developing the Ostforschung policy. This policy enabled the Nazis to implement the New Order in eastern Europe by providing a scientific rationale. The Ostforschung policy consisted of developing biological racism theories by German and Axis scholars and scientists to buttress the Nazi racial policies in the East.

Nazi Economic Objectives in the Balkans

The economic objective of the SOEG was the exploitation of the mineral resources of all the Balkan states. The Committee on Economic Planning was formed for this purpose. German joint companies were formed with the Balkan states that gave the German firms controlling shares or interests. The companies formed and established in the Balkans were geared towards what German industry or business needed. Germany also formed cartels in the Balkans. The result of this exploitation of the Balkans was that the German standard of living increased while that of the Balkans declined. German businessmen wanted to own stocks in Balkan’s companies and to control those companies by obtaining controlling stock shares. What resulted was the “Germanization” of industries in the Balkans. German economic interests wanted to be able to invest freely in the Balkans. Like George Soros later, they wanted an “open society” or open access to the economies of the Balkan states. Many Balkan states resisted German attempts at economic control and got around export quotas to Germany, such as of grain, by misrepresenting the data.

The Germans also sought to eliminate Jewish ownership and control of industries in the Balkans.   The German policy was to create “de-Judacized” companies or companies that were “Aryanized”. The SOEG was a private organization or agency, a status which allowed it to infiltrate and gain easier access in the Balkan states. George Soros and the NGOs of the 1990s would also use the “privatization” and “non-governmental” tactics to similarly gain control.

The SOEG in Yugoslavia experienced problems because of Serbian resistance to German military occupation. As Orlow noted on page 172, “in occupied nations such as Yugoslavia actual German military presence” was required to control the country. The SOEG representative in Belgrade was Anton Kreuzbauer. The Volksdeutsche in Yugoslavia were placed in the Waffen SS and the Banat was administered by Germans. The Volksdeutsche Prinz Eugen 7th SS Mountain Division, made up of ethnic Germans from the Banat, was recruited by Himmler to combat the mainly Serbian resistance groups.

In the Balkans, chrome, manganese, lead, zinc, iron, and copper were sought for German industry and the strategic needs of the German military, along with bauxite, and the aluminum industry. Grain was exported to Germany from the Balkans. Raw materials were also exported to Germany. The SOEG published reports in 1943 on Balkans resources that were needed by German industry and the military sector.

The SOEG policies ultimately failed in the Balkans, according to Orlow, because the German policy and occupation was arrogant, aggressive, and dictatorial.

Grossraum: NATO Paradigm

Orlow’s analysis of the SOEG is valuable for anyone who wants to compare the Nazi New Order in Europe with the US New World Order. Nazi Germany sought to create Grossraum, or a sphere of influence and control in the Balkans. The US and NATO and the EU seek their own Grossraum in the Balkans, through various formal and informal means including Western-controlled media and NGOs.

Conclusion: New Orders and Old Orders

Anyone who reads this book will be struck by the many similarities between the Nazi New Order and the US/NATO/EU New World Order in the Balkans. Far from being an abstruse and irrelevant study, this book is invaluable in showing how spheres of influence are established and how exploitation, domination, and control of a region occur. It is never just about military force and occupation. The military role is only one aspect of the story. It is surprising how similar the New Order is to the New World Order. Both New Orders gained entrˆšÂ©e into the Balkans by bombing Belgrade and other Serbian cities. Both occupied Serbia or parts of Serbia and other areas of the Balkans. Both sought the economic exploitation of the Balkans following the military occupation. What resulted was the military, political, economic, social, cultural, societal control of the Balkans. The Nazis in the Balkans: A Case Study of Totalitarian Politics shows how it was accomplished. The book is highly relevant today and is a must-read for anyone interested both in the history of the Balkans in World War II, as well as the latter-day US/NATO/EU penetration into the Balkans.


Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. NY: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Ibid, Germany Turns Eastwards: Germany Turns Eastward: A Study of Ostforschung in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Ibid, Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Ibid, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany, c.1900 to 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Burleigh, Michael, and Wolfgang Wippermann. The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Casagrande, Thomas. Die Volksdeutsche SS-Division ‘Prinz Eugen’: Die Banater Schwaben und die National Sozialistischen Kriegsverbrechen. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Campus Verlag, 2003.

Kaltenegger, Roland. The Mountain Troops of the Waffen-SS: 1941-1945. Schiffer Publishing, 1995.

Lumans, Valdis O. Himmler’s Auxiliaries: The Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle and the German Minorities of Europe, 1933-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Orlow, Dietrich. The Nazis in the Balkans: A Case Study of Totalitarian Politics. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968.

Thomas, N., K. Mikulan, D. Pavelic. Axis Forces in Yugoslavia 1941-5. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 1995.

Williamson, Gordon. The Waffen-SS (3) 11. to 23. Divisions. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2004.

Ibid, The Waffen-SS (4) 24. to 38. Divisions. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2004.

The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War

The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War

By Richard C. Hall

176 pp., 6 maps

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

In The Balkan Wars, Minnesota State University Professor Richard C. Hall has provided the first readable and concise overview of the short but turbulent series of wars that gripped the Balkans beginning in the fall of 1912 and carried over into the middle of the following year, resulting in an uneasy peace that was shattered in 1914 by the outbreak of the Great War.

While the book does have certain shortcomings, Professor Hall has by and large succeeded in weaving together the series of complex events that ensued before, during and after the wars, and in doing so has made an invaluable contribution to the historiography of the period, one recommended to all fans of Balkan history and European history in general.

One of the book’s strong points is that, despite being relatively short, it succeeds in portraying events in a larger context, the bigger picture of Great Powers machinations and how the Balkans fit into their scheming. The author stresses this connection because he wants to show how the Balkan Wars were a prime cause of the First World War.

Indeed, even though the European powers were clearly bruising for a fight, the war could not have been fought when it was and as it was had the Balkans not erupted in a massive insurrection against the Ottoman Empire, and thus rewritten the political map of southeastern Europe. In Hall’s treatment, we find that it is the Great Powers who had to adjust and react to something undertaken by their unpredictable Balkan upstarts, and not the other way around.

This point is stressed in a variety of ways. Hall reminds us that the European powers (and even the Americans) took a great interest in the war. He recounts American volunteers and returned expatriates fighting on the Greek and Montenegrin sides. Throughout the book, the narrative is peppered with quotes from military attache and diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the US, who all responded variously on what the wars seemed like to them and how they were significant.

Why was there such interest? On the one hand, all the Balkan countries (and the then non-state of Albania) except Greece were client states of one of the Great Powers alliances, and thus enemies of the others. Particularly stressed in this context is the antagonism between Austria-Hungary and Russia over Serbia’s aspirations in Bosnia and Montenegro’s ambitions in northern Albania, and how this uneasy confrontation would create a very volatile situation that exploded soon after, with the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War. The author presents other examples of imperial meddling, such as the creation of an Albanian state by Austria-Hungary and Italian as a way of checking Serbian and Greek power: despite being “…no strong advocates of nationalism in general,” the Austrians saw that “…a large and strong national Albania was a good way to guarantee control of the Adriatic” (p. 73).

Another reason for this foreign interest in the Balkans, which we sometimes forget today, is the sheer scale of the military campaigns of 1912. For observers of the time, it was alternately breathtaking and deeply worrying. The second battle of the war, fought between the Turks and Bulgarians at Lyule Burgas-Buni Hisar was “…the largest battle in terms of numbers of soldiers involved and casualties” Europe had seen in some 42 years, or since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 (p. 31). Not long after this battle, the Ottomans successfully defended Constantinople by digging in at the Chataldzha lines outside the capital – something that the author reminds was “…the most important Ottoman victory against a European army for 200 years.” (p. 44). The Balkan Wars also saw the first aerial bombardments and the testing of other ever-more modern weaponry made in the West. So the conflict did set precedents.

While Hall concedes that the names of these epic battles have since been forgotten by most Westerners, he does a major service in showing how in 1912 Europe they were of massive geopolitical importance. Actually, they proved far more significant than the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s, which despite the massive media attention devoted to them did not have the potential to create wider conflicts or change the boundaries of neighboring states. In this sense the Yugoslav wars remained civil conflicts, whereas the Balkan Wars were, in light of the colonial empires administered by the Great Powers, direct challenges to an entire global order.

Other interesting details emerge. Hall shows how the media was used cleverly to advance the war effort. For example, at the very outbreak of war Bulgarian General Mihail Savov sought to trick the Ottomans into thinking his first goal was to storm Adrianople, which the general staff had already decided against in the interests of making a lighting sweep on Turkish forces in Thrace. Savov told the media that “he was prepared to sacrifice 100,000 men, ‘like the Japanese,’ in order to take the fortress.” (p. 24).

This quote is also interesting in that it, like others provided, supports the larger context in which Hall is framing his narrative. Today we often forget that in the general public consciousness of the time, Japan’s very recent victory over Russia at Port Arthur in 1904 was achieved by the fanaticism of the former’s soldiers. An English Balkan War correspondent picks up on this, averring that the Bulgarians fought “…with unparalleled determination and ferocity, absolutely throwing away their lives in the Japanese manner whenever a point had to be taken or won” (p. 30).

However, in other cases the mention of the media is insufficient and leaves intriguing questions. For instance, Hall mentions a debate that was driven by the Bulgarian media vs. the Serbian one which helped fuel the fire leading to the Second Balkan War – though we learn little more about it than that (p. 89).

Yet the book’s major flaw, if it can be called that, lies in the author’s sometimes annoying reliance on conditional hypotheses in telling his story. With every diplomatic or military move recounted, Hall offers an alternative of how the subject should have/would have/could have acted better.

This kind of Monday morning quarterbacking becomes a little tiresome, but is ultimately more a failing of style rather than of substance. There are many other ways in which an author can attribute causality to an event (or non-event), without always taking recourse to conditionals. Nevertheless, if the reader is prepared for this, it is possible to find much stimulating thought in Hall’s treatment. And, in the sense that many readers interested in the Balkan Wars tend to be from one of the ethnic “sides” involved, it perhaps makes sense in a certain way to depict events thus, as there is no finer Monday-morning-quarterback than an ardent nationalist possessing literacy.

However, at some places this technique is called for. Clearly, the Bulgarian catastrophe of the Second Balkan War – in which the country lost most of its war gains by lashing out against its former allies – should have been avoided, and the author gives several plausible scenarios in his closing chapter whereby Bulgaria, had it been guided more rationally, could have held on to the major gains it achieved through the massive sacrifice of soldiers and armaments it had made in fighting the Turks practically to the gates of Constantinople. In Halls’ convincing treatment of events, the Bulgarian decision to wage war becomes utterly nonsensical in the big picture, and serves illustratively as an example for other countries that are guided by romance over reason.

Along with the fatal presence of military hubris in the Bulgarian ranks, the author blames naive Bulgarian expectations that Russia would come to its aid diplomatically, and provides a bigger picture of the greater European alliance structure and antagonisms that led Russia to not support its traditional ally. In general, Hall does a good job of describing the tenor of the various negotiations and conferences that ensued during and after the wars, and in listing what was at stake for all involved. This helps the reader to understand why decisions were made as they were.

Another flaw that some will no doubt deny is the complete failure to mention a separate Macedonian people. This is understandable considering that the author’s sources by and large come from the “official” warring parties. Among the conjectures that could have been made but wasn’t is the idea that the Balkan Wars, which centered on Macedonia, would have been much less intractable had any side possessed clear control of it. Resistance to Bulgarian rule did not come only from the Greeks and Serbs (you can still find old people in Macedonia today who say, “you can survive anything, except when a Bulgarian beats you”).

This failure to mention a Macedonian ethnicity at all leaves the question of how the modern Macedonian state arose something of an enigma – especially since Hall considers the nationalist currents of all the other warring states. Since he wants to link the issues and ramifications of the Balkan Wars to the modern-day Yugoslav wars, and indeed states that in the 1990’s “…the viability of the post-Yugoslav state came into question”(p. x), the author could have devoted a little room to at least mentioning the Macedonian ethnic question – especially considering that, as he admits, the Balkan Wars were driven by the Macedonian Question.

Despite these shortcomings, however, Richard C. Hall has generally succeeded in The Balkan Wars. He has provided a cogent, lucid and engaging introduction to the conflicts that gripped the Balkans in 1912-13, and which led directly to the First World War. His synthesis, based on archival and secondary sources, is sufficiently readable and broad-based as to be attractive to not just Balkan specialists but to all those interested in WW1-era European history in general.

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