Chamberlain and the Lost Peace

John Charmley’s Chamberlain and the Lost Peace was published in 1989 and makes a fine companion volume to his later Churchill: The End of Glory and Churchill’s Grand Alliance
Chamberlain and the Lost Peace is a bold reassessment of both Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement, subjects which still lead to heated and acrimonious debates.
Charmley’s view is that Chamberlain was most certainly not a silly naïve old man nor was he soft. He was a hard-headed realist and he was tough and realistic. His realism was the key to his foreign policy. Chamberlain believed very strongly that Britain’s foreign policy had to be in harmony with its defence policy. A foreign policy based on the ability to intervene decisively in a continental war was obviously going to lead to disaster if the army that such intervention required did not exist. 
Even more importantly, defence policy had to be in harmony in economic policy. Economic realities determined defence policy. Britain simply could not afford to maintain a strong navy, a strong air force and a strong army. Something had to be sacrificed. Chamberlain believed that a strong navy and a strong air force were more important than a strong army and history proved him correct.
Even maintaining a strong navy and a strong air force was something that Britain could only afford in the short term. Ands there was the expense of maintaining the Empire.
Worst still, while Britain could with great difficulty support the cost of rearmament she could not actually afford to fight a war.
Chamberlain’s foreign policy was based on an acceptance of these realities, realities which contemporary critics like Eden and Churchill steadfastly refused to face (and most subsequent historians have also refused to accept these realities).
Since Britain could not afford an army that could intervene decisively in a continental war it naturally followed that a rational foreign policy had to be based on avoiding being entangled in such a war, and preferably had to be based on preventing such a war from happening. 
For Chamberlain foreign policy was not a matter of taking a moral stand, since taking a moral stand without having the force to back it up is not only futile, it does more harm than good. Chamberlain’s foreign policy objective was to build of Britain’s defences while doing everything possible to contain German expansionism. Since Britain lacked an army capable of intervening directly in central Europe this containment could only be achieved by diplomatic means. Chamberlain did not trust Hitler and he strongly disapproved of not only Hitler but dictators in general. On the other hand Chamberlain did not believe it was worth starting a catastrophic war, with no guarantee of victory, in circumstances in which Britain could provide no actual assistance to threatened nations such as Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Critics of Chamberlain often underestimate the full extent of his difficulties. He was somewhat sceptical of the extent to which the French could be relied upon (and he was obviously correct on that score), he was extremely sceptical of the possibility of any meaningful help from the United States and he was absolutely sure he could not trust Stalin. That left Britain with few options.
Given the reality of the situation in 1938 Chamberlain’s policy was not merely reasonable, it was the only sensible policy that Britain could pursue.
So why did Chamberlain’s policy fail to avert war? The answer to that is that by early 1939 Chamberlain was no longer a free agent. He was under extreme political pressure to abandon appeasement and adopt a more aggressive policy and his own Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, was determined to take a strong stand by offering a guarantee to Poland. Chamberlain, despite grave misgivings, felt that he had little choice other than to agree. Had he stuck to his policy of appeasement war might well have been avoided.
The insane decision to offer a unilateral guarantee to Poland was prompted to a large extent by a flood of wild and baseless rumours and hopelessly incorrect (and in many cases deliberately misleading) intelligence reports. The Second World War would not be the last war to be brought about by erroneous intelligence reports. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, unfortunately took the wildest of these rumours at face value. War becomes inevitable once people believe that it is inevitable. Britain blundered into war in 1939 as she had blundered into war in 1914.
Of course it goes without saying that support for the policy of appeasement did not and does not imply support for Hitler. Chamberlain detested Hitler and the Nazis, and he was well aware of the nature of Hitler’s regime. The fact that an historian believes that on balance appeasement was the most sensible of the limited options available to Britain also does not imply any kind of sympathy for the Nazis or any naïvete on the subject. Sometimes there are no good foreign policy options so one must settle for the least worst option.
Charmley is always provocative and always worth reading. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace is highly recommended.

Churchill’s Grand Alliance

John Charmley’s 1995 book Churchill’s Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57 is part of a kind of trilogy dealing with the period from the late 30s to the late 50s. In this case the cut-off date is very significant – 1957 marking the end of British foreign policy as a truly independent nation.
As Charmley sees it the problem with the wartime alliance between the “Big Three” – Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – was that the British government (and Churchill in particular) failed to understand that these three great powers not only had few interests in common, their interests were in fact fundamentally in conflict. Churchill clung to the belief that this would somehow all resolve itself once Hitler was beaten. Churchill also clung to the belief that by establishing a personal relationship between himself and Stalin and between himself and Roosevelt British interests could be protected. By early 1945 he knew he had miscalculated in regard to Stalin but he was never able to comprehend that US interests were in many respects diametrically opposed to Britain’s. He also failed to understand the depth of American hostility towards the British Empire.
In the postwar period the Cold War initially seemed like a godsend – surely this would bring the US and Britain closer together. The problem here was that the Cold War became an obsession for the US while Britain had other vital interests totally unconnected with that conflict. For Britain the Empire was an economic necessity. For the US the British Empire was a relic of the bad old days and an obstacle the new world order they hoped to create, a new world order that would coincidentally be entirely in the interests of the United States.
The British Empire was also an obstacle to one of the centrepieces of American postwar grand strategy – the unification of Europe. The US believed that European unification would not be viable without Britain but the problem was that as long as Britain had her Empire she not only had no need to join a European federation – it would be against Britain’s interests to do so. Coincidentally European unification would be very much in the interests of the US in the context of the Cold War – whether it would actually be in the interests of Europe was not a consideration.
The Middle East was where the Anglo-American Special Relationship really caused trouble. Britain had very vital economic interests indeed in this region. The US felt that the best solution was for American influence to displace British influence in the region. As Charmley points out there was nothing morally reprehensible about the US ruthlessly pursuing its own interests. The problem was that the British were living in a fantasy world in which they thought that if they supported the US where US interests were at stake (such as the Korean War and Central America) then the US would support Britain where British interests were at stake. 
The crisis came in 1956 over Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. This being of absolutely crucial importance to Britain the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, assumed that the US would support the British and French use of force to reverse Nasser’s action. After all Britain and France were independent nations with a right to protect their interests. He was wrong. The US responded by trying to wreck the British economy. Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, would not make the mistake of thinking Britain had the right to an independent foreign policy.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is Charmley’s reassessment of Sir Anthony Eden. Eden emerges as the last British Foreign Secretary, and the last British Prime Minister, to believe that Britain both should and could pursue an independent foreign policy. Eden was always remarkably consistent in this respect. He had ruffled feathers during the war for his conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union. Eden was in fact merely being brutally realistic. The war was clearly going to end with the Soviet Union in possession of large chunks of eastern Europe. Making an issue of this was simply futile. The Soviet Union, of which he heartily disapproved, was a reality. The best course of action was to accept reality and try to establish sensible relations with Stalin. 
Eden’s attempt to pursue an independent foreign policy failed but this does not necessarily mean it was a bad idea.
Charmley also has interesting things to say about colonialism. He does not accept that the dissolution of the Empire was inevitable. The Empire was not going to go on indefinitely in its existing form but then the British government had recognised that in the 30s.The hope was that it could be transformed into something based on co-operation and common interests rather than direct rule, something that would satisfy nationalist aspirations and be of benefit to all parties. The war, and fierce US opposition, put paid to such ideas. This may in retrospect have been a tragedy.
As always Charmley is provocative and fascinating. Highly recommended.

Churchill: The End of Glory

There have been many attempts to demolish the Churchill Myth. John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory is one of the most thorough, and most devastating. Of course, as Charmley admits, once a myth establishes itself no amount of rational argument has any effect.
Charmley describes his book as a political biography and that is what it is. Churchill’s private life is only touched on insofar as it is relevant to his political career. Churchill’s personality on the other hand is very relevant indeed and Charmley has much to say on that subject.
Throughout his career Churchill was dogged by suspicions of disloyalty and treachery. He did after all change parties twice and he was never trusted by his parliamentary colleagues. Charmley however makes it clear that such accusations are unjust. Winston Churchill was a man whose views on most subjects were formed very early in his life and he was remarkably consistent in adhering to his views. When the Conservative Party abandoned free trade (something in which Churchill believed passionately) Churchill abandoned the Party rather than change his views. His abandonment of the Liberals in 1924 can hardly be seen as treachery – the Liberal Party had simply ceased to exist as a viable force in British politics. It was not really a matter of deserting a sinking ship – the ship had already sunk. 
Churchill in fact was never truly either a Conservative or a Liberal. He had a distaste for party politics and he never even pretended to be a loyal party man. He was happiest when serving in coalition governments. He was, if such a thing could exist, a liberal conservative. His belief in social reform was perfectly sincere. In this he was motivated partly by a conviction that the only way of saving the traditional Britain in which he grew up was by giving those at the bottom of the heap a much better deal. He was also, to do him justice, genuinely shocked by the condition of the poor in late Victorian Britain. It might in fact be more accurate to describe Churchill as a liberal reactionary.
Churchill also believed just as strongly that Britain could and should continue to play the part of a Great Power and that the Empire could and should be preserved. 
The difficulty, as Charmley makes clear, was that by the twentieth century Britain simply could not afford to remain a Great Power and maintain the Empire and embark on ambitious social reform. It was doubtful if the country could afford to do even two of these things; doing all three was out of the question. This was something that Churchill was never able to understand or accept.
Churchill’s greatest flaw was unquestionably his belief in his own military genius. Having been a humble Second Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars and having participated in a minor colonial campaign on the Northwest Frontier in 1895 had convinced him that he knew more about military strategy than any general. Having been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty he assumed that this was enough to transform him into an expert on naval strategy as well.
His unshakeable belief in his genius led him, and the nation, into one disaster after another. Lord Nelson had famously expressed the very firm view that ships cannot fight forts but after all what did Lord Nelson know about naval tactics? Winston Churchill knew better and the catastrophic attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915 was the result. This ill-judged operation was typical of all of Churchill’s forays into the realm of strategy. He would come up with a hare-brained scheme and then convince himself that success was certain and that enormous advantages would be gained. Wiser heads would point out the folly of the operation and Churchill would ignore them and then use his considerable powers of persuasion to get the plan approved. And, invariably, the plan would end in utter disaster. Norway in 1940 was another superb example although ironically it was not Churchill’s career that was ended as a result but Neville Chamberlain’s. The British intervention in the Greek campaign in 1941 was yet another prime example.
Churchill’s ineptitude as a strategist was bad enough but even worse was his inability to foresee inevitable consequences at the level of grand strategy. Charmley makes it clear that Churchill’s reputation as the man of the hour in 1940 was deserved but sees his conduct of the war thereafter as disastrous as he had no actual war aims. Wars are fought to achieve political objectives. Without clear and achievable political objectives war is merely a futile waste of lives. Churchill thought that defeating Hitler was a sufficient objective and had no clear idea whatsoever of what should happen next. Unfortunately both Stalin and Roosevelt had very clear and very definite ideas about what should happen next and neither had the slightest concern if their aims happened to be very disadvantageous indeed for Britain. Britain ended up fighting a war that served the interests of other nations without in any way serving Britain’s interests.
By February 1945 Churchill had realised his mistake and had recognised the danger posed by the soviet Union. Unfortunately after three-and-a-half years of appeasing Stalin this sudden volte-face was too little too late.
Churchill was a monstrous egotist with immense ambition but he was by no means a bad or malicious man. He was in his own way an idealist and no-one has ever desired more ardently to serve his country. Sadly the verdict that so many of his contemporaries had delivered upon him, that he was a man of vast talent and extraordinarily poor judgment, proved to be all too accurate.
Charmley does not set out to execute a mere hatchet job. He finds much to admire in Churchill. Churchill’s strengths and his weaknesses were both on an epic scale. The tragedy is that the weaknesses led to his ultimate failure and led to precisely the consequences that he was so anxious to avoid – the loss of the Empire, the reduction of Britain to the status of a third-rate power, the growth of class bitterness and resentment and the loss of the nation’s belief in itself.
Whether you agree or disagree with Charmley’s conclusions Churchill: The End of Glory is essential reading. Highly recommended.

S.C.M. Paine’s The Wars for Asia 1911-1949

The Wars for Asia 1911-1949 by S.C.M. Paine (Professor of Strategy and Policy at the US Naval War College) was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012 and represents an ambitious attempt to tie together events that are usually treated in isolation. Paine’s idea is that the long civil war in China which finally ended in 1949, the war between China and Japan that was waged more or less continuously between 1931 and 1945 and the Pacific phase of the Second World War from 1941 to 1945 make very little sense unless they are considered as all being part of a single multi-level struggle.
The various players in these interconnected wars made decisions that often seem incomprehensible, foolish or even suicidal but once the connections between these wars are taken into account it becomes clear that the players concerned were often choosing the best (or thought they were) from a range of relatively unpalatable options.
The starting point for the whole struggle was the collapse of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911. This left a power vacuum that proved to be a temptation not only for various Chinese  factions but for outside powers, most notably Russia and Japan and later the US.
Much of the tragedy that followed stemmed from the inability of various players to comprehend that other players had entirely different agendas and priorities. The Chinese Communists assumed that the Soviet Union would want a communist takeover of China and would therefore support them to the hilt. The Soviets however wanted a weak divided China (as a non-threatening neighbour) and they wanted Japan as an ally rather than an enemy (fearing being caught between Germany on one side and Japan on the other flank) so the Soviets were quite happy to sell out the Chinese communists and cut deals with the Nationalists and the Japanese.
Chiang wanted US aid and believed the US would back him to prevent a communist takeover. For Chiang the civil war in China was the priority. For the US the priority was their war against Japan. As a result they were entirely unable to work together as effective allies and this would eventually lead to the shipwreck of American China policy.
The author also makes some vital points about war aims, particularly limited versus unlimited objectives. The advantage of limited objectives is that your opponent is not fighting for survival so that once he accepts the unlikelihood of victory he will be willing to accept a negotiated peace. If however you have unlimited objectives, such as regime change or the total absorption of the entire territory of the enemy, the the war becomes a fight to the death for your enemy and he will fight on even victory seems hopeless. In such a situation even a relatively weak enemy can become a deadly foe – he is on “death ground” and is fighting for his very survival. Japan’s foreign policy had been spectacularly successful up until 1937 because Japan’s wars were for strictly limited objectives. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-06 for example did not threaten Russia’s survival. Once the costs of the war became unpleasantly high Russia was willing to negotiate a peace settlement. The 1931 invasion of Manchuria was another war of limited objectives. China would certainly survive the loss of a few provinces. In 1937 Japan made the fatal mistake of transforming the war against China into a war of unlimited objectives. Now China’s very survival was at stake. The many factions within China – Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang, the many warlord armies, the Communists – now stopped fighting one another and united against Japan in a war to the death, a war that was simply beyond Japan’s long-term capabilities.
Equally important was the failure of so many of the parties involved to remember that wars are fought not for military objectives but for political objectives. If you lose sight of this you can win every battle but lose the war. This was a mistake that both Japan and the US made. The Japanese almost invariably defeated Chinese forces in battle but their war against China ruined them economically, earned them the undying hatred of the Chinese and embroiled them in a disastrous war against the US. The US won the military struggle against Japan in spectacular fashion but politically the war was a triumph for Stalin and the Chinese communists and in many ways a disaster for the US. They defeated one enemy, Japan, which was never a significant threat to them anyway and conjured into existence a truly deadly threat in the form of Communist China whilst greatly strengthening their most dangerous enemy of all, the Soviet Union.
Paine does his best to avoid taking sides. He is more interested in identifying the motivations of the various players than in deciding whether those motivations were just or not. He certainly doesn’t shrink from describing atrocities committed by the Japanese although he does point out that the single biggest atrocity of the Sino-Japanese War (the destruction of the Yellow River dykes which resulted in millions of deaths) was actually committed by Chiang Kai-Shek. Nor does he minimise the corruption of the Kuomintang, the self-destructive chaos of Japanese politics or the duplicity and cynicism of both Mao and Stalin.
We are still living with the consequences of these three nested wars and Paine manages to make some very complex events considerably more understandable. Highly recommended.

The Chief Culprit – Stalin, Hitler and World War 2

Viktor Suvorov’s The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II (published by the Naval Institute Press in 2008) is a fascinating work of revisionist history and an exhilarating exercise in myth-busting. Having been a Soviet intelligence analyst prior to his defection to the West in 1978 gives Suvorov the ability to examine the ins and outs of Soviet policy from the points of view of both an insider and an outsider. 
Suvorov approaches his subject from the point of view of an intelligence officer rather than a professional historian. He believes that that is the only way to approach the subject. While historians have to view their source materials with a certain degree of healthy scepticism Soviet history is a special case. This was a regime based from the outset on lies and deception to such an extent that even the most sceptical historian might be led astray. Intelligence analysts are trained to assume that nothing is what it seems to be. A military exercise might be simply a military exercise, or it might be a preparation for an invasion. A diplomatic initiative apparently aimed at peace might in fact be intended to bring about war. Suvorov believes that this training is essential in order to penetrate the web of lies that was Stalin’s foreign policy. He may well be right.
Suvorov’s starting point is the mystery of the events of June 1941. In the opening weeks of the German invasion the Red Army suffered disasters on a scale that beggar the imagination. This is common knowledge. There were however a number of things that puzzled Suvorov. The accepted version of events, accepted not just in the Soviet Union but also in the West, was (and is) that these disasters occurred as a result of two major factors. The first was monumental incompetence by the Soviet political and military leadership. The second factor was that the Red Army, although enormous and possessing incredibly quantities of military hardware, was mostly equipped with obsolete and second-rate tanks and aircraft that were no match for the superbly equipped Germans. Suvorov came to have serious doubts on both scores. 
One thing he discovered that puzzled him a good deal was that the supposedly incompetent Soviet generals who were responsible for the deployment of the Red Army in June 1941 were not shot by Stalin as the result of the catastrophes that overwhelmed the army. They were not sent to the GULAGs. They were not even demoted. They were in fact promoted and most ended their careers as Marshals of the Soviet Union. How could this be? Stalin was not noted for being forgiving of failure. 
Suvorov’s conclusion is that these men were not punished for their failures because they did not actually fail. Their deployments were militarily sound. The problem was that the Red Army was not deployed to defend the Soviet Union, with most of its strength held back from the frontiers in deep defensive formations and with airfields well back from the borders where they were safe from being overrun by an invading army. The bulk of the Red Army was right on the frontiers and the airfields were within a few kilometres of the border. The Red Army’s deployment was not a defensive one – it was deployed to launch an invasion. An army deployed in such a manner is incredibly vulnerable if the enemy does not wait to be attacked but strikes the first blow. Which is exactly what Hitler did. The Soviet generals were not incompetents – they were simply beaten to the punch.
But how did all this come about? Suvorov’s thesis is that the Soviet leadership never abandoned, even for a moment, their intention to spread their revolution throughout Europe and then throughout the world. The doctrine of Socialism in One Country was a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. Stalin intended to achieve world revolution. More importantly, he intended to achieve it through war. The Russian Revolution had taught the Bolsheviks one very important lesson – revolutions are almost impossible to achieve except in the chaos created by defeat in war. Every attempt to foment revolution in other European countries failed. Communism would have to be imposed on Europe by war. Stalin needed a general European war, and he set out to start one.
The main obstacle was Germany. Another vital lesson the Russian communists had absorbed was that Germany was militarily formidable but Germany could not win a war on two fronts. A war on two fronts meant certain defeat for Germany. A German defeat was the only way to impose communism on Germany. If Germany fell to the communists the conquest of the rest of western Europe would be child’s play. Therefore Germany had to be manoeuvred into fighting a war on two fronts. The trick was to persuade the Germans to become involved in a war in the west, which meant a war with Britain and France. Once Germany was committed to such a war, and once both sides had exhausted themselves, the Soviet Union would invade Germany from the east.
All of this proved to be surprisingly easy to do. Germany’s ambitions in Poland provided the opportunity. Hitler could not risk an invasion of Poland without an insurance policy. Stalin provide the insurance policy in the form of the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939. The alliance with the Soviet Union persuaded Hitler that the risks were now acceptable, and he struck. In fact he had fallen into a brilliant trap prepared for him by Stalin. Stalin was confident that, contrary to Hitler’s expectations, Britain and France would go to war over Poland. This was exactly what Stalin wanted. Once Britain and France declared war Hitler was doomed. All Stalin had to do was await his chance to deliver the stab in the back.
Hitler fervently hoped to avoid war with Britain and France. Stalin wanted to ensure that such a war would take place. Without the Nazi-Soviet pact there would have been no war. It was (if we accept Suvorov’s argument) Stalin’s war far more than it was Hitler’s war. 
There was one minor problem with Stalin’s otherwise brilliant plan. By June 1940 Hitler had realised that he had fallen into a trap. He had realised Stalin was going to attack Germany. Hitler intended to get in the first blow. And he did. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was an insane gamble but it was Hitler’s only option. Operation Barbarossa was a preemptive strike. Despite spectacular initial successes it failed, but had he not struck first Stalin would have done so and Hitler would have lost anyway. As it turned out Stalin lost as well. He won the war but her only got half of Europe as a result. Had he been able to attack first he would have taken the whole of Europe.
It’s a fascinating thesis and Suvorov’s arguments are persuasive. They certainly make sense of things that otherwise make no sense at all.
The book also explodes a great many myths in relation to the Second World War but that might be a matter for a future post.
Highly recommended.

whatever happened to Christian warriors?

A subject that has attracted my interest for a while now is the cause (or causes) of the failings of modern Christianity. Tonight a couple of recent comments on other people’s blogs have brought the subject back into my mind.
In a comment to a post on his blog Bruce Charlton says that “what was good about Franco’s regime were factors absent from today’s scene – Christian piety, and the military virtues such as courage and discipline.” And another comment on another blog (which I can’t find at the moment) made the claim that Christianity was a positive force when it was allied to an aristocratic warrior ethos. I tend to agree quite strongly with both these comments.
We tend to forget that after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West European civilisation was slowly and painfully rebuilt by the very barbarians who destroyed the power of Rome. They were still barbarians, but now they were Christian barbarians. Without Christianity they would have remained barbarians – they would have remained a destructive and negative force. Christianity was a much-needed civilising and softening force. To a certain extent Christianity feminised the barbarians – but only to a very limited and healthy degree.
But without the warrior ethos of the barbarians Christian civilisation could not have survived. It would have been too soft, too feminised, and would have been easy prey to other invaders. The Gothic invaders who had destroyed Rome added a necessary masculine element – they still retained the warrior virtues and they were prepared to fight to maintain their emerging civilisation.
In medieval times it was believed there were three main classes of people – those who worked (the peasants), those who prayed (the clergy) and those who fought (the nobles). It was clearly understood that all three classes were equally necessary.
The warrior ethos survived until the mid-20th century. It has now been swept away on a tide of guilt, self-righteousness, apathy, materialism, hedonism and selfishness. Europeans (and I include Americans, Canadians and Australians as well) no longer believe in fighting to preserve their civilisation. They’re not necessarily opposed to war – they’re often in favour of it if they don’t have to do the fighting (and ideally they’d like someone else to pay for it as well). They’re not opposed to sacrifice, as long as someone else makes the sacrifices. They’re not opposed to making an effort as long as someone else makes the effort. But the idea of risking their own precious skins to preserve their own civilisation horrifies them. Many are so self-hating that they don’t want their civilisation defended even if somebody else offers to do it. In fact many are openly overjoyed at the prospect of seeing their civilisation disappear down the gurgler.
A hundred years ago European men took it for granted that belonging to a civilisation entailed responsibility, and the ultimate responsibility was to risk their lives to defend that civilisation. All that has gone.
Without a warrior ethos Christianity has become unbalanced. It has descended into mealy-mouthed platitudes about human rights and tolerance. It has become excessively feminised. It has become Kumbaya Christianity. And Kumbaya Christianity is not going to save us.

The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999

Misha Glenny’s The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999 aims to provide a unified history of that troubled part of the world and the book does indeed offer a reasonable introduction to a fearsomely complex subject.
Glenny rejects the idea that the violence and instability that has plagued the region can be blamed on ancestral hatreds going back to the Middle Ages. He believes the trouble started much later – at the beginning of the 19th century. The slow but inexorable decline of the Ottoman Empire created a serious power vacuum which was exploited by the Great Powers in a manner that was selfish, cynical and short-sighted. Worse, the Great Powers entirely ignored the ethnic, linguistic and religious complexity of the region. Drawing borders in a way that suited the interests of the Great Powers more often than not created nations that were inherently unstable.
At the same time the newly developed ideologies of nationalism found their way to the Balkans. Nationalism (in the 19th and 20th century sense of the term) was something that simply did not exist in this part of the world before the 19th century.
Under the Ottoman Empire the various ethnic and religious groups had managed to co-exist quite successfully. Christians and Jews might not have enjoyed the same rights as Muslims but they had security and stability. In fact Christians often had a good deal more security than they had under Christian rulers. 
The major problem with Balkan nationalism was that, even without the interference of the Great Powers, creating coherent ethno-nationalist states was an impossibility. The various religious and ethnic groups were hopelessly mixed together. There were Serb minorities in Croatia and Croatian minorities in Serbia. There were huge Turkish minorities in Greece and equally huge Greek minorities in Turkey. There were Greek minorities everywhere. There were Albanians in Serbia and Serbs in Albania. Religious and ethnic differences were not clear-cut. There were Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims who spoke the same language and were ethnically identical. There were Orthodox Christians who belonged to different ethnic groups. There were Croats who regarded Muslims as fellow Croats and Croats who regarded the same Muslims as non-Croats. In some places there was no majority group at all. There were cities like Salonika that were coveted by several different nations but were almost entirely Jewish. In some regions the city-dwellers were predominantly Muslim while the rural populations were Serb or Bulgarian or Greek or Croatian. 
The nationalist aspirations of the newly emerged nations such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania were entirely incompatible – no line drawn on a map could possibly satisfy everyone.
The end result was that a comparatively peaceful corner of Europe became a powder keg. And the Great Powers displayed an uncanny ability to make a bad situation worse. Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908 was the first step on the road to the catastrophe of the First World War.
By the 1990s the Great Powers were no longer intervening in the Balkans for the traditional reasons of territorial greed. They were now doing so for humanitarian reasons. The results were equally disastrous.
Glenny weaves together the stories of the various Balkan peoples with considerable skill. The narrative is perhaps to complex for a single volume but it’s a brave attempt.
He also endeavours to be as even-handed as possible. Just about everyone in the region has at one time or another been both oppressor and oppressed, both perpetrators and victims of atrocities. Every Great Power (even China!) has at some stage tried to interfere in the region, with lamentable consequences. Trying to divide the various actors in good guys and bad guys is a pointless exercise and in general Glenny avoids that pitfall. He does display a touching child-like faith in democracy as a cure-all but overall he tries not to  over-simplify inherently complex problems that simply do not have straightforward solutions.
I have no doubt that there are better and more scholarly works on this subject but as a general introduction this is a stimulating and fascinating book.