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1929: The Balkans and the Great Crash

Belgrade - flickr-flavijus
Belgrade. Photo: flickr/flavijus

Barbara Jelavich, a professor at Indiana University, was one of the West's pre-eminent scholars of Balkan history until she died in 1995. Her greatest monument is her two volume history of the peninsula which, although it ends in the early 1980s, is still perhaps the single best introduction to the region up until then. Volume 1 covers the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the second, the twentieth. Given the current parlous state of the world's economy we thought it interesting to pick two extracts which cover the effects of the world crash of 1929 on the Balkans plus one other on peasant life. "Bad as conditions were in industrial countries," writes Jelavich, "the situation was even worse in regions that depended on agriculture. Prices of food and raw materials fell as much as 50 percent."

Since the Balkan states were primarily producers of agricultural goods and raw materials, they found the base of their economies profoundly shaken. The drop in prices commenced in 1929. By 1932-1933 the prices of most grains were between one-third and one-half of those of 1929. Agricultural income in the depression years is estimated to have declined 57.6% in Romania and 51.8% in Bulgaria.

There was, notes Jelavich here, a high level of peasant indebtedness.

With the fall in agricultural prices the peasants could not meet either their taxes or payments on their debts. They were also adversely affected by the widening gap between the values of agricultural and of industrial goods. The peasant majorities of the peninsula were thus faced with a continually deteriorating situation.

Confronted with this disaster, the Balkan governments did take some initiatives. Their principal action was to establish state agencies that purchased grain from the peasants at prices well above the world level. Although these measures were helpful in the short run, they did not meet the basic problems of the Balkan agrarian system. The economic crisis brought into bold relief the enormous difficulties that still had to be met by governments. Although the national regimes had been established and a satisfactory urban standard of living had been achieved by a minority, the great majority of the population lived in material conditions that had changed relative little…

In the countryside notes Jelavich, most people were self-sufficient when it came to housing, dress and food, but there was change, most notably in what people wore:

By the 1930s clothing was in the process of transition. As elsewhere, most people preferred manufactured products. Traditionally, of course, clothes had been made at home. Spinning and weaving with wool, cotton, or hemp had been a major responsibility of the women of the family; clothing was then cut and sewn in the home, although some men's outfits were made by the village tailor. Sandals were bought in the market. Clothing styles were traditional, but as manufactured thread and cloth became more widely available and as people became more aware of European styles, village dress gradually changed. Where possible, people adopted what they regarded as modern usually also more practical and comfortable - clothing.

History of the Balkans: Twentieth Century. (Volume 2). Barbara Jelavich. 1983.
[pp. 184-185, 187 / Cambridge University Press]

January 2009
Tim Judah

 Back Balkans - Next 
  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
  14. Srebrenica: Vengeance
  15. Srebrenica: Blood
  16. Srebrenica: July 1995
  17. Mealtime - Interwar years in Travnik
  18. Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle
  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
  20. The Museum and Bosnian Identity
  21. Foča: The Bosniak
  22. Kosovo: The Swiss Front
  23. Mitrovica: 1908
  24. Pristina: Kosovo like Namibia?
  25. City without traffic - Pristina 1966
  26. Durham in Pristina - 1908
  27. Tirana: 1962
  28. Zog's Tirana
  29. The Kotor - Constantinople Express
  30. Kotor and the Montenegrins
  31. The Rabbi of Stolac
  32. Dubrovnik: England, Wine and Wool
  33. Cetinje: Nikola Under the Elm
  34. Cetinje: 1858
  35. Dalmatia: Ships & Grapes
  36. Prophet of Yugoslavism
  37. The head of the world
  38. 1919: Mushrooms and Lies
  39. Sofia: Bulgaria's Jews during WWII
  40. Zamfirovo: Rural livelihoods in the mid-1990s
  41. Kosovo
  42. Romania: 1914
  43. Istanbul: Food and the frugal Turks
  44. Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople
  45. Sukhumi: The history of the region became ashes
  46. Black Sea: The coming of steam and rail
  47. Mestrovic: Motherhood and the Victor
  48. Rizvanovici, Bosnia: Gnashing
  49. Down the Danube with Magris: Ruse
  50. From Pristina to Tskhinvali
  51. Serbia, Historians and Hitler's War
  52. Balkan Strongmen: Bulgaria's Zhivkov
  53. Sarajevo: The Siege Within
  54. Turkey: Osman's Dream
  55. Durres 1961: Beijing on Sea
  56. Cetinje: Eggs for the Ladies
  57. Bosnia: Land of Immigrants
  58. Ottoman Croatia
  59. Harem: All the Sultan's Women
  60. Sibiu: Regime Change, European Style
  61. 1929: The Balkans and the Great Crash
  62. Rumeli and how the Balkans became the Balkans
  63. 1948: Stalin, Kosovo and Swallowing Albania
  64. Transforming Turkey: the 1950s
  65. McMafia and the Balkans
  66. 1916: Serbia in Corfu
  67. Princes Amongst Men
  68. Limp Shevardnadze
  69. Knin: War and Suburbia
  70. In the Mountains of Poetry
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