Thinking about Yugoslavia: Scholarly Debates about the Yugoslav Breakup and the Wars in Bosnia and Kosovo

TitleThinking about Yugoslavia: Scholarly Debates about the Yugoslav Breakup and the Wars in Bosnia and Kosovo
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialRamet, Sabrina P.


PublisherCambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
ISSNISBN 0521616905
Review year


Full Text

This volume features thirteen review essays by the prolific Sabrina P. Ramet. They deal with crucial themes of the controversial recent history of what used to be Yugoslavia, and discuss the already extensive historiography on the most central “Yugoslav questions.” Ramet covers over 130 books in four languages (English, German, Italian and Serbian/ Croatian/ Bosnian), and systematically presents some key controversies that she judges as relevant to most interpretations. The time frame is approximately from Tito’s death in 1980 (, which Ramet took as the starting point of her own narrative and thematic account titled Balkan Babel) to the time of writing, with a clear focus on the distinct though linked wars of the 1990s.

The following topics are dealt with: the major debates on the war, presented in a succinct manner in the book's first and perhaps most important chapter. There are also chapters devoted to the collapse of Yugoslavia and rival accounts of the war. Moreover, we find Ramet's reflections on autobiographies of important actors as well as her discussion of eight works on the most important person involved, Slobodan Milosevic. Two chapters deal with recently published history books on each of the six former Yugoslav republics, among which works on Serbia are most common - Serbian studies can legitimately be called robust compared to Macedonian or Slovenian. A discussion of debates on Bosnia’s present and future since Dayton (focusing on the questions whether to keep the country together, and how best to achieve a liberal democracy) is included as well as the presentation of thirteen books on Kosovo. The latter one Ramet wrote with Angelo Georgakis on this formerly hardly known place in which a conjectural interest was expressed, largely in response to the emergence of the grave crisis situation in the late 1990s.

Taken together, these pieces represent an effort to cover the entire field of studies on the recent past of the Yugoslav space, drawing on ten of her previous publications; only Chapter 2 has a different focus, namely the fall of communism. They provide assessments of many works’ value as well. Throughout the book, Ramet is keen on expressing her preferences, sometimes even listing works according to merit. She even compiled a list of her favorite publications, which we are presented in her concluding chapter. She is often ready to present her own version. For instance, in the case of the fall of Yugoslavia she lists four crucial factors (system illegitimacy, economic deterioration, ethnically based federal system and human agency), though developments in Serbian political culture of the 1980s she judges as highly significant in understanding the radical nationalist consensus of Serbia political life that has been in place ever since, though with some notable variations in its radicalism over time.

Let me briefly introduce the major controversies she identifies. Firstly, the controversy between “realists” and “idealists.” On this point Ramet sides with the latter, as she calls herself a moral universalist, preferring the protection of human rights internationally over the stress on sovereignty (siding "with Kant over Hobbes"). (This also made her adopt a pro-interventionist stance in 1999, which was right in her view also on the basis of moral consequentialism, not only because of the righteousness of intentions. She claims that when it protects more human rights than would be protected without it, there is a duty to intervene – which finds its counterpart in the moral right of those in need, their “right to assistance.”)

Secondly, there is the opposition between long-term and the short-term explanations of the wars of the 1990s. Ramet definitely prefers the latter kind, finding the former ones often ahistorical (or determinist), if not downright vulgar (“Balkanist” in the worst Orientalist tradition). According to what we know, inter-ethnic hatred was not so much the cause as the consequence of the wars of the 1990s, and it is far from true that Yugoslav people were very religious in the 1980s. She has harsh statements on the common and fatal misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the central issues at stakes in 1990s, writes on the successes of Serbian propaganda efforts, and the Germenophobic climate of opinion she detected in the reaction of various actors (especially concerning Germany's "early" recognition of Slovenia and Croatia).

Moreover, Ramet forcefully rejects theses that find all sides similarly guilty, claiming at numerous occasions that Belgrade’s culpability is extensively documented, including early preparation for war. She sees the policy of ethnic cleansing as an undeniable part of the Serbian war effort, and even considers the term genocide applicable. Though scholars may be arguing how best to define what constitutes genocide, taking the original definition given by Lemkin, the terms' inventor, as well as the UN’s codified definition, Ramet sees a clear case at hand.

In sum, this historiographical book is written by someone who is not only an observer but also a participant in the debates she presents on the pages of Thinking about Yugoslavia, and her clear preferences make some parts of this volume rather predictable, and also disagreeable to several sides. It might be too early to take a more detached position on these controversial issues of the tragic recent past, the political is too bound up with the scholarly for that. In my assessment, at several points Ramet does not quite succeed in overcoming the problem of this dangerous overlap, nor does she always try. This leaves the volume as a useful introduction to a massive amount of literature that is at the same time evidently Ramet’s take on this material. For these reasons, Thinking about Yugoslavia cannot be expected to achieve the status of such eminent works of the same type as Ian Kershaw’s The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, though it should nevertheless emerge as the obvious first pick for people interested in reading on these topics.