Review: “The Balkans, 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers” – Misha Glenny

At more than 700 pages long, Misha Glenny’s “The Balkans, 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers” is a powerful and impressively comprehensive history of the Balkans. Beginning with the First Serbian Uprising against Ottoman rule in 1804, Glenny chronologically examines the historical origins of nationalism and the various nation-states in the Balkans, including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, etc. He explores complex and difficult political issues such as the national question in Macedonia, a region inhabited until WWII by Slavs, Greeks, Turks, and Albanians, as well as a large population of Sephardic Jews, Gypsies, and Roma, and the problem of Kosovo, inhabited by ethnic Albanians but also the site of Serbia’s defeat by the Ottoman Empire in 1389 and thus central to Serbian national consciousness. Glenny’s historical narrative provides essential background to many of the historical and recent conflicts that have plagued the Balkans. Glenny’s narrative also challenges assumptions about the source of conflict in the Balkans. According to Glenny, the conflicts that have plagued the Balkans for more than two centuries are not due to primitive tribal hatreds or a greater predisposition to violence among Balkan peoples, but rather to imperialist rivalry among the region’s great powers. The Ottoman Empire/Turkey, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, France, Germany, and Britain have all manufactured or exploited ethnic and religious differences in the Balkans to serve their own agendas.

While offering an excellent history of the Balkans, Glenny’s political analysis leaves much to be desired. A noteworthy example is Glenny’s description of the Austro-Hungarian Empire adopting a “classically Marxist” (p. 275) position towards Bosnia after the latter was annexed in 1908! Another example is Glenny’s objection to using the epithet “monarcho-fascism” to describe the royal dictatorships in the Balkans before and during WWII. According to Glenny, while borrowing the “paraphernalia and rhetoric of Mussolini and Hitler, none were consistently harsh enough” to warrant such a description, a dubious and highly subjective conclusion. Glenny’s description of Leninist “democratic centralism” as the blind adherence to a leader is a wicked distortion of Leninist tactics and Party policy. Finally, Glenny’s obsession with Stalin so typical of Churchillian liberals makes it almost impossible to take seriously his analysis of socialist Yugoslavia. In the last two or three chapters, the book reads like a parrot constantly repeating a word but not understanding it: *Squawk* “Stalin” *Squawk* “Stalinism”. The final chapter lacks any substance at all; it is simply the words “Stalin” and “Stalinism” mixed in with some other noise.