For no real reason, other than it being a recent NYRB offering, I’m started reading Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan by Ivo Andric last night. There wasn’t a particular point to me reading it now, no search for present-day relevance. But of course, it is impossible to read just about anything now without tying it to our uneasy times.
Anyway, the book is about a cruel Turkish figure who comes to Sarajevo to subdue a rebellious and restive population, chafing under Ottoman rule. It’s set in the middle of the 19th-century, where exiled Hungarians still feel the pull of 1848 and hints of modernity seem even into this mostly-forgotten backwater.
While talking to a particularly stubborn local chief, the Marshal reminds him of what a sweepingly big deal his presence in Sarajevo really is. He says that an Ottoman serkasier (his title) comes to Sarajevo “maybe once a century, and sometimes not even that!” It’s meant to show the seriousness of the situation, of course, but also shows the grinding permanence of Ottoman occupation, which at that point had lasted nearly 400 years.
400 years! It’s impossible for us to imagine such a state of things, a sweep of time. Columbus had yet to take sail when the Ottomans swept into Europe, terrifying a weak and fractured continent. And while it had long been the “sick old man” of power politics, it still existed into the modern era.
However, it wasn’t to last much longer. One of the ironies hanging over the book (and I’m only like halfway in, so maybe this becomes more clear) is that Bosnia would only be under Turkish rule for a few more decades. In 1878, it became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Sort of, anyway. It became administered by the Hapsburgs, following war between Russia and Turkey. Why did the Hapsburgs get it? Ask Gilded Age great powers, man, not me.
Anyway, in 1908 it was officially annexed following an artificial crisis, underscoring Turkish weakness in the Balkans and setting the stage for the Balkan wars of independence. This rising tide of nationalism also turned against the Hapsburgs, who sent one of their own to Sarajevo in 1914. Franz Ferdinand’s trip didn’t end very well for him.
And of course, yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the war that launched following Ferdinand’s killing by a Bosnian nationalist. It was a war that brought down empires and reshaped the world, that opened up the cruel bloodshed of the 20th-century, and that paved the way for greater horrors to come. The vast waste of the war, waged for the glory of the ruling classes and the wealth of empires, yoked by the ancient pomposity of nonsense treaties and paper-thin alliances, haunts us to this day. WWI seems more brutal, more hideous, more choked with mud and falling autumnal sadness, than any other conflict. We still feel it today.
Part of the reason for that, I think, is because to say “WWI: 1914-1918” is reductive and misleading idea. As we saw above, its roots stretched back into Ottoman times, into Balkan restlessness, born of hundreds of years of occupation. Hundreds! The cliched powderkeg of the Balkans didn’t come about in the wars if the early 1900s; it had been created through generations of powerful meddling, of treating it like a place on a chessboard, of squeezing every local rivalry and individual dream through the grinding fulcrum of a great game.
And WWI lasts until today, or at least its reverberations. It’s been a contention of this blog that the war in Syria, and the chaos of the broader Middle East, is the last act of the Ottoman Empire. The same is true in the Balkans.
The modern Middle East and the Balkans were both born of the same historic moment: when the rise of the nation-state coincided with the death throes of an ancient empire- the Ottomans. They aren’t exactly the same, of course. The Balkans went through a brief Austro-Hungarian phase, but that was due to the long-running collapse of the Ottomans, the Sick Man of Europe.
It’s hard to think about now, but these were places that had a political system in place for hundreds and hundreds of years (the Ottomans began to dominate in the 14th and 15th century). It was a multi-ethnic and ever-shifting empire, with central power waxing and waning, but never disappearing. When it died in the aftermath of WWI, it was suddenly due to be replaced by modern states.
We don’t really recognize that this is a long and uncertain process, but think of it like this: pretend you are reading a history book in the year 3500, or about 1500 years from now. (I know there probably won’t be books at that point, but you’re going to be dead by then anyway, so just go with it, ok?)
You’d read of the 500 years of Ottoman domination, and then the tumult of the 20th century. The Balkans were briefly dominated by the Soviets and Tito’s 3rd-wayism, and the Middle East by colonialism, followed by nationalism and tyranny, followed by religious fanaticism, until it all collapsed, slowly and then suddenly, starting in around 2003. But the thing is, that section wouldn’t be long.
We’re fewer than 100 years since the Ottoman’s collapsed, and while a lot has happened, it always seems like a lot happens when you’re living through it. But we’re still in the last rigor-mortis flicker, the dying tail of that millennial empire. The Soviets mutated the direction of the Balkans, but they were just a blip, a large factor in determining what would happen in the post-Ottoman Balkans, but still a mere factor in that longer story. Everything that has happened in the Middle East is part of that same tale. The mutations of colonialism, nationalism, and religion are just playing a role.
This isn’t, of course, historical determinism. But we also can’t ignore the continuity of history. We can’t pretend to live in rigorously-defined times, marked off by thick black lines. Want more proof that the past was just yesterday: Mohammed bin Salman, if he indeed becomes king, will be the first Saudi king not a son of Ibn Saud. Ibn Saud, of course, fought against the Ottomans. He was the dude who palled around with Lawrence of Arabia. His sons are still kings.
I get that one old man’s singular undying horniness doesn’t shed light on any universal truth about history, but the point is that we’re still living in the post-WWI world, which while epoch-defining and nation-shattering, didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of short-sightedness. It came out of raw bloody-mindedness. It came out of the inability of the ruling class to see non-rulers as anything but pawns or money symbols. It came from unchecked power harrumphing its way toward greater wealth and glory. It came from a dimwitted adherence to symbols, and to convincing people that true individual brilliance came in getting torn up on barbed wire for the motherland.
As we move toward a new gilded age, more ferocious and entrenched than ever before, more ensconced by technology and a compliant media, and as we move back toward power politics, it is vital to remember the lessons of history. Today is different than 100 years ago. It has to be; we’re all an accumulation of what came before. There are different challenges and different dangers. But as we mourn the waste and hear the sudden stirring silence of the quieted guns, we need to reflect that the past isn’t over. It’s not even the past. It never is.