Thinking Aloud: “Balkan Ghosts”

May 16, 2014 by Darius 

In general, the history of the Balkans does not make for nice reading.  Journalist Robert D. Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History is no exception.  Written on the eve of the horrific fighting and genocide in the Balkans during the 1990s, Balkan Ghosts is a gritty, no-holds-barred telling of one of the toughest places on the planet (hint: in the preface to the 1996 printing, the author expressed his total lack of surprise at the contemporary fighting and ethnic cleansing).  In the prologue, one of the grisliest single acts of the Holocaust, which occurred in Romania, is described.  The book goes from there.  But Balkan Ghosts is not just a catalogue of horrors.  It reflects Kaplan’s wide travels in the region and the very real ghosts of the past that continue to haunt the present – and future.

The Balkan Peninsula lies at the border between East and West.  To the west is Austria and the Germanic lands; across the Adriatic Sea from Croatia lies Italy.  To the east is Russia, Turkey, and the Muslim world.  Due to its place on a perpetual border, the Balkan Peninsula has become home to ethnic mixing on a large scale.  The interactions of these ethnic groups, with their religions, hatreds, and wars, shape Balkan history.

Perhaps the single most pertinent take-away message from Balkan Ghosts is that every people in the Balkans feel that a good fraction of their rightful nation is perpetually oppressed by a neighboring country.  Why?  Because each nation regards as its natural and rightful territory that of its historical empire at its greatest extent.  Thus, Macedonia claims much of northern Greece, Greece claims southern Albania, Bulgaria claims northeastern Greece and Macedonia, Serbia claims Kosovo, etc.  These grievances have had surprisingly little time to work themselves out, despite the long history.  The Turkish invasion and subsequent domination of the Balkans by the Ottoman Empire for 600 years created new animosities rather than helping solve them.  Communism effectively froze history by binding the entire area into one authoritarian government.

The resulting picture of the Balkans isn’t pretty.  The countries haven’t begun to resolve their differences over what happened during the Ottoman era, much less what happened during the world wars (when different countries took different sides), or under Communism, or during the civil wars of the 1990s.  I have heard it said that “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”  Balkan Ghosts confirms the truth of that statement.

One problem with Balkan Ghosts is that the second half of the book focuses on three countries that aren’t even part of the Balkans in a traditional sense: Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece.  While Kaplan makes a good case for why these countries should be included with the other Balkan countries, the result is relatively less time spent on Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, etc.  Those countries are discussed in the first half of the book, but reading Balkan Ghosts, I kept waiting for Kaplan to circle back to the “western” Balkans.  He never did.

Despite its flaws, though, Balkan Ghosts is a very readable and engrossing book.  Parts of it are truly page turners.  It might not be for the sensitive or faint of heart, but it’s by far the best book I’ve read on the history of the Balkans.

For those interested in how the story continues through the 1990s wars, I’d recommend Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia.

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