- The Balkans in World History
The Balkans in World History is a remarkable concoction. In a seemingly impossible bit of synthesis, the author offers the reader in 125 pages a commanding story of the Balkans from antiquity to the 1999 war in Kosovo. Not only does this slim masterpiece gracefully navigate potential nationalist objections with a slight of pen few could hope to accomplish in a book four times as dense, Andrew B. Wachtel (dean of the Graduate School and professor of humanities at Northwestern University) offers the targeted audience a first-class compliment to the world history textbooks taught in universities today.
Part of the newly created Oxford New World History series, The Balkans in World History dissects the Balkans' three-thousand-year history into five well-illustrated, economically written chapters. Spun off the theme Wachtel develops in the introduction, his "Balkans as borderland and melting pot" thesis will convince all but the most rabid nationalist that the lesson to draw from the area's history is its long experience with cultural heterogeneity. From the first chapter, which effectively links the ancient world to the emergence of a more solidified Byzantine Christian era, Wachtel targets the myths of cultural primordialism so often at the heart of other studies fixed on the nation-state as an essential model in the Balkan experience.
Wachtel accomplishes the improbable task of covering three thousand years in 125 pages by economically keeping the story dutifully along a very simple corrective mantra: the Balkan story is about diversity, complexity, and harmony. Judiciously taking apart each modern nationalist association with the Byzantine and then medieval (chapter 2) polities that rose out of antiquity, Wachtel travels the entire Balkans to put special emphasis on the heterogeneous qualities of cultural, political, and economic life in not only isolated pockets—say, in cities—but the peninsula as a whole. Interspersing his efficient narrative with snippets of quotations from the region's better-known fictional [End Page 310] writers, such as Andrić, with helpful maps, illustrations, and even a description of how Turkish coffee is made (p. 71), the theme of "tolerance rather than hatred" shines supreme.
Aside from this admirable corrective agenda, the clear strengths of the book include how it specifically targets a student readership and explains a model of historical analysis—highlighting the parallels, shared cultural roots, and policies of integration—that never succumbs to simplistic arguments based on the "clash of civilizations" or "ancient hatreds" paradigms most students are likely to have been exposed to in their previous readings. While Wachtel could have dedicated a bit more time to contrast his narrative with examples of how historians, journalists, and politicians of the modern era consistently distort the Balkan (and human) capacity to exist in diverse social environments, this highly readable book does more than serve as a helpful tool for teachers of southeastern European history.
A constant sociological factor at play in Wachtel's story is migration to the region, which in each subsequent wave not so much destroys an earlier reality as brings a new layer to an already complicated world. So the Slavic and then Turkic migrations that, in their own ways, leave a permanent imprint on the Balkans do so in ways that do not erase indigenous cultural practices; they simply infuse new opportunities as well as further blur any reasonable method of differentiating the population along ethno-national lines. As repeated in different ways in the chapter on the medieval and Ottoman periods (chapters 2 and 3), Wachtel highlights the fact that all premodern Balkan rulers adopted the model of a multiethnic state, constituting a model of governance that upheld a "diverse character of … state [that] did not necessarily mean that the various groups in a given kingdom liked each other, but they did tolerate each other's presence" (p. 35).
More than mere tolerance, however, Wachtel correctly highlights in various places throughout his book that the cultural practices of so-called "different" ethnic groups actually fused to produce hybrid cultures very much unique to specific regions. These cultural...