The Balkans in Brief

If every man is worthy of a biography (as Johnson suggested), then every people, no matter how small, deserves a decent one-volume history that makes the story of the Bretons or the Armenians intelligible to foreigners.  That is the admirable purpose of Blackwell’s “The Peoples of Europe” series, which presents the “usually turbulent history” of “the European tribes and peoples from their origins in prehistory to the present day.”  In any such series, some choices of authors must be more successful than others.  John Wilkes, who did the volume on the Illyrians, is the outstanding historian of ancient Illyria, while David Abulafia, author of the projected volume on the Sicilians, is a tendentious modernist who seems incapable of grappling with the Christian world.

Sima Cirkovic, by contrast, is the perfect choice for a small volume on the Serbs, and his history is a no-nonsense approach to the prickly sensitivities of Balkan historiography, where national partisanship is usually more obvious than objective analysis.  His small volume is a coherent presentation of the Serbian experience from the time the Slavs enter the Balkans down to the present.  To his great credit, Cirkovic avoids not only the race theories that infect so much Croatian, Macedonian, Albanian, and “Bosnian” historiography but also the nationalist chest pounding that occasionally disfigures...

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