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.1

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 Vickers2 and by journalists such as Tim Judah and Marcus Tanner,3 while an admirably objective study of the period between the world wars has come from Professor Stevan Pavlowitch.4 Other useful contributions have been provided by participants in the crises such as David Owen, Richard Holbrooke, and the EU official Carl Bildt.5 But before Misha Glenny’s book The Balkans, the only post–cold war attempt to interpret the entire region that has received widespread attention was Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History,6 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 likely to cooperate as to compete.

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