on 30 November 2013
There are several things that are really good:
- the immediacy of the accounts which are clearly written at the time of the events described, which sometimes results in some confusion of tense
- the insight into the underlying issues and fundamental difficulties of the reshaping of Yugoslavia
- the insight into the mistakes of policy within Europe and the implications on the ground for those who suffered as a result
- the even handedness of the picture, clearly the Serbs are not the only transgressors as is sometimes portrayed, nor are the Moslems simply victims, and the historical fears raised by the resurgence of Croatian nationalism are clear
But there are more things that make this frustrating:
- the accounts appear to assume knowledge about the events being described but the explanations and context only appear later in the narrative, leaving one confused. Sometimes the explanations never come. For instance, the US threat to attack Serbian targets is mentioned suddenly as something that has been threatened but this is the first we hear of it and we have no idea why this is threatened or the context of the threat.
- it stops short in 1996 - well the main book before this but there are epilogues to this edition. This leaves one wondering how the subsequent carnage developed and how we got to where we are today in 2013.
It is a good contemporary account but it falls short of comprehensive explanation. If you are looking for a history,then look elsewhere, this is additional colour and background and not the definitive account.
on 27 April 2001
Firstly, I would suggest reading this book in conjunction with Silber's book "Death of Yugoslavia". Glenny and Silber worked together for part of the war, and so their accounts coincide nicely. (Although Silber never mentions this in her book, Misha mentions it many times!)While Silber's work focuses on the presidents, leaders, generals, officials and politicians, Misha's book focuses on his interpretation of the complex political situation as it develops. In this sense it is a less formal study. His ability to decypher this difficult history is tremeendously useful in gaining an understanding of it. Although maintaining context at all times, the juxtaposition of events separated by years can make understanding what's happening a little difficult. However, I don't blame Misha for that. He has simply chosen to group related events rather than use a rigid chronology. If you are not familiar with the regional geography, then the maps are not going to help you much. Get a good map!
I can confirm that, in my experience of the region, Misha's perception is spot on.
on 11 March 2010
Having recently finished Glenny's book on the last Balkan wars I am left with very mixed feelings about it. As I was reading the first half of the book I rapidly formed the impression that I was reading a sloppily-written, unobjective, unstructured and fundamentally uninsightful account of Glenny's personal experience in Yugoslavia, based predominantly on anecdotes and simplistic caricturisations of the people he encountered. However, I then found the final parts of the book surprisingly clear, intelligently written, absorbing and above all insightful, able to put the destruction and brutality described earlier on into some kind of historical and political context, and with Glenny drawing on his experience and relative 'inside' knowledge of the situation as a BBC journalist to formulate a coherent and intelligent view of the conflict, pulling no punches in criticising the sides involved, including Western nations whose interference he judges to have worsened the situation.
My main problem with the opening chapters is that, in short, Glenny frequently comes across as an unreliable guide to events, insomuch as you want the writer of a historical account to be above all objective, clear and refrain from judging or taking sides. And yet when he is 'setting the scene', the book does not follow a logical structure, flitting around from event to event, anecdote to anecdote inexplicably, leaving you feeling like you're presented with various war scenes, without actually knowing any of the historical or political context, and without knowing what triggered all of this brutality. The end result is that I was left with the impression of listening to an account from someone who was involved in the conflict, and who had already judged everything and everyone that he had seen, but without bothering to explain his judgements, or seemingly incapable of doing so without resorting to tirades against people simply being 'brutal' or 'primitive'.
Whilst many of his anecdotes and experiences are interesting, in my eyes Glenny loses credibility by his style of writing, which is personal rather than detatched and often provides descriptions which come across as superficial or simplistic, sometimes sacrificing accuracy for theatric or emotive effect, or to fit in with his personal views (e.g. "communal life revived faster in Mostar than almost anywhere else in BiH after the war" - as far as I am aware today, Mostar is still a city divided entirely into two communities, but this does not fit in with the image he was trying to paint of the population of Mostar). Whilst some may enjoy this writing style as it makes for a more engaging 'story', I was left with the impression of not having actually learned much. Or again, later on, Glenny describes how Greece strongly objected to Macedonian nationalism, apparently causing untold political and economic damage to the embryonic state. How? Why? What's the history behind this hostility? Why were the Greeks so unhelpful? We don't know and Glenny doesn't tell us, though that doesn't prevent himself from forming his judgement, we've just got to trust him that "Greeks ... prefer to prolong the misery of Macedonia." This is, in short, a simplistic reduction of a charged and complicated situation designed to elicit an emotional response rather than to inform which I found very frustrating, and which occurs throughout the first few chapters of the book.
And yet, despite these shortcomings, the last couple of chapters alone earn my recommendation of this book, as Glenny moves on to give an absorbing and very revealing description of the evolution and political and historical context. I found these chapters to be much better written, not only more engaging but also suffering from less of the shallow descriptions and lack of analysis as the first chapters. The section on Kosovo is genuinely insightful, and provides a context to the events that took place there in 1999, a few years after the book was written. Glenny uses his experience and insight to offer an analysis of the situation which would later prove to be sadly prophetic.
The final chapter is perhaps the most interesting of all, as Glenny looks at how the political leadership of the new Yugoslav states behaved and also how the West intervened, for better and for worse. He doesn't hold any punches in dishing out responsibility to Western countries for behaving irresponsily or naïvely towards the countries involved, in particular looking at the role Germany played, a point I find tends to be overlooked in most accounts of the subject. And to his credit, he also finally makes the point that all the sides involved had, in their eyes, valid reasons to defend their interests, though this cannot justify many of the actions which took place.
Perhaps one of the clearest problems with books of this type is summed up by Glenny when he writes "our understanding of the war in the Balkans has ... been clouded by ... the tendences of many witnesses to confuse the moral questions raised by the conflict with the political issues that caused it." Whilst he is perhaps himself guilty of making the same mistake at times, the insight and balance offered later in the book goes some way to help us understand the political issues that caused the war, and makes this a valuable read for people interested in the Balkan conflict.
on 14 June 2010
As somebody who grew up in Britain through the years of this conflict, but was too young at the time to fully grasp the politics and implications of the war, this book was easily accessible and readable.
A lot of the placenames and political parties involved were familiar to me (in no depth at all, just names that I recognised from the news), and this book placed them all so that I have a fairly comprehensive and clear understanding of the conflict.
Well-paced, with a mixture of historical and political insight, punctuated by personal accounts of Glenny's travels in the warzone that really served to illuminate the lengthier sections.
If - like me - you want to put vaguely familiar names into place, and have a sense of the conflict on a micro and macro scale, I would recommend this book highly.