The Balkans, by Misha Glenny

March 24, 2011 at 14:57 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )


An essential book for anyone interested in anything more than a snapshot of the Balkans and their troubled history. Glenny does not go into great depth when dealing with peripheral issues such as Western European politics, and he relies heavily on his reader’s familiarity with the Byzantine-Turkish wars in particular and the entire region’s Medieval history in general; but when he reaches his subject he is thoughtful, painstaking and scrupulous in his artistic depiction of the shifting fates and follies of the Yugoslavian nations and their neighbours.

His book has a definite agenda to it, and his insistence on blaming the Treaty of Lausanne, Congress of Berlin and NATO for all of the Balkan violence seems a little one-sided; while external manipulation has certainly plagued the region excessively, the sheer scale of the repeated genocides, rapes and wanton slaughters suggests deeper-seeded issues than simply the provocation of careless and greedy superpowers. Nevertheless, although this particular perspective is laid on rather thickly, Glenny is a convincing communicator, and never relies upon blind assumption or tenuous causality, tracing his arguments out in abundant documentary caution, and providing a very attractive thesis.

This history expends itself mostly between 1890 and 1940, choosing the bookends of the Congress of Berlin and the disastrous Nazi occupation; but an extra hundred pages on the Communist Balkans would have been very welcome (Ceaucescu’s deposition and execution is given only one sentence, and many of the colourful and vital figures are given only brief mention). Evidently Glenny is of the opinion that these years were dominated by symptoms of earlier illnesses, and of only fleeting curiosity. While a great deal of credit must be given Glenny for his even coverage of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania and even peripheral nations such as Turkey and Hungary, after the Second World War his attention becomes almost entirely diverted to the Bosniak-Croat-Serb quarrels–a surprising choice, considering Albania’s and Macedonia’s supreme relevance to these three ethnic groups! He admits as much, but prefers to centre his efforts on the major players rather than the prizes for which they were fighting.

It seems that there is room for Glenny or another historian to expand upon the dooms prophesied in this book and write a lengthy sequel covering Yugoslavia from 1990 until Kosovo’s independence. Such a book would be very welcome, and would add significantly to this excellent work.

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