Serbian Nationalism and the Great War

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.

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