Myths of the Balkans

The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804–1999

by Misha Glenny
Viking, 726 pp., $34.95

Explaining Yugoslavia

by John B. Allcock
Columbia University Press,499 pp., $30.00

The Balkans: A Short History

by Mark Mazower
Modern Library, 188 pp., $19.95

Not much work. Only a stream of telegrams about Turkey and the Balkans, which I can not understand. These esoteric speculations as to the backstairs intrigues of that deplorable part of the world are quite beyond my comprehension, and I’m afraid I ignore them.

So Sir Alexander Cadogan, the senior civil servant in the British Foreign Office, confided to his diary on July 10, 1940. His successors of the 1990s cannot afford these luxuries of ignorance or neglect; the Balkans, it seems, are always with us. In the post–cold war world “that deplorable part of the world” not only persuaded NATO to fire its first shots in anger but has, some would argue, brought about a redefinition of the nature and function of international relations. Whether the Balkans are “deplorable” or not, no one would dispute their importance. That being so there is every need to understand them. And understanding the Balkans means trying to master their history.

The Balkan crises of the 1990s have already prompted a number of useful additions to our knowledge and understanding. Specific regions have been examined by scholars such as Noel Malcolm and Miranda Vickers which is said to have influenced President Clinton. Kaplan’s book seemed to me indisputably “deplorable” in arguing that all Balkan problems were caused by indigenous and ineradicable “ancient ethnic hatreds.” This analysis was useful for politicians looking for a convenient formula or an excuse for inactivity, but it was an outrageous oversimplification in the eyes of anyone who had anything more than a superficial acquaintance with the region.

It is Glenny’s avowed intent to refute Kaplan’s interpretation. Violence among ethnic or religious communities is, according to Glenny’s reasoning, more the consequence than the cause of Balkan instability; and that instability is itself more the consequence of malign external interference than internal shortcomings. During the long centuries of the pre-modern period different ethnic communities, many of them under Turkish domination, cohabited in most Balkan towns and villages, and if they did not attain harmony then they practiced toleration and occasionally indulged in cooperation. This mutual toleration was ruined, Glenny argues, by the arrival from Europe of nationalist ideas which were embraced by the new Balkan intelligentsias and foisted onto a peasantry that lacked the education to interpret them in any but the most basic and unsophisticated fashion. He supports his argument with evidence that in the nineteenth century Serbs and Croats were as …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.