The region of southeastern Europe known as the Balkans returned with a vengeance to newspaper readers’ awareness during the early 1990’s. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with bitter ethnic wars in 1912 and 1913, the region had spawned a term, “balkanization,” that entered regular English usage. One Webster’s dictionary defines the verb “to Balkanize” as “to break up into small, mutually hostile political units, as the Balkan States after World War I.” Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the site of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria—the catalyst of that war. Some of World War II’s bitterest and bloodiest fighting took place in Yugoslavia, between the Ustasha secret police of the Fascist state of Croatia and the Partizan resistance led by Marshal Josip Tito.
Tito’s highly personalized Communist dictatorship and his talent for keeping a political balance among Croats, Serbs, Muslims, and other groups kept Yugoslavia unified and relatively stable until, in the wake of revolutions elsewhere in Europe, it collapsed. In December of 1991, Croatia and Slovenia, two of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics, declared themselves independent. Their recognition by the European Community—insisted on by Germany, the EC’s most powerful member—was the signal for a bloody war between Croatia and Serbia and the eventual near-destruction of Bosnia- Herzegovina, haplessly caught in the middle with a population that was a volatile ethnic mix.
Robert D. Kaplan began visiting the Balkans in the early 1980’s, when few others were going there. Though his book’s publication was well timed to coincide with heightened interest in the area, he is more interested in the region as a whole—which he defines as including Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, as well as the states of the former Yugoslavia—and the historical roots of the several countries’ current plights than in the headline-grabbing tragedy of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History is billed as a travel book, it really is more a series of essays linked thematically by Kaplan’s musings on history and chronologically by his visits. “On the road, when I met people, I asked them always about the past,” he writes. “Only in this way could the present become comprehensible.”
Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia, Athens, Adrianople. These were once the datelines of choice for ambitious journalists—the Saigon, Beirut, and Managua of a younger world,” he notes. “Ernest Hemingway filed his most famous dispatch from Adrianople (now Edirne, in Turkish Thrace) in 1922, describing Greek refugees ’walking blindly along in the rain,’ with all their possessions piled on oxcarts beside them. The Balkans were the original Third World, long before the Western media coined the term.… Whatever has happened in Beirut or elsewhere happened first, long ago, in the Balkans.
Kaplan divides his book into four parts. Part 1, “Yugoslavia: Historical Overtures,” includes chapters on Croatia, Serbia and Albania, Macedonia, and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The second and—perhaps surprisingly—longest section (110 pages long, out of 287 pages of text) is on Romania, which geographically need not be defined as part of the Balkans. The short but memorable third part is on Bulgaria. Part 4 is on Greece, a country many in the West think of more as an eastern outpost of Western Europe than as a Balkan country. Kaplan is at pains to show—and does show, persuasively—that Greece (where he has lived) indeed is “Balkan” and is hardly much better off economically or politically than its sad neighbors.
He uses British novelist Rebecca West’s classic travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Record of a Journey Through Yugoslavia in 1937 (1941) as a touchstone for his chapters on Yugoslavia. West became obsessed with Yugoslavia the day in 1934 when she heard on the radio, while lying in a hospital bed, that the king of Yugoslavia had been assassinated. Her ambitious, massive book (still in print as a Penguin paperback) is more or less the book to read in English on Yugoslavia, so Kaplan’s somewhat proprietorial reading of it is a bit tiresome, as is his questionably accurate insistence on calling its author “Dame Rebecca.” (West was not made a Dame of the British Empire until 1959, two decades after her time in the Balkans.)
He is right to assert that “Yugoslavia [is] a story of ethnic subtlety atop subtlety that resisted condensation on the news pages”; therein lies the value of his book as well as of West’s. “Politics in Yugoslavia perfectly mirrors the process of history and is thus more predictable than most people think,” he claims. He also discusses the legacy of Alojzije Stepinac, the complex, tortured Roman Catholic...