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The Balkans: A Short History

The Balkans: A Short History

3.6 5
by Mark Mazower

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Throughout history, the Balkans have been a crossroads, a zone of endless military, cultural, and economic mixing and clashing between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy. In this highly acclaimed short history, Mark Mazower sheds light on what has been called the tinderbox of Europe, whose troubles have ignited wider wars for hundreds


Throughout history, the Balkans have been a crossroads, a zone of endless military, cultural, and economic mixing and clashing between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy. In this highly acclaimed short history, Mark Mazower sheds light on what has been called the tinderbox of Europe, whose troubles have ignited wider wars for hundreds of years. Focusing on events from the emergence of the nation-state onward, The Balkans reveals with piercing clarity the historical roots of current conflicts and gives a landmark reassessment of the region’s history, from the world wars and the Cold War to the collapse of communism, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the continuing search for stability in southeastern Europe.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A gem of a book, packed with illuminating information.” —The New York Review of Books

“An invaluable resource for anyone hoping to gain an initial understanding of Balkan history.” —The New York Times

“An excellent primer on the region’s history.” —The Economist

“A highly suggestive analysis of an inexhaustible subject.” —Publishers Weekly

David Rohde
Mazower's narrative challenges stereotypes and artfully uses quotations from travelers, diplomats and historians to create vivid images of the region's history.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Balkan wars of the 1990s--which Mazower persuasively calls a civil war--reinforced the meaning of the word "Balkan": the meaning that has little to do with geography or even ideology, yet everything with a violent way of life. The main challenge of this work is to denounce this one-dimensional Western stereotype and to approach the crisis of the Balkan lands "without seeing them refracted through the prism of `the Balkans.'" Mazower, professor of history at Princeton and author of Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century, has written a concise history of Europe's troubled southeastern corner that is both sympathetic to the region's never-ending struggle for identity and freedom from invaders and critical of its inhabitants' recurring failure to reconcile the religious and cultural differences imposed on them by the powers of the West and the East. But it is always the West that has written off the violence in the Balkans as primitive, argues Mazower. He realistically concludes that it is the nature of civil war rather than the Balkan mentality that is responsible for the recent violence. While this is not an innovative argument, it is surely a compelling and a significant one as it prudently clarifies how the Balkans got to this place, and then optimistically recognizes the promise of the region's much-needed economic and cultural renaissance. Mazower's tone is that of an aloof but skilled academic who often abandons chronological order and rushes through decades and centuries of a complex history in order to get to his point. This strategy will make it difficult for the less informed--a natural audience for such an introduction--to follow the argument, but those who are at least moderately familiar with the Balkans' past will value his thought-provoking implications. Containing as much opinion as fact, this is a highly suggestive analysis of an inexhaustible subject. Maps. (Nov. 7) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Mazower (history, Princeton) starts this fine, exceptionally concise history by reminding us that the term Balkans was not in common currency before the first decade of the 20th century. Even then, the region was associated with "violence, primitivism, and savagery." Because the author skillfully uses accounts of travelers and officials from outside the area, their perceptions lend a sense of coherence to a more complex reality and clarify the common consequences of Ottoman rule--the absence of a developed sense of nationality among a predominant peasant class, the persistent problem of physical security, and the "protracted and experimental" experience of nation building. This legacy would leave an unstable mix of local aspirations and external rivalry. Ottoman collapse was hastened by efforts to modernize the empire, alienating even the "traditionally loyal" Albanians. Turkish expulsion and local nationalism in turn strained the Austro-Russian entente and made the Great War so much more likely. Ultimately it was pursuit of a "modernizing" nation state rather than any blatant racism that would embitter relations; Tito's federal Yugoslavia with its overdrawn distinction among "nations" and "nationalities" was the exception proving the rule's tragic appeal. Mazower's concluding reflections on political violence complement a fine grasp of the region. Highly recommended.--Zachary T. Irwin, Pennsylvania State Univ. Lib., Erie Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-An accessible discussion of the causes and circumstances for the historic and prevailing ethnic unrest in southeast Europe. Because of the brevity of this work, the author necessarily makes assumptions and offers opinion with minimal substantiating evidence, but critical readers can find much here to take to the examination of other information sources, including daily newspapers. Contrast between ethnic relations in the Balkans and in the United States is lively and compelling. Paired with Joe Sacco's graphic-format report, Safe Area Gorazde (Fantagraphics, 2000), this book would provide both classes and independent researchers with sufficient information to generate discussions in the realms of politics, social history, the influence of American culture in foreign affairs, religious tolerance, and more. This is a fine addition to an exemplary series of monographs by experts in a wide range of humanities and sciences.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
David Cannadine
A brief but brilliant panorama of this war-torn region, and takes in the whole sweep of its history from the Romans to the present.
Times Literary Supplement

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Chronicles Series
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Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.50(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Over millions of years, the play of the earth's tectonic plates pushed up a series of mountain ranges in the Mediterranean along the geological frontier between Europe and Africa. Stretching from the Iberian peninsula in the west to the ranges of southeastern Europe in the east, they eventually link up with the mountain chains of Asia Minor and central Asia. To their north, the great Eurasian lowlands extend with scarcely a break from Calais to the Urals. There rainfall is abundant, arable land is plentiful and numerous navigable rivers connect the interior with the sea. To the south, it is a different story: good farming land becomes scarcer, the ground is more broken and rainfall less frequent.

Unlike the mountain chains guarding the necks of the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, the Balkan ranges offer no barrier against invasion, leaving the region open to easy access and attack from north and east. On the other hand, their irregular formation hinders movement between one valley and the next. Communication is often easier with areas outside the peninsula than between its component parts, so that Dubrovnik, for instance, has had closer ties for much of its history with Venice than with Belgrade. In this way, mountains have made commerce within the region more expensive and complicated the process of political unification.

The effect of mountains is felt everywhere from the skies to the sea. Rain shadows deprive much of the peninsula of the moisture found in Europe's continental climatic zone. Kolaßin in Montenegro has an average annual rainfall of 104 inches, while a little way east, Skopje in Macedonia has only 18 inches per year. A tiny coastal strip running down the Dalmatian coast to western Greece enjoys sufficient rain to soften the impact of the harsh Mediterranean summers. On Corfu the vegetation is luxuriant; the Cyclades, by contrast, are parched and dry. The former is able to support itself, the latter—as wartime starvation revealed—relies on food imports to keep going. In general, the annual precipitation east of the mountains is at least 10 to 20 inches less than farther west, leading to recurrent droughts even in the fertile plains. "A dreary arid sandy level" was how the Vardar valley presented itself to an intrepid Englishwoman crossing it in the mid-nineteenth century. "For many miles the country is entirely without trees."

In the Mediterranean climatic zone, watercourses dry up during the summer, leaving rocky beds and canyons. The result is parched, broken upland with scarce water supplies—a harsh environment for human habitation that is suited chiefly to abstemious plants. "A curious feature in the mountains began to make itself painfully felt," noted Arthur Evans in 1875, walking across the Hercegovinan karst. "There was no water." He describes "a prospect of desolation. . . . In every direction rose low mountains, mere heaps of disintegrated limestone rock, bare of vegetation . . . aptly compared to a petrified glacier or a moonscape." Where summer rain permits, mountain forests and woodland—with beeches, oaks and sweet chestnuts—testify to perennial supplies of running water. Even so, the peninsula suffers drought more than anywhere else in Europe, except southern Spain and Malta, and deaths caused by water scarcity were reported from Montenegro as late as 1917.

Not everywhere in the Balkans is as dry as this. In the Rhodope mountains, rivers flow throughout the year; the Albanian uplands remind travelers of Alpine meadows. Farther east, large parts of former Yugoslavia, Romania and northern Bulgaria enjoy something closer to a central European weather pattern. Long cool winters and heavy rains nourished the impenetrable Shumadija, which once covered much of lowland Serbia in dense oak forest. "Endless and endless now on either side the tall oaks closed over us," wrote Alexander Kinglake in Eothen, describing a ride toward Constantinople in 1834. "Through this our road was to last for more than a hundred miles."

To the east, the Danube estuary shares climatic features with the southern steppes and the Black Sea, though it suffers from a lack of rainfall where the rain shadow of the Carpathians makes itself felt. Mountains make the contrast between Mediterranean and these northern and eastern weather zones a sudden one, as anyone who has climbed the road from Kotor on the Dalmatian coast to the old Montenegrin capital Cetinje will know. "The climate had suddenly changed," wrote a traveler after having traversed the Balkan mountains in Ottoman Bulgaria. "A warmer air surrounded us. The whole of European Turkey, from the southern declivities of the Haemus, lies in a delightful climate, which can display all the charms of the tropics as well as the vigor of the higher latitudes, without suffering their disagreeable effects." For this sun-deprived northerner, not even the plague was enough to overshadow his sense of warmth and well-being as he came closer to the Mediterranean.

Rivers are generally crucial for prosperity because until modern times transportation was easier and cheaper by water than by land. Some historians explain the "European miracle" by the abundance of navigable waterways that connect coasts and the interior. But river systems that compare with the Rhine and Rhone in west Europe, or the Vistula-Dnieper trade route in east Europe, do not exist in the southeast of the continent. Balkan rivers, when more than winter torrents, descend too rapidly to be navigable, or else they meander idly in curves and loops away from the nearest coastline. Important rivers such as the Sava, the Vardar and the Aliákmon are thus of limited use for trade and communications. "Nothing can be more striking," wrote Henry Tozer in 1867 as he traveled south down the Vardar, "than the entire absence of towns along this great artery of internal communication. . . . The river itself is a fine sight when it flows in one stream, but . . . the work of making it navigable would now be a difficult one." Even the Danube has served the region less well than it might, blocked from the Mediterranean by the mountains and then heading north—in quite the wrong direction from the merchant's point of view—before reaching the Black Sea. Before the Second World War, the lower Danube iced over for four to five months of the year. And before the early nineteenth century, while fought over by the Russians and the Turks, it was scarcely used for commerce at all; trade caravans between the Balkans and central Europe went by road, while travelers and diplomats en route to the Ottoman capital frequently left the river halfway along its course and completed their journey overland instead.

Meet the Author

Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, and a former professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of several books, most recently Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century.

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Balkans: A Short History 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A remarkable job of making an incredibly complex history comprehensible and engaging. Great writer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent, easily accessible book that sheds light on the people of the Balkans, leading up to more recent current events. This is a good choice for anyone interested in learning about a culturally rich and fascinating part of the world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I came across this book at a local B&N store. I started reading it and couldn't put it down so I bought it. The book presents the complex and thought provoking history of the Balkans in a very objective manner. Even though the book is short, it gives great depth of insight into Ottoman Europe and post World War I. The book also explains how certain biased views were formed and perputated. This book is not only of interest to academics but also to amateur history fans like me. I highly recommend this book to those who like reading and learning about the history of the region. It is also good for those who are tired of the current biased views of 'the West'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a military member who has travelled to the Balkans, I can say that Mazower's short history provided excellent insight into the various political/ideological issues which have led to the situations facing the area today. Anyone interested in trying to make some sense of the recent violence and NATO involvement should definitely read this short book. The author provides extremely insightful viewpoints into how the area's past history of strong Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian conquest has left its mark. Highly recommended!