Reflection on Misha Glenny’s The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers (1804-2011)

Professors Petra Taylor and James Taylor

BAL 315 Introduction to the Balkans: History, Culture, Politics and Religion

The fact that the term, “the Balkans” is from the 19th century surprised me, because it seems like a recent origin. I had not considered how long that term has been in use. I then wonder how people of that region referred to themselves before “the Balkans” was applied to them. Is this a fruitful question to pursue? What’s the significance of the name of a region? Perhaps more significant is the connotation that name has.

The Balkans has a negative reputation, which I found interesting because of the way that relates to Balkan peoples’ identities. Do people end up refusing to accept the label of “I’m from the Balkans” or “I am a person of the Balkans”, or even “I am Balkan”, because of the negative connotation that Glenny describes that term has? Perhaps people are quicker to accept being “Croatian” or “Bosnian” than they are being “Balkan”? This compares to someone from New Zealand preferring the demonym, “New Zealander” to “Pacific Islander”. Do people prefer their national demonym or their regional, geographic demonym?

I’m left with a question about what the term “the Balkans” refers to. Does “the Balkans” refer to a geographical area? Or to countries with particular histories? Who is an authoritative source for answering this question? A historian like Misha Glenny? How can I reason for myself what the Balkans is? Or do we simply need to specify what we mean by the term “Balkans” every time we use it? At least, there is a generally understood meaning of this term, which encompasses southeast Europe and some of Western Asia.

Does the Balkans really have a bad reputation? It depends on which audience you’re asking, and what makes up for a negative reputation. Looking at Gordon College, there is a general sense of awe over the Balkans. People find it a fascinating place, not a disgusting place. Glenny talks about the negative view that many people have, and he especially focuses on the mid 20th century United States American public consciousness. With their view of the Balkans comes a view that it is a place which is backwards and primitive in its technology, but even more strongly is a view of the people that understands them to be sneaky, un-trustable people who cannot get along, and are not civilized. My grandmother, a high-school educated woman who lived in Berks County, Pennsylvania her whole life, particularly in a small town named Mohnton, thought I might be going to a village to live in a hut after she found out I was going to Croatia. I showed her a virtual tour of Zagreb through Google Maps though, and she was relieved. According to Glenny, she seems to represent a large part of the American public, who don’t view countries in the Balkans as well developed nations.

Let’s take the reputation question one step further. Does the negative reputation the Balkans has represent the reality of the region? Do people in the Balkans really not have the ability to live in diversity? Are they really without the ability to live amongst a variety of ethnicities and religions? I doubt it. My doubt comes from the words I’ve heard from Gordon students and faculty about the area. One of the faculty mentioned feeling a sense of safety in the region. And another faculty member mentioned the way that guests will take interest in us students as we hear from them, which gives me a good impression of the people. In my impression, I imagine some Balkan people to be engaged in restorative work, and to be very civil and informed people, who want to shed their bad image by changing and by proving the world it is inaccurate. But I also imagine some people will be callous and bitter because of the past.

Finally, what is a good response to the bad image that the Balkans has? First, according to the transcendental imperatives of Bernard Lonergan, we ought to be intelligent, and identitfy patterns that exist. A pattern to look for is what people are already doing to correct this image and make it not only more accurate, but also what are people doing to make the image better? Then, is that work good? Are they doing good work? That is, work which moves us towards what is good, true, and beautiful? If so, partnering with them in what they are doing would be a good response, and a fitting response to what’s going on, to the world around us, and to the history of actions that have been taken on us and on what we are investigating. Improve the image of the Balkans.

I wrote this reflection for the first course of a study abroad semester in the Balkans, at the European Center for the Study of War and Peace. Find the syllabus below.