Understanding the Balkans today isn’t easy. Rivalries go back generations, while ethnic identities and national borders have changed many times throughout the years – so many times that even those familiar with the region’s political geography today sometimes struggle to remember which group controlled different parts of the region at different points in history.
Maps are especially helpful in tracking how territorial control changed over time, and “The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of the Balkans” comes in handy in this endeavor. It’s laid out simply enough: The map on the right-hand page corresponds to the text on the left-hand page, which describes why the borders changed when they did and the consequences of those changes. The atlas is both comprehensive and brief, providing enough information on each map to clue readers into what research they would need to do to learn more, without getting bogged down in too many details.
In October, I described Mark Mazower’s “The Balkans: A Short History” in a similar way. The atlas covers a much longer history than Mazower’s book does – it starts a little after the fall of the Western Roman Empire – but it does so in less detail. This history is important to understanding how the region developed through the Byzantine age and then the Ottoman age, whose end defined so many of 19th- and 20th-century conflicts with which people may be more familiar. The atlas was published in 2001, so the most recent map is on the Kosovo war.
Reading a history of such a long time period may sound daunting, but the maps help a lot. Though they tend to focus on the political geography of the region – showing territorial control of different governments over time – the atlas also includes other types of maps, including topographical ones, that help readers understand how and why politics in the Balkans developed the way they did.
My only real complaint with the atlas is about presentation. The maps weren’t in color, as advertised, but in grayscale, making several of them hard to follow. This is a drawback readers should be aware of before purchasing the book, but the coverage of such a long and complicated history still makes it a worthwhile read.
Xander Snyder, analyst
There is a delight in discovering an untold story. That delight is magnified when the story is of great geopolitical significance. In this case, it is the tale of an early 20th-century mansion built by Czech coal magnate and banking giant Otto Petschek in Prague’s Bubenec neighborhood. Norm Eisen, President Barack Obama’s ethics czar and later ambassador to the Czech Republic, tells the story of the home – and of Prague’s outsize geopolitical role in the 20th century – through the lives of the people who lived there: Petschek, a Wehrmacht officer named Rudolf Toussaint, and two American ambassadors, Laurence Steinhardt and Shirley Temple Black.
The book is at once an intimate history of modern Prague as seen through the eyes of its watchers, a sweeping saga of Europe’s unrest over the past century and a deeply personal story. It weaves together a remarkable cast of characters – from Woodrow Wilson to Shirley Temple, Franz Kafka to Adolf Hitler, the Dulles brothers to Josef Stalin. The book’s author is himself of Czechoslovak ancestry; Eisen’s mother, Frieda, survived deportation from her village of Sobrance to Auschwitz during the Holocaust and eventually emigrated to the United States after World War II. As ambassador, Eisen lived in the palace and, when he couldn’t find a good record of the place, sought to unearth its history. He did so with help from the descendants of the palace’s inhabitants and from his mother, despite her suspicion of his posting – “You know what happened to us there,” she tells her son.
In college, it seemed that every one of my international relations classes included endless lectures on the world wars and the Cold War. But no matter how many lives were lost at the Somme or in Siberia, those historical recapitulations always felt impersonal, stuffy and academic. In Eisen’s writing, the conflicts come alive, particularly through his retelling of the constant, interminable work of diplomacy and statecraft that coursed through Prague. In 2018, the Czech Republic elected a populist president; China and Russia curried political and commercial influence in the country; there was a coal mining disaster; and Prague rebuffed the EU. The drama in Prague continues to unfold, and the story of the city in the 20th century only enriches the reader’s understanding of what’s happening in that geopolitical linchpin today.
Emma Pennisi, editor