You wouldn’t think that a 19th century academic self-professedly interested largely in the French and Italian states established in Greece after the 1204 Fourth Crusade would write The Balkans: Roumania, Bulgaria, Servia and Montenegro. But Oxonian medievalist and academic William Miller did exactly that, and the book was simultaneously published in Britain and the United States in 1896. By the third edition published in 1923, Mr. Miller had added “with new chapter containing their history from 1896 to 1922,”—very near to journalism’s “first rough draft of history.”
Miller was a busy man, on his own crusade “to present English readers with a concise account of the history of the four Balkan States”—concise running only a little shy of 600 pages. In 1923, he also revised and enlarged and published a new edition of another of his books, The Ottoman Empire and its successors, 1801-1922. Being a rev. and enl. ed. of The Ottoman Empire, 1801-1913. There is, necessarily, considerable overlap in the two books, given that the Ottoman Empire included a good portion of the Balkan countries for centuries. But as Miller points out, his work “is the result of many years’ study of the Eastern Question.”
The books of course show their age. But even more they show their continued relevance. The “Eastern Question” has been temporarily supplanted by the Brexit conundrum, but the Balkans—its list of countries ever growing and shrinking according to the time and the listmaker—are perennially a geopolitical topic of interest.
“The mutual jealousies of Bulgarian and Serb, the struggle of various races for supremacy in Macedonia, the alternate friendship and enmity of the Russian and the Turk are all facts, which have their root deep down in the past annals of the Balkan lands.”:
The three-decade unwillingness of Greece to concede even the name “Macedonia” to the former Yugoslav and now independent nation just over its border has come to an end, but many Greek citizens remain resentful. Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria fought two Balkan wars in large part over Macedonia. Miller’s observation needs no updating.
He’s still relevant not only about regional enmity over Macedonia, but of realpolitik in and between Russia and Turkey. Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire was due to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, but that was merely the last of more than two centuries of wars between these same two protagonists . Each fought to expand their spheres of influence in both Europe and Asia. Each simultaneously envied and despised Europe, wished both to be accepted as European and to override European cultural influence with that of their own. Each now continues to play their own version of the Great Game rivalry, alternating fight and cooperation as they try to match and to override Europe’s power.
“At Tilsit Napoleon actually drew up a scheme of partition, by which Bulgaria and the two Danubian Principalities were to be assigned to the Russians.”
In 1807, Napoleon had a plan to divvy up Bulgaria with spoils going in part to Russia; that Bulgaria in its entirety was still very much under the Ottoman Empire and that its people wanted independence rather than be a pawn in a different empire was incidental. He met with Tzar Alexander I on the River Nieman, the border between Russia and what was then Prussian territory. Napoleon and Alexander ate, chatted, and were so physically affectionate they inspired a commemorative medallion, brunette and blond hair brushed forward, sporting matching stiff orange collars. 137 years later, Churchill met with Stalin in what was then the Soviet Union and jotted down what he later called his “naughty document”—the Eastern Question of the Balkan nations for them thus resolved. No commemorative medallion was issued, Churchill and Stalin shared not a hug, but merely a smile, and Churchill kept the incriminating piece of paper.
Today is no different. The West and Russia continue to vie for influence, though outright territorial agreements without the presence of the parties most affected are not the current strategy. Current Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has suggested, in masterful and ominous understatement, that “Europe is facing an unhealthy situation” as NATO and the European Union have expanded eastward. Russia has not forgotten how Austro-Hungary and Britain overruled the Treaty of San Stefano with the less favorable to the region Treaty of Berlin.
“The chief motive of British opposition to the treaty was the conviction that the ‘big Bulgaria’ of San Stefano would be merely a Russian province, a constant menace to Constantinople, and a basis for a future Russian attack upon it. The idea of the late Sir William White had not then gained acceptance in England, that our true policy in the east is the formation of strong and independent Balkan states, which would serve as a barrier between Russia and her goal…close observers of the attitude of the Bulgars during the [1877-1878] war might have noticed that the ‘little brothers,’ whom the Russians had come to free, were very glad of freedom, but had no desire to exchange one despotism for another.”
Much of Bulgaria’s history as an independent nation after 1878 has been spent balancing the geographic, ethnic, and language closeness of Russia with the political, developmental, and cultural benefits of Central and Western Europe. To fully align with one or the other would have proven too dangerous to such a small country. Then Churchill consigned Bulgaria to the Soviet Union and for 45 years it was essentially a vassal state. Now again independent, Bulgaria must therefore again conduct its historical balancing act. Russia proffers energy, NATO and EU membership furnish the ballast for stability. Bulgaria’s government may be corrupt, the country may be poor, but its leaders and nomenklatura know very well that Putin is a “Big Brother” despot and thus remain firmly in Europe’s camp.
William Miller was not immune to the prejudices of his time and class. He all too easily labels Europe’s eastern populations as second-class “Orientals”. “Oriental” in this parlance ascribing a foreign identity forever outside the real and eternal European family and therefore backward, not quite fully evolved: “These were the signs that progress in Oriental countries, if rapid, had its drawbacks, and that there was much of the old Adam still latent beneath the surface of their European civilisation.” Even in this negative aspect, Miller shows his relevancy. Such prejudice is still in the fore in Brexit and discussions around a two-speed Europe. Still Miller’s two books are not merely chock-full of history, but offer observations that underline Shakespeare’s famous truism, “What’s past is prologue.” One need not be—and should not be—fatalistic about the region (the vastly different experience of the various Balkan countries since 1989 is instructive). Still it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all for William Miller to have some current readership.