Episode 110: The Legacy of WWI in the Balkans and Middle East

Host: Christopher Rose, Department of History
Guests: Mary Neuburger, Departments of History & Slavic Studies; Yoav Di-Capua, Department of History

On October 30, 1918, the Ottoman Empire signed a treaty of capitulation to the Allied Powers aboard the HMS Agamemnon, a British battleship docked in Mudros harbor on the Aegean island of Lemnos. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire were the first of the Central Powers to formally end their participation in World War I. Five days later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire followed suit, and finally the guns fell silent with the capitulation of Germany on November 11. World War I dramatically changed the face of Europe and the Middle East. The war had caused millions of deaths and millions more were displaced. Two great multinational empires–the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire–were dissolved into new nation states, while Russia descended into a chaotic revolution.

In this first of two roundtables on the legacy of World War I, I am joined by Mary Neuburger, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, and Yoav Di-Capua, Professor of Modern Arab History, to discuss the war’s impact on Southeastern Europe and the Middle East.

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Let’s start by discussing the situation at the end of the war when Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire surrender to the allies. There’s a lot of human suffering going on.

[MN] Indeed! In Bulgaria, for example, it was really on the verge of mass starvation, there were riots in the cities, mostly carried out by women.  On the front there was also starvation–men were still mostly at the front. It was basically a revolutionary situation which caused the capitulation. There were soldiers mutinying; there was a lot of influence–the left was actually organizing and looking to Russia for inspiration, and many Bulgarian communists were going back and forth to Petrograd and even to Ukraine later, as the Civil War kind of took off.

But really across the region there was not just mass starvation, but a lot of people had died from disease. And then of course mass war dead — and really, I mean people see this numbers as pretty small in the Balkans, but actually in terms of percentage of the population really quite large numbers — of both civilian and military casualties.

So yeah, it was chaos that became political that kind of created a vacuum, and it took a long time to sort of resolve all that was going on there. But really, the war effort collapsed because of these political concerns and it wasn’t just the communist left.

It was also– in Bulgaria, but also elsewhere in the region — the agrarian left. So it was really also an issue of peasant rebellion throughout the region.

[YD] Similarly, in the in the Arab East the level of destruction is immense. We have to remember that World War I was an agrarian war in the sense that you have hundreds of thousands of animals passing through. They need to eat. They need to drink. As well as the soldiers themselves. These animals did not come from the UK, even though they belong to the British, they come from Egypt, they come from the countryside, in whatever places the British were passing through. And the result is a major destruction of the environment, in the agrarian countryside in ways that almost immediately translate to humanitarian crisis. The number of civilian deaths in the Ottoman Empire is one of the highest, if not the highest, in World War I.

Add to this political breakdown of the Empire, and the fact that minorities had been set against each other, due to the process of modernization and imperialism, and you get significant levels of political upheaval. For example, with the Armenian genocide. So when you look at the region in 1920 the level of destruction of population dislocated is so immense that, in one way — you know people at the time mourned the destruction. On the other hand, it created the conditions for the rise of the nation state. Turkey rises out of total destruction of Anatolia, and the destruction in the rest of the Arab East allows imperial power to divide the regions and create a new Middle East unilaterally without talking to anybody besides themselves.

And that’s the Middle East we inherited. So there’s quite a lot that happens in the course of a few years that casts a very long shadow all the way to the present century.

Jugoslavija na Jadranu (“Yugoslavia at the Adriatic”) Offset u boji, 71 x 42 cm, oko 1935. Sign.

We have, as you mentioned, the creation of new nation states. The Ottoman Empire is dissolved, disbanded; Turkey replaces that. We have these new countries. We also have new countries in the Balkans, or a lot of new borders for countries that already existed due to the fact that Austria-Hungary also breaks up.  Who drew those borders?

[MN] Well, actually in southeastern Europe the only really wholly new country was Yugoslavia, and it wasn’t called Yugoslavia, it was called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Bulgaria already existed; Albania, even, had been formed as a result of the Balkan Wars. So that’s another thing I wanted to mention is that in the region war had been going on since 1912, with some breaks.

Yes, my grandmother never let me forget I had a great uncle who died fighting in them. Memories run very long.

[MN] That’s right! But even though these states weren’t new, the borders were different. And so, even for Yugoslavia, let’s say you could look at it as an expanded Serbia, since Serbia already existed as a state. But now you have this massive new Yugoslavia which is a new state, or this Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, in which you have to integrate all these different people who speak different languages, different religions who have different systems of law, who have different transportation systems that are oriented to different capital cities, you have to integrate all that into one state. So even those states that seem to gain in a sense territory are hurt in many ways, by these new configurations which were so unwieldy.

A demonstration in favor of Romania’s entry into WWI, Bucharest, 1915 or 1916.

The other example is Romania, Romania already existed as well. I mean, the Ottoman Empire in southeastern Europe had been breaking down in the course of the 19th century. So we already had an independent Romania since 1878. We had an autonomous Romania since 1864, but now the new Romania has Transylvania, it also includes Bessarabia, which they took from Russia. So you have this massive new Romania with all these new populations in it which are not Romanian, and suddenly Romania itself, like this new Yugoslavia, are multinational states, actually, in part because there wasn’t really a way to create actual nation states, arguably, out of this region. Because it was so mixed it would have been impossible to draw borders.

But the borders were drawn by the victors, of course of World War One not by locals. There were plenty of locals who lobbied for Yugoslavia to be formed, for example, or for Romania’s to get Transylvania, that kind of thing. But, really, these borders are drawn under the influence of Woodrow Wilson, with this idea of national self determination, which couldn’t really be applied very well in that region. So, the borders came really from the outside, but the national self determination wasn’t the only consideration.

The other was that the winners — people who are fighting on the winning side — would be rewarded and losers would be punished. And so in the Balkans, Bulgaria was on the losing side. And it was in its own mind, at least punished it didn’t really lose much territory, but it lost all the territories that had occupied during the war. And so this is a national catastrophe for Bulgaria. Hungary, it was the same way. Hungary lost territories to Romania, and this new Yugoslav state. So, there was this kind of shadow of the winners and losers which of course then feeds into later discontent when these same countries jump on the bandwagon and join the Axis in World War II, the losing side.

Right, you know, I’m also thinking here of probably the most extreme example, which was the intended partition of Turkey, according to the Treaty of Sevres, which set the terms, which led to a three year war with Greece, which ended in 1922 – 23, with the governments of Greece and Turkey, deciding that the way they were going to split their differences was literally that they were going to exchange populations. So, Christians who lived in Turkey, outside of certain areas were designated ‘Greeks;’ people who lived in Greece, who were Muslims and lived outside of certain areas were designated ‘Turks,’ and you had two and a quarter million people shipped off to the other side, even though they had no family connections, or language in order to make these nations homogeneous, and to end this multi-ethnic split.

So, the artificiality of of these borders is one thing. But now you have to determine as a nation who you are, which I know has been a recurring theme in the Arab states. This idea of what does it mean to be–there hadn’t been Arab states, they had been under Ottoman occupation since the 1600s–

[YD] Well, it wasn’t an occupation. I mean, for them, this was the cosmology of Islam, that there is a spiritual center, just like, you know, the Vatican and the Pope for Catholics, in a way. This institution provided an anchoring for their identity underneath  the political structures in the institutions of the Ottoman Empire. They can run something, which is pretty much an open code community that relates also to all the other communities. So, various kinds of Christians and Jews and Druze and Alawites and Muslims of that kind or another, Sunnis and Shi’is, can actually coexists–there’s no other words–under this imperial structure

When the Ottoman Empire collapses, and it’s not that it collapses just in the course of the war, it’s been collapsing slowly, and it’s being replaced slowly, especially in the Arab East since the 1860s, with the cultural movement of the nahda, which is the modernization of culture. And it’s basically introduction into political modernity. So they begin to craft new categories of what does it mean to be an Arab in the modern world. Part of it, you know, is part of being in a global economy, exploiting raw materials like cotton, in return for for cash. but they also understand not only the economy and the numbers, they also understand the categories of political being, constitutions, rights of various kinds of rights. And these circulate widely in a journalistic scene that explodes. We’re talking about hundreds of magazines and journals in a territory in which more than 90% are illiterate.

But these elites, those who can read and participate in it, do pick up the project of the nation state from the late 19th century. So when the Ottoman Empire collapses, they’re actually ready to take off in in in a certain sense, except the French and the British are there. What is unique, the interaction between the two forces is unique because the British and the French actually decide secretly how to divide the region. But they also promise, especially the British parts, of it to opposing sides: part to the Zionists, part to a distinctive Arab project coming out of the Arab peninsula. And these conflicting promises–also with the expectation that these elite are going to create national entities create a conflict that is being resolved–first of all, is not being resolved, it’s being rearranged during the 20s only.

So it’s been about it took about a decade for the states to emerge. Egypt gains semi-independence in 1923; Iraq got its independence in 1932, but all of them are still under various Anglo-Egyptian, Anglo-Iraqi treaties that bind them diplomatically, economically, militarily and otherwise. So these are also conditions, independence conditions, on national liberation, that basically in the long run, discredited the project of the democratic Arab nation states and replace it with military juntas, military officers, that happens all over the Arab East already in the 1950s. And that’s the legacy, part of the legacy of the Arab nation states in this period.

Portrait of the last Caliph of Islam, Abdulmecid II. He carried the title for 18 months, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the forced abdication of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin in November 1922, until the abolition of the caliphate in March 1924.

One of other things that happens as a result of the end of the war is that the Ottoman empire is disbanded. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire also bears the title of Caliph of Islam. The position is abolished in 1924, and never replaced, which some people have even suggested has a lasting legacy. But what is the immediate impact of this abolition of the spiritual head of the Sunni world?

[MN] Well, there was a large degree of accommodation within the Balkan states of their Muslim populations. And one of the interesting thing about — let’s take Bulgaria — is that Turks that were more modernizing, so Kemalists — were actually followed by the police, they were seen as suspicious, they were called communists, and they were seen as kind of enemies of the state. Whereas–and they did use these terms–the old Turks within Bulgaria were actually embraced by the state, they were given all kinds of autonomy for their communities. And by autonomy, I mean, they still have their own Islamic Courts in Bulgaria, they were still using Arabic script in Bulgaria, women were still allowed to veil, all these kind of things are still going on in Bulgaria. And in fact, there was at least some migration of Turks from New Turkey to Bulgaria, because they want it to live within this still Islamic community.

Obviously, it wasn’t a caliphate, but there was a way in which they were able to continue their way of life, at least on this kind of small scale within Bulgaria. So this continued throughout the whole interwar period, the same kind of accommodation you can definitely see for Muslims within former Yugoslavia, although there I think it was little more complicated because you had a much larger Muslim community, for example, in Bosnia. So, modernizing Bosnian Muslims were allowed to do you know, they were actually a vibrant political party who participated in the parliament. And so they weren’t sort of followed or, you know, seen as suspect in the same way. But you also had traditional Islam still thriving within Yugoslavia. So there was a really kind of a complicated, I would say, landscape of Islam that continued in the Balkans in this period.

I don’t know how that compares to what’s going on in the Middle East.

[YD] So, when the caliphate is abolished, it seems that for the most part the intellectually elites were not ready for it. The project of the nation states is, for lack of a better word, a secular project and once the caliphate collapses, this is translated almost immediately into a huge emotional shock. It’s an ontological shock because, for better for worse, even if the Sultan is not there in power, it is there in name and it still upholds the identity and unity of Muslims basically all over the world. It’s a shock not only in the Middle East, but in India and other places there like in the Khilafat movement. There are other movements that are trying almost position themselves competitively–who is going to be the new caliph?

We know that no caliph is emerging. So, from 622, when the faith is established until 1924, there is this one form or another of this persona that speaks of the unity of this faith and of its role in the world. And when it is being abolished those who begin to claim it, or not claiming it as one institution, the institution is discontinued, almost like you know, is if you would abolish the Vatican today, as if you would retire the Pope and said that’s it. What did that mean? What would such a process start?

One of the things which it started were these microprojects to reclaim spiritualism, and reclaim the faith. Probably the most famous and successful movements that do that, immediately after the abolition of the caliphate, is the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s very difficult to imagine the emergence of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as such, a successful force has the caliphate not been abolished. So that’s only one example.

But one can actually take it one step forward and think about the crisis of official Islam in the 20th century more broadly, and the various projects and splinter groups and the fact that there is no institution anymore that defines it. There’s no one practice that defines it. It became a contested faith that anybody is free to reinvent. And it’s being reinvented in the form of Islamic fundamentalism in the 50s and 60s; had we had the caliphate that will be very difficult to do. And more recently, it’s been once again reframed in the form of ISIS, which, again, is an attempt to marry spiritualism with political sovereignty–which in and of itself, is an 18th century European value. So that goes to show you what kind of hybrid formulations we’ve inherited a century later.

Mary, earlier you mentioned the impact of the Russian Revolution on the Balkans, and the fact that they were communist parties and partisans, and participation in the Ukraine from Bulgaria. Was that something that continued on as the Russian Revolution sort of crystallized, and the USSR emerges?

[MN] Yes, I mean, you have a pretty influential left in swaths of the Balkans, for sure, certainly, Bulgaria and what came to be called Yugoslavia. But there were all kinds of left movements, like not all of them were strictly communist parties that were pro Bolshevik or pro USSR, you had all kinds of stripes of leftist movements. But there was really what I would call kind of these culture wars that became political going on across the region as well, in which the the left was really driven underground.

But I would say, even so, they were driven underground politically, they were driven abroad, their organizations were shut down, they faced all these kind of difficulties, and what you have really throughout the region is right wing regimes establishing themselves in power. Part of that had to do with the fascist model that seemed really attractive — as early as 1922 fascism in Italy — but also trade directly with Germany and Italy that kind of made those relationships, geopolitically, made sense for regimes to orient themselves that way, I guess you could say, but I think both on the right and the left …

I wanted to also mention for this period is that you have a real consensus– even among this culture war — about the failure of democracy and capitalism to be efficient systems for these new states. Democracy — nothing’s getting done. There were assassinations between political parties, there were shootouts. Democracy looks like total failure compared to what was going on both in the fascist states and in the Soviet Union and Stalin’s Russia. But similarly, capitalism seem to be a total failure, the economy was basically in a tailspin, kind of in a roller coaster, up and down, even before the Great Depression– after it became even worse. And so for those states, these were models that didn’t seem to work or didn’t work for them. But they could also see that they really weren’t working, in their mind, elsewhere in the world.

That really sets the stage I think, for not just these countries entering into World War II, most of them on the Axis side, but also, I would argue, for what came after World War II. That is to say, there wasn’t a vibrant model of democracy and capitalism ever having really worked in this region. And so that kind of set the stage for at least for a segment of elites to be open to new kinds of models–like communism. So that’s my flash forward.

Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasir in Belgrade, 1962. Abd al-Nasir was one of a number of military strongmen who took control of Middle Eastern states after World War II because the liberal democratic experiments of the early 20th century were seen as failures. (photo: Stevan Kragujević)

[YD] it’s very similar, actually, in the Arab East from the 20s onwards, the liberal nation state, and that is the model that everybody adopts. And it’s the longest experiment in the Arab world with democracy, 20s, 30s, 40s, all the way to the 50s. Free elections, free press, the various liberal rights are guaranteed constitutionally. And even though it looks very promising, it’s dysfunctional. It’s a dysfunctional democracy that gives bad name for liberal structures for being effective. And it’s interesting, you know, Mary relates to the story of right and left that this is, this becomes a story. It’s a little bit different in the Arab world, but we wouldn’t be talking about right and left in the 19th century. So it’s also after World War One, that that becomes kind of the default for arranging politics, for arranging the effort to negotiate and solve everything.

And as it was in Europe at the time, political violence was part of the recipe. So, you solve disputes by violence, precisely because the public sphere that supposed to solve conflicts through conversation does not function very well. So politics goes to the street. And in the end the first generation of cadets in military academies, patriots, they do look to models that they see in Europe, in Italy, in Germany as more effective, more authoritarian, which is a good thing, especially in a patriarchal culture. And the result is that they’re ready to take to take over and retire liberalism. And the amazing thing is that the middle class that fought for constitutional liberalism since the late 19th century, is happy to give up the happy to transition to authoritarian structures, they are happy to experiment with them. And they realized how disastrous it is only in the 60s. And when they realize it, they are sharing the same prison cells as the Muslim Brotherhood. They realize it from below.

And of course, power has gone back to the streets, or did briefly a few years ago…

[YD] And hijacked again, by especially in Egypt by the Army, or in Syria. It’s still open, but it appears again, a militarized sectarian state with a very narrow focus, and a ruthless modus operandi.

[MN] Yeah, I would say, in Southeastern Europe, we instead we see the model of a mafia oligarchy. Since the collapse of communism, though similarly, you know, we’ve gone through a different kind of phase of history, of course, in southeastern Europe, but there was this a lot of hope that again, democracy and capitalism might be the answer if we break free of this communist model. And that has not shown itself to be the case, I think, throughout the region. People have seen capitalism to be brutal, they’ve seen democracy to be an effectual and they’ve seen these uber rich oligarchs coming to power, much like in Russia and Ukraine and other places in ways that, you know, just a sort of brute power associated with money, whereas the securities at least that people had under communism are gone, and there’s massive brain drain. And so it’s kind of a bleak picture, a lot of people’s hopes–even those that entered the EU–they had hopes for that entering the EU would solve some of their problems. But actually, in a in certain respects, they’ve made them worse, the brain drain is more intense, economic, I mean, I won’t even go into all the economic relationships, but there’s a real sense of bitterness and economies are in a really bad place and most of southeastern Europe.So anyway, kind of a digression, you can cut that out if you want. But I think it also matches that.

I mean, if you look at Turkey, for example, you know, 15 years ago, you know, the economy was booming, it was sort of the, the darling and very optimistic and now at this point, it’s in the same situation. The lira has devalued by quite a bit, you know, in the last couple of years (30-40%), there’s concerns about growing authoritarianism, with the government again, so, you know, it seems to be a trend throughout the region.

People waiting in line to gather water during the Siege of Sarajevo, 1992. The breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1990s is a legacy of World War I. (photo by Mikhail Evstafiev).

Yeah. And going back to the nation state model that we’ve been talking about, I mean, these borders, I mean, ever since borders are drawn in the 19th century, for the new emerging autonomous and then independent states, the populations are so mixed, that the only way really nation states could emerge was through massive refugee movements. Bulgaria was also involved in the–a lot of people don’t know this–in the population exchanges that went on between Greece and Turkey, they kind of jumped into the game. And they were pushing out Turks and Greeks and bringing back in Bulgarians from Thrace, they were part of that. The Yugoslav wars in the 1990s were continuation of this in a way, because really, it was these multinational states, like Yugoslavia, that, you can say, these borders made no sense. And were drawn from the outside.

But actually, in that case, I think they made a certain sense because it was so diverse there, it was almost like a proto-Ottoman Empire, you know, you have another multinational state in which you can kind of balance you know, you don’t have to unmix these populations. But then again, we saw that eventually, that’s precisely what happened in the 90s. But it’s not a complete process, you know, there’s still lots of populations that are sort of bitter about the borders as they’re drawn now, and lots of major pop, you know, mixing populations and–

–make sure the country has the right name–

[MN] Exactly.

Any last comments you want to make?

[YD] Just the point, again, that it appears–and that’s the consensus in the region for the most part–that World War I created a region that is politically unfeasible. Not only artificial, but actually have no prospects for coexisting and living at peace with the world, which always in the end invites foreign actors to try to arrange it in one way or another. And when foreign intervention comes, the question is: who is going to pay? How is it going to be paid? And almost always the question is, who’s, who’s going to control the oil? Right? And, you know, that’s, that’s a long legacy, not only of World War I. It’s a legacy of the interaction between the Arab East and Europe since the late 18th century, but it’s quite amazing to see how much we haven’t gone very far. The same dynamics you’ve seen today, you can look at them a century before. Different actors, different intensity, different resources, but the same game.

[MN] I think one thing that’s important to understand is that those borders that were drawn during World War I, that it’s taken a long time, but in Yugoslavia at least those were eventually undone. One of the things for example, Kosovo was given to Yugoslavia as a result of World War I–actually as a result of the Balkan Wars, but then that was confirmed in World War I, and that’s an issue that still contentious. It still isn’t recognized by many of the EU states. I mean, it’s been resolved in the sense that they have independence it’s just not widely recognized. So some of those issues have taken a long time to work out–if you think Yugoslavia was an artificial state, which I said it solved many problems, but then it created others–it’s taken a long time for that to be worked out.

And as I mentioned, I don’t think it’s entirely resolved. Bosnia is still a very artificial odd configuration, the Federation of Bosnia. But Bulgaria for example, is also very bitter about its borders that were essentially drawn, at least the last time, after World War I and then confirmed after World War II, and they will never give up the dream of getting back Macedonia and Thrace which they feel is rightfully theirs. So, it really does cast this kind of psychological shadow, in many ways, still over the Balkans after all these years.

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