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Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  3,403 ratings  ·  321 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, 352 pages
Published May 1st 2005 by Picador (first published 1993)
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3.94  · 
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 ·  3,403 ratings  ·  321 reviews

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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
May 25, 2015 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
Oct 07, 2007 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 Even though it is now somewhat out of date it does provide insights of the developments of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.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
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
Dec 16, 2012 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
This is such a dense, intense and wide-ranging book that I fear unless I chop this review up into several pieces I won’t be able to do it any justice. Robert Kaplan was one of the more prominent members of the neocon faction that pushed for the Iraq War in 2003, alongside such forgotten heroes as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. (Ah, Richard Perle – no one knows him now but it was impossible to get on the internet in the early 2000s without bouncing across his florid face...) But I digress. Kap ...more
Panayoti Kelaidis
Oct 13, 2014 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
Erik Graff
Apr 29, 2010 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
Dec 12, 2007 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 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 rated it it was ok
not as helpful as I would have liked when trying to learn about the history of the Balkans...
I still stand by what I have written about this book in 2013. However, I'm rating it with three stars as I quite disagree with the author's Western/American stereotypes on communism and on Eastern Europe. I'm the last person to defend the communism, but all was not bad, as was, and still is, shown by deep-to-the core realistic capitalists, of whom Mr. Kaplan is a prime exemple!!
Jul 27, 2010 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 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
Daniel Simmons
Aug 05, 2015 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 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 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 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
Feb 08, 2014 rated it did not like it
This book completely fails to understand the nature of Balkan conflict. It does a disservice to all who read it, perpetuating the false notion of causal "ancient ethnic hatreds." While it has other issues, a good corrective to this general mindset can be found in "The Myth of Ethnic War," by VP Gagnon.
Nov 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A friend gave me this book as I deployed in B-H during SFOR/IFOR. This is essential reading to understand this turbulent area. The book is dark and brooding while not all the Balkans are quite so depressing. Romania was a delight and Bulgaria was a fine stay. Read this but don't write the area off.
John Ross
Jul 30, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a three and one-half star book; I rounded down to three because I couldn't force myself to round up as I typically would. I read this book was because it was on the need-to-read list for my upcoming Road Scholar trip to Croatia. On the positive side, the book gives a good feel and flavor for the ethnic, religious, and political complexities for those countries it addresses -- the Balkan states, e.g. Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Old Serbia, Albania, Macedonia. (The author also includes Gre ...more
Jan 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Super engaging! I rarely have the "not wanting to put the book down-- staying up too late reading" experience with nonfiction but I did with this book. I learned a TON about the history of the Balkans.

I only with Kaplan was able to get out of his West-centric view a bit more. He gives context and description, and clearly feels connected to the Balkans. Still, at the end of the day he judges the people he interacts with from a place of assumption that the ways of the west are the best. It took m
Feb 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Part travelogue, part history, this book takes you on a tour of the Balkans in the early 1990s. This area is where so much of 20th century history began. The people there do not forget and they do not forgive; their ghosts continue to influence life. We should pay more attention to these nations.
4.0 / 5.0.

Tedious. Very tedious.
Kyle Dawson
May 16, 2017 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.
Nov 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you don't know your Baltics from from your Balkans, then Balkan Ghosts is the book for you. Well known travel journalist Robert D. Kaplan wrote this, his third book, from his travels and experiences across the Balkan Peninsula in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and immediately prior to the Yugoslav Wars that began in 1991.

Starting in Zargeb - what Kaplan refers to as the eastern bastion of the West - Balkan Ghosts traces its way through the historically and geographically r
Tessa Fixter-Coniglio
Jun 02, 2015 rated it it was ok
So many things to say. Most of them not particularly flattering. First, it took me a month to read it--only Russian 19th century novels have taken me that long and they were infinitely better.

The biggest issue with this book is that the political and cultural histories were buried beneath self-indulgent and flowery writing. While it was part travelogue, it became a bit self-involved at times describing the minutia of what he was drinking, eating, etc. While this is fine for your own journal or
Feb 26, 2017 marked it as to-read
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.
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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
“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.” 8 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.” 3 likes
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