Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert D. Kaplan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Balkan Ghosts is an epic history of the part of the world that’s synonymous with fractious, violent internecine conflict. The breadth of the topic is massive, covering centuries of history in the lands that now constitute Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Romania, Moldavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Greece. The people were converted to Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Judaism, and Islam and subject to conquests by the Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, Habsburg Empire, Nazi Germany, and Soviet communism. This book took me almost a year to finish; the book is massive, dense, and brutal.
The narrative foil of the book is a travelogue of the author’s trips throughout the region over twenty years; Kaplan befriends and interviews many colorful priests, politicians, and other characters in each nation. His goal, and the book’s, is to understand the historical and religious scars that underly the violence and instability of the Balkans. To summarize: in a region with a thousand-years history and a multiplicity of languages, religions, and ethnicities virtually every group has some rightful grievance against the others; times when their co-religious were forcibly converted, or their ethnicity was ejected from their land, or enslaved by a conquering empire, or murdered in a violent pogrom. Every group feels itself wronged, oppressed, the victim of history. Depressingly, no one interviewed even admits the possibility of ethnic healing and inter-racial co-existence; the only solutions they’ll admit amount to genocide.
Indeed, this book was published in 1993. Six years later NATO would intervene in Yugoslava to prevent the genocide of Kosovars by Serbs. I suppose the penetrating pessimism about the intractability of these problems is warranted. But in my news-watching lifetime the Balkans have not been in the news. Maybe this is cause for some optimism.
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