Kosovo: A Short History by Noel Malcolm
I've spent a long time thinking about this book. It has attracted a lot of controversy. If you read the reviews on Amazon, you will see that they have descended into a flame-fest!
This is one of the few reviews that I have not posted on Amazon. To analyse both the book and the reaction to it takes rather more space that is afforded to a review there and I see little point in fuelling those arguements.
Ten out of ten. A fine book. Currently, the definitive history of Kosovo!
You can buy this definitive book from
Given the reaction to this book, I feel that it is useful to make a start from the following position:
What can we say about this book that will get the agreement of all concerned?
Well, the obvious thing is that, despite the title, this is not a short history. This book goes on for hundreds and hundreds of pages. Like it or hate it, this is not a pamphlet.
Next, it tells a history of Kosovo over a period of rather more than a millenium. The very early years are not covered in much detail as there is very little hard evidence of the history of Kosovo from more than fifteen hundred years ago.
Every factual assertion in the book is backed up by an alleged reference to contemporary material. Where this material is not definitive, the author carefully explains the process through which he draws his conclusions.
The books paints a picture that shows post Ottoman Serb behaviour in Kosovo in a bad light. The author levels the accuastion that much official Serbian history is the false invention of people trying to justify the existance of a Serbian nation. Further, in the last two hundred years he paints a picture of the Serbs as a brutal and stupid people.
The book ends before the 1999 bombing campaign and the Rambouillet talks.
Clearly, it will be no great surprise to discover that the book was welcomed by the Albanian community and violently rejected by the Serbian community. There is clearly an issue of truth at stake. The book says one thing about the history of the region and this is greatly at odds with the accepted history within Serbia.
Well, that much should be fairly easy for people to agree upon.
The two issues that remain are these:
Firstly, is the truth as told by the book correct or is it false?
Secondly, are the conclusions drawn a fair reflection on the facts in the book?
The second question is really only relevant if the answer to the first one is that the book reflects the factual truth. After all, if the book is a pack of lies, as its detractors would have it, then it hardy matters what conclusions are drawn.
The factual content of the book can be analysed in an objective manner. Where the author states something as fact and gives a detailed reference to the source material, does that source material exist and does it say what he claims? Also, are there other documents of equivalent weight that would refute the contents of those on which the author relies?
Note, in the latter case, a modern history of past events is of no use unless it too contains references to original material. Any refuting material would have to be documents contempory to or written soon after the relevant events. We can hardly adjudge the truth of events that took place eight hundred years ago by relying solely on assertions in a book written fifty or even one hundred and fifty years ago.
Well, I cannot answer the question of fact directly as most of the quoted source material is unavailable to me as I am not a professional historian. However, we can all answer them by inference. The book has been roundly condemned by Serb supporters and, the efforts that they have made make it clear that there is some degree of organisation in their attempts. The book has also been widely read and discussed by the community of historians. In none of these areas have I read any statement to the effect that the evidence quoted is false or that there exists solid refuting evidence.
So, I'd challenge the book's detractors to put up or shut up. If the book quotes old documents that do not exist or which actually say something different then tell us. If there exist other old documents that refute the book then tell us that also. Until I see evidence of this, I will tend to feel that the books is based on fact and is a true history of Kosovo.
Beyond that is the matter of the author's conclusions and inferences. Any judgement here is purely subjective but, in general I am persuaded by his arguements. It should be noted that the author does not lay out any proposals for the future of the region and he makes no call for the Nato action that did eventually occur.