Given the recent back-and-forth on the Croatian war, I thought it made sense to focus this installment of the TPM booklist on the 1990s crisis of the former Yugoslavia, what Misha Glenny rightly calls the Third Balkan War.
There are scores of books written on the Balkan Crisis, but today we’re recommending two. The first is Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War. This is the book for getting the history. Glenny has since written another more broad-ranging book, The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1809-1999, which I have not read. But Fall of Yugoslavia is a masterful introduction to just what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And why things went so horribly wrong.
Glenny is a print and electronic journalist and he is steeped in the colorful particulars of life in 1990s Yugoslavia as only a working journalist who was there can be. He weaves this together with a brisk, engaging narrative, as well as a rich command of the history of the region. There’s nothing forced about Glenny’s mixture of history and contemporary reporting. The effect is pure elucidation.
Occasionally, reading Glenny, I sensed that he might be too even-handed, finding at least some small measure of blame and sympathy for almost every group in the drama, if not every actor. But in general I don’t think there’s any faulting him on this ground.
What’s most powerful about the book — aside from its crisp narrative and edifying effect — is the way it shows just how many people had to act willfully, irresponsibly, and impatiently, in order to lay the groundwork for the horrors that followed. Not just the bad guys, but in many instances the people who would later prove to be the victims — the Bosnians, the Croats, et. al.
Foolish, irresponsible actions early on by the Bosnian Muslim political leadership, for instance, don’t cut away a sliver of responsibility from the Bosnian Serbs for the atrocities they later committed. But Glenny gives you a sense of how one was connected to the other. And the same might be said of the impetuous, early diplomacy of the Germans which, arguably, had similar consequences.
My one misgiving about this book is that it’s concerned largely with what happened in the very early 1990s. Glenny updated it twice, most recently in 1996. But the essence of what he’s writing about is the very early 1990s, before the post-Dayton, American phase of the war began.
The other book we’re recommending today is Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass. This is a quite different sort of book. It’s about the war in Bosnia. Not the whole of Yugoslavia. It’s not a history, either. It’s a war reporter’s memoir. If you’re looking for the big-picture about the Balkans in the 1990s or the what happened in Kosovo or Croatia or inside Serbia, this isn’t the book — though it contains important information on each of those topics.
This is an interior story, what Maass himself saw. And it is by far the best piece of writing I’ve read of any of the books written on the 1990s Balkans. By far the best.
Reading it you see how the war in Bosnia was tragic in the deepest, most regret-inspiring and folly-filled sense of the word. This book will make you feel moments of agony. It will also make you laugh. Perhaps most uncomfortably, it will sometimes join these two feelings and reactions quite closely in time. I would say it is the best piece of war reporting I’ve ever read. And I believe it is. Only covering the Bosnian war, as Maass describes it, wasn’t exactly a war so much as a loosely-organized, long-running series of individual and group murders.
This book is humane, and comic, and horrifying in each of the right measures and moments. I cannot recommend it more strongly. If you read it I think it will change you. Perhaps forever.