Greek History in Context
A Review of The Balkans Since 1453
By Jason C. Mavrovitis
Greeks and Greek-Americans are proud of their history, as are all people of the Balkans and their descendants. Each of the ethnic groups, the Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians, and others of the Balkan peninsula, glorifies both its real and imagined past.
However an appreciation of Greek history can be much richer when it is considered in the context of the history of the Balkans, where late nineteenth and twentieth century conflicts followed two thousand years of migration and settlement by disparate peoples. The result was an eventual consolidation of ethnic groups and the formation of national states. All this transpired under Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman rule, strongly influenced by the Eastern Orthodox faith, and subject to pressures exerted by actions of the powerful states of Europe.
Leften S. Stavrianos’ magnificent volume, The Balkans since 1453, is an authoritative resource for students of Balkan History. It is the work of an extraordinary scholar who integrates every aspect of the region geography, commerce, religion, culture, education, and foreign interests to present his analysis. The title can be found as mandatory reading on book lists for undergraduate and graduate courses at major universities, and is even on a list of “Books of Interest” published by Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou on his personal website.
Yet, with all its academic standing, The Balkans since 1453 is an accessible, engaging, and very readable work.
Until his retirement, L.S. Stavrianos was a Professor of History at Northwestern University in Chicago. Early in his career he was a prominent member of a group that included faculty of the University of Chicago. They were known as the “Chicago School of History.” Stavrianos and his colleagues advocated the view that the history of a people, country or region could be properly understood only in a larger context one that included examination of the internal and external cultural, political, socio-economic, and technical forces that influence the course of human events.
In The Balkans since 1453, Stavrianos provides a balanced history of the Balkan people. Starting with concise background material about the pre-history of the region, Stavrianos takes the reader, through time, to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, thus setting the stage for his account. What follows is an exhaustive and fascinating narrative about the Ottoman Empire from, as Lord Kinross described it, the “Zenith of Empire,” to its gradual and inevitable decline, and the painful adolescent years of the Ba lkan states.
Stavrianos makes clear how the continued existence of the Ottoman Empire was critical to the interests of French and British, how those interests conflicted with Russia’s, and how relations among the great powers dominated geo-political events in the Balkans. He explores the growth of nationalism that started in the Balkans in the eighteenth century. It became the stuff of revolutionary change. One consequence was the rising of 1821 when, after a lengthy War of Independence, the Greeks lifted the “Turkish yoke” from their shoulders.
Stavrianos addresses in absorbing detail the conflicts that grew among the Balkan states in the mid- to late nineteenth century, and the interests of the European powers concerning them. These nineteenth century conflicts resulted in the Macedonian agony of the early twentieth century. Stavrianos reveals the public and secret terms of the treaties that led to the eventual territorial gains and human calamities faced by the participants in the Balkan Wars and the First World War, not the least of which was the collapse of the “Megali Idhea,” and the tragedy of Smyrna.
Stavrianos continues his exposition of the history of the Balkans through to 1947 and the peace settlement that followed World War II. He observes: “The institutions and traditions of a millennium have been revolutionized before our eyes… . To find another such turning point in Balkan history it is necessary to go back to the Ottoman invasion in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”
We would be fortunate to have Professor Stavrianos’ analyses of the most recent and dramatic changes in the Balkans the fall of communism, Greece’s rapprochement with Bulgaria, the Serbian conflicts, and creation of the new state of Macedonia. Still, much information about the root causes of the painful upheavals in the Balkans in the 1990s is contained in Stavrianos’ text.
©2003 Jason C. Mavrovitis
(Posted February 2004)
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