Top critical review
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A solid work on a complex history
on July 31, 2005
THE BALKANS: A SHORT HISTORY by Mark Mazower is part of a lovely series of small, attractively designed and published books by Modern Library called Chronicles. This book, while short (156 pages), is chock-a-block with information on the Balkans going back to the beginnings of the Ottoman empire in the region, and including not just the former Yugoslavia, but also Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. (It also includes a handy timeline in the beginning in 330 C.E. with the founding of Constantinople and ends in 1999 with the war in Kosovo between NATO states and Serbia.) The chapters, while assembling information on the history and region chronologically, also provide thematic studies on religious life, national identity, crime, politics and the effects of Empire in the Balkans (there's that word again!). "The Land and its Inhabitants" is the first chapter and goes back to deal with foundational issues of regional politics, religion and custom. "Before the Nation" is about the self-identities of Balkan residents before nation states separated people by ethnicity (and some of Mazower's assertions are surprising if seen through today's anti-Turk frame in the region, that Balkan Orthodox peoples felt more loyalty toward the Ottoman regime than toward Catholocism). "Eastern Questions" deals with the end of both the Ottoman empire in Europe and the end of the Habsburg dynasty, and "Building the Nation-State" sees the course of these non-nationalist people through to the Croatia-for-the-Croatians type of mentality in the region of the 1990s.
The book's jewels, I think are the introduction, "Names" and the epilogue, "On Violence" which seek to catch the reader in Balkan assumptions, shattering them and facilitating real learning. In the latter, Mazower asserts that it isn't age-old prejudices that caused the Balkan war of the 1990s, and that Balkan people are not a thing apart from Western Europeans or Americans. Mazower cautions that dismissing Balkan violence as isolated to the Balkans is self-serving for Westerners as well as blinding.
I think this is a good, but densely packed, work on the region's history, with new insights and supporting information. Mazower makes fine use of observations by travelers of the time in the Balkans to support the lens through which he views the region and make it lively. I recommend it.