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A Conglomerate Country

The National Question in Yugoslavia

by Ivo Banac
Cornell University Press, 452 pp., $35.00

The unification of the part of Southeastern Europe that is known today as Yugoslavia, a country with not many more inhabitants than greater New York, is one of the most controversial events in modern history. Yugoslavia was created in 1918 when, after the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the king of Serbia assumed the leadership of a newly created great South Slav state. The Serbian army proceeded to assert its rule all the way from the Greek and Bulgarian frontier to the borders of Italy and the new Austrian republic. The turmoil that followed made certain that the peoples of Yugoslavia would not enjoy internal peace for several decades. This is the tragedy whose origins and unfolding Ivo Banac, a young professor at Yale University, explains with great mastery.

His is indeed a most welcome book, for it succeeds in disentangling the astonishing complexities of the Yugoslav situation between 1918 and 1921, and points convincingly to the likely causes of the dramatic developments that followed the creation of Europe’s last great multinational state. Yet this work also leaves us with many nagging questions. Was Serbia truly as callous toward the rightful aspirations of other groups and political units in Southeastern Europe as Banac says it was? Was there a genuine alternative to Serbian predominance after 1918, which would have satisfied both the Serbs and the equally expansionist Croats, let alone the many other religious, political, and ethnic groups?

Further, we might ask, if all went wrong between 1918 and 1921, as Banac claims, then what accounts for the long-term survival of Yugoslavia? After all, there can be little question that most Yugoslavs today, despite their conflicts with one another, would be ready to shed their blood in the defense of their state. Unfortunately, having led us through 400-odd pages of well-explained turmoil, the author does not leave us with any kind of conclusion. There is no epilogue, no perspective on the future from the vantage point of 1921, and the reader is left to wonder whether the Yugoslav kingdom collapsed in 1941 under its own weight, or only because of the irresistible force of the German invasion. Was Tito’s federalist and communist solution the only workable alternative to the centralist and monarchical governments that ruled Yugoslavia between the wars? And finally, does Tito’s Yugoslavia today carry the seeds of its own destruction?

Because of the unfortunate historical reputation of the Balkans as a region of trouble and misery, no Balkan country except for Bulgaria—which really has no choice in the matter—is prepared to admit that it belongs to the Balkans (although many towns had a “Balkan Kafé” and a “Balkan Kino” movie house in the years between the wars). The Greeks claim to be Mediterranean and the Albanians to be the only true representatives of the world communist movement. The Romanians and Yugoslavs point to the vast territories they took over in 1918 from the defunct Habsburg monarchy, a very Central European state. Nevertheless, from a Western European point of view, the South Slav lands are the Balkans, which, in Banac’s words, have always conjured up the image of “outlaws, rustlers, mountain men, mules, [and] hostile clans.” Or, as the cofounder of Marxism, Friedrich Engels, noted, with his remarkable contempt for all East Europeans unless they happened to be German or Hungarian: the South Slav regions of Europe were inhabited by “bits and scraps” of peoples (Völkerabfälle).

It is true, of course, that Yugoslavia is an ethnic conglomerate, the only colorful and exciting conglomerate left in an increasingly monotonous Europe, where minorities have been systematically absorbed or eliminated over the last 150 years. In 1921 there were in Yugoslavia some 4.6 million Serbs, 1.3 million Muslims, 2.8 million Croats, 1 million Slovenes, 513,000 Germans, 472,000 Hungarians, 64,000 Jews, 13,000 Italians, 229,000 Romanians, Vlachs, and Cincars, 585,000 Macedonians or Bulgars, 442,000 Albanians, 168,000 Turks, and sundry other peoples, amounting to a grand total of more than 12 million.

These estimates are the result of Banac’s own very convincing computations, which differ significantly from the official pro-Serb statistics. As if this ethnic picture were not complex enough, consider the fact that the Serbs, or those groups which Banac considers to be Serbs, were inhabitants not only of what used to be the kingdom of Serbia before 1912, but also of other parts of the Balkans. These included the Vojvodina, an integral part of Hungary before 1918; Croatia-Slavonia, a separate kingdom under Hungarian suzerainty until 1918 (although in Hungarian eyes Slavonia—not to be confused with Slovenia—was, unlike Croatia, historically an integral part of Hungary). Then there was Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast, which belonged to Austria until the end of the First World War; Bosnia-Hercegovina, which Austria and Hungary had held in common; Montenegro, which had been independent before the war; the Sandzak of Novi Pazar; and Metohia, Kosovo, and Macedonia—all hotly contested territories before 1918. In some of these kingdoms and provinces the Serbs made up a majority; in others, they were a minority, sometimes a very small one.

The Muslims, in turn, were heavily represented in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, pre-1912 Serbia, the Sandzak of Novi Pazar, and Kosovo; the Croats in Croatia-Slavonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Dalmatia; the Hungarians and Germans in Slavonia, Slovenia, and the Vojvodina; the Albanians in Kosovo and Metohia. One could go on.

But just how does one determine precisely who was a Serb, or distinguish a Serb from a Croat? The two speak the same language. Serbo-Croatian, or rather, different dialects of the same language, which is not to say that the Serbs speak one group of dialects and the Croats another. The customary way to distinguish between the two peoples is by religion, the Serbs being Orthodox and the Croats Catholic. At first sight this method is as unfair as it is imprecise, because over a million Serbo-Croatian speakers are neither Catholic nor Orthodox but Muslim, and because there are many Orthodox who claim to be Croats and many Catholics who claim to be Serbs. Furthermore, millions of Serbs and Croats must by now be indifferent to religion or even militant atheists—after all, theirs is a communist country—notwithstanding the recent upsurge of religious enthusiasm, even of fundamentalism, that has been reported in Yugoslavia.* The fact is that Orthodoxy and Catholicism have become symbols of vast historic and cultural differences between Serbs and Croats or, to put it more precisely, between most of the Serbs and most of the Croats.

The Serbs settled in the Balkans in the sixth century, where they soon came under the influence of the Byzantine empire and church. In the middle of the fourteenth century, Serbia became the most powerful empire in the Balkans, only to be conquered by the Ottoman Turks during the next hundred years. Serbia remained under Turkish rule, at first a very real presence and during the nineteenth century an increasingly nominal one, until 1878. In that year, the Congress of Berlin recognized Serbia’s complete independence, and soon Milan, a prince from one of the contending Serbian dynasties, became king of Serbia. When his successor was assassinated in 1903, Peter I, from a rival dynasty, took power. He allowed parliamentary government, cultivated the alliance with Russia, and saw the Austro-Hungarian monarchy as Serbia’s natural enemy.

The Croats, for their part, settled in the Balkans in the seventh century, and during the following two centuries came under the influence of the Roman church. At the end of the eleventh century, the Croatian kingdom became associated, generally in a subordinate position, with the far larger Hungarian kingdom—an uneasy relationship that lasted until 1918. In 1526, the crown of both Croatia and Hungary passed to the Habsburgs. This meant that Croatia continued to be subordinated to Hungary, which in turn was subordinated to the House of Austria. Croats were drawn into the Austrian civil service and army.

All this helps to explain why Serbs and Croats, although living close together and speaking the same language, feel so different from each other. Unfortunately for their mutual relations, each can look back to at least a short period of medieval greatness (as do the neighboring Hungarians, Bulgars, Romanians, and Albanians). This has allowed them to claim moral, political, and cultural superiority over the other. No less unfortunately, both Serbs and Croats (as well as the neighboring nations) also experienced long periods of subjugation and devastating invasions which have caused them to fear the death of their nation and to be ever ready for an all-out struggle for national survival.

If religious background is taken as the only reliable criterion for differentiating between the two chief national groups, then it is tempting to divide all Yugoslavs into religious categories. The Ottomans did so, recognizing only confessional communities, or millets, and their system worked efficiently until the nineteenth century, the age of nationalism. Nationalism abhors denominational distinctions, and so, by 1921, official Yugoslav statistics began classifying some groups by their nationality, such as Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Germans, Italians, or Turks; others by a combination of religious and territorial affiliation, such as Bosnian Muslims; and others by religion alone, such as the Jews. For lack of a better solution, Banac himself is forced to accept a few mixed categories. Should one perhaps classify the Serbo-Croatian-speaking Muslims as Serbo-Croats? The answer is no, since Serbo-Croatian is a language, not a nationality. Moreover, if the basis for differentiating between Serbs and Croats is religion, then a Serbo-Croatian-speaking Muslim is obviously neither. This makes the Yugoslav Muslims a separate nationality or, rather, several separate nationalities.

Or perhaps one should refrain completely from attempting to define a nationality on the basis of external characteristics, and simply be guided by what particular Yugoslavs call themselves. Even this would not work, however, since many tended then, as now, to identify themselves by the place where they come from. This would give us many Bosnians, Montenegrins, and Hercegovinians, along with Serbs, Croats, Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims, all living in the same region of the country. In today’s Yugoslavia, “Bosnian” or “Macedonian” are accepted ethnic designations, as is “Yugoslav,” professed by only about 6 percent of the population. In 1921, however, these were not recognized categories. All this statistical hair-splitting would be of interest only to statisticians, had the nationality question not led to the violent death of thousands at the end of the First World War, and of millions between 1941 and 1945. Somehow, as in Ulster or Lebanon today, the peoples of Yugoslavia had an unerring eye for the enemy in their midst, even if he or she spoke the same language, wore the same national costume, or hailed from the same village.

Banac has found an ingenious morphological solution (which I will also adopt in this essay) to distinguish between ethnic and provincial affiliation. He uses the term “Croatian” to designate the inhabitants of the counties of pre-1918 Croatia proper, and “Croat” to refer to people belonging to the ethnic group, regardless of where they live. He uses the same device to distinguish between the “Serbians” who lived in the territory of the pre-1912 Serbian kingdom and the “Serbs” as a national group. Similarly, the “Bulgarians” are those who lived in what was pre-1912 Bulgaria, while the “Bulgars” are people of that nationality. Thus an inhabitant of what was Bulgaria before 1912 is a “Bulgarian,” even if he happens to be a Turk, and a Bulgarian-speaking inhabitant of Macedonia is a “Bulgar,” even if he professes to be a Macedonian patriot, or even if Serb or Greek nationalists claim him as their own.

  1. *

    See Barney Petrovic, “Tito’s heirs flock to church,” The Sunday Times of London (April 7, 1985).

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