*Balkan Ghosts* by Robert Kaplan


I recently reread this travelogue published on the eve of the late 20th century Yugoslav crisis and modeled on Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, written in the aftermath of 1914 and on the eve of 1939, “to show the past side by side with the present it created.” Kaplan descibes what he observed as the Communist regimes in the Balkans were crumbling in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Outside of this region, especially in the West, we have little appreciation for its Byzantine complexity, world-changing importance, and obscene suffering. I picked up Balkan Ghosts when it was published in 1993 to try to acquire some of this appreciation at a time when most reporting on the Yugoslav crisis was (and remains) entirely biased . My interest at that time was spurred by the direct experience of a friend who served as a UN mediator in Sarajevo before, during, and after the bombing of this once magical haven for peaceful multiethnic co-existence so admirably described in Ivo Andrić’s Nobel prize-winning novel. More recently, my interest in all of this has been rekindled as a result of my friendship with a refugee from Vukovar living in London since war ravaged her birthplace. She inspired me to visit Sarajevo during a trip to the region several years ago and continues to motivate me to try to understand this most baffling part of the world.


Wait. Are there not many more events in humanities past more terrible that one should be aware of and relive in their minds as they read about them? How much of our lives should we spend in the past? How much can you learn from these events that you can apply to humanity today to make a difference? There are societies today where if you visited them, put out your hand in friendship you would likely be killed within days. A book about such places would be very interesting. No one will write it.

Now, to the future, spend time reading about new discoveries and perhaps you will get an idea that could lead to the cure for cancer. Or the development of an AI that will discover how to modify our genetic code to make smoking unpleasant. Living for the future, IMO, is better than living in the past.


I think that your perspective might change if you could interact with the people to whom you refer. One practical way to interact is by appreciating the history of others.


History is a record of many people making the wrong decisions based on insufficient information. We have people who need to do something that is basic knowledge today but not yet learned in the past. The past is a mess and not fun to be in. People in the past are prisoners of their ignorance. The past is run by mostly horrible people who think little of humanity, only of themselves. There are exceptions but these are generally the few really brilliant people trapped in the past and because of their intelligence have found a way to be relatively happy. The past did teach the people fighting other people how to do it better, how to kill more effectively. The people of the past behaved appropriately for when and where they lived. You can not judge the king of old on today’s human rights standards. I understand the history of others was mostly beyond their control, either physically or mentally. What have we learned from the past that applies today? It is counter productive to do bad, selfish, evil, stupid things. Yet we have societies that still do these things. What was said, oh yes, I remember, “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.”


History is my paradigm and favorite area of study. I highly recommend it.