The Balkan Tragedy

The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War

by Misha Glenny
Penguin, 193 pp., $10.00 (paper)

The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-up, 1980–92

by Branka Magaš
Verso, 366 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War

by Slavenka Drakulić
Norton, 146 pp., $19.95

Since the summer of 1991, at least 50,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the former Yugoslavia and at least a million more have been turned into refugees. After two-and-a-half years of fighting, a comprehensible explanation for the carnage still eludes most observers. The outside world’s unspoken conviction, as it watches the unfolding savagery, is that all the parties must be, in differing degrees, insane. This belief comes in both simple and complicated forms, ranging from the sweeping finality of “they’re all fucked,” which I heard from a Canadian UN soldier trying to keep Serbs and Croats apart at a UNPROFOR checkpoint, to visiting journalists’ speculation on the irrational strain throughout Balkan history.

The Balkans depicted in Robert Kaplan’s recent book, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History,1 for example, are a dark zone haunted by ghosts of violence and fanaticism. “Here men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry,” he writes, “dooming them to hate. Here politics has been reduced to a level of near anarchy….” The tone is familiar from better books, notably Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) and John Reed’s The War in Eastern Europe (1916). The doom-laden approach purports to illuminate the present by delving into the past. In reality, it straightens out the meandering paths of the Balkan past into the more circumscribed tracks of destiny.

Nationalists everywhere turn the historical record into a narrative of self-justification. In the Balkans, the contestants have a particular interest in turning their history into fate, so that the past can then serve to explain away their hatreds. But there is no reason why outside observers should do the same.

Westerners often assert, for example, that the roots of the antagonisms in the Balkans lie in the fact that the Croats are Catholic, European, and Austro-Hungarian in origin, while the Serbs are essentially Orthodox, Byzantine Slav, with an added tinge of Turkish cruelty and indolence. The Sava and Danube rivers, which serve as borders between Croatia and Serbia, once demarcated the boundary between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. If this historical fault-line is emphasized often enough, the conflict between Serbs and Croats can be seen as inevitable. Yet it is not how the past dictates to the present, but how the present manipulates the past which seems decisive in the Balkans. The Croats’ insistence, for example, that they belong to Europe, because they once belonged to Austria-Hungary, is also a way of saying: we’re not those backward Balkan Serbs.

In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman’s ruling HDZ Party asserts that it is a Westernstyle political movement on the model of the Bavarian Christian Democrats. Actually, the Tudjman state resembles Milosevic’s regime much more than either resembles a Western European government. They are both one-party states, democratic only in the sense that their leaders ratify their power by manipulating populist emotion.

Freud once argued that the smaller the difference between two people the larger it was bound to loom in their imaginations. This effect,…

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