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3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 1 August 2004
This book was in my shopping basket for almost a year before I finally bought it. My hesitation was due to accusations of pro-Croat bias in some of the reviews above. Having now read the book, I wish to defend the author and, not being of Serb, Croat or any other ex-Yugoslav origin, perhaps I am better qualified to opine on the matter than some of the reviewers below.
This is an absorbing and well-written account of a country which, although largely unknown in the UK before 1991, has a rich and fascinating history. It had a centuries-long relationship with Hungary and the Hapsburg Monarchy and it was on the front-line in the wars against the Ottoman Empire. Dubrovnik was an independent maritime republic with a remarkable capacity for survival - in fact, it took Napoleon to bring it to an end. The controversy in Croatia's history starts in 1918, when Croatia was absorbed (more or less voluntarily, although they soon regretted it) into what then became Yugoslavia.
With the bitterness of the war in the early 1990's still fresh in people's minds, it is, perhaps, impossible to write a book on this subject that both Serbs and Croats would regard as objective. However, the suggestion that this book is a pro-Croatian polemic is quite unfair. There is no attempt here to conceal or gloss over massacres of Serbs or Bosnians or other war crimes perpetrated by Croats. Neither does the author pull any punches in dealing with Croatia's contemptible efforts to carve up Bosnia with Serbia or the massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs that followed the recapture of the Krajina in Operation Storm. Croatia's "Father of the Nation", Franjo Tudjman, does not, in fact, come through as a particularly savoury character in this book, by any standards.
That, however, will not be enough for many readers from ex-Yugoslavia, particulary when the author talks about the origins of the war. The view of Marcus Tanner is that Milosevic planned the whole thing down to the last detail and that there was nothing to stop him because, in the Yugoslav National Army, he had the biggest army in south-eastern Europe right behind him. No doubt, such a view will never appeal to proponents of the theory that Serbs were spontaneously rising up against Croat/Bosnian Muslim tyranny, to those who blame Germany, the US, NATO, etc., to any of the Yugo-nostalgics on the far left who mourn the passing of communist Yugoslavia or to those (particularly prevalent in British government circles in the early 1990's) who put it all down to Balkan savagery and continue to defend Britain's disastrous policy of non-intervention.
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on 26 February 1999
By his own account, British journalist Marcus Tanner did not set out to write a history of Croatia from the seventh century. He intended to write an account of the recent war with the Serbs. However he found he could not do so without locating the seeds of the conflict in the 1940s, which are rooted in the politics of the 1920s, which were engendered by the nationalism of the 1840s, and so on. What he ultimately produced is a useful 300-page overview of Croatian history. And he still managed to write about the recent war, devoting 80 pages to events since 1990.
The common view that Tanner is not sufficiently critical of unsavory elements in Croatia's past is justified. His discussion of the horrors of the World War II-era Jasenovac concentration camp is cursory; he comments on the main political football - the debate about the numbers and identities of the victims - but fails to describe the political context surrounding the camp or the lives of the people within it. His praise for Tudjman as a noble, if overzealous, nationalist who successfully steered his country to the fruition of the 'thousand-year-dream' is insufficiently honest about his neo-fascist and sometimes nonsensical policies. Today Tudjman's HDZ party is a quasi-democratic regime rooted in corruption and repression. The war is over, the Croats won. Now is the time for nurturing democratic institutions.
From a journalist with such a tactile understanding of the region, "Croatia" includes few of the primary source interviews and observations that were so interesting and enlightening in other recent books about the Balkans by British journalists (Misha Glenny, Laura Silber). Instead Tanner weaves together secondary sources and analyses by other experts. While this approach sacrifices visceral understanding, it allows him to explain fluidly centuries of tangled events. This ultimately proves to be the work's strongest feature.
Tanner compresses dense material into smooth prose where each paragraph fairly begs for its own chapter of elucidation. Readers may not come away with a deep feeling for what makes a Croat tick, but they will certainly come away with a broad knowledge of the historical underpinnings of today's twisted conflicts. Tanner has something of a pro-Croat perspective, but this is not disastrous. Careful readers seeking understanding still rely on multiple sources with varied viewpoints. But for all the dilettantes who throw up their hands and mutter about "historical hatreds" and "centuries of fighting", there is no longer any excuse for ignorance.
A nitpick: the book's maps are a failure. The few maps are haphazard and only loosely correspond to the events in the nearby text. Many locations whose importance Tanner carefully explains appear nowhere on the maps. Perhaps a good editor can remedy this in the next edition.
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on 9 April 1999
A book on Croatian history is most overdue. This is one of the rare books on Croatian history written in English and therefore a must read. Croatian history is rarely analysed, with most of its 2000 or so years virtually ignored. Fortunately there is now a book which will give an objective and comprehensive overview of this ancient nation from the 7th century to the present. It is well written and easy to read. Recommended. Added analysis can be found in Noel Malcolm's 'Bosnia: A short History'.
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This book tells the story of the Croats and the country we now call Croatia over a vast period of more than a thousand years. It is a history of a people and region little known or thought about in the west until the twentieth century. It is a violent tale, and the subtitle of the book - A Nation Forged in War - is very apt. The first third of the book is a straightforward history and covers the period up to the start of the twentieth century. It is largely an account of power and territorial struggles between a bewildering array of tribal and family groups, kings and other rulers, and various ecclesiastical authorities during the centuries-long interactions with the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires. It is clear and well written, and is a useful introduction to the history of the region and its peoples, but complex, and I would need to read it again to take in all the details. It also provides a good background, and helps one understand, the second part of the book, which for me, and I suspect most readers, is the more interesting. This covers the modern period, including of course the disastrous wars of the early 1990s.

Some reviewers on Amazon have accused the author of being biased in favour of the Croats in his description of the causes of the wars and the action of Croats during them, but on the evidence of this book, I find it difficult to agree with those views. Tanner clearly feels sympathy with the Croats, but criticism of the Serbs is balanced by the author's very frank discussion and condemnation of the horrific, brutal actions of the Ustashe during the second world war, and the massacres and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Croatian forces during their cynical attempts with Serbia to partition Bosnia, or the massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs that followed the recapture of the Krajina in Operation Storm. Neither does he spare the Croatian president Franco Tudjman, who is strongly criticised for the increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic style of his leadership during the latter part of his period of office, coupled with general incompetence. The reviewers' comments show that the bitter feelings provoked by those wars still remain with some people. But they should not prevent others from appreciating this useful and thoughtful book.
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on 1 January 1999
I am of Croatian origin and have read many books about my country. This one is the best and I can highly recommend it to anyone, who wants to learn more about Croatia.
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on 20 September 1998
A deeply disappointing book. It fails to answer the central questions of Croatian history: who are the Croats and how has their national identity developed over the years? And how is it that the idea of Croatia has succeeded, in that there is now a nation state, while the idea of Yugoslavia as a home for all the "south slavs" has failed? Tanner assumes that because Croatia exists, and Yugoslavia disintegrated, these events were inevitable. This is not true.
The section on the collapse of Yugoslavia is the most disappointing, despite the fact that this period was witnessed by the author. There are no original insights on the development of ethnic nationalism in Croatia and elsewhere in Yugoslavia, and little feeling that Tanner was there when momentous events took place.
For a revealing look at what the Croats - and the other peoples of what was Yugoslavia - are really like, written with sympathy and style, read "The Impossible Country" by Brian Hall. While not a history of Yugoslavia as such, it has intelligent comments on the issues of history, culture and language which unfortunately defeat Marcus Tanner.
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on 27 April 1998
A book that needs to be read, if only for the shedding of light on Croatian history, which for too long was hidden or re- written by others. Putting aside his conclusions to the recent war, which seem to arose most criticism, he has written an even handed history of Croatia since early times, although sometimes he fails to place Croatia in its historical context, as a small nation in the greater general upheavals of Europe. Even so, Tanner has relied on many varied sources, not just myths created since the Second World War by both Western and East European historians, which many Western historians are now acknowledging as myths, half tuths or deceptions, of which Tanner is one.
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on 9 July 1998
Those wishing to understand the Croatian perspective to the recent war in Yugoslavia will find this book invaluable. Not only does it succinctly manage to present Croatian history but also its "tone". Suprisingly it tends to be balanced given that English authors tend to interpret recent political events with a decidedly pro Serbian view. Refreshing.
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on 20 July 1998
Anyone interested in going beyond the standard media sound byte to understand the history of Croatia, will find Tanner's book an invaluable resource. Tanner chronicles in detail the long history of the Croatian people and emergence of the Croatian state, including the birth and shaping of national identity, personalities, myths and changing political panorama. While most works on the subject deal with specific, disjointed time periods of Croatian history, Tanner provides an insightful and comprehensive account - complete with references and facts rarely found in other sources. An enlightening read about a surprisingly complex nation and its turbulent path through the historical landscape.
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on 13 March 2000
History of Croatia from the middle ages to the present day, summarizing a wealth of information unavailable elsewhere to the English-language reader. Readable, succinct and often intelligent, it is weakest on World War II and the period since, failing adequately to challenge the assumptions of contemporary Croat nationalism.
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