Home Book Review Balkan Ghosts

Balkan Ghosts

Book by: Robert Kaplan
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Fall 2015

How Do You Divide Up the Past?

Why go back and read a book whose locus is outside the Middle East/Persian Gulf region and written before most of the current crises were crises? Because politicians have treated the disintegration of borders in the Middle East and the bloodcurdling advance of ISIS as previously unseen phenomena, as a totally new form of threat. “What do we do with terrorists who use social media?” “How do we defeat an ideology?” “How do we fight a religion?”

Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, with deference to Ecclesiastes, reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. Governments and borders come and go, often unrelated to the people under and within them. Family, tribe, land, and religion form an eternal prism through which history can be viewed, whether in the Balkans or the Middle East.

Well-written and flowing, Balkan Ghosts is a travelogue of a little-understood part of the world, and a history of excruciatingly violent groups of people over time—particularly in the 20th century.

Kaplan, a prolific author, traveled through the Balkans in 1988, and the book was finished in 1990. Soviet satellites had liberated themselves and the USSR was itself close to disintegration, but the devastating breakup of Yugoslavia was still in the future. His slow-moving odyssey and innate empathy for people and religion evokes honesty—including honest hatreds—from his interlocutors. The stories overlap from different directions, making simple analysis impossible.

Non-linear history is at the center of Kaplan’s thesis. The history of one group wanders and weaves across the history of others—sometimes the Romanians are up, sometimes Serbs, or Albanians, Hungarians, Macedonians, Croats or Greeks. (OK, Macedonians are rarely up.) And each takes its turn being down. There are periods of war and no war, but each interlude of no war is the starting point for the next war. No defeat is ever final, so nothing is irrevocably lost, but no victory is final either, so each one is tinged with bitterness because it is temporary (a relative term: the Serbs lost the battle for Kosovo Polje to the Turks in 1389; it became part of Yugoslavia in 1921; and the Serbs lost it again in the Kosovo war of 1999).

Lessons from the Region

No one is nice about his or her fundamental interests. ISIS is our current bête noir—crude, vicious, seemingly delighting in ever escalating means of bloodshed. But ISIS has nothing on the Macedonians. And Macedonia at one point resembled nothing so much as Syria.

[In the 19th century] Macedonia was a power vacuum of sectarian violence. The absence of a viable central government or a defining concept of nationhood permitted various outside powers… to play out their rivalries… Christian militias fought Muslim militias, and fought each other as well… bombs at cafes, open-air theaters, and railway stations; splinter groups murdered members of rival groups, conducted secret tribunals, executed civilians… and took hostages… On the day the twentieth century began, Macedonia was already a place of atrocities and refugee camps that people in the West were already bored by and cynical about; it represented a situation that would never be solved and to which the newspaper correspondents were paying far too much attention.

ISIS has nothing on the Romanian Legionnaires.

The Legionnaires burnt down seven synagogues and went from house to house in the Jewish quarter, raping and torturing women to death in front of their husbands and children. They brought one group of Jews to the Baneasa forest north of Bucharest… stripped them naked in the snow, and shot them. Gypsies came the next morning to extract the gold from the victims’ teeth. The following night, the Legionnaires rounded up an additional 200 Jews and took them to the municipal slaughterhouse, where they stripped them naked and put them through all the stages of animal slaughter on a conveyor belt.

Each group wants only that to which it is entitled—but feels entitled to that which it held at the point of its greatest expansion.

Macedonia… defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached its zenith of ancient medieval expansion. Because Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, had established a great kingdom in Macedonia in the fourth century BC, the Greeks believed Macedonia to be theirs. Because the Bulgarians at the end of the tenth century under King Samuel and again in the thirteenth century under King Ivan Assen II had extended the frontiers of Bulgaria all the way west to the Adriatic Sea, the Bulgarians believed Macedonia to be theirs. Because King Stefan Dushan had overrun Macedonia in the fourteenth century… the Serbs believed Macedonia to be theirs.

Land, and control of land, equals control of history, narrative, and destiny; this is particularly important for the United States to understand. Divisibility of land and “territorial compromise” are at the heart of impossible U.S. policy in the Middle East. The “two state solution” presumes that Palestinians and their Arab sponsors—who claim everything—can be induced simply to agree that Jews in a legitimate State of Israel can rule Arab land. Why? And it presumes that Israel, with a 3,000-year-old claim to Jerusalem as its capital, will agree that half of it—the half that contains most of ancient Jewish patrimony—can be the capital of someone else. Iraq, which consists most naturally of three states—Sunni, Shiite and Kurd—is a country only because Britain called it one 99 years ago. Kurds, separated into enclaves in four different 20th century countries, vehemently disagree. Afghanistan is historically a grouping of warlords more than a country, which bodes ill for Afghan-Taliban “peace talks.” Sharing is not part of the vocabulary.

ISIS flows over the borders designed by the Sykes Picot Agreement. The caliphate it claims extends to the largest area ever ruled by Muslims—Spain, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece included. The fact that the Ottoman Empire lost the Battle of Vienna in 1683 hardly matters to the claim. The Iranians have worldwide ambitions for their “Shiite Caliphate,” beginning with the “Shiite Crescent” in the heart of the Sunni Middle East.


One additional insight upon a second reading of Balkan Ghosts: Kaplan locates Greece in the Balkans, where it clearly is, rather than in Europe. This provides a different lens for viewing the Greek financial crisis, although it was written when the Euro was just a vision.

[Greek author Nikos] Kazantzakis, who was not a foreigner, also had no doubts about the true soul of Greece: “The modern Greek… when he begins to sing… breaks the rust of Greek logic; all darkness and mystery, rises up from deep within him.” To Greeks, the East—the realm of this darkness, mystery, sadness and irrationality—includes specific memories and events that are central to the Byzantine and Ottoman legacy.”

Greece and Germany are unlikely to find political and social commonality .


If Kaplan brilliantly defines what makes ancient people tick even in the modern world, what makes Americans tick and why are we so often seen as naïve, ahistorical or arrogant? We’re not so much any of those things as we are different from the others.

If family, tribe, land, and religion, and warfare over them, create the character of people in the Balkans and the Middle East, Americans are detached from 4 ½ of the five. American Indians aside, we arrived here (voluntarily or as slaves) from somewhere else. New land. New neighbors.

True, immigrants tended to live in close proximity and ethnic/religious group leadership remains an element of social relations. But when the neighbors got too close, Americans created the great westward migratory waves of the nineteenth century, and then the African American Great Migration of the 20th century. Until the 21st century, Americans had been moving on an average of once every seven years. That much movement dilutes the power of tribe, and even family, as it dislocates people from specific pieces of land.

The Civil War was devastating, but it is over, and even the current ruckus about the Confederate flag is unlikely to restart it. There has been no battle on American soil since Wounded Knee.

Americans generally believe people can get along, compromise can solve problems, and representative democracy works.

That’s a hard sell elsewhere.


While insisting that Balkan Ghosts is a travelogue, not a political tract, Kaplan ultimately stamps his conclusion on the requirement for Western countries to exercise leadership, including the use of American military power, in parts of the world that haven’t found peaceful ways to exorcise their own ghosts.

In the updated edition (2005), Kaplan says he was surprised that Balkan Ghosts was used politically as an excuse for the U.S. not to intervene in Bosnia. “My personal suspicion is that back in 1993, at the beginning of his term, Clinton had so little resolve that he was casting around for any excuse not to act,” he writes. “I myself had been a hawk on the issue.” He continued:

I insist that there is no contradiction between a travel book that highlights a tradition of ethnic rivalries and the notion that American military power can stop such bloodshed in one part of the Balkans in our time. Here is why: A difficult ethnic history will not, by itself, necessarily cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in conditions resembling the Holocaust. For that calamity, one needs additional factors: Western confusion and inaction, which, in turn, create a power vacuum. Without these other elements, the horrors of the 1990s might not have occurred.

Nor might the horrors of ISIS 23 years later.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Magazine.