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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 1 .


Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia
Bogdan Denitch

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
230pp. Index. Bibl. Pb.: 13.95;
ISBN 0-8166-2459-3.


While attending an international seminar in peace and conflict studies in Austria in 1992, I remember the entire student body being frustrated by the lack of updated background material in English about Yugoslavia. Five years later, this is no longer the case, - the number of publications is abundant. Denitch's book is about the conflict(s) in the Former Yugoslavia, its reasons, and the wider perspectives of "Ethnic nationalism". Through an introduction, seven chapters, and a postscript, the book switches continuously between background explanation, political essay, and personal experience. Though Denitch admits to write primarily for an American audience, often ignorant of "other cultures and histories" (p. 18), both readers with extensive and readers with little prior knowledge about the Former Yugoslavia will have an interest in reading Denitch's book.

In particular, Chapter 1, "Essential Background on Yugoslavia", is an excellent presentation of the many reasons for the conflict in Yugoslavia, and whenever Denitch later on seeks to explain various aspects of the conflict a profound and valuable insight is sensed. However, when the book turns to more political discussions it is not as attractive. A main point in the argument is that "the Yugoslav tragedy was not the result of some exotic or particular and unique problem" (p. 135). Therefore, Denitch often makes analogies to other parts of the world, especially the former Eastern Bloc, because "[t]his tangled story contains interesting lessons for the post-Soviet states in dealing with their own even more explosive national problems" (p.125). Yet, what the lessons are is discussed at length but without the development of precise terminological tools. For instance, it is not until far into the book that Denitch defines what he means by 'democracy', and by then, I had come to expect a more elaborated understanding.

Chapter 7, "A Personal Summary", is another interesting chapter. Though having lived much of his life outside Yugoslavia, Denitch has strong ties to the country. In the chapter he explains his own efforts in the first years of the war. This 'first row' analysis is clear-headed and fascinating. Throughout the book it is sensed that it is with sadness that Denitch observes the death of Yugoslavia, seeing it as a "giant step backward from an independent and nonaligned country to squabbling and warren petty states scrambling for foreign patrons and support" (p.28).

Denitch's book was published in 1994, and much water has passed under the bridge since then. Has the book then become 'outdated'? I do not think so. First, the book is an important discussion of the reasons and series of events that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the subsequent brutal conflicts. Second, the book can be of great interest to the understanding of other evolving conflicts. If we want to become better at preventing similar conflicts in the future, lessons have to be learned from Denitch's book.


Claus Heje, University of Copenhagen.



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