The history of a divided region

The Balkans 1804-1999: nationalism, war and the Great Powers by Misha Glenny (Granta, £25, 726pp)

All Balkan nations felt deeply betrayed by the outside world at some point in their modern history," Misha Glenny observes in one of many incisive footnotes to this long and comprehensive study. The Balkans concerns the nature of that betrayal, and charts its awkward progress. By "outside world" he means Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the US, Italy and Russia, the powers which have regulalrly attempted to solve the intractable Balkan problem.

The various schemes they thought up - notably at the Berlin Congress (1878) and the Paris Conference (1919) - come to resemble nothing more than an absurd chess game, with the principal players invariably making the wrong moves. The countries that comprise the Balkans were the unfortunate pawns, with poor Macedonia enduring perhaps the worst crisis of national identity.

Why, for instance, was Romania awarded a chink of northern Dobrudja, which by right belonged to Bulgaria? To compensate for the loss of Bessarabia to the Russians. The gift in 1878 of that fertile region, which includes the mouth of the Danube, would be the cause of friction between Romania and Bulgaria for decades.

And why did the democratic powers not intervene when Italy exerted a financial stranglehold on Albania in the 1930s? Mussolini's support for the self-styled King Zog, who allowed no one but this mother to cook his meals and who kept well away from windows, was certaionly not altruistic. It was in Italy's interest to lavish spending money on the tyrant, who lived in justified fear of assassination. The entire episode, like so much Balkan history, verges on the blackest farce. Indeed, Misha Glenny's overall story becomes ever more dramatic, if not theatrical, with the rise of Fascism. His account of D'Annunzio's brief regime in Fiume exactly catches the comic and sinister aspects of the poet's vainglorious career in politics.

Glenny is wryly amusing about the kings and queens who were clinging to their thrones as Hitler rose in power. Carel the Second of Romania, for example, eloped as a teenager with a young dancer, but their marriage was later annulled. He then married Princess Helen of Greece, whom he deserted in favour of his mistress, Elena Lupescu, whose father was Jewish. Carel's life was the stuff of operetta, and it seems appropriate that Barbara Cartland wrote his first biography.

Hitler's involvement with the Romanian playboy king grew after the murder of the prime minister by the notorious Iron Guard, a group of far-right dissidents led by the obscenely anti-Semitic Codreanu. The Führer wanted Romania's greatest asset - oil - and the feud between a right-ish monarch and a fanatical Fascist gave him the opportunity to strike a deal that would benefit Germany even after Carel had gone into exile.

Glenny is also anxious to correct received opinions and blinkered generalisations expressed whenever the Balkans come under discussion. He scotches the myth that the Serbian and Bulgarian armies had a tradition of determination and stubbornness: "the majority of the population were sedentary, listless and extremely unwarlike peasants who occasionally indulged in the brigandage of the hajduci - but this hardly amounts to a military tradiiton. The real warriors among the Balkan peoples are the Albanians."

He is equally sound on the "labile" nature of Balkan nationalism, which "has only ever been sustainable for brief periods by governments before it begins to soften, then fragment, and finally decay". It is not difficult to demonise the Serbs, the Croats and the Turks, in particular, but it it is not always advisable. Victims, as Orwell pointed out, can be as monstrous as their persecutors.

Blood will have blood, of course, and the reader who knows the living people of the Balkans is left registering a certain desolation at the spirit of carnage suggested in these pages by numbers alone - hundreds and hundreds of thousands of innocents as well as fighters for freedom, or its opposite.

Misha Glenny has attempted the impossible in The Balkans, and although he prizes the disinterested stance, he is not always able to maintain it. There are signs of hasty writing, not least when he repeats a point, but this is an honourable and necessary book. It brings the Balkans closer to us. It also reminds us that savagery is a human constant, not confined to one region or culture. This is a part of the world we can no longer ignore or patronise.

Paul Bailey's novel 'Kitty and Virgil' is published by Fourth Estate

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own