A Short History

By Noel Malcolm

New York University Press. 492 pp. $28.95; paperback, $16.


American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields

By David Fromkin

Free Press. 210 pp. $21

Reading Noel Malcolm's elaborately researched and densely written history of Kosovo, I was reminded of a trip I took through the southern Balkans during the late Tito era on one of my first assignments for The Washington Post. Tito had done his best to smother ethnic tensions beneath the slogan of "brotherhood and unity," but the old animosities found ingenious ways of bubbling to the surface. Wherever I went, I was presented with a massive historical tome extolling the medieval empire of whatever ethnic group I happened to be visiting (Serbs, Albanians, Macedonians, Bulgars, Greeks). By the time I returned to Belgrade, the trunk of my car was filled with lavishly produced books of dubious scholarship, all of them quite unreadable.

With the possible exception of Israel and Palestine, it is difficult to think of another part of the world where history has such a contemporary relevance as in the Balkans, or where history has been so manipulated for political ends. By and large, the history of the Balkans has been left to the rival ethnic groups to write, or at least to research. For an outsider to attempt a serious history of a place like Kosovo--regarded by both Serbs and Albanians as an integral part of their ethnic homeland--is to negotiate a political minefield.

Malcolm is as well qualified as anybody to attempt such a feat. The British writer and journalist already has written a critically acclaimed history of Bosnia that challenged the notion (held by President Clinton, among others) that the region was in the grip of centuries-old ethnic hatreds impossible to eradicate. He has conducted an exhaustive review of everything that has been written about Kosovo in Albanian, Serbian, Turkish and several other languages. But despite his aspirations to impartiality, he has been sharply criticized by Serbian writers for being anti-Serb.

It is not difficult to see why Serb nationalists detest Malcolm's "Kosovo," which was first published in 1998 and recently appeared in paperback. He seems to take a particular delight in demolishing Serb myths, beginning with the most celebrated one of all, the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. In Serbian mythology, the battle was a shattering defeat for the saintly prince Lazar, leading to five centuries of Turkish Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Generations of Serbs were brought up to "avenge prince Lazar." Malcolm shows that the battle was probably "an expensive draw," and that the cult of Lazar was largely a 19th-century invention.

At times, Malcolm is almost pedantic in his evenhandedness, quoting Albanian historians and Serb historians, analyzing the meaning of place names and weighing one piece of evidence against another. But particularly in the later chapters of the book, he seems increasingly to accept the Albanian version of events. He piles on details of Serbian atrocities in the Balkan wars of 1912-13, and shows how a relatively unknown communist bureaucrat named Slobodan Milosevic stoked the fires of Serbian nationalism in Kosovo to achieve supreme power in Serbia.

While few outside observers would deny that Serb leaders must bear a huge share of the blame for the Kosovo tragedy, Malcolm may be guilty of letting the Albanians off too lightly. He attributes the decline in the Serb population of Kosovo in the postwar years--from 27 percent of the population to under 10 percent--to social and economic factors such as the high abortion rate among Serbs. It is no doubt true that Serb nationalists grossly exaggerated cases of "persecution" by the Albanian majority before Milosevic's rise to power, but Malcolm goes to the opposite extreme and appears to minimize reports of harassment of Serbs by Albanians.

Although Malcolm quotes Serb historians and political figures extensively, his endnotes suggest that he has taken many of these quotations from secondary Albanian sources. I would be more comfortable with his scholarship had he gone back to the original Serbian sources.

There is a long tradition in the Balkans of well-intentioned Westerners who have championed the cause of one nationality over another, beginning with the Serbophile Rebecca West, who did much to perpetuate the myth of long-suffering Serbia. The trend, more recently, has been for politicians and writers to pick a single nation to demonize. Given the appalling atrocities committed by Serbian forces in Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo, it has not been difficult to paint the Serbs as the villains. But if Balkan history demonstrates anything, it is that there is plenty of blame to be spread around. Atrocities in one conflict lead inevitably to counter-atrocities in the next. We are now seeing this cycle at work in Kosovo itself, where Serbs are fleeing for their lives from revenge-seeking Albanians.

Malcolm may have laid himself open to charges of being anti-Serb, but at least his book is a work of serious historical research, and an important contribution to English-language works on the Balkans. That is more than can be said for David Fromkin's "Kosovo Crossing," one of several instant books written in the heat of the recent war. There is no evidence in his book that he has ever visited the Balkans, let alone Kosovo.

Fromkin, the chairman of Boston University's international relations department, does a workmanlike job of describing U.S. foreign policy since the days of Woodrow Wilson. His insights into Yugoslavia and Kosovo are largely limited to extended quotations from "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," by the aforementioned West. Writing in the '30s, West used her travels around the Balkans as a vehicle for alerting the Western democracies to the dangers of doing nothing in the face of the rising tide of fascism. She regarded the people of the Balkans, and particularly the Serbs, as suffering innocents, a kind of human sacrifice for the geopolitical ambitions of foreign powers.

The relevance of all this to today's situation in Kosovo seems dubious. The evil that led to the destruction of Yugoslavia and the bloodletting of the past 10 years came not from without--but from within.

Michael Dobbs, who has reported extensively from the Balkans and is the author of "Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey."