The history preceding the conflict: Yugoslavia up till 1991
3. The events preceding the first Yugoslavia
‘Yugoslavia’s death had been a long one with the first seeds of its destruction sown before its birth…’
Yugoslavia was located on the Balkan Peninsula that throughout history was the victim of alternately too much or too little interference from the major civilizations and great powers. Hence, in many ways, the country was situated on a fault line: it was simultaneously a no man’s land, an area of confrontation and a melting pot.
For centuries the line dividing the Western from the Eastern Roman Empire ran through what was later to become Yugoslavia. After the schism between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054, representatives of both branches of the Christian faith continued for many years to fight together against Islam that appeared to be spreading to the West.
The Serbs had their own kingdom from the beginning of the 13th century; it was supported by its own church that was founded by Saint Sava. He had seized upon a momentary weakness in the Byzantine Orthodox Church so as to set up an independent Serb Orthodox Church with its own liturgy. The Serb Empire achieved its ultimate expansion in the middle of the 14th century under King Stefan Dusan (1331-1355). At that point it covered Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, a large part of Greece and Bulgaria. But it was all downhill from then on: the troops of the Serbian King Lazar were beaten by the Turks at the ‘Blackbird Field’: the Battle of Kosovo or Kosovska Bitka. This event was kept alive with epic songs for centuries to come. The Serbian Empire continued until the middle of the 15th century when it was forced to admit defeat against the Ottomans, the Sultans who ruled the Turkish Empire between approximately 1300 and 1922.
The Slovenes and the Croats came under the domain of the Roman Catholic Church once Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Hence, the Slovenes were subject to Venetian rule and the Croats to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like the Serbian Empire, the Bosnian Empire, which had existed since the 12th century, was conquered by the Ottomans in the 15th century.
Most Serbs remained loyal to the Orthodox faith under Turkish rule but some of the Serbs in Bosnia and the Albanians in Kosovo converted to Islam. The Ottoman government had a high degree of religious tolerance that was maintained by the millet system. This system included a form of sectarianism: religious organizations also governed a part of the people’s lives within society. This resulted in a development where faith and ethnicity converged. Through faith, the administration of justice and cultural tradition, the Orthodox priests greatly contributed to the preservation of an individual identity and the development of the Serbs’ sense of nation.
Towards the Treaty of Berlin
This development of a Serbian national awareness was not insignificant. Turkish domination resulted in the Serbs emigrating to the north and away from Kosovo that was associated with such important memories. They moved to more peripheral areas such as what was later to become Vojvodina along with the area around Banja Luka in the north-west of Bosnia, Slavonia and the Krajina which bordered on the territory under Turkish rule. In Slavonia and the Krajina, the Serbs were able to live as free peasants under the Austro-Hungarian regime with the right to practise their own religion in exchange for military service in the fight against the Turks.
The Vojna Krajina (literally: military border area) extended like a sickle from Novi Sad and Belgrade to close to Zadar on the coast. This area, which encompassed both Krajina near Knin and East Slavonia, maintained a separate legal status until 1881 when it was no longer of military importance and became a part of Croatia.
From the end of the 18th century, there was an overt national awareness in the area that was to become Yugoslavia. This awareness was initially based on religion. Serbs, Croats and Muslims could only be distinguished from one another on the basis of their religion, no matter how weak their belief. Croats were Catholic, Serbs were Orthodox and Muslims were Islamic. A Catholic Serb and an Orthodox Croat would be just as absurd as a Jewish Muslim.’ A Serb who changed religion would also change ethnicity. For instance, a Serb who converted to Islam would therefore also become a ‘Turk’ or ‘Muslim’; a Serb who embraced Catholicism would become a Croat.
The second distinguishing element was the memory of the past where the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians had all had their own empires replete with myths that were communicated and touched up through an oral tradition that passed from generation to generation. These epic poems created a sense of intimacy with eras long past and virtually erased the intervening centuries from human consciousness. Some Serbian ideologists even went so far as to argue that if a Serb converted to Islam, he not only became a ‘Turk’ but was also tainted with the blood of the Serbs who had been killed four or five hundred years previously during the Ottoman conquests.
There were only limited linguistic differences between the three Slavic groups that could be compared to the differences between English and American. The Slovenes had a different language during the later Yugoslavia, as did the Albanians in Kosovo and the Macedonians.
In 1815 the Sultan of the now-fading Turkish Empire granted limited self-rule to Serbia and in 1830 he recognized Obrenovic’s sovereignty over Serbia, Obrenovic being the forefather of one of the two dynasties that would rule Serbia during the 19th century. Serbia now had the status of a vassal state that encompassed a limited area to the south of the Sava and the Danube, and with Belgrade to the far north.
Between 1815 and 1833 many Serbs moved to Serbia from the surrounding areas while the Turkish citizens and Muslims left the Serbian territory. This was the beginning of a series of expulsions and massacres that left Serbia virtual ‘Muslim-free’ at the beginning of the 20th century and showed how Serbian nationalism tended to exclude non-Serbs rather than integrate them.
Yet many Serbs still lived outside of the Serbian heartland: in Montenegro, Vojvodina, Krajina, etc. It was not long before pioneering Serbs began to dream of a Greater Serbian Empire that reflected the memory of the medieval Kingdom of Serbia. Once the Turks had abandoned their final bulwark in Serbia in 1867, the Serbs began to work towards a union with the areas outside of Serbia where their ethnic kinsfolk lived.
The Serbs fought the Turks with the help of Russia, and Serbian sovereignty was fully recognized at the Treaty of San Stefano and the Treaty of Berlin (1878). The Treaty of Berlin also recognized the independence of Montenegro, an area where the mountain dwellers and their religious and secular rulers had always managed to maintain a certain autonomy vis-ŕ-vis the major powers.
Towards the First World War
Nonetheless the Serbs were dissatisfied with the results of the Treaty of Berlin because they had failed to achieve a foothold in Bosnia-Hercegovina. This Ottoman area was assigned to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the form of a protectorate. In 1908 the Austro-Hungarian Empire formally annexed this region, much to Serbia’s fury.
Along with the ideal of a Greater Serbia, there was an increasing desire following the Treaty of Berlin for the unification of all the southern Slavs (i.e. the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) who were located within the borders of the Double Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This movement was nourished by the fact that there were no major linguistic differences between the various southern Slavs. However, at that time Serbia’s political and military ambitions were directed southwards.
During the First Balkan War (1912-1913), Serbia and Montenegro along with Bulgaria and Greece attacked a weakened Turkey that was virtually driven out of Europe. However, Serbia and Montenegro once again felt that they had missed out on the territorial spoils that had been divided up by the major powers.
This dissension led a month later to fresh hostilities, this time between Bulgaria on the one side and Serbia, Greece, Roumania and Turkey on the other: the Second Balkan War had just broken out. Serbia acquired a large part of Macedonia once the peace treaty was signed. The rest of Macedonia was handed over to Greece and Bulgaria.
During the two Balkan Wars, the Serbian territory grew from 48,000 to 87,000 square kilometres. Serbia gained control of areas including Kosovo and Macedonia, both having many Albanian residents. Many Serbs felt that this was historically justified. After returning from the Second Balkan War, Crown Prince Aleksandar was greeted by crowds as the ‘avenger of Kosovo’.
However, Serbia hardly had time to integrate the new areas into the Kingdom. The Austro-Hungarian Empire regarded Serbia’s power expansion with displeasure. Vienna felt that there were calls from the elite of Croatia and Slovenia for Serbia to play the same role in achieving a southern Slavic amalgamation as the Prussians had for German unification or Piedmont had for Italy. The Serbian regime was aware of the fact that some circles in Vienna were just waiting for a reason to declare war on Serbia.
On 28 June 1914 the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip murdered the Austrian Archduke and heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Princip belonged to a group of Bosnian-Serb nationalists who were supported in semi-official Serbian circles. These circles had refused to accept the annexation of Bosnia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908. This attack was to trigger the First World War.
Austria, encouraged by Germany, stipulated humiliating conditions for Serbia who, according to Austria, was behind the attack. Serbia, supported by Russia, did not want to give in. After Russian mobilization, which was rapidly followed by the mobilization of other countries, the First World War had become a fact.
 Owen, ‘Breakup’, p. 39.
 Detrez, Balkan, p. 12.
 Also Raju G.C. Thomas, ‘History, Religion and National Identity’, Thomas/Friman (eds.), Conflict, pp. 26-27.
 Michael Sells, ‘Christoslavism 2. The Five Major Components’, consulted 26/12/00.
 Branislav Gligorijevic, ‘King Aleksandar I Karadordevic’, Radan/Pavkovic (eds.), Serbs, p. 143.
 For more about the complicated relations between Princip, the Unification or Death group (Ujedinjenje ili Smrt) (which is better known under its popular name of The Black Hand (Crna Ruka) and was responsible for secret operations outside of Serbia) and the official organizations in Belgrade, see David MacKenzie, ‘Dragutin Dimitrijevic-Apis’, Radan/Pavkovic (eds.), Serbs, and in particular pp. 69-82.