Andrew Rawson, Balkan Struggles (Pen & Sword, 2020)
The Balkans. Just to say it is to conjure up images of war and devastation with an impact well beyond its borders, as unfair as that might be to the people living there. But the warlike nature of the region in the twentieth century is the focus of Andrew Rawson’s book, and he has a lot of it to narrate in under 200 pages.
There is a sense of Groundhog Day about the structure of Balkan Struggles. Rawson opens with the war before the War, beginning in October 1912 with wars of independence against the Ottoman Empire. Then came Sarajevo in June 1914 and the world conflagration that followed. With the Great War behind them, you might think a long bout of peace was called for, but not in the Balkans. The Greeks, Albanians, and the Turks all fought wars in the region, and a communist uprising seized Bulgaria, and we’re still in the 1920s. Bulgaria became a right-wing state soon after the new decade started, then a dictatorship, but the major developments were taking place elsewhere on the road to World War II.
Fascist Italy attacked Greece in October 1940, and Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941; the Balkans was now a significant theatre in that war. Rawson points out that occupation brought its own headaches as the partisan war developed; a multi-faceted campaign that the author does a good job of clarifying. The results of that and changing allegiances in Bulgaria and Romania caused chaos, which ended with post-war communist government across the region and a fascist junta in Greece. Rawson also devotes space to the collaborators in the Balkans and the horrors of the Holocaust, both of which would cast long post-war shadows.
Stalin’s death proved a turning point in the Balkans, according to Rawson. Soviet control over the region faltered and died over the ensuing decades, and the post-war consensus failed with the death of Yugoslavia’s President Tito in 1980. The ethnic tensions released from that loosening of control erupted in internecine warfare through the 1990s, forcing UN and NATO intervention. Peace was restored but at a terrible price. Perhaps fittingly, Rawson leaves the story there without a conclusion to bring the strands together; despite a century of war, several wounds remain open and the future for the region is uncertain.
Rawson’s narrative of the Balkan struggles is a reminder of how far Europe has come in the twentieth century, but also how far it still has to go to guarantee peace and prosperity along its volatile south-eastern flank. The structure of Rawson’s book with its subtitled state by state approach, reflects the fractured political and ethnic landscape that is the Balkans, though it also makes for a disjointed story. Nevertheless, Rawson includes enough detail to produce a satisfying if depressing account of a century of turmoil. Readers of modern European history and warfare will appreciate this survey.