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Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

3.94  ·  Rating Details ·  2,896 Ratings  ·  269 Reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 384 pages
Published May 1st 2005 by Picador (first published 1993)
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Community Reviews

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Feb 06, 2010 Gina rated it did not like it
One of the worst books about the Balkans ever published. Filled to the brim with Kaplan's trademark factual inaccuracies, personal prejudices, stereotypes, inexplicably bad or inconsistent transliterations (Kossovo stands out as the most ridiculous) and translations, and lazy journalism.

To Kaplan, the Balkans are Europe's wild west, characterized by lawlessness, lurid tales, lots of prostitutes, and (his favorite term) "ancient ethnic hatreds." To me, this is just an expression of both his prej
Calling this a travelogue doesn't excuse the abject ignorance that characterizes most of the book. Period.

The fact that most positive responses seem to come from either people without first-hand knowledge of the Balkans, or Greeks and Bulgarians--Greece and Bulgaria being Kaplan's actual area of expertise--is a significant detail, not to be ignored.

There is little historical fact here, and what passes for research might as well have been churned out by a starving Hollywood writer. Kaplan seems
Oct 07, 2007 Elizabeth rated it it was ok
There is very much an 'outsiders' perspective in many ways on the cultural turmoil of the region, but the interviews he does with locals during his travels are really interesting. If only the history pieces didn't seem to have some spin or editorial feel to them. I think as I continue to read on the Balkans and former Yugoslavian region, I will work harder to find works from those native to the area.
Mikey B.
An interesting portrayal of this tortured area of the meeting place between Europe, Asia and Russia. Even though it is now somewhat out of date it does provide insights of the developments of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The general observations indicate backwardness and poverty in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and what use to be Yugoslavia. These countries have a long way to go to catch up to Western Europe in their housing, transportation, and educational level. Plus there are overwhelming regional
May 25, 2015 Jeff rated it it was ok
First, the positives.
The author was a very good writer and engaged in the subject. He obviously cared a great deal for the subject, having traveled and lived there extensively for many years.

Now, the negatives,
Granted, the premise of the book was the role of history on the development of current Balkan mindset and culture. However, while Kaplan was a good writer, this is where his background as a journalist really hurt the book. instead of telling a good objective story, he looked for the flashy
Un tărîm al viziunilor înguste

Istoria m-a fascinat de cînd mă ştiu. Nu neapărat pentru „adevărul istoric” pe care mi-l oferă (la urma urmelor acesta e „in the eye of the beholder”, la fel ca frumuseţea sau ca adevărul ficţional), ci în primul rînd pentru personajele ei fascinante, pentru atmosfera ei nostalgică sau terifiantă, pentru problemele etice, sociale şi (mai ales) estetice pe care le ridică. În fond, ce este istoria de azi dacă nu mitul de mîine?

Aşa că nici prin cap nu-mi trece să pun l
Dec 16, 2012 Fiona rated it really liked it
I'm glad I persevered with this. The first part which is about Yugoslavia in the late 80s/early 90s is very disjointed and quite difficult to follow in terms of linear events. The second and third sections, about Romania and Bulgaria respectively, are excellent and really informative. The Romanian section visits the country immediately post-Revolution, 1989, and gives a lot of historical background to the different regions which was fascinating. The Bulgarian section covers a period from the ear ...more
Panayoti Kelaidis
Oct 13, 2014 Panayoti Kelaidis rated it it was amazing
A must read for anyone who has the slightest interest in contemporary history: Kaplan has captured the fantastic complexity of the Balkan politics that have been the root cause of so much world tension and little things like World War I. Each chapter of the book focuses on a key country: Kaplan blends his extensive personal experience there, recapping the threads of historical and cultural issues faced by that country, pointing to future outcomes. Written in the 20th Century, many of Kaplan's pr ...more
Dec 12, 2007 Anna rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Not the best travel book about the Balkans. I think it got an unfair boost when Clinton was seen reading it. It's jumpy in rhythm and conclusions. Kaplan makes acute observations and extrapolates them to be indicative of an entire culture the way any traveler might, but as a travel writer I think he should have delved deeper before jumping to some of his conclusions.

Also, because the book is really more a composition of articles from the Atlantic than a travelogue, it is often repetitive, using
Feb 25, 2008 George rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A rather dark overview of the Balkans, but once the book of choice for those venturing into Europe's heart of darkness in the 90's, the former republic of Yugoslavia, and trying to get a basic grasp of the peoples and issues on the plane ride in. I read it on the road to Kosovo, during the war there between the KLA and the Yugoslav Army. There are better books, if you're willing to spend quality time reading them, but if you're just trying to establish a base line to draw from, this will do nice ...more
Feb 19, 2009 Brent rated it it was ok
not as helpful as I would have liked when trying to learn about the history of the Balkans...
Jul 27, 2010 Tubs rated it really liked it
quick thoughts:

1. i expected this book to cover primarily (the former) yugoslavia. while the first section focused on yugoslavia, it was very weak compared to the final sections on romania, bulgaria, and greece. it feels maybe tacked on simply because ethnic conflicts were so obviously escalating in the early 1990s. kaplan is clearly more comfortable and knowledgeable about romania, bulgaria, and greece. thus:

2. the sections on romania, bulgaria, and greece were great, and they helpfully broaden
Andrea Homier
Jun 25, 2016 Andrea Homier rated it really liked it
Shelves: personal-library
This was a challenging book that was not what I expected, but I found so much fascinating material here that I am glad to have pushed through. My knowledge of the Balkans is in its toddler stage, but Kaplan's work expanded it significantly, not only through an exploration of its history, but also through an exposition of what Balkanism is and is not, not only where the ever-changing political boundaries reside, but where culture melds and isolates, temperament thickens and thins, where East meet ...more
Erik Graff
Apr 29, 2010 Erik Graff rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: South Slav fans
Recommended to Erik by: Marlene Stamenkovich
Shelves: history
This is a rather lurid telling of the history of the Balkans by an author invested in the United States military establishment. While it is well written, the perspective is fatalistic and pessimistic, particularly as regards the Yugoslavs.

In other books written since he became popular as a darling of the neocons, Kaplan endorses an amoral approach to foreign policy in the American interest. I personally find this us/them approach highly offensive yet representative of how US affairs are usually
Daniel Simmons
Aug 05, 2015 Daniel Simmons rated it liked it
Though I would not use Kaplan's book as a policy manual for How To Understand the Balkans (and he makes it clear in his preface that he never meant it to be considered as such), it made for an engaging and sometimes eye-opening travel companion during my recent trip through the area. On p. 57 Kaplan writes that "Macedonia, the inspiration for the French word for 'mixed salad' (macedoine), defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands ...more
Cyrus Carter
Jul 07, 2012 Cyrus Carter rated it it was ok
The first 3/4 of the book is a delight as Mr. Kaplan recounts personal encounters through most of the Balkans in a prescient account before the strife of the early through late 1990s. However, he stumbles when he gets to Greece. Perhaps for the self-stated reason that he spent 7 years there, he loses his story-telling ability and even his objectivity. For example, after talking about the ethnic homogenization of the region, he writes only TWO sentences on the population exchange between Greece a ...more
Jul 12, 2012 Jeff rated it really liked it
Though this book is now quite dated, it provided a good insight for me into several aspects of the history and culture of several Balkan nations. My own connection with Bulgaria led me to read that section first, but I found quite a bit of interesting material in other sections as well - particularly in the author's discussion on Greece during the 1980s, since I was there as a child at the same time as the author (my father was in the USAF). Much of my recollection is inaccurate, as childhood re ...more
Aug 30, 2013 Charly rated it liked it
A bit torn. I eagerly devoured the history between these pages, but at the same time, his writing lacked both balance and technical panache. His view of the Orient was alarmingly one-sided and laughably out-of-date. I did feel, however, that certain essays in here (that's all it really is, a collection of travel essays and op-eds) are worth the price of admission. (I liked most of those on Romania and Bulgaria ... his views on Greece and Albania and especially Kosovo just rubbed me the wrong way ...more
Kyle Dawson
May 16, 2017 Kyle Dawson rated it it was amazing
A masterpiece that haunted me for days. Balkan Ghosts perfectly blends the sins of the past with an eye to the future. Can't recommend it enough.
Feb 26, 2017 Richard marked it as to-read-2nd
Recommended to Richard by: The Council on Foreign Relations
Review in the New York Times at publication in 1993: A World Gone Raving Mad . The piece in the Slavic Review was scathing, although others were quite positive.
Jul 24, 2013 S. rated it liked it
☆☆☆★★-- Kaplan's 2005 BALKAN GHOSTS probably deserves the fourth star, but after the 5/5 tour de force of ENDS OF THE EARTH and the probably over-generous 4/5 rating on COMING ANARCHY, I'll for these two separate reasons (the over-accomplishment on the former; the over-rating on the latter) ease down on what is the most widely-read and possibly most influential work of an author spoken in the same breath as historian Fukuyama, political scientist Samuel Huntington, economist Taleb. if Kaplan doe ...more
Sep 06, 2016 David rated it really liked it
Kaplan begins his "travel" book with a defense of the fact that Bill Clinton and M Albright reportedly read the book and relied on it in their decision not to intervene in stopping the Serbian atrocities in the 1990s. He claims it is a travel book, not an analytical treatise, and they drew the wrong conclusions.

It is a travel book only in the loosest sense, however, and its focus is purely historical. I read this book in preparation for a trip to Northern Greece, Macedonia and Albania, and in t
Baris Balcioglu
Jan 01, 2017 Baris Balcioglu rated it it was amazing
Well, this is also interesting. In those years I used to contribute to some mailing lists a lot, one of which was the western Thrace mailing list. Here I got to know Panagiotis whose last name eludes me now. He was the director of the Helsinki human rights watch in Greece. He always tolerated my jokes about him although it was a rife mailing list with nationalist getting fiery easily. And one day he came to Istanbul and we met at Four Seasons in Sultan Ahmet for breakfast and gave me this book a ...more
Dominic Carrillo
Oct 18, 2016 Dominic Carrillo rated it liked it
Kaplan introduces this book in a seemingly humble way: noting that if Bill Clinton and other US policy advisers were heavily influenced by reading this during the Serb-Bosnian/Kosovo Wars then it was a shame because Balkan Ghosts is essentially a travel book. Having now read it (and lived and traveled in the Balkans for the past 5 years), Kaplan was not offering a modest preface, he was just telling the truth. Balkan Ghosts, though interesting as a travel companion, barely scratches the surface ...more
May 01, 2016 Roshin rated it liked it
Found this a strange book in many ways. The author loves Reagan and capitalism so his general viewpoint was hard for me to read. And it's scatty in that his approach is inconsistent across countries. Having said that, I only knew the history of the region relating from the 1990s back to Tito and knew nothing of the overall history, and this book is great for giving a much longer historical perspective. the first quarter of the book, I was wondering if I'd finish it, but then I found it gripping. ...more
Juan Gallardo Ivanovic
When reading this book you have to be very careful, since it reveals a part of history that can be interpreted in different ways.
Kaplan's journey to the Balkan is intriguing and engaging, but as I wrote above, it is subjective and personal. That was the way he lived the Balkans and he was influenced by the people that he visited. It is his point of view.
I totally agree with some people saying that this book doesn't do any justice to the overall situation in the Balkans, but it is an opinion of
Mar 02, 2015 Monique rated it really liked it
I thought this was an excellent book. It is detailed in both its description of the landscape and the people. It also weaves history into the current landscape. I must admit that at a certain point I had to stop reading it, as I could not bear to read about the atrocities done to the Jewish people in Romania. It was like a bad nightmare and so distressing to know that this is history, and that even the Nazis were distressed by their treatment--especially the children. I will have to take a break ...more
Mar 10, 2008 Irina rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
A good introduction to much Balkan history over the past century, uncomfortably mixed with a travel narrative which tries, much too hard, to be literary. I liked that Kaplan tried to include as much nuance as possible in his historical descriptions, and he seems to feel a connection to the places he describes. Unfortunately, that connection seems to be founded more on a sensationalist understanding of the area than a realistic connection with all types of people.

(Also, and I have to add this, hi
Mar 30, 2016 Vrinda rated it really liked it
This was a really great book to read while traveling in the Balkans (and after returning). It talks about the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, etc.), Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece in great detail. Written by a journalist, the way in which he wove together details and themes was compelling (though I'm not sure how accurate). I don't think this book was comprehensive in terms of history, but it really conveyed the sense of complexity and conflict around religion, territory, ...more
Mowena Glunch
Dec 18, 2011 Mowena Glunch rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, travel
This was a great way to gain at least an introductory understanding to seven Balkan countries in a seductive and memorable way. As with most journalistic histories, I had the nagging feeling throughout that creating a juicy story might have jettisoned an objective approach along the way. So, relatively superficial, but that fit with the amount of energy I had for the project. Entertaining throughout. Great for contributing to a cocktail party conversation where you are the only one who has read ...more
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plum brandy 4 64 Jan 09, 2013 06:59PM  
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Robert David Kaplan is an American journalist, currently a National Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. His writings have also been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs and The Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers and publications, and his more controversial essays about the nature of U.S. power have spurred debate ...more
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“Romania was an original mix: a population that looked Italian but wore the expressions of Russian peasants; an architectural backdrop that often evoked France and Central Europe; and service and physical conditions that resembled those in Africa.” 6 likes
“The train passed through a series of tunnels. Because the overhead light fixtures had no bulbs in them, some people lit candles inside the tunnels, which dramatically illuminated their black, liquid eyes. There was a solemn, almost devotional cynicism to these eyes, reflecting, as though by a genetic process, all of the horrors witnessed by generation upon generation of forebears.” 2 likes
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