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Serbian Nationalism and the Great War

By John Etty | Published in History Review 2009 
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John Etty questions whether Serb nationalism was an irresistible force that helped unleash the First World War.

Historians tend to blame nationalism for the European ills which led to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. They are able to cite many examples of German aggression, and coyly quote British sources to show that nationalism had even managed to affect our own view of the world. But, they assert, the brand of nationalism which did most to undermine international stability by 1914 was Serbian. Doubtless Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary would have agreed. Yet was Serb nationalism really so significant?

The Growth of National Identity

Serbian nationalism is, even today, powered by the mythologised sacrifice of a medieval army. On 15th June 1389 at Kosovo, 30,000 Serbs defended Serbia’s ancient empire and were defeated by the Ottoman ruler Murad I. Crucially, however, the Serb identity created by this memory is a negative one, defined by hatred of their enemies. This kind of nationalism was easily sustained through 400 years of Turkish rule. Serbs’ identity was defined by religious, economic, social and cultural difference – not just different from their Muslim overlords but also distinct from other Christians. Serbian pig farmers grew rich as neighbouring Austria-Hungary expanded, but proximity highlighted divergences between Catholic Christianity and Serbian Orthodoxy. The Serbian Orthodox Church incubated an old Slavonic faith, a language, an administrative system and an Archbishopric.

Inspired by poetry idealising the Orthodox Serbian peasant lifestyle and glorifying the Battle of Kosovo, and bolstered by Russian assistance, Serbia secured independence from Turkey by 1815. Under Milos Obrenovic, an army was created, and the Serbian Orthodox Church regained independence. Serbia’s school system taught Serbian literature, language and history. However, the formulation of the ‘Nacertanije’ (Programme) by Ilija Garasanin (later Minister of Internal Affairs) was the main development in Serbian nationalism. Though concerned about upsetting them, this secret document identified Turkey and Austria-Hungary as obstacles to Serbian greatness and detailed, in order of ease of acquisition, the annexation of all Serbian-speaking regions. Although implementation was delayed by domestic disruption, such expansionist aspirations were significant. Before 1890, Nikolai Pasic (future Prime Minister) referred to the Nacertanije when he explained ‘the Serbs strive for the unification of all Serb tribes on the basis of tradition, memory and the historical past of the Serb race.’

Balkan Warfare

Pan-Slavism strengthened Serbian nationalism. After humiliating defeat in the Crimean War, Russian benevolent societies sent money and good wishes to Balkan Slavs, and dreamed of restoring Constantinople as capital of an Orthodox empire. Membership of this Slavic brotherhood inspired (occasionally ill-founded) confidence. Despite an army of 90,000 men by 1871, Serbian military prowess was insufficient to achieve her rather less modest foreign policy aims. After uprisings in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia declared war on Turkey in July 1876, imagining that a wider revolt would ensue, but (even assisted by 700 Russian volunteer officers) she failed to defeat Turkey. The Great Powers’ attention was thus drawn to the Eastern Question, and Serbia found herself (geographically, at least, since she was excluded from the subsequent Congress of Berlin) central to European diplomacy. More importantly, Austria-Hungary and Russia both recognised Serbia’s aggression and modified their policies. By the time Russia declared war on Turkey in April 1877 it had transferred its hopes for Balkan influence to Bulgaria, which was enlarged by the Treaty of San Stefano.

Austria’s new policy towards Serbia was ambiguous at first. Serbian independence, territorial gains from the Ottoman Empire after the Congress of Berlin, and its elevation from a principality to a kingdom under Milan Obrenovic in 1882, were negated by increased Austrian influence in the Balkans. An Austrian contractor began building railway links between Belgrade and Austria, and bilateral trade agreements were signed. Despite Serbia’s protests, by 1905 84 per cent of Serbian exports were going to Austria-Hungary. Control of Bosnia-Herzegovina would have given Serbia significantly increased territory and an Adriatic coastline, but the Congress of Berlin handed administration and military occupation rights to Austria-Hungary. To compensate, in 1881 Austria-Hungary sanctioned Serbian expansion to the south-west on condition that it did not agitate among the Habsburg Serbs. Thus, in November 1885, concerned about Bulgaria’s unification with Eastern Rumelia (and aware that Russia, angry with Bulgaria’s Prince Alexander, would not fight in defence), Serbia declared war on Bulgaria. This attempt to exploit the situation backfired on Serbia. Russia remained neutral, but the war only ended when Austria-Hungary threatened to intervene to stop Bulgarian expansion.

In this imperialist age, Serbian nationalists were distracted by the dynastic drama at home. Alexander Obrenovic (crowned 1889) and his marriage to Queen Draga, his mother’s servant, became an embarrassment for Serbia. What fatally worsened the situation, as Obrenovic shifted towards Austria-Hungary, was his proposed military funding cut. In June 1903 the royal couple were cornered in their bedroom and murdered by nationalist army officers led by Dragutin Dimitrijevic. The reign of Serbia’s new king, Peter Karadjordjevic, brought further deterioration of Ottoman control, massive army investment and a pro-Russian stance. However, Russian protection did immediately allow a braver Serbian foreign policy since Russia, whose foreign policy priorities lay eastwards, avoided Balkan conflict.


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