Overview

Overview of the Balkans :: Books

General reading

This page covers all types of writing except for travel guidebooks, which are listed on a separate page. The selection is not intended to be exhaustive or even systematic. I have included only books that I have read myself, so the list reflects my own reading interests over the last few years, and includes several books I stumbled across while browsing in second-hand book shops.

Books about specific modern countries are listed in the individual country sections.

1. Books about the Balkans

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The Balkans - Mark Mazower

Just as Europe gave the Balkans the categories with which its peoples defined themselves, so it gave them also the ideological weapons - in the shape primarily of modern romantic nationalism - with which to destroy themselves. Trying to understand the Balkans challenges us to look at history itself as something more than a mirror which we hold up, blocking out the past to reflect our own virtues.

This short book is an ideal introduction to the history of the Balkans. There aren't many names or dates here; instead Mazower looks at the broad patterns of Balkan history, such as the transition from peasant societies to urbanised states. The epilogue On Violence is a robust attack on the idea that the Balkans is a uniquely violent cauldron of ancient hatreds. Highly recommended.

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The Balkans 1804-1999 - Nationalism, War and the Great Powers - Misha Glenny

Nationalist violence knows no eternal enemy. The current enemy is always eternal.

Exactly what the subtitle implies: a history of Balkan politics in the last two centuries. I stress the political aspect; this is a phenomenally detailed book, but within a specific area of history. A recurring theme is the disastrous effect of Great Power intervention in the Balkans, whether motivated by naked greed or cloaked by humanitarian concerns. One of the strengths of a book like this is being able to see the overall patterns of the region's history, which are often obscured by the more conventional histories of single states or nations. At times it can be a little difficult to keep track of the narrative, especially in the early stages as it deals with various peasant uprisings. Overall, though, I think Glenny does a good job of keeping the story flowing with the aid of contemporary quotations and anecdotes (like the story of the drum-playing Bulgarian Tsar). This is a long, dense book, so I'm not sure that I would recommend it if you haven't read anything else about the Balkans, but if you are interested in the region it is a rewarding read.

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Wild Europe - The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers - Bozidar Ježernik

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hundreds and hundreds of Western travellers crisscrossed the Balkans in every direction, but a lot of them did not see it for itself. The land and its people merely served as a kind of mirror in which they saw themselves and noticed, first and foremost, how advanced and civilised they were.

This is a fascinating compilation of travellers' views of the Balkans. On the whole it's a sorry tale of misconceptions and prejudices. Victorian travellers claimed that the bridge at Mostar was built by the Romans - their inability to believe that the Ottomans could have built such an impressive structure led them to err by a millennium and a half. Nineteenth-century travellers commented on the odious habit of spitting in public; but two centuries earlier, when public spitting was the norm in the Western Europe, they were struck by the Turkish practice of not spitting. This book is a sobering read for any outsider trying to interpret the Balkans - it's easy to laugh at the Victorians, but no doubt we are just as much the slaves of our own preconceptions.

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Imagining the Balkans - Maria Todorova

What has been emphasised about the Balkans is that its inhabitants do not care to conform to the standards of behaviour devised as normative by and for the civilized world. The reductionism and stereotyping of the Balkans has been of such degree and intensity that the discourse merits and requires special analysis.

Quoting from a wide range of travellers, journalists, politicians, and Agatha Christie, Todorova analyses the various shades of meaning that have been implied by the words "Balkan" and "balkanisation" in various contexts and eras. It's far from being a one-dimensional tale of "western" ignorance; there are chapters on the varying perceptions of Balkan identity within the countries of the region, and on the recent use of the term "Central Europe" in a way that implies that the Balkans are not quite European.

Unfortunately the book seems to be aimed at academics and is full of theoretical jargon. I found myself struggling words like "realia" and "hypostasis" and phrases such as "it is an intention-led mobilization on the part of the activator". The Introduction is particularly off-putting. Nevertheless I think many general readers will find it worth persevering - the topic is interesting in itself and very helpful in putting other books about the Balkans (such as those on this page) into context.

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Balkan Ghosts - Robert D. Kaplan

Twentieth-century history came from the Balkans. Here men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate. Here politics has been reduced to a level of near anarchy that from time to time in history has flowed up the Danube into Central Europe. Nazism, for instance, can claim Balkan origins. Among the flophouses of Vienna, a breeding ground of ethnic resentments close to the southern Slavic world, Hitler learned to hate.

This is probably one of the best-known recent books about the Balkans, partly because it is said have influenced Bill Clinton's thinking about the crisis in Bosnia, even though only a few pages deal with that country. Kaplan spent several years living and travelling in the Balkans in the late 1980s, at a time when the region was of little interest to the English-speaking world. As a travel book, Balkan Ghosts is reasonably successful, if a little too melodramatic; his journeys in Romanian immediately after the end of Communism are particularly memorable.

Unfortunately the author's travels lead him to draw some highly dubious conclusions about the history and essential character of the Balkans. His descriptions of various atrocities may be fair considered in isolation, but lead to an unbalanced view of history. People who don't fit with his thesis, such as the calm and reasonable citizens he meets in Timişoara, bore him and are declared to be not really Balkan at all. His determination to present the Balkans as the apotheosis of all human evil lead to absurdities such as the passage quoted above, in which a war inflicted on the Balkans (and the rest of Europe) by Germany is somehow supposed to have come from the Balkans.

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Lords of the Horizons - A History of the Ottoman Empire - Jason Goodwin

To the end the Turks were notorious for gravity and politesse. If the empire they built became almost legendary in its immobility, in detail it remained in a state of constant graceful movement, its arcs forever being drawn, its flourishes incessantly produced, its white-hatted and moustachioed janissary soldiers, visitors said, magnificently offering you their bouquets.

Goodwin once walked across Europe to Istanbul, a journey described in On Foot to the Golden Horn. This is a very different kind of book, although the magnetic attraction of Istanbul once again looms large. If you are looking for a straightforward chronological description of the Ottoman years, this is not the book for you. It is a more impressionistic kind of history that aims to convey something of the atmosphere of the Empire, with chapters on topics such as the Ottoman city and the Turkish concept of time. Occasionally his prose strains a little too hard for effect, and the Empire is perhaps over-romanticised, but in general this is a highly readable account.

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A Short History of Byzantium - John Julius Norwich

The Byzantines were human like the rest of us, victims of the same weaknesses and subject to the same temptations, deserving of praise and of blame much as we are ourselves. What they do not deserve is the obscurity to which for centuries we have condemned them. Their follies were many, as were their sins; but much should surely be forgiven for the beauty they left behind them.

Norwich aims to rescue the Byzantine Empire from the neglect to which it has been abandoned in the typical Western view of history. The results are mixed, at least in this abridgement of his three-volume History of Byzantium. The approach is the opposite of Lords of the Horizons; Norwich has been accused of belonging to the "one damn thing after another" school of history writing. Perhaps the book would be better titled "A History of the Byzantine Emperors", as it centres around the Imperial families, with little attempt to describe what life was like in the Empire, or even the artistic achievements cited as justification for studying the topic. Within these limits the royal soap opera makes for a good read, Norwich is a good storyteller and there are plenty of scandals and conspiracies to keep the narrative rattling along.

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2. Books about Yugoslavia

Rather than listing books about the former Yugoslavia in various individual country sections, I have gathered them together here.

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The Impossible Country - Brian Hall

Even intellectuals in Yugoslavia tend to think the truth is not only knowable, but obvious. If you disagreed, you had a motive. Perhaps you were someone's agent. The most charitable interpretation was that you had been duped by the other side.

Hall travelled around Yugoslavia (mainly Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia) in 1991, as the country fell apart. This is not a book of war reportage - the author avoids the front lines and aims to "concentrate on the individuals I met ... I wanted to present them as whole, irreducible, even while they turned each other into caricatures, monsters". In this he succeeds wonderfully, with a succession of touching and economically drawn portraits of the people he meets on his travels.

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Through the Embers of Chaos - Dervla Murphy

Over twenty-five miles I saw only three aged couples, surviving in some clumsily restored corner of a once-comfortable dwelling. I like the silence of naturally uninhabited regions - in fact I need it, the blessing of silence draws me to remote places. But here the silence felt like a curse.

Murphy visited the Western Balkans in 1999 and 2000, travelling mainly by bicycle. As with Hall's earlier book, the strength of Through the Embers of Chaos lies in the accounts of the people she meets along the way; she seems to have a talent for persuading people she has only just met to open their hearts. Not many people in their seventies would undertake to cycle around the mountainous landscapes of Bosnia and Montenegro, but this is far from being a travelogue in the "look at the crazy stuff I did" style; the personal story never detracts from the focus on the places she visits and the people she talks to. I do have some reservations about the frequent criticisms of the role of the "International Community". It probably deserves to be criticised for doing the wrong things at the wrong time, but the author is less than clear about what she believes the right things would have been. Overall, though, a good read for anyone interested in the region.

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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - Rebecca West

We must learn to know the nature of the advantage the universe has over us, which in my case seems to lie in the Balkan Peninsula. It was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey which might explain to me how I shall die, and why.

West spent about six weeks travelling in Yugoslavia in 1937. In the words of a later writer about Yugoslavia, Brian Hall, this prompted her to research "the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, early Christianity, the Catholic-Orthodox schism, the origins and rise of nationalism, the nature of heroism and the nature of Evil (emphatically with a capital E). She came to believe that in Yugoslavia's urgent moral questions could be glimpsed keys to understanding all mankind, all human history and God". The result was this 1100-page classic of travel literature.

Near the start of the book, West criticises earlier English travellers who had visited the Balkans and come back "with a pet Balkan people established in their heart as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer". Identifying the disease was apparently insufficient to prevent her from succumbing to it. She is appropriately sceptical about the self-serving rhetoric of Catholics, Albanians, men, Croats, Turks, Austrians, Muslims, and especially Germans (it needs to be borne in mind that she was writing during the Second World War). Unfortunately she fails to apply the same critical eye to the Serb view of the world, consistently portraying them as a heroic and selfless race brought low by treacherous enemies and ungrateful friends. There are other problems. The reported conversations, especially with her husband, are impossible to believe; and the book is simply too long. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is infuriating but compelling - much like Yugoslavia itself.

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The Death of Yugoslavia - Laura Silber and Allan Little

This book shows that Yugoslavia did not die a natural death. Rather it was deliberately and systematically killed off by men who had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a peaceful transition from state socialism and one-party rule to free-market democracy.

Of the many books describing the disintegration of Yugoslavia, this probably comes closest to being considered a standard reference. As far as I can tell, in contrast to many of those other books, it generally avoids attempting to push a specific agenda. Instead it sets out to document exactly who did what and when, based on detailed research and hundreds of interviews.

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The Companion Guide to Jugoslavia - J.A. Cuddon

A journey down the coast, memorable though it is, gives one a very incomplete idea of the sort of country you are in. The real Jugoslavia lies inland: a wild and primitive terrain of great beauty which shelters some of man's most remarkable achievements in the process of civilising himself.

Strictly speaking this belongs in the Guidebooks section. But as it was written in 1968, with some revisions in the 1970s, the practical information is obviously outdated: "Mules are very useful in the more inaccessible regions. Remember that the saddles will always be wooden". Nevertheless it is of considerable historical interest, particularly for anyone under the impression that the former Yugoslav states are only now being "discovered" as tourist destinations. It presents the author's personal view of a country he clearly loves, but he doesn't shy away from criticising its less attractive aspects. Obviously many things have changed since the book was written, in Yugoslavia more than most places, but it is interesting to see how many descriptions still ring true. Another thing has changed is that modern guidebook writers are rather more politically correct than Cuddon, who is never afraid to generalise. He remarks that the "hardworking, thrifty, somewhat withdrawn and grave" Slovenes are rather like the Scots, neatly invoking one stereotype to explain another.

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3. Other relevant books

The following books are not primarily about the Balkans. I have listed them because they contain some chapters about the Balkans or because I feel that they help to understand the region in a wider context.

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Why Angels Fall - Victoria Clark

Eastern Orthodox Europe - the twin that our Catholic and later Protestant western Europe carelessly lost touch with a millennium ago - is an entity whose separate values, traditions and therefore history we have at best denigrated, at worst ignored.

The author spent two years travelling around the Balkans and other parts of Eastern Europe, talking to priests, monks, and nuns, investigating the modern role of Orthodoxy and particularly its connection with nationalism. Although many of her experiences and interviews are interesting, I am not convinced by some of her broader conclusions about the fundamental differences between the worlds of Orthodox and Western Christianity. The prediction that Romania and Bulgaria would not join NATO or the EU for decades has already been proved wrong.

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Black Sea - Neal Ascherson

[On the Black Sea coast] ethnic tensions were never absent. But it was elsewhere that sweeping moral conclusions were drawn. It was not the Ionian colonists who invented the polarity between 'our civilisation' and 'their barbarism', but wartime intellectuals far away in Athens.

Ascherson does not deal with Bulgaria and Romania in this book, so it has only a tenuous claim to appear in a list of books about the Balkans. However many of its themes, such as the ways in which national identities take shape, are very relevant to Balkan history - this is a book I have returned to several times.

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The Black Sea - Charles King

There is a deep landlubber bias in historical and social research. History and social life, we seem to think, happen on the ground. But oceans, seas, and rivers have a history of their own, not merely as highways or boundaries but as central players in distinct stories of human interaction and exchange.

This is a good complement to Ascherson's book, as it is a more conventional chronological history. By looking at the region from an imaginary viewpoint in the Black Sea, rather than the capital of a nation or empire, King presents historical events in a fresh light.

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Exit into History - Eva Hoffman

History has often seemed thicker, more pressing, and oppressive in Eastern Europe; few lives have been disconnected from it, or unaffected by it.

Hoffman travelled through Eastern Europe in 1990 and 1991 talking to people caught up in the transition from Communist rule. About one third of the book is set in Romania and Bulgaria.

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Independent Spirit - Hubert Butler

We live and think under a nuclear cloud and stretch our brains, built for solving human problems, into thinking cosmically. If sooner or later they fail us, friend and enemy will be destroyed together. How soon can we return to being men, not human adjuncts to machines, and handle again man-size problems? How soon can we escape from the anthill which we have built around ourselves?

The Irish essayist Hubert Butler lived in Yugoslavia for several years in the 1930s and learned Serbo-Croat (among many other languages). In Dubrovnik his path crossed that of Rebecca West (who was also born in Ireland, incidentally) - he appears briefly as "an Irish friend" in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Although both writers were inspired by their travels in Yugoslavia, Butler's precise, controlled essays are worlds apart from her sprawling travelogue. His essays about the Balkans are spread across several collections; eight of them are included in this compilation. See the Links section for more about Butler.

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Europe: An Intimate Journey - Jan Morris

The nostalgia that I felt here [in Trieste] fifty years ago was, I realize now, nostalgia not for a lost Europe, but for a Europe that never was, and has yet to be. But we can still hope and try, and be grateful that we are where we are, in this ever-marvellous and fateful corner of the world.

This is a collection of short pieces inspired by travels to almost every corner of Europe (also published under the title "Fifty Years of Europe"). It expresses better than any other book I have read the pleasure of European travel, and shows that there is no contradiction between appreciation of the continent's diversity and support for its tentative progress towards greater unity.

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Europe: A History - Norman Davies

Despite their differences, all the regions of Europe hold a very great deal in common. They are connected by every sort of political, economic, and cultural overlap and interaction. Their fundamental unities are no less obvious than their manifest diversity.

The task of telling the history of the entire content seems almost impossible, but Davies carries it off with panache. He explicitly tries to avoid a partial view of European history, aiming to give equal weight to all parts of the continent from East to West. It's a very readable book, with sweeping continental panoramas offset by whimsical details. One quibble: Davies implies that Bran Castle was owned by Vlad the Impaler, a claim that seems to owe more to the Romanian Tourist Board than to historical research.

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The Pillars of Hercules - Paul Theroux

A map was not much good here - maps are one of the casualties of war, the single purpose of which is to rewrite them.

Many travellers hate Theroux, seeing him as a self-obsessed moaner. I disagree: although I'm not sure if I would want to travel with him, I enjoy his travel books. This is one of my favourites. Theroux's circumnavigation of the Mediterranean includes memorable visits to Croatia (in the midst of war) and Albania (in the midst of chaos).

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History of the Present - Timothy Garton Ash

The great drive for the 'construction of Europe' after 1945 came out of the traumatic experience in the Second World War, together with its preceding and succeeding horrors. Have we learned nothing? Are we so complacent and short-sighted that it has needed another war before we start doing what we should already have done?

Garton Ash wrote about Central and Eastern Europe throughout the 1990s and clearly feels passionate about the future of the whole continent. Although he spends more time in Central Europe than the Balkans, his essays on the latter provide useful insights about the place of the Balkans in the European context.

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More background reading: individual countries