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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

“Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History”, by Robert D. Kaplan

307 pages, St. Martin’s Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312087012

In Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, journalist Robert D. Kaplan explored the incredibly complex mosaic of Balkan politics, intrigue, and ethnic warfare. First published in 1993, years before any bombs were delivered by the U. S. Air Force, Kaplan showed that while good and evil certainly existed in the Balkans, the conflicting claims and tangled histories of the various parties made outside intervention by meddling outsiders a very risky proposition. Written in part as homage to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and John Reed’s The War in Eastern Europe, Balkan Ghosts is part travelogue, part historical analysis, and part polemic. Having lived in the Balkans for several years and traveled extensively in its “backwater” countries, Kaplan combined an extensive knowledge of the region with a clear and forceful narrative style; his brief description of his trip down the Danube to the impoverished town of Sfântu Gheorghe (I can’t pronounce it either), for instance, better illustrates the hopelessness inherent in Romanian communism than volumes of comparative economic statistics and diplomatic wires. The reader can almost taste the plum brandy, see the peeling paint, and smell the cigarettes and unwashed bodies.

Several key dynamics influenced the course of recent Balkan history. The first is the legacy of centuries of savage Islamic rule under the Ottoman Turks, a veritable Dark Age that was only erased from the overwhelmingly Christian populations of the Balkans in the first decades of the 20th Century; appended as a monstrous coda to this period was the communist domination of much of the peninsula after World War II, which increased the period of subjugation by more than forty years, so that, after having been oppressed by someone or other for centuries, these nations experienced both a positive resurgence of Christian faith and a negative resurgence of murderous nationalism. The second key dynamic is the persistence of historical memories in which each population – Serb, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian – sought to recover land they once ruled (both Serbia and Bulgaria, for instance, were great empires at different times during the Middle Ages). Kaplan calls it the “Balkan Revanchist Syndrome” in which “each nation claiming as its natural territory all the lands that it held at the time of its great historical expansion”. Unfortunately, these claims all overlap and there’s not enough land to satisfy each and every claim. At times the results are absurd, such as the competing Greek and Bulgarian claims to Macedonia (not to mention the Macedonians’ claims to Macedonia). On the other hand, the results can also be deadly, including the Balkan Wars, the Hungarian and Romanian conflict over Transylvania, and the fighting in the former Yugoslavia that’s never really over. The third great dynamic are the unresolved issues from World War II, in which pro-and-anti-Nazi puppet regimes and resistance groups staged infamous massacres of Jews, ethnic minorities, and each other. In Croatia, great debates continue to rage over whether or not the fascist Ustaše regime slaughtered 700,000 Serbs or “only” 60,000 Serbs.

Added to this tremendous historical mess are the major and minor personalities profiled by Kaplan: Alojzije Viktor Stepinac, Croatian Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop of Zagreb; Slobodan Milošević, the blood-soaked Serbian dictator; Guillermo Angelov, a Bulgarian journalist from Sofia; Andreas G. Papandreou, the Greek socialist economist and politician; Josip Broz Tito, whose malevolent ghost continues to haunt the Balkans; King Carol II of Romania (and his mistress Elena Lupescu, better known as Magda); Corneliu Zelea-Codreanu, the leader of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania; Ion Victor Antonescu, Conducător of Romania and convicted war criminal; the vampiric Nicolae Ceaușescu and his bitch-wife Elena; and too many others besides. Balkan Ghosts is a readable and entertaining introduction to Europe’s most infamous morass. While Kaplan refuses to propose any specific policy objectives, his whirlwind tour of the Balkans makes it clear that it is a most complicated region. It’s to America’s everlasting shame that her senior policy makers didn't heed this insightful analysis prior to choosing sides and dropping bombs.

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