1929: The Balkans and the Great Crash
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]