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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Monday 11 October 2021

The Great Cauldron

The benefits of browsing in a real bookshop are evident in this book purchase, as my standard notifications missed this book. Very appropriate for Bookshop Day!

This book is a history of Southeastern Europe (Balkans) by Marie-Janine Calic, translated from the original German by Elizabeth Janik. This is a big (600 words plus notes etc.) history of the Balkans that takes a different approach to the traditional narrative history. Calic argues that the development of nation-states is less important than the relationships of exchange between people and ideas from across those boundaries and indeed further afield.

If you are looking for a military history of the Balkans, this is not the book for you. The great conflicts that afflicted the region are largely glossed over, favouring social, political and economic influences. If you are a nationalist, you are also not likely to enjoy this book. Calic constructs the global relationships that influenced the Balkans in each period. For example, how the rebels of the 19th century were affected by the global age of revolutions or how mercantile capitalism was important in fighting the Ottomans in the 14th and 15th centuries. She also points to the economic factors that held back the development of the Balkans, what is sometimes called the 'great divergence'. Not least the exploitation of natural resources by outside players.

Calic covers a broad period, unlike many Balkan histories, starting with a significant chapter on Southeastern Europe before 1500. This chapter is critical of later attempts to create national identities based on ancient roots. She rightly argues that present-day identities developed over centuries. The Balkans were also the intersection of ideas with people embracing different cultures, even religions. The Ottoman millet system also ensured religious toleration that didn't exist in western Europe of the period. In later periods, she identifies differences between the cities and rural areas. I liked the quote from Milan Lazarevic, a member of the Serbian National Assembly, "Whoever comes to Serbia in order to see her culture, will not find it in Belgrade... for Belgrade readily adopts the foreign culture."

She also makes some interesting comparisons between the Ottomans and western Europe in the age of exploration. The Ottomans didn't go across the Atlantic but did bump into the Portuguese in the Far East. The book makes good use of maps to illustrate these ideas. This reflects the wonderful Ottoman maps from admirals like Piri Reis that we can still see today. The contrast is most marked by the Ottomans not developing the western capitalist system due to internal and external factors. Shifting international trade was a factor in the decline of the Ottoman empire. 

The ethnic cleansing that accompanied the development of nation-states is covered in detail. The Greek-Turkish exchanges in the 1920s are well known, but 400,000 people fled or were expelled from their homes due to the earlier Balkan Wars. This continues in the modern period, with millions of people emigrating from the Balkans since 1989, about one-quarter of the entire population. Often the youngest and brightest, creating a brain drain that further weakens the region's economy.

Calic concludes that international influences played a far more significant role in the Balkans than is often depicted in national histories. An impressive cultural diversity reflects the strategically important crossroads that the Balkans formed throughout history. The great empires didn't worry much about national identity, but they exploited the region economically as colonies. 

This is a big and important book, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the broader influences on the development of the Balkans. 

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