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The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, Second Edition

The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, Second Edition

by Tim Judah

Who are the Serbs? Branded by some as Europe's new Nazis, they are seen by others—and by themselves—as the innocent victims of nationalist aggression and of an implacably hostile world media. In this challenging new book, Timothy Judah, who covered the war years in former Yugoslavia for the London Times and the Economist, argues that neither


Who are the Serbs? Branded by some as Europe's new Nazis, they are seen by others—and by themselves—as the innocent victims of nationalist aggression and of an implacably hostile world media. In this challenging new book, Timothy Judah, who covered the war years in former Yugoslavia for the London Times and the Economist, argues that neither is true. Exploring the Serbian nation from the great epics of its past to the battlefields of Bosnia and the backstreets of Kosovo, he sets the fate of the Serbs within the story of their past.

This wide-ranging, scholarly, and highly readable account opens with the windswept fortresses of medieval kings and a battle lost more than six centuries ago that still profoundly influences the Serbs. Judah describes the idea of "Serbdom" that sustained them during centuries of Ottoman rule, the days of glory during the First World War, and the genocide against them during the Second. He examines the tenuous ethnic balance fashioned by Tito and its unraveling after his death. And he reveals how Slobodan Milosevic, later to become president, used a version of history to drive his people to nationalist euphoria. Judah details the way Milosevic prepared for war and provides gripping eyewitness accounts of wartime horrors: the burning villages and "ethnic cleansing," the ignominy of the siege of Sarajevo, and the columns of bedraggled Serb refugees, cynically manipulated and then abandoned once the dream of a Greater Serbia was lost.

This first in-depth account of life behind Serbian lines is not an apologia but a scrupulous explanation of how the people of a modernizing European state could become among the most reviled of the century. Rejecting the stereotypical image of a bloodthirsty nation, Judah makes the Serbs comprehensible by placing them within the context of their history and their hopes.

Editorial Reviews

David Rieff
The best attempt to date to explain the calamitous situation of the Serbs today.
Toronto Globe and Mail
Tom Gallagher
A thoughtful, humane, and acute portrait...which draws together history, modern politics, and war to explain how they came to be where they are.
The Herald
Kirkus Reviews
Stressing the Serbs' misuse and mythologizing of history, Judah offers an insightful, informed, and trenchant consideration of their history and their collective outlook. The Serbs is a stylish and highly readable account by an experienced journalist who has written for the London Times and the Economist. Its strength as a primer for a general readership lies in Judah's ability—unprecedented among recent journalistic accounts of the current Balkan wars—to make the behavior of individual Serbs and their leaders comprehensible by placing them in the context of Serbian and Balkan history. His presentation is nuanced, focused, and rich with motifs that he follows from the Middle Ages to the present: massive migrations, banditry and widespread violence, militias, ethnic cleansing, and enduring myths of religious and national identity (most importantly, those surrounding the Battle of Kosovo), among others. Significantly, Judah understands the deep and important nature of ties between Serbia and the Serbs outside the country proper, and explains the similarities and differences between the contemporary situation and the past. Especially effective are his citations from texts by eyewitnesses to events in Serbian history (the Balkan wars, rebellions against the Ottomans, WW II) that sound as if they were written yesterday. Judah's study will, of course, offend Serbs mightily. About the anti-Muslim sentiments in Njego's The Mountain Wreath (Serbia's most revered literary classic) he sensibly offers this view: 'Literature that elsewhere would have long been banned from schools is still, subconsciously or not, shaping the worldview of Serbian children.'He also asserts that, when faced with the Bosnian question, 'many national and sane Serbs simply cease to function as such. They prefer their own long-held convictions to facts which would force them to rethink everything they hold dear.' Judah's excellent book stands out in a cluttered field, offering the key to Serbia's behavior over the past decade. In Serbia, Judah observes, 'It is what people believe rather than what is true that matters.'

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There were and there always will be, eternally, migrations as there will always be births for life to continue. Migrations exist. Death does not exist! From Seobe (Migrations) by Milos Crnjanski

Deep in the bowels of the patriarchate building of the Serbian Orthodox church in Belgrade is a great canvas depicting one of the most traumatic events in Serbian history. It shows Patriarch Arsenije Carnojevic leading tens of thousands of his people into exile. In 1689, Arsenije encouraged the Serbs living in the Ottoman Empire to rise in rebellion and aid the Austrian Army, which had penetrated deep into Turkish-held lands. On New Year's Day 1690 the Austrians and Serbs were crushed in battle. Fearing the wrath of the vengeful Turks, Arsenije led great columns of refugees away from their ancestral homes, mostly from Kosovo, the heart of old Serbia. He was truly a Serbian Moses — but leading his people away from the promised land.

The original painting was commissioned in 1896 by Patriarch Georgije Brankovic. The artist was Paja Jovanovic. He was one of the most illustrious Serbian painters of his generation and his depictions of the greatest moments of Serbian history placed him firmly at the centre of the national artistic renaissance of the time. In the foreground of his painting is a moustachioed fighter. He has swords stuffed into his belt, a rifle slung over his shoulder, and he is striding purposefully into the future. His arm is carried in a blood-stained sling. Just behind him are a mother and child atop a horse laden down with their possessions. The lances ofa thousand Serbian soldiers bristle in the background and in the centre is Patriarch Arsenije flanked by a Serbian flag. On the other side an old man with a switch whips his sheep into line and behind him lumber wagons with families and their belongings. It was these scenes that Patriarch Georgije could not stomach. It lowered the tone, especially the inclusion of the sheep. It made the exodus look like a rabble on the run, he said. Paja Jovanovic was made to paint the picture all over again. Almost everything was exactly the same, except that the sheep and carts had disappeared from the second version — which is the one now hanging in the patriarchate building.

Perhaps one day a future patriarch will commission a picture of the great exodus of 1995. After four years of war and isolation, the Serb will to resist finally gave way. For all this time the Serbs had defied the world and carved out mini-states for themselves in Croatia and Bosnia. When Krajina, the Serb-held part of Croatia, collapsed that August along with defence lines in western Bosnia, the resulting exodus looked remarkably like Paja Jovanovic's epic pictures — but with more cars and tractors than horses and carts. And, whether old Patriarch Georgije would have liked it or not, there were sheep this time around too.

By the time the Croats launched their offensive on Knin, the capital of what had for four years been the rebel Republic of Serbian Krajina, few put up much resistance. Worn down by poverty, hopelessness and the very public war-profiteering of the few, morale was at rock bottom. The offensive began at 5.00am on Friday, 4 August 1995. Artillery opened up along every front. It continued all day, dying down only at about 11pm. The radio was off the air and most people huddled in their shelters and basements uncertain of what was going on. When the shelling stopped, the shocked and traumatised people grabbed what they could carry and fled for their lives. In some places the move was spontaneous. People began to run once they saw the army in retreat. In other areas the army or police gave orders for people to be ready to leave within the hour. Two days later, more than 170,000 people were on the roads. That was all the time it took for the Serbian Orthodox population of these lands, which had lived there for several centuries, to vanish.

'Everything was normal on Thursday,' said Radovan Borovic, aged twenty-seven, from Knin. 'Cafes and kindergartens were open but then at 5.00am the next morning the shelling began.' Whole families were squeezed into their cars, crushed beneath all the belongings they could carry. Old people stared vacantly between the slats of cattle lorries that had brought them from Krajina and pregnant women lay flopped in the back of their cars, in which they had been travelling for two days. Exhausted and dirty refugees piled out of the lorries into which they had squeezed in their bid to flee and began to plead for lifts to Belgrade. Marica, aged thirty, clutching her eight-year-old daughter, was one of them. She had come from the riverside town of Dvor na Uni where, on the day the Croatian offensive began, she had buried her husband. 'He had been on the frontline,' she said. 'I lost no property, only my love.' Her story was one of those stupid, horrible twists of fate that were so common in this war. Her husband had been a Croat. He had fought in the Krajina Serb Army 'because he chose to stay with me and our child. He said it was his destiny. But now he has stayed there for ever.'

The first to cross the border came in cars. Soon though, backed up along the road, came tens of thousands on tractors, and lastly those in horse-drawn carts. In the final humiliation for the people who had followed the call to rebel in the name of Serbdom, a massive tailback began to build up as the refugees, who had just lost their homes, were forced to root around in their pockets for the few coins they needed to pay the motorway toll on the road to Belgrade. In a desperate scene along the road a Krajina soldier went berserk at a stop where people were waiting for petrol. He killed his children, his wife and finally himself. A policeman reported that 'an old woman who was asleep on a truck just fell down dead'. Beside the road two men committed suicide by hanging themselves from trees.

It was perhaps cruel justice that the most nightmarish scenes for the gathering refugees should be in Banja Luka, a hellish place of fear for the remaining Croats and Muslims in Serb-held northern Bosnia. The police stopped most of the refugees entering the town centre, so that it took two hours to get through the clogged roads to cover the last ten minutes into town. At night tens of thousands slept on the pavements, under their tractors or crammed into the old Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) Kozara barracks. On the outskirts of town a harassed policeman asked for help. An old woman, totally alone, had been found sleeping on the road. It was late and it was raining. She was bent double with age. 'My son is somewhere on the front,' she said. 'Please take her to the hospital,' said the policeman. 'But there is nothing wrong with me,' she protested. At the Kozara barracks almost every inch was taken up, but eventually, exhausted, she sank down in a space she found between the pairs of feet of a sleeping family.

Within days of this new Serbian migration came reports that the Croats were putting much of the former Krajina to the torch. Whole towns began to burn as the cycle of revenge began again. Barely 8,000, mainly elderly Serbs remained behind. The United Nations began to protest that gangs of Croat looters were killing and terrorising at random and that they believed that hundreds had been murdered.

These were the lands that were supposed to have become the new Serbian marches. Playing on their old spirit of rebellion Serbia's politicians had gambled with its people and the people had lost. In the small town of Srb, celebrated among Second World War Partisans for its 1941 uprising, a new Croatian police unit seemed to be the only inhabitants. Along the road burned-out cars and scattered clothes bore witness to the refugees that never made it down the hills, through the town and over the border into Bosnia. In Kistanje only a handful of people remained behind. It was said that Croats from nearby villages had torched Kistanje in revenge for the razing of their villages by the Serbs in 1991. But the Croats had managed to preserve the nearby Krka monastery, a fourteenth-century foundation which had police guards posted at the gates. Inside everything was eerily untouched. On the walls the portraits of Serbian saints and heroes looked down upon the monastery's new occupants. Here a returned Serbian emigre priest had once preached the most virulent Serbian nationalism, and Krka itself had over the last four years played an important role in bolstering Krajina's martial spirit. Now it appeared helpless, washed up hundreds of miles away from the nearest inhabited Serbian settlements. It was here that the historic tides of Serbian migrations had reached their furthest extent, but in the last few days they had turned eastwards again. In the eighteenth century the Dalmatian bishop Simeon Koncarevic wrote a history of the local Serbs from about 1350; he said of Krka, 'God's blessing was on this home; and since that time it has always been, until the present day, the shelter for the suffering and the fortification of our holy religion.'

By preserving Krka the Croat message was that 'unlike the Serbs' they did not desecrate holy monuments. As the water spilled from a lazy fountain in the middle of the cloister, the sun began to set, bathing the surrounding hills and rocky landscape in a strange pink twilight. 'I was almost taken in myself,' said a UN human rights monitor, 'and then you realise what a con it is. Krka may be fine but Kistanje has been completely destroyed and there are almost no people left there.'

In the late 1980s, at the height of Serbia's nationalist euphoria, hundreds of thousands could be relied upon to demonstrate for 'Serbian Unity' and 'All Serbs in One State'. Now the Serbs faced defeat. Vilified throughout the world as the people who had driven out hundreds of thousands of Croats and Muslims in their drive to make their own new Serb state, hundreds of thousands of Serbs were now refugees and Serbia was bankrupt. Ashamed, barely a couple of thousand Belgraders came out to demonstrate against their government, which had turned the Serbs into international pariahs and then nonetheless failed to hold on to what most of them believed was rightfully theirs.

In 1986 a small group of intellectuals at the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences had written the so-called Memorandum which stated that 'In the general process of disintegration which has encompassed Yugoslavia, the Serbs have been hit hardest.... This process is directed towards the total breaking up of the national unity among the Serbian people.' This, added to the emigration (or 'genocide', as they put it) of tens of thousands of the remaining Serbs in ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo, led them to conclude, 'one cannot imagine a worse historical defeat in peacetime'. It was a phrase that was to capture the spirit of the times. It was an idea which aroused in Serbs a sense of anger and a feeling that something should be done. And the up-and-coming politician Slobodan Milosevic understood this. Later he was to roar, 'If we don't know how to work well ... at least we know how to fight well.' This too was something that many Serbs could identify with. And, as the war began, what they were fighting for was defined by Mihailo Markovic, a dissident Marxist under communism who became the ideologue of Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party: 'The primary Serbian national interest is that the Republic of Serbia should conduct the strategy of defence of the Serbian population in Croatia.'

Exactly four years later all this was long forgotten. It may have been in Serbia's national interest in 1990 to arm the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, but things were different now, said Professor Markovic:

Those Krajina people did not want to fight. They said: 'You fight for us.' Look at the Second World War. They went to the woods and defended themselves. If they had wanted to stay they could have made sacrifices and stayed. If not, well good, at least they have returned home. They left in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and it was a migration too far. They are mostly young people who are coming now, so that's a benefit for us. Now the Serbs are concentrated in a smaller ethnic space but it's more homogeneous.

It was cynicism of a depth which beggared belief. Professor Markovic had been part of the team that had composed the Memorandum, the first blow struck for the Serbs. It was clear then that he and his colleagues saw no need for remorse or guilt for the process they had helped to set in motion. Indeed, with Olympian detachment all they needed to do now was to put things in context. The Serbs had always been a people on the move and some moves were better than others.


The great exodus of the Krajina Serbs in 1995 was not unique in either Serbian or Balkan history. The 1991—5 war in former Yugoslavia displaced at least three and a half million people out of a pre-war population of twenty-three million. Europe had seen nothing like it since the end of the Second World War. But what sets the history of the Balkans apart from much of the rest of Europe, and particularly the history of the Serbs, is that their story has always been one of migrations. The Serbs, as part of the Slav tribes, migrated to the Balkans in the sixth century AD. The conquests of the Turks in the fourteenth century provoked vast upheavals. The Serbian rebellions against them in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and at the beginning of the nineteenth also prompted large movements of peoples, Serbs and non-Serbs. During the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 hundreds of thousands of people across the southern Balkans fled as a consequence of the fighting.

It would be wrong, however, to think of all Balkan migrations as resulting from war and from what has now become known as ethnic cleansing. Throughout Balkan history peoples have also been on the move for economic reasons. In the middle ages nomadic herdsmen and their clans ranged far and wide in search of pastures for their flocks. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hundreds of thousands of Serbs migrated from the rocky wastelands of Hercegovina and Montenegro to rich and fertile Serbia, and in this century too people have moved in search of better jobs, houses and farmland.

There is no better place to feel this historical ebb and flow than Ras, the walled fortress high atop a hill in the Sandzak area of Serbia. To get there you have to follow a narrow track through a forest and then climb over the tumbling walls of the medieval castle. Ras is the stronghold from which the first Serbian princes or zupans built their state, and it is easy to see why they picked this windswept spot. From the castle walls you can see far into the valleys below and so have ample warning of any approaching enemy. Novo Brdo, in neighbouring Kosovo, is another fortress built before the Ottoman conquest. Likewise perched high on a hill, it is so impregnable that even today it is impossible to get to when snow lies deep on the mountain tracks.

While the Serbs built their first forts and settlements high up, the Turks who had conquered all of Serbia by 1459 had a different philosophy. Not fearing attack from the rayah or subjugated peasantry they wanted to encourage trade, so they built their towns in the valleys along which great merchants' caravans were to flow. So, close to Ras, which was abandoned, they built Novi Pazar, which means 'New Market'. Founded in 1455, it lay along the main road between Constantinople and Ragusa, the great trading city now called Dubrovnik. The area was also a vital link between Turkey and Bosnia and, as in Bosnia, a part of the population was to convert to Islam. Before the Yugoslav wars broke out in 1991, about half of Sandzak's population was Muslim.

Close to the old fort of Ras an old Serb and his wife struggle to keep their hilltop farm going. Happy to sell some kajmak or soft cheese to his visitors, the man talked about his Muslim neighbours: 'Thank God for Slobo, the police and the army', he said. 'If it wasn't for them they would have cut off our ears.' But, feeling physically secure for the moment, the old man said that life was getting tougher by the year because all his children had moved away and there was no one left to work on the farm. Like most people in modern Europe, they had not wanted to work on a farm on the top of a hill and preferred a comfy flat in town with a job. The farmer said that all his children had gone to the big cities of Serbia because in Novi Pazar 'The Muslims take all the jobs for themselves.' In fact Muslims too have been leaving. Like the Serbs who wanted nice flats and jobs in the big cities, Sandzak Muslims had been emigrating for years to Sarajevo and the cities of Bosnia. When the Bosnian war broke out the Yugoslav Army cleared the Serbian side of the border of Muslim villages and many began to emigrate for good to Turkey and Scandinavia in search of a new future for themselves and their families. So, in peacetime and in war, people were moving. Just as they had always done.

The Arrival of the Slavs

Most of the Balkans had been part of the Roman Empire since the first century AD. When, in the fourth century, the decision was taken to divide the empire between Rome and Constantinople, the area was home to a mix of peoples such as Greeks, Thracians, Illyrians, Romans, Dacians and many others. There were no Slavs though. The Slavonic-speaking peoples began to migrate to the Balkans only in the early sixth century. At first they came as raiders, but by the seventh century they began to settle.

Some contend that the Slavs came from the land between the Danube and the Carpathian mountains. Others believe that they came from the Caucasus and that they were ruled by an Iranian-derived elite. What can be said with certainty is that, unlike the earlier raiding Goths and Huns who left no lasting traces in the Balkans, the Slavs came to stay. By the 580s they were a powerful force, although they appear often to have fought as subordinates to the more powerful Avars, who lived roughly in the area of modern Hungary.

The constant warfare of this period led to the depopulation of large areas into which the Slavs were to move. These first Slavs cannot be identified as Serbs, Croats or Bulgarians — they were 'undifferentiated' Slavs. These three named tribes were now to arrive by diverse routes. The Croats migrated from the kingdom they had established during their migrations in southern Poland. The Serbs moved to the Balkans after briefly settling in areas that now fall within the Czech lands. It is also possible that there is a connection with those areas of northeastern Germany, around Bautzen, where the Sorbs, a Slavonic-speaking community, still live.

Before these migrations, in the second century AD, Greek geographers wrote of an Iranian tribe called the Serbi or Serboi living on the River Don. Professor John Fine, one of the foremost historians of the region, writes that if the first Serbs and Croats, like the Turkic Bulgars, were not Slavs but Iranian, this is 'not important in the long run since the Iranians were a small minority in a population of Slavs. They quickly became assimilated by the Slavs and the resulting society was clearly Slavic (despite the non-Slavic origin of its ruling class).' Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, the Byzantine emperor and historian, writing in the mid-tenth century notes that some of the Serbs or Servloi were originally given land around Salonika at Serblia by the Emperor Heraclius (610-41) but that they had not stayed there, had migrated north of the Danube and had then turned southwards again.

While the origins of the Serbs and Croats are still shrouded in mystery it is clear that from the very beginning these two distinct but close tribes moved one beside the other. Their histories have always been entwined. How close the tribes were is attested by the fact that they spoke, and still speak, virtually the same language. The Slav spread through the Balkans carried on until about 800 when it not only stopped but, in certain areas such as Greece and Albania, appears to have been reversed.

The arrival of the Slavs overwhelmingly changed the ethnic and linguistic composition of the peoples of the southern Balkans. But it seems that at least one pre-Slav group, who came to be known most commonly as Vlachs, survived the onslaught. With the arrival of the Slavs, they took to the uplands or migrated. Their most important distinguishing feature was their language, which was derived from Latin and, as is evident from the small groups that still survive today, is closely related to Romanian. It seems that, living in many areas cheek by jowl with the Serbs, a good part of the Vlachs were to assimilate with them, so contributing to the later creation of Orthodox and thus eventually Serb populations in parts of Bosnia, Hercegovina and Croatia.

The First Kingdoms

While the Croatian tribes moved down the Adriatic coast and settled in areas roughly coterminous with today's Croatia, the Serbs settled first in the area called Raska, in the region where the fortress of Ras was later built. They also settled on lands which are today in Montenegro, Hercegovina and southern Dalmatia. Raska gave the Serbs another name, the 'Rascians', by which they were commonly known for many centuries. Today Raska is more likely to be known by its Turkish name of Sandzak (literally the 'district' of Novi Pazar), which despite the best efforts of Serbian nationalists continues to be its most popular name.

Following the arrival of the Serbs in the Balkans they lived in tribes and clans dominated by zupans. While the Serbs increasingly became subject to missionaries from Orthodox Constantinople, the church in Rome sought to reassert its influence in Dalmatia and among the Croats. The first Serbian grand zupans believed to have accepted Christianity did so in the late ninth century and the conversion of the rest of the pagan Serbs would have taken place after that. For another 300 years the Serbian tribes and the lands they lived in tended to be dominated by either the Byzantines or the Bulgarians. These were centuries scarred by war and tussles for power both between local princes and between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines.

It was in the eleventh century that the first Serbian kingdom began to emerge in the area of present-day Montenegro. Around 1036 Stefan Vojislav renounced his allegiance to the emperor in Constantinople, pronounced himself for Rome and began to bring the neighbouring Serbian tribes under his control. In 1077 Zeta, as the land was then called, became a kingdom under Constantine Bodin, who ruled as a Catholic.

With Bodin's death, however, his state began to dissolve into civil war and power started to shift towards Raska. Here in the 1160s Stefan Nemanja was to found a dynasty that was to rule for 200 years and create an expanding Serbian state which was to become a major military power in the Balkans. With the death in 1355 of Tsar Dusan, however, the Nemanjic Empire began to disintegrate. And by this time a new force had entered the region. In 1371 the Turks inflicted their first major defeat on the Serbs at a battle on the Maritsa river in modern-day Bulgaria. In 1389 they met them in battle again at Kosovo, after which Serbia's rulers were forced to their knees and made to pay tribute to the sultans until their lands were finally overrun in 1459.

The Arrival of the Turks

Following the turmoil caused by the arrival of the Slavs there were no more really massive movements of people until the irruption of the Turks into Europe. With the steady advance of the Ottomans through the Balkans, many Serbs fled northwards towards Hungary and also towards the Adriatic. While these migrations began after the defeat at the Battle on the Maritsa and continued as Serbs, and other Christians, moved into the semi-free vassal Serbia, far larger migrations began after its fall in 1459. The Turks themselves took tens of thousands into slavery and many were settled around Constantinople. Before the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia, groups also fled westwards, some even reaching Italy. It was not only flight from the Turks that prompted these movements but also famine and plague, which wrought periodic devastation and left whole areas depopulated and deserted. The Serbian rebellions of 1689 and in the 1730s led to mass exoduses as the Serbian patriarchs, after twice encouraging their people to rise, were forced to lead them into exile in Hungary. None of these movements, however, explains how large numbers of Serbs came to live in Bosnia and in the Krajina region of Croatia.

Several different historical movements were to create these populations. It is important to note that, other than in the border regions such as eastern Bosnia, there were no large Orthodox populations in Bosnia proper before the Ottoman conquest in 1463. This contrasted with Hercegovina, which was mainly Orthodox. In neighbouring Dalmatia there were also long-established Orthodox communities. In the 1350s, for example, Jelena, the sister of Tsar Dusan and widow of the local ruler, founded the monastery of Krka. There is no dispute about the longevity of the Orthodox presence in the region, but it is less easy to establish the ethnic origin of these people. While many of those who came from Hercegovina or Montenegro could be considered Serb by virtue of their Orthodoxy, another group cannot. These were the Vlachs, who were moving before the Turkish conquest and who were encouraged by the Turks to continue to do so afterwards. The Vlachs were mostly but not all Orthodox. The two main areas towards which they moved were Dalmatia and north and north-west Bosnia: regions which were later to have substantial Serbian populations.

Today it is believed that the ancestors of the Vlachs were nomadic clansmen who crisscrossed the Balkans following the rise of cities in classical antiquity. The cities needed food and so a class of nomads or semi-nomads arose to take care of large flocks of sheep, goats and other cattle which they drove over long distances to take advantage of seasonal grazing lands. In Roman times cheese from the flocks of Dalmatia and areas now in modern Albania and Serbia was exported to other parts of the empire. Many of the people who subsequently came to be called Vlachs began to speak Latin during the centuries of Roman rule and preserved this tongue as they moved higher into mountainous regions with the arrival of the Slavs. But in the middle ages a new dynamic was at work. Vlachs, and others, continued to cover large distances across the Balkans, often with huge flocks of thousands of animals. They were encouraged in this by the Byzantine taxation system, which was easier to evade if one was constantly on the move rather than if one was attached to the estate of a feudal baron. In the late eleventh century Vlach cheese and woollen garments were recorded as being found in the markets of Constantinople.

The Turks encouraged the Vlachs in their activities because of the demand in Ottoman cities for milk, cheese, wool and leather. What becomes far less clear is to what extent nomads in areas also inhabited by Serbs were in fact Serbs, because many of these Vlachs would have become Orthodox, like their more settled neighbours, and, over time, adopt their language too. They also started to settle permanently in areas of Dalmatia and Bosnia and may well have mixed with other Latin-speakers who had fled to the hills to escape the Slav invasions of the Adriatic coastal cities. While we know that there were Serbs and Orthodox populations in early medieval Dalmatia, it subsequently becomes harder to disentangle later Vlach and Serb migrations. Many Serbian historians claim that by the early middle ages all Vlachs were so Slavonicised as really to be Serbs, but the issue is far from being so clearcut. Alberto Fortis, who toured Dalmatia in the late eighteenth century, wrote in some detail of the Morlacchi, or Vlassi as they called themselves. Fortis placed them in inland Dalmatia, in areas around the River Krka, which runs by Jelena's monastery and through Knin. He added that they also lived along the border with Bosnia, through Hercegovina and down to the Bay of Kotar in modern-day Montenegro. Their language, he wrote, resembled 'Rascian and Bulgarian'.

In his account Fortis outlined the divisions and tensions among the people of the region called 'Morlacchia'. The Vlassi despised the people of the coastal towns, who heartily detested them in return. However, between themselves, 'A most perfect discord reigns ... as it generally does in other parts, between Latin [that is, Catholic] and Greek [that is, Orthodox] communion, which their respective priests fail not to foment, and tell a thousand little scandalous stories of each other. The churches of the Latins are poor, but not very dirty: those of the Greeks are equally poor, and shamefully ill kept.' In other words, whatever their origins, these Vlassi, Vlachs or Morlachs were the progenitors not only of a good part of the Serbian population of Dalmatia but of the Catholic Croats as well. As late as May 1941 briefing notes prepared for Mussolini, whose troops had just moved into Dalmatia, talked of Orthodox Serbs from the mountains as being 'for the most part ex-Morlachs'. Likewise reference was made to 'Catholic Morlachs, peasants, today self-styled Croats'.

In many parts of Dalmatia and Bosnia Croatian or Serbian identity was not so deeply entrenched, even well into this century, as people would describe themselves as Catholic or Orthodox or Dalmatian before they would as Serb or Croat. National identity was to develop late in these mixed regions.

Some of Fortis' other observations are also worth recording here. Describing the Hajduks or bandits of the region, he wrote:

The greatest part of the Haiduks look upon it as a meritorious action, to shed the blood of the Turks; a mistaken zeal for religion, joined to their natural and acquired ferocity, easily lead them to commit such acts of violence; and the ignorance, and national prejudices of their priests are too apt to inflame their barbarous fanaticism.

Despite these details, at no time does Fortis talk of the Orthodox population as anything else but Morlach or Vlach. The word Serb is never employed and nor is the word Croat for the Catholics. He does record, though, that as far as he could discern there was no mention of these people in the records of Dalmatia before the thirteenth century. It does not help us either that in Bosnia especially the term Vlassi or Vlach has always been a pejorative term for Serb and that in Trieste the term Morlach is still used contemptuously to describe the neighbouring Slavs in general. But it is clear that these Vlachs/Vlassi/Morlachs were securely enough established in the region for the records to speak definitely of their presence by 1345. One source from 1376 names a Petar Martic as a 'Duke of Knin and the Vlachs'.

In Bosnia similar complicated demographic shifts during the middle ages were to contribute to the complex patterns of settlement which characterised the republic before the 1992-5 war. Although many Serbs fled the initial Turkish onslaughts, the creation of a large Orthodox population came later, after the conquest of Bosnia. Hercegovina by contrast was predominantly Orthodox, although the Catholic church made major inroads there in the century before the arrival of the Turks. The legacy of this was that on the eve of war in 1992 eastern Hercegovina was predominantly Serbian, while western Hercegovina was mainly Croat.

In northern Bosnia the years after the Ottoman conquest were to see an influx of Orthodox populations brought to the area by the Turks, who needed to repopulate it after the devastations wrought by war and plague. Vlachs were encouraged to move by reductions in the tax on their flocks if they lived or roamed in a certain area. Serbs too were to arrive or be brought by the Turks to the same regions, where as in Dalmatia they were eventually to absorb the Vlach part of the Orthodox population. In this the Serbian Orthodox, that is, national, church was to provide Serbian identity with a major boost and so give the Serbian part of the population the dominating edge over the Vlachs, who had no national institutions of their own.

After taking Serbia and Bosnia, the Turks were not to take Slavonia, the land north of the Sava river, until 1537. Between 1459 and that date many Serbs and Vlachs living along the Danube border were given privileges in exchange for military duties. In this way they frequently found themselves fighting Serbs and Vlachs who were also being granted privileges for military services by the Hungarians. But with the Ottoman advance into Slavonia the Turks needed people to repopulate the land from which many of the Catholic inhabitants had fled. Serbs and Vlachs were thus resettled here, either voluntarily or forcibly. This movement was simultaneous with the Ottoman shifts of population in northern Bosnia and other border regions.

The Military Frontier

The granting of privileges to soldiers and their families on the Habsburg side of the border was the precursor of the Military Frontier, the Vojna Krajina. At its zenith this great defensive line was to stretch 1,000 miles, varying in width from 30 to 100 kilometres. It was to begin at the Adriatic, skirt around the western and northern borders of Ottoman Bosnia, along the Danube and then along Transylvania's borders with the Ottoman Danubian principalities. These military marches were a prodigious feat of organisation and many of the frontier's great fortresses still survive. Only with the defeat of the Krajina Serbs in 1995 was their final living vestige erased from the map of Europe.

If there is a Croatian national myth it is that of the Antemurale Christianitatis, that is to say the 'outer wall' or bulwark of Christianity. During the centuries of the Ottoman presence in Bosnia this had a literal meaning, but it has resurfaced in subsequent conflicts with the Serbs in a different guise. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, Croatian leaders presented themselves to the world as the defenders of western civilisation against the last gasp of Serbian 'Bolshevism' and sought to represent Croatia as a Central European country as opposed to a 'Byzantine' Balkan one.

The creation of the Military Frontier was the physical Antemurale. Following the conquest of Bosnia in 1463, the Ottoman threat to Croatia and Slavonia was very real. By 1471 Turkish cavalry had even reached Ljubljana on a campaign of pillage across the Croatian and Slovenian countryside. In 1493 the Croats suffered their historic defeat at Krbavsko Polje. After this, much of Croatia and Dalmatia fell to the Ottomans and it was lamented that what was left outside Turkish control was but the 'remains of the remains'. It was into these newly acquired lands that the Ottomans brought Vlachs and Serbs to serve as their frontiersmen. In time many of these people were to cross over to what had become Habsburg as opposed to simply Hungarian lands after 1527. There they swore loyalty to the imperial crown while pledging to defend the imperial frontiers. In 1538 for example Emperor Ferdinand I granted privileges to a group of Serbs who were settling around Zumberak on the border between Croatia and Slovenia. In return for their military services they were exempted from taxes for the next twenty years. The charter also stated that 'everything they take from the Turks ... and pillage, it all belongs to the Rascians themselves'.

In this way Serbs and Vlachs, to the extent that they remained distinguishable, were encouraged to keep crossing into the Military Frontier from Bosnia and the Ottoman-held lands. They were further encouraged as comparable 'Vlach' privileges were eroded within the Ottoman Empire. Catholics who had fled or emigrated from parts of Bosnia, Hercegovina and Slavonia also settled there.

A major act in the development of the Military Frontier was the building of the garrison town of Karlovac in the late sixteenth century. Around Karlovac, a region was set up in which the peasant soldiery was not only granted privileges but exempted from Croatian authority. Later, under Ferdinand II, the areas that were to become the Military Frontier were subjected directly to imperial rule and were divided into two parts, the Croatian Krajina ('Frontier') governed from Karlovac and the Slavonian Krajina from Varazdin. At that time Karlovac was on the border of the Ottoman Empire. In 1991 it was to become a border town again, with Krajina Serbs bombarding it heavily from its southern suburbs, which were again the frontlines. This was no accident of history: there was a high concentration of Serbs there as a direct legacy of the wars with the Ottomans.

In 1630 Ferdinand II issued the Statuta Valachorum, which defined the status of the Serbs, or Vlachs as they are called in the decree. Again the key principles were military service in exchange for exemption from feudal taxation and Croatian authority and a large measure of local self-government. After 1691, as a result of a deal struck between Patriarch Arsenije, the leader of the Serbian exodus from Kosovo, and the imperial authorities, Emperor Leopold I granted the Serbs the equivalent rights they had possessed under the Ottoman dispensation. This meant that the patriarch could rule not just in spiritual matters but in secular ones as well. In 1712 Sremski Karlovci became the patriarchate for the Serbs of the Habsburg Empire, and so a powerful hub of religious, intellectual and political authority too. Naturally these privileges were vigorously opposed by the Catholic church, the Croatian nobility and the Hungarians and had to be no less vigorously defended.

During the war of 1683-99, in which the Turks were pushed back from Croatia and Slavonia, the boundaries of the Military Frontier as they were to last until 1881 began to take shape. The expulsion of the Turks from these newly liberated lands was helped in areas such as Lika by the fact that the Serbs there who had been Ottoman frontiersmen simply switched sides. In the summer of 1688 as the imperial army took eastern Slavonia, Ilok and the fortress of Petrovaradin and began its march on Belgrade, thousands more Serbian men deserted the Turks en masse. Large numbers also crossed the River Sava out of Bosnia and into the Habsburg lands. At the same time tens of thousands of Turks and Muslim converts fled from the reconquered regions, including Hungary. Angry and dispossessed as they were, it is easy to imagine the logic of village burning, massacres, expulsion and flight taking hold. During the 1991-5 war this came to be known as ethnic cleansing, but of course only the name was new.

Although the Military Frontier was a key part of the Habsburg defence system, the imperial authorities did not always act in such a manner as to keep its peasant soldiery happy. The Habsburgs were constantly caught between the conflicting demands of the Croatian and Hungarian nobility, who wanted to impose their authority in the area, and the privileges they had granted to their Grenzer or border guards. There were also periodic attempts to convert the Orthodox settlers to Catholicism or at least to have them join the Uniate church, by which they could maintain their rituals but would accept the pope as their ultimate spiritual leader. Forms of pressure included the occasional expulsion of Orthodox priests from various areas and the imposition of a quota of one-third on the number of Orthodox as opposed to Catholic or Uniate Grenzer officers.

Living conditions varied in the frontier regions, corruption was rife and much of the area remained poor. Mutinies and uprisings were common, especially before the introduction of reforms in the middle of the eighteenth century. The border came to be organised in such a way that land was owned not by those who farmed it but by the authorities, who granted it to zadrugas or extended family units who in turn were obliged to provide the army with a fixed number of soldiers. This made the average peasant soldier inordinately proud of his status as a free man rather than a serf on a feudal estate. In 1627 the Duke of Sachsen-Hildburghausen reported that soldiers around Varazdin had said that they 'would rather be hacked to pieces than separated from their officers and become subjects of the Croatian nobility'. In 1741 the Croats succeeded in having Orthodox jurisdiction abrogated, but it was reinstated following a revolt of Serbian soldiers stationed in Bavaria. Another mutiny broke out in 1744 after a rumour went around that Orthodox families were to be forcibly converted to Catholicism while their menfolk were fighting abroad. Further pressures prompted many to emigrate to Russia.

It was not only the frontiersmen who had problems. As the Turkish threat declined, the soldiers of the Military Frontier came to be used increasingly in Habsburg wars throughout Europe. But, as Gunther Rothenberg an historian of the frontier has written, this:

created serious command problems.... Officers were unable to restrain the Grenzer, whose passion for drink and plunder was ungovernable and who, even in friendly territory, were a terror to the inhabitants. In enemy territory they were given to every species of rapine. Indeed, their brutality became proverbial and the term 'Croat' an epithet.'

Of course the term Croat used in this connection meant Serb as well, because both peoples were part of the frontier regiments. A survey of 1802 found soldiers in the regiments from the regions around Glina and Petrina to be two to one Orthodox to Catholic. The Lika regiment was almost completely Orthodox, while Catholics predominated in regiments from Varazdin, Slavonski Brod and Gradiska. By contrast the soldiery from Petrovaradin (on the opposite bank of the Danube from the modern city of Novi Sad) was almost totally Orthodox. The survey foreshadowed modern population censuses, which until 1991 showed a similar mix of Serbs and Croats in the same places. Not all areas with Orthodox and hence Serb populations within this part of the Habsburg Empire were part of the Military Frontier. This was the case with Knin and southern Dalmatia for example.

The legacy of the Austro-Turkish wars and of the Military Frontier was the creation of a belt of land either inhabited solely by Serbs or mixed with Croats. It was to last until the 1991-5 conflict when first the Croats were expelled and then the Krajina Serbs in turn. The mutinous history of the frontiersmen also helps explain the roots of the conflict in Croatia. While it is easy to see how the Krajina Serbs could be whipped up into a state of terror by the prospect of a newly independent Croatia, owing to the memory of the attempted genocide of the Second World War, it is also clear that the notion of protecting Serbian or Orthodox rights against Croatian authority and Catholicism was deeply rooted.

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