ONE hundred years ago war was raging in Europe but almost everyone seems to have forgotten this. After the Ottoman defeat by the Italians in Libya, in autumn 1912 the Montenegrins, Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians allied to drive the Turks out of their remaining possessions in Europe. In the second Balkan war, in 1913, the Bulgarians, feeling cheated, fought the Serbs and the Greeks. The Romanians joined in, and the Ottomans got some territory back.
The wars cost perhaps 200,000 lives and reshaped the map of south-eastern Europe. They ushered in an era of ethnic cleansing and population exchanges, which saw millions lose their homes and ancient communities uprooted and dispersed. The two Balkan wars were also the overture of the first world war. The final spark that set the powder keg alight was the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
Commemorations of the centenary in the region have been surprisingly low-key. In some places it did not occur to anyone to do anything, in others, such as Greece, which has had a few events, it is perhaps because there is not much money to do anything, although the Greeks are issuing two commemorative €100 gold coins.
The most high-profile event so far was a commemoration of the Battle of Kumanovo held on October 28th at Zebrnjak Hill. For the Serbs, the battle was pivotal. The Ottoman army was defeated and Serbia took what is today the modern state of Macedonia and Kosovo. By the ossuary of Serb soldiers who died there, a mass was served. Tomislav Nikolic, the Serbian president made, by his standards, a rather measured speech. He was flanked by Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb half of Bosnia and the leader of a Serbian party from Montenegro.
“We are bringing back to our people the disputed legacy of our glorious past,” Mr Nikolic said, “We do not offend others, we are only restoring our self-esteem by insisting on the historical facts, defending their authentic idea of liberation.”
One man’s liberation is another man’s conquest. Many Macedonians saw the arrival of the Serbian Army as a new conquest and many Albanians were ethnically cleansed as the Serbian troops arrived.
In 1937 the Yugoslav authorities completed the construction of the ossuary which was topped off with a giant lighthouse-type structure. This was destroyed by the Bulgarians in 1942 but they left the base and the ossuary. You can see some fascinating original film of it in this documentary plus contemporary film of the bones of the Serbian soldiers from 1912 stacked on shelves inside the monument.
In Bulgaria there have been only a few, low-key events to mark the outbreak of war. Boris Grozdanoff, an academic, has made a documentary about it but on a shoestring budget. At the recent premiere held in a Sofia cinema Mr Grozdanoff says he was shocked that so many people showed up though.
Mr Grozdanoff thinks that there are two big reasons why there are no high-profile events or commemorations. The first is that while the first Balkan war was a tremendous success and brought Bulgarian troops to within 40km of Istanbul, in people’s minds the war runs seamlessly into the war of 1913 and then the first world war, in which Bulgaria fought on the side of the Central Powers. Both wars saw the country humiliated. The second is that, “the history of Balkan countries is pretty complicated and the government does not want to make trouble with other countries on the peninsula.” Indeed the Bulgarian government is already becoming increasingly irritated by what they regard as Macedonia’s appropriation of Bulgarian historical figures as their own.
In Kosovo, Albanians regard the first Balkan war as a disaster as they were conquered by the Serbs, who in turn saw themselves as liberating historic Serbian territory and Kosovo’s Serbs. “For us,” says Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, 1912 ushered in virtually “a century of ill treatment” and so was “a lost century”. The historical irony is that while Serbia won Kosovo at the Battle of Kumanovo it was there that it symbolically lost it again in June 1999. After 78 days of bombing by NATO Serbia formally capitulated to it, at a meeting in Kumanovo and agreed to the withdrawal of their forces from what had, until then, been Serbia’s southern province.
By contrast Kosovars will be celebrating November 28th, which in Albania will be an even bigger do. One of the results of the first Balkan wars was Albania’s declaration of independence. (The new independent state left a very large proportion of the Albanians outside the borders of the new country.)
The first shots of the Balkan wars were fired by the Montenegrins, whose troops soon pushed deep into Sandzak, half of which remains in Montenegro and then into Kosovo. The Montenegrins also besieged and took Shkoder, which was then known as Scutari abroad, and is called Skadar in Montenegrin. In 1913 however Montenegro’s King Nikola was forced to withdraw, nudged on by British and Italian battleships. The Balkan wars completely changed the borders and destiny of Montenegro but asked why there were no significant events to mark them, Igor Luksic, the outgoing prime minister said, “no one thought about it.”
Who did what at any time between 1389 and 1945 was to play a major part in pumping up the combatants in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Perhaps the fact that this centenary has met with such an underwhelming reaction across the region is no bad thing after all.
Originally posted: The Balkan wars