The Fracture Zone: A Return To The Balkans, by Simon Winchester
Not often does one get a second chance to better understand an area where one had previously visited, although admittedly it happens more often for writers and journalists perhaps than for most. As someone who came of age in the time after the fall of Communism, I must admit that it is hard for me to understand just how gullible many people seemed to be about the issue of nationalism during the Cold War. Did people honestly believe that dictators of one stripe or another could eternally keep the lid on the problem of nations and identities that has proliferated over the last three decades (and more)? If they did, as it seems that Simon Winchester did, they were very mistaken indeed. If Yugoslavia seemed to be quiescent under the role of Marshall Tito, it certainly has not been so since the collapse of communism, when the rest of the world found out just how intractable its identity problems were, how vexing even the most basic questions of language and borders could be, and just how much trouble that the region would bring to the rest of the world. It is a good thing for the author that he got a second chance of the region to develop, belatedly, some insights about it.
This particular book is organized around a Vienna-Istanbul trip the author made in 1999 or so, during the time that NATO was bombing the Serbs in order to provide for an autonomous (and later independent) Kosovo. The author’s own travel experiences, which are mildly entertaining on their own, are intermixed with discussions of geology and history that places what was then current events into a larger context and demonstrates the divides and struggles that still remain. The author moves from Vienna, quickly through Slovenia (where he finds no reason to stay, as there is no conflict for him to deal with there), to Croatia, where he finds in Dubrovnik and other places some clues as to the historically contingent nature of the disaster of the Yugoslav breakdown and the importance of religion in forming identity. He spends a great deal of time in Bosnia reflecting on the restive nature of Bosnian Serbs, the fragile unity of Bosniak and Croat, and the many regional divisions that make life in Bosnia particularly fraught with landmines. He even manages to explore the struggles of Montenegro and Macedonia for legitimacy and freedom before Montenegro won its independence and Macedonia renamed itself North Macedonia to end Greek opposition to its efforts at European diplomacy before ending in Istanbul.
This is the sort of book that simultaneously invites and discourages hot takes being made about its contents. For example, it is a pretty easy matter in a book like this to blame the Turks for a lot that is wrong here, and that is certainly part of the truth because of the issues of memory relating to the disaster of 1389 and the conversion of peoples like the Bosniaks and Albanians to Islam and the problems that have resulted from that. Certainly others have contributed to the disaster as well, as the World War II experience of Yugoslavia encouraged Croats that they could be free and victorious over oppressive Serbs, lessons that were put to good use in the 1990’s. Montenegrin desires for freedom appear to be more subdued but never surrendered in the period after they were forced into a union with other South Slaves in a Serb-dominated kingdom, and problems of language and nomenclature make identity a vexing matter for all of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. And while the Slovenes appear to have done the best in avoiding the disaster of many of their former fellow citizens, there is still much that remains to be written about the divides that exist in the region to this day.