Rebecca West: The Evil Empires

It has become clear to me, while reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, that any attempt to understand the history of the Balkans requires a decent knowledge of the Ottoman Empire’s role in the region.

Though they first conquered the Slavs of the Balkans over 500 years ago and ruled over them up until the late 19th century, the influence of the Islamic Ottoman Empire is indisputably tied to recent events. The areas of Kosovo and Bosnia were the two most targeted regions during Yugoslavia’s violent breakup (in the early nineties), its Muslim citizens suffering by far, the heaviest casualties. And in the process of removing the Ottoman Empire from Europe, the Austrian Empire and the other powers of Europe swept through the Balkans drawing up a map of the region that would be fought over for the entirety of the 20th century.

Rebecca West argues that the Islamic Turks ruling the Ottoman Empire could be very cruel to the Slavic Christians of the Balkans and describes the Slavic people, overall, as “suffering greatly” at the hands of the Turks. This judgment, however, conflicts with the more recent historians who take a broader view of the Ottoman Empire, comparing them to other ruling powers of the same time period. In addition to Rebecca West and other historians, I’ve been trying to learn about how modern day Montenegrins view the Turks and the Ottoman Empire, considering they spent 500 years fighting them to preserve their independence.

After all this reading I’ve found the most important questions to start with are:

  1. How bad was it to be a Christian living in the Islamic Ottoman Empire?
  2. Were the Slavic people of the Balkans better off being ruled by Christian Empires?

One example of Turkish cruelty Rebecca West cites in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the suffering inflicted upon the Slavic citizens in Belgrade throughout the empire’s rule: every so often they’d set up month long programs that are best described as Ottoman soldiers killing as many Serbs as possible. Also, commonly cited is how Christians were taxed quite heavily by the Ottomans and prevented from owning land. Whether traveling through Bosnia or Montenegro or Serbia, Rebecca West consistently emphasizes that the Slavs suffered greatly living under Ottoman rule.

Mark Mazower, however, goes to great lengths to prove just the opposite in his book, The Balkans. First, he argues, it was generally better to be a Christian living under Islamic rule in the Ottoman Empire than it was to be a Muslim living in a European country during the same time period. Inquisitions were set up across Europe to expel all Muslims. A Christian in the Ottoman Empire was also better off than, say, a disagreeable Catholic in Italy (see Giodarno Bruno). Second, while many conversions did take place, they certainly weren’t enforced. In fact, the Ottoman Empire didn’t really want to convert people to Islam because it would mean less Christians and therefore less taxes. Even Jews were welcome in the Ottoman Empire: when expelled from Spain and other European countries many Jews moved into Croatia and Bosnia, settling there for hundred of years until being virtually eliminated during the Holocaust. And, he points out, that while violence against Christians did exist in the Ottoman Empire, historically it occurred most often when the Slavic countries started demanding independence, reflecting a reactionary response more than an overall disposition.

He then contrasts this to how the Serbs were treated by the Austrians in the 19th century when a ‘systematic policy of exterminations’ was laid out against the Serbs. He states “Mass executions, concentration camps and deportation of the Serbian elite were all used by (Austria’s king) Franz Josef’s military to ensure order in the occupied territories.” And so Serbia, having finally gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire, suffered far more at the hands of the encroaching Christian Austrian Empire. 

Rebecca West even points out how the Austrian empire forced the Croatians (who they ruled over until 1918) to fight against the Ottoman Empire in order to save Vienna and how they performed quite valiantly in the process. However, Austria continually denied Croatia the independence it sought, even bureaucratically relegating them to be ruled by the Hungarians who continually attacked their border regions and attempted to strip Croatia of its identity and culture in every way possible.

Then, as Rebecca West points out, during World War I, Great Britain made a treaty with Italy that was quite simple: if Italy declared war on the Austrian Empire, they’d get to rule over all of Croatia once the war was over. This deal was later revoked when the war ended, but Italy’s new found claim on Croatia is the major reason Croatia was coerced into joining the new country Yugoslavia. They would have preferred the independence they had been seeking for 500 years, but Great Britain completely sold them out.

Such contradicting claims can be a slightly infuriating component of reading Dame Rebecca West – she’s so confident in her claims of how evil the Ottoman Empire was, however she gives very accurate details of far worse atrocities European Nations inflicted on the Slavic people of Yugoslavia.

And the history of Europe betraying the Slavs of the Balkans continues beyond her time: Croatia claims the European Union strongly encouraged them to succeed from Yugoslavia in 1991 before the E.U. promptly withdrew all offers of help just as Croatia was being invaded by Yugoslav forces. In terms of the siege in Sarajevo, European powers also aren’t held in high esteem: of four of the Sarajevans we talked to at length about the siege, all of them described Europe’s role as being something like: “They only decided to help us three years in when they realized they wanted to prevent Russia from having any influence in the region.”

With all this swirling in my head last week, we sat down to a meal with our landlord Sava who had prepared a lunch of locally caught calamari and black risotto. I asked what, in general, most people in Montenegro think about the Ottoman Empire and he reiterated the Rebecca West line of thinking. He described the Ottomans as preventing progress in the region for 500 years and keeping the people as subjects of a foreign king.  “It was very bad for the people here to be ruled by the Ottomans and have no sense of identity,” he said, “Until the Ottomans left the Slav people here didn’t even know what it meant to be free, what it meant to control your own destiny.”

2 thoughts on “Rebecca West: The Evil Empires

  1. Pingback: Even when it’s raining, its always sunny in Novi Sad | Adam and Molly Go

  2. Pingback: Traveling While Reading: The Balkans | Adam and Molly Go

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