Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

by Robert D. Kaplan

Hardcover, 1993

Call number

914 K



St. Martin's Press (1993), Edition: 1st, 307 pages


From the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, the Balkans have been the crucible of the twentieth century, the place where terrorism and genocide first became tools of policy. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by the New York Times, and greeted with critical acclaim as 'the most insightful and timely work on the Balkans to date'-The Boston Globe, Kaplan's prescient, enthralling, and often chilling political travelogue is already a modern classic. This new edition of the Balkan Ghost includes six opinion pieces written by Robert Kaplan about the Balkans between 1996 and 2000 beginning just after the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords and ending after the conclusion of the Kosovo war, with the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power.… (more)

Media reviews

The remembrance of a historic role as "the shield of Christianity" against a terrible pagan enemy, performed without the aid of Christian Austrians, Hungarians, Italians or Balkan neighbors, and often performed while being stabbed in the back by them, informs the mutual enmities of the present. The
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Serbian militiaman raping Muslim women and murdering Muslim men in Bosnia-Herzegovina today sincerely believes he is avenging the injustices inflicted upon his nation 600 years ago. The Greek patriot who shouts that "there is only one Macedonia and that is in Greece" (rather than in the former Yugoslavia) is likewise purportedly defending the cultural heritage of Alexander the Great against rude and uncouth Slavic invaders. (Never mind that the Slavs have themselves been living in the region for some 1,300 years.) Mr. Kaplan spares no individual and no nation in his indictments ...
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User reviews

LibraryThing member sabreader
This is one of the worst books to read if you want to understand the former Yugoslavia. Yes, it is at times beautifully and compellingly written. But Kaplan's obsession with "history" (in fact a distorted and very narrow slice of history as written by an Englishwoman) blinds him to what was really
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going on. Instead we get a book of the crudest caricatures and myths about the Balkans.

The only reason to read this book is to familiarize yourself with one of the worst books on the topic.
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LibraryThing member languagehat
Well written, but tendentious and full of the worst kind of "ancient hatreds" nonsense. Docked a star for helping make the Balkans worse back in the '90s; politicians shouldn't be allowed to read Kaplan's books.
LibraryThing member audramelissa
Even though published 17 years ago, Kaplan’s portrayal of his travels throughout the Balkan Peninsula is still a revelation to most Western readers. In this more-than-a-travel memoir or travelogue, Kaplan describes the not often understood histories and peoples of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece,
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Romania and the countries of former Yugoslavia. Kaplan shows why Communism failed in the Balkans; it did nothing to end the historical tensions. This is not an easy book to read as the atrocities committed by all parties are disturbing but Kaplan’s depictions are balanced and without generalities.
(This is just one of the many books I am reading before traveling to Croatia.)
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LibraryThing member heidilove
this is a history of the balkan strife, but reads like one of the best travelogues ever. kaplan has a real gift in bringing this area to life, with its passions, its hurts and its haunts, while pitting it all in a modern context.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
A classic in integrated travel,history,and political writing. Kaplan wanders through southeastern evoking the ghosts of the Ottoman empire to explain current and possible future political and social conditions in eastern Europe.
LibraryThing member piefuchs
Good read - but after you read Kapuscinski all other travelogues pale by comparison.
LibraryThing member nikitasamuelle
Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts is the most haunting book I've ever read. The history of the Balkans is told through traveling narrative in such personal detail that each region, each ethnicity comes alive. Although I first read the book 10 years ago, passages still appear in my dreams today.
LibraryThing member dickcraig
I liked this background to the Balkan War, but not as much as the book "The Fracture Zone" by Simon Winchester.
LibraryThing member SCRH
I wish I were an expert in the history of the Balkan Peninsula, but I am not. However, upon reading Kaplan's wonderful book, I believe I've been nicely schooled in the basics. As appropriately subtitled, the book is truly "A Journey Through History." The book (journey) has four main parts: 1)
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Yugoslavia, 2) Romania, 3) Romania, and 4) Greece. Nearly all the major cities are visited in the journey and along the way we are introduced to many characters who provide life to the sights, sounds, and smells that are encountered.

A strength of the book is Kaplan's weaving quotations and/or examples from many different authors. Hence, in addition to Kaplan's own interpretation of history, we are treated to insights and sometimes emotions of other authors. The bibliography lists over 140 books and articles.

For me, the book served a means of introducing me to people, places, politics, and religions, over many hundreds of years, for a part of the world that is historically important, complex, and poorly understood. I bookmarked the "Map of the Balkans" on page xvii of the prefatory pages and referred to it often as I journeyed through the remainder of the book.

In addition to the fine bibliography, there are 19 photos and an excellent index.
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LibraryThing member benjaminorbach
Didn't know much about the Balkans, but Kaplan drew me in.
LibraryThing member cestovatela
Traveling through post-Cold War Greece and Yugoslavia, Kaplan documents contemporary life in the Balkans as well as the centuries of ethnic hatred that led to civil war. His study of recent Greek history is also revealing, especially for a younger reader like me - I'm not old enough to remember
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that Greece was once a hotbed for international smuggling and the drug trade. Kaplan gets bonus points for weaving his descriptions of the past and present together and writing long historical tracts in an entertaining way.
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LibraryThing member John_Vaughan
Although written before 1985 this work is still valid in its reflections on the continual upheavals and ancient hatreds of the Balkans; a region dominated for centuries by “the sick man of Europe” (Turkey) and comprised of often reluctant partnerships into great states strengthened by European
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mores of laws and cultures to fulfill a historic roles as the "the shield of Christianity". Kaplan, an American journalist and historian (not an Englishman as stated in another review) has such a knowledge of this area, roughly that of the “Ottoman Empire”, that he was recognized by appointments to the Center for a New American Security in Washington and as an advisor to the United States Department of Defense in 2009.

This deep understanding was obtained by many years of living in and reporting on the region, and in his extensive travels throughout Europe, the Middle East and Russia. In this book Kaplan is persuasive in his well-written and argued attempts to convince that the peoples of this area - Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and what used to be Yugoslavia – form a whole with a commonality of regional citizenship, despite the contention of “the majority of their leaders who indignantly deny any association with the Balkans, a term that since the late 19th century has stood for political chaos and internecine warfare” (István Deák).

I found that this work generated an interest for more information on this region and I furthered my understanding with his excellent “ Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus where he continues both his journey and explanations of those turbulent histories.
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LibraryThing member SFToohey
I've read it twice and plan on another read. It's clear Kaplan loves this part of the world, so it's a subjective travelogue, but he also writes as reporter and detective, digging for truth by talking to people and reading histories. In this passage he writes of Bucharest, but it sums up everywhere
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he writes about:
"Walking around Bucharest...I realized that, despite the most maniacal attempts to erase
the past, the ghosts of local history met me square in the face."

Robert Kaplan, 'Balkan Ghosts', pg 184
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LibraryThing member theonearmedcrab
My library contains many books on the interface between travel and history, and one of my favourite authors in this genre is Robert Kaplan, who wrote "Balkan Ghosts" (1993). The book contains several parts, one of which deals with Kaplan’s trip through Romania in 1990, just after the overthrow of
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Ceausescu. The author takes you on an almost playful journey through Romania’s history, meanwhile traveling from Bucharest to the Danube Delta, to Iasi in Moldavia, to the painted monasteries in Bucovina, and then into Transylvania. Everywhere he meets interesting people who share not only their hospitality, but also their often differing views, which Kaplan manages to put in the relevant context. The picture he sketches is of a country full of past issues, from ethnic conflicts and peasant exploitation to war crimes and communist-party power abuse. Issues that, by 1990, obviously had not yet been dealt with. It will be interesting to see whether that has changed at all, in the past 25 years. The Bulgaria part, the result of several short visits in the 1980s and -90s, is less coherent, and as such less illustrative for a country in change. Kaplan’s contribution covers a number of Bulgaria-specific issues without being able to sketch the overall context. Still, a good book, from the time Kaplan was young, and not yet famous.
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LibraryThing member palu
I liked the way he wrote the book, like a trip journal. I also liked the picturesque person he met during his journey.
I would organize the book in a different way: less about Greece and Romania and more about the former Yugoslavia republic.
Pity that is not up date and some of the facts (e.g. the
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former Greek minister Andreas Papandreou
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LibraryThing member trek520
I've read this book twice and will likely read it again. Kaplan writes this text as a travel log with history flowing off of every page. Kaplan predicted the (most recent)Balkan war years before the first shots were fired. Somewhere I read, although I cannot remember where at the moment, that
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Balkan Ghosts became required reading at the CIA. A couple of other books add insight to this book - -and this book adds insight to them- -'A Short History of Byzantium' by Norwich and 'Lien's Tomb' by Remnick.
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