Episode 37: The Ottoman Balkans

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Mary Neuburger, Professor, Department of History

Southeastern Europe, or the Balkans, grabbed headlines in the 1990s after the collapse of communism with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the bloody conflicts that followed. At the time, much was made of the region’s unique history, having been separated from Europe and languishing under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. But, was this really the cause of the conflict in the 20th century? What was life in southeastern Europe like under the Ottomans?

Guest Mary Neuburger walks us through current historical thinking about the five hundred year legacy of Ottoman rule in southeastern Europe, and gives us an alternate explanation for the turbulence of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Can you sort of define for us geographically where we’re talking about when we talk about the Balkans?

Well, when we talk about the Balkans, usually it includes modern-day Greece, the former Yugoslavia—which is now seven countries—it includes Albania, Bulgaria, parts of Turkey, and it includes Romania. Now, Romania can be included or not. Usually north of the Danube is not in the Balkans, but for historians usually they include the areas that were under Ottoman rule historically as part of the Balkans, so that would include Romania and even parts of what were Hungary for many centuries—so, Transylvania, for example.

Ah, yes, Transylvania, which we brought up in a previous episode.

But the terms—Southeastern Europe and the Balkans—are the same. Sometimes people use the term Southeastern Europe instead because many people don’t know what the Balkans are, as a term they might get it confused with Baltics. Also there’s been some academic work on the term “Balkan” and how it’s actually considered derogatory by a lot of people because of the term “Balkanize.” It’s become derogatory in some more recent political writings. So, many of the countries in the Balkans actually don’t like the term Balkan to refer to themselves. It’s something that’s been debated and kicked around in academia.

Our topic today is going to be Ottoman rule in the Balkans and after. So, my first question is when did the Ottomans come to this region, to southeastern Europe, and who did they take over from?

So, the Ottoman Empire expanded into southeastern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. It depends on which part of the Balkans you’re in, and many areas they conquered and then lost, conquered and then lost, so it’s hard to pin down a date. Essentially, people talk about 500 years of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, from the 14th to the 19th century, or from the 15th to the 20th century, depending on which part of the Balkans you’re talking about. So, it’s 500 years.

Prior to that you had Byzantine rule in much of the Balkans competing with other Orthodox Christian medieval kingdoms. You had changing territorial alliances between Orthodox states, but they were really in disarray. By the time the Ottomans moved in, in many ways they were moving into a power vacuum. They moved in through alliances and actually intermarried with Christians. Many people talk about conquest as a time of holy war, well, actually many historians looking at the period in detail have said, no, this was not a holy war. This was a frontier situation in which there were all kinds of side switching, and conversions, and intermarriages. So, this was not at all a holy war. The Ottomans were invited into the Balkans by many of the Christian elites that were there at the time.

So, it was a very unstable period and the Ottomans were viewed as a stabilizing force, as security?

Yes, so people essentially decided to work for the Ottoman rulers in exchange for security, for weapons, for supplies. They became part of the Ottoman militias and they did bring stability to the region.

So how did life in this region change under Ottoman rule? It’s still known as the heartland of Orthodox Christianity, southeastern Europe and Russia, so the demographic changes that we saw elsewhere—in Anatolia—did they take place in Southeastern Europe as well or where they left to their own?

It’s a long a and complex period because you’re talking about five hundred years. For the most part the local populations remained in place and even thrived, and so you don’t have the decimation of local populations. You do have decimation of certain social classes so, for example, the nobility in many of the Orthodox Christian core states, like Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. The nobility eventually were taken out. There were initially alliances and then they were decimated. But the peasant and other kinds of towns-populations remained.

One of the things that did change was the introduction of Islamic populations into the region, both through the migration of administrative and military elites, and through the conversion of local populations to Islam. There were some concentrated areas of this, for example, Bosnia, what is today Albania, parts of Macedonia and also southern Bulgaria. So, not only do you have Turkish speaking populations coming from Anatolia, you had local population Slavic- and Albanian-speaking populations that converted en masse to Islam and remained and remain Muslim to this day.

There was also an influx of Jewish populations, mostly Sephardi Jews that were that were expelled from Spain after 1492. They the concentrated in cities throughout the Balkans. So, that was added too. And they were offered religious tolerance there, whereas they could not find it in Western Europe at the time. So, because the Ottomans were tolerant to other Peoples of the Book—Jews and Christians—these populations are allowed to maintain their religions.

There was really no forcible conversion, except for the case of the dev?irme, which was a very specific institution that lasted from the 14th to the 17th century. They’ve estimated over that whole period, something like 2- to 300,000 Christian boys of a certain age–seven to ten years old–were gathered from various villages, the best and the brightest, taken to Istanbul, converted to Islam—so this is the forced conversion. But they were also educated in Persian, Arabic, Ottoman and they were taught the art of war and administration. They became the elite actually. these boys. They were the Janissary corps, but they also became grand viziers and other kinds of titles within the administration.

We’ve talked a bit about the Ottoman Empire in a few episodes, and I realized we never quite covered the millet system, which was a unique innovation. Could you touch on that?

Yes, the term millet means community or nation in modern Turkish. At the time it meant confessional community, or religious community. So, there was the Muslim millet, the Orthodox Christian millet, which they actually called the Rum millet, like Rome, because the Byzantines called themselves Romans. So, you had a millet for each religion. The Jewish community had a millet, the Orthodox Christian community had a millet, the Armenians had a separate Orthodox millet, and the Muslims were considered a separate millet.

Essentially, what that meant was that each community was ruled by the religious leaders of their community, and each religious committee had a representative in Istanbul. Of course for the Muslim community, this was the rule of the land—Islamic law was the rule of the state—but for these other religions they were almost like states within a state, but not with autonomous territories though extraterritorial. So, within your own village or within your own neighborhood if you were in a larger city, you went to the religious officials of your religion. You paid taxes through them , if you were going to school you went to school set up by them, they even had their own court systems. So, in cases, for example, where there might have been a dispute between a Muslim and Christian, then, yes, you had to go to the Islamic courts. But, if it were anything having to do just within the Christian community, or the Jewish community, for example, you would go to the courts of your community.

Now, a lot of historians later looking at the millet system have said, well, it wasn’t really a system to the extent that maybe we thought it was. Yes, all these communities had representation in Istanbul, but it seems to have been much more localized than we thought. It wasn’t very centralized. But that also makes sense with the way the Ottomans ran things. There was a lot of local autonomy, a lot of patchworks of sovereignties, and so this so this was one of them.

It allowed for a lot of tolerance for these groups. It allowed them to maintain the kind of cultural autonomy, and so it speaks to the kinds of tolerance the Ottomans afforded these populations in the Balkans. In many ways the reason I think this patchwork of cultures survived in the Balkans because of systems like the millet system.

So, we have this patch work of autonomy–and the Empire, even at its height, was decentralized, and really when we think of the Ottoman Empire beginning to break apart the story starts in the Balkans. So, what forces led to that, and what changes did that have on Southeastern Europe?

So, the discussion of Ottoman decline is quite extensive. Actually, a lot of Ottomanists spend a lot of time–really, I think I too much time–writing about decline, even tracing it back to the 17th century. There are many different kinds of institutional issues one can talk about, but looking specifically at Southeastern Europe, at the issues that brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in southeastern Europe in the 19 century, is that this was the first place for it to really lose massive territories, and, in many ways hasten its decline and death.

It really had to do with, on the one hand, the rise of Europe as a viable power, Europe as a challenge to Ottoman rule, and the nation-state as a new political model that was attractive to small elites in the Balkans, who looked to Europe as a model, who were educated in many cases in Europe, and who discovered the idea of nationalism in Europe, and began to think of themselves as secular nations. In some cases this grew out of millet autonomies. There were already autonomies that people were building upon, taking those autonomies and giving them nationalist meaning.

But in other ways nationalism cut across the lines of the millets. Within the Orthodox millet, the Greeks were dominating that millet by the 18th-century, even at the local level. And this caused Romanians and Bulgarians to want out. So, actually it was language and not religion that became the impetus for their nationalisms. So, by the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was unstable in the Balkans for a variety of reasons, but the rise of nationalist movements and specific uprisings that happen in the 19th-century drew a lot of attention from Europe. Although these uprisings were no more powerful than they were elsewhere in Europe, like Poland, or elsewhere in the Middle East in the same period, it drew lot of attention because these were Christians, who were under Islamic rule, and who were being, in many cases, slaughtered in reprisals after these uprisings. In many cases these uprisings included the killing of Muslim civilians, for example, or military officers and so as reprisal the Ottomans came in and slaughtered, in many cases, whole villages.

Europe was very concerned; the United States was even concerned at that time. It drew a lot of attention from the outside and there were series of interventions on behalf of these Balkan peoples, even though in reality these were small and elite minorities who wanted to create nation-states that they would essentially be leaders of personally.

These nationalist movements in combination with the situation of these groups being Christians under Islamic rule, Europe being willing to intervene–by Europe I also mean Russia–you have a situation that led to the breaking off piece by piece of territories from Ottoman rule. First in various kinds of autonomous arrangements, and eventually independent, so you have an autonomous Serbia, an independent Greece, Romania–piece by piece these various entities breaking off.

I feel in a sense it was with this justification of nationalism and sovereignty and self determination, but in reality these were small elite movements at the time with a lot of European backing behind them because of the particular geopolitical situation.

Right, and I think that’s an important point you raise, which is that this was about infighting within the Christian community just as much as it was about trying to get out from under the yoke of Islam.

As these pieces of territory break away and assume autonomy and independence, this has been the history of southeastern Europe since then–the alignment, re-alignment, and breaking apart. This is, in fact, what the term “Balkanization,” which we were talking about at the beginning, means. Did this legacy of the 500 years of Ottoman rule, has that contributed to this? Is this something new, or is this something that was always there in southeastern Europe, that people lived in small autonomous clusters and did well under large empires?

It’s complicated, but it’s interesting. A lot of people who look at the Balkans within a global context, and look at Balkan nationalism, who look at various manifestations of that–the Balkan wars, the more recent ones, or the 1912-13 one, and they look at what they see as particularly violent tendencies within Balkan nationalism, and they tend to blame it on the Ottomans. So, in other words, the areas that were under Ottoman rule are more “backwards,” or more “barbaric” and “violent.” And we find this everywhere in popular and academic writing.

But there’s also been a big response to this, by academics who have actually said, No, the recent Balkan wars that we have seen, for example, are a result of the fact that there was tolerance for so long in that area, that we still have mixed communities whereas in other parts of Europe, in many ways those types of communities are long gone. They’ve been assimilated or expelled. Actually, this untangling of the Ottoman landscape which has happened over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and which has happened as the result of population exchanges, expulsions, war, people fleeing, people being killed, these sorts of things — which are not unusual. Yes, the Balkans are violent, but compared to what? We don’t have to go back very far in European history to see high body counts in the heart of Europe, so it’s always a question: violent compared to what?

This landscape of violence in 19th and 20th century Balkans is less a result of the Ottoman legacy and more of the penetration of western ideas and influences, which were not a good fit for that region. The region was so complex that even within, say, the Orthodox communities it wasn’t so clear where one nation ended and the other began. This is why Yugoslavia existed, because the Serbs and Croats and Bosnian Muslims all spoke the same language. Why not have a nation called Yugoslavia, which means South Slav? But there are three different religions. Does religion define nation, or does language? Well, they tried to have it be language. And in the end it didn’t work, because those ethnicities are also based in religious identities. So, it didn’t work there, but in Albania, for example, where you also have three different religions, and one language, it did work. Albanian-ness is a language based identity. And so, the complexities of language and religion made it very up in the air where one nation-state should end, and the next should begin.

So, this caused a lot of fighting over the spoils over the Ottoman Empire, and so this was more of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Europeans wanting to intervene; European powers playing smaller powers off of each other, and that created a real mess. That, in many ways, was behind the violence, not some sort of primordial Ottoman legacy of violence and hatred, but there was a legacy of co-existence that didn’t meld well with the European nation-state model.

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