Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History
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Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  1,882 ratings  ·  201 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, 368 pages
Published May 1st 2005 by Picador (first published 1993)
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Gina
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...more
Anna
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...more
Hesper
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...more
George
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
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...more
Fiona
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
Brent
not as helpful as I would have liked when trying to learn about the history of the Balkans...
Michael
☆☆☆★★-- 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
Jeff
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
Irina
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...more
Liam
"'Here, we are completely submerged under our own histories.'" (quoting Bulgarian foreign minister Luben Gotzev, xxi)

"[T]o judge by what Milosevic was turning into bu early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, but without fascism's ability to make the trains run on time." (76)

"As always in the Balkans, bare survival provides precious little room for moral choices." (89)

"'Ceaucescu kept donkeys as pets. Think of that.'" (quoting 'Gheorghe', 163)

"Clas...more
Elizabeth
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.
Maia Goodman
Let me first say that I cannot, in any way, rate Kaplan's historical or cultural accuracy. I know very little about the Balkans and therefor cannot evaluate and assess the author's biases and prejudices. Thus my rating is merely of my enjoyment of the book and the author's style. This collection of essays follows one man's travels in the Balkans; it is not however, as Kaplan claims, a travelogue. It is instead a series of observations and claims that creates a cohesive (if potentially inaccurate...more
Ned Mozier
A “big” book, traversing millennia of history of the Balkans exceeded my expectations. A newsman, Kaplan, wrote this shortly after a series of visits just when the communist era was beginning to crumble in this area precipitated by Romania’s uprising and the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu. Kaplan’s account is imminently readable in a traveler’s journalistic style, with his cultural bias transparently acknowledged, and brings out firsthand what was actually seen, heard and smelled.

There is so mu...more
Buddy Don
Wonderfully written semi-history, semi-travel book (much more the former, though Kaplan's writing inspires one to want to travel to many of the places he covers), this book opened my eyes to much of what was happening to everyday people as the broad events of history washed over them. In the case of the Balkans, it's like a review of all the major events of the past millenium. Kaplan helps one see each place he visits through the eyes of its history, letting us visit with people of the early 199...more
Linda Lamar
Teetered between 3 and 4 stars, but Balkan Ghosts gets 4 stars because the book was so useful to me. It was a great overview and introduction to the Balkan countries, their sometimes horrific history and the way they interweave and in the end mirror one another. I liked the way Kaplan focuses in on a representative for each country and presents a dialogue that ranges from relevant to kooky. He has an odd habit of ending a section with a summary statement that is actually an introduction to the n...more
Matthieutc
A great book by a great author. Kaplan covered the Balkans as a journalist and wrote down his thoughts during his travels in the region in the late 1980s.
He writes about the political issues:

"Since Croats are ethnically indistinguishable from Serbs -- they come from the same Slavic race, they speak the same language, their names are usually the same -- their identity rests on their Roman Catholicism. Therefore, the Croatian crowd symbol might be the Church or more specifically, the confused and...more
Paul Haspel
As its subtitle indicates, Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts is a journey through history -- a history that is sometimes beautiful and poetic, but often violent and troubling. In chronicling his travels through the Balkan nations in the late 1980's and early 1990's, Kaplan consciously drew on the example of Dame Rebecca West's travel classic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). The parallel is appropriate: just as West traveled in the Balkan nations on the eve of World War II, so Kaplan sojourned ther...more
Sandy
It's been a long time since this book's greatest moment of prominence, when President Clinton was seen reading "Balkan Ghosts" in order to gain some background understanding of the historical, religious and ethnic undercurrents of the Balkan region during the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Now that the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo have been resolved and the once-explosive border disputes have reached an uneasy equilibrium, this region straddling the border between Europe, Asia and th...more
Erik Graff
May 20, 2013 Erik Graff rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  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...more
Craig
Every once in awhile I tell you about a great book I've read that might be of interest to you. If you've been enjoying reading about my exploits and adventures here in Central Eastern Europe, you should read Robert Kaplan's 1993 classic, Balkan Ghosts. Even though he's an American (as my close friend Milos from Serbia has pointed out a few times), this book has been an extraordinary primer for the history of a region that has been so influential in global politics.

Its not an area of the world th...more
Tubs
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...more
Doug
I wanted to learn about Balkan history ever since I left Bosnia & Croatia. My background knowledge had been a distant memory of news pieces from the early 90s, & that there were "3 groups fighting each other". The visit left me with so many questions I didn't have the slightest clue where to begin.

Balkan Ghosts answers some, but leaves you with so many more.

Written as a travelogue, it chronicles the author's months-long journey through the back door of Europe, interjecting with history f...more
J S
If you ever wondered about the Pied Piper, you might want to read this historical, sometimes graphic book. Soldiers have thought it wasn't too gruesome, but, some civilians found it so. I found the preface of the book to be much more explicit on war injuries than the text of the book itself, so, don't let the preface stop you from reading it. The book is well worth reading.

The history of the Balkan region is presented and is tied in to military activity in the region during our lifetimes. Becau...more
Ted
I actually finally read this book for the first time after digging through it for quotes for two papers in graduate school - one on the death of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and another on the death of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
Balkan Ghosts is infamous for allegedly giving Bill Clinton pause from engaging in Bosnia more strongly and earlier. And indeed, this travelogue makes the Balkans sound like a troublesome, dangerous, perhaps godforsaken albeit fascinating place. Kaplan sees a bright future, b...more
Alan
Robert Kaplan is a great observer and synthesizer of history and a pretty decent--but not great--writer.

Balkan Ghosts, written before Yugoslavia imploded in the 1980s, tells you just about everything you need to know about the history of Yugoslavia and the pieces into which it fractured, plus Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, and the tug of war between East and West, between Christianity and Islam, and between Austro-Hungary and Turkey that has played out here for a thousand years.

I...more
Neil
I found this book to be very informative and would recommend it to anybody interested in learning more about this troubled part of the world.

This book is, at its core, a travelogue, and in 4 sections Kaplan takes us to Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. Focusing on travels in the area at around the time that the Berlin Wall fell, and interspersed with information from previous visits and interviews with people from each of these countries, Kaplan describes the political and cultural for...more
Abby
I enjoyed this book, but I'm not sure how broad its appeal would be to others. Having spent two years in the Balkans, I'm more interested than the average person in this region. The writing style was a bit dense and I found myself lost in details a few times, but I kept moving through it and enjoyed the historical perspectives learned from the books.
Since the book is about 20 years old, it's certainly dated and doesn't spend as much time in Yugoslavia as it might were it written today. I could h...more
Ruth
This is an extremely readable introduction to Balkan history with a focus on how that history affects current affairs in the region. It conveys a sense of what it's like to be in the different countries and ethnic groups, what material conditions and national narratives shape people's lives.

I was disappointed that the author, while mentioning gypsies/Roma on numerous occasions, never explores how they fit into the various countries and regions. Other groups which were skipped over are Bosnian a...more
Ben
This book is a great history and written very well. But Kaplan's assessment of the Balkans as a powder keg that had been waiting to blow for decades rings false. He believes that the genocide and civil war is due to the nature of this place in the crossroads of many cultures and the different groups of people that live there. He believes that there is too much history for these people to get beyond and that without a strong man like Tito, the population was bound to fracture.

Peter Maass' book pa...more
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plum brandy 4 57 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
More about Robert D. Kaplan...
The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus

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“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
“A better age would have to follow.” 0 likes
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