Tanks smashing through malls, with McDonalds restaurant chains and GAP clothes outlets shattered by the forces of the explosion of shells. Refugees on the move, like we’re used to seeing in Africa – but this is not Africa. Snipers atop cathedral bell-towers and minarets shooting through crowds dodging bullets in the search for a glass of milk, a loaf of bread. That epic conflagration, Orthodox against Muslim against Catholic; Serb against Croat against Bosnian. Albania, Kosovo – they came later. And earlier.
Everything in the Balkans is cyclical.
‘Balkan Ghosts’ is the book that made Robert D. Kaplan famous. How could it not? Written a few short years before the superwars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, before the Kosovar ethnic cleansings. It became the book that all the diplomats and aid workers and UN ‘peace monitors’ read, that simple question on their collective minds, “What the hell is going on?”
Balkan Ghosts is epic; a march through a region of the world that is so old, so full of history and meaning, so terribly violent. A place where East and West have been meeting since the days of ancient Greece, and fighting it out.
Balkanization, we all know that word. It’s supposed to mean the breakup of society, the pealing away into tribes and subgroups, erecting walls to prepare for a civilizational war. What we don’t know as much is the peasant prejudice goaded on by conspiracy theories and ancient fears almost part of the chromosomes we inherit when we are born; at least that’s how it seems – doesn’t it?
What is most powerful about Kaplan’s work of scholarship is its reminder of just these things. Hatred naked and cold and calculating; used as a furnace to mold it, readying it for the quenching – an act as bloody as it is swift. It is, in all this, the anti-semitism which this book reminds us of. That most ancient and most wicked of prejudices that rises to the top even in societies supposedly sophisticated. And that of which we are not exempt. Look at today’s ‘progressive’ (regressive maybe?) Democrats – elected officials appealing to that most terrible idea of “divided loyalties” to stoke on the hatred. Left wing NGOs like Amnesty International libeling a whole nation state with slanderous words like “crimes against humanity”, ironic, if it weren’t so dangerous, for a nation born out of genocide. Whoopi Goldberg on hard-left television shows making her case that the Holocaust could not have been racism. Does she know that in Bucharest a group of racists calling themselves “Legionnaires” once rounded up a group of Romanian Jews and sent them through the butchering process of a downtown abattoir? Probably not – and I suspect she doesn’t care, Jews are white – after all – aren’t they?
Balkanization, that process of frenzy that is whipped up, becoming an orgy – only satiated after a tremendous violence. But who will stop it before it reaches so dizzying a height. Yet somehow, in all this, Kaplan helps us find also the humanity of those who not only had committed tremendous evil but would go on, shortly after his visit, to commit even more. He takes us through ancient villages; through explanations of kings of old and visions of a defeated people clinging to their past pride for a reason to keep going. “Mythology is what always is and yet never was” Kaplan writes, and that is true. Each civilization remembering and defining itself at the moment of its greatest apogee; but whose land with the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires had belonged before to others, and after to others still, who also have fallen away. Don’t we see the same today, in the Black Sea – the Balkan littoral? Ukraine – is it Russian, is it Ukrainian? Its actually Viking – but saying so can land you in the gulag. If there is one group that Kaplan seems to lack patience for, its the peasantry – with Ceaușescu the peasant king of Romania featuring heavily in the stories. Who can blame him, Kaplan himself being Jewish. But, even for these folks Kaplan finds compassion and understanding – something maybe we should all learn from.
Kaplan cut his teeth as a journalist in the Balkans; and brings to ‘Balkan Ghosts’ his sense of wonder, of discovery that makes the book nostalgic and hopeful despite the sadness. It is a work of masterpiece.