The Fall of Yugoslavia

by Misha Glenny

I’m a sucker for what I understand to be a sort of Slavic charisma. It’s probably not actually exclusive to the Slavs, but that’s where I can recall encountering a sort of joking, masculine joviality with a subtle undercurrent of cruelty or aggression. And I love it, for some reason––even when it’s employed by someone who I know to be reprehensible. A case in point comes early on in The Fall of Yugoslavia when Glenny interviews the infamous Serbian general, Ratko Mladić. Though not yet a convicted war criminal at this time, it’s interesting that I was able to take substantial enjoyment from his manner of talk when he’s right in the midst of his campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing. And the point the problematic nature of this struck home was when Mladić spoke to a Croat general, one of his counterparts during the Croatian war for independence, about recovering a pile of dead bodies that were starting to smell, and doing so with such quotidian nonchalance to come off not just callous to the fallen, but also at least a bit grotesque.

But this seemingly idiosyncratic nature of people involved in such a horrid, vicious conflict is part of the point of The Fall of Yugoslavia. Glenny’s book attempts to shed light on the historical wrongdoings and growing nationalist sentiment that people in power successfully harnessed to cause people with such a deep, shared background to deny one another’s humanity and effectively rip the country to shreds.

I think that one of the most effective features of The Fall of Yugoslavia is its structure. Glenny frequently takes the time to focus on a description of the various places in which he finds himself throughout the war-torn republics. This helps to make the region tangible in readers’ minds, rather than just the murky setting of a vague race war. His treatment of character, in contrast, confused me at least a bit early on, but it made sense as we progressed. The author focuses on the major players and the different groups more generally without zooming in on individuals affected by the conflict for most of the book. Though I felt this was at odds with his treatment of the setting, working with generalities more than shaping something specific, something real, it was likely necessary to proceed as such in order to truly bring an ignorant reader, such as myself, to a bit of an understanding of the driving forces of the conflicts and how tensions escalated. Only at that point, after making clear the complex background, does the author delve into the specific terrors that befell individuals, and we’re given a strong sense that people actually felt fit to do horrible, horrible things to other people.

So I thought The Fall of Yugoslavia was effective in delivery, specifically, but I can also understand how people could easily take offense with the somewhat rude or disrespectful way Glenny often speaks of various people, cultures, and ideologies he’s confronted with––especially if one comes to the book already possessing strong connections to the region. It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine people seeing the writing as arrogant, though I wouldn’t suggest that I thought he intended anything damaging with this. I strongly suspect that the author attempted to truthfully express what he experienced and understood from the midst of these conflicts to better illuminate what happened.