What are some good books on the modern history of the Balkans?
March 30, 2011 9:40 AM   Subscribe

What are some informative sources on the modern history of the Balkans?

I was reading a recent blue post only to realize my ignorance of the subject was crippling my understanding. Most of all I'd like sources that explain the political situation leading up to the Bosnian War. I realize that this is a rather broad topic so any starting points would be welcome. I'll probably end up turning this into a summer reading project so a long bibliography would be most welcome.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The classic is Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which isn't exactly up to the minute, but as historical background, vital.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:51 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For something not so straight ahead, try Suffled How it Gush, a Balkan punk travelogue. There's a lot of real first hand experience, it's footnoted with opinionated commentary on the more canonical writing on the Balkans, so could potentially help guide you to other readings, and it's just fun storytelling.
posted by serazin at 9:58 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts.

There's some other book that was written in the 19th Century, more of a Balkan travelogue, that one of my professors recommended a long time ago, but I can't remember the name of it.
posted by chengjih at 10:07 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I took a bunch of classes on the Balkans when I was an undergrad. Unfortunatly my alma mater as chosen to password protect syllabi, but the Amazon page for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon suggest a few more that I remember reading - Bridge on the Drina and the Misha Glenny book. There were a bunch more but I can't remember them know.

If you want to know about Slovene privatization though I've got a list as long as my arm.
posted by JPD at 11:10 AM on March 30, 2011

Best answer: That's in addition to Balkan Ghosts. And oh - this weighty tome
posted by JPD at 11:12 AM on March 30, 2011

Best answer: I found Misha Glenny's The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999 to be a helpful starting point in getting a handle on modern Balkan history.

If the political stuff gets a bit dry and you'd like more personal histories, This is Serbia Calling: Rock 'n' Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance is a favorite of mine, as is everything I've read by Slavenka Drakulić.

chengjih, my guess is that your professor recommended Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I'm adding Suffled How It Gush to my own reading list. Thanks, serazin.
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:01 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Slavenka Drakulic's They Would Never Hurt A Fly. Although it starts at the tribunal in the Hague, Drakulic does a masterful job of conveying what the conflicts in the Balkans were all about. Not a comprehensive history but a great read, with lots of thought given to how ordinary men in a unified country turn into monsters with violent hatred for their neighbours.
posted by grounded at 12:20 PM on March 30, 2011

Best answer: EvaDestruction, yes, I think that's it, given Amazon's description of the book. I guess I misremembered the century, just that it was well before current events (or at least before Communist Yugoslavia).
posted by chengjih at 2:03 PM on March 30, 2011

Best answer: In the foreword to Suffled How It Gush, the author talks about how hard it is to find books about the Balkans that aren't pushing one agenda or another. He mentions Black Lamb and Grey Falcon specifically as being biased and unreliable (it is beautifully written, though). He recommends Yugoslavia Dismembered by Catherine Samary as "an excellent, concise anti-nationalist summary of Yugoslavia's recent history"; it's a little dry, but very informative.
posted by twirlip at 4:49 PM on March 30, 2011

Best answer: Reading about Balkan history is like wandering into a labyrinth of mirrors. Pretty much any book is pushing some agenda (as already touched on by twirlip above), and as soon as you think you understand something another person will run up and tell you you've swallowed lies and propaganda. It's a bit like, I imagine, if you wanted to spend the summer reading the history of Israel and Palestine -- long roots and HELLA CONTENTIOUS.

To start out disagreeable, I personally find Slavenka Drakulic whiny, and consider Balkan Ghosts to be a bunch of lazy-journalist regurgitated prejudices and myths in a bag.

On the contemporary fiction side -- and in some ways fiction is an easier way to start getting a grasp on these topics -- I recommend
Dubravka Ugresic, who is a good writer, interested in the human mind -- I linked to one of her better-known novels.
Sarajevo Blues by Semezdin Mehmedinovc, which has some interesting nonfiction stuff about watching Sarajevo disintegrate, written as short stories;
The Question of Bruno, ditto, brilliant, haunting, although Alexander Hemon wasn't really in Sarajevo during the war -- he was in Chicago when it broke out and got marooned far from home
Dictionary of the Khazars is super-beautiful and weird and has the hall-of-mirrors effect down pat; it made me think of Borges and my favorite fairytales and general feelings of bewilderment. After the author died I was terribly sad, and then people said he was actually a Serbian hate propagandist, which in the end just feels like another hall-of-mirrors effect.
Sarajevo Marlboro is just flat out a great book of short stories, set near/in Sarajevo during the war

All right then, for history:
A Paper House is a really good starter book to help you understand who the various constituent people in Yugoslavia were, right before things broke out in the 90s; it went out of print but you can get it for a quarter and it's easy to read and not hateful. I highly recommend it.
The Balkans by Mark Mazower is a big-sweep history of the whole area over centuries, short and dense but learned and clever, and helps one understand the long term history/geography in a way that puts the awful recent stuff into context
The Serbs by Tim Judah gives some "low-platitude" background on the Serbs and how the recent wars came about; he is one of the better writers I've read on the subject, though I like his Kosovo book even better. (I'd recommend that, but if you're interested in Bosnia you probably don't want to get confused w/Kosovo right away.)
Oh and finally!
Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco, a giant historical comic book drawn by an American-Maltese cartoonist/journalist who was in Bosnia during the war. It's very distressing, but you'll learn a lot fast.

I've been thinking of doing a ten-cent explanation of the Balkan wars myself with pictures and drawings, but I sort of figured that nobody was curious any more, and also I'm afraid of all the hate mail I worry I'd get from having drawn any conclusions whatsoever ... still, if I do one I'll memail you a link :)
posted by hungrytiger at 6:42 PM on March 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, to make a long answer longer: The reason I don't like "Balkan Ghosts" is because I feel like it peddles hackneyed platitudes about the region, like "those people" and their "intractable hatreds" and "ancient passions," like there's something particularly WILD about THOSE PEOPLE OVER THERE. You know?

Balkan Ghosts was important because it won Clinton over and made him want to commit US forces into the war.

But are "those people" really so unusual with their "intractable hatreds"? I mean, I know they've been at war with each other on and off for a zillion years. But so have France and Germany and England, right, and who's writing about their mysterious atavistic passions???

Stereotype city.
posted by hungrytiger at 6:48 PM on March 30, 2011

I've been thinking of doing a ten-cent explanation of the Balkan wars myself with pictures and drawings, but I sort of figured that nobody was curious any more

I'd love to see something like that, and I bet a lot of other folks would too. Please post it on Mefi Projects or something if you end up doing it.

posted by twirlip at 2:58 AM on March 31, 2011

Best answer: Suffled How it Gush is biased towards anarchism, but at he is at least honest and upfront about it. I am in two minds of With their Backs to their World, there were times when I felt it was just a collection of stereotypes, but there were also sections with real insight. Amazon reviewers seem to be as undecided as me.
posted by Helga-woo at 11:35 AM on March 31, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, this is exactly what I was hoping I'd get.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 8:09 PM on March 31, 2011

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