Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

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by Robert D. Kaplan

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From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in 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. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and greeted with critical acclaim as "the most insightful


From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in 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. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and greeted with critical acclaim as "the most insightful and timely work on the Balkans to date" (The Boston Globe), Kaplan's prescient, enthralling, and often chilling political travelogue is already a modern classic.

This new edition of Balkan Ghosts includes six opinion pieces written by Robert Kaplan about the Balkans between l996 and 2000 beginning just after the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords and ending after the conclusion of the Kosovo war, with the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power.

Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
Vivid...sensitive...Combines political reporting and literary travel writing.
San Francisco Chronicle
A timely guide to the ethnic and religious passions of 'Europe's forgotten rear door.'
Boston Globe
...The most insightful and timely work on the Balkans to date.
New York Times Books of the Century
...The fantastic stories Kaplan gathers bring one closer to understanding the real history of the Balkans.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Journalist Kaplan's vivid, impressionistic travelogue illuminates the Balkan nations' ethnic clashes and near-anarchic politics.
Library Journal
This updated edition of Kaplan's 1993 original includes six new pieces written between 1996 and 2000. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Joe Collins
Most Americans know something about such European countries as Italy, France, Germany, and Russia, but few know about the area that's been in the headlines most lately. Luckily, American journalist Robert Kaplan acts as the perfect tour guide through the Balkan states. Kaplan's book reads like a combination history and travelogue as he interweaves historical tales of the struggles of Croats, Serbs, Romanians, and Bulgarians with his own experiences visiting with these proud people. Historical figures such as Yugoslavian dictator Marshall Tito, travelers John Reed and Rebecca West, and notorious leaders such as Greek president Andreas Papandreou and deposed Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu share center stage with the proud Romanian called Mahai, determined to use his energy not to hate his oppressors of the past but to improve the present. In addition, the reader will meet the educated Transylvanian named Gheorghe, a real-life Victor Kanarovsky from Doctor Zhivago; also the amiable Bulgarian Guillermo, who takes the author on a tour of Sofia while mesmerizing us with stories of government brutality and betrayal.
The New Yorker
Vivid...sensitive...Combines political reporting and literary travel writing.

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Balkan Ghosts

A Journey Through History

By Robert D. Kaplan


Copyright © 2005 Robert D. Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6830-4


Croatia: "Just So They Could Go to Heaven"

The past in Zagreb was underfoot: a soft, thick carpet of leaves, soggy from rain, that my feet sank in and out of, confusing with the present. Leaving the railway station, I walked through curtains of fog tinted yellow by coal fires, the chemical equivalent of burning memories. The fog moved swiftly and was rent by holes, a fragment of wrought iron or baroque dome appeared momentarily in fine focus. There. That too was the past, I realized: a hole in the fog you could see right through.

The capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Croatia is the last railway city in Europe where a traveler is absolutely expected to arrive by train, since the Esplanade, built in 1925 and still considered among the world's best hotels, is just across the street from the station.

This century's greatest travel book begins at the Zagreb railway station in the rainy spring of 1937.

When Dame Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was first published four years later, in 1941, The New York Times Book Review called it the apotheosis of the travel genre. The New Yorker said it was comparable only to T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Narrowly defined, the book is the account of a six-week journey through Yugoslavia. By any broader definition, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is, like Yugoslavia, a sprawling world unto itself: a two-volume, half-a-million- word encyclopedic inventory of a country; a dynastic saga of the Habsburgs and the Karageorgevitches; a scholarly thesis on Byzantine archaeology, pagan folklore, and Christian and Islamic philosophy. The book also offers a breathtaking psychoanalysis of the German mind and of the nineteenth-century origins of fascism and terrorism. It was a warning, of near-perfect clairvoyance, of the danger that totalitarianism posed to Europe in the 1940s and beyond. Like the Talmud, one can read the book over and over again for different levels of meaning.

"If Rebecca West had been a mediaeval woman, and rich, she would have been a great abbess. If she would have been a seventeenth-century woman, and poor, she would have been burnt as a witch," writes Victoria Glendinning, in Rebecca West: A Life. Glendinning calls Black Lamb and Grey Falcon "the central book" of the author's long life, in which Dame Rebecca — writer of twenty other nonfictional works and novels, young mistress of H. G. Wells, social outcast, and sexual rebel — constructed "her views on religion, ethics, art, myth, and gender."

The very title of the book is an attack on the Christian doctrine of the Crucifixion and atonement, in which our sins are forgiven by God in return for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

The "black lamb" represents an animal Dame Rebecca saw slaughtered in a Muslim fertility rite in Macedonia: "All our Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing," she writes. The "grey falcon" stands for humanity's tragic response to the sacrifice of the "black lamb." In a Serbian poem, the prophet Elijah, disguised as a falcon, gives a Serbian general the choice between an earthly or a heavenly kingdom. The general chooses the latter, erecting a church instead of positioning his army, so that the Turks defeat him. In other words, rages the author, paraphrasing the pacifist's secret desire: "Since it is wrong to be the priest and sacrifice the lamb, I will be the lamb and be sacrificed by the priest."

This conundrum of how good should confront evil, of what constitutes the proper relationship between a priest and his flock, haunts Zagreb today.

* * *

After only a few days in the city, Dame Rebecca realized that Zagreb was, tragically, a "shadow-show." So absorbed were its people in their own divisions, of Catholic Croat versus Orthodox Serb, that they had become phantoms even before the Nazis arrived.

The Nazi occupation detonated these tensions. In primitive ferocity — if not in sheer numbers — the massacre in Catholic Croatia and neighboring Bosnia-Hercegovina of Orthodox Serbs was as bad as anything in German-occupied Europe. Forty-five years of systematized poverty under Tito's Communists kept the wounds fresh.

I arrived in Zagreb by train from Klagenfurt. The last decade of the century was upon me. My ears were tuned to smoldering, phantom voices that I knew were about to explode once again.

An ethnic Serb I met on the train told me: "The Croatian fascists did not have gas chambers at Jesenovac. They had only knives and mallets with which to commit mass murder against the Serbs. The slaughter was chaotic, nobody bothered to keep count. So here we are, decades behind Poland. There, Jews and Catholics battle over significance. Here, Croats and Serbs still argue over numbers."

Numbers are all that have ever counted in Zagreb. For instance, if you were to say that the Croatian Ustashe ("Insurrectionists") murdered 700,000 Serbs at Jesenovac, a World War II death camp located sixty-five miles southeast of Zagreb, you would be recognized as a Serbian nationalist who despises Croats as well as Albanians, who judges the late Croatian cardinal and Zagreb archbishop, Alojzije Stepinac, "a Nazi war criminal," and who supports Slobodan Milosevic, the rabble-rousing nationalist leader of Serbia. But if you were to say that the Ustashe fascists murdered only 60,000 Serbs, you would be pegged as a Croat nationalist who considers Cardinal Stepinac "a beloved saint" and who despises Serbs and their leader, Milosevic.

Cardinal Stepinac, a Croatian figure of the late 1930s and 1940s, is a weapon against Milosevic, a Serbian figure of the 1990s — and vice versa. Because history has not moved in Zagreb, the late 1930s and 1940s still seem like the present. Nowhere in Europe is the legacy of Nazi war crimes so unresolved as in Croatia.

* * *

Zagreb is an urban landscape of volume and space arrangement, where color is secondary. The city requires no sunshine to show it off. Clouds are better, and a chilling drizzle is better still. I walked a hundred yards in the rain from the railway station to the Esplanade Hotel: a massive, sea-green edifice that might easily be mistaken for a government ministry, manifesting the luxurious decadence — the delicious gloom — of Edwardian England or fin-de-siècle Vienna. I entered a ribbed, black-and-white marble lobby adorned with gold-framed mirrors, drawn velvet curtains and valences, and purple carpets. The furniture was jet black, and the lamp shades were golden yellow. The lobby and dining hall resembled a cluttered art gallery whose pictures recalled the universe of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, and Oskar Kokoschka: modernist iconography that indicates social disintegration and the triumph of violence and sexual instinct over the rule of law.

Slavenka Draculic is a Zagreb journalist who writes in Croatian for Danas (Today), a local magazine, and in English for The New Republic and The Nation. Wearing designer black glasses and a bright red headband that perfectly matched her red blouse and lipstick, she — and the other women in the hotel bistro — dressed with a panache that complemented the boldness of the hotel's art. The overall message was unmistakable: despite Communist-inflicted poverty and the damp, badly heated apartments and the sorry displays in the shop windows all around, we Croats are Roman Catholic, and Zagreb is the eastern bastion of the West; you, the visitor, are still in the orbit of Austria-Hungary, of Vienna — where the modern world was practically invented — and don't you forget it!

Like an expert sketch artist, Slavenka, her fingers flying, outlined the Yugoslav dilemma: "This place is not Hungary, Poland, or Romania. Rather, it is the Soviet Union in miniature. For example, this is happening in Lithuania, but that is happening in Tajikistan. This is happening in Croatia, but that is happening in Serbia or Macedonia. Each situation is unique. There are no easy themes here. Because of Tito's break with Stalin, the enemy in Yugoslavia was always within, not without. For years we were fooled by what was only an illusion of freedom ..."

I immediately grasped that the counterrevolution in Eastern Europe included Yugoslavia, too. But because the pressure of discontent was being released horizontally, in the form of one group against another, rather than vertically against the Communist powers in Belgrade, the revolutionary path in Yugoslavia was at first more tortuous and, therefore, more disguised. That was why the outside world did not take notice until 1991, when fighting started.

It took no clairvoyance to see what was coming, however. My visit to Yugoslavia was eerie precisely because everyone I spoke with — locals and foreign diplomats alike — was already resigned to big violence ahead. Yugoslavia did not deteriorate suddenly, but gradually and methodically, step by step, through the 1980s, becoming poorer and meaner and more hate-filled by the year. That's why every conversation I had was so sad. We were all shouting to the outside world about a coming catastrophe, but no one wanted to hear our awful secret. No one was interested. Few were even sure where Croatia (for example) was. On the phone from my room at the Esplanade, when I told people I was in the Balkans, they kept confusing it with the Baltics.

"You need a few weeks in Zagreb at least. There are so many people to see. The strands here are so subtle, so interwoven. It's all so complex ..." Slavenka's fingers seemed to give up in frustration and fall to the table. Here, she implied, the battle between Communism and capitalism is merely one dimension of a struggle that pits Catholicism against Orthodoxy, Rome against Constantinople, the legacy of Habsburg Austria-Hungary against that of Ottoman Turkey — in other words, West against East, the ultimate historical and cultural conflict.

In the days ahead, Zagreb and the Esplanade Hotel were to contract into a piercing echo chamber: a succession of brilliant monologues, prolonged and made more memorable by rain, in which landscape and architecture faded away and abstract ideas took over.

It was no coincidence that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon begins in Zagreb, focuses on Yugoslavia, and is written by a woman: such a book almost had to be all of these things. The fussiness and creativity of an accomplished cook and embroiderer, combined with the earthly sensitivities of a countrywoman and soon-to-be grandmother, were undoubtedly necessary characteristics to enable Dame Rebecca to reel in the thoughts, passions, and national histories of Europe and Asia, and to remake them into a coherent, morally focused tapestry.

* * *

On October 9, 1934, only two and a half years before her journey, Dame Rebecca uttered the word Yugoslavia for the first time. On that day, bedridden from a recent operation, she heard the news on the radio that agents of the Croatian Ustashe had murdered the head of the Serbian royal house, King Alexander I Karageorgevitch, after he had arrived in Marseille for a state visit. A few days later she saw a newsreel film of the assassination; as the camera moved in on the face of the dying, forty-six-year-old king, the author conceived an obsession for his country. She knew instinctively that this noble, dying visage was one more signpost on the road to a horrific cataclysm, even worse than World War I, that she couldn't as yet describe. So she came to Yugoslavia to investigate the nature of the looming cataclysm, just as I came to investigate the nature of another looming cataclysm. Politics in Yugoslavia perfectly mirrors the process of history and is thus more predictable than most people think.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon drew me to Yugoslavia. Until the 1990s, travel there spelled neither life-threatening adventure nor an escape into the visually exotic; instead, it offered a collision with the most terrifying and basic issues of the century. Yugoslavia was also a story of ethnic subtlety atop subtlety that resisted condensation on the news pages. As a man who had previously covered wars in Africa and Asia, I felt both intoxicated and inadequate. My guide was a deceased woman whose living thoughts I found more passionate and exacting than any male writer's could ever be. I would rather have lost my passport and money than my heavily thumbed and annotated copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Along with John Reed's The War in Eastern Europe, it never remained back in my hotel room. I carried them everywhere in Yugoslavia.

* * *

Zagreb means "behind the hill," the hill being the site of the upper town, which dominates a lower one. In the lower town are the railway station, the Esplanade hotel, the turn-of-the-century neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, and Secession-style buildings and pavilions, separated by leafy expanses. High on the hill, staring down at the lower town, is the fortified gothic Cathedral of Zagreb, a veritable mini-Kremlin, consecrated in the thirteenth century and restored at the end of the nineteenth. The cathedral is the largest Roman Catholic structure in the Balkans and is the seat of the Zagreb archbishopric. After visiting it on Easter Eve 1937, Dame Rebecca exclaimed, "There was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honourable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief."

Until that moment, there was much to recommend that majestic description. For hundreds of years, partly as a reaction to the iniquities of Austro-Hungarian rule, Catholic theologians in Croatia were increasingly drawn toward Christian unity among the South ("Yugo") Slavs. These theologians looked beyond the schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, back to the ninth century apostles, Cyril and Methodius, who had converted the Slavs to Christianity. But after the 1054 schism, most of Cyril and Methodius's converts had become members of the rival Orthodox church, so Croatians were practically alone among the world's Catholics in their passion for the two apostles.

In the nineteenth century, the figures of Cyril and Methodius began to emerge in Croatian church circles as symbols of unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Promoting that goal was the protean figure of Bishop Josip Strossmayer — Croatian patriot, philanthropist, founder of the University of Zagreb, accomplished linguist and gardener, breeder of Lippizaner horses, wine connoisseur, and raconteur. As a Croatian Catholic intellectual, Strossmayer accepted in full the equality and legitimacy of the Serbian Orthodox church. When he sent a letter of congratulations to Orthodox bishops on the millennium of Methodius's birth, he was denounced by his fellow Catholics in Austria-Hungary and the Vatican. The Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph, insulted Strossmayer to his face. Strossmayer, in response, warned the Habsburgs that continued misrule in Bosnia-Hercegovina — the province south and east of Croatia, where many Croats lived among Serbs and local Muslims — would lead to the collapse of their empire, which is exactly what happened. Dame Rebecca lauded Strossmayer as a "fearless denunciator of Austro-Hungarian tyranny." She writes that Strossmayer, who battled both anti-Semitism and anti-Serb racism, was hated by the nineteenth-century Vatican because, in its eyes, he was "lamentably deficient in bigotry."

However, when Dame Rebecca visited Zagreb in the spring of 1937, a new spirit of Christian Slav unity, rather different from that of Strossmayer's, was gaining force in the minds of Croatia's Catholics. The change proceeded under the dynamic influence of the archbishop-coadjutor, Alojzije Stepinac, who before the end of the year would assume the full title of Archbishop of Zagreb.

Stepinac was born in 1898 into a prosperous peasant family west of Zagreb, the fifth of eight children. After fighting in World War I, he studied agronomy and became an active member of a Catholic student association. In 1924, he broke off his engagement to a local girl and joined the priesthood, spending the next seven years at the prestigious, Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome, which his wealthy father was able to pay for. Upon graduation, Stepinac requested an assignment to a small parish. But (undoubtedly due to Stepinac's academic credentials), Zagreb's then-archbishop, Antun Bauer, brought the thirty-two-year-old prodigy to work at the cathedral chancery.


Excerpted from Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan. Copyright © 2005 Robert D. Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of more than a dozen books on travel and foreign affairs that have been translated into many languages. They included Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus and Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History.

Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of more than a dozen books on travel and foreign affairs that have been translated into many languages. They included Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus and Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History.

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Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
JusticeMakaveli More than 1 year ago
Kaplan has become one of my favorite writers for his engrossing travelogues/histories/socio-political commentaries. This is the book that rocketed him to fame when Bill Clinton was seen carrying a copy while mulling over the decision of whether to involve the United States in Kosovo. This is probably not Kaplan's best, but its still worth a read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Perhaps I made the mistake of reading Kaplan's 'Eastward to Tartary' before 'Balkan Ghosts'. I think 'Eastward' is a far superior book. Otherwise, 'Balkan Ghosts' provides a great perspective on the situation in the Balkans in the early-1990's.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The best thing about the book is that if someone wanted to go to the balkans this would be a good book to read. It would help gain a basic understanding of the problems in that the balkans have. The most disappointing thing is that the book is a bit hard to follow. One paragraph discusses history and the next one a local that the author ran into.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Kaplan introduces us to the balkan peninsula with a good general overview of the region. But for a scholar or someone who is familiar with the region, the book wouldn't be much of a mindbender. However, some countries are very weel described (Romania and Greece), while others like Yugoslavia are barely mentioned. I still recommend this book for those who are just discovering this wonderful fraction of Europe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first read this book a few years ago and frequently read parts of it over. It was a refreshing, engrossing story that encouraged me to pursue more information regarding the histories of these countries. Let's face it, this is not a researched historical volume, it is a travelogue/journalism/socio-political writing. But it serves as an excellent primer for individuals who are dabbling in history. It was enjoyable, thought-provoking, and at least in my case encouraged me to read more about Balkan and Middle Eastern history. His writing was fair and non-condemning and in my opinion, balanced.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Balkan Ghosts' is an impressionistic tour de force of the Balkan. It doesn't come near Rebecca West's masterpiece 'Black Lamb and Gray Falcon' - but it is a travelogue in the same tradition. The author, who is acquainted with certain parts of the Balkan, crosses these tortured lands just prior to the Yugoslav wars of secession. His prognoses are accurate, his depiction of ancient ethnic enmities sweeping, his pessimism justified in hindsight. But too many important aspects are neglected or papered over. The responsibility of the West, the interplay of big powers, the ineptitude of international organizations, the forces of democracy and ethnic reconciliation in the region, religious co-existence and much more besides. Though one sided and biased, it is a must read - if only to understand what influenced the American administration of Bill Clinton in the formulation of its Balkan policies. Sam Vaknin, author of 'After the Rain - How the West Lost the East'.