Serbian Nationalism by the Beginning of the 20th Century: The Aims and Aspirations of the Срби

The formation of the Serbian state and development of competing forms of Serbian nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century, prior to the calamitous visit of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Princess Sophie of Hohenberg to Sarajevo, have their genesis in the century of nation-building which followed Serbia’s founding.

By Peter Frostad
The formation of the Serbian state and development of competing forms of Serbian nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century, prior to the calamitous visit of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Princess Sophie of Hohenberg to Sarajevo, have their genesis in the century of nation-building which followed Serbia’s founding.

The Serbian state was borne out of the conviction that the Turkish governors, administrators, and property-owners who had ruled over the land for centuries should be defeated and driven out. While the conflict was far more than a petty dynastic struggle for power, the rise of the Serbian state was not brought about by a carefully cultivated and planned national movement. The devastation and violence committed by Janissary forces in central Serbia, which included the famous Seča Knezova (Slaughter of the Knezes), would prove the catalyst for rebellion and precipitate the drive for statehood. The development of various forms of nationalism advanced thereafter from Belgrade deserve close attention and analysis as the nuances and apparent contradictions have fascinating implications for the comprehension of nation-building and nationalist thought.  

A Concise Historical Background

Though Serbia proper had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire from its capital in Constantinople for centuries, by the beginning of the 19th century Serbian aristocrats and statesmen had negotiated successfully for autonomy and eventually independence through a combination of combat and careful diplomacy. Though statehood had been denied to the Serbian people for countless generations, the authenticity and legitimacy of their claims proved considerable. These claims were principally centered on the kingdom that had been forged by the Nemanjić dynasty in the 12th century. The brothers, King Stefan and Saint Sava, would make significant contributions to the rise of this medieval state with the former granted his crown through papal authority and the latter responsible for founding a Serbian church independent of the patriarchate in Constantinople. The assent of the papacy and the rise of a powerful church were fundamental in the consolidation of a Serbian identity and would serve as the basis of a short-lived, golden age of the Serbian people.  

The golden age of imperial Serbia achieved during the reign of King Dušan Nemanjić and the calamitous defeat of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović’s forces at the close of the 14th century, which would presage the eventual conquest of the country by the mid-15th century, are important for any basic analysis and understanding of Serbian nationalism by the beginning of the 20th century. Dušan drastically changed the fate of Serbia by conquering vast swathes of land from the Byzantine Empire. His famous victories and prized code of laws, the provisions of which all had to do with the Serbian Orthodox Church, would come to serve as the glorious past from which Serbian nationalists could draw inspiration and, crucially, articulate what they believed they could proffer as appropriate cultural, social, and spatial aspirations.  The death of Prince Lazar and eventual annexation of Serbia under the Branković dynasty in 1459 would mark the beginning of the long night of Ottoman Turkish rule and act as the catalyst for Serbian dreams of a morning light of independence to break through the darkness.

The storm clouds of Ottoman Turkish rule would begin to part at the beginning of the 19th century with the First Serbian Uprising (1804-1813), spearheaded by the Grand Vožd of Serbia, Karađorđević, which was soon followed by the Second Uprising (1814-1815), led by Miloš Obrenović. By 1842 Serbia had something akin to a constitution which ‘did not provide for a legislative assembly, but did create separate courts and a governing council to which European-style ministries would be responsible’ (Lampe, 2000, p. 50). Though it would take nearly a century, by the very beginning of the 20th century Serbia would boast its first genuinely constitutional monarch, Petar Karađorđević, who would represent the country while the Narodna Skupština (People’s Assembly), finally possessed of the right to devise ‘legislation and control the state’s budget’, governed the country from Belgrade (Lampe, 2000, p. 50).

Nation-Building & Conceptions of Nationalism

At the very core of Serbian nationalism during the period immediately following independence (1876-1878) was the belief that the country’s church should be of paramount importance and her population Slavic. Among the very first acts of the monarchy was the decision to curb ‘Turkish and Bosnian Muslim rights and reduce their presence, particularly in the countryside’ while concurrently encouraging ‘Serbs from neighbouring Bosnia-Hercegovina in particular to immigrate, helping swell the largely rural population…’ (Lampe, 2017, p. 49). These policies, aimed at altering the demographic landscape and the role of the church in the national consciousness, owe their construction, at least in part, to the legacy of Ottoman rule. ‘The shared imperial legacy of corporate privileges for ethnic groups rather than individual rights would leave permanent marks on native aspirations for independence’ (Lampe, 2000, p. 7). This was most certainly the case as the vast majority of the peasantry was Serbian Orthodox while the land-owning elite were largely Ottoman Turkish. The stratification of society along religious lines, which generally coincided with ethnic divisions, would serve as the basis for a nationalism aimed at the inclusion of Slavic, Christian populations and exclusion of their Turkish, Muslim counterparts.

While the Church was vital to the preservation of a Serbian national consciousness and identity, the pivotal role of the Ottoman Turkish administration in bestowing authority and power upon the church is underappreciated and helps reveal an important paradox. The Serbian population of the empire pined for the independence they had enjoyed as late as the mid-15th century yet the rulers of their lost kingdom had been as cruel as their contemporaries. The romantic interpretation and mythologization of the rule of the Serbian kings, which had suggested that they had wielded power with great benevolence despite evidence to the contrary, had been propagated and supported by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Crucially, the Serbian church had been allowed to keep ‘its traditional role as the guardian of Serbian culture’ and owed its authority, both legal and religious, to the millet system devised by the Ottomans to temper restive subject peoples’ (Cox, 2002, pp. 33-37). The paradox is that in doing so they allowed for the celebration of church saints, such as Saint Sava, which kindled the flames of a separate Serbian ethno-religious identity. A culture which was authentic found itself distinguished by a determined commitment to a distant past at least partly mythologized.

The principle aims of Serbian nationalism have historically been evident in the country’s foreign policy, which was a product of romantic nationalism and geopolitical pragmatism guided by visions of a Greater Serbia. There are two figures in the middle of the 19th century who played pivotal roles in animating Serbian nationalism before the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) and Congress of Berlin (1887). The first was the philologist and linguist, Vuk Karadžić, who produced a new Cyrillic alphabet, wrote a comprehensive dictionary, and catalogued Serbian folktales.  He believed in a greater Serbia which would include all the speakers of the Serbo-Croatian language. This view was controversial and profound in that it represented a secular Serbian identity the hallmark of which was the significance it attributed to linguistic rather than religious affinities between the peoples of the Balkans. The Constitutionalist, Garašanin, was another important architect of Serbian nationalism. His foremost contribution would be the Načertanije, a document which used ‘the language of romantic nationalism to propose a Serbian state that would include Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and northern Albania’ (Lampe, 2000, p. 52). Both figures drew upon the historic achievements of the Serbian monarchs during the High Medieval Period (1001-1300) and Late Medieval Period (1301-1500) and combined cultural and linguistic affinities of the peoples of the Balkans, both authentic and constructed, to validate their lofty ambitions.  

The deaths of the Archduke and Duchess in the capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina were preceded by Serbian victory in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), which had heightened nationalism and vindicated the policies of King Petar Karađorđević and the Serbian government. The Bosnian Crisis (1908-1909) had presaged the coming confrontation between Serbia and the Dual Monarchy as the country was annexed by Vienna to prevent further enlargement of Serbia’s borders. The governments of Austria-Hungary and Germany would boost support for Pan-Slavism and Serbian nationalism by administrating Bosnia and Hercegovina with brutality and propagating polices of forced assimilation. The Austro-Hungarian government’s foremost foreign policy architects, Count Leopold Berchtold, Count Lexa von Aethrenthal, and Count Tisza, made decisions that paid little attention to the will of the Serbian people and their government which helps to show how nationalism was made stronger by decisions made well beyond the confines of Belgrade.

Serbian nationalism was a product of centuries of cultural, religious, and social discourse which was profoundly impacted by the diplomacy of Vienna, Saint Petersburg and Constantinople before that fateful day in Sarajevo. The powerful conceptions of Serbian nationalism, conceived well before the conflict and violence of the 1990s and not nearly as cynical and divisive as it would become, were forged by Serbian statesmen and religious authorities who had dreamed of a country free of the foreign powers which had for centuries withheld the rights that they had ardently sought after. Their cause was noble though fraught with challenges as the country arose from perpetual defeat and vassalage to become an important national actor on a divided continent.



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Peter Frostad is in the European Politics program at King’s College London. Peter is particularly passionate about the culture, history, and politics of central and southern Europe from Austria and the Alps to Greece and the Aegean.


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