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Out of the Balkans


The Balkan Peninsula [map] was frequently in the news in the 1990's ~ news of war and ethnic cleansing, of genocide. With their independence newly gained after Soviet Russia's collapse, latent antagonisms of the people of Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia(1) erupted into conflict rooted in five hundred years of captivity, degradation, ignorance, and absence of social, political and economic development. Political tyrants used legends of past glories, very often more myth than history, to gain popular support for renewed national and ethnic struggles. Slogans like "A Greater Albania,"(2) or "Macedonia for Macedonians," awakened and promoted dormant hatreds. Finally, religious hostilities surfaced: Muslim against Orthodox Christian, and Catholic guarding against both. Perhaps deep in the hearts of Orthodox Christians, fighting Albanians was and is a proxy for war against the Turks, whose religion many of the people of Albania and Kosovo embraced, thus gaining privilege in the Ottoman world.(3)

In 1806, Nicholas Biddle, a graduate of Princeton College who became a noted nineteenth century politician and financier took leave from his position as secretary of the American minister to France and sailed to Greece. Biddle was a child of the American Revolution, raised with enthusiasm for his newly established country and full of confidence in the future of its free society. He traveled to the Balkans, to the soil of the enslaved Greeks before creation of an independent Greek state. He, like other travelers of the time, brought with him and doubtless shared with his hosts and new acquaintances the philosophy of the eighteenth century's Enlightenment, the story of the American and French revolutions, and an intimate knowledge of their political institutions. He unwittingly fed fuel to the fire of the imminent Greek rising against the Turks.

Biddle was a young man of clearly great potential. He kept a journal, and just before he left Greece, he wrote the following in a letter to his brother:(4)

The situation of that country is afflicting beyond description. The descendants of a free nation ... who may one day rival the brightest glory of their ancestors now live under the most frightful despotism which ... penetrates the feelings (&) the hearts of these wretched slaves. The soil is covered by a host of little tyrants, who openly purchasing their power, repay themselves by the most unlimited extortions ... I thought I had seen as much as nature could bear under the despotism of civilization; but it has since been my melancholy good fortune to witness the proverbial terrors of eastern tyranny. Independently on any of the acts of cruelty to which they are every day liable the general relation between the Greeks and Turks is that of master and slave. The Turks pay no taxes; the whole burden falls upon the Greeks ~ all the offices are in the hands of Turks. The Turks always go armed; all kinds of weapons are forbidden to the Greeks. A Turk takes without restraint from the peasants whatever he may want, & occasionally as a favor pays for it. Such in short is the alarm which their very name inspires, that it is the practice of the country to pacify children in the cradle by saying there is a Turk coming.

The higher classes are more alive to these misfortunes from the sad remembrance of what Greece once was; & even the meanest among them who has forgotten that he is a Grecian, feels that he is a man. Within some years past their hopes of deliverance have become more strong; & the few Turks who now govern them tread on the treacherous ashes, the smothered embers of sedition & revenge. But divided among themselves, jealous of each other without arms & without a leader, they dare not express their indignation but wait for foreign assistance."

When foreign assistance came to the Greeks from the British and French it came begrudgingly, not out of noble decisions to free, finally, the land from which sprang democracy and western civilization. It came because the British and the French were fearful of Russian designs in the Balkans. It came out of a wish to prevent the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which provided political and economic advantage to the British and the French and served as a bulwark against Russian expansion.

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