Serbs, Bosnians, et al in WWI?

A question about WWI. A teen I know is studying WWI, and the textbook has a modern slant, IMHO. They mention the Serbs and Bosnians, for starters, and their role in stirring things up in Austria-Hungary. I never even heard of the Serbs, etc., until the Communist Russia collapsed in the late 1980’s! Is this accurate, or has the book re-written history in modern terms? - Jinx

Well, the proximate cause of WWI was the assasination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrillo Princip. The book isn’t being anachronistic. Serbia and Montenegro were indeprendent countries before WWI. Bosnia-Herzegovina had been annexed by Austria in 1908, from the Ottomans, and the unrest in Bosnia was why Franz Ferdinand was there in the first place. Serbia was secretly supporting Bosnian Serbs seeking independence from Austria.

To add to what Captain Amazing just noted, it was Austro-Hungary’s demands on Serbia following the assassination and Serbia’s refusal to agree with them, that started the chain of war declarations ( Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia July, 28, 1914 ).

Serbia became independent from the Ottoman state in the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 ( along with several other Balkan states like Bulgaria and Montenegro ).

As for the Serbs themselves, they first appeared in the Balkans as a recognizable group in the 7th century A.D… A medieval kingdom of Serbia reached its apogee in the 14th century, briefly dominating the southern Balkans under Stephen Dushan ( died 1355 ), before succumbing piecemeal to the Ottomans, finally being fully incorporated in 1459.

  • Tamerlane

I suspect your textbook is telling the truth. These ethnic groups - and the tensions and hostilities that exist - go back for centuries. The main origin dates back to the Ottoman conquest of the area in the late 14th century. These people have long memories.

One odd thing, all the Balkan Slavs have pretty much the same origins and speak the same language, etc. The things that divide them are relatively minor, but the people themselves regard them as absolutely crucial, of course.

Great over-simplification follows:

Roman Catholic by religion, use the Western alphabet in writing; not conquered by the Ottomans and adhere to the Austro-Hungarian Empire as their powerful protectors to keep it that way (remember in WWI the Ottoman Empire was clearly fading, but still considered to be a world power), tend to look toward western Europe = “Croatians”.

Orthodox Christian by religion, use the Cyrillic alphabet in writing; conquered by the Ottomans but extremely resistant even over centuries of time, intensely nationalistic, tend to look toward eastern Europe more than the West (who, they felt, had abandoned them to Ottoman tyranny for all those centuries) = “Serbian”.

Essentially Serbs who managed to remain unconquered by the Ottomans because they holed up in an impenetrable mountain stronghold = “Montenegrans”.

Once-upon-a-time Serbs who yielded to their conquerers, collaborated and converted to Islam = “Bosnians”.

Albanians are a different people and different language group entirely - from the next country to the south. In the 17th century the Ottomans “ethnically cleansed” (this is not a recent innovation in these parts) the Serbian province of Kosovo by deporting all the (rebellious) Orthodox Serbs and re-settling the area with (loyal) Moslem Albanians.

Croatians look down on Serbs because Serbs were the losers who were barefoot peasants under Ottoman rule while the Croatians shared all the glories of Western civilization under Austrian protection.
Serbs look down on Croatians because the Croatians were the people who had the soft life under Austrian protection. They cannot claim a share of the proud Serbian nationalist resistance to centuries of Ottoman oppression and occupation.
Everybody hates the Bosnians because they were the traitors and collaborators who sold out to the Turks.
Everybody hates the Albanians because they don’t care if it has been 300 years… they are foreigners who have no business being there and should go back to dam’ Albania.

However, Serbia would not have had such backbone had not Russia promised to declare war on their behalf. Austro-Hungary would not have been so demanding had not Kaiser Willy promised to “back them to the hilt”, thus chaining Germany to a corpse.

Exactly - I should have added that point. It was all a rather tragic chain of…well…not misunderstandings, exactly. More macho posturing, because everybody had someone who “had their back.”

  • Tamerlane

The ethnic tensions go back quite aways. The 90s were not the first instance of a Balkan bloodbath, not by a longshot. In living history, there are the atrocities committed by the Ustasha during WWII. These were basically the Croatian Nazis whose modus operendi was to slash the throats of any unlucky Serbs they got a hold of (and often dump their bodies into the river.)

The current checkerboard shield for the Republic of Croatia is ALMOST the same as the Ustasha symbol used during WWII. The difference is that the Ustasha shield started with white-red-white-red-white, not red-white-red-white-red. Historically, the shield is an old symbol of Croatia that was revived for WWII, but many Serbs remember it as a symbol of repression. When Croatia declared its independence in 1991 (IIRC), and resurrected the old shield, I would say they were being less than tactful, at the very least.

How did Tito keep all that hatred under control for so long?

Tito was a very popular figure across the board. Although Communist, he managed to keep a lot of Yugoslavia’s independence. Yugoslavia was the only occupied country to liberate itself, and therefore was not beholden to Stalin (or the West). Tito got a lion’s share of the credit, and deservedly so… he was a war hero. As to how he kept down the terrible ethnic tensions, I suspect it was a combination of three things… the aforementioned respect of his countrymen… harsh punishments for those who make trouble… and not reporting incidents of ethnic violence.

“There’ll be trouble in the Balkans in the Spring.”

I’m sure there are people here who know a lot more about this than I do, but my understanding (based on a combination of reading a few essays and speaking to a few people who lived through the Balkan wars, admittedly all of them Croats) is that generally these groups got along reasonably well under Tito with only the occasional flare-up of tensions, not because of his iron fist but because they’d more or less learned to tolerate each other. They even mixed to a substantial degree.

The power vacuum that followed Tito’s departure allowed the rise of violent, opportunistic and power-hungry chancers who took advantage of the region’s history and played up the ethnic tensions to gain support for their campaigns. Apparently, this was not as successful as we in the west have been led to believe (Serbia for example was forced to recruit football hooligans and various types of criminal into its “army” because so many of the regulars deserted rather than fight a war they didn’t believe in).

“I never knew I was supposed to hate them before then” is a comment that turned up a couple times when I was reading/talking about this.

See “The Banality of ‘Ethnic War’” by John Mueller.

As I said though, I’m no expert!

ruadh - I would pretty much agree to your assessment that Serbs, Croats, et al, pretty much learned to tolerate each other. Inter-ethnic marriages were not at all uncommon, and many villages, especially in parts of Western Slavonia, were almost equal in Serbs and Croats. Now, while areas are being slowly repatriated, an clear ethnic divide now exists where it hadn’t in pre-war times.

Many of the “old Balkan hatreds” were resurrected by politicians such as Milosevic and Tudjman via nationalism in order for these guys to secure a base of power and mobilize people. This is an oversimplification of what went down there, of course.