If every man is worthy of a biography (as Johnson suggested), then every people, no matter how small, deserves a decent one-volume history that makes the story of the Bretons or the Armenians intelligible to foreigners. That is the admirable purpose of Blackwell’s “The Peoples of Europe” series, which presents the “usually turbulent history” of “the European tribes and peoples from their origins in prehistory to the present day.” In any such series, some choices of authors must be more successful than others. John Wilkes, who did the volume on the Illyrians, is the outstanding historian of ancient Illyria, while David Abulafia, author of the projected volume on the Sicilians, is a tendentious modernist who seems incapable of grappling with the Christian world.
Sima Cirkovic, by contrast, is the perfect choice for a small volume on the Serbs, and his history is a no-nonsense approach to the prickly sensitivities of Balkan historiography, where national partisanship is usually more obvious than objective analysis. His small volume is a coherent presentation of the Serbian experience from the time the Slavs enter the Balkans down to the present. To his great credit, Cirkovic avoids not only the race theories that infect so much Croatian, Macedonian, Albanian, and “Bosnian” historiography but also the nationalist chest pounding that occasionally disfigures even some of the best work of Serb historians. Chauvinists in search of special pleading should look elsewhere.
Of course, all good history is written from a point of view—whether ethnic, religious, political, or all three—and Professor Cirkovic writes from the perspective of a 20th-century Serb who lived through a world war, survived the Titoist era (in which he became a leading historian), and witnessed the heartbreaking stupidities of the Milosevic and post-Milosevic eras. A man who kept his eyes open for so many years is not easily seduced by propaganda.
The Serbs has many strong points, such as the meticulous presentation of the 19th- and 20th-century Serbian monarchies and the disasters of the Great War or the straightforward and nonpartisan account of the struggle between Chetniks and Partisans in World War II and the brief but accurate sketch of communist Yugoslavia and its breakup. Others have covered this period already in English: Michael Bora Petrovich, in his History of Serbia; S.K. Pawlovich, in several books; Barbara and Charles Jelavich—whose solid works on the 18th- and 19th-century Balkans are not entirely free of bias—in countless books on the Yugoslav experiment, including the competent (if cautious) volume edited by Cirkovic himself in 1974. There have also been nightmares of dishonest propaganda, and the sad truth is that American libraries are stuffed with the tendentious fantasies of Noel Malcolm and Tim Judah. At the very least, these institutions ought to purchase this book as an historical corrective.
If the 19th and 20th centuries have been covered, albeit by works of varying quality, medieval Serbia has not fared so well. The most accurate information available in English has had to be teased out of regional studies, such as John Fine’s excellent History of the Medieval Balkans, or disinterred from older volumes that are as much mythical as historical. In doing a brief sketch of medieval Serbia for Montenegro: The Divided Land, the best thing I could find was Professor Cirkovic’s series of internet articles, not well translated, on the History of Serbian Culture. In less than 100 pages of this new volume, however, Cirkovic provides the first accurate and coherent presentation of medieval Serbia, from the principalities of Zeta and Raska to the construction of the Nemanjic kingdom, reaching its height under Emperor Dusan in the 14th century, down to its heroic struggle to preserve its identity under Prince Lazar, his son Stefan Lazarevic, and his grandson Djuradj (George) Brankovic.
Although scarcely even a name in an English encyclopedia, Despot Djuradj Brankovic was an amazing man. Born before the Battle of Kosovo (1389), which ended Dusan’s state, he fought campaign after campaign—with the Hungarians against the Turks, and with the Turks against Hungarians—to keep his “despotate” alive. He was also one of the most powerful noblemen in Hungary and nearly placed the crown of Saint Stephen on his son’s head. He was with the great Janos Hunyadi on the Long Campaign that drove the Turks beyond Sofia, but when the Hungarians broke their treaty with the Turks and ravaged their way across Serbia only to be defeated at another Kosovo battle, the enraged despot imprisoned Hunyadi and held him for ransom. Their bad blood endangered Hunyadi’s heroic defense of Belgrade in 1456, where St. John Capistrano and his peasant crusaders saved the day, but Brankovic’s subjects mercilessly killed the Turks on their long retreat across Serbia.
What days those were, when a faltering Christendom still produced men like Saint John, Hunyadi, and Brankovic, to say nothing of their allies Skanderbeg (the half-Serb, half-Albanian who held off the Turkish hordes thrown at him by Sultan Mehmed), Pope Pius II (a gentle and brilliant humanist whose greatest ambition was to drive the Turk out of Europe), and the most controversial crusader of the era, Vlad Drakula “Tepesh,” who fulfilled the Serbian proverb that he who would not be a slave to the Turk must become a savage. Cirkovic’s account, though necessarily brief, is an admirable epitome of a story he has told at far greater length in his own language.
Cirkovic may be at his best in handling the Middle Ages—the golden age of the Serbs—but he is both candid and lucid in his treatment of Yugoslavia, its creation, its first dismemberment at the hands of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the era of Tito’s communism, and the painful period of bated breath that followed Tito’s death. These are all political minefields, especially for Serbs who lived through the era, but Cirkovic is up to the task, as he patiently treads his way between the claims of Serbs and Croats, Chetniks and Partisans.
Who should buy this book? Anyone with even a passing interest in European history; anyone who wants to understand why the Balkans has always been a powder keg; and anyone of Serbian extraction who wants to read a truthful account of this wonderful but perplexing people. I looked at someone else’s copy, just to take a few notes, and only then realized not only that I had to read the whole book but that I had to own it.
[The Serbs, by Sima M. Cirkovic (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) 322 pp., $29.95]