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Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History Hardcover – April, 1993

3.8 out of 5 stars 191 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare now sweeping 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.

This enthralling and often chilling political travelogue fully deciphers the Balkans' ancient passions and intractable hatreds for outsiders. For as Kaplan travels among the vibrantly-adorned churches and soul-destroying slums of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, he allows us to see the region's history as a time warp in which Slobodan Milosevic becomes the reincarnation of a fourteenth-century Serbian martyr; Nicolae Ceaucescu is called "Drac," or "the Devil"; and the one-time Soviet Union turns out to be a continuation of the Ottoman Empire. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Kaplan, an American journalist who lived in Greece for seven years, is a gifted writer with a marvelous feel for the exotic, woolly, mountainous Balkan peninsula. This vividly impressionistic travelogue splices a long trip in 1990 with sojourns in the '80s and forays into history, resulting in an unpredictable adventure that illuminates the Balkan nations' ethnic clashes and near-anarchic politics. Kaplan dwells on Greece's modern political culture, which, he shows, has much closer ties to the multiethnic Balkans than is generally acknowledged. He views Romania's history as a long, desperate compromise with a succession of invaders, marred by decades of Turkish rule, Nazism and Communism. He talks with Gypsies, scales steep Baroque cities, tours Transylvania, Bulgaria and Albania and visits the remnant Jewish community of Salonika, which was decimated by the Nazis. Kaplan ( Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan ) sheds light on the Serb-Croat dispute, which he traces in part back to Croatia's fascists of WW II and to the Vatican's perceived stirring up of anti-Semitic feelings among Croats. He finds seeds of civil war germinating in Yugoslavia, where he confronts "the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory." Photos.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 307 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (April 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312087012
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312087012
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (191 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #367,342 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
When I first read this book, I thought it was great. That was four years ago (I was the ignorant reader of my review title). Since then I have completed a Masters in History studying the way the New York Times and Le Monde covered the Bosnian war (not very well), for which I read the academic heavy-hitters on the former Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war. Without exception, professional scholars heap contempt upon the best-selling Kaplan for spreading the impression that the conflicts of the nineties were based on deep-seated ethnic animosities shared by all members of each ethnic group. For those who are considering Kaplan's book because they are interested in figuring out why peoples who lived so closely together seemed to turn against each other so viciously in Yugoslavia, I recommend that you read some of the best academics first, and then read Kaplan's book, to get a feel for the latter's drastic flaws and its deceptively popular appeal. Some really good, and very readable, academic books are Sabrina Ramet's 'Balkan Babel' (4th edition), Eric P. Gordy's 'The culture of power in Serbia : nationalism and the destruction of alternatives,' and Susan Woodward's 'Balkan Tragedy.'
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Format: Paperback
As a Romanian living in the USA, who has traveled extensively through Eastern Europe both before and after 1989, this book has left me perplexed. On one hand, it does a good job at depicting a complex situation with fractured societies trying to modernize and come to grips with their past deeds and misfortunes. On the other hand, Kaplan is much too frequently given to overdramatization. Local nuances escape him; for example, in Romanian 'drac' means as much trickster as it means devil. It is not necessarily a bad term. You can call someone a drac and this may mean you admire that person for being devious, while Kaplan would have this name conjure a mystical Dracula as a sign of the Other Europe which cannot ever be enlightened and saved from itself.
As such, for example, Ceausescu was as much admired as he was feared and hated; he tricked them (and us) all. In fact, I believe it's this multiplicity, which is a characteristic of the whole region, which puzzles Kaplan and which he never quite gets; after all this is South Eastern Europe, where Latins meet and mingle with Slavs, various breeds of Southerners and Levantines. You get treachery, you get backstabbing, you get shifting alliances, you get hot blood and high emotions, and also you get a (often times very black) dose of humor which somehow makes things very light. I believe this is the case with other leaders of the region, who managed to get to the top and stay there by a combination of cunning, deceit, ruthlessness, and other Byzantine skills, by taking advantage of a largely rural, unsophisticated, and especially careless population.
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Format: Paperback
Kaplan weaves a masterful mix of travelogue, history and sociopolitical insight into a book about his journey through the Balkans, before Kosovo became headlines. He traveled throughout the region during the 80's and wrote stories of his adventures along the way. He uses the word idiosyncratic to describe his writing, given that his style mirrors past journalists/travelers who sought to understand the root causes of social and political behavior through the lens of history. Thus, expect a solid accounting of historical narrative for each country, coupled with a mix of contemporary thought largely begotten through his conversations with local politicians, journalists, and travelers.
1) His approach is fairly egotistical since he believes that few Western reporters actually capture the complexity of the region, and none, except a rare few (of which he is one), ever understand the people or their real motivations. Although his assessment of Western reporters may have elements of truth, he seems to make the point numerous times throughout the book as if to create his own air of superiority.
2) Kaplan's assessment of Greece seems to carry the most weight since he lived there for seven years, whereas he sometimes only spends days in other regions. Nevertheless, he feels obliged to draw the same broad generalizations from those areas where he spoke to relatively few people, as he does from places where he met many people and spent much time. His underlying assumption throughout the book is that only a thorough understanding of history can engender a comprehension for the present state of affairs.
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Format: Paperback
Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts" is a flawed book, but certainly worth reading in order to understand, if nothing else, the prevailing Western attitudes towards the Balkan region of Europe.
The books clear strength lies in the author's lucid, fluid and descriptive writing style - it truly makes the book, from the literary point of view, a joy to read. The reader is given a vivid picture of the Balkan lands Kaplan visits in a sort of `travelogue from hell' or `anti-travelogue' regarding places that most readers will not yet have visited. Added to this is a good deal of insight and reportage, interviews with locals, and so forth, that lend the book much readability and depth.
Unfortunately, however, the book is marred by the author's own Western prejudices and biases. What we have here is a critique, in many ways, of the `backwards East' and a not-so-subtle head-shaking that the region is not more `Western' in outlook.
The problems surface on two levels: First, Kaplan's descriptions of the local cultural life are off the mark, due in many cases to his lack of understanding of Orthodox Christianity. Many ignorant comments are notable regarding Orthodox religious art, piety, liturgical life, church organization, etc. Kaplan is right that the Orthodox tradition has had a profound influence on the region, but his conclusions as to the nature of this impact are nothing more than a perpetuation of the common and long-held Western stereotypes about the Eastern Orthodox part of Europe - in particular, the myth that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a dangerous brew of mysticism, austerity and nationalism.
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