Yugoslavia: why shared Slavic identity couldn’t save an idealised nation from fracture and bloodshed

John Connelly explores the history of Yugoslavia, from its formation to collapse

A man digs a grave in Sarajevo for victims of the war in Bosnia, 1992

Modern nation states have grown out of the simple but revolutionary idea that they represent ‘the people’ better than the states from which they emerged – usually empires. However, once established, nation states also have to fend off challengers. They are stable only as long as they suppress rivals within their borders who claim to represent the people better than they do. The new nation states created a century ago in eastern Europe are prime examples of these patterns.

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Yugoslavia is particularly instructive. It came together rapidly after the First World War as a constitutional Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. It quickly faced challenges because the peoples on this new state’s territory had lived under different imperial regimes: Bosnians and most Serbs under the Ottomans, some Serbs and almost all Croats and Slovenes under the Habsburgs.

The idea that these diverse peoples should live in one state was initially just that: an idea. It formed in the minds of young eastern European intellectuals of the 1820s who had studied under German philosophers and believed that nations were communities united by culture and language.

They knew that language connected the South Slavic peoples. In village after village along the Balkan peninsula, from Austria to the Black Sea, people understood each other. This suggested a common origin in Slavic tribes who had settled the peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries. Philosophy posited that people speaking one tongue had a common spirit: thus these small South Slav peoples, speaking a language later designated Serbo-Croatian, seemed destined to form the Yugoslav nation.

The formation of Yugoslavia

The Yugoslav state that patriots had dreamed of came together so quickly because, after the Habsburg monarchy collapsed, Croat and Slovene politicians – fearing that Italy or Hungary might claim territories they considered their own – needed the Serb army to defend them. In late 1918, it was decided that their countries should join a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, before Slovene or Croat peasants could be asked if they wanted to belong to this expanded state. There was not even time to negotiate a constitution that might have given these peoples limited autonomy.

By the mid-1920s, it was clear something was amiss. A popular movement had formed among Croats, demanding full independence. Its leaders claimed that Serbs were corrupt and ‘Turkified Orientals’ who were exploiting Croatia for their own purposes, preferring to milk the ‘more civilised’ Croats than work hard themselves. If such complaints even registered among them, Serbs noted that Yugoslavia had been a Croat idea, and that it had been Croat leaders who had begged to form the state in 1918.

Nations are ‘imagined communities’, but more basically they are collectivities in which people tell each other a common story about who they are. By 1925, it was clear that the stories told by Serbs and Croats were very different. The Yugoslav state would be ruled centrally from Serb Belgrade for two generations, but it never fashioned a common set of stories to unite its peoples. What this state could do was use the police to suppress demands for independence.

That changed in the late 1980s when movements arose in Serbia, then Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia, following the script of the masses who ousted Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In newly opened political arenas, nationalist firebrands argued that peoples should rule themselves. No one had ever asked Croats or Slovenes if they wanted to belong to Yugoslavia, they said, and it was time to accord them this ‘democratic’ right.

When did Yugoslavia break up?

Yugoslavia’s dissolution, unlike that of Czechoslovakia to the north, was very violent because the borders of the republics did not divide the nationalities. When Croats voted for independence in spring 1991, the Serb areas of eastern Croatia declared themselves independent as a Serb republic. The following year, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia likewise chose independence, and Serb paramilitaries began seizing territory and killing and expelling non-Serb inhabitants in a republic that was a patchwork of nationalities. The phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered common parlance.

The lesson the nationalists claimed both to invoke and teach was that a people’s life was insecure unless it held a securely bounded nation state. Though supporting elections, they did not embody liberal democracy; rather, they used the available political space to inculcate fear. Spouted by ethnically controlled news outlets, extreme claims became ‘facts’ to which all politicians had to respond. Serbs were told that Muslims planned to create an ethnically clean Bosnia, raping their women, enslaving their children. By 1992, supporters of Yugoslav unity seemed to speak a language disconnected from basic realities, inaudible and unable to find adherents.

Ethnicity hardened into national identity in response to threats supposedly posed by other South Slavs

Among the South Slavs, stories of the national self thus formed over generations, and had little to do with the intentions of the original romantic patriots who imagined a harmonious Yugoslavia. Ultimately, ethnicity hardened into national identity in response to threats supposedly posed by other South Slavs, and the politicians who best represented the people seemed to be those who claimed to be the only force that could save them from destruction.

What makes such a process difficult to understand and impossible to predict is how weak the supposed threats could be. The ‘Muslim danger’ was said to originate from tiny Kosovo, where Serbs were a minority but not under physical assault. (Kosovo had been part of Serbia in the Middle Ages, but over time its population had become majority Albanian.) Nevertheless, in 1986 the highest academic body in Belgrade claimed that Serbs in Kosovo faced “genocide”. That was the message Serb dictator Slobodan Milošević used to build power in the late 1980s, based on mass rallies and the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands in his version of ‘people power’.

Could Yugoslavia have survived?

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Yugoslavia might have survived, except perhaps one: if it had joined the EU before the rise of mass politics. Then it would have belonged to a large entity claiming to balance the interests of its regions while maintaining separate identities. Croats or Bosnian Muslims would have been like the Scots or Northern Irish in a UK before Brexit; belonging to the larger entity would have reduced the sense of being foreign within Yugoslavia (which was seen as Serb-dominated).

Perhaps Brexit has made eastern Europe more understandable in the UK. Now the Northern Irish and Scots might understand the feelings of Croats and Muslims living in Bosnia in 1992 – that suddenly they were in a much smaller union dominated by one historically aggressive and imperial people: for the Serbs, read the English. Brexit may thus take Britain closer to a European sensibility – unfortunately, a potentially very dangerous one.

John Connelly is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020)

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This content first appeared in issue 21 of BBC World Histories magazine