Courtesy Reuters

Imagining Kosovo: A Biased New Account Fans Western Confusion

In This Review

Kosovo: A Short History

By Noel Malcolm
New York University Press, 1998
492 pp. $28.95

Noel Malcolm's previous books include a biography of a twentieth-century Romani an violinist and composer, a volume engagingly called The Origins of English Nonsense, a history of Bosnia, and a life of a sixteenth-century Venetian heretic who studied rainbows. Since he seems to select his literary targets at random, it is tempting to dismiss Malcolm as a popularizer or charlatan. But in Kosovo: A Short History, Malcolm emerges as a talented amateur historian, trying hard -- the book has 1,154 endnotes and a bibliography in a dozen languages -- to produce a serious book about Serbia's southern province, with its almost 90 percent Albanian majority. He is only partly successful.

Can there really be a history of Kosovo? Malcolm recognizes at the outset that there is "something rather artificial about writing the history of territory, as a unit." But he argues that Kosovo has a geographical identity and is an important cultural crossroads. Alas, his account is marred by his sympathies for the Albanians and his illusions about the Balkans.

Kosovo was a central part of medieval Serbia, and Serbian kings built magnificent monasteries and churches there, many of which still survive. Still, Kosovo never had recognized boundaries. In the mid-fifteenth century, after its conquest by the Ottoman Turks, it became an ill-defined region within their empire. In the late nineteenth century, the Ottomans established the vilayet or province of Kosovo, but it encompassed a rather different territory than today's Kosovo. Although after the First Balkan War of 1912 it was again part of Serbia -- called then and now by Serbs Kosovo-Metohija -- it did not become an autonomous administrative unit. Nor did it achieve such status after World War I, when Montenegro and the South Slav provinces of the former Austria-Hungary joined Serbia to form Yugoslavia, which, until 1929, was officially called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

Only after the defeat of the Nazis in World War II did Kosovo achieve autonomy. During the war, the communist-led Partisan Army fought

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