Alex Dragnich’s attempt to compress a multifaceted millennium of Serbian history into 160 pages is bold and could be considered audacious in a lesser man. So much has to be left out, and what is included has to be treated with such economy and such precision, that many a professional would cringe at the task.
Professor Dragnich tackles it with panache and self-assurance that he can well afford. The reputation of this nonagenarian doyen of South Slavic studies in America is so solid, and his grasp of all the essentials so firm, that his book is beyond objections applicable to a run-of-the-mill academic monograph.
My main objection regards the book’s editors, concerning a title that promises more than the work itself can deliver: A better one would have been “A Brief History of Modern Serbia, 1804-2004.” The author’s treatment of some four fifths of Serbia’s recorded history, including the glory that was Serbia under the medieval Nemanjic dynasty, is compressed into a mere 18 pages (Chapters One and Two). That should have provided an expanded introduction to what really interests the author: the way in which a premodern peasant society managed to throw off the Ottoman yoke, establish a viable state structure, and limit their own rulers in such a way as to result eventually in a parliamentary democracy—and all this within a single century (1804-1903).