Selected Longer Reviews

The Fall of Yugoslavia: the third Balkan war

By Glenny, Misha

Penguin, London, 1992, 194 pages,
Price: 5.99 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 949.703

Misha Glenny plays the sophisticate. He goes to great lengths to show his credentials as a linguist and historian, but always manages to trip himself up. For example, in the first eight pages of his narrative, he wallows in South Slavic exoticism, preferring terms influenced or used by the natives - like "partizans", "Slavonija", and "Vojna Krajina" - to the standard English partisans, Slavonia, or military frontier. Such an appearance of erudition does not protect him from glaring errors. For example, the Knin area of northern Dalmatia was never part of the Hapsburg Military Frontier, or, more properly, of the Croatian-Slavonian Military Frontier; the inhabitants of the latter were predominantly Croats (60 per cent in 1857) and not Serbs as Glenny intimates; the situation in Knin was different, but even there Serbs had a threadbare majority (54 per cent in the Knin county in 1921). Similarly, the migration of Serbian patriarch Arsenije III Carnojevic to southern Hungary had virtually nothing to do with the Serb presence in Banija, Kordun, Lika, and the Knin area; hence, the objections to the importance of Carnojevic’s migration for those areas are not "disingenuous and unsubstantiated" but quite correct. Since it would take pages to cite and rebut all of Glenny’s errors, I shall not harp on them any further. Suffice it to say that he is a far better reporter than a historian.

That is precisely the trouble with Glenny’s book. He is reliable - or at least amusing - when he reports and not nearly as reliable when he analyses. His book provides a sort of camera view of developments in the former Yugoslavia. Action is where Glenny is, and he is all over the place. In fact, there is too much Glenny in the book. He keeps interjecting his persona by reminding us that he is a coward, that he does not know how to use arms, that this or that person pleases him or does not, that he has definite views on East European hotel architecture, that hot weather causes him to perspire, and so on. The question is why a reader would wish to know anything at all about a British journalist in his mid-30s. More important, would it not be more useful to know a great deal more about the sources of the Yugoslav meltdown? Insights into the mentality of Ratko Mladic might be telling, but they will not provide answers to the larger questions.

Glenny’s book is charming and even skilful, but it is not a work of history or politics. It only scratches the surface. Something is missing from it. The missing part is the written word. Apart from a brief and obscure note on the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (1986), a key political document, as well as a few references to the press, there is no evidence that Glenny read anything at all about or from the former Yugoslavia. As a consummate insider, he does not read; he converses. As a cameraman, he does not analyse; he focuses his Cyclopean eye on individuals and their interactions. There is no ideology here. No church or religion, either. No economy. No society. No culture. No history, minus a few encyclopaedia references. What we have is a journey that started in Knin, but should have started in Belgrade. We have consequences, but not the sources. We also have a set of opinions, the two most important being: 1. that Tudjman is co-responsible for the outbreak of the war (only relatively true, and not necessarily for the reasons outlined by Glenny); and 2. that Germany’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia was disastrous and widened the conflict (by now an accepted myth, but untrue even in terms of Glenny’s own evidence).

Ivo Banac

This review is taken from a longer review article in Foreign Policy, Winter 1993-94

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