From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 5, June 1941, pp. 142–145.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Balkans epitomize better than any other spot on earth the bloody rivalry of the imperialist powers for world domination. Every great war among the powers is bound to involve the Balkans. The First World War exploded at the beginning in the Balkan powder keg. In the Second World War the small Balkan countries were drawn into the maelstrom at the second stage.
In Southeast Europe are the crossroads of the Old World, the bridge from Europe to Asia and Africa- In early history every great invasion of the primitive races swept over the Balkans. The last of these invasions, covering the later middle ages, led to a period of centuries-long domination by the Turks. The growth of the European nations, the triumph of the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution, set in motion forces that gradually undermined the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The modern history of the “cockpit of Europe” began with the disintegration of this Empire.
The European states hovered like vultures over the carcass of European Turkey. All the appetites of conquest were whetted by this Mediterranean decay. For centuries the Balkans remained “unfinished business” for the powers. The Concert of Europe – was there ever a more ironic name? – moved cautiously, each one watchful of the others, while they carved up the slices. The bargaining for mutual grabbing went on in conjunction with the imperialist sharing of spheres of influence in all parts of the world. When the bargaining process was not satisfactory, or where one saw the chance to double-cross the other, war continued the diplomacy and politics of imperialist looting.
The break-up of the Mediterranean Empire went on from within and from without. Nationalities submerged under the yoke of the sultan’s janissaries for untold centuries suddenly stirred into life. The great powers of Europe “sympathized” with these struggling new nations. In the Greek revolt of 1821-1829 the English gave aid as well as sympathy. The romantic aura of Byron’s poetry veiled the real nature of this sympathy, the same kind of sympathy shown by the United States today for the Chinese struggle against Japan, or for India against England. It is the attraction of the imperialist to its prey.
No sooner was the liberation of the Balkan countries from the Turks accomplished, than they fell into the clutches of these self-same European sympathizers. The aid given the small nations in their battle for freedom proved to be the cloak under which they were brought into the orbit of one or the other of the powers. Anybody who today thinks that the problem of the independence of small nations has any primary or independent character or that the questions of national unity in Europe can be settled within capitalist frameworks should be set to studying the history of European diplomacy in connection with the Sick Man of Europe.
Bourgeois writers of history, when they speak unguardedly and therefore frankly, call the Eastern Question “the problem of filling up the vacuum created by the gradual disappearance of the Turkish Empire from Europe.” Here there is no trace of a thought given to the Balkan peoples. The problem concerned not these Balkan inhabitants but the powers of Europe: who was to inherit the pieces of the Empire?
The first great rivals for this inheritance were Czarist Russia and England. Russia wanted Constantinople and an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. England wouldn’t have minded that – but it already possessed India and could not tolerate having any great power on its lifeline through the Mediterranean to India and the East. The Czar’s seizure of Constantinople would have been merely the preliminary to a later seizure of India.
Each power, while denouncing the Terrible Turk, was most anxious to become his protector. The Czar was the first protector, and gangster-like, exacted his price. In the Crimean War, England muscled in and took over the protection. Russia thereupon played the opposite game, and in 1877-78 sympathized so deeply with the poor Bulgarians that she intervened to help them gain “independence.”
Germany was at first not concerned with the Balkans. Of course, when Austria helped Bismarck in the War of 1870 against France, Bismarck reciprocated and helped Austria seize its share of the Balkans: Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the moment Germany became a united nation, she too cast eyes on the Balkans. Germany became the friend of Turkey in place of the other powers. The great Berlin-to-Baghdad Railroad was projected in order to bring all of Central and Southeastern Europe under German domination. German capitalism was now demanding its “living space.” Bismarck and those after him saw that if Germany was to become the dominant world power, it must first dominate Europe, and particularly the Balkans. Not merely because the Balkans economically complemented Germany’s industrialism, offering an outlet for manufactured goods in exchange for food and raw materials, but also because it would start German expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean. Bismarck agreed with Napoleon who, in order to conquer England, had tried to break its connections with India and the East. Napoleon said: “Really to conquer England we must make ourselves masters of Egypt.”
The first world war was fought around this issue. Who was to dominate the Mediterranean and thus the route to India? For this purpose the Balkans were stepping stones. The Baghdad Railroad was far more a strategic than an economic undertaking.
Hitler, carrying out the policies of German imperialism, was inevitably driven to take over this same scheme in the second world war. No doubt Hitler had not banked on so quick a conquest. The ease with which he overran and defeated France placed before him even earlier than he had hoped his next step. He chose the same old Balkan route to Egypt and the Suez Canal for the purpose of breaking the British Empire. This time, due to technological changes, he did not have to wait for a Baghdad Railroad. Mobile transport and tanks have obviated the necessity for railroads in the first stages.
The quick change in aims after the conquest of France is seen in Hitler’s speeches. He threw off the whining mask of Germany’s freedom from the chains of Versailles necessary in the period of rearmament. He became openly imperialist and boasted of the conquests to come.
German economy had of course prepared the way for military conquest. Even before Hitler came to power in Germany, her emissaries in the Near East have pursued the game of power politics, of economic penetration so as to gain a measure of internal control before actual absorption of the country. In this Germany merely followed the other powers.
If the Balkan countries had been able to unite with each other at any time in an economic and military federation, they might have jointly held off all the imperialists. Many a Balkan statesman, even among the bourgeoisie, has understood and dreamed of this. But the history of the Balkans shows nothing more clearly than the impossibility of the Balkan peoples to live their own lives while capitalist imperialism exists. Imperialism reaches into the very heart of the small countries of Europe. It lays hold of their internal structure, of their financial and banking interests which are tied up with the interests of the bigger bankers of the great powers. Through complete economic domination of the native bourgeoisie, imperialism controls political parties and the governments set up on the basis of these political parties. The only recourse open to the national bourgeoisie is to gravitate from the orbit of one of the powers to that of another. Its bargaining power lies only in the fact that rival imperialists bid against each other for influence.
To prevent any Balkan union, the powers have made clever use of the national hatreds engendered in the course of the centuries of oppression. They could do this because of the class structure of the Balkan states, because of the domination in these states of a combination of feudal and capitalist elements interested solely in maintaining power over their exploited populations. Even the weakest attempts at union were frustrated. In the first Balkan War (1911) the Balkan countries were united against Turkey in the Balkan League. This League threatened Germany’s plans which depended on overrunning at the proper time each small weak nation standing alone. Hence German diplomacy worked successfully to destroy the League by encouraging Greece to seize Macedonia which was mostly Bulgarian in nationality. Serbia was encouraged to turn in the same direction and away from the Adriatic coast which had been promised to Italy in the Triple Alliance. Thus the moment the countries in the Balkan League had gained the victory against Turkey in their war of independence, they promptly turned upon each other and the second Balkan War of 1912–13 took place. Macedonia was the bone of contention, the outlet to the Aegean Sea and to ports like Salonica. In that war Bulgaria was defeated and Greece and Serbia became the oppressors of national minorities.
Germany, the actual instigator of this war and of Bulgaria’s loss, thereupon used this result to bring Bulgaria into the first World War on the side of Germany – by the promise that Germany would right the wrong!
The Versailles Treaty redoubled the pace of Balkan intrigue. France, bolstering up the status quo to maintain its artificial domination over Germany and Europe, created the Little Entente of Rumania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to encircle Germany. All of these states had artificial borders which included minorities torn from other nations. These other nations, created jointly in the process of the Balkanization of Europe after the first World War by the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, dreamed of nothing but revision of the oppressive status quo. In the first period, between 1924 and 1932, these nations came under Italian influence, since Italy felt itself the natural successor to Austria in the Balkans. In this period Italy led Hungary and Bulgaria and had considerable influence in Austria.
When the peasant governments of Stambuliski in Bulgaria and Raditch in Yugoslavia tried to get together to settle their differences, Mussolini became greatly alarmed since this threatened Italy’s ambitious schemes. The assassination of Stambuliski by the Macedonian terrorists was in part Mussolini’s work to break up this new alliance. Italy sought to isolate Yugoslavia and to break up the Little Entente so as to get what she wanted later. Part of this same game was the assassination of Barthou and King Alexander by the terrorist hirelings of Italy, the IMRO and the Ustachis. The assassinations were aimed to keep France from cementing a closer alliance and thus putting another obstacle in the way of revision.
The moment Hitler gained power, he took over from Italy leadership of the movement against the Versailles Treaty. The Balkan countries, seeing the future, tried desperately to come to agreements and to unite. But each was powerless to correct the wrongs of the others. When the others refused to right the wrongs done her, Bulgaria stood in the way of union. The Balkan countries are now paying dearly for their own past. If Hitler was able to isolate one country after the other, he merely “inherited” the benefits of all the imperialist intriguing in the Balkans. The Munich Pact, which ended the Little Entente and laid the Balkans open for Hitler’s next step, made his task that much easier.
Imperialist intrigue not only made it impossible for the Balkan countries to unite in any way. It has also made of these countries the most unstable section in the world. Internal stability is unthinkable in small countries where all the complicated lines of imperialist diplomacy cross and recross. The bewildering and rapid changes in governments and ministries that took place, have also, of course, their native reasons. But internal instability is prevented from reaching any kind of equilibrium by the enormous pressures from outside that cannot be withstood.
The Balkans are backward peasant countries under the yoke of feudal landlords combined with a small native bourgeoisie. The Balkans account for no more than 2½% of the industrial production of Europe. Most of this is closely connected with agriculture – milling, wine-pressing, manufacture of vegetable oils. The situation of the peasants is not identical in every country, but is enough alike so that it can be easily summarized. The peasants form from 70 to 80% of the various populations. The land, except for Bulgaria, is in the hands of a few great landowners. What the peasants themselves possess is so divided that they live at the lowest level of all Europe. At the same time the agricultural per capita tax is the highest in the world. The mortgage and loan debts of the peasants is enormous. Interest rates for seed and tools run, depending on the country, anywhere from 30 to 80%.
Rumania may be taken as an example. The peasant’s meat consumption per day – of course he does not eat meat every day – is one-third of an ounce, equivalent to a thin slice of ham. He has to work 45 days to pay for a pair of shoes. 40% of the peasant families possess no draft animals at all.
They must drag the plows themselves! More than half the population is illiterate.
The Balkans are the sore spot of Europe. Disease epidemics are common. Pellagra, tuberculosis and dipsomania, leprosy and trachoma are endemic. In this backwardness it is natural to find that Church and State are still one. In Yugoslavia the Greek Orthodox Church of the Serbs was subsidized, and one of the last proposals of the old government was to subsidize the Roman Catholic Church of the Croats. In Yugoslavia out of a population of fifteen million there are one million peasants who possess no land whatsoever and who must work as migratory, seasonal proletarians. In Bulgaria the land is well divided, but in such small parcels that the peasant cannot farm it efficiently. Is there any wonder that the Balkans are the seat of a constant jacquerie, a constant peasant struggle of despair?
The Balkans are a region of want and famine. Under these circumstances, under class domination, it is readily understandable that the government bureaucracy must exercise the most cruel repressions to keep the mass of the people in subjection, to prevent them from laying hands on food, clothing and the bare necessities of life. Considering the size of the countries, the size of the bureaucracy is extremely disproportionate and frightfully costly, which accounts for the enormous taxes.
The facade of parliamentary democracy in the Balkans before Hitler took over fooled nobody. Balloting took place with a gendarme on each side of the voter to see that he voted right- Behind this facade stood the army and the monarchy. The constant turmoil in the Balkans, since it did not lead to proletarian revolution, led instead to reactionary dictatorship. Nowhere else is the meaning of monarchy as the last resort of reaction so clearly visible as in the Balkans.
The struggle of parties in the various parliaments, each party under a different foreign imperialism, is primarily that between the landed gentry and the capitalist elements, each desiring control of the nation for its own class interests. The native bourgeoisie is weak owing to the fact that what big industry does exist – oil in Rumania, tobacco in Greece, textiles in Yugoslavia – is dominated by foreign capital.
To the left are the peasant parties, parties similar to the Socialist Revolutionaries of the pre-revolutionary period in Russia. On these parties the Russian Revolution had a tremendous impact. The Pan-Slavism that reflected the influence of the Czarist regime on the South Slavs became transformed into Bolshevik influence. The seizure of the land by the Russian peasants gave joy to the Balkan peasants. Thus the left elements of the small proletariat found it possible to exert influence on the peasants and to found communist parties more peasant than proletarian in origin.
The ruling class in the Balkans was driven mad with fear at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. Everywhere it hastened to try and placate the peasants by talking in terms of agrarian reform and of division of the big landed estates. In fact a certain amount of reform became inevitable. This reflected itself in the coming into power for the first time of the peasant parties. In Bulgaria Stambuliski became the head of the government. This was called the Green Revolution. But the ruling class used this leftist government to give itself time to prepare a counter-stroke. In 1923 it was ready to move. Its plans coincided with those of Mussolini who had hired the IMRO to assassinate Stambuliski. The army under Tsankov promptly seized control, engendering a civil war.
What attitude did the Bulgarian Communist Party take? It had a long history and its influence was the greatest in the Balkans. But it failed to understand the situation. The Communist Party stated that it was indifferent to this quarrel between different sections of the bourgeoisie. It stood aside while Tsankov seized power. The latter at once proceeded to suppress in bloody fashion both the peasant party and the workers’ party. Leaders were thrown into prison, many murdered outright. Too late the Bulgarian communists realized what was happening. Too late, after the masses had become discouraged, it staged an uprising. This uprising, intended as a signal for the Germans in 1923, became instead the herald of defeat. Hitler today marches into the Balkans as a result.
It was in the Balkans thereafter that Stalin turned for his peasant allies, like Raditch of Yugoslavia. The Croat Peasant Party of Raditch was the backbone of the so-called Peasant International. But the peasants have no independent policies of their own. They had gravitated towards the proletariat, and in this period Raditch used the Comintern as a red covering to give himself more bargaining power with the bourgeoisie. In 1925 he threw aside the mask and joined a reactionary government under King Alexander. Stalinist policies have been as disastrous in the Balkans as everywhere else. The Balkans presented a number of occasions where a correct policy could have brought about the proletarian revolution supported by the peasants. But Stalin was incapable of directing a revolutionary policy even in Bessarabia, torn from Russia in the period of allied intervention and subjected to the most brutal white terror. Bessarabia had to be won by Stalin, not by a revolution that was perfectly possible, but by a bargain with Hitler that turns sourer every day.
Without the proletarian revolution the Balkan countries can act merely as satellites grouped about the great powers. Their rulers live off the rivalry between these powers. Only the proletarian revolution could bring stability to the Balkans and Europe- The capitalist states of Europe fight now not for their nationality, but to see which of the great powers shall dominate the whole world. Self-determination for small nations is unthinkable while capitalism is dominant in Europe.
In the place of the domination of Europe by an imperialist world power, the workers place on their program the Soviet United States of Europe. Capitalist imperialism poses war as its solution to the Balkan and every other question. The working class poses the social revolution as its solution. But Stalin has long ago discarded the prospect of the Soviet United States of Europe. He thought he could rely on a Balkanized Europe, a whole series of buffer states created by the Allies in the first World War to protect themselves from attack by the defeated nations. Hitler has swept aside these artificial creations, using in the process the very forces of internal corruption and disharmony that should have been made the basis for the success of the proletarian revolution. For the moment, instead of the workers razing the rotten walls between the national states for progressive purposes, Hitler has kicked them down for imperialist purposes.
In his attempt to bolster the status quo, Stalin placed reliance on these same small states with their crumbling boundary walls. Their disappearance gives Stalin less and less possibility for maneuvering. His weak bluff in the Balkans, the warning to Bulgaria, the meaningless pact with Yugoslavia, was promptly called by Hitler. Hitler, to give the devil his due, pursues a persistent policy. He aims to crush England by marching through the Balkans, over Asia Minor and round to Suez. His actions are coordinated for this purpose. If he succeeds he will not only have all Europe at his mercy, but the British Empire will begin to crumble.
The Balkan problem of this moment is the problem of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. Hitler aims at complete domination of this passage-way to Suez. That brings him face to face with Stalin. The latter played the game of power politics in order to maintain his clique in power in Russia. But Hitler played that game infinitely better. All the Stalinist diplomatic successes of the past are turning into their opposites. By his entire policy of sacrificing the historic interests of the proletarian revolution to the momentary interests of his clique, he has undermined and weakened the Soviet Union. Its greatest weapon would have been the ability to evoke stormy waves of revolution among the oppressed workers and peasants the moment any threat existed against the Soviet Union. Instead Stalin alienated both the workers and the peasants. The Balkans yielded to Hitler because their ruling classes were incapable of resisting. Their choice of one side or the other was merely a gamble on the future. Even if beaten now, they hope to be restored later. A real revolutionary resistance was made impossible not by the ruling class, which could not possibly have wanted that, but by Stalin. The peasants of South Europe at first looked to Russia with enthusiasm. But the forced collectivization and the merciless war against the Russian peasants in Russia was not lost on them. They no longer saw their future in Soviet Russia. Only the revived revolution could attract them again.
Will Hitler be able to unite the Balkans under his domination? That is not likely. He cannot, any more than the “democracies,” solve the problem of nationalities. He can merely shuffle the cards anew. Can he put the peasants to work? Hitler cannot alleviate the poverty and oppression of the Balkans. On the contrary he can only add a further and even greater oppression of his own to the burdens already existing. His first efforts everywhere are directed to robbing the countries of occupation for Germany’s sake. But to despoil the Balkans means to bring stark starvation to people who have always lived on its verge.
What then will happen in the Balkans? It is probable that sooner or later a guerrilla warfare, a revival of the Balkan jacquerie, will take place. This can find a healthy basis only if it is combined with the struggle of the proletariat. The IMRO movement (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) was a perfect example of the degeneration of a peasant movement which began as a real revolutionary movement but whose leaders, instead of accepting help for the pursuit of their own policies, became willing to take such help and to pursue the policies of the giver of aid. The Comintern tried originally to steer the IMRO movement into proper channels, away from individual terror and into an alliance with the mass movement of the workers. The terrorists fell out among themselves over this policy and murdered each other, Then the movement degenerated completely and became a bandit racket.
But under the conditions of present-day national oppression, the agrarian revolution could be united with the proletarian movement against the foreign oppressor. Clearly the salvation of the Balkans, the ending of social and political instability, can be achieved only through the social revolution under the leadership of the proletariat. Such leadership would set as its aim the. establishing of the Soviet United States of Europe. Hitler has conquered the Balkans, but the Balkan problem remains.
Last updated: 4 October 2015