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Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

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From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, the Balkans have been the crucible of the twentieth century, the place where terrorism and genocide first became tools of policy. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and greeted with critical acclaim as "the most insightful and timely work From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, the Balkans have been the crucible of the twentieth century, the place where terrorism and genocide first became tools of policy. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and greeted with critical acclaim as "the most insightful and timely work on the Balkans to date" (The Boston Globe), Kaplan's prescient, enthralling, and often chilling political travelogue is already a modern classic. This new edition includes six opinion pieces written by Robert Kaplan about the Balkans between l996 and 2000 beginning just after the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords and ending after the conclusion of the Kosovo war, with the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power.


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From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, the Balkans have been the crucible of the twentieth century, the place where terrorism and genocide first became tools of policy. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and greeted with critical acclaim as "the most insightful and timely work From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, the Balkans have been the crucible of the twentieth century, the place where terrorism and genocide first became tools of policy. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and greeted with critical acclaim as "the most insightful and timely work on the Balkans to date" (The Boston Globe), Kaplan's prescient, enthralling, and often chilling political travelogue is already a modern classic. This new edition includes six opinion pieces written by Robert Kaplan about the Balkans between l996 and 2000 beginning just after the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords and ending after the conclusion of the Kosovo war, with the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power.

30 review for Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Murtaza

    Someone once told me that this book was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Being a Robert Kaplan apologist I always took this as a bit of colorful hyperbole. After having finally read it however I can see why people feel this way. Bill Clinton was famously seen holding a copy of Balkan Ghosts around the time he made his decision not to intervene in the wars. The book was credited with influencing his thinking that U.S. involvement Someone once told me that this book was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Being a Robert Kaplan apologist I always took this as a bit of colorful hyperbole. After having finally read it however I can see why people feel this way. Bill Clinton was famously seen holding a copy of Balkan Ghosts around the time he made his decision not to intervene in the wars. The book was credited with influencing his thinking that U.S. involvement would be a mistake — stricken as Yugoslavia was with "ancient hatreds". Seeing what a relentlessly negative picture Kaplan paints of the Balkans I can see how it might psychologically influence someone to steer clear of it. This is an ugly, insulting picture of the people of the region that continues to color the world's perception of Yugoslavia. Needless to say, every place in the world has good and bad. One could also travel across America focusing on its worst aspects and worst people and then write a book based on that. It would be a misleading and potentially even dangerous thing to do however if you are an influential writer who commands the attention of the most powerful people in the world. While Kaplan was actually a proponent of intervening in Yugoslavia on "realist" grounds, he should've thought more carefully before publishing this horrifying travelogue. Focusing purely on the negative is a choice and Kaplan's revolting descriptions of the places and people he sees evince a genuine revulsion for Yugoslavs and even the physical world that they inhabit. In Balkan Ghosts, Kaplan is the demagogue he accuses them of being.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Hesper

    Calling this a travelogue doesn't excuse the abject ignorance that characterizes most of the book. Period. The fact that most positive responses seem to come from either people without first-hand knowledge of the Balkans, or Greeks and Bulgarians--Greece and Bulgaria being Kaplan's actual area of expertise--is a significant detail, not to be ignored. There is little historical fact here, and what passes for research might as well have been churned out by a starving Hollywood writer. Kaplan seems Calling this a travelogue doesn't excuse the abject ignorance that characterizes most of the book. Period. The fact that most positive responses seem to come from either people without first-hand knowledge of the Balkans, or Greeks and Bulgarians--Greece and Bulgaria being Kaplan's actual area of expertise--is a significant detail, not to be ignored. There is little historical fact here, and what passes for research might as well have been churned out by a starving Hollywood writer. Kaplan seems intent on perpetuating the most ridiculous stereotypes around, probably because they make better copy than reality.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    First, the positives. The author was a very good writer and engaged in the subject. He obviously cared a great deal for the subject, having traveled and lived there extensively for many years. Now, the negatives, Granted, the premise of the book was the role of history on the development of current Balkan mindset and culture. However, while Kaplan was a good writer, this is where his background as a journalist really hurt the book. instead of telling a good objective story, he looked for the flashy First, the positives. The author was a very good writer and engaged in the subject. He obviously cared a great deal for the subject, having traveled and lived there extensively for many years. Now, the negatives, Granted, the premise of the book was the role of history on the development of current Balkan mindset and culture. However, while Kaplan was a good writer, this is where his background as a journalist really hurt the book. instead of telling a good objective story, he looked for the flashy story or headline. thus every Serb, Croat, Bosnian et al is a hate filled peasant so caught up in the issues of the past that they can't function today. Also it was somewhat offputting the way he described the local communities (to hear him tell it, every Romanian is a sloppy falling down drunk) as well as their grinding poverty. I'd recommend it just in the sense that there is such little material out there about this region of the world.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Steven Godin

    I'd been looking for a good book on Balkan history for quite some time, as it's subject that has always interested me, but one I knew little about, apart from the war in the 90's. A GR member recommended this book, and it turned out to be a fascinating read. The American journalist Robert Kaplan who lived in Athens for a while, and travelled regularly to countries like Bosnia, Croatia, Albania and Moldavia, writes passionately while exploring the exotic and mountainous Balkan peninsula. This I'd been looking for a good book on Balkan history for quite some time, as it's subject that has always interested me, but one I knew little about, apart from the war in the 90's. A GR member recommended this book, and it turned out to be a fascinating read. The American journalist Robert Kaplan who lived in Athens for a while, and travelled regularly to countries like Bosnia, Croatia, Albania and Moldavia, writes passionately while exploring the exotic and mountainous Balkan peninsula. This vividly documented travelogue mixes the details of his trip with an insightful account of the area's history. Balkan Ghosts traces its way through the historically and geographically rich regions of Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia and in doing so outlines how it was that Yugoslavia did not so much as deteriorate suddenly into internecine warfare, but gradually, step by step through the 1980's. He views Romania with it's anguished compromise with invaders, tarnished by years of Turkish rule, Communism, and Nazism, and of Gypsies, deeply woven into the fabric of this region. He tours Transylvania, Bulgaria and Albania, and delves into the Serb-Croat dispute, which he traces partly back to the fascists of WWII. There is simpy a lot going here, with never a dull moment. I have since been told that Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is another really good book on the Balkans that is well worth reading. So hopefully one day I will find out for myself.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    There is very much an 'outsiders' perspective in many ways on the cultural turmoil of the region, but the interviews he does with locals during his travels are really interesting. If only the history pieces didn't seem to have some spin or editorial feel to them. I think as I continue to read on the Balkans and former Yugoslavian region, I will work harder to find works from those native to the area.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Fiona

    I'm glad I persevered with this. The first part which is about Yugoslavia in the late 80s/early 90s is very disjointed and quite difficult to follow in terms of linear events. The second and third sections, about Romania and Bulgaria respectively, are excellent and really informative. The Romanian section visits the country immediately post-Revolution, 1989, and gives a lot of historical background to the different regions which was fascinating. The Bulgarian section covers a period from the I'm glad I persevered with this. The first part which is about Yugoslavia in the late 80s/early 90s is very disjointed and quite difficult to follow in terms of linear events. The second and third sections, about Romania and Bulgaria respectively, are excellent and really informative. The Romanian section visits the country immediately post-Revolution, 1989, and gives a lot of historical background to the different regions which was fascinating. The Bulgarian section covers a period from the early 80s into the 90s, as Kaplan made several trips there during that time. A minor point but I found his statement that male affairs in Bulgaria fulfil 'a deeper need than Western middle-class boredom' difficult to swallow - any excuse, eh? - but he clearly loves the country and has established important connections there. The last section is largely about the politics and cultural ethos of Greece through the 1980s when Kaplan lived there. He goes into quite a lot of detail but it was interesting as I now feel I have more understanding of how Greece has ended up in its current financial crisis. It's only the most recent in a continuous pattern. All in all, this is a very satisfying read and I'm glad I persevered beyond the first section. There is one glaring error which gave me pause for thought. I had spotted this one but what if there were other inaccuracies or errors which I was accepting as fact? Now I see that other reviewers have spotted some. Twice it is stated that the Danube passes through 7 countries but it actually passes through 8. There is a footnote listing the countries and Croatia is omitted. This is a fairly significant error in a book about the Balkans. I've checked if there were border changes since the 1980s which would explain this but there were not. I was on a river cruise in 2012 which moored in Vukovar, otherwise I may not have spotted this error. At the very least, it's shocking editing.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mikey B.

    An interesting portrayal of this tortured area of the meeting place between Europe, Asia and Russia. Even though it is now somewhat out of date it does provide insights of the developments of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The general observations indicate backwardness and poverty in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and what use to be Yugoslavia. These countries have a long way to go to catch up to Western Europe in their housing, transportation, and educational level. Plus there are overwhelming regional An interesting portrayal of this tortured area of the meeting place between Europe, Asia and Russia. Even though it is now somewhat out of date it does provide insights of the developments of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The general observations indicate backwardness and poverty in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and what use to be Yugoslavia. These countries have a long way to go to catch up to Western Europe in their housing, transportation, and educational level. Plus there are overwhelming regional hatreds and these have existed for centuries amongst Croats. Serbians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks – and they all hate Turks. Add to this volatile broth, religious divisions, and we have a primary example of what Samuel Huntington called a fault-line (Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Islam). There are many layers to all these regional animosities. Mr. Kaplan discusses these in his book which is part travelogue and history. I found the travelogue worked better than the history, which was meandering through different centuries and was confusing to follow. One does come away with several variables (language, religion, ethnicity, migrations and invaders) that create a constant rivalry competing for ascendancy. There is a constant sensibility to persecution in these countries. After twenty years of the dissolution of the communist bloc I don’t know how much has improved. His depiction of Greece as a Balkan country and not a European country was most interesting considering the current Euro-fiscal crisis it is undergoing. A passage from page 70: The more obscure and unfathomable the hatred, and the smaller the national groups involved, the longer and more complex the story seemed to grow.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Zuberino

    This is such a dense, intense and wide-ranging book that I fear unless I chop this review up into several pieces I won’t be able to do it any justice. Robert Kaplan was one of the more prominent members of the neocon faction that pushed for the Iraq War in 2003, alongside such forgotten heroes as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. (Ah, Richard Perle – no one knows him now but it was impossible to get on the internet in the early 2000s without bouncing across his florid face...) But I digress. This is such a dense, intense and wide-ranging book that I fear unless I chop this review up into several pieces I won’t be able to do it any justice. Robert Kaplan was one of the more prominent members of the neocon faction that pushed for the Iraq War in 2003, alongside such forgotten heroes as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. (Ah, Richard Perle – no one knows him now but it was impossible to get on the internet in the early 2000s without bouncing across his florid face...) But I digress. Kaplan was one of that bellicose crew, screaming for Saddam's head, and even though he is "reported" to have changed his mind about the war since then, as recently as 2014 he was penning learned screeds in the Atlantic mag in defence of the American empire, etc. *eye-roll* So much for the author’s bona fides. Before all of that Arab sabre-rattling, however, Kaplan made his name in the early 1990s as an unusually fine reporter, making an especially big splash with this book (Balkan Ghosts) on a region that made no fucking sense to anyone in the rest of the world. All we knew at that time was what Christian Amanpour was telling us; all day long she adorned our TV screens from Toronto to Timbuktu, striding down some godforsaken shell-scarred street in Tuzla or Bihac or Banja Luka, looking impeccable in her CNN-funded flak jacket and intoning in that deliciously posh British-Persian accent that no amount of money can buy. Why did that war happen? Why was it as bloody and as protracted and as plain fucking puzzling as it was? Turns out that if you had read this book at the time – which plenty of policymakers in DC actually did – the riddle might have proved to be just a little less insoluble. Balkan Ghosts is divided into four main sections, dealing in turn with Yugoslavia and its components, Romania, Bulgaria and finally Greece. By the second paragraph of the preface, Kaplan has set out his stall, signing himself up as a devotee at the temple of Rebecca West, and reasserting the claim that alongside Lawrence of Arabia’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, Dame West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” constitutes the pinnacle of travel writing in the twentieth century. I can certainly vouch for Lawrence, and it is merely the improbable length of Black Lamb – my copy is literally the size of a brick – that has prevented me from diving into it in the last few years. For a solid primer, though, Balkan Ghosts is excellent. Kaplan is very strong on the virulent strain of victimhood that turned the Serbians into such killing machines in the Bosnian wars. But what did I, or anyone else, know of the fascist Croatian ustashe, who literally stabbed and clubbed to death a hundred thousand Serbs and Jews and Muslims at the Jasenovac concentration camp in WW2? Like a concertina, history folds up so tightly in the folds of those mountains that the humiliation of a defeat in battle six centuries ago can feel just as real today. (See Knez Lazar's coffin flowing through crowded Serbian streets in the late 1980s.) No doubt the Turks gave something to the region in their 500-year dominance – but what exactly? Kaplan quotes West: “The Turks ruined the Balkans, with a ruin so great that it has not yet been repaired.” When you think of all the remnants of the Ottoman empire that are still unsettled today - be it in the Balkans or in the Middle East - you have to wonder what the hell they actually left behind. I tried to tie this together with Kaplan's later advocacy of war in Arabia, but the threads at least in this book are too weak. (Kaplan also makes a telling point about the Armenian genocide - it was the Turks' only way of gaining absolute numerical supremacy in central Anatolia, the Armenians being the only other competitors in that region.) But perhaps anyone who went into the accursed Balkan mountains was always on a hiding to nothing. The Habsburgs realized this to their cost on Sarajevo’s Appel Quay in June 1914. But just consider the countless nationalities – Serb, Croat, Bosnian, Albanian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, plus Greek, Bulgar and Magyar– and the religions – Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish – and the competing empires – Ottoman, Russian, Habsburg – packed into this one tiny region, and one wonders how anyone could ever have been so foolhardy! As Kaplan says in despair at the end of an especially fucked up chapter dealing with Gotse Deltchev (Eric Ambler – Judgment on Deltchev!) and Macedonian independence: “The more obscure and unfathomable the hatred, and the smaller the national groups involved, the longer and more complex the story seemed to grow.” You kinda have to feel for the poor guy... Next stop, Romania! * Update: Now done with the book. The chapters on Bulgaria and Greece were short and felt a bit bolted on to be honest, the former seen largely through the medium of a friendship struck up with Guillermo Angelov, a typically compromised journalist going to seed in 1980s Sofia. Even today, Sofia is a pretty seedy place, so it's kind of hard to imagine that it was all that much worse back in the communist 80s. Visiting this time last year, the place and its people felt muted and beaten down in a way that was rather hard to pinpoint. But then, Kaplan quotes Nevill Forbes: "Of all the Balkan peoples, the Bulgarians were the most completely crushed and effaced." The Turks again. There followed wars of independence and of territorial irredentism, which only served to chop up Greater Bulgaria into tiny pieces that were then scattered to the seven winds, leaving behind what was and is in some senses a curtailed country, a resentful rump state that fell eagerly into alliances with the losing side in two world wars. The most notable recent event in my mind is the expulsion of 300,000 Muslim Turks in the late 1980s; for all its so-called human rights implications, it's hard to fault the Bulgarians for this, especially given the ground realities of Europe today. But even without that rationale, cast your mind back 200 or 300 years, as Penkov does in some of his short stories - I think of those women of Bulgaria, the ancestors of today's dazzling long-legged beauties, that lived in fear of kidnap, of becoming one more trophy in some pasha's harem. Whom can you blame? And for what? Greece too is explored via the Byzantine politics of the 1980s, namely the bizarre career of Andreas Papandreou, the Harvard-trained economist and Berkeley department head who turned into a classic Peron-style, anti-American demagogue! Kaplan makes the assertion that Greece is in many more ways a Balkan nation than it is a Western one, and one would say that the 21st-century history of Greece, full of cheating and lying leading to economic depression and lunatic politics, has proved the writer abundantly right. Kaplan does make some optimistic noises on the future of the Greek nation at the end of the book, but from the vantage point of 2017, I find it hard to share them - history is a stone of terrible weight on the chest of any nation. Greece too overreached in the wake of the collapse of the Ottomans, sweeping deep into Anatolia, then being chased all the way by Ataturk back across Asia Minor and back into Europe - I still have to read Panos Karnezis on this, although I did read Bruce Clark a few years ago. Either way, that fatal error led to the extinguishing of 3000 years of Greek culture in Asia Minor, the first mass population transfer of the 20th century, like its first genocide, a gift of the Turks. It's some comfort to know in this 70th year of Partition that Punjab and Bengal were not the only two places to experience such horrors; there was previous. So that nothing remains today of Greek Smyrna, nor indeed of Jewish Salonika. If monoculture is the handmaiden of the nation-state, it has been pursued with a unique ferocity in the Balkans. Last stop remains Romania.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    This is the most Orientalist, irresponsible and downright dangerous piece of writing about the Balkans ever published. Kaplan sees the region as a nest of ancient ethnic hatreds responsible for all of the evils of the world, including Nazism (Hitler learned hatred from the Balkan inhabitants of the flophouses of Vienna, not the thriving Western tradition of anti-semitism apparently). The Nazism of ethnic Germans living in Romania is excused, almost sympathized with, because they were forced to This is the most Orientalist, irresponsible and downright dangerous piece of writing about the Balkans ever published. Kaplan sees the region as a nest of ancient ethnic hatreds responsible for all of the evils of the world, including Nazism (Hitler learned hatred from the Balkan inhabitants of the flophouses of Vienna, not the thriving Western tradition of anti-semitism apparently). The Nazism of ethnic Germans living in Romania is excused, almost sympathized with, because they were forced to live next to a barbaric people. The inhabitants are all worn down by their centuries of ethnic hatreds except for the few standouts who are Westernized (if the person in question is a woman, her degree of civilization is marked by wearing fashionable clothing and shaving her legs, because leg hair or lack thereof is a true sign of intelligence). This book shows nothing of the region I love and that most of my family calls home. Much brutality has happened there, the politics are fraught, our histories are held closer to the heart than in most other places, but there is also much beauty. Kaplan ignores the beauty in the old Orthodox icons, the oral tradition of poetry, traditional music, the ingenuity borne out of poverty and focuses on his agenda which is to prove that the Balkans are the most brutal place on earth. I mentioned at the beginning of the review that this book is dangerous and it is. Beyond peddling tired stereotypes, this book and its description of "ancient ethnic hatreds" was used as justification in the 1990s to allow the Balkan Wars to continue instead of naming what was happening on Bosnia a genocide of innocent people. The logic was that these people have always been killing each other, we might as well continue doing it. The sad thing is this book will be, for many, the introduction to the Balkans. For many, it will be the only thing they ever know. It will be something I have to argue against for the rest of my academic life. I hope there is a day when it is consigned to the scrap pile of history.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Panayoti Kelaidis

    A must read for anyone who has the slightest interest in contemporary history: Kaplan has captured the fantastic complexity of the Balkan politics that have been the root cause of so much world tension and little things like World War I. Each chapter of the book focuses on a key country: Kaplan blends his extensive personal experience there, recapping the threads of historical and cultural issues faced by that country, pointing to future outcomes. Written in the 20th Century, many of Kaplan's A must read for anyone who has the slightest interest in contemporary history: Kaplan has captured the fantastic complexity of the Balkan politics that have been the root cause of so much world tension and little things like World War I. Each chapter of the book focuses on a key country: Kaplan blends his extensive personal experience there, recapping the threads of historical and cultural issues faced by that country, pointing to future outcomes. Written in the 20th Century, many of Kaplan's predictions have come about since the book was published. As a Greek American, I was particularly intrigued with his recap of contemporary Greek politics: his analysis of Andreas Papandreou is chilling and seemingly spot on. He nails the "Greek" question. I am swayed by Kaplan's premise, that the Balkans are still mired in the drama of Oriental despotism, that the Balkans have a long way to go to achieve a democratic society where ethnic minorities and the dominant majorities are able to be ruled by law rather than the whim of history and charismatic dictators. Spellbinding: a modern classic.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    This is a rather lurid telling of the history of the Balkans by an author invested in the United States military establishment. While it is well written, the perspective is fatalistic and pessimistic, particularly as regards the Yugoslavs. In other books written since he became popular as a darling of the neocons, Kaplan endorses an amoral approach to foreign policy in the American interest. I personally find this us/them approach highly offensive yet representative of how US affairs are usually This is a rather lurid telling of the history of the Balkans by an author invested in the United States military establishment. While it is well written, the perspective is fatalistic and pessimistic, particularly as regards the Yugoslavs. In other books written since he became popular as a darling of the neocons, Kaplan endorses an amoral approach to foreign policy in the American interest. I personally find this us/them approach highly offensive yet representative of how US affairs are usually conducted. As regards Yugoslavia, there was no necessity to the violent breakup of the country in the early nineties by my reading of history. It was people like Kaplan and his ilk, petty nationalists, who led it towards their own perceived benefits much like Yeltsin had done to the USSR for his own sake and that of the Russia he identified with. I first saw this book at my former sister-in-law's home in Sawyer, Michigan and started reading it there before buying myself a copy.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    Not the best travel book about the Balkans. I think it got an unfair boost when Clinton was seen reading it. It's jumpy in rhythm and conclusions. Kaplan makes acute observations and extrapolates them to be indicative of an entire culture the way any traveler might, but as a travel writer I think he should have delved deeper before jumping to some of his conclusions. Also, because the book is really more a composition of articles from the Atlantic than a travelogue, it is often repetitive, using Not the best travel book about the Balkans. I think it got an unfair boost when Clinton was seen reading it. It's jumpy in rhythm and conclusions. Kaplan makes acute observations and extrapolates them to be indicative of an entire culture the way any traveler might, but as a travel writer I think he should have delved deeper before jumping to some of his conclusions. Also, because the book is really more a composition of articles from the Atlantic than a travelogue, it is often repetitive, using the same details to illustrate and re-illustrate the same point. Maybe his editor fell asleep reading it. Better than most though, very contextualized and discusses the people of the countries in good detail as he was able to interact with many.

  13. 5 out of 5

    George

    A rather dark overview of the Balkans, but once the book of choice for those venturing into Europe's heart of darkness in the 90's, the former republic of Yugoslavia, and trying to get a basic grasp of the peoples and issues on the plane ride in. I read it on the road to Kosovo, during the war there between the KLA and the Yugoslav Army. There are better books, if you're willing to spend quality time reading them, but if you're just trying to establish a base line to draw from, this will do A rather dark overview of the Balkans, but once the book of choice for those venturing into Europe's heart of darkness in the 90's, the former republic of Yugoslavia, and trying to get a basic grasp of the peoples and issues on the plane ride in. I read it on the road to Kosovo, during the war there between the KLA and the Yugoslav Army. There are better books, if you're willing to spend quality time reading them, but if you're just trying to establish a base line to draw from, this will do nicely.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Brent

    not as helpful as I would have liked when trying to learn about the history of the Balkans...

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cyrus Carter

    The first 3/4 of the book is a delight as Mr. Kaplan recounts personal encounters through most of the Balkans in a prescient account before the strife of the early through late 1990s. However, he stumbles when he gets to Greece. Perhaps for the self-stated reason that he spent 7 years there, he loses his story-telling ability and even his objectivity. For example, after talking about the ethnic homogenization of the region, he writes only TWO sentences on the population exchange between Greece The first 3/4 of the book is a delight as Mr. Kaplan recounts personal encounters through most of the Balkans in a prescient account before the strife of the early through late 1990s. However, he stumbles when he gets to Greece. Perhaps for the self-stated reason that he spent 7 years there, he loses his story-telling ability and even his objectivity. For example, after talking about the ethnic homogenization of the region, he writes only TWO sentences on the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s. Shame on him - this was the first systematic ethnic cleansing agreed to by world powers and used as precedent for years to come, leading to what we now refer to as ethnic cleansing. Mr. Kaplan's final chapter on Greece is sadly lacking in the very objectivity that he accuses the philhellenes of lacking. Well-written. Hardly objective.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Simmons

    Though I would not use Kaplan's book as a policy manual for How To Understand the Balkans (and he makes it clear in his preface that he never meant it to be considered as such), it made for an engaging and sometimes eye-opening travel companion during my recent trip through the area. On p. 57 Kaplan writes that "Macedonia, the inspiration for the French word for 'mixed salad' (macedoine), defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands Though I would not use Kaplan's book as a policy manual for How To Understand the Balkans (and he makes it clear in his preface that he never meant it to be considered as such), it made for an engaging and sometimes eye-opening travel companion during my recent trip through the area. On p. 57 Kaplan writes that "Macedonia, the inspiration for the French word for 'mixed salad' (macedoine), defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached its zenith of ancient medieval expansion." Considering Serb claims to the lands of Kosovo (which date back to a lost battle in 1389), and Bulgarian claims about Macedonia, and Serb/Croat claims about Bosnia, and Greek and Turkish claims about Cyprus, it's hard to argue with this kind of observation.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Charly

    A bit torn. I eagerly devoured the history between these pages, but at the same time, his writing lacked both balance and technical panache. His view of the Orient was alarmingly one-sided and laughably out-of-date. I did feel, however, that certain essays in here (that's all it really is, a collection of travel essays and op-eds) are worth the price of admission. (I liked most of those on Romania and Bulgaria ... his views on Greece and Albania and especially Kosovo just rubbed me the wrong A bit torn. I eagerly devoured the history between these pages, but at the same time, his writing lacked both balance and technical panache. His view of the Orient was alarmingly one-sided and laughably out-of-date. I did feel, however, that certain essays in here (that's all it really is, a collection of travel essays and op-eds) are worth the price of admission. (I liked most of those on Romania and Bulgaria ... his views on Greece and Albania and especially Kosovo just rubbed me the wrong way.) Very mixed bag.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Janez

    I still stand by what I have written about this book in 2013. However, I'm rating it with three stars as I quite disagree with the author's Western/American stereotypes on communism and on Eastern Europe. I'm the last person to defend the communism, but all was not bad, as was, and still is, shown by deep-to-the core realistic capitalists, of whom Mr. Kaplan is a prime exemple!!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    This book completely fails to understand the nature of Balkan conflict. It does a disservice to all who read it, perpetuating the false notion of causal "ancient ethnic hatreds." While it has other issues, a good corrective to this general mindset can be found in "The Myth of Ethnic War," by VP Gagnon.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tubs

    quick thoughts: 1. i expected this book to cover primarily (the former) yugoslavia. while the first section focused on yugoslavia, it was very weak compared to the final sections on romania, bulgaria, and greece. it feels maybe tacked on simply because ethnic conflicts were so obviously escalating in the early 1990s. kaplan is clearly more comfortable and knowledgeable about romania, bulgaria, and greece. thus: 2. the sections on romania, bulgaria, and greece were great, and they helpfully quick thoughts: 1. i expected this book to cover primarily (the former) yugoslavia. while the first section focused on yugoslavia, it was very weak compared to the final sections on romania, bulgaria, and greece. it feels maybe tacked on simply because ethnic conflicts were so obviously escalating in the early 1990s. kaplan is clearly more comfortable and knowledgeable about romania, bulgaria, and greece. thus: 2. the sections on romania, bulgaria, and greece were great, and they helpfully broadened my personal definition of the balkans. romania and especially bulgaria are two countries to which i've rarely given any thought, but kaplan's descriptions of the history and culture of those countries brought them to life for me. 3. he also makes a perceptive and persuasive argument that greece, while known as the birthplace of Western culture, is equally, if not more so, part of the Eastern world. he convincingly portrays greece as being of a piece with its balkan neighbors. his tale of greece in the 80s is frankly shocking. it makes me wonder how greece ever convinced the EU to allow it to join, and it explains a lot about how greece got itself into its current fiscally disastrous situation. 4. this book was depressing in its depiction of the depravities of human behavior (mass rape, mass murder [or more accurately slaughter in the case where 200 romanian jews were literally processed in a slaughterhouse:], mass deportation, mass forced religious conversion, mass corruption, mass poverty, not to mention centuries-old vendettas, border disputes, ethnic and religious conflicts, etc.). but it was also somehow grimly satisfying to see the consistency, if nothing else, in humanity's cruelty over time. kaplan humanizes (if that's the right word - probably not) the long history of these innumerable atrocities by depicting them as an evil yet natural and inevitable outcome of humanity's flawed nature. far from excusing or explaining away these atrocities by citing human nature, kaplan's book uses these atrocities as a damning indictment of human nature. you can't help but wonder what you'd have done, had you been born and raised in the circumstances described in this book. balkan ghosts sadly lays bare the full, ugly truth of what humanity is capable of. it's not pretty, but i feel somehow better seeing the full truth. 5. also, it really makes me want to find out what plum brandy tastes like.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Andrea Homier

    This was a challenging book that was not what I expected, but I found so much fascinating material here that I am glad to have pushed through. My knowledge of the Balkans is in its toddler stage, but Kaplan's work expanded it significantly, not only through an exploration of its history, but also through an exposition of what Balkanism is and is not, not only where the ever-changing political boundaries reside, but where culture melds and isolates, temperament thickens and thins, where East This was a challenging book that was not what I expected, but I found so much fascinating material here that I am glad to have pushed through. My knowledge of the Balkans is in its toddler stage, but Kaplan's work expanded it significantly, not only through an exploration of its history, but also through an exposition of what Balkanism is and is not, not only where the ever-changing political boundaries reside, but where culture melds and isolates, temperament thickens and thins, where East meets West. I read that this book is a compilation of articles first published in The Atlantic, although the attempt was made to make a cohesive volume. That attempt was not successful, and it explains the sense of traveling through the region without a road map or purpose and the unevenness of the coverage. I was surprised to find the countries of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece included, both because I was ignorant and because Kaplan's thesis pushes the broader boundaries. Writing on the Yugoslav countries is the smallest section of the book, and it appears that it is the area of which Kaplan has least experience. The constitution and title of the book as Balkan political history and travelogue is an intellectual reframing for many, even now, 23 years after its publication, and had Kaplan's editor required more direct exposition on on that very point, it would have helped to unite the sections that feel as if they are books within the book. Certainly, more current reading is required, but Kaplan provides a sweeping historical outline that encompasses ancient through 20th century history, as well as insightful looks at others' historical, literary and cultural examinations of the Balkans, including those of Rebecca West, C.L. Sulzberger, Joseph Brodsky, Eric Ambler, Bram Stoker, Lawrence Durrell, Jules Dassin, Procopius, Elias Canetti, Adolph Hitler, and the Holy Bible, to name just a few. His broad reading, thought, and creation of a thesis of the essence of Balkanism, along with his personal experiences of traveling and living in Romania, Bulgaria and Greece are what I found most intriguing and of the greatest depth. I give Balkan Ghosts four stars because I found the region fascinating and Kaplan writes well about it, even as the book itself is disjointed.

  22. 4 out of 5

    John Ross

    This is a three and one-half star book; I rounded down to three because I couldn't force myself to round up as I typically would. I read this book was because it was on the need-to-read list for my upcoming Road Scholar trip to Croatia. On the positive side, the book gives a good feel and flavor for the ethnic, religious, and political complexities for those countries it addresses -- the Balkan states, e.g. Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Old Serbia, Albania, Macedonia. (The author also includes This is a three and one-half star book; I rounded down to three because I couldn't force myself to round up as I typically would. I read this book was because it was on the need-to-read list for my upcoming Road Scholar trip to Croatia. On the positive side, the book gives a good feel and flavor for the ethnic, religious, and political complexities for those countries it addresses -- the Balkan states, e.g. Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Old Serbia, Albania, Macedonia. (The author also includes Greece in this group - he has his reasons.) The author mixes stories from individuals he's met in those countries with enough historic background to deepen the reader's understanding, all without getting boring. On the negative side, the book is very dated, it's mostly written around 1990, just after the fall of the USSR. And although the author groups the chapters by the various countries, it is still somewhat disjointed as his story telling skips around from time period to time period. (The stories he relates are often from different time periods,as he has been to many of these countries more than once over about a 20 year period.) Overall, I'm glad I read it, although the subject matter cries for an updated version of this interesting topic: the Balkan states.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    Though this book is now quite dated, it provided a good insight for me into several aspects of the history and culture of several Balkan nations. My own connection with Bulgaria led me to read that section first, but I found quite a bit of interesting material in other sections as well - particularly in the author's discussion on Greece during the 1980s, since I was there as a child at the same time as the author (my father was in the USAF). Much of my recollection is inaccurate, as childhood Though this book is now quite dated, it provided a good insight for me into several aspects of the history and culture of several Balkan nations. My own connection with Bulgaria led me to read that section first, but I found quite a bit of interesting material in other sections as well - particularly in the author's discussion on Greece during the 1980s, since I was there as a child at the same time as the author (my father was in the USAF). Much of my recollection is inaccurate, as childhood recollections usually are, and Kaplan's writing helped to fill in some of the information gaps - not to mention give meaning to some of the things I was aware of, but did not fully understand. I recommend this to anyone who has interest in the Balkan peninsula, or contemporary world history.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    A friend gave me this book as I deployed in B-H during SFOR/IFOR. This is essential reading to understand this turbulent area. The book is dark and brooding while not all the Balkans are quite so depressing. Romania was a delight and Bulgaria was a fine stay. Read this but don't write the area off.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nora Rawn

    I truly don't understand how this was a best book of the year, except that it was timely to the sectarian conflicts of the 90s and that the author had been carefully probing the resentments of the region long before. Otherwise, the book is marred by a constant refrain against the 'oriental' east, from its religion to the character of the people. Kaplan seems to think it's the nature of the peasants to lead to such violence (he has no nice view of the former peasant class, either), rather than a I truly don't understand how this was a best book of the year, except that it was timely to the sectarian conflicts of the 90s and that the author had been carefully probing the resentments of the region long before. Otherwise, the book is marred by a constant refrain against the 'oriental' east, from its religion to the character of the people. Kaplan seems to think it's the nature of the peasants to lead to such violence (he has no nice view of the former peasant class, either), rather than a natural tension of so many different groups sharing a small region. When a writer is even orientalizing Dostoevsky, there's a problem.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    Super engaging! I rarely have the "not wanting to put the book down-- staying up too late reading" experience with nonfiction but I did with this book. I learned a TON about the history of the Balkans. I only with Kaplan was able to get out of his West-centric view a bit more. He gives context and description, and clearly feels connected to the Balkans. Still, at the end of the day he judges the people he interacts with from a place of assumption that the ways of the west are the best. It took Super engaging! I rarely have the "not wanting to put the book down-- staying up too late reading" experience with nonfiction but I did with this book. I learned a TON about the history of the Balkans. I only with Kaplan was able to get out of his West-centric view a bit more. He gives context and description, and clearly feels connected to the Balkans. Still, at the end of the day he judges the people he interacts with from a place of assumption that the ways of the west are the best. It took me out of the narrative a bit.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tomi

    Part travelogue, part history, this book takes you on a tour of the Balkans in the early 1990s. This area is where so much of 20th century history began. The people there do not forget and they do not forgive; their ghosts continue to influence life. We should pay more attention to these nations.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Phillip

    4.0 / 5.0. VERY INSIGHTFUL AND EERILY PRESCIENT GIVEN BALKAN DEVELOPMENTS POST PUBLICATION. BRINGS THE PAST ALIVE IN THE PRESENT FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE COMPETING TRIBES OF THE REGION. EXCELLENT WRITING

  29. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Tedious. Very tedious.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Dawson

    A masterpiece that haunted me for days. Balkan Ghosts perfectly blends the sins of the past with an eye to the future. Can't recommend it enough.

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