The United States, as part of the United Nations and NATO, has sought to bring peace, reconciliation, and order to Bosnia and Kosovo. This humanitarian intervention by the international community is a fresh approach whose long-term effectiveness is uncertain. But intervention by major world powers in the region is part of a continuing pattern that over the last 200 years has brought untold devastation, misery, and death to the inhabitants.
Ethnic and religious groups have clashed repeatedly in the Balkans, as a result of historic rivalries whose origins date back hundreds of years. But, as Misha Glenny demonstrates in this compelling and very readable comprehensive narrative history, The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, intervention by foreign powers has often made difficult situations even worse. The best known of these is the start of the First World War, of which Glenny writes: The Balkans were not the powder keg, as is so often believed: The metaphor is inaccurate. They were merely the powder trail that the great powers themselves had laid. The powder keg was Europe. Glenny was for many years the Central European correspondent for the BBC's World Service, based in Vienna. His earlier books were The Rebirth of History and The Fall of Yugoslavia, which won the 1992 Overseas Press Club Award for Best Book on Foreign Affairs.
The author believes that to understand Yugoslav history it is necessary to explore the history of the entire region. He traces the start of the Balkan tragedy to national movements early in the 19th century by Serbs and Greeks. The largely peasant societies were not able to develop as many had hoped, and located at the intersection of absolutist empires, they were exploited by the great powers.
Glenny vividly describes the many diplomatic meetings held outside the Balkans where decisions were made that adversely affected the people who lived there. These included the 1878 Congress of Berlin, presided over by Bismarck, which led to partition and, where necessary, population exchange.
The author explains how, in this century, the First and Second World Wars, and before them the First and Second Balkan Wars, helped shape the region. It is important to know that territorial and constitutional issues concerning the Balkans took more time and work at the World War I Peace Conference than any other issue. At the time of the armistice in November 1918, Yugoslavia did not exist as a country. Even when it was established as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes on December 1, it was without clear borders or a clear constitutional order. Glenny also deals with the question of why Hitler attacked the Balkans. Hitler had no need for war in the Balkans, yet he brought terrible death and destruction there. The World War II years of occupation, resistance, fracticide, genocide, and the oppressive Communist regimes in power until recently left a multitude of problems.
The author discusses the fragility of nationalism and national identity. His vivid depictions of individual leaders and events challenge our assumptions about past and present in the region. He argues convincingly that the three major interventions guaranteed the Balkans relative economic backwardness, compared to the rest of Europe. This rich and timely study is a sweeping mix of social, political, military, and diplomatic history. At the core, though, it is about human beings, often caught in situations over which they have little or no control.
Glenny's book gives us essential historical background about a part of the world where the international community may be deeply involved for a long time. It deserves a wide readership.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.