Every war has its legendary hotel. Those of us on the Yugoslav beat chose the Esplanade in Zagreb. Its fin de siècle glamour had faded and the wry staff were only too aware that they, like Yugoslavia, had seen better days. But their mordant wit endured. When I told the concierge that I had just arrived from Budapest, he rhapsodised: "Ah, Budapest, we lived like kings there. We drank wine, ate goose liver and the Hungarians sang and danced for us." I nodded. "And now?" He sighed: "Now the Hungarians come here, and we must sing and dance for them."
A pithier summary of the wasted opportunity that was Yugoslavia I have yet to hear. Its neighbours are either members of the European Union and Nato or about to be. Even corrupt Romania and Bulgaria, where organised crime virtually runs the country, are to be welcomed into the generous embrace of Brussels. But Serbia languishes in misery, deprived of foreign investments, held hostage by the refusal of Ratko Mladic, the butcher of Srebrenica, to surrender to the UN war crimes tribunal.
Viewing the remains of this wrecked nation, it's difficult to recall that Yugoslavia was once the world's darling. Its founder, Josip Broz, provides rich material for any biographer. A partisan commander, co-founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, notorious womaniser and head of state, Tito, as he was known, performed a deft balancing act in playing off Washington against Moscow. The loans poured in, and by the 1970s Yugoslavs enjoyed the highest standard of living in eastern Europe. Tito's master stroke was eventually to make his regime the region's most liberal: the borders were open, and guest workers flocked to Germany and Austria.
Neil Barnett skilfully puts Tito's life in context, while retaining the necessary human focus. He is strong on Yugoslavia's early years, an often forgotten era when the land was as dreary and terrifying as any of its communist neighbours. Barnett is especially good on Tito the man - his womanising, his love of celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and his ever-growing cult of personality. Tito is one volume in Haus Publishing's "Life and Times" series, short biographies of political leaders, writers and artists, each under 200 pages. This is an excellent idea: the world, and history, are full of fascinating characters about whom one would like to know more - but who nowadays, apart from experts and true aficionados, has time to plough through 400 pages of the comprehensive record?
A volume in the Life and Times series can be read in a weekend. The books are smartly designed, durable and well printed on notably good paper. These are useful additions to any thinking person's library. Small panels in red ink on minor characters or related events break up the type, as does a good range of illustrations. Each volume has its own approach: Anne Alexander cleverly shows us Nasser's family life, with an engaging picture of the Egyptian leader introducing his son to the boxer Muhammad Ali; Klaus Wagenbach's volume on Kafka includes reproductions of Kafka's letters, original book covers and well-drawn maps of Prague showing the places mentioned in the text. Dave Renton is good on Trotsky's exile in Mexico and his gruesome assassination by Stalin's hitman Ramón Mercader.
The timeline at the end of the book places the subject's life within wider history. Tito was born in 1892, when Gladstone became prime minister; he became party leader in 1937, when Victor Gollancz published Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier; and he died in 1980, when the film Raging Bull was released. He died alone, estranged from his wife, Jovanka, who still lives in Belgrade. His funeral was attended by 128 world leaders, including Margaret Thatcher and Saddam Hussein. "There can be no change because the new Federal Yugoslavia has been accepted by the overwhelming majority of all Yugoslav nations," Tito wrote when the country was founded. "Nothing can be changed because we are all aware that this is a historic necessity." The four wars of the 1990s and the possibility of further conflicts in the Balkans show that, in this sense at least, perhaps he was right.
Adam LeBor is the author of "City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa" (Bloomsbury)