N. Kamenov: Global Temperance and the Balkans

Global Temperance and the Balkans. American Missionaries, Swiss Scientists and Bulgarian Socialists, 1870–1940

Kamenov, Nikolay
223 S.
$ 99.99
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Ian Tyrrell, University of New South Wales Sydney

Scholars of the temperance movement have concentrated on the Anglo-American world, where the literature is extensive. It is also widely known that many efforts were expended trying to export the ideas of the American and British temperance movements beyond national borders. However, these attempts have been held relatively unimportant outside a few European countries and the offshoots of the Anglo-American empires in the British settler colonies.

For work outside the Anglosphere and the chronology of the American temperance movement, Nikolay Kamenov’s “Global Temperance and the Balkans” is a worthy contribution. He does not spring to the other extreme of neglecting Anglo-American temperance but sets the local case in the context of reformers’ international ambitions. In the process, Kamenov demonstrates his command of the literature on international temperance.

The book is important in showing the impacts (and limitations) of the Protestant movement of the late 19th century. It also demonstrates the durability and variability of temperance campaigns in Bulgaria beyond World War I, when new groups influenced by eugenic theories took root, and when temperance reform moved forward in a progressive and even socialist direction. Kamenov shows how these groups fitted into the early 20th century development of national cultural and racial traditions. At the same time, he is impressive in his elucidation of a variety of sources, especially visual sources to explore the taxonomy of temperance and its appeal in Bulgaria.

After discussing the international scope of the temperance movement and the background of the “social rituals” and “physical venues” of alcohol consumption in 19th-century Bulgaria at the time when the American missionaries arrived (p. 72), Kamenov addresses the formation of an evangelical temperance movement. The missionary temperance push came from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) that dated its foundation to Boston in 1810. After a short period trying to work with the Bulgarian Orthodox church in the 1850s, the ABCFM undertook independent work in civil society, including temperance as “an integral part of the spread of the Gospel” (p. 81). Concern with alcohol use among members of the Bulgarian-based mission stations led to the organization of temperance groups to combat perceptions that even missionary supporters in Bulgaria were not abstainers. The initial work culminated in the Bulgarian Temperance Union of 1893. Though it claimed a new mantle of Bulgarian national identity, operating explicitly along nation-state lines, this early temperance phase reflected a strong international influence. This was shown in the work of Zoe Ann Locke, an ABCFM missionary who became in the 1880s a strong supporter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s international leader from 1879 to 1898, Frances Willard.

The “evangelical monopoly” of the mission-influenced organizations faltered by 1900 and lapsed completely in the early 1920s as a host of new organizations emerged. The evangelicals losing “power within the movement” were replaced by “a new group of activists from an urban and professional background” (p. 60). The latter developed affiliated societies representing specialised occupations such as medical doctors to make inroads into the Bulgarian community. Under Bulgarian Dr. Haralampi Neichev, the International Order of Good Templars was a leading force in the early 1920s. At first linked with money-making ventures generating funds for the temperance cause, this organization was replaced in 1927 by the Bulgarian Temperance Federation as the movement’s overarching authority.

The missionary demise did not end international influence. The focus of the international movement had shifted focus to Europe after the International Congress against Alcohol in Washington in 1920 and through the work of the Swiss leader of the International Bureau against Alcoholism, Robert Hercod, the movement pursued an international discourse on alcoholism understood as a matter of “social hygiene” (p. 133).

Bulgarian temperance reformers came under the influence of this new international campaign. The idea of alcoholism as a social and medical problem rather than the older and more moralistic discourse of “drunkenness” flourished. Social hygiene became “deeply interwoven with eugenic thought” through this “scientification” process in Bulgaria (p. 133). Alcohol came to be treated as a racial poison, terminology that seemed to turn the temperance movement toward a racialist discourse. At least initially, this new discourse stimulated the movement, and “the number of temperance associations [...] grew immensely”. The movement became more popular, and grassroots based, adding “many voices of representation and facets to its body” (p. 214).

The composition of the movement in leadership and social support changed dramatically. In contrast to the pre-1914 importance of women missionaries and the influence of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the interwar period saw the movement dominated by professional men. Kamenov notes the relative absence of women leaders compared to some other countries. The movement became “pressed to find heroines” comparable to Locke and Willard (p. 214). Rather, experts like the Swiss campaigner Robert Hercod inspired the new Bulgarian movement.

While women were relatively neglected, Bulgarian efforts were distinguished in the 1920s by the growing importance of youth and children as the source of activity within the movement. These groups enlivened the agitation but also complicated it by introducing disruptive political and ideological issues. A leftist tinge to the “the youth branch” emerged and served “the propagation of ideas that could be ascribed to the progressive left” (p. 215). This shift included the participation of socialist thinkers.

The volume’s significance has three aspects: Firstly, this is a different chronology from the American temperance movement, and fits with historian Mark Lawrence Schrad’s arguments on the importance and more progressive leanings of the European movement in the interwar years.1

If attention to the post-1920 period is one of this book’s strengths, a second is the iconography of visual material such as cartoons, drawing and other illustrations. Children were supplied in schools and in temperance publications with such material and the editors of temperance periodicals conducted competitions: “Children were supposed to engage with the visuals in correspondence, and the best descriptions were to be published in the next issue” (p. 207). Kamenov concludes that “imagery produced by youth or for the youth periodicals” had “reached a high degree of sophistication, aesthetics and artistic expression” (p. 208).

This judgment speaks to a third significant point of the argument: that the temperance movement was not necessarily right-wing in the interwar years. Despite nationalist and eugenicist tinges, the Bulgarian movement “distanced itself from racial hygiene and negative eugenics” (p. 217). Kamerov argues that “degeneration, racial poison and hereditary encumbrance” were played down or “virtually” absent from the Bulgarian movement, at least as shown in its key literature (p. 165).

Though the point is not made explicit, one presumes that neutrality or evasion on this issue was adopted to prevent unnecessary controversy in the movement, or repression from the state. Left-leaning statements and socialist interest in the alcohol question were problematic. Pro-temperance activity in youth temperance bodies provoked anxiety and a backlash from the alcohol industry and sections of the Bulgarian government in the late 1920s that curbed public agitation.

The writer avoids a narrative that would integrate the different aspects of interwar temperance into a clear statement about shifts in national politics and power, and their impact on the temperance movement. Non-Bulgarian or non-European readers might well be left trying to piece together the politics behind the evidence for the general statements about the ideological complexion of the movement at that time. One suspects that the growth of European fascism and the inception of an authoritarian government after a coup in 1934 activated or exacerbated the emergence of an anti-progressive environment that impinged heavily upon the movement.

Commentary on alcoholism as a disease that was possibly inherited, if only temporarily, could play into a National Socialist agenda on racial degeneration. In the post-World War II period, some of the right-wing figures adopting an anti-alcohol stance were forced to recant certain statements, but Bulgaria’s Communist Government likely weaved the persistent concerns with the alcohol question into their post-war social and socialist planning for a welfare state approach. However, the topic of post-1945 policies in the new Eastern bloc Communist regime is left for future work.

Despite the global problematic adopted within the Bulgarian temperance movement, Kamenov mentions that “there were hardly any connections to the temperance movement in Greece, Turkey or Romania”. For a movement “so well connected globally”, the Bulgarian manifestation was “surprisingly insulated locally” (p. 216). Surprising, except that the internationalism of the 1920s presumed strong nationalisms within various countries as the foundation of successful implementation of a world agenda.

One problem with this book, therefore, is that it is not sufficiently worked into a concise and straightforward narrative; Kamenov prefers a topical approach. Another is that its presentation reflects its origins as a research dissertation. The book has stylistic imperfections that may interfere with comprehension. One example: Regarding the temperance use of Rembrandt’s painting on Belshazzar’s Feast (p. 210), Kamenov writes of Belshazzar’s “fear and terror” at his “imminent faith”; should this be not “faith” but “fate”? Other examples where the copyeditor has failed the writer could be shown.

The book ends with Kamenov joining the long list of historians lamenting the relative neglect, in historiography, of alcohol consumption and drinking practices. He admits that he does not fully address “the missing social history of alcohol consumption in Bulgaria” (p. 217) in this otherwise valuable book.

1 See, for example, Mark Lawrence Schrad, Smashing the Liquor Machine. A Global History of Prohibition, New York 2021.

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