Review: Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan

March 14, 2005 | 1 book mentioned 1

coverI picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

One comment:

  1. Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts is an enjoyable, insightful and educational travelogue with curious shortcomings and puzzling omissions. I second the opinion of other critics who point out that snapshot experiences and anecdotal knowledge are insufficient for the sort of sweeping generalizations made by Kaplan. The rumor that US Balkan policy was influenced by these peripheral observations speaks volumes about the lack of well informed and knowledgeable local experts in State Department circles.
    Having myself lived in provincial Northern Greece for over two years, I heartily concur that Greece is more Balkan than Western European, local Hellenistic posturing none withstanding. It was a revelation to me, though, that Saloniki was at one time a Jewish stronghold. No hint of this significant history is available, as the writer correctly points out. His depreciative commentary about Apostle Paul’s Christian mission in the area, however, reveals a distinct and lamentable bias on the part of the writer, also exposed in other works of his ( ref.).
    Despite Kaplan’s many citations and a sort of bibliography, it seems his most frequent references are previous travel generalizers who agree with him. Nevertheless, I must concur, based on my own limited local observations, that the Greek / Turkish / Albanian / Egyptian / Macedonian relationships are laid down in essence correctly.
    Many Greeks consider the Turks as “Untermenschen”, despite that fact that their race, food, music, style of life, etc. are virtually indistinguishable from their own. I had the pleasure to become friends with a hulking Greek stevedore, scion of a respected family in Kavalla, who was honored to be selected as Macedonian guard in Athens during military service. It was he who enlightened me as to the significance of the 400 folds in the white skirt of their traditional uniform. This is the sort of insightful factoid Kaplan omits. Surely, the remembrance of 400 years of Ottoman rule in such overt fashion says much about the Greek xenophobic attitude toward her neighbors. Kaplan mentions travel across the Northern border and comments on the similarity on both sides, as well as the intentional blindness of the Greeks for the extant Muslim villages on their side. I, too, crossed the WWI era two lane bridge separating the enemy border, but even my untrained eye recognized the dug-out tank and artillery positions on both sides of the frontier. The bridge is brightly painted blue and white on one side and red and white on the other. Exactly in the middle stand two soldiers in battle gear, shoulder to shoulder, staring stoically straight ahead. Not since crossing the old West/East German border had I experienced such fanatical posturing. Kaplan says that Greeks are unable to articulate the name of Istanbul, but what Kaplan fails to mention is that nowhere inside Greece, as far back as Saloniki, do road signs show a correct indication on the highway leading to that metropolis straddling the Bosporus. The blue and white signs invariably read “Konstantinopolis”, a mythical destination, kept very much alive by delusion of Hellenistic manifest destiny.
    Robert Kaplan extemporizes on the Albanians and Egyptians viz-a-viz Greece, but tells us little of substance. Albanians are the wetbacks of Greece, in status just barely above the Turks and Gypsies. They work in agriculture and other menial occupations and the Greeks deride them in terms rivaling the worst American immigration critics. Similarly, Kavalla is the birthplace of one of the last Ottoman rulers and the Greek – Egyptian connection continues. Seasonally, thousands of Egyptian laborers shuttle to the Greek countryside for the olive, tobacco and grape harvests. I do not know if these are Muslim or Coptic Egyptians, though it would have been useful to have Kaplan figure it out.
    The Macedonian hyperbole broke while I was resident in the little seaport East of Saloniki. I personally witnessed the unloading of German made Leopard battle tanks and their deployment toward the Northwestern frontier, ostensibly on ‘maneuvers’. My friend, the great big ex-honor guard, was the most hospitable, kind and generous Greek one can possibly imagine, yet there was no way to talk any sense into him when it came to Turks or the issue of Macedonia. The depth of Greek universal antipathy in regards to the Macedonian issue is, if anything, understated in Balkan Ghosts.
    Kaplan depreciates the ‘Zorba the Greek’ image Americans have of Greece. That is a fair thing to do, but I must also balance it. One of my local employees was a native of a simple goat herder’s village in the mountains bordering Bulgaria. My wife and I were invited to the village fest commemorating its Orthodox saint. I witnessed, and participated in, a night of dancing, feasting and hospitality exceeding the scenes in the above mentioned story film. There is a genuine Greek hospitality, depth of melancholic soul and sincerity that makes up a true and admirable Greek culture. I suspect this can be said about each and every part of the Balkans brushed over by Kaplan. The values are surely different and unique, but they are not pulled together. Balkan Ghosts gives us repeated small slivers of such genuine appreciation and deference to native culture, yet these impressions are never generalized into positive summations the way analogous negative sentiments are condensed.
    Without firsthand knowledge I am unable to comment on the various ecclesiastic observations made by Kaplan throughout the rest of the Balkans. His treatment of religion and its connection to nationality in Greece, however, is deficient. No mention is made of Athos, the semi-autonomous peninsula, so significant in the preservation of Greek culture during the 400 years. I learned that young Greek men regularly opt to experience a sabbatical in one of the mythical monasteries and then have the legal right to resume their profane professions, presumably much improved spiritually. To my surprise, the oldest known monastery is located in the center of the Sinai and it persevered under centuries of Arab, Ottoman, Egyptian and even, briefly, Israeli rule. St. Katherine’s fortress redoubt at the foot of Moses’ mountain is manned by orthodox Greek monks, a testament to the unique strength and permanence of this protean Christian faith.
    More to the point, however, is the emergence of a widespread trans-national religious experience. I suspect Kaplan did, or could have, seen it elsewhere, but fails to recognize its significance. Upon arrival in Kavalla we inquired as to the existence of a Protestant denomination and were told bluntly by everyone we knew that such a thing did not exist. Exist it did, as it does in the remotest jungle villages of Peru and the very last hamlet of the supposedly Catholic Brazilian interior. We found two fundamental Protestant congregations practicing their faith almost underground and in clear juxtaposition to the state recognized Orthodox mantle. Greece postures to have religious freedom and tolerance in keeping with its pretense to European membership. Our experience shows otherwise. It is forbidden by law to proselytize and the proscription goes deep. The group we worshipped with was made up more of people from the margins of Greek society; extremely poor, some Muslim apostates, a score ‘Bulgarians’ and more than one who had had conflicts with the Orthodox Church. One convert lived in an outlying village and lay on her deathbed. The pastor, cardiac surgeon at the Kavalla hospital, went to see her on a pastoral visit only to find the local orthodox priest in attendance, at the urging of various meddlesome relatives. He was trying to get the poor soul to renounce her convictions and return to the bosom of orthodox mythology. She eventually relented under the pressure, else she would have been denied a ‘Christian’ burial in the village cemetery. The pastor and elders of the church nevertheless attended the interment. At the open graveside, the orthodox priest berated the apostate Protestants for their heresy and praised the deceased for turning away from the worship of satan ! The new Protestant presence in Greece and around the world is an extremely significant phenomenon, not lost on the papacy, but not apparent to Kaplan. This is the sort of depth one would wish for from a bestselling commentary about the Balkans.
    Here comes my generalization, based on partial and biased observation: The Balkans, Greece specifically included, have not undergone the spiritual cleansing of the reformation, never concluded WWI and have certainly not learned one whit from WWII. This is to their peril, because these people are in danger of living through the dictate which predicts that those who fail to learn from history, are condemned to repeat it.

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