Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 2: “Asia begins at the Landstrasse:” Comparing Eastern European and European histories

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 2: “Asia begins at the Landstrasse:” Comparing Eastern European and European histories


In a Spring 1995 newspaper story about the shelling of Zagreb in Croatia, the city was described as “more European than Balkan.” This idea — that the Balkans should be distinguished from the rest of Europe — is a common sentiment when we read about Southeastern Europe. In the 1820s, the Austrian statesman Metternich said, “Asia begins at the Landstrasse,” the royal highway leading from Vienna east into Hungary. Why aren’t the Balkans seen as part of Europe? If they are not, where does Europe end? What makes us think of one country as part of Europe, and another as part of the Balkans?

While this is in part a semantic game, it is also a significant discussion. For one thing, this kind of thinking colors much scholarship and political planning that deals with the Balkans. For another, the modern history of the Balkans involves a series of encounters with influences and concepts originating in the western parts of Europe: nationalism, liberalism capitalism, Communism and so forth. The encounter is not unilateral: when these ideas and movements enter the Balkan environment, they are changed by it. If we are going to write and talk accurately about “Balkan nationalism,” then we need to be sure that we know what is meant by each word. And in return, Balkan experiences can shed meaningful light on concepts associated with Western European culture and ideology, by revealing unexpected attributes which come into view only in the less familiar setting of Southeastern Europe.

The society, culture and history of Romania or Yugoslavia do differ from that of Britain or France, of course. What then are the key factors that define the Balkans, are shared in the region, and account for the differences?

Defining Eastern European and Balkan difference

It is helpful to answer a related, larger question first: is there such a thing as Eastern Europe? The countries west of the old Soviet Union and east of Germany are often lumped together. How do we equate places as different from one another as Greece, with its Mediterranean islands and olive groves, and Finland, wrapped in ice and roamed by reindeer?

It may be helpful to define our terms. In terms of geography, we can say that Eastern Europe is a belt of land extending from Greece in the south to Finland in the north, bounded on the west by central European Italy and Germany, and on the east by Russia. It has been called the “Zwischenlaender,” the “lands between”: neither Western European nor Russian. Such a definition by negation — what the region is not — fails to tell us much about what it is. Are the Baltic states such as Finland or Latvia usefully considered together with Greece or Hungary? Are Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria part of Eastern Europe, or part of Central Europe? Should Hungary be analyzed along with Austria, or with the Balkan states? And should our answer to that question vary with the century, so that Habsburg-ruled Hungary differs from Soviet-ruled Hungary?

Without a knowledge of Eastern European history, it is easy to simply define the area as a transition zone between the better-defined countries of Western or Central Europe on the one side, and Russia on the other. By that line of reasoning, anything which clearly is neither Western nor Russian is “Eastern European” by process of elimination. What is objectionable here is the tendency to define a region purely on the basis of outside points of reference. It would be better, and more valid, to look for points of definition from within the region itself.

Since 1945, it has been deceptively easy to define Eastern Europe in terms of Soviet Communist domination. By this method, Eastern Europe is synonymous with the “satellites” set up by Stalin after the Second World War: it is the region on the far side of the Iron Curtain. Now that the Iron Curtain has disappeared, it is easier to see the flaws in this approach, but for students of the area it always offered problems. For example, Greece was frequently excised from the area on the grounds that it was not a Communist country, and lumped into something called the “Mediterranean.” But to assert that Greece and Spain share more in their historical backgrounds than do Greece and Romania, one has to forget a great deal of Greek history. At the opposite end of the scale, East Germany suddenly falls into “Eastern” Europe despite all of its Central European connections, and then presumably falls back out again in 1989. Yet East Germany doesn’t share many points of experience with Romania or with Greece. It is also an erroneous oversimplification to lump together Communist Poland with Communist Yugoslavia or Communist Albania: if the criterion here is “satellite” status, more than one Communist state fails to meet most casual meanings of that term.

If we want to understand the history and development of Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, we will get much farther by using a definition that is rooted in the local characteristics of the region. It is easy but facile to say what the Balkan region is not: it is not the West, and it is not Russia. It is harder but more useful to try to say what it is. What can we say about the similarities and differences between the Balkans and the rest of Europe? Just what is different?

A number of things clearly are not very different. The population of the Balkans, like the rest of Europe, is basically Indo-European: ethnic differences abound, but racial differences are minimal. The Balkans, even more than East Central European areas like Bohemia, are tied to the classical heritage of the Greco-Roman world. In terms of physical nearness, the distance from Athens to Paris is no greater than that from Copenhagen to Madrid, or from Boston to Miami. Eastern Europe experiences weather much like that in adjacent zones of Western Europe; most of the same animals and plants grow there wild or are raised on farms. Why then do Athens and Paris appear to be so much more remote from each other culturally and historically?

Despite much shared geography, there is certainly much that is different. Even after the revolutions of 1989, it is easy to note that the Eastern European, and especially the Balkan, states remain less urban than Western countries. We can see less industry. Until 1989, there were far fewer Western-style parliamentary regimes. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the scientific revolution and various liberal political revolutions appear to have had less impact on society. Religion retains a deeper role in life than in secular Western states. However, we could observe that these matters are better seen as the results of difference, not its cause or true character, because Eastern European development already had diverged from that of the West before many of these events and trends.

Some deeper differences: ethnic identity remains more of a factor, one could say a problem, in Eastern Europe — despite decades of Marxism, differences in ethnicity and not difference in class are driving events there [in 1995]. In the region’s history the “nation-state” is absent, or absent until rather recently, and in many cases is still imperfectly formed. Admittedly, even the so-called nation-states of Western Europe contain many minorities, but in Eastern Europe multi-national and multi-lingual states dominated the map until little more than a century ago. The national states of recent vintage are small, and in some cases breaking up into even smaller units. These ethnic differences are expressed by a greater variation in regional languages. The Romance and Germanic languages cover most of the West; in the East one finds chiefly Slavic languages, but also specimens of Turkic languages and others. Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism are present, but so are Islam and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. There is a greater multiplicity of alphabets: not only the Roman alphabet but Cyrillic — and until recently Arabic and Hebrew scripts were also commonly used. It is easy to overlook the minority problems and exceptional cases troubling Western European states, but one still has a sense in Eastern Europe that variation is greater.

Despite their earnest desire to base their definitions in the local character of the region, scholars still frequently get entangled in discussions that start with reference points outside the Balkan area. This is understandable: until relatively recently, there was little tradition of objective historical scholarship in the region itself. During periods of foreign domination, the study of national self-awareness often was too political to be permitted by the ruling state. The scholarly apparatus necessary for academic study often was absent until some time in the nineteenth century. Even after the appearance or revival of autonomous local universities and investigators, the realities of national political life often deformed scholarship along the lines of national chauvinism and later along lines of conformity with Communism doctrine. For these reasons, most of the foundation work in modern academic study of the region was conducted by Western scholars, or indigenous scholars whose educations were grounded in Western traditions and perspectives.

For these observers, Eastern Europe was first of all an “Other” to be recognized by its differentness from their own cultural milieu, and that differentness was something to be explained away. At its worst, this perspective fell into the kind of trap described by Edward Said in 1978, writing about “Orientalism” in the study of the Arab world. Said describes “Orientalism” as a discourse — that is, a system of talking about something — which, to quote, “puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.” [Orientalism, p. 7] That is, if the Orient is mystical, then the West is rational; if the Orient is backward, the West is progressive; if the Orient is despotic, the West is democratic. In short, if the Orient is exotic, then the West is normal, and the Orient is not merely different but abnormal, defective and inferior. Much the same can be said about certain approaches to Eastern European or Balkan studies. This is a faulty approach to knowledge which has infected not only Western, but also Eastern European writers.

At the same time, the fact remains that Eastern Europe — and the Balkans — are different from Western Europe, and a recognition of this fact is basic to understanding what is going on in Eastern European history and Eastern European societies. It is no good to apply Western models and chronologies casually to the Balkans. Looking for traces of the “bourgeoisie” or the industrial working-class in the nineteenth century Balkans is a nearly pointless task, and explaining events along those familiar lines is flat out incorrect. Something different is going on.

What then have observers said about this differentness? Prince Metternich, the German-born chancellor of the Austrian Empire during much of the early nineteenth century, made a stab at defining the Balkans which is so brilliantly wrong-headed that it is instructive. “Asia,” he said, “begins at the Landstrasse” — in other words, on the high road which led south and east away from the city of Vienna into the flat plains of Hungary (an alternative report of his comment is “The Balkans begin on the Rennweg”). By Metternich’s lights the Balkans were not really a part of Europe, and could be dismissed accordingly as intractable, mysterious, backward, corrupt and so on. What he says tells us a good deal about the attitude of the nineteenth century ruling class toward the people of the Balkans. In the same vein, Bismarck said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of one Pomeranian infantryman, and the same Franz Ferdinand whose murder triggered World War I in 1914 remarked that “it was an act of bad taste for the Hungarians to have come to Europe” in the first place. Western leaders today are finding out that the Balkans — and crises in Bosnia — are as frustrating in 1993 as they were in 1893, 1875, or many other years. Our leaders might agree on some gut level with Metternich or Bismarck. But these little explosions of picque can’t make the Balkans go away.

How “Asian” were the Balkans when viewed from the West? Nineteenth century diplomats employed a set of convenient and Euro-centric geographic expressions which clearly removed the Balkans along a spectrum leading away from Europe. In nineteenth century parlance, the “Far East” meant much the same territory as it does today, but the “Middle East” and the “Near East” — two concepts that have collapsed into interchangeability for us today — constituted distinct territories. The Middle East encompassed the lands between Egypt and Iran. The Near East referred to the quite separate area of the Eastern Mediterranean, and this included the Balkans. Kipling believed that “east was east and west was west” and by European imperial lights, Southeastern Europe was “east.”

Today we would disagree. The European connectedness of Eastern European and Balkan history with the West is too well established to dismiss with Metternich’s bon mot. The Balkans were part of the Roman world: the imperial border ran along the line of the Danube, and the emperor Diocletian (who ruled from 284-305 AD) was a Dalmatian who came to the throne through a career in the army. Eastern Europeans in general have played a role in European life which is often overlooked. Everyone knows today that Pope John Paul II is a Pole — fewer people realize that so was the astronomer Copernicus. The Western European urbanization which underlay the Industrial Revolution was built in part upon imports of Eastern European grain. Both World Wars began in Eastern Europe. If we forget that this area is a part of Europe, we do so at our peril.

Explaining the divergence of Eastern European history

Consider the area as a part of Europe, then. The question remains, how to explain the very different path which Eastern European — and specifically Balkan — history has taken, relative to the West. Simply saying that West and East are alike after all, is as inadequate as saying merely that they are not alike. Modern scholars have begun their investigations by searching for explanations for the different path. We can pick out several threads in the ongoing discussion.

In general, when scholars try to explain why Eastern Europe took a different course from the West, they adopt one of two perspectives, selecting between what we might call “external” or “internal” causes. According to one view, Eastern European societies have suffered from a series of damaging interventions from outside the region, and this has been the dominant feature in determining the region’s history. Therefore external forces prevented East European or Balkan societies from making the same progress as Western societies. According to the other view, internal factors are the most important in explaining retarded development. The geography of the region, or inefficient features of the local cultures themselves, are said to have blocked progress. Because these internal factors are essential and unavoidable parts of the region and its culture, this view implies that Eastern European society has itself to blame for most of its problems.

Argument has ranged back and forth between these two positions. Earlier stages of the debate tended to look at political institutions and developments among the most prominent elements in society: kings, bishops and so forth. With improved study of economic and social history, sometimes down to the village level, economic institutions have attracted more attention in recent years: political institutions are still of interest but are now being explained from the bottom up.

Halecki’s view

In 1952 Oscar Halecki published a “history of East Central Europe” under the title Borderlands of Western Civilization — that is a good example of the earlier school of thought. Halecki states up front that he believes he is writing about countries which “contributed to the general progress of European civilization” [p. 3]. He says that a European history in which “Western Europe is identified with the whole continent” is incomplete. Writing at the height of the early Cold War, he goes on to say that there will be no “permanent peace” in Europe until the states of East Central Europe resume “their traditional place in the European community, now enlarged as the Atlantic community” [p. 4].

What is this “traditional place” according to Halecki’s view? It is as a “frontier” zone, a “borderland” in which the forms and characteristics of Western European life encounter the contrasting forms and characteristics of Eastern European civilizations such as Russia’s. In Halecki’s view it is the geographic accident of being intermediate between West and East that has set the characteristic stamp on Eastern Europe. Reading between the lines of his book, it seems that Halecki considers some of the signs of Western civilization to be ethnic homogeneity, the legacy of Catholicism, secularization, constitutionalism and nationalism — in other words, some of the characteristic features or trends familiar to us from a Western European context, and which also can be traced in the history of Poland in particular. While the Balkans is not Halecki’s real subject, he nevertheless makes some interesting comments in passing. He sees the Balkans as a region distinct from East Central Europe, chiefly because of its geographic form as a peninsula leading to the south and not only to the east. The two regions (Balkan and East Central European) are also connected by geography and by similar historical experiences, including roles as connecting paths leading from Western civilization with its Roman legacy across the European plain toward Asia. In the case of the Balkans, the dominant flow of influence became east to west as a result of the Ottoman invasions, and therefore Balkan history diverged from East Central European history to the north. Regardless of the outcome, however, it is the contact, conflict and tribulation brought on by being on the edge of the West that makes Eastern Europe what it is.

McNeill’s view

In 1964 the prominent world historian William McNeill published a book called Europe’s Steppe Frontier, 1500-1800 which looked at the same phenomenon of the borderland from a contrasting perspective. Remember that Halecki thought of Eastern Europe was an exceptional form of Western civilization, rendered thus by its geographic remoteness from the centers of Western European life. For McNeill, Eastern Europe (and in particular the Balkans) has been shaped instead by an exceptional form of a fundamentally Asian culture, that of the steppe nomad, altered here by its encounter with woods and mountains where the steppe terminates at the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. Second, McNeill is less interested in geography per se, and more interested in the cultures that are created by humans as adaptations to geography.

Like Halecki, McNeill refers to “pioneers from Western Europe” as players on the Balkan stage, but he is interested primarily in pioneers from the steppes acting as an engine to drive historical development. At the foundation of his book is the conception of the “steppe empire” created by a “great war captain” who temporarily pulls together separate pastoral groups whose ecological adaptations make them more naturally suited to autonomy. Armed, mounted and not tied to farmlands, these warrior groups were free to pursue plunder where they wished. Such nomads began by living off their herds of stock animals, but they were also capable of living off human conquests. Such empires are inherently “fragile,” says McNeill, because their individual parts can function alone and are apt to move away from the central authority. The Mongols created such an empire, so did the Magyars who came to Hungary in the 900s AD, and so did the Turks who conquered the Balkans shortly thereafter.

Two things combined in Eastern Europe to make these cultures diverge from the nomadic pattern while still remaining different from Western European models. First, the presence of mountains and forests instead of limitless steppe reduced the fragility of empires like those of the Ottomans or the Magyars in a particular way: no longer surrounded by limitless horizons, the constituent parts of these empires were more likely to remain in a permanent relationship with their leaders, perhaps even to settle down and replace animal husbandry with agriculture. Second, during the period between 1500 and 1800, Europe’s political, economic and military institutions took on modern forms, so that the balance of power shifted away from the nomad on horseback and in favor of the stable, urban and industrial populations living west of the steppes, populations which McNeill is not afraid to call “civilized.”

Such a shift in the balance of power against the interests of the nomad would normally have broken a nomadic empire apart into its separate units. In Eastern Europe, McNeill believes that the effect of greater group cohesiveness (based on geography) instead turned the basically predatory habits of the ruling group inward: instead of preying on far flung communities across the steppe, Magyar nobles and Ottoman ghazis began to prey upon their own sedentary peasant populations. Because the growth of urbanized states in Europe was accompanied by an increased demand for grains which could be grown by those peasant populations, this form of predation became what has been called “neo-serfdom.” Neo-serfdom was a new imposition of harsh controls over the land, labor, produce and freedom of movement of Eastern Europe’s peasant families, at a time when Western European peasants were casting off the remains of the older medieval serfdom. When the former nomadic warrior class turned its attention inward, it retained its arms and its mobility, and remained a significant local force especially in times of crisis. When the central authority was weak, these “men of prowess” were ideally situated to exploit their peasants thoroughly, and to retain most of the proceeds of taxation for their own local consumption. Enough of the “fragility” of the “steppe empire” remained to promote weakness at the center and insubordination at the periphery of Balkan states, and the internal troubles of the later regimes can be seen in this light. According to McNeill, then, the characteristic political culture of the Balkans emerged rather recently in Balkan history, and was a logical consequence of the juxtaposition of a particular steppe culture onto the geographic characteristics of the area. McNeill’s Eastern Europe is far less like Western Europe that that of Halecki.

Theories of economic backwardness

The most recent examinations of the uniqueness of Balkan and Eastern European history take advantage of better economic research to explain “backwardness” in the Balkans. Terms like “relative economic backwardness” or “economic underdevelopment” are now invoked to explain a whole range of associated social, political and economic developments. At the same time, there is furious debate about the timing and the causes of backwardness in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

To talk about “backwardness” without defining it is merely to put a different name on “difference”. When we say the Balkans or Eastern Europe are backward, what are we trying to express? In contemporary terms, it means fewer doctors per capita than the West, or fewer VCRs; it means lower GNPs or lower per-capita incomes; it means high rates of unemployment in rural areas. These facts really are observed consequences of backwardness: behind these descriptions of the results, we need to also look at structures in societies and economies that lead to these consequences. For example, when compared to urbanized countries, “backward” countries usually have a proportionally smaller bourgeoisie (in the simple sense of an urban middle-class) and a lack of industry. This lack of industry leads to “dependency” on outside industrial suppliers for certain kinds of goods, and places the dependent country in a position of selling raw materials at a disadvantage in return for processed goods. Most of the prerequisites for Industrial Revolutions are absent too. There is insufficient demand for new goods, based on the absence of a rising population and especially a rising urban population. There are no modern transportation systems to connect potential new industrial producers with markets. Financial institutions and practices that might channel economic surpluses into investment are absent. And there is a general lack of the modern social institutions and ways of thinking associated with rationalism, science, the enlightenment, liberalism and the rule of law, that lead to innovation and change from traditional patterns.

If this is a description of conditions in the Balkans, when did conditions there diverge from those in Western Europe? Scholars have discussed four time periods and advanced particular explanations of backwardness for each. The four periods are 1) the nineteenth century, during the period of Western imperialism; 2) the centuries of decline in the Ottoman system; 3) the time of the original Ottoman conquest; and 4) the pre-Ottoman Middle Ages.

Divergence in the nineteenth century

Those who see Balkan history diverging from Western European history at a rather late date, in the nineteenth century, tend to place the blame for backwardness on “external” rather than “internal” factors. For that reason Western institutions, as well as Balkan ones, play a part in the explanation.

According to one view, it is not very useful to discuss “backwardness” in the Balkans in isolation because economic conditions in the modern Balkans resemble conditions in most of the modern world. It is better to describe the Balkans (and similar regions) as “normal” and to consider the industrialized West to be the exception. By this line of reasoning, the clues to relative disparities between standards of living in the two parts of Europe lie outside the Balkans, and are better found in the peculiar conditions which led to the Industrial Revolution in England and elsewhere.

This observation is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t help us to understand much about the nature of Eastern Europe. It may be true that rural populations in both Romania and Central America became “dependent” on Western capitalist markets, but that is a far cry from saying that Central America and Romania are alike. For that matter, rural populations were “dependent” in both Romania and Bulgaria, but socio-economic conditions in these two adjacent Balkan states differed a great deal. In Romania, late nineteenth century peasants worked as sharecroppers on large estates managed by absentee landlords pursuing the export of cash crops. In Bulgaria, late nineteenth century peasants owned dwarf farms and practiced subsistence agriculture. Both were “dependent” but reached that condition by following very different historical and cultural paths. It would seem better to work with an explanation that lends itself to exploring the details of actual conditions.

Another view holds that Western intervention, especially imperialist economic and political activity, is responsible for conditions in the Balkans (and in other parts of the world). The impetus behind Balkan underdevelopment under this model is external, but the impact of external exploitation on local conditions is important. Those adopting this explanation would look toward the repeated political and military interventions conducted by the European Great Powers into the affairs of Balkan states. The late nineteenth century saw many unfair trade agreements forced onto weaker Balkan trading partners. Western governments and exporters aggressively pursued Balkan markets on behalf of Western manufacturers, so that budding Balkan industries were smothered before they could compete. Western investors holding bonds and railroad shares demanded profits even if this meant that construction and investment took place along lines that did not serve the best needs of local peoples. Total Western control of state treasuries was not unknown when bondholders required it: both the Turkish and the Greek state budgets were subject for many years to detailed control by representatives of Western banks and investors. The West was not above the use of force to get its way, either: temporary armed invasions by gunboats and marines were commonly used to enforce Western demands, and when local states resisted, war could follow. One can argue that all of these activities added up to exploitation of the area, an exploitation that forced Balkan economic development into channels that perpetuated and ensured underdevelopment.

These kinds of “external” explanations, all focussed on fairly recent events, share some implications. First, they imply that differences in local conditions mattered less than the external forces. However true it might be that Greece and Hungary had very different economies, what matters is not their differences but their shared exploitation by outsiders. Second, such a view implies that the peculiar circumstances of Ottoman rule were not all that important. After all, by the late nineteenth century Hungary was a partner state in the Austro- Hungarian Monarchy; and Greece, Serbia and Romania were virtually independent from Ottoman rule. Yet all parts of the Balkans — Ottoman, independent or otherwise — shared the condition of backwardness.

Decline under Ottoman rule

For a great many scholars, explanations of Balkan underdevelopment which look at the nineteenth century alone fail to account for too much prior Balkan history. They would argue that the particular events and problems of the nineteenth century inevitably flowed from earlier developments during the Ottoman period, a period in which misrule set up the imbalances between the Western and Eastern European economies under which imperialism could take place. But how far back must one look to find the critical period?

Many traditional explanations of Balkan economic and social backwardness, including those offered by the first wave of scholars interested in the revival of national states in the Balkans, blamed the Ottoman Empire (and to a lesser extent the Habsburgs) for the relative stagnation of the area. The causes of poverty and so forth were blamed on misrule by these multi-national states, so different from the nation-states of Western Europe. Underlying these arguments, made also by mainline economists, is the notion that progress amd growth are normal for societies: where they are not present, local institutions may be blocking normal progress.

In a simplified form (part political joke, part complaint), this argument can be summarized in many Balkan countries in exchanges that run something like this:
A tourist asks, “Why is the elevator out of order today (or why is there no milk or coffee or gasoline)?”
To which a local citizen replies (in Bulgarian or Greek or Romanian or Serbian) — “five hundred years under the Turkish yoke.”

In other words: in the centuries since the arrival of the Turks in the 1400s, everything has gone bad. In contrast to views that blame backwardness on Western imperialism, it is worth noting that in this analysis Western contact and intervention function as the antidote, not the problem. Beginning with the Ottoman conquest, in this view the forces behind decline are operating internally, although those forces were carried into the area by an invader.

Records do indeed show that the population of the Balkans declined during the period of Ottoman rule. There was a growing tendency for local authorities to abuse their peasants. Taxes were too high, the legal system was corrupt or absent, and Christians were subject to methodical persecution. At the same time, local landlords failed to invest the surplus that they squeezed out of their peasants, so that economic development lagged and led to permanent backwardness. Peasants of courese were unwilling to invest their efforts in improvements to farmland that might be stolen away from them at any time, directly or through taxes, and landlords preferred to waste their income on luxuries. Where change came to rural areas, it often came in the form of a “second serfdom” that institutionalized harmful trends. Some landlords turned to stock raising and made do without peasants, while the growth of agricultural exports (traded for imported industrial goods) ensured that towns remained backwaters. In the case of the Habsburg parts of the Balkans, the religious division between ruler and ruled was muted or absent, but the abuse of peasants by a landholding nobility had much the same result. In either society, rigid value systems led to a fear of change and placed too many obstacles in the way of innovators.

Marxist historians of the early modern period tend to reach some similar conclusions although they follow a slightly different line of reasoning. As society develops, socialism has to be preceded by an earlier and inferior stage of nationalist and middle-class society. In the Balkans, this stage begins in the nineteenth century and continues into the twentieth, up to 1945. However, there is also an earlier pre-national and pre-bourgeois period which is in turn inferior to the national period: while such an analysis of Ottoman and Habsburg society relies more on class arguments, it reaches more or less the same conclusion held by nationalist historians. Local society is blamed.

The Ottoman and Habsburg Empires took a terrible beating in popular and scholarly Western European writing during the years before and after World War I. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency to separate the Ottoman period into an early, prosperous period and a later period of decline, and to seek the causes of backwardness in this later period. The period of Ottoman decline is usually seen as beginning in the 1600s and continues through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries right up to the founding of modern Turkey in 1923. Scholars of the Habsburg Empire have also devoted much talk to the issue of when the Austrian Empire went into decline.

One group interested in this period accepts the prime role of outside factors, especially the relative superiority of the Western economies, but sees critical events taking place well before the nineteenth century. Under this view, the crucial factor is the rise of relatively advanced urban centers in the West in the 1700s, during the period before and during the Industrial Revolution. As soon as the new prominent towns in the West outstripped older urban centers in the East, the playing field began to tilt in favor of Western economies. The appearance of large cities in the West meant a heightened demand for agricultural goods, especially bulk grains which could be raised on larger tracts of land and then shipped by sea from the Balkans to the West. The result was a sharpened interest in agricultural production for sale by the ruling class in Eastern Europe, who responded by increasing the taxes, labor dues and other tributes paid to them by their peasants. At the same time, the ruling class was able to restrict the movement of peasants who lacked urban centers as alternative markets for their labor or as refuges from noble oppressors: hence the “second serfdom, exploiting peasants in the East just at the time when their Western counterparts were able to use the growth of cities as a lever to reduce their obligations and increase their opportunities. Western demand for grain thus had profound results for both the rich at the top and the poor at the bottom of societies in Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, some scholars point to the eventual benefits of this capitalization of Eastern agriculture: without Western markets, there would have been no incentive to improve productivity and no way to amass capital. “Second serfdom” — in this view — was a cruel but necessary step toward economic and technological progress.

The Ottoman conquest as disaster

The other school of thought blaming Balkan decline on Ottoman culture is even more critical. In this view, the disasters of the Ottoman period begin at the first moment of the Turkish conquest. There is no scope for distinguishing good and bad periods of Ottoman control. In this view, the violence of the conquest wiped out important political institutions and destroyed normal patterns of settlement, village life and the economy.

Note that blame here falls not on the period of decline alone but on the entire period of Turkish control. The argument postulates that basic, essential features of the Turkish system were backward even when the Ottoman Empire worked at its best. A key part of this analysis is the alleged inability of the Muslim ruling class to pursue science, industry and new ideas. The Ottoman feudal system, especially the Ottoman land tenure system, also is seen as fundamentally flawed: this analysis rejects the idea that the system began as a reasonable one and only later became a problem due to various abuses. We will spend some time on Ottoman feudalism next week, but for now you need to know some of its most basic features in order to follow this debate about decline.

Ottoman feudalism was based on the idea that all land belonged to the sultan as the earthly representative of God. The sultan in turn granted temporary use of specific plots of land to subordinate institutions and individuals. In particular, the Ottoman cavalry consisted of armed horsemen (called variously timariots or spahis) who were supported by the produce of plots of land (timars or spahiliks) in exchange for pledges of military service in time of war. When the central authorities were strong, feudal landholders were required to treat their peasants well because the peasants’ welfare was important to the sultan, as the ultimate landlord, and landholders could forfeit their use of the land if they abused the system.

However, when the central authorities were weak, these local feudal figures took advantage of conditions to squeeze excess revenue from their peasants, evade their obligations to the government and sometimes to make permanent claims to land. By various legal devices, a timar or spahilik could be converted to a chiftlik, a plot of land owned permanently by a landlord, and such a chiftlik could then be passed down in his family. When land was converted to chiftlik status, the central government lost influence, revenue and the ability to protect the peasants. At the local level, peasants living on chiftlik land also were less likely to treat their land well or to try to improve it. Under the original feudal system, they enjoyed some guarantees of retaining the fruits of their efforts but this was lost when landlords secured full claims on land.

Recent scholarship on problems in Ottoman society pays a great deal of attention to the creation of chiftliks. The causes of chiftlik formation are also causes of economic decline in general. For one thing, the so-called “price revolution” of the period after 1550 brought serious inflation that made the fixed income of a timar too low to live on: feudal landholders found that they had to abuse the land tenure system merely to survive. At the same time, the rise of infantry made the timariot and spahi cavalry less important to the central authorities, who lost interest in maintaining the old feudal system used for raising horse troops.

Meanwhile, Eastern Europe was sharing in a general “crisis” in late feudal Europe. Overpopulation of many rural areas, combined with a worsening climate and the exhaustion of marginal soils, led to famine and this led in turn to increased susceptibility to disease. In many areas of Europe, rural population went into a long decline. According to this view, the decline of Balkan population was neither unusual nor a sign of local Ottoman misadministration. However, it did have very different results in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as compared to the West. In the West, the decline of rural regions was accompanied by a growth in the relative power of towns. Rural decline also strengthened central governments and weakened rural nobles. These were important steps on the way to industrialization and nation-building.

In the Balkans, however, a healthy new kind of urban-rural economic relationship failed to appear. Marginal farmland was abandoned and converted to stock-raising (sometimes in the hands of newly arrived Turkish pastoralists migrating from Anatolia into the interior of the Ottoman Empire). Instead of selling produce to local towns, Balkan landlords sold products like wool (and later, grain) to the West. Balkan towns were not important for this traffic. Cut off from commerce and sources of capital, the towns later could not compete as industrial centers when faced with cheaper, more advanced imports from the West.

At one time, scholars believed that chiftliks came to dominate the Ottoman Balkans. It is now believed that landlords used only about 10% of farmland to support agriculture for export: to be profitable, such land had to be both productive and rather close to ports to allow export in the absence of a decent internal road net. Elsewhere, Balkans farmland remained in the hands of peasants in small plots: however, these peasants were themselves an obstacle to development, because they lacked the resources or the motives for improvements and remained interested in subsistence farming only.

Analysts who seek the sources of backwardness in the era of Ottoman decline describe a more complicated interplay of external and internal forces.

Backwardness before the Ottomans

One further perspective remains: scholars like John Lampe place the causes of backwardness even farther back in Balkan history, before the Ottomans or Habsburgs ever came to the area. Advocates of this view point to indications that the area had been characterized by low population densities (relative to the rest of Europe) as far back as the Middle Ages. Low population density in turn led to a greater role for pastoralism in the rural economy, which in turn led to the weakness of towns and an inability to compete with Western European urban industry in later centuries.

The specific processes and consequences of geographic weakness are these. First, farming land in Southeastern Europe was handicapped by poorer soils, less rainfall and a division into smaller areas because of mountains and other wastelands. Second, the “border” status of the region led to warfare that ate up surpluses which otherwise might have been invested in improvements or town building: the greater risk of loss made costly improvements less attractive as investments for all members of society. Third, the presence of powerful and sophisticated nearby civilizations to the south — as far back as the classical world — forced native industries into failed competition with manufactures from the Byzantine empire and other centers.

To the extent that border disruptions caused medieval economic backwardness, we could expect the “Pax Ottomanica” to bring improvements: with an end to active warfare, the climate for investment would seem more attractive. There are several reasons why this did not occur.

First, the Ottoman conquest disrupted townlife for a long time and prompted many peasants to abandon village agriculture for mountain herding.

Second, foreign trade ceased during long periods of warfare between Turkey and Venice, among others.

Third, internal trade remained hampered by geographic barriers like mountains and poor coastal access. No net of good roads or ports was created. Thus trade remained local in focus.

Fourth, while the timar system brought stable taxes and ownership, other aspects of Ottoman law and administration artificially hurt rural productivity. For example, grain sales to the state at low costs were mandated to support the poor of Istanbul and the cities, and to reduce the cost of feeding armies. The decline of timars in favor of chiftliks and other forms of illegal land ownership also added to the burden on the peasants.

This analysis ends with the same observations about the relative weakness of the Balkan economy when Western urban industry came into the picture. However, blame falls more on natural conditions and less on inept or evil leaders. This is a rather pessimistic perspective, and also one which is unattractive for political purposes. It undercuts the position of local authorities who would like to blame current problems on specific foreign or class enemies. In addition, such a view implies a harder road for future Eastern European and Balkan modernization because it indicates that regional economic and social problems are rooted in geographic realities, not historical or political mistakes subject to human remedy.

Such are some explanations for the characteristics that make Eastern Europe, and especially the Balkans, different from the rest of Europe. It is an area with a unique and challenging physical geography. As a borderland, it has experienced more than its share of political disruption. The legacy of being a border also has meant ethnic diversity and ethnic strife, and these have prevented nation building of the kind seen in other parts of Europe. The area has had its own cultures and its own special history: Balkan culture and history are not just footnotes or exceptions when compared to the history of the West.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created May 1996; last modified 11 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

Comment display has been disabled on this doc.

Comment display has been disabled on this doc.