Three Eras of Political Change in Eastern Europe

By Gale Stokes | Go to book overview

Introduction

When I meet new people and tell them that I am a Balkan historian, they almost always ask me, with some surprise, how I got into the study of Balkan history. The question could be interpreted as merely polite conversation. I have come to believe, however, that it reveals the depth of ethnic consciousness that permeates modem thinking. Questioners usually are quite specific: my non-Slavic name has confused them. They assume that only those with an appropriate ethnic background could be interested in the arcane history of Southeast Europe. If my name were, say Miloš Marković, it apparently would be obvious to them why I chose Balkan history as my subject -- ethnics are interested in their own history. But of course everyone is an ethnic. We are all part of a community in which we have been nurtured and feel comfortable. And not all of us chose to be historians. Nevertheless, I cannot recall a single instance of someone asking me why I chose to be a professional historian rather than to pursue some other career.

I have my dinner party answer to why I chose the Balkans. It goes like this: The Christmas before I graduated from college, my mother gave me one thousand dollars to visit Europe the summer of my graduation, after which I was to enter the Air Force as an ROTC second lieutenant. Her condition was that I travel with the Experiment in International Living, which placed young people with families in host countries. I chose Yugoslavia and spent several weeks in Ljubljana (the student I stayed with remains a good friend), following which our group traveled around Yugoslavia.

After a number of years' service as a regular officer, I realized I wanted to leave the Air Force. One of the things I did to think more clearly about this decision was to list all the books I had read over the previous two years. To my astonishment, most of them were history books. Even though I had been convinced since my undergraduate days that history was boring, I had read Florinsky's two-volume history of Russia and even B. H. Sumner's history of the Eastern Crisis almost without realizing it.

-ix-

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