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Saturday, June 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Balkan Ghosts Haunt the West Again

The Balkan Wars: Conquest, Revolution and Retribution from the Ottoman Era to the Twentieth Century and Beyond by Andre Gerolymatos. Basic Books, New York, 2002, 297 pages, illustrated, $28.00.

“In riveting and sometimes graphic detail, this book shows that violence and terror have had plenty of precedence in the region,” notes the dustjacket, and no one can argue with the accuracy of this description. But there is plenty to argue with in between the covers of this “add-blood-and-stir” book on the Balkans by Greek Canadian historian Andre Gerolymatos, who teaches at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Arguments, however, will probably exclude specialists on the region, as this account is not written for them. It is addressed to a general audience, and it emphasizes personalities and bloodshed over troubling questions of analysis and causation. It relies on English-language, second-hand accounts mostly, and it does not make use of a great deal of the recent scholarship on the Balkans published in the 1990s.

In his preface, the author writes that the purpose of this book is “to demonstrate the continuity of war not as exclusive to this region but as part of the role of myth, history and ethnic memory as a manifestation of conflict” (p. ix.). To be sure, the already overflowing bibliography of the Balkans has space for a study that examines war as reality, myth, and memory in the region. But this book is not it. Gerolymatos’s intellectual agenda is as intriguing as it is ambitious. History matters in the Balkans as well as everywhere else, wars are part of history and, in their aftermath, they fall into the hands of mythmakers and also become transmuted into individual and collective memories. To disentangle these three different levels at which history is experienced is no mean task.

Such a project would entail very careful definitions of reality, myth, and memory, and considerable work on showing how reality is translated into myth and memory. There is no shortage of helpful material. Well over a decade ago, historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger produced an edited volume, entitled The Invention of Tradition, that ushered in a cottage industry of works on how states created myths and traditions. Meanwhile, historians opened up another avenue of research into the past by examining memory – the individual or collective ways that events were remembered, independently of what history said about them. The study of memory is now a rich and complex subfield of history that sometimes overlaps with the study of myth-making and myth-preserving.

A great deal of this scholarship has been brought to bear on our understanding of recent and not-so-recent Balkan history. It has done a great deal to undo the biased school of early jack-in-the-box Balkan “experts” who explained away the violence associated with the break-up of Yugoslavia as inherently ancient Balkan ethnic hatreds. Even the White House got the message. President Bill Clinton apparently began his background reading on the Balkans with Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, which appeared in 1993. The book epitomized the ancient-ethnic-hatred school of “thought.” The author went so far as to suggest that Nazism somehow had its origins in the region.

With more and more evidence that politics, rather than any cultural propensity for violence, was fueling the conflicts in the region, the former president looked for more serious analyses. One book he read was Michael Sells’s The Bridge Betrayed, a carefully documented analysis of how the Yugoslav leadership manipulated religion and turned it into a romanticized myth in order to mobilize the population in a struggle to contain Bosnia’s aspirations for independence. By the time the United States forged a fragile peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, the ancient-ethnic-hatreds version of Balkan history was moldering in the dustbin of history. Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who cajoled the Bosnian, Croat, and Serb leaders to come to terms with each other at Dayton, is quite clear in his book, To End A War, that politics was at the root of both the conflict and its negotiated resolution. Gerolymatos, however, is heavy on accounting for wars in the Balkans but light on processing the ways they were made into myths, or remembered. It is as if those subsequent processes are taken for granted and all that remains to be done is to describe the various conflicts – which is how this book proceeds.

Each chapter is devoted to particular wars or incidents of violence. The first treats the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and couples it with the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, the defeat that the Serbs subsequently turned into a heroic victory. The second chapter discusses the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, the third deals with brigandage in the region, and the fourth ranges from Ali Pasha of Yanina to the Serb uprising of 1804. The fifth chapter focuses on the Greek revolution of 1821 and its aftermath, as well as the struggle over Macedonia in the early twentieth century. The sixth chapter takes the reader over the diplomatic and political developments in the Balkans in the late nineteenth century and then discusses at greater length the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. The “Epilogue,” finally, does not in fact pull everything together very successfully. It ranges from a “Muslim-Serb” (why not the more appropriate terminology, Bosniak-Serb, or Muslim-Christian?) wedding to reports on the violence during the earlier-mentioned Balkan wars and then moves forward to the book’s opening scene, the bombing of Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict of the late 1990s.

Oddly enough, this book on war and violence in mostly Greek and Serb history (it is not really about the Balkans as a whole) omits the carnage inflicted on Albanians and Bosnians by Serb nationalists in the 1990s. This would have been understandable if indeed the account ended with the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Since the author brings us up to the bombing of Belgrade during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, however, and since he is unsparing in describing violence in graphic detail, one is left guessing as to why recent nationalist Serb atrocities in Srebrenica and elsewhere are not part of this story.

This peregrination through war and violence is mostly descriptive, with great attention to quirky personalities and graphic, gory details of the bloodshed and how it took place. One wonders what the point is of the repeated graphic details of murders and other kinds of violence. It creates a sense in which war and violence are conflated into a single phenomenon. Moreover, there is relatively little discussion of the causes of either the wars or the violence, the ideas that inspired them, or the policies that dictated their contours. Gruesome violence that is part of war does not necessarily mean that the causes of a particular war are irrational.

There is even less in this study about the ways in which these wars have been remembered or manipulated. The author suggests that the legacy of the Battle of Kosovo Polje inspired the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, and may even have drawn the Archduke to Sarajevo on its anniversary. Yet there is no discussion about what the Serbs thought of the battle at the time. More to the point, the author very curiously misses an opportunity to discuss how Slobodan Milosevic exploited the battle. If there is one example that can be cited that shows how the battle was used in the hands of a cynical and power-hungry leader, that is the anniversary celebrations of the battle that Milosevic orchestrated in 1989.

The ways that memory has functioned in the Balkans is also passed over very quickly. There is mention of versions of Ottoman history in Greek schoolbooks (p. 141). Of which era, however? Over the past decade, there has been a serious revision in both Greece and Turkey of the traditional imagery of each other in school textbooks. There is a partial reference to this process but it is buried in a footnote. The author also talks about how the Greeks considered what he describes as the “Ottoman occupation of the Balkans” (sic) as a period of darkness, slavery, and so forth. Correct, but, in the second half of the twentieth century, that image was undermined by one of the most active schools of history in Greece led by Konstantinos Th. Dimaras. One of the most influential Greek historians of his era, Dimaras redefined the eighteenth-century historical experience of the Greeks as the era of the Enlightenment, and not as a period of passive subservience to the Ottomans. The term, Enlightenment, does not appear in the index of this book.

With war and violence conflated, their causes mostly unaccounted for, and with scant consideration of the contested processes of mythmaking and remembering in the Balkans, we are left with a disembodied and decontextualized sense of war and violence shaping the region’s history. Moreover, the omission of periods of peace, state-building, and modernization only makes things worse. Far from being able to uncover how “layers of mythology [were] skillfully exploited by ambitious politicians and dictators re-invented the past” (p. x-xi), this book defeats its own purpose. Such an extensive focus on war and violence without adequate analysis inadvertently suggests that these were somehow generic to the region’s history.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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