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Serbian Nationalism: Identity Out of Necessity

A shared objective – expelling the Ottomans – gave rise to a truly single national identity.

Deep Dive

Image Credit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

Xander Snyder |August 2, 2018


Much of human history can be boiled down to the fundamental consideration of identity – who we are, which groups we belong to, who is one of us and who is not. Identity is often both a feature and a consequence of our wars, an influence in how we handle mass migration, and a cause for referendums on secession and independence. But the causal relationship also works in the other direction: Circumstance can also cultivate ideology and thus identity.

The emergence of nationalism in the Balkans, and especially in Serbia, in the 19th century is a case study for this complex cause-and-effect relationship. By the beginning of the 1800s, the once-great Ottoman Empire had slipped so far that Tsar Nicholas I referred to it as “the sick man of Europe.” As the Ottomans lost control of more European territory, they at last found themselves retreating from even the Balkans. It was immediately clear to those who lived in the Balkans that the empire was losing its ability to put down uprisings and was utterly incapable of fending off an attack from a modern European nation state by itself. Without action, a power vacuum would arise in southeastern Europe, to be filled either from within or by one of Europe’s eastern powers. The machinations of Europe’s more powerful countries over what to do about this state of affairs came to be known as the Eastern Question. This Deep Dive will look at how this question spurred the people who lived in the Balkans to come up with their own answers.

The Eastern Question

For the Austrians (later the Austro-Hungarians) and Russians, the answer to the Eastern Question was clear: take greater control of the Balkans. The Austrians had lost some of this land to the Ottomans in the 16th and 17th centuries and were eager to get it back. Russia, having truly arrived as an actor in the European concert of powers following the partition of Poland in the late 18th century, wanted greater access to the seas. Taking possession of territory on the western shores of the Black Sea could eventually lead to control of the Bosporus, which had for so long been under Ottoman control and an ultimate point of leverage against the Russians despite their victories over the Ottomans in the 18th century. Without sea access, Russian power – even on land – would always be limited. This became abundantly clear during the Crimean War (1853-1856), when Britain was able to send a decisive naval force along a several-thousand-mile course into the Black Sea to Sevastopol, thus defeating the Russians at their own doorstep.

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But for Austria-Hungary and Russia, the Eastern Question was about more than acquiring new territory. The elites in the Balkan territories had their own ideas that didn’t include casting off one foreign overload just to welcome another. Instead, they came to support the notion of some sort of social contract that, unsurprisingly, gave them more power than it did an outside power. They looked at the French Revolution and subsequent European revolutions of 1848 as proof that new systems of government were possible, if costly. But revolution terrified the conservative eastern monarchs, who feared that they might meet the same fate as King Louis XVI of France. So Austria-Hungary and Russia also saw control of the Balkans as a way to subdue revolutionary fervor and keep what they saw as radicalism in check in their own empires.

It was evident that the status quo in the Balkans could not hold – the days of Ottoman control were numbered. And it was increasingly evident that there was a need to establish new government institutions to administer the Balkans, which had been incorporated wholly – not even as semi-autonomous vassal states, as with the Danubian provinces – into the Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years. First, though, the Ottomans had to be more fully ejected from the Balkan Peninsula.

Educated in Paris

But who, exactly, would do the ejecting? Over time, the people of the Balkans decided that it should be them, and it started with the group that would come to identify itself as Serbs. At this point, there was no such thing as a modern Serbian identity. The last major independent state in the Balkans had been the medieval Serbian Empire, which was already dissolving into a collection of independent principalities by the time it faced catastrophic defeat by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Though it would take the Ottomans several decades to fully incorporate this territory into their empire, for all intents and purposes the fate of the Balkans was sealed in 1389.

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The world changed a lot between then and the 19th century. In the Balkans, Ottoman occupation brought large-scale conversions (especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina), immigration and, at times, forced population relocations – which meant that not only were the times different, but so were the people. For hundreds of years, people living in territory formerly known as the Serbian Empire did not identify as Serbs, Bosnians, Croats or Montenegrins. They identified as Christians, or Greeks (not ethnically but as faithful members of the Greek Orthodox religion), distinct from the Muslim ruling class of the Ottomans. By the mid-19th century, being a “Serb” was therefore both a very old and a very new concept.

The few Serbian elite who were fortunate enough to travel abroad for their education usually ended up in Paris. They returned with new, exciting ideas about national identity and conceptions of how to govern a new state in ways that could more effectively bring about modernization – while empowering themselves as rulers at the same time. For the elite, it was truly a win-win. They envisioned harnessing nationalism to establish new governing structures to replace the vestiges of Ottoman control and ward off the looming imposition of Eastern European power.

But to execute their vision, the elites needed help. The lands that comprise modern-day Serbia were, at that time, predominantly agrarian. The population was small relative to the rest of Europe, and the elite class was even smaller compared to other places that were more urbanized and industrialized. To reject the Ottoman Empire – and subsequent impositions by the Russian and Austro-Hungarian powers – the Serbians would need a modern military force that could more efficiently draw upon the full resources of the state. A tiny elite could not fight them alone. They needed the people to fight too. The problem, though, was that peasants, who comprised the vast majority of the population of the Balkans, didn’t care about new conceptions of nationalist ideologies or the alliances of great powers. They cared about having enough food. The peasants stopped having enough food shortly after the Ottoman Empire launched its most comprehensive set of reforms in the 19th century.

Appetite for Revolution

The Ottomans were in dire need of reform if they wanted to defend their empire from complete collapse, and they knew it. They had just been walloped in the late 17th century by a coalition of Eastern European powers, then again throughout the 18th century by the Russians, and they kept losing territory in the 19th century to revolutions. They simply could not compete with modern European militaries, which had advanced technology, well-trained armies and, importantly, administrative systems that could more efficiently extract resources from the full extent of their territory and direct them into their militaries.

By contrast, the Ottomans at this time resembled a holdover of a medieval feudal society, containing different areas with varying degrees of decentralized local control. To be sure, the Ottomans’ ability to conquer different religions and ethnicities and absorb them relatively peacefully into their empire is what made them so successful – and the fright of all Europe from the mid-15th to the mid-17th centuries. Their problem, in a way, was that for a time they were too successful. They didn’t see a need for reform, which they thought would tip the scale away from the delicate balance that the empire had struck with local leaders, who would resent losing control over their own territories if the state were to modernize and centralize power into the organs of a professional administrative bureaucracy. Yet without such reforms, the Ottomans would never stand a chance going toe to toe with the Russians or Austro-Hungarians.

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The most pressing reform needed in the Ottoman Empire was the ability to more efficiently extract and deploy the resources within its empire, as the other European states could. This meant more taxes, of course, but it also meant new ways to collect taxes, many of which for hundreds of years had consisted of in-kind transfers to the state. The combination of the need to convert to a cash economy – which would enable the Ottomans to enhance trade with foreign countries and access international credit markets (both prerequisites to greater military capabilities) – and to make tax collection more efficient produced an ever-growing burden on the Balkan peasantry, which had historically been responsible for a majority of Ottoman tax revenues.

The peasants wanted to retain their way of life, which in part meant relying upon their own crops to survive. But the need to generate more and more cash payments to the state in the form of taxes forced them to sell more of their crops on the market. And the totality of output from their small lots simply couldn’t produce enough value to meet their cash obligations and feed themselves at the same time. So they grew hungry and worried and blamed the Ottomans for imposing this new reality on them. The Balkan peasantry was always poor, but at least it could feed itself.

The lines along which distinctions in identity were drawn in the Ottoman Empire prior to the advent of nationalism already existed in the form of religion. When the peasants were put under the strain of the reformed tax regime, those distinctions morphed into something new. Orthodox Christians in the Balkans had lived relatively peacefully under the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. Though Christians were by no means on equal terms with Muslims in the empire, they could still practice their religion, so long as they did so quietly and paid additional taxes, called “jizya,” for not being Muslim (one of the reasons the Balkans contributed so much toward the Ottoman’s tax revenues). The Ottoman Empire was, after all, frequently safer for members of minority religions than Europe. In 1492, at the onset of the Spanish Inquisition and Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of Jews from Spain, many Spanish Jews fled to the Ottoman Empire – and were welcomed, so long as they didn’t question the sultan’s authority and paid the jizya.

Now, though, peasants saw their very existence at stake, and it was clear to them that it was the Ottomans’ fault. It didn’t help that Ottoman administrators in the Balkans tended to congregate in the cities, making many urban areas Muslim-majority, whereas 80 percent or so of the population of the Balkans was rural Orthodox Christians. Those Ottoman administrators seemed to be living in relative comfort while they demanded more from the peasants. Throughout the Balkans they were increasingly seen as the enemy.

For their own protection, therefore, the peasants began to want the Ottomans out. So did the elite. It didn’t matter that they had different goals: The elite were ideological and hungry for power; the peasants were just hungry. The nationalist-minded, Paris-educated elite had its anti-Ottoman coalition.

Unintended Consequences

Modern Serbian nationalism resulted from the two groups’ need to explain and understand their cooperation, given their distinct objectives. True, both groups would come to invoke a shared cultural memory (although for the uneducated poor majority, probably a largely forgotten one) of erstwhile Serbian greatness, standing against all odds at the doorstep of Europe, trying to repel the Ottoman menace all the way back in 1389. With time, nationalism in the Balkans would spur the elite to advocate the widespread use of local languages, which had been primarily spoken by the peasantry, as opposed to the Greek that predominated among the literate class. But what truly united them and gave rise to the 19th-century Serbian identity was their shared objective: expelling the Ottoman Empire. Necessity fostered identity, not the other way around. As a 19th-century Bulgarian peasant summarized it, when asked by a foreign traveler about his identity: “Our fathers were Greeks and none mentioned the Bulgarians. We became Bulgarians, we won. If we have to be Serbs, no problem. But for now it is better for us to be Bulgarian.”

While the Ottoman Empire was declining, the Russian Empire was rising. Russia became the first major Orthodox power in Europe. Serbian uprisings began in the early 19th century, coinciding with one of the many Russo-Turkish wars (1806-12). Russia took advantage of pan-Orthodox sentiments across the Balkans to keep pressure on the Ottomans, who increasingly found themselves assaulted from all angles. This was not the first time the Russian Empire leveraged this shared identity – for example, Catherine the Great tried to no avail to encourage an Orthodox Christian uprising in Montenegro to seize Constantinople (modern Istanbul) during yet another Russo-Ottoman war – but Russia ultimately was better able than the Ottomans to exploit the new and fairly malleable identities. This was in large part the fountainhead of positive Russian-Serbian relations.

Meanwhile, Serbian nationalism inspired other Balkan nations to rise up and form their own countries. These new identities, products of events, would themselves drive events thereafter. As Eastern European powers competed for greater territorial control of southeastern Europe, the need arose for them to compete for the hearts and minds of the new Balkan national identities, which could be used as de facto proxies to oppose their powerful continental rivals.

When Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, Serbia, fearful of the encroachment on its border, appealed to Russia for help. Though at first receptive to the idea of supporting a Serbian-led retaliation against the Austro-Hungarian advance, Russia was still reeling from its 1905 defeat at the hands of Japan and a subsequent attempted revolution. So when Germany said it would support Austro-Hungary against any Russian aggression, Russia backed down. It would not back down the next time.

The people of the Balkans lived relatively peacefully for hundreds of years under the Ottomans. When circumstances changed, the people changed. The result, for better and for worse, was the Balkans as we know it as today.