Remembering and Inventing: A Short History of the Balkans

How Chauvinistic and Expansionist National Ideologies Created Yugoslavia's Problems

Peter Mentzel is an assistant professor of history at Utah State University.

Since the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia descended into bloodshed and mayhem during the summer of 1991 a number of different historical explanations for the conflict’s origins and ferocity have been written. While these accounts differ in their details, in general they paint two different pictures of Balkan history. One argues that the wars of the Yugoslav succession are the result of “ancient tribal hatreds.” That is, the violence in the modern Balkans is the result of hatreds dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The second picture of Balkan history takes issue with this argument and offers instead a story of tolerance where each community coexisted in peace, if not harmony. This entire conversation is closely tied to the history of the development of Balkan nation-states.

Nations and States

In an attempt to address these historiographical points, this article will take one simple starting point: the Balkan nations and Balkan nation-states are all very young. None is more than 200 years old. Thus the hatreds there cannot be “ancient.” In fact, the current ethnic hatreds in the Balkans, while unfortunately very real indeed, all have their roots in the statist nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Balkan national ideologies were based primarily on interpretations of imported Franco-German notions of nationalism. In their most basic articulations, these theories had two aspects in common. First were the quasi-mystical organic roots of nations. They were deemed to have been always-existing, at least very ancient, entities with their own distinct characteristics. The second common aspect of this kind of nationalism was its emphasis on the state as the embodiment, or at least expression, of the nation’s will.

As a result of these principles, the new states of the Balkans devoted considerable energy to the creation and/or inculcation of a nationalist history. These histories varied from place to place but were remarkably similar in their outlines. They all resembled the following model: in the Middle Ages our nations had strong and wealthy states (often empires). Then the Turk destroyed our states and subjected our nations to centuries of slavery and oppression. Finally, our national heroes rose and reclaimed our states. This outline is very basic and most serious historians, even those of Balkan origin, qualify these points with numerous caveats. However, the official “schoolbook” national histories taught in the educational systems of these states followed, and for the most part still follow, these basic points.[1]

There are two serious problems with these official nationalist histories. First, they are anachronistic, and second, their implications are extremely destabilizing.

Origin Myths

Most of the work on nationalism and national identity over the past three or four decades has argued for their constructed, subjective nature. That is, in contrast to older concepts, nations are not organic, objectively existing entities, but have a highly subjective nature. They exist insofar as a sufficient number of people believe they exist. Also widely argued in the current literature is the modernity of nations and (the more controversial contention) that nations are the creation of states, not the other way around. In other words, the modern state created nations, or at least nationalism, as a means of raising and maintaining large conscript armies and, especially, of legitimizing itself.

If these arguments are valid, then it is clear that the medieval Balkan kingdoms (or any medieval kingdoms for that matter) were not “nation-states” and that the people who lived in them did not constitute “nations” in the post-nineteenth-century sense of that word. An important example of Balkan national origin stories is the Battle of Kosovo. Serb nationalist history uses this event as the defining moment in the history of the Serbian nation. But it is clear that although a feudal state known as the Kingdom of Serbia was defeated there, it is anachronistic to say that this kingdom was a Serbian nation-state. Indeed, only a few years after the battle, Serbian knights fought (by most accounts valiantly) as vassals of their new imperial overlord, the Ottoman Sultan, against Timur Lenk (a.k.a. Tamerlane) in central Anatolia. Likewise, it is a back-projection of modern national ideas to argue (as Serb nationalist histories do) that the Ottoman armies at the Battle of Kosovo were “Turks.” They were, like their enemies at that battle, soldiers in the army of a dynastic state. There were, in fact, Christian vassals of the Sultan fighting on the Ottoman side.[2] The Balkan nationalist histories, however, portray the Balkan dynastic medieval kingdoms as nation-states and as the direct antecedents of the modern Balkan states.

Small-Power Imperialism

The other effect of these Balkan nationalist histories was to foster, perhaps unavoidably, an irredentist and militaristic foreign policy that some historians have called “small-power imperialism.” Since all the modern Balkan national states self-consciously base their existence on medieval dynastic ones, the borders of those medieval states have become, quite consistently, the borders desired by the nationalist leadership of the new states. The problem is that the borders of all of the medieval states fluctuated widely over the years and always overlapped each other. The best example of this problem is Macedonia. Historically, Macedonia was a geographical term that described the area encompassed by the modern Republic of Macedonia, southwestern Bulgaria, and most of northern Greece (the Greek province of Macedonia). At one time or another, this area, or at least substantial parts of it, was ruled by the Kingdom of Serbia, the Bulgarian Empire, or the Byzantine Empire (taken by Greek nationalists as the antecedent of the Greek nation-state). Thus, during the late nineteenth century, the newly formed Serb, Bulgar, and Greek nation-states claimed the area on historical grounds.

As if the problem of overlapping “historical” claims were not daunting enough, each of the new national states also claimed territory on the basis of national identity. Again, the example of Macedonia is illustrative of the broader phenomenon. The small Serb, Bulgar, and Greek national states wanted to incorporate Macedonia (still part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912) into their own realms. In addition to their supposed historical titles to the territory, agents of these states also attempted to foster in the population of the region a sense of nationalism friendly to their own states. So Serb, Bulgar, and Greek nationalists, usually working with at least the tacit approval of their governments, tried to set up schools, clubs, and associations in Macedonia in an effort to convince the members of these institutions of their Serb, Bulgar, or Greek identity. A more pernicious side of this process was the use of terror by armed bands of each of these nationalities when education and argument did not succeed.[3]

The objective of these activities in Macedonia (and in other highly contested regions such as the Dobruja, Thrace, and the Vojvodina) was to convince the local population to declare themselves members of one of the nations on offer. Occasionally, as in the case of Macedonia, or in the region that eventually was to become Albania, some of the locals responded by developing their own national identities (in this case Macedonian or Albanian) and, subsequently, nationalist movements.

Great-Power Imperialism

Besides nationalism, another major factor in the establishment of the Balkan national states was the influence of the Great Powers. From the late eighteenth century until the end of World War I, much of European diplomatic thinking was dominated by the so-called “Eastern Question.” In its most basic form, this term referred to the set of problems surrounding the apparent weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the centripetal tendencies of many of its parts, especially those coming under the influence of nationalist intellectuals.

Of the European Great Powers, the British were, until the end of the nineteenth century, the strongest supporters of the continued maintenance of the Ottoman Empire, while the Russian government was probably the biggest external threat to the Empire. The British government wanted to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a buffer against Russian expansion in the Near East, which British diplomats and military men saw as a threat against British India. Russian imperialists, in turn, were animated by the ideas of Pan-Slavism or the ability to break out of the Black Sea basin.

During the nineteenth century, however, most of the diplomacy surrounding the Eastern Question focused on how the Ottoman Empire could be maintained, or at least divided up in as peaceful a way as possible. The Powers were very worried, correctly as it turned out, that the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire could provoke a crisis that would lead to a general European war. Such a war indeed almost broke out in 1878, averted only by Prince Otto von Bismarck’s cynical, yet effective, diplomacy. Unfortunately, another Balkan crisis in the summer of 1914 spun rapidly out of control with results familiar to all of us.

Nationalism, Genocide, and “Brotherhood and Unity”

With the end of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires in the last days of World War I, the Eastern Question effectively ended. The political map of the Balkans took on the shape it was to hold, except for a few years during World War II, until the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia beginning in 1991.

The map of the Balkans in 1918 represented the triumph of nationalism. The consolidation of the nation-state system, however, far from ushering in a period of peace and cooperation among the Balkan states, only created renewed tensions. The problems were caused by exactly the same factors that had led to violence during the prewar period. That is, none of the nationalists in the new Balkan states (with the important exception of the Republic of Turkey) accepted the political borders as final. Quite the contrary, the Balkan nationalists saw on the maps of the Balkans drawn up at Ste. Germaine, Trianon, and Neuilly terrae irredenta, territories and populations of their co-nationals crying for freedom and union with the “Motherland.” In particular, Bulgarian and Greek nationalists felt that their states had been cheated out of Macedonia. Bulgaria also had lost territory to Romania (the southern Dobruja) and to Greece (Western Thrace). Albanian nationalists wanted a Greater Albania that included the province of Kosovo and swaths of Macedonia (both Serbian after 1912 and part of Yugoslavia after 1918). The Vojvodina was disputed among Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania.

The territorial claims of the Balkan states against each other were paralleled by the internal problems caused by the presence of sizable minority populations. Nowhere was this problem more acute than in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. While ostensibly the national state of the Yugoslavs, many of its citizens, perhaps the majority even in 1918, did not have a “Yugoslav” national identity at all, but thought of themselves as members of different nations, for example, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and so on.

Yugoslavism, the idea that all of the South Slavs constituted one nation, was popular mainly among Slovene and Croat intellectuals. There were also, however, Croat (and a much smaller number of Slovene) nationalists who thought in terms of independent or autonomous Croat or Slovene nation-states. Very few Serbs or Muslim Slavs showed much interest in Yugoslavism. Most Serbs preferred to think in terms of the creation of a Greater Serbia, while the Muslims were mostly concerned with maintaining good relations with their rulers (whoever they might be) so as to secure the free practice of their religion and the maintenance of their religious schools and socio-economic institutions.

The story of the formation of the Yugoslav state and its constitutional and national crises are beyond the scope of this short essay.[4] A generalization about this period is that the tensions between the different nationalities of Yugoslavia, and especially between the Croats and Serbs, intensified steadily during the 1920s and 1930s. The Croat fascist Ustasha organization, aided by Italy, emerged and pursued a campaign of terror against the Yugoslav state. Following the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 (preceded by an air attack on Belgrade by the Luftwaffe), the Ustasha leader, Ante Pavelic (1889–1959), became the ruler of the “Independent State of Croatia” (often referred to by its Croatian initials NDH). The Nazis granted their puppet state generous borders, including most of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Ustashas actively courted the Bosnian Muslims, while at the same time considering them to be “Croats of the Muslim religion.” Pavelic even ordered the construction of a mosque in Zagreb (called the Poglavnik’s Mosque after his official title) in his efforts to secure the loyalty of the Muslim Slavs. Many, but certainly by no means all, of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina responded to the fascist Croat authorities, as they had responded to all outside occupiers since 1878, with cautious cooperation or at least passivity. Some of the Muslim population actively supported the Ustasha regime. There were 11 Muslim deputies in the NDH’s parliament (the Sabor) and there was even a Bosnian Muslim division (called “Handzar” or scimitar) within the Waffen SS.[5] Under the leadership of the Ustashas, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Gypsies, Jews, and “enemies of the state” were murdered. The Ustashas even had their own concentration camp at Jasenovac in northern Bosnia.

Most of the rest of Yugoslavia was partitioned among the Axis powers and their allies. Most of Slovenia was incorporated into the Third Reich. Much of the Vojvodina went to Hungary. Macedonia was occupied by Bulgaria, and most of Kosovo was joined to Italian-occupied Albania.

The Ustasha and the Axis occupation armies were opposed by two main armed guerrilla groups, commonly called the Partisans and the Chetniks. The former group was ostensibly a broad coalition of individuals and parties from all the nationalities of Yugoslavia that were united against the NDH and the foreign occupiers of the country. In practice the organization became dominated by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia led by Josip Broz, better known by the nom de guerre “Tito.” The Chetniks were originally made up of mostly Serb units of the Royal Yugoslavian Army that had avoided destruction or capture by the invading Axis powers and had re-established themselves as guerrillas. Their leader, Colonel Draza Mihailovic, was a supporter of King Peter and the Yugoslav government in exile in London.

During the course of the war, the Partisans and the Chetniks began to regard each other as enemies and in fact spent much of their time fighting each other. The Chetniks eventually became de facto collaborators with the Nazis and Ustashas against the Partisans. Partially because of this development, the Allies eventually decided to back the Partisans and Tito instead of King Peter and the Chetniks.

With the end of the war, the Partisans took control of the entire country and exacted swift revenge against collaborators, suspects of collaboration, and all enemies of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Mihailovic was captured and hanged. Pavelic managed to escape to Argentina, but most of his followers and their sympathizers were not so lucky: they were executed.

One of the most notorious events of this period occurred at the Austrian-Yugoslav border near the village of Bleiburg. A group of over 100,000 Croat men, women, and children fled before the advancing Partisans into southern Austria, at the time under the occupation of the British Army. Some of these refugees were indeed former Ustasha members, but many certainly were not. The Partisans demanded that they be sent back to Yugoslavia. The British commander on the scene was bound by agreements and treaties to comply, and they were sent back into Yugoslav territory into the custody of the Partisan forces. Over the next weeks between 40,000 and 100,000 of them died.[6] Overall, the war and its immediate aftermath were tremendously destructive. Some 1,014,000 people, almost six percent of the population of Yugoslavia, perished, many of them at the hands of their fellow Yugoslavs.[7]

After the Partisans had secured their victory, Yugoslavia was reorganized as a federal “peoples’ republic.” The Communist Party, renamed the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), at first tried to foster an interpretation of Yugoslavism that would subsume the country’s different nationalities. But by the early 1960s the LCY had abandoned this policy in favor of an increasingly decentralized federal structure based on the different republics, each of which (with the important exception of Bosnia-Herzegovina) corresponded to a particular constituent nationality. These different nationally based republics were bound together by the monolithic control of the LCY (the only legal political party) and its slogan of “Brotherhood and Unity.”

Not So Ancient

With this very brief history in mind, the events in the Balkans, and especially in the former Yugoslavia, since 1991 acquire a rather different complexion from “ancient tribal hatreds.” It is certainly no accident that Croats and Serbs routinely call each other “Ustashas” and “Chetniks,” respectively. Likewise, the Serb opposition to the independence of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina must have been tinged with memories of the links between Croat and Bosnian Muslim fascists during World War II.

The extraordinary violence that has accompanied the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is therefore based on the very real recollections, just within living memory, of the horrors of World War II. Those actions themselves, however, grew out of the invention and perpetuation of chauvinistic and expansionist national ideologies of the nationalists and especially the national states of the late nineteenth century.


  1. Maria Todorova, “The Ottoman Legacy in the Balkans” and F.A.K. Yasamee, “Nationality in the Balkans: The Case of the Macedonians,” both in Gunay Goksu Ozdogan and Kemal Saybasili, eds., Balkans: A Mirror of the New International Order (Istanbul: Eren Yayincilik ve Kitapcilik, 1995), pp. 73, 125.
  2. Peter Sugar, Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977), p. 21.
  3. Charles and Barbara Jelavich, The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804–1920 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977), p. 211.
  4. For a more detailed discussion of this period see Ivo Banac, The National Question in Yugoslavia (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984).
  5. Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans, vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 264. Aydin Babuna, Die nationale Entwicklung der bosnischen Muslime (Frankfurt a/M: Peter Lang, 1996), pp. 291–292.
  6. Jelavich, History of the Balkans, p. 272.
  7. Ivo Banac, “Nationalism in Serbia,” in Ozdogan and Saybasili, p. 143.