Book Review: The Balkans 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers

By Misha Glenny

In this one volume Misha Glenny has courageously attempted the near impossible, conveying a broad account, with its inherent complexities, of two centuries of turbulent Balkan history.
The scope is as grandiose and ambitious as the Great Powers expansionist designs on the Balkans themselves, every major theme can be found here as well as every peripheral one I could care to think of as I read, with useful and consistent attempts to provide explanations, not only of the significance of the major themes in their internal Balkan context, but also of their relationships to the greater European powers as well.

Price: £12

Publication Date: 2000 (Granta Books, London)

ISBN: 1-86207-073-3

The books opening chapter 'A confederacy of Peasants'  does a good job at putting all the peoples of the Balkans in the context of their existence within the Ottoman Empire. As the 'sick man of Europe' limps to its nursing home from page 70 to 307 we see how the Balkan peoples were gradually exposed to crucial reforms, decay and great power politics - in two chapters split geographically between the north (an 'empire of illusions') and southern Balkans (a 'maze of conspiracy') for a greater understanding of why this is an important distinction. Personally I enjoyed the authors treatment of the Treaty of San-Stefano/Congress of Berlin and why the occupation (and later annexation) of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary was significant in the roots of Balkan nationalist movements and the author clearly traces and justifies their place amongst the origins of the First World War. Subsequent chapters take us through the experience and legacy of the Great War, the royal dictatorships of the interwar period, the occupation and genocides of World War Two, liberation and communism culminating in the new nationalism of the late eighties, civil war and the involvement of NATO.

While there was no point in the book (in the middle or towards the end etc) where my interest waned or it felt like a chapter/period in history was just something I wanted to get through to get somewhere else, I do now find myself having some difficulty in deciding what I'm going to do with this book now I have read it for the basic experience of the book and its author themselves.
The author is obviously required to amass a vast amount of material for a project of this scope presenting them to the reader in chronological order, and I personally love this style of what is essentially a narrative permeated with analysis - when the two are done well they achieve a symbiosis which is sumptuous to read and can transcend the requirements of the reader. However I did not feel Glenny had quite achieved this here, the depth of analysis varies greatly and the author gives the impression of  often rushing to express moral judgements (where there should be analysis) on as yet unsettled historic debates. While this may be understandable as the author is a journalist not a historian, it may very well result in the general reader - who presumably is not as interested in the details of every uprising or ethnic group - never quite gaining an impression of the big picture and someone like myself, who might want to refer to Glenny's findings or his conclusions on an event or aspect of  Balkan history, having no real analysis of note to draw upon.

So what has this book become, and what do I use it for now other than displaying it neatly on my bookshelf? Well the book is still very recommendable to any casual reader seeking to obtain an understanding of all the essential dynamics that have shaped the region's past and present. For those already acquainted with Balkan history, Misha Glenny's book may still serve as a very useful chronological reference guide or to get a broad understanding before attempting to move on to works dealing with more specific issues in Balkan history.

Given my somewhat ambiguous conclusion as to whether this book can be classed as a 'noodle scratcher' or one to 'accompany Hob Nobs' all I can say is consult the above conclusion to see where your own needs fit in -otherwise get some Hob Nobs.