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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)


aced with extraordinary problems of organization, given the bewildering cast of characters strutting around in a plot stretched out over two centuries and overwhelmed by subplots, Mishna Glenny wisely breaks his narrative up into manageable chunks of time and incident.

Between 1804 and 1878 the Ottoman Empire faced two uprisings by Christian Serbs and their sympathetic Muslim landlords, with the Serbs in 1815 winning virtual autonomy under the pig farmer Miloš Obrenović, who maintained chummy relations with Russia and administered the region until his abdication in 1839. The Greek War of Independence began in 1821, with Greeks slaughtering thousands of Muslims, and evolved into a civil war that lasted until the establishment of the new Greek state in 1834. The Croats sought freedom but were thwarted by Hungary at the battle of Pákozd on September 28, 1848; and when Austria suppressed the Hungarian revolt in 1849, only Serbia had achieved de facto statehood. The unification of Romania led in 1859 to the election of a single prince, Alexander Cuza, but Cuza’s ill-planned program of land reform only worsened the peasants’ situation and in 1866 resulted in his abdication and the appointment of the German prince Carol of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen.

The success of the Greeks and the Serbs stirred Istanbul to consider reforms. The tanzimatçılar, or Men of the Tanzimat, were dedicated to reforming the millet system, or the grouping of subjects by religious confession, mainly Muslims, Jews, and Christians; they crushed the greedy Bosnian overlords but could not avert two decades of uprisings by abused and disaffected peasants. Unfortunately, the Tanzimat’s elimination of the confessional social structure, combined with their failure to achieve agrarian reform and the enormous loan debt they owed to France and Great Britain, weakened the Ottoman Empire fatally. Encouraged by what they perceived as Ottoman weakness and buoyed by nationalist sentiment, the Bulgarians revolted in 1876 but were brutally suppressed. Serbia undertook a rapid militarization in the 1860’s based on romantic illusions about the peasantry, but was humiliated by the Turks in 1876. Finally, Russia pounced on the debilitated empire in 1877, winning an easy victory within a year. At that time, the great powers—Russia, Britain, and France—began competing for ascendancy in the region, and their involvement spelled trouble for the Balkans.

Glenny devotes over a hundred pages to the bloody history of the southern Balkans between the Berlin Congress in 1878 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The unification of Germany in 1871 resulted in the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary and the Entente that united Britain, France, and Russia. Prince Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck chaired the Congress with a stern hand, as the major powers disposed of the Balkans as they saw fit, leaving the humiliated Ottomans to nod consent to the parceling out of their territory. Ignoring the Treaty of San Stefano that unified Bulgaria in 1877, the powers divided Bulgaria into three parts: a new principality with its capital at Sofia; Eastern Rumelia, to be controlled by Russia; and Macedonia, which, along with Thrace, was to be retained by the Ottoman Empire. Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro were made fully independent, and Greece gained a little land from Turkey. Austria-Hungary was to occupy Bosnia, Herzegovina, and the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, with the Ottomans retaining nominal suzerainty over these lands. Albania, a perennial problem child, remained part of the Ottoman Empire.

This new alignment fostered many internal disputes that kept the region in an uproar as the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians jockeyed for position. Glenny says of the situation: “The great powers had now linked their imperial interests to the aspirations of emerging Balkan states. This was the great disaster of 1878.” The most unyielding of the problems that were created was...

(The entire section is 2,050 words.)