Saturday, April 13, 2013

Balkan Ghosts

“So foul a sky clears not without a storm.”
— Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, 4.2.108

My childhood featured a couple major actions by U.S. armed forces: the Gulf War and the U.S.-led NATO involvement in the Bosnian War.  The former was broadcast into our living rooms, and I remember watching live footage of bombs hitting Baghdad while preparing for my dad's birthday celebrations.  The second was a smaller operation and much less well understood in the U.S.  As a teenager, I know I certainly didn’t get it.  What probably brought that war home for Americans was when Capt. Scott O'Grady was shot down, survived for a few days on bugs and other gross stuff like that, and was rescued by marines.  It was nothing short of miraculous that the story had a happy ending.  It also made people, myself included, pay more attention to a little-known and little-understood part of the world.

Book cover.Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan (ISBN: 978-0-312-42493-0), is self-styled as a travelogue, but is more akin to a feature story in a national magazine on current affairs.  Kaplan weaves his extensive travels and living experience in the region and the accompanying interviews and everyday events with historical perspective and the relevant biographical information pertaining to the important figures in the Balkans’ history, his “ghosts.”  Kaplan’s definition of the Balkans is a bit wider than most Americans’, so not only the former Yugoslavia, but Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, too, are included in the discussion of this fascinating geographical region.  Each country and each nation (ethnic group) has a few figures in its past who lived in such a way and made decisions in such a way as to continue to influence the way things are done and the way people think.  With the exception of Greece, the Balkans also deal with a specter of a different type, the continued need to deal with the harsh consequences of communist dictatorships that broke people and destroyed countries immediately after the Nazis and fascism gave the same thing a whirl.  It’s worth noting that the Nazis followed right on the heels of the Hapsburgs, who were, in most people’s estimation, better rulers than the succeeding ones, but on occasion no less ruthless.  The great figures and great histories of the various peoples are presented with all the raw emotion that is associated with Balkanization, and Kaplan points out that since the histories are great, the people pick those moments when their histories were at an apex and claim that cultural, linguistic, and territorial summit as the way things should be now before any other discussions can be had.  It puts them all in a hard place, but Kaplan argues that considering all the things these groups of people and these countries have been through, there’s really no way but up, although, as his reference to Shakespeare alludes to, it might be a painful process.

I thought the book was a good read, although I was slightly disappointed by a couple things.  One was that the book had received so much press, I thought it was going to blow my socks off, and it didn’t.  The other was that although Kaplan makes a convincing argument for including Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece in his book because of their obvious geographical location but also because of their similar historical paths and current problems, I was hoping for something that focused more on the American definition of the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia.  Still, I think I came away with a little more understanding of the region currrently and a much better understanding of its history.  Like all people European and Asian, the Slavs of southeastern Europe know and appreciate their history.  The troubles in the Balkans are one of those cases where that appreciation goes too far.  There are endless debates about European and American culture and which is better.  I typically fall on both sides of the debate, preferring to pick and choose what I like from both.  Americans’ propensity to not worry so much about the past and get on with today is something the Balkan nations could learn from.  In the meantime, Kaplan has opened the door and illuminated a few feet beyond the threshold of an exotic and unexplored (at least, by me) world that is only barely removed from the Europe and Russia that I know.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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