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