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The Creation of Nation States in the Balkans

Nicolas C. Nicolaides, Ph.D. candidate, School of Political Science, University of Athens

Most of the Balkan nation-states emerged during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a result of national movements which brought about political independence: Greece was the first Balkan nation to gain full independence in 1832, followed by Serbia, and Montenegro in 1878, Romania in 1881, Bulgaria in 1908 and Albania in 1914. Prior to that time, the Ottoman Empire controlled much of the area. The Ottoman conquest was a defining moment for the Balkan peoples and all of them place their greatest folk heroes in the era of either the onslaught or the retreat of the Ottomans. As examples, for Greeks, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos and Theodoros Kolokotronis; for Serbs, Tsar Lazar and Karadjordje; for Romanians, Vlad the Impaler and Tudor Vladimirescu; for Albanians, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg.

Ottoman soldiers first entered the Balkans around 1345 as Byzantine mercenaries and later returned to conquer it. They soon defeated the Bulgars and the Serbs and by conquering Constantinople on May 29, 1453 CE, they brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. With Constantinople as their new capital, the they grew to becomebecame a world power ruling over a vast territory that included much of the Balkans, Asia Minor, the central Middle East to the borders of Persia, and most of North Africa. Their empire was a multiethnic, multi-religious state in which the sultan ruled through an extensive bureaucracy consisting mainly of religious officials (ulema). Islam was the state religion and while Jews and Christians were allowed to establish their own self-governed communities, they did not enjoy the same legal and social privileges as Muslims. However, some exceptions were made and many Non-Muslims held key positions in the court of the sultan, like the Jewish palace doctors and advisers, or the Greek Orthodox interpreters (dragomans).

The Orthodox Church hierarchy and the Christian elites, despite the fact that they were well integrated within the Ottoman state mechanism and to a great extent had adopted various aspects of Ottoman lifestyle, had always perceived Ottoman rule as something alien, much due to the Islamic nature of the state, and never seized to aspire for the resurgence of their people which would be accomplished through Ottoman defeat in the hands of a Christian power. It thus comes as no surprise that despite the pleas of the Orthodox Church to its flock not to question Ottoman authority, the Patriarchs of Constantinople would secretly send congratulatory letters to the Russian czars whenever they would win a major victory in their wars against the Ottomans.

Similarly, Balkan chronographers and historians traditionally held the opinion that Ottoman rule reduced their ancestral lands into an impoverished and underpopulated backwater. This assumption was challenged by more recent scholarly work; the pioneering research of Dutch scholar Machiel Kiel on the Ottoman imperial tax archives in particular has proven that during the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Balkans experienced population growth and economic prosperity. Nevertheless, in the several following centuries growth was disrupted primarily by the frequent Ottoman wars fought in and around the Balkans and subsequently by the global shift in commercial patterns. As a result, the Balkans suffered huge demographic decline. The research of Turkish scholar Halil İnalcık into Turkish population defters or registers indicated that the population of the Balkans “fell from a high of 8 million in the late sixteenth-century to only 3 million by the mid-eighteenth.”

The harsh economic conditions in the Balkans have forced many Christians to emigrate, especially within the Greek and Serbian Orthodox communities. Migration was facilitated by the policies of Europe’s great monarchs such as Leopold I of Austria and Catherine the Great of Russia who both encouraged Christian migration to help populate their newly acquired territories in Hungary and on the Black Sea. While Serbian migration was confined mostly within Hapsburg lands, Greek merchants moved even further and set up prosperous colonies in major ports in western Europe and Russia. These diasporic communities of Balkan traders would play a significant role in the path to independence as their members had to a great extent absorbed western intellectual ideas of the time.

Meanwhile, Balkan intellectuals advocated their secular and national aspirations through the introduction of Enlightenment ideas which they adapted to local conditions without calling in question their Orthodox faith. In Bulgaria, the monk Paisiy of Khilendar (1722–1773) chronicled the glories of the medieval tsars and saints. In a similar way, Adamantios Korais (1748–1833) a Greek scholar active in Paris, Dositej Obradović (1739-1811) and Vuk Karadžić (1787–1864) in Serbia, and Ion Radulescu (1802–1872) in Romania opened the way for their national ideas to develop by emphasizing the culture and language of their people. Some of these Balkan thinkers combined their hopes of national emancipation with the idea of brotherhood between the Balkan peoples;, this was the case of Rhigas Velestinlis (1757-1798), a Greek writer who in his revolutionary manifesto called for a pan-Balkan uprising against the Ottomans, and Vasil Levski (1837-1873), who envisioned the Bulgarian revolution as “the consent, the brotherhood and the perfect equality between Bulgarians, Turks, Jews, etc.”

Dissemination of the ideas of these nationalist visionaries contributed significantly to the intellectual ferment and ideological orientation of the nascent Balkan bourgeoisie. This is reflected, especially in the case of the Greeks, to the establishment of an impressive number of secular schools wherewere subjects such as mathematics and the natural sciences were taught alongside classical and religious studies. Furthermore, the appearance of scores of newspapers and journals within the first decades of the nineteenth century helped spread the ideas of the eighteenth-century French philosophes and of the French Revolution. The principles of liberty, equality and national sovereignty offered an additional impulse to the Balkan bourgeoisie by cementing the idea that they would better their condition by growing off Ottoman rule and by organizing independent nation states.

The first “nationalist” rebellion in the Ottoman Empire occurred Serbia. The Serbian uprising of 1804-13 started as a peasant rebellion but soon turned into a national revolution much due to the arbitrariness of the Ottoman authorities. After years of fighting the Serbs gained a “semiautonomous status” under their own leader, Miloš Obrenović, in 1830. If the Serbian uprising was aas spontaneous response against abuses of power by local janissaries and Ayans (the provincial notable), the Greek revolution of 1821 began as a cunning and well devised plot, organized by the Philike Hetaireia, a great armed secret society, founded in 1814 by Greek petty merchants at Odessa. Unlike the limited autonomy granted to the Serbs the Greeks achieved full independence and established the Kingdom of Greece in 1832.

Later, the Principality of Montenegro was established when the local prince-bishop renounced his ecclesiastical position in 1852 and reigned as Danilo I; a few years later the Montenegrins won a decisive victory over the Ottomans at Grahovac (1858). Nevertheless, both Serbia and Montenegro reached full independence in 1878 with the Treaty of Berlin. Bulgarian independence was achieved through the process of the Bulgarian National Awakening which helped the Bulgarian people to break away from Greek cultural and ecclesiastical hegemony and establish the Bulgarian Exarchate, a national church independent from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Ecclesiastical independence paved the way for national sovereignty and the Bulgarians took up arms in 1876; two years later and through Russian military intervention the Bulgarian Principality was established and remained, at least nominally, under Ottoman suzerainty till 1908.

The Romanians, inspired by the liberal wars of 1848 in Italy and Germany, proclaimed a few decades later (1862) the union of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, which up to then were autonomous but vassals of the Ottoman Empire. Albania was the last Balkan nation to achieve independence; their statehood came as reaction to the First Balkan War (1912–13) when the Balkan states smashed Ottoman power in Europe; realizing the imminent threat of being absorbed by Greece or Serbia, a group of predominantly Muslim Albanian notables proclaimed their independence in Vlore on 28 November 1912.

Balkan revolutionaries such as Karadjordje of Serbia, Theodoros Kolokotronis of Greece and Tudor Vladimirescu of Romania all fought bravely against the Ottomans but the eventual achievement of an independent state was made possible through the intervention of foreign powers. For ideological and geopolitical reasons, different members of the Great powers intervened either through diplomacy or military action on behalf of particular nations: Russia aided the Serbs, Montenegrins and Bulgarians, France under Napoleon III had a decisive role in the unification of the two Romanian Principalities, Italy and Austria–Hungary supported Albanian independence in order to seal off Serbia from the Adriatic, while Russia, France and Great Britain secured Greek independence by destroying the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet at Navarino (1827). Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova notes: “All Balkan nations at one time or other have served as pet nations for the great European powers. The Greeks, due to the magnetism of their ancient history and the influence of Enlightenment ideas, have been the chosen ones.” Indeed, the Greeks owe much to their classical past;, the physical remains of this past attracted many European travelers and antiquitarians whose published work brought greater knowledge of modern Greece and its people to the readership of Western Europe. By the beginning of the nineteenth century Europe was taken over by a ‘Greco mania’ and the term ‘philhellene’ was coined to describe the ‘lovers of Greece’—, many of these philhellenes wouldwill come and fight for the liberation of Greece when the revolution of 1821 broke out. Greece’s classical past also played a decisive role in ensuring that the boundaries of the newly founded Greek kingdom would extend to include Delphi and Thermopylae.

In all cases the new states were required by the European powers to be monarchies, and -with the exception of Serbia and Montenegro- they were also required to accept nonnative dynasties. The Balkan peoples welcomed their foreign monarchs as the ascension to the throne of a European prince legitimized state independence, reconnected the broken ties with Europe through dynastic connection, and signaled the establishment of the institutions that would turn their nascent states into legitimate European nations. Most of these dynasts had no previous connections to their people;, this was the case of King Carol I of Romania, a Hohenzollern prince, who had never heard of Romania and accepted the crown only after being convinced of the country’s strategic location by looking at an atlas. An exception to the rule was Otto of Greece whose father, Ludwig of Bavaria, was an ardent philhellene and had actively supported the Greeks during their fight against the Ottomans; under Ludwig’s guidance Otto played an active role in the nation-building process by using ancient Greece as the blueprint for the construction of the cultural and political identity of the modern Greek state. In a similar fashion Ferdinand I, perceived his reign as a revival of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, adopted the title of czar and named his son Boris. Another German prince, Wilhelm of Wied was styled Skanderbeg II by his Albanian subjects but this failed to secure his throne and his rule lasted no more than six months.

The raison d’être for all of these young Balkan kingdoms was territorial expansion as each state claimed Ottomans lands as theirs by ethnic or historical right. The irredentism of the Balkan states often led to war with the Ottoman Empire and sometimes to war with each other,; thus, rendering any delightful visions for pan-Balkan unity rather futile.


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