The death at age 97 of Prof. Alex N. Dragnich, a leading American expert on Serbian and Yugoslav history, marks the departure of one of the last witnesses to an era in which this country’s involvement in Southeastern Europe was neither contrary to her traditional values nor overtly harmful to the region’s inhabitants.  His dozen books, two-score scholarly articles, and over a hundred op-eds dealing with the history and politics of the Balkans compare to the mountains of recent drivel on this subject like Russell Kirk’s work compares with that of Midge Decter.

In 1907, Dragnich’s father, Novica, left his dirt-poor Montenegrin village of Morakovo, intending to earn enough in America to buy a farm and then return home.  His restless nature took him first to Illinois, then to Nevada, Wyoming, Alaska, and finally to a remote farm in the state of Washington.  He did not save a penny, however, and had to borrow money to bring his wife over in 1911.  The first of their six children, Alex, was born in 1912.

“I had a happy childhood in that wilderness,” Dragnich remembered, “but when I was nine the Ferry County truant officer turned up at our cabin and told my father that I had to go to school.”  Alex did very well in class, once he had learned English.  Recognizing the tall, skinny boy’s talents, the teachers encouraged him to go to college.  His studies were interrupted during the Great Depression, but he was graduated with honors from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1938.  Supported by his wife, Adele, a nurse, he completed his doctorate in political science at Berkeley in 1942.

Dragnich spent the war years as an analyst with the Office of Strategic Services, specializing in the Balkans.  After the war he was posted to Belgrade as cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy and director of the American Cultural Center.  He came to a ruined and hungry city soon after Tito’s victory in the Yugoslav civil war.  It was dangerous for a local to visit the Center without first securing the approval of the feared UDBA (secret police), let alone to have any unauthorized contact with an American diplomat.  Dragnich was followed all the time, and he took it in stride.  On a trip to central Serbia he noticed that the car of his tail had suddenly vanished from the rear-view mirror.  He told the driver to turn around, found the distraught secret policeman trying to fix the stalled engine, and gave him a lift to the nearest town.

On his return to the United States Dragnich joined the faculty of Vanderbilt University in 1950, where he retired as professor emeritus in 1978.  His Yugoslav experiences, combined with exhaustive scholarship, resulted in his first book, Tito’s Promised Land (1954), after which he was for decades persona non grata in communist Yugoslavia.  It was a wholesale destruction of the Tito myth, propagated in the 1950’s by Western post-Stalinist leftists, journalists on the lookout for socialism with a human face, and (especially in Britain) a powerful cabal of establishmentarian historians—William Deakin, Stephen Clissold, Elisabeth Barker, Phyllis Auty, Basil Davidson—who regarded Tito’s 1948 break with Stalin as a retroactive justification of Britain’s wartime policy of betraying General Mihailovich.

Serious scholarship of the past half-century has proved that Dragnich was right and they were wrong: Tito was a ruthless and bloody dictator whose wartime resistance had the sole objective of grabbing power after the war.  His Yugoslavia was first a slaughterhouse, then a Western-financed ego trip, and finally a powder keg, unfree and unviable.

In 1961 Dragnich was the original author of the popular textbook Major European Governments, which is still in print after almost half a century.  But it was his work on the Balkans that cemented his reputation.  The First Yugoslavia (1983) was a pioneering effort in English to throw light on the quest for a viable political system in the kingdom between 1918 and 1941.  The Saga of Kosovo (1984) provides an outline of the history of the southern Serbian province that should have been essential reading for every Western journalist dispatched to cover the war there 15 years later.  His Serbs and Croats: The Struggle in Yugoslavia (1993) focused on several essentials of the recent Balkan crisis that remain little known—or are studiously ignored—by most Western “experts” and politicians, including the key problem of Tito’s arbitrarily drawn boundaries between federal units.  His key themes were further developed in Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and the Struggle for Truth (1996) and Serbia and Yugoslavia: Historical Studies and Contemporary Commentaries (1998).  In 2005 came Dragnich’s short yet masterfully authoritative Serbia Through the Ages.  (My review, “History Is Contemporary,” can be found in the January 2006 issue of Chronicles.)

Active until the end, Alex Dragnich was too much of an old-fashioned American not to be an optimist.  He believed that, “had the policy makers and the media been better informed about Balkan and particularly Serbian history, conclusions and actions may have been very different.”  He hoped that his fair-minded and reasonable account of events in the former Yugoslavia would prevent future mistakes and “lead to some reassessment of recent policies and media coverage.”

May Alex Dragnich’s friends and admirers keep that hope alive—even when it seems to go against all odds—as a tribute to the stamina of a great and good man.