A ‘character trait’ more often invoked than reflected in research, this book truly is interdisciplinary for a change. It is relevant both in method and content for international lawyers, legal historians, and – as Skordos himself – the historian proper. Across a rough 500 pages, its author manages to capture and narrate a history of Southeast Europe from the second half of the 18th century to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s as it invited and shaped international legal debate. This formative power of a region for global discourse is also Skordos’ main proposition. Sowing the thread through contemporary and modern scholarly assessments, historical legal sources, and continuing normative developments, he adds a Southeast European perspective to the quilt of the international law on the use of force, minority protection, and international criminal law.
The monograph represents the revised manuscript of the author’s habilitation thesis submitted at the University of Leipzig in 2017 where he formed part of a research hub on the history of international law under the auspices Stefan Troebst and Dietmar Müller of the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe.1 Skordos’ book presents itself as a harmonious arrangement of five – almost too – clearly structured chapters, each developing individual parts of the argument and focussing on a specific period. These are preceded – necessarily in a thesis but perhaps not so in the published monograph – by an introduction clarifying preliminary methodological questions and are followed by closing remarks that essentially provide a summary of the overall argument. Aside from acknowledgements in lieu of a foreword, the book includes a bibliography, list of abbreviations and a directory of persons mentioned throughout the text.
The introductory chapter not only covers the obligatory – one might say cliché – bones of contention of Eastern European history such as the definitions and deconstructions of regions, but also provides a concise and useful review of the state of the art in the history of international law. Preparing the reader for the ensuing analysis, it also puts forward the proposition informing Skordos’ main research question: how Southeast Europe has served as a catalyst for the development of international law.
Chapter 1 begins with the bigger picture of the Eastern Question of the long 19th century, taking the philosophical basis of the earliest of international lawyers as a baseline for the reception of the Greek War of Independence, the Crimean War, and the Great Eastern Crisis before discussing the legal concept of suzerainty as a feature of 19th century international law. Chapter 2 picks up at the end of the First World War, looking at minority protection in the framework of the League of Nations and highlighting three advisory opinions of the Permanent Court of International Justice concerning Southeast Europe to demonstrate its potential for innovation within the international legal process. These cases are the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations of 1923, the Greco-Bulgarian “Communities” of 1930, and the Minority Schools in Albania of 1935. Chapter 3 tackles the highly problematic process of population exchanges still considered as a valid measure for the solution of international conflicts throughout the entire interwar period. The title of this chapter already follows the common narrative of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 as a blueprint for such transfers, which Skordos further substantiates. In contrast, Chapter 4 ventures into a lesser known episode from the perspective of international legal history, the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in Marseille in 1934. Skordos spans the trajectory from the creation of the 1937 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism – paying special attention to the roles of Romania and Yugoslavia – to the 1998 Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court. Another big temporal leap occurs in the final Chapter, which focuses on the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s as a more recent catalyst for the progressive development of international law, from the creation of an ad hoc criminal tribunal by the UN Security Council to questions of recognition in the context of the Kosovo declaration of independence. The closing remarks assemble the individual parts of the argument together and – sometimes redundantly, in light of the preceding summaries at the end of each chapter – remind the reader of the main conclusions.
Throughout the book, the region of Southeast Europe takes on both active and passive roles. While Chapters 1 and 5 frame it more as a trigger or laboratory for international legal development, Chapter 2–4 demonstrate the impact of its political and legal actors on the international stage. Particularly remarkable are the biographical windows through which the events are discussed by following protagonists such as Nikolaos Politis (Greece), Vespasian Pella (Romania), or Edvard Beneš (Czechoslovakia). Skordos manages a balanced portrayal of their somewhat ambivalent roles as both cosmopolitan, oftentimes liberal torchbearers on the international plane and, at the same time, pursuers of nationalist agendas.
Nowhere in the book – with perhaps the slightest of nuances that might equally occur were the very same book written by a lawyer – does Skordos open himself up to criticism of walking on methodological thin ice. To the contrary, he clearly understands and playfully conveys the relevant legal debates and underlying concepts. From a genuinely global perspective, the relevance of Southeast Europe, both as a region and as a common denominator of a certain group of actors, might be exaggerated at times and create the suspicion of a blinkered view. But considering the previous absence of such a clear-cut lens over the history of international law, it does not hurt to boldly state what is as coherent as neglected an argument made from the often poorly understood perspective of (South)East European history. What Skordos leaves out, others may add to paint a wider picture of the history of international law in relation to different regions and areas, allowing for the full appreciation of the development of international law in its context.
For anyone interested in the development of the international law on the use of force and its exceptions, of minority protection, and of international criminal law, this monograph provides a comprehensive synthesis of state practice and contemporary scholarship. At the same time, scholars of (legal) history dealing with any of these questions should have to engage with Skordos’ main proposition: Southeast Europe as a locus classicus of international law.
Whether this narrative holds, or how it must be refined, depends much on its dissemination beyond the work itself. For the book suffers from two quite practical limitations to its probable impact: its pricing – albeit at the lower spectrum of academic monographs – and its language. Skordos’ fluid narration could easily pass as popular non-fiction, were it available in a competitive paperback price range. Had it been written in English, this could be one of the most discussed contributions to the development of international law right now.2 While the preservation of German as a lingua franca in the study of history contributes to a pluralistic scientific landscape, authors such as Skordos will have to decide whether or not they want to bear influence on the broader discourse surrounding the history of international law. This is the only question mark that concludes an otherwise mostly positive review.
1 The project group ‘Verrechtlichungsprozesse in den internationalen Beziehungen: Prägungen des Völkerrechts durch Konflikte im östlichen Europa seit 1850’. See https://www.hsozkult.de/project/id/fp-1189.
2 Instead of offering celebrity symposia to ‘monographs’ that are essentially essay collections of previously published research. Cf. European Journal of International Law 32/3 (2021).