Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Silber and Little [1]

[I am now embarking on my promised ongoing/open-ended series of books reviews; I am undertaking this project with an eye towards developing an online annotated bibliography of books on the Bosnian war, the context it occurred in, and related issues. I am working these reviews out in process in public view in hopes of soliciting feedback, editorial suggestions, and knowledgeable feedback. Please feel free to weigh in on these reviews as I work them out in this public forum.]

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Laura Silber and Alan Little

In 1995, BBC broadcast a six-part documentary entitled "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation", which won wide praise for its in-depth reporting and extensive use of previously unseen archival footage.

Two of the journalists who were deeply involved in creating the series, Laura Silber and Alan Little, would subsequently go on to produce a book by the same title based on the body of documentation gathered for the production of the BBC series. This book would also garner much-deserved acclaim, and nearly fifteen years after its publication remains probably the best widely availabe single-volume English-language history of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

As the Introduction makes clear, the authors intended this book to be a dispassionate, fact-based work of sober reportage; to quote:

"It is also important to state what this book is not. It is not a crie de coeur of the "Save Bosnia Now" type (though we both believe that Bosnia could, and should, have been saved). It is not a polemic against the failure of the West to protect the weak against the strong, or even to honor its own promises. And it is not a book about journalism or journalists; it is not a "we were there and it was horrible" account of life on the front line."

This disclaimer is accurate. The authors are willing to let the facts speak for themselves, and they do powerfully in this book. For someone who knows nothing of how the wars started or what happened once they did, this is the place to start. The authors do not dwell too deeply on history--the story begins with Milosevic's rise to power, after only the briefest of historical sketches in the Introduction to set the stage. There is no examination of cultural or social undercurrents to the violence. The authors are concerned with political decisions made by mostly unscrupulous leaders who were willing to utilize the latent power of nationalism to fill the political void left by Tito's death.

The Introduction is brief, and sets the stage for the story to come. There are multiple maps, a "Cast of Characters" giving names and a brief identifying entry for approximately 175 persons, a list of acronyms, and a sense that the reader is in the hands of two authors who are able to present sober, even-keeled analysis without jettisoning their respective moral compasses in a misguided quest to be "neutral" or "objective."


Shaina said...

I was hoping you would start off with this book. It is one of my top books on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

In spite of the fact that there are scores more literature written about Bosnia/the former Yugoslavia as Rwanda (at least based on the public library holdings in the towns I've lived in), I have yet to come across a book on the former Yugoslavia that matches the immense scope, complexity (without losing sight of the overall picture) as Allison Des Forges 1,000 page report on the Rwandan genocide: "Leave none to tell the story." While the resources, scope and intent of both books are vastly different, in my opinion, Silber and Little's book comes the closest to offering something similar (if on a much smaller scale) to what Allison Des Forges was able to offer in her book. A sober account that allows the facts to speak for themselves, and is (in my very humble opinion) all that more powerful and authoritative for that.

This book is also enormously helpful as a primer on what happened and how it happened. I read this book after I had already read many accounts on Bosnia, so for me, I found that this book gave me some background information on areas of the wars I was less infromed about, namely what happened in Slovenia and Croatia and even the role of the HDZ in Bosnia.

Anonymous said...

With no intent to distract from Kirk's review, the series can be viewed at YouTube with each programme broken down into roughly ten-minute sectoions, starting at