Understanding the Balkans: The Balkans; Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999

By Tismaneanu, Vladimir | Tikkun, March/April 2001 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Balkans: The Balkans; Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999


Tismaneanu, Vladimir, Tikkun


Understanding the Balkans: The Balkans; Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park), editor of the journal East European Politics and Societies, and author of numerous books, including Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy (Princeton University Press, 1998) and the forthcoming Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism.

Can Balkan history and politics be understood rationally? Or is this a territory dominated by emotions, centuries-old vendettas, and fatal failures to cope with the challenges of modernity--in short, a territory of irrationality? These seemingly flippant questions are actually of burning importance in light of Yugoslavia's wars of secession and the still unfinished nation-building stories of Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo, potentially explosive spots on the map of twenty-first century Europe. Misha Glenny, one of the most respected and knowledgeable writers on Eastern Europe, wants to make Balkan history accessible to rational people. As a journalist he covered the collapse of East-European communism and the fall of Yugoslavia for the BBC and authored two excellent books on these topics. Fascinated by the spectacular dynamics of events in recent years, Glenny--unlike many of his peers--knows and respects the traditions of the region he chooses to cover. He is as astute as an insider, preserving, however, the advantage of the external observer. His recent book, The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999 is the result of several years of painstaking research.

The Balkans is an imposing volume, chock-full of data, names, years, and events. Its clearly stated ambition is to challenge what Glenny correctly perceives as the fallacious "ancient hatreds" theory of history that was notoriously spelled out by Robert Kaplan in his Balkan Ghosts in the early 1990s. While Kaplan's book was dismissed by serious academics, it remains the historical authority in the minds of many journalists, travel literature writers, pundits, and policymakers (the most famous example is first-term President Clinton's initial espousal of Kaplan's theses to justify non-intervention in Bosnia, which might have stopped the murderous actions of Serbian military and paramilitary forces). Kaplan's gloomy vision claims that the nations of Southeastern Europe have always engaged in fratricidal, tribalistic wars, and no matter what the presumably enlightened West tries to do to stop bloodshed in the Balkans, the risk for new waves of angry battles and appalling massacres will always be very high. Providing an antivenin for ancient hatreds theory, Glenny's thesis is unequivocal: Most of the ethnic and political conflict in the Balkans (Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Greece, to some extent Hungary) has its roots not in atavistic instincts and tribal sentiments of intolerance for otherness, but rather in games played by cynical great powers. Yes, he admits that nationalist sentiments and ideologies developed in the region more or less endogenously, but the application and exacerbation of these local passions lay with foreign interests and agendas.

Glenny revisits two centuries of Balkan history in order to dispel the condescending vision of the Balkans as a region of lunatic, bloody feuds, murders, and even genocide; he rejects the vision of an isolated and immutable Balkan politics. Instead, he proposes a comprehensively dynamic perspective that connects the region to the overall European history. Thus, far from being essentially different from the rest of the continent's tragedies, the Balkan horrors simply magnify and condense these atrocities.

The four main themes of the book, although not explicitly delineated by the author, are: nationalism, fascism, communism, and democracy--or rather the chances for liberal democracy in a region beset with resentment and ethnic violence, and deprived, some would argue, of traditions of civil society and legal-procedural institutions. …

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