Is there a historic reason for why the Balkans are so fragmented?

Is there a historic reason for why the Balkans are so fragmented?

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Is there a historic reason for why the Balkans are so fragmented? Because while I can't name any of the top of my head, I'm sure there are regions that are just as ethnically diverse, but with less fragmentation and animosity between different ethnicities. So why is this the case in the Balkans?

Your question is based on a false premise:

"I'm sure there are regions that are just as ethnically diverse, but with less fragmentation and animosity between different ethnicities. So why is this the case in the Balkans?"

Here are the countries of the Balkans listed by descending area in square kilometres), with the additional nations of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland mixed in for comparison:

  • Romania 238,392
  • Greece 131,940
  • England 130,279
  • Bulgaria 110,994
  • Hungary 93,030
  • Scotland 77,993
  • Serbia 77,453
  • Ireland 70,273
  • Croatia 56,594
  • Bosnia & Hercegovina 51,129
  • Albania 28,748
  • Macedonia 25,713
  • Wales 20,779
  • Slovenia 20,273
  • Northern Ireland 14,130
  • Montenegro 13,812
  • Kosovo 10,908

As you can see, the Balkans is no more or less fragmented nationally than the British Isles are.

That there has been an undue amount of warfare in the region over the past two hundred years, in the breakup of the Ottoman and Austrian empires that previously ruled the area for a millennium, is comparable to the centuries of bloodshed that led to the independence of Ireland in the early 20th Century, and the unification of England, Scotland and Wales from the 12th to 18 centuries.

Further, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire over the 19th and early 20th centuries coincides with the rise of nationalism throughout most of Europe. The broken nature of the mountainous terrain had fostered a wide variety of distinct ethnic-religious cultures that all saw themselves as distinct nations, but not always with distinct natural borders. This latter point is particularly true for the religiously distinct but otherwise very similar Serbians, Croats and Bosnians; intertwined territorially and sharing a language with slight dialectal variation.


A commenter claims that my comparison of the Balkans to the British Isles is clearly inappropriate because:

As diverse as the British Islands are, their overwhelming history is not one of fracture but one of unity. Unity of a single powerful country dominating it's internal rivals.

I counter that the History of Ireland alone, and of any century of that history from the 11th to the 19th, is more fragmented and ethnically violent than the Balkans has ever seen. It is simply more remote from our present consciousness.

Similarly the main island has seen numerous periods of internecine violence comparable to anything witnessed by the Balkans over a comparable time period:

  • In the power vacuum created in the departure of the Roman Empire in the mid 5th century, we see 600 years of successive invasions and internecine strife through Anglo-Saxon invasion of a Celtic homeland, consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Viking Raids and the conquest by Canute, followed again by Norman Conquest. Bloody conquest of Wales and Scotland follows for another two centuries, during which time the attempts at conquest of Ireland begin.

  • In the wake of the unsuccessful Hundred Years War with France in 1453, there follows in quick succession, with intermittent breaks:

    • Three decades of War of the Roses until 1485
    • Decades of religious strife from the divorce of Catherine of Aragon in 1531 through the ascension of Elizabeth I in 1558, including rule by a foreign monarch in the form of Philip II of Spain
    • More religious strife and Civil War, with breaks, from the ascension of Charles I in 1625 through the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and on to the Battle of Culloden and defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746.


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Balkanization, division of a multinational state into smaller ethnically homogeneous entities. The term also is used to refer to ethnic conflict within multiethnic states. It was coined at the end of World War I to describe the ethnic and political fragmentation that followed the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Balkans. (The term Balkanization is today invoked to explain the disintegration of some multiethnic states and their devolution into dictatorship, ethnic cleansing, and civil war.)

Balkanization has occurred in places other than the Balkans, including Africa in the 1950s and ’60s, following the dissolution of the British and French colonial empires there. In the early 1990s the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of several new states—many of which were unstable and ethnically mixed—and then to violence between them.

Many of the successor states contained seemingly intractable ethnic and religious divisions, and some made irredentist territorial claims against their neighbours. Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, suffered from intermittent violence over ethnic enclaves and borders. In the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic divisions and intervention by Yugoslavia and Croatia led to widespread fighting between Serbs, Croatians, and Bosniaks (Muslims) for control of key villages and roads. Between 1992 and 1995, Bosnian Serbs and Serbian paramilitary groups conducted a nearly 1,400-day siege of Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, in an effort to break Muslim resistance. During the fighting, more than 10,000 people died, including some 1,500 children.

Efforts by some countries to prevent Balkanization have themselves generated violence. During the 1990s, for example, Russia and Yugoslavia used force in attempts to quash independence movements in Chechnya and the ethnically Albanian province of Kosovo, respectively in each case further violence ensued, resulting in the death and displacement of thousands of people.

The Balance of Power in the Balkans

The Balkans region has long been considered significant by regional and supra-regional powers due to its natural, human, economic, and political characteristics. As a result of the region’s geographic location, complex ethnic context, religious ideologies, and economics, the Balkan peninsula has seen successive crises and disputes in modern times, including its key role in both World Wars. The region has long been the scene of rivalry between world powers, but this rivalry has only further intensified since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Over the last few decades, the United States, Russia, EU, and China have sought to use their power to expand their influence in the Balkans. In today's multipolar world, small countries, including the Balkans, can play a strategic role if a world power neglects to work with them, these small countries are ready to move on to other competing forces. Accordingly, the United States, Russia, EU, and China seek to expand their influence by adopting a new Balkans geopolitical strategy. The sum of these movements shows that the Balkans region is considered essential by the great powers for strategic, political, and economic reasons.

The EU's Position in the Balkans

With 27 members, more than 447 million people, and geopolitical clout, the European Union offers a unique model of regional convergence. However, after the formation of the EU, there was much debate about the EU's position in the international system in political and academic circles. Despite the conflicting interests of member states, the EU has increasingly presented itself as a collectively powerful player on the world stage that seeks to have a normative influence in the international arena through its own foreign policy. As a result, it is crucial to investigate what effect the EU's normative power has had on the Western Balkans, the tools it has used, and the major challenges it has encountered.

The Western Balkans has historically been a buffer zone, presenting great crises and threats to the rest of Europe. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communist regimes, the Balkans was thrown into a civil war. Nevertheless, despite its much contested and strained history, the Balkans has remained of particular importance to the EU. This region’s geographical proximity, historical and cultural similarities, and common borders have created the grounds for developing relations between the two. However, disparities between the countries of the peninsula and the lack of a clear timetable for joining the EU (as well as the differing views of EU members on enlargement policy) have put off the prospect of full membership in the bloc. That is, until recently. In the last few years, developments have taken place in the Western Balkans that have forced the EU to change its strategy towards the countries in the region and become more active.

One of the reasons the EU is opening its doors to the Balkans is to neutralize Russia and China's geopolitical influences in the region. Over the past few years, Russia and China have invested heavily in the Western Balkans, cementing their status as major trading partners. The second reason the EU is opening its doors is that the Balkans is a relatively turbulent region that suffers from ethnic conflicts and organized crime, so the EU has long sought to strengthen stability in the area. There is also a danger that the problems of the Balkan region will persist and eventually spread even to the EU. Thirdly, the Balkans are a transit region and therefore need to be coordinated with the EU's energy supply structures, especially important for the continent's western countries.

The United States’ Presence in the Balkans

After the Cold War and during the Yugoslavian Civil War, the United States expanded its political presence in the Balkans through bilateral political and security relations, as well as NATO membership. For a while, the United States maintained a stronghold in the region and almost consolidated its geostrategic presence in the region. After some time, however, the EU’s role in crisis management in the Balkans strengthened, diminishing the United States’ influence. Nevertheless, the United States hopes to regain its influence in the Western Balkans through partnership and support of the EU, especially as a means of countering Russian influence. For example, Serbia is one of the most extensive republics in the former Yugoslavia and has traditional and close ties with Russia. Washington has therefore sought to revive and improve its relations with the Belgrade government in various ways, as well as maintain a level of presence in the area as a counter to Russian presence. Consequently, NATO, with 4,000 troops, is stationed at the Bundestil base in Kosovo.

Given that Serbia's membership in the EU is one of its priorities, it is regularly under political pressure from Brussels or Washington. As such, Serbia has repeatedly been asked to join the countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. In 2017, the Trump administration decided to mediate in the region as regional tensions escalated. His administration considered three main goals: first, permanent US military presence in Southeast Europe second, the historic reconciliation with Serbia, which can become a US ally in the region, provided that it distances itself from Russia and third, the activation of US mediation efforts in resolving regional disputes, particularly the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Russia's Position in the Balkans

Just as the United States and EU accuse Russia of meddling in the internal affairs of the Balkans, Moscow is also concerned about the presence of the United States and EU in the Balkans Moscow claims that the West is stepping up its efforts to bring the Balkan countries into NATO as part of a general plan against Russia. It considers the Balkans’ entry into NATO a threat to its borders because NATO is trying to get closer to Russia's borders with European countries' membership. Even the idea of ​​the Balkan countries joining the EU will be unpleasant for Russia. The Balkans joining the EU would have extraordinary consequences for Russia:

  1. Russian companies will have to comply with strict EU standards to work with companies in the Balkans, which will create more difficult conditions than existing ones.
  2. According to the EU's general foreign trade policy, the Balkan countries must abandon their free trade agreement with Russia if the Balkan countries join the EU.
  3. The integration of the Balkan countries with the EU would increase the number of countries sanctioning Russia.

Along with the United States, Brussels can offer incentives such as EU membership, NATO membership, or domestic investment. Meanwhile, Russia also has many strong points of leverage, especially access to natural gas, to attract the Balkan countries. However, after 2016, the United States and EU used the Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline to deliver gas from the Republic of Azerbaijan to Greece and Albania via Turkey then to Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia to reduce reliance on Russian natural gas. But even so, Russia also has a strong presence in the region because countries like Serbia receive Russian military equipment. Also, Serbia was one of the first countries to declare its readiness for human trials after the Russian vaccine against COVID-19. That is to say, the Balkans region, in addition to being a strategic political region is also an economically important passage for Russia, the United States, and EU.

China and the Balkans

Over the past few years, China has invested heavily in the Balkans and is one of the region's largest trading partners. China's progress in the Western Balkans has become far-reaching, from bridge projects in Croatia to direct investment in Bosnia's energy infrastructure. Moreover, China plans to expand 5G networks in Serbia. However, Beijing's diplomatic and economic activities in the Balkans raise concern about instability in the region. For example, China's close relations with Serbia and widespread human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minorities may add to regional instability amid rivalry between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the ethnic Serb majority in Bosnia. As Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs' political relations are very close to China, Beijing could potentially empower gross human rights violations. Although the repression of more than one million Uighur ethnic minorities has had no direct consequences for Serbia, China committing widespread human rights abuses with impunity against an ethnic minority group may indirectly empower other human rights violators like Serbia who receive its support. While China's growing presence in the EU may not directly reduce tensions in the region, it may pave the way for the next Balkan crisis.


Overall, throughout the history of the Balkans, geopolitical rivalries and disputes over regional issues have created a very dangerous combination and have fueled military conflicts. This rivalry is even more relevant today with foreign competing powers competing over issues involving economic influence, defense cooperation, and political support for the region's countries. In addition to being a strategic political region, the Balkans is also an economically important gateway for world powers. Meanwhile, the United States, Russia, China, and the EU are trying to use this opportunity to expand their influence in the Balkans. Despite the expansion of trade and especially the EU's role in stabilizing the Balkans, the spectre of ethnic conflict in the region remains and the world powers are taking advantage of this situation.

On the other hand, the fragility of the governments of the Balkans prevents them from turning to a single foreign power. In the meantime, the balance of power strategy will mean that Balkan governments can take advantage of economic agreements, bailout packages, and political support from multiple foreign powers. The fact is that instead of providing growth opportunities for the region, the great powers that play a major role in the region are more concerned about the use of these countries in their power game. If the leaders of the Balkans were wise, they would use investment and economic partnership by external powers to increase the effectiveness of the administrative structure and economic institutions.

Amin Bagheri is a Research Fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, peace, and conflicts in the Middle East.

Dr. Saeed Bagheri is a Postdoctoral Fellow in international law at the Law School of the University of Reading, UK.

Is there a historic reason for why the Balkans are so fragmented? - History

For a complete understanding of the term Balkans, one needs to know more than just which countries and languages are located in the region (Peoples). It helps quite a bit, in terms of grasping both current events, recent history, and not-so-recent history, to look at the Balkans in the context of a larger geographical region called Eastern Europe.

Eastern Europe: Unfortunately, there are almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region. One very common, but now outdated, definition of Eastern Europe was the Soviet-dominated communist countries of Europe. This definition created problems for scholars of Albania and Yugoslavia, which had communist governments but were not under the control of the USSR. This definition also creates confusion with regard to the former East Germany, which has now been reunited with West Germany. For 40 years, this splinter of the traditional German lands ended up in Eastern Europe, politically, because it was the Soviets who captured Berlin at the end of World War II. But the German lands more properly belong to the history of Western Europe, or perhaps to their own zone of Europe known as Mitteleuropa (Middle Europe).

Some scholars define Eastern Europe as "the other Europe," meaning that it is the network of countries and peoples that lie to the east of familiar countries such as France and Germany. This term is a little confusing because it leaves us in doubt about whether or not to include Russia (which is certainly a European country) in this definition. And what about the peoples who were long a part of the Russian empire and now have their own countries such as the Ukrainians, the Belarussians, the Moldovans, the Estonians, the Latvians, and the Lithuanians?

A very simple and reliable approach to defining Eastern Europe is found in the work of the famous English historian Alan Palmer. He called Eastern Europe "the lands between," which means the countries between Germany and Russia. That would mean that today's Eastern Europe would include the following countries: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia (consisting today of Serbia and Montenegro).

Historically these countries share more than just their position between the powerful countries of the Russians and the Germans. They have also had a type of nationalism that is usually different from West European nationalism, being based more on shared ethnicity than political loyalty a much slower process of economic modernization and industrialization (due in part to their being land-locked and to their usual role as raw material providers to Western Europe) a lower population density a complex mixture of religious groups which included large numbers of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims different patterns of landholding and inheritance a smaller historical role for cities with their rising commercial classes, professionals, and intellectuals multinational empires imposed by outside powers that lasted for hundreds of years and a historically close relationship between church and state.

A final way of conceptualizing Eastern Europe is to think of it as the sum of its two sub-groups: Central Europe and the Balkans. To understand the region in this way, two further definitions are required.

Central Europe: Scholars agree that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are Central European states, since they are located next to each other and share Habsburg heritage and, going back further in time, a legacy of an enormous amount of contact, both positive and negative, with the German-speaking world. Most scholars also consider Slovenia, Slovakia, and Croatia to be part of Central Europe.

The Balkans: The Balkans is a geographical term, which designates the large pensinula in the southeastern part of the European continent, connecting Europe to Asia Minor (Anatolia). Today, the Balkans include these independent countries: Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and Bosnia. Geographically, "European Turkey," a small region around Istanbul, is located in the Balkans. Some scholars also consider Croatia to be part of the Balkans.

The biggest dilemma with viewing Eastern Europe as the sum of Central Europe plus the Balkans is that neither of the sub-groups includes all of the countries in the "lands between" Germany and Russia. These are the countries to the east of Poland, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Since these countries spent much of recent history under the control of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, they are sometimes studied as part of Russian history. Although politically they have often been part of the Russian sphere, culturally they are in many ways closer to Central European countries.

One cannot discuss current events or history in the Balkans without making great use of terms such as nation, ethnic group, state, and nation-state.

Nation: A nation is a group of people who feel a common identity, based on a shared language and history, culture, and sometimes religion, and sense of mission or political purpose.

National group: National group is a synonym for nation. A national group is a minority if it lives in a country that has a dominant majority group (which has over 50%). A group is said to have a plurality in a country when it is below 50% of
the population but is still the biggest single group, for instance, the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

Ethnic group: Ethnic group is sometimes used as a synonym for nation or national group. But strictly speaking, this word refers to a group of people who are actually, if distantly, related, or who perceive themselves to be related. Ethnic distinctions are thus akin to racial distinctions rather than linguistic or cultural ones. Thus, not all members of a nation might be members of the same ethnic group.

State: To historians and scholars of international relations, the word state signifies a sovereign or independent government that administers a set territory. The word country is usually a synonym for state.

Nation-state: The nation-state principle of government is the belief that every nation should have its own state. Today we take the term nation-state for granted, because it is the standard model of territorial government today. People tend to think that the whole world is organized that way. It is not now, nor has the nation-state been the dominant form of territorial government throughout most of human history.

One of the fundamental trends of 19th century European history was the growth of nation-states. Old multinational empires, especially in Central Europe and the Balkans, were gradually being eroded and replaced by independent countries, based on their subject nationalities. Britain, France, and Spain already had well-established countries by 1800, based on dynastic rule and the supremacy of one national group. Germany and Italy became unified, independent countries for the first time in recent history in the 1860's and 1870's. Most of the countries of Eastern Europe were prevented from following this pattern because of the presence of large, multinational empires. But as these empires receded, independent countries such as Serbia, Greece, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, and eventually Poland and Hungary appeared. The map of peoples in Eastern Europe, especially the Balkans, still does not correspond to the map of countries in those areas today. This is the source of much of the conflict in the region.

In the 20th century, the nation-state idea spread to other continents besides Europe. It created great problems in some of these places. In Africa, for instance, the countries which exist today were not formed by Africans to reflect natural population patterns or traditional cultural and economic affiliations. Rather they were the result of European imperialism in the continent, whereby the European powers simply "carved up" Africa into administrative units for their own convenience. When these units became independent countries after World War II, they usually consisted of many different national groups with little in common. Hence the process of nation-building in Africa has been very difficult.

Sometimes, nations today are split among two or more countries, as in the case of the Albanians of the Balkans, many of whom live in Albania but who also form significant minorities in the neighboring countries of Macedonia and Serbia. Some nations today have no country at all, such as the Kurds of the Middle East or the Roma of Eastern Europe.

Nationalism: Nationalism is the feeling of identity, which is experienced at the individual level and at the group level it is also a modern phenomenon, first emerging in Europe in the 18th century. The political aspect of nationalism is mostly associated with the phrase "self-determination of nations," whereby every nation (or people) is said to have the right to have their own country. Nationalism first played a role in England and France: it relies on criteria such as a common history and culture, and often a common language or religion.

Modern democracy: Modern democracy emerged at about the same time as nationalism and focuses on "rule by the people."

Popular sovereignty: Popular sovereignty means rule by the people. Nationalism and modern democracy are forms of popular sovereignty. The reason that nationalism and democracy are not always connected is that they are often based on different ideas of "the people." Some of these different ideas are ethnic nationalism and political nationalism, both of which stress the importance of a common language (although this is not absolutely essential in either case). For instance, Switzerland has four official languages, yet its citizens form a stable and unified political entity. Countries like Belgium and Spain also have significant linguistic splits. Languages are also not enough to link different peoples politically. English, for instance, is shared by people in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, the U.S. and in most of Canada, but all these people are representatives of different "nations."

Ethnic nationalism: Ethnic nationalism considers the people as a group of physically related persons, a kinship group. "Blood lines" and race are important to ethnic nationalists, who view the nation as an extension of the family, tribe, or clan. The ideology of Nazi Germany is an extreme example of ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism tends to be backward-looking in that it glorifies past epochs of supposed national unity, purity, and greatness. Ethnic nationalists also look askance at minority groups who inhabit the same country full citizenship is reserved for people who share the ethnic background of the dominant nation.

Political nationalism: Political nationalism considers the nation as simply a political population. Political nationalists share the same ideals, political attitudes, and sense of future mission. This kind of nation has membership criteria that are more flexible than those of ethnic nationalism it is more pervious and hospitable to immigrants. The nationalism of the United States is an example of political nationalism, since today there are no ethnic or racial criteria for being an American.

The following definitions will help non-specialists understand the important cultural and historical issues addressed in our Web site. Please read them over now and feel free to refer back to them as you review the site.

Byzantine Empire: The Byzantine Empire was the main successor state to the unified Roman Empire, which broke up in the late 5th century A.D. The Byzantine Empire's capital was the ancient Greco-Roman city of Byzantium, which was also known as Constantinople, after the Emperor Constantine, who greatly increased the empire's power and prestige. The Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, when it was completely overrun by the Ottoman Empire. But the Byzantine Empire had already been losing power and territory for several centuries.

Ottoman Empire: The Ottoman Empire was an important state which, at its peak, ruled much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeastern Europe (the Balkans). The empire was based on the Ottoman Turkish ruling family. In 1453 the Ottoman Turks captured the Byzantine city of Constantinople they renamed it Istanbul and used it from then on as their capital. The Ottoman Empire was extremely diverse in national and linguistic terms in addition to Turks, it was inhabited by large numbers of Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Albanians. The Ottoman Empire gradually declined after 1700, and it broke up for good just after World War I, in which it fought on the losing side. Today's Turkey corresponds to the old heartland of the Ottoman Empire.

Habsburg Empire: The Habsburg Empire was a great power in Europe from the late Middle Ages until World War I. It was ruled by the Austrian royal family, the Habsburgs, and its capital city was Vienna. The Habsburg Empire eventually included Hungary, the Czech lands, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and important parts of Italy, Poland, and Romania. Although its critics sometimes referred to it as "a prison of nations," the Habsburg Empire offered protection to many small national groups and kept them from being absorbed by other cultures. It also laid the foundations for the industrial development of Central Europe. The Empire broke up as a result of World War I, and its territory provided the basis for the new countries of Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Some Habsburg territory also was transferred to the country of Yugoslavia, which was created at that time.

The Eastern Question: This term refers to the diplomatic struggles surrounding the decline and demise of the Ottoman Empire. As this empire weakened after about 1700, its neighbors wished to extend their influence into former Ottoman territories. Various national groups within the Ottoman Empire, moreover, were struggling to regain their freedom. These "successor states" such as Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania eventually emerged in the wake of the retreating Ottoman Empire. The most famous example of the Eastern Question was the dispute over the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was occupied by the Habsburg Empire after a war in 1878. The country of Serbia, next to Bosnia, had recently become independent from the Ottoman Empire also, and it also aimed to annex Bosnia. This rivalry led to great tensions between the Habsburg Empire and Serbia, and World War I began after a Serbian nationalist killed the Austrian heir apparent on a visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

Balkan Wars: Wars occurring between 1912-1913 where the small Balkan states teamed up to seize land from the declining Ottoman Empire and then fought amongst themselves as they divided up the territory.

Feature Articles - The Balkan Causes of World War One

Few issues in modern history have received as much attention as assigning blame for the outbreak of the World War in 1914. The debate began during the war itself as each side tried to lay blame on the other, became part of the "war guilt" question after 1918, went through a phase of revisionism in the 1920s, and was revived in the 1960s thanks to the work of Fritz Fischer.

This lecture also deals with the causes of World War I, but does so from a Balkan perspective. Certainly Great Power tensions were widespread in 1914, and those tensions caused the rapid spread of the war after it broke out, but many previous Great Power crises had been resolved without war. Why did this particular episode, a Balkan crisis that began with a political murder in Bosnia, prove so unmanageable and dangerous?

Some questions will help to frame our inquiry:

  • What was the purpose of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914?
  • Who was responsible for the killing, besides the assassins themselves?
  • Was a war inevitable after the murder, or did policy-makers let the crisis escape control?
  • Finally, why did a Balkan crisis lead to a world war in 1914, when other crises had not?

Focussing on the Balkans

From a Balkan perspective, it is crucial to look at the actors and decision-makers who were at work during the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the two states involved in the original Sarajevo crisis. Doing so highlights factors that are somewhat different from those at work among the Great Powers at large, or those cited in general explanations for the war.

General treatments of the European crisis of 1914 often blame Great Power statesmen for their short-sightedness, incompetence, or failure to act in a timely or effective way to keep the peace. A common theme is the passive nature of Great Power policy: leaders reacted to events instead of proactively managing the crisis. With some justification, scholars conclude that French leaders had little choice: France was the object of a German invasion.

England in turn entered the war because a successful German attack on France and Belgium would have made Germany too powerful. Both Germany and Russia mobilized their armies in haste, because each one feared defeat by powerful enemies if they delayed. Germany and Russia also rashly committed themselves to support Balkan clients - Austria-Hungary and Serbia, respectively - because Berlin and St. Petersburg feared that failure to do so would cost them the trust of important allies and leave them isolated. This view treats Balkan matters largely as influences on policy elsewhere.

An analysis rooted in a Balkan perspective, on the other hand, can evaluate the proactive steps taken in the region from the start of the crisis. Unfortunately, when Austrians, Hungarians, and Serbs made important decisions early in the crisis, they consistently avoided compromise and risked war.

Two months passed between the murder of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Bosnian Serb high school student on June 28, and the coming of general war at the end of August. In other words, there was plenty of time for calculation, caution and decision. Who chose to risk war, and why?

The Purpose of the Murder Itself

The murder itself was hardly a mystery. There were scores of witnesses and the killers were immediately arrested: we even have a photograph of Gavrilo Princip being wrestled to the ground by police.

The conspirators willingly confessed: transcripts of their trial statements have been published. Nor was the fact of murder per se crucial. It was an age of assassins: Franz Joseph's wife, the Empress Elizabeth, had been murdered in 1898 in Switzerland by an Italian, but Austria did not seek war with Italy or Switzerland. It was the significance of this particular crime for Austro-Serbian relations that mattered.

Serbian Blame: The Assassins

To assess the degree of Serbian guilt, we should look in three places: the young Bosnian assassins, their backers in Serbia, and the Serbian government.

Franz Ferdinand, his wife Sophie Chotek, and Governor Potiorek (in an open car) passed seven assassins as their procession drove through Sarajevo. A look at the actual participants tells us something about South Slav nationalist dissatisfaction in Habsburg-ruled Bosnia.

The first conspirator along the parade route was Mehmed Mehmedbasic, a 27-year old carpenter, son of an impoverished Bosnian Muslim notable: he had a bomb. After planning a plot of his own to kill Governor Potiorek, Mehmedbasic joined the larger plot.

When the car passed him, he did nothing: a gendarme stood close by, and Mehmedbasic feared that a botched attempt might spoil the chance for the others. He was the only one of the assassins to escape.

Next was Vaso Cubrilovic, a 17-year old student armed with a revolver. Cubrilovic was recruited for the plot during a political discussion: in Bosnia in 1914, virtual strangers might plot political murders, if they shared radical interests. Cubrilovic had been expelled from the Tuzla high school for walking out on the Habsburg anthem. Cubrilovic too did nothing, afraid of shooting Duchess Sophie by accident. Under Austrian law, there was no death penalty for juvenile offenders, so Cubrilovic was sentenced to 16 years. In later life became a history professor.

Nedelko Cabrinovic was the third man, a 20-year old idler on bad terms with his family over his politics: he took part in strikes and read anarchist books. His father ran a cafe, did errands for the local police, and beat his family. Nedelko dropped out of school, and moved from job to job: locksmithing, operating a lathe, and setting type. In 1914 Cabrinovic worked for the Serbian state printing house in Belgrade.

He was a friend of Gavrilo Princip, who recruited him for the killing, and they travelled together back to Sarajevo. Cabrinovic threw a bomb, but failed to see the car in time to aim well: he missed the heir's car and hit the next one, injuring several people. Cabrinovic swallowed poison and jumped into a canal, but he was saved from suicide and arrested. He died of tuberculosis in prison in 1916.

The fourth and fifth plotters were standing together. One was Cvetko Popovic, an 18-year old student who seems to have lost his nerve, although he claimed not to have seen the car, being nearsighted. Popovic received a 13-year sentence, and later became a school principal.

Nearby was 24-year old Danilo Ilic, the main organizer of the plot he had no weapon. Ilic was raised in Sarajevo by his mother, a laundress. His father was dead, and Ilic worked as a newsboy, a theatre usher, a laborer, a railway porter, a stone-worker and a longshoreman while finishing school later he was a teacher, a bank clerk, and a nurse during the Balkan Wars. His real vocation was political agitation: he had contacts in Bosnia, with the Black Hand in Serbia, and in the exile community in Switzerland. He obtained the guns and bombs used in the plot. Ilic was executed for the crime.

The final two of the seven conspirators were farther down the road. Trifko Grabez was a 19-year old Bosnian going to school in Belgrade, where he became friends with Princip. He too did nothing: at his trial he said he was afraid of hurting some nearby women and children, and feared that an innocent friend standing with him would be arrested unjustly. He too died in prison: the Austrians spared few resources for the health of the assassins after conviction.

Gavrilo Princip was last. Also 19-years old, he was a student who had never held a job. His peasant family owned a tiny farm of four acres, the remnant of a communal zadruga broken up in the 1880s for extra cash, his father drove a mail coach.

Gavrilo was sickly but smart: at 13 he went off to the Merchants Boarding School in Sarajevo. He soon turned up his nose at commerce, in favor of literature, poetry, and student politics. For his role in a demonstration, he was expelled and lost his scholarship. In 1912 he went to Belgrade: he never enrolled in school, but dabbled in literature and politics, and somehow made contact with Apis and the Black Hand. During the Balkan Wars he volunteered for the Serbian army, but was rejected as too small and weak.

On the day of the attack, Princip heard Cabrinovic's bomb go off and assumed that the Archduke was dead. By the time he heard what had really happened, the cars had driven by. By bad luck, a little later the returning procession missed a turn and stopped to back up at a corner just as Princip happened to walk by. Princip fired two shots: one killed the archduke, the other his wife. Princip was arrested before he could swallow his poison capsule or shoot himself. Princip too was a minor under Austrian law, so he could not be executed. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and died of tuberculosis in 1916.

We can make some generalizations about the plotters. All were Bosnian by birth. Most were Serbian, or one might say Orthodox, but one was a Bosnian Muslim: at their trial, the plotters did not speak of Serbian, Croatian or Muslim identity, only their unhappiness with the Habsburgs.

None of the plotters was older than 27: none of them were old enough to remember the Ottoman regime. Their anger over conditions in Bosnia seems directed simply at the visible authorities. The assassins were not advanced political thinkers: most were high school students. From statements at their trial, the killing seems to have been a symbolic act of protest. Certainly they did not expect it to cause a war between Austria and Serbia.

A closer look at the victims also supports this view: that symbolic, not real, power was at stake. Assassination attempts were not unusual in Bosnia. Some of the plotters originally planned to kill Governor Potiorek, and only switched to the royal couple at the last minute. Franz Ferdinand had limited political power. He was Emperor Franz Joseph's nephew, and became the heir when Franz Joseph's son killed himself in 1889 (his sisters could not take the throne).

This position conferred less power than one might think. Franz Ferdinand's wife, Sophie Chotek, was a Bohemian noblewoman, but not noble enough to be royal. She was scorned by many at court, and their children were out of the line of succession (Franz Ferdinand's brother Otto was next). Franz Ferdinand had strong opinions, a sharp tongue and many political enemies. He favored "trialism," adding a third Slavic component to the Dual Monarchy, in part to reduce the influence of the Hungarians. His relations with Budapest were so bad that gossips blamed the killing on Magyar politicians. There have been efforts to say that Serbian politicians had him killed to block his pro-Slav reforms, but the evidence for this is thin.

Serbian Blame: The Black Hand

The assassins did not act alone. Who was involved within Serbia, and why? To understand Serbian actions accurately, we must distinguish between the Radical Party led by Prime Minister Pasic, and the circle of radicals in the army around Apis, the man who led the murders of the Serbian royal couple in 1903.

The role of Apis in 1914 is a matter of guesswork, despite many investigations. The planning was secret, and most of the participants died without making reliable statements . Student groups like Mlada Bosna were capable of hatching murder plots on their own. During 1913 several of the eventual participants talked about murdering General Oskar Potiorek, the provincial Governor, or even Emperor Franz Joseph.

Once identified as would-be assassins, however, the Bosnian students seem to have been directed toward Franz Ferdinand by Dimitrijevic-Apis, by now a colonel in charge of Serbian intelligence. Princip returned from a trip to Belgrade early in 1914 with a plan to kill Franz Ferdinand, contacts in the Black Hand who later supplied the guns and bombs, and information about the planned June visit by the heir, which Princip would not have known without a leak or tip from within Serbian intelligence.

In 1917, Apis took credit for planning the killing, but his motives can be questioned: at the time, he was being tried for treason against the Serbian king, and mistakenly believed that his role in the plot would lead to leniency. In fact, the Radical Party and the king were afraid of Apis and had him shot.

Those who believe Apis was at work point to "trialism" as his motive. Apis is supposed to have seen the heir as the only man capable of reviving Austria-Hungary. If Franz Ferdinand had reorganized the Habsburg Empire on a trialist basis, satisfying the Habsburg South Slavs, Serbian hopes to expand into Bosnia and Croatia would have been blocked. In early June 1914, Apis is said to have decided to give guns and bombs to Princip and his accomplices, and arranged to get the students back over the border into Bosnia without passing through the border checkpoints. Later in the month, other members of the Black Hand ruling council voted to cancel the plan, but by then it was too late to call back the assassins.

Serbian Blame: Pasic and the State

While Apis may or may not have been guilty of planning the murder, the murder did not necessarily mean war. There was no irresistible outburst of popular anger after the assassination: Austria-Hungary did not take revenge in hot blood, but waited almost two months. When the Habsburg state did react against Serbia, it was in a calculated manner as we will see in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that the Austrians chose to blame the Pasic government for the crime. How culpable was the Serbian state?

There is no evidence to suggest that Pasic planned the crime. It is unlikely that the Black Hand officers were acting on behalf of the government, because the military and the Radical Party in fact were engaged in a bitter competition to control the state. After the Balkan Wars, both military and civilian figures claimed the right to administer the newly liberated lands (the so-called Priority Question). After 1903, Pasic knew that Apis' clique would kill to get their way.

Pasic's responsibility revolves around reports that he was warned of the intended crime, and took inadequate steps to warn Austrian authorities. Despite Pasic's denials, there is substantial testimony that someone alerted him to the plot, and that Pasic ordered the Serbian ambassador in Vienna to tell the Austrians that an attempt would be made on the life of the heir during his visit to Bosnia.

However, when the Serbian ambassador passed on the warning, he appears to have been too discreet. Instead of saying that he knew of an actual plot, he spoke in terms of a hypothetical assassination attempt, and suggested that a state visit by Franz Ferdinand on the day of Kosovo (June 28) was too provocative.

Austrian diplomats failed to read between the lines of this vague comment. By the time the warning reached the Habsburg joint finance minister (the man in charge of Bosnian affairs), any sense of urgency had been lost, and he did nothing to increase security or cancel the heir's planned visit. After the murders, the Serbian government was even more reluctant to compromise itself by admitting any knowledge, hence Pasic's later denials.

If we agree that the Pasic government did not plan the killings, what can we say about their response to the crisis that followed? War in 1914 was not inevitable: did the Serbs work hard enough to avoid it?

Blame in Austria-Hungary

Before we can answer that question, we must look at the official Austrian reaction to the killing. This took two forms.

First, the police and the courts undertook a wide-ranging series of arrests and investigations. Hundreds of people were arrested or questioned, sometimes violently. Twenty-five people were finally tried and convicted, though only a few were executed, because so many of the defendants were minors.

Second, the Austrian foreign ministry and the emperor's closest advisors considered what to do about Serbia's role in the plot. Investigators quickly learned that the murder weapons came from Serbian sources, but Austrian intelligence failed to distinguish between the roles of the Pasic administration and unofficial nationalist groups: for that matter, they blamed Narodna Odbrana for the crime, apparently unaware of the Black Hand.

Austria's blame for the war attaches to its calculated response to the murders. Early councils were divided. The chief of staff, General Franz Baron Conrad von Hoetzendorf, wanted a military response from the beginning. Conrad had previously argued that the Monarchy was surrounded by enemies who needed to be defeated individually, before they could combine. In other words, he wanted a war against the Serbs and Russians, followed later by a confrontation with Italy. Leopold Count von Berchtold, the Habsburg foreign minister, generally agreed with Conrad's analysis. Berchtold took no strong position in the crisis: he was apparently convinced by Conrad, and his only hesitation involved the need to prepare public opinion for war.

The only real opposition to a policy of confrontation and war came from the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Stephan Tisza. Tisza was personally opposed to militarism and took the risks of war more seriously than Conrad. Also, as a Magyar, Tisza realized that a Habsburg victory would be a domestic defeat for Hungarians: if Austria annexed Serbia, the delicate ethnic balance in the Dual Monarchy would be lost. Either the Slavic population of Hungary would increase, leaving the Magyars as a minority in their own country, or trialism would replace the dualist system, again discounting Magyar influence.

The early Austrian deliberations included another, calculated element that shows their limited interest in peace: in weighing the merits of a military response, Vienna first sought the reaction of her German ally. The Austrian ambassador in Berlin found that the Germans, especially Kaiser Wilhelm, supported a war to punish Serbia and offered their full support. This was in clear contrast to events during the Balkan War of 1912, when Berlin refused to back Vienna in any intervention. Like the Austrians, the Germans feared a future war with Russia, and preferred to fight at once, before their enemies grew stronger.

When the Austrian Council of Ministers met again on July 7, the majority favored war. To satisfy Tisza, the council agreed to present demands to Serbia, rather than declare war at once. In the belief that a diplomatic victory alone would not be enough to destroy Serbia as a threat, the demands were deliberately to be written in such extreme terms that Serbia could not accept them: Serbia's refusal to comply would then become the excuse for war. Within a week, Tisza himself consented to this plan: his only reservation was insistence that no Serbian territory be annexed after the war.

The final 10-point ultimatum demanded the suppression of anti-Austrian newspapers and organizations (including Narodna Odbrana), a purge of anti-Austrian teachers and officers, and the arrest of certain named offenders. Two points seriously interfered in Serbian sovereignty:

  • Austrian police would help suppress subversives on Serbian territory, and
  • Austrian courts would help to prosecute accused conspirators inside Serbia.

The document had a 48-hour deadline. The council finalized the demands on July 19 and sent them to Belgrade on the 23rd. The war party in Vienna hoped that the Serbs would fail to agree, and that this could be an excuse for war. As further evidence, the 48-hour time limit altered the document from a negotiating piece, to an ultimatum.

We can say three things about how the Austrian process of decision bears on Austria's responsibility:

  • First, the majority in the Council of Ministers assumed from the first that war was the appropriate response. Only Count Tisza opposed it, and he did so largely for reasons of domestic politics. His objections were overcome by the promise to seek no annexation of Serbia. The negotiations with Serbia were really a sham, to create a good impression: even the 48-hour ultimatum shows that crisis, not compromise, was the intent.
  • A second clue to Austria's intent is Vienna's approach to Berlin, for Germany's support in case of war. After the Berlin government responded with the so-called "blank check," the war party saw no further reason to seek peace.
  • Third, the terms of the ultimatum show that the Austrians came to a decision even though they were acting on incomplete information. The ultimatum was issued well before the trial of the assassins could establish the facts of the crime. Vienna knew nothing about the Black Hand or its role, but it made no difference: the decision for war was based on expediency, not justice or facts.

The Serb Reply

The Serbs in turn failed to do their utmost to defuse the crisis. When Serbia first received the ultimatum, Pasic indicated that he could accept its terms, with a few reservations and requests for clarification.

As time passed, however, it became clear that Russia would support Serbia regardless of the situation. After that, Pasic gave up seeking peace. While a long reply was written and sent, Serbia rejected the key points about Austrian interference in domestic judicial and police work.

Pasic knew this meant war, and the Serbian army began to mobilize even before the reply was complete. While this was prudent, it did not imply a strong commitment to peace. Because the Serbian reply did not accept every point, Austria broke off relations on July 25.

The tough positions taken by both Austria and Serbia brought the situation too close to the brink to step back, and in a few days matters were out of control. Again, the specific arguments raised by each side matter less than their mutual willingness to take risks. This policy of brinkmanship made war more likely than negotiation.

Why A Balkan War?

This leads us to the last question: why did the Balkan crisis of 1914 lead to World War I, when many other crises were resolved without a general war in Europe?

These are really two questions:

  • First, why did the crisis lead to a war between Austria and Serbia? and
  • Second, why did that conflict soon involve the rest of the Great Powers?

From what we have seen about risk taking by the Austro-Hungarians and the Serbs, we can say something about why those two states went to war in 1914.

In the first place, both governments believed their prestige and credibility were on the line, not only in the international community, but at home.

For the Austrians, a personal attack on the royal family required a strong response, especially if it involved Serbs, who had defied the Dual Monarchy during the Pig War, been labelled as traitors during the Friedjung Trial, and recently destroyed south-eastern Europe's other dynastic empire (the Ottomans). Failure to act in the summer of 1914 invited greater turmoil later.

For the Serbian regime, the humiliating Austrian terms would have undone all the progress made since 1903 in achieving independence from Habsburg meddling. The economic Pig War, Austria's annexation of Bosnia in 1908, and now the demand to send police into Serbia, all implied renewed Austrian control. In addition, Pasic and his ministers faced a real risk that right-wing extremists would kill them if they backed down.

On the international stage, both sides were one defeat away from being marginalized: Austria-Hungary had no intention of replacing the Ottoman Empire as the "Sick Man of Europe," and Serbia refused to be treated as a protectorate.

Second, in 1914 both sides believed that they were in a strong position to win if war came. The Austrians had German backing the Serbs had promises from Russia. Neither side considered the chance that the war would spread across Europe.

Third, neither side really believed that their differences could be settled by negotiation. Only one regime could rule the South Slavs in Bosnia.

Fourth, both sides focussed on the fruits of victory, and ignored the costs of defeat. We have already discussed the Great Serb ideas that became Belgrade's war aims: annexation of Bosnia, Croatia, Vojvodina and so forth. Despite promises to Tisza that the war would bring no annexation of unwelcome Slavs, by 1916 the Vienna government drew up plans for the annexation of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as border districts in Russia and Italy, and an economic plan to make Albania and Romania into economic dependencies.

Fifth, there was too little fear of war. After the Greco-Turk war of 1897, the ethnic fighting in Macedonia, the two Balkan Wars, and the Italian war with Turkey in 1911, war in the Balkans was not unusual. A little warfare had become commonplace, a normal aspect of foreign relations. No one foresaw what the World War would mean.

In sum, too many leaders on both sides in 1914 deliberately decided to risk crisis and war, and the initial Austro-Serb combat was the result.

Finally, why was the local war between Austria and Serbia so significant that it grew into a World War? Here, we can draw inferences from what we know of the Eastern Question and past Balkan politics. An essential element of Greek, Serb and Bulgarian nationalism had always been the destruction of the Ottoman Empire: the achievement of national unity necessarily meant the achievement of Ottoman collapse.

The same choice pertained to Austria-Hungary. Concessions to Serbian nationalism could only make Vienna's problems worse, not solve them: after the South Slavs would come the Romanians, the Italians, the Czechs and Slovaks, each with their demands. Once the Habsburg Monarchy started down that road, it would inevitably disappear as a Great Power.

The potential collapse of Austria-Hungary was important not only for the Vienna government, but for Austria's German ally, for the other Great Powers, and for the balance of power system. Because the clash with Serbia in 1914 affected an issue of such magnitude, it is not surprising that all the Powers soon became involved: all of them had interests at stake. The specific steps to the World War, and the division into two sides, reflected local considerations from Poland to Belgium: but the risk of world war, and not just war, entered the equation because of the ethnic issues behind the Sarajevo crisis of 1914.

Conflicting Truths: The Bosnian War

With the trial of the former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic due to begin, Nick Hawton reflects on his time reporting in a region where history is still used to justify war.

In the baking heat, the teenage boy was screaming and crying at the same time. I could see his rotten teeth as his face creased up in pain. At one point, his legs gave way and he grabbed the white tombstone next to him for support. He was shouting in a language I did not yet understand but there were two words that he kept repeating, two words that I did understand. They were ‘Radovan Karadzic’.

It was July 11th, 2002, the seventh anniversary of the worst atrocity of the Bosnian War, the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces near the town of Srebrenica which, just two years before the massacre, had been declared a United Nations Safe Area. Years after the killings, the mass graves were still being discovered, their contents disinterred and the relatives invited to the mass reburials.

The boy was just one of the thousands who had come to the new memorial cemetery at Srebrenica. He was screaming the name of the person he blamed for the murder of his relatives: Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president and the man at the top of the UN War Crimes Tribunal’s most wanted list.

The Bosnian War was one of the most destructive of the late 20th century. Of a population of around four million people in 1992, two million were made refugees. In the three and a half years of conflict, more than 100,000 were killed. Sarajevo suffered the longest siege of any city in modern times, spanning the duration of the war. Ten thousand of its citizens were killed.

The war had been characterised by acts of unspeakable cruelty – rape, torture, mutilation and indiscriminate murder. When the guns fell silent in the dying days of 1995 and the Dayton Peace Agreement finally brought peace, Bosnia slowly began to slide off the international news agenda.

The journalists left for newer conflicts around the world. But one of the few issues that seemed to retain the interest of editors was the strange case of Dr Karadzic. Everyone wanted to know where the bouffant-haired, former psychiatrist, the poet-turned-warlord, was hiding. Despite being wanted for so long, Karadzic had managed to evade capture by thousands of international peacekeepers, aided by western and local intelligence agencies and investigators from the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

I had been in Bosnia for the BBC less than a month when I saw the teenage boy at the tombstone. But the more I learned about the country, about its political and social situation, the more I realised that the issue of Karadzic was hanging over Bosnia like a large black cloud.

As leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Karadzic had been one of the chief architects of the conflict. He was president of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska, the Serbian territory carved out of Bosnia, and Supreme Commander of the Bosnian Serb military. For many Serbs he had become a hero, a leader who fought to protect Serb interests as Yugoslavia disintegrated. After the war, he had become a symbol of resistance against the ‘perfidious’ West, as many Serbs saw it. Perhaps he would return one day and ‘save the Serbs’ again.

For the victims of Serb aggression, he was the epitome of evil, the mastermind of ethnic cleansing and the siege of Sarajevo. None could understand why he had not been arrested. Conspiracy theories abounded that he had made some secret deal to secure his freedom. The people of Bosnia were utterly divided in their views of the historical legacy of Karadzic.

I began to look into why he had managed to evade capture despite the hand-wringing promises of international politicians and generals that they were ‘doing everything we can’ to track him down. No one seemed to have any idea as to where Karadzic was hiding. There were many rumours: he was living in forests in remote southeast Bosnia, he was disguised as a Serbian Orthodox Priest and flitting from monastery to monastery, he was criss-crossing the borders of Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro protected by a horde of bodyguards. But no hard evidence ever came to light.

But with Karadzic roaming free, would the full truth about the causes of the war ever be revealed: the secret deals allegedly done and the conspiracy theories swirling around the conflict? How could the history of the war be told without the contribution of one of its major figures? One rumour even suggested the real reason why Karadzic had not been arrested was because those in power feared that embarrassing secrets would be revealed if he ever made it to an international court of law.

As I searched for Karadzic, I became absorbed in the politics and history of the region. I realised that ‘truth’ was like ‘beauty’ – it was in the eye of the beholder. There were so many truths, so many interpretations, not only about what had actually caused the last war but what had happened during it. It was so difficult to come up with absolute hard facts, unquestioned ‘truths’. The truth of what happened was coloured by conspiracy, hidden agenda and interpretation of the past. For instance, extremist Serbs saw the Muslims as the simple inheritors of the Ottomans, trying to create an Islamic Republic in the heart of the Balkans. Many Muslims accused the Serbs of following in the tradition of the Chetnik royalist and nationalist militias of the early 20th century in trying to create a Greater Serbia at the expense of other ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia.

Karadzic had seen himself as some heroic Serbian leader with a destiny (although his wife, Ljiljana told me during an interview at her house in the small town of Pale near Sarajevo, he was a reluctant leader and only accepted the post after persuasion). He dabbled in poetry and even won some awards for his writing. He surrounded himself with minor literati of dubious distinction. He quoted his poems on the hills above as Sarajevo burned and snipers blew out the brains of children in the streets below. For Karadzic and for many others, of all ethnicities, it was not just a war about now, it was a war about how the past should be interpreted.

Karadzic was one of those who opened the Pandora’s box of Yugoslav history, reintroducing the ghosts and crimes of the past and turning them into the fears of the present. One of the most potent examples of this occurred in 1988 when nationalists in Serbia paraded the remains of the Serbian medieval Prince Lazar around Yugoslavia. Lazar had been the heroic leader defeated and killed by the Ottomans at the battle of Kosovo in 1389. If anything was likely to lift the lid on dormant Serbian nationalism, this was it.

By the time the 1992-95 war broke out, historical labels had been attached once again by those wanting to simplify and exacerbate the conflict to the three peoples of Bosnia. The Muslims were the ‘Turks’, a reference to the 500 years of Ottoman domination of the region. The Serbs were labelled the ‘Chetniks’. The Croats were labelled the ‘Ustasha’, the name given to members of the Croatian Revolutionary Movement. Offering a mixture of fascism, extreme nationalism and hard-line Roman Catholicism, they had ruled a part of Yugoslavia occupied by Axis forces labelled the Independent State of Croatia (and emphatically not independent).

Karadzic warned that the Serbs were once again under threat, harking back to the days of the Second World War and raising the spectre of the Serbs being targeted by their enemies. Fear of what might happen was the engine for war and, ultimately, war crimes. Leaders of the other ethnic groups in Bosnia were not far behind in their rhetoric.

Karadzic’s daughter, Sonja, also lives in Pale, where the Bosnian Serbs had their capital during the war. In an interview in her home she once told me that many Serbs simply regarded the 1992-95 Bosnian War as a continuation of the Second World War, as if there had been just a short interlude between then and now. Some other Serbs I spoke to went further: strongly suggesting that the atrocities of today were justified by the atrocities of the past.

Whenever I used to question Serbs about their views of the Srebrenica massacre, I was immediately asked for my views on the concentration camp of Jasenovac (south-east of Zagreb), where thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and others were murdered by the Croatian Ustasha during the Second World War. The memories of Jasenovac were used, if not exactly as an apologia for Srebrenica, then at least as a possible explanation.

Likewise, if I spoke to a Croat or a Muslim about the 1992-95 conflict, the discussion would rapidly transform into a discussion about other conflicts in the last 50 years, or 200 years, or 500 years. Like nowhere else I have visited, history lived and lives vividly in the minds of the people. The power of history or family or community folklore is overwhelming. At one point in August 2004 I witnessed the creation of legend and myth. I attended a ceremony to mark the 200th anniversary of the first Serbian uprising against the Turks in 1804, a conflict that lasted almost a decade. A two-day celebration culminated in the unveiling of a four-metre high bronze statue of the leader of the uprising, Karadjordje Petrovic. The event took place on a hill above the Serbian monastery at Dobrun in southern Bosnia. Karadzic was still on the run.

I arrived late at night as the celebrations were drawing to a close. The stalls selling Serbian nationalist emblems were still open, purveying, among other things, t-shirts of Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and the hero of the Second World War, Draza Mihailovic. In the main bar, as the beer flowed, a band was singing songs praising the heroic deeds of the former president, delighting in the fact that he was still free, that no one could find him, that he represented the best of the Serbs. The crowd sang along and cheered. Was this a song that would be repeated in the decades to come? Was it the birth of a folk hero?

Karadzic was gaining an almost mythical status as a sort of Serbian equivalent of Bonnie Prince Charlie, flitting from one hiding place to the next, his pursuers always one step behind. Of course it would ultimately end on a more anti-climactic day, in July 2008, when he was finally picked up on a decrepit city bus in the faceless outskirts of Belgrade.

With competing truths, interpretations and justifications, this was an incredibly complicated environment to understand and report objectively. What historical truth was I to adopt, if any? Perhaps I always avoided the big decisions and, instead, tried to simplify matters. All around were the physical and human results of the conflict. History was living around me. When I looked into the eyes of a person who had lost 40 members of their family, butchered and slaughtered and dumped into a mass grave, or into the eyes of a woman who was serially raped in front of her children by her former school headmaster, I realised that there is a simpler historical truth. There is simple right and wrong. Responsibility does lie somewhere.

Karadzic managed to remain free for so long for a number of reasons: the support of those who still believed in him or, at least, the idea that Serbs should not be ‘persecuted’ by The Hague Tribunal by living in the anonymous urban sprawl of New Belgrade by adopting the bizarre but surprisingly successful disguise of a New Age healer and by relying on the inability and, at times, incompetence of those trying to track him down.

Many of the victims and neutral observers had actually given up hope that he would ever be caught. Some even questioned the point of devoting resources to searching for him when there were more important conflicts to be dealt with in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. As one diplomat once said to me: ‘What is more in Britain’s interests, to track down someone who is on the run, in hiding and has been for years and is of no threat whatsoever to Britain, or search for someone who may be planning suicide attacks on the London Underground?’ There was only one answer, although Britain was one of those countries that did devote significant resources to the hunt for Karadzic.

But surely there was also an imperative to seek him for two important reasons. First, not to do so would have made a mockery of justice. Karadzic was charged with genocide. Justice itself would have been undermined and the next would-be warlord emboldened if he was not made to face his day in court. Truth had to be established and responsibility apportioned.

But there was also another reason, a practical one. The region and the people, of all nationalities, had to be allowed to move on. To a certain extent Bosnia was in a state of suspended animation. A line needed to be drawn between the past and the present and the capture of Karadzic has gone some way to drawing this line.

Now it is for The Hague Tribunal to determine Karadzic’s precise role in a war that affected so many people. And many hope that the trial itself will finally help in the writing of the definitive history of one of the darkest chapters of late 20th-century European history.

Nick Hawton was the BBC’s correspondent in Sarajevo and Belgrade from 2002 to 2008, and is the author of The Quest for Radovan Karadzic (Hutchinson, 2009).

Europe’s future now rests on who owns the story of its past

E urope seems awash with historical hang-ups. And they are important ones. They may define the continent’s future as much as the outcome of Germany’s current political convulsions, or the state of Italy’s banks, or whether Brexit Britain manages to cobble a transition deal. Large crowds of Greek people recently protested against the use of the name Macedonia by the neighbouring former Yugoslav republic.

In Paris, there is intense debate about whether the writer Charles Maurras, a leading intellectual figure of French early 20th-century ultranationalism and antisemitism and a prominent supporter of the Vichy regime, should be listed among the names to be officially “commemorated” this year (he was born in 1868). Poland’s new law aimed at curtailing any discussion of the role some Poles played in the Holocaust led to a spat with Israel and the US. In Germany, where the far-right AfD holds 94 seats in the Bundestag, a local Berlin politician (of Palestinian family background) last month called for newly arrived migrants to be sent on mandatory visits to concentration camp memorials to assist their “integration courses”.

Rows about European history are hardly new. A long-running dispute in Austria over what to do about the house where Hitler was born, in Braunau, is one example. The legacy of colonialism is a recurring theme in French, British and Dutch debates. Populist regimes in Poland and Hungary have made a staple of rewriting history, or of approaching it very selectively, to suit their own political goals. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine came accompanied with a full-blown propaganda operation about fighting “fascism”. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were full of such manipulative rekindling of second world war rhetoric. And historical hang-ups aren’t an exclusively European trait, of course. Witness how the Winter Olympics in Korea highlights again the trauma of a 65-year-old cold war frontline. See how in the US, the civil war is being debated with a ferocity and a frequency unseen since the 1960s civil rights movement.

But such debates have a particular resonance in Europe because the European project has rested from the outset on overcoming historical hatred and forging reconciliation. The EU as it exists today was made possible not through the domination that comes with victory in arms, nor from a frozen armistice, but through patient, deliberative rapprochement. The Germans call this Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a word that is hard to translate but means a combination of analysing the past, coming to grips with it, drawing lessons from it, and learning to live with it.

Boris Johnson is right to say the European project, at its core, set itself the political aim of overcoming 20th-century continental horrors. (He is less right to suggest it is now forging ahead towards complete political unification or federalism – which is at the moment pie in the sky.) It’s often said the European construct is an antidote to war, but it is just as importantly conceived as an antidote to falsifications of history.

Reconciliation is the bedrock on which the EU exists. That’s why, for instance, the Greek attacks on Germany during the eurozone crisis (Angela Merkel was portrayed with a Nazi helmet by protesters in Athens) were so worrying. It’s also why the 2015 refugee crisis, as it unfolded in the Balkans, led to fears that conflict might once again flare up in the region. History certainly didn’t end in 1989 – but now it’s back with a bang, just as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of the first world war armistice, signed in a railroad carriage outside Compiègne, northern France. In a recent debate, the American historian Francis Fukuyama said “identity politics are in fact politics of recognition”. And national memories do need recognition, but that’s not the same thing as whitewashing. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron – who likes to cast himself as a leader who will “relaunch” Europe – knows this well. He likes to refer to Paul Ricoeur, the philosopher he worked for as a student. Ricoeur wrote books about history, memory and forgetting.

There is no shortage of official speeches about Europe that are full of historical references. What’s harder to find are events, memorials, statements, educational programmes or museums where Europe’s complex tapestry of distinct national histories are brought together in ways that help to understand the lives, histories and experiences of others on the continent. Europeans still largely see their fellow Europeans’ history through the lenses of their own national past. This surely accounts for much of the growing psychological gap between east and west, but also north and south.

Diverging interpretations of history can act as triggers to confrontation. Likewise, they can breed indifference when things go wrong. In 2007, it was the displacement of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, that served as a pretext for Russia to unleash the first ever cyberattack aimed at paralysing an entire country’s institutions. It took western Europeans a while to grasp the depth and importance of this, not least because of that gap in historical perceptions.

To visit national or municipal history museums across Europe is to see at first hand this experience of fragmentation. No one has worked more than the Germans to account for past crimes but elsewhere, and for many reasons, Vergangenheitsbewältigung is still a work in progress, or yet to be fully embraced. I was mindful of this when I recently visited the local history museum in Marseille, which tells the story of a city that from 1830 onwards thrived as a port as the result of France’s conquest of Algeria, but says little about the suffering that conquest inflicted.

Why did Nazis see Slavs and Baltic people as üntermenschen to be exterminated (Generalplan Ost), while there were no comparable plans for peoples of other occupied lands such as Greek, despite Greeks being typically far less “Aryan” in appearance.

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The gist of the answer here is that within the völkisch nationalist roots of Nazism as an ideology, thed European East, especially Poland and Russia / the USSR were viewed as Germany's "assigned" colonial space akin to the British and French domain in Africa. Therefore these lands could and should be settled and its inhabitants subjugated – the subject matter of the GPO – while Greece or Belgium were not assigned the same role in this world view because of real and imagined historical differences.

In general , historiography has moved away from talking about Slavs and Nazis in general, in favor of a more differentiated approach of talking about Poles and Soviets. One of the reason is the difficulty of definition that /u/marisacoulter details here and the second one is detailed by John Connely in his article Nazis and Slavs: From Racial Theory to Racist Practice. Central European History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1999), pp. 1–33 which discusses that aside from general declarations of some party leaders, the category of "Slav" as an overarching idea for all speakers of Slavic languages did not play a role in the implementation of concrete policy in the occupied territories. Czechs, Poles, Russians, Serbs and so forth were viewed so distinctly different by the Nazis and treated distinctly different that the category of "Slav" is not a useful one in illuminating that history. It can not explain why Czechs and Slovaks were treated differently or why Croatia was turned into a satellite state and Serbia was occupied or why in Poland "carriers of Polish national sentiment" were murdered en masse while in Serbia they weren't to the same extent and degree. In the following however I'll do my best to talk comprehensively.

So, according to Nazi racial ideology, Slavic peoples were "inferior". On the racial scale the Nazis set up in their ideology Slavs occupied one of the lowest positions, just above Jews and so-called gypsies. Similar to the anti-Semitism of the Nazis having certain historical roots as described here, the anti-Slav racism of the Nazis also goes back to earlier stereotypes and antipathies.

Similar to anti-Semitism in its form practiced by the Nazis being a result of seeing race as a driving factor in history while referencing earlier / already common stereotypes and prejudices, the Nazis' anti-Slavism also originated from the attempt to explain how the world works and what the state of the world is through the lens of racial theory. Already in the 19th century (and probably earlier but that falls a bit outside my area of expertise), views of the Russian people and by extension in the 19th century, the Slavic people had a certain negative bend in Germany. Russia and its people were seen as backward peasants that missed the entry into modernity because of their "archaic" mindset, something amplified by the fact that the Russian Tsars in the second half of the 19th century took a viewpoint that was not entirely dissimilar and which in fact spawned certain reform attempts from up top (trying to abolish the last remnants of the feudal system in Russia e.g.).

Also, a strong presence within the German mindset about the Slavic people were the Poles. Large swaths of Poland were at that time part of German/Prussian territory and within the social set-up of it, the Poles occupied a socially inferior position with German / Prussian junkers owning land and Poles toiling it for them. This further shaped the perception of the Slavic people being a people / "race" that was predestined to serve its German masters as subservient.

The other important ideological strand, we can not neglect when talking about Nazi ideological perception of Slavic people is the Austrian situation since Hitler as well as other important Nazis were Austrian and strongly influenced by the political and ideological situation in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy at the time. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy throughout the second half of the 19th century and leading into the 20th century experienced strong conflicts based on a newly emergent nationalistic sentiment in its Slavic (Czech), South Slav (Slovenian, Croatian, and from 1878 on Bosnian), Hungarian, and German population with conflicts emerging surrounding the use of language, the question of political representation, and the German-speaking dominance of the state administration.

What really once again racketed up the level of the negative perception of Slavic people among the German-speakers of Austria and Germany was WWI. In the Austrian case, the pretty obvious negative stereotypes against the Serbs as well as against its own Slavic population that was suspected of harboring sympathies for the Serbian cause. The letter even lead to the Austrian government deporting hundreds of thousands of its own Slovenian and Croatian citizens away from their homes near the Southern border to cities like Linz and others and interning them there in camps. For the Germans, there was of course the old stereotypes of the backward and inferior Russians, which were heavily solidified by the experiences of German soldiers in Russia. Seeing the abject poverty many of the Russian subjects lived in while marching through their country gave a lot of people the impression that they were essentially a people living in filth and neglect.

With the Bolshevik revolution occurring in Russia in 1917, anti-Slavic sentiments among many of the racist early »völkisch« (racialist, viewing the world and history through the lens of a supposed race conflict) thinkers combined anti-Salvic and anti-Semitic sentiment with anti-Bolshevism. The outcome for them was the ideological formation that communism was the tool of »international Jewry« and the Slavs its expandable vanguard. This was highly influential for the Nazis. In essence, they saw the Jews as the puppet masters of international Bolshevism that sought to impose its rule through the »asiatic barabrity« and »eastern despotism« of the Slavic people. This Nazi propaganda poster gives you an impression of that. The depicted Commissar displays features attributed to Jews as well as Russians at the time and the depiction of the massacre below serves to portray their barbarity and cruelty.

Maria Toderova, a highly regarded scholar of South Eastern Europe, speaks in connection to the Western European perception of the Balkans of a phenomenon she dubs »Balkanism«. Balkanism is the othering (i.e. making the not like us in the discourse) of the inhabitants of the Balkans, seeing them as naturally »savage«, »violent«, »uncivilized«, »non-European«, »oriental« in a manner similar Edward Said described in his book on Orientalism for the Middle East. While the concept can not be transferred 1:1 on other Slavic peoples, it still rings true that in the Nazi -- and also wider German perception -- of the Slavs the latter were made out to be inferior, uncivilized, brutal, asiatic, and only fit as a »slave race« (all with a degree of variance, while Russians, Poles, and Serbs were seen as completely inferior, Croats and Bulgarians were due to political necessity displayed in a more positive light, and Slovenes even as »Germanizable«).

This also had very concrete and horrifying political consequences. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the SS Einsatzgruppen immediately started to execute Polish intellectuals, clergy, and politicians by the thousands. The idea behind that was to deprive the Polish people from any future political leaders or intelligentsia so that they could serve as slaves to the German master race. In the Soviet Union, not only did the Nazis plan to let millions of people starve so that they Germans could be fed, in their policies in the occupied territories, they for example forbid any Soviet citizen to get education beyond learning the basics of how to read and write because in the Nazi imagination, they wouldn't need anymore than that. Among the POWs of the Soviet army, those soldiers with »asiatic« features were immediately executed together with Jews and political commissars. Serbia as a country was placed under Wehrmacht administration because the Serbs were perceived as especially violent and treacherous because -- according to the German Wehrmacht commander -- "the Serbs has Ottoman and Slavic blood, the only language he understands is violence". The whole set-up of occupational policies such as placing the Czechs, Poles etc. under German adminsitraiton, not allowing their own bureaucrats within the ranks of the administration in contradiction to for example Belgium was not only because of the political necessity but also because of the racist view of the Slavic people.

In short, the Nazis saw different people subsumed as slavs as inherently inferior, savage, and uncivilized people, who only understood the language of violence. This translated into brutally savage policies of killing unbelievably high number of Slavic people whether it was through direct violence, starvation, or neglect. In the Nazi vision of the New Order, they were to fill the role of colonial slave peoples that had to serve the German master race.

Mark Mazower: Hitler's Empire.

Wendy Lower: Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in the Ukraine.

Maria Toderova: Imaging the Balkans.

Dieter Pohl: Die Herrschaft der Wehrmacht in der Sowjetunion.

Robert Gerwarth: The Central European Counter-Revolutionary: Paramilitary Violence in Germany, Austria, and Hungary after the Great War.

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Croatian Historian: Threats Won’t Stop Me Criticising Nationalism

Social media has made it easier for Croatian nationalists to attack opponents who speak publicly about controversial periods in the country’s history.

However, some of them still use old-fashioned ways to deliver their threats. The Croatian historian Hrvoje Klasic, who has criticised the rehabilitation of the WWII-era, Nazi-allied Ustasa movement in his country, is not on social media – instead, he receives threatening letters.

One anonymous detractor made a lot of effort last week to send him a threatening message: he typed it out on a computer, printed it, put it in an envelope, affixed a postage stamp, and took it to the post office to mail it so that it could reach Klasic at his workplace, Zagreb’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The message I received on Wednesday morning is, unfortunately, not the first, and I am afraid that, given the society in which I live, it will not be the last,” Klasic told BIRN in an interview.

“I do not know what the direct reason would be, given that I am a regular presence in the public arena when it comes to topics from the past, that I actually treat Croatia’s past as a problem and that I am very critical, unequivocally, about Croatian nationalism, either in the past or in the present,” he continued.

The letter he got last week was entitled “Call to the Croatian People – Kill Klasic”. It actually called for the murder of not only Klasic “but also other well-known traitors who openly and secretly act against the Croatian people” in parliament, the media, some university faculties, and anti-fascist and other non-governmental associations.

It concluded with the World War II Ustasa movement’s slogan, ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Homeland’).

This time, Klasic did not report the incident to the police. However, he considers it important to talk about it in public “to make people aware of the people around us”, and because “such things must never become normal”.

Turning a blind eye to Ustasa crimes

Adolf Hitler with Ustasa leader Ante Pavelic in Bavaria, Germany in 1941. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/US Holocaust Memorial Museum/Unknown author.

In recent years, the Croatian government has often been accused of tolerating historical revisionism about World War II crimes and ignoring the rehabilitation of the Ustasa.

Many observers have noted that the movement’s symbols and slogans have become widespread in the country and that legislation is not effectively curbing their use.

Various Ustasa symbols were revived during the war years of the early 1990s as Croatian nationalists sought to break with the Yugoslav past. For example, a battalion of the wartime paramilitary Croatian Defence Forces was formed on April 10, 1991, the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Ustasa-led Independent State of Croatia, NDH, and named after well-known Ustasa commander Rafael Boban.

Klasic said that in the 1990s, the Yugoslav state’s narrative of history was confronted “in the completely wrong way”.

“There is no doubt that the narrative that has existed since 1945 was ideologised, tendentious, that there were holes… and that the interpretation of the past really needed to be revised and supplemented with new sources,” he said.

However, in the 1990s a new narrative was created that was also ideologised and that only the perceptions of who were “the good guys and the bad guys” changed.

At that time, as Croatia fought for independence and Yugoslavia collapsed, hardline Croatian émigrés who sympathised with the Ustasa regime ​​returned to the country to help the fledgling state “militarily, politically and economically”.

“The war simply imposed a narrative that may have seemed tempting or even acceptable to someone at the time,” Klasic said. The new narrative was that Croatia was “fighting against [Yugoslav] communism and seeing a threat in Serbs”.

“Obviously, there are enough people who could turn a blind eye to [Ustasa] crimes and take on [the belief] that the Ustasa fought for the Croatian state,” he explained.

‘The police admit they can do nothing’

Monument to the victims of the Ustasa-run Jasenovac concentration camp. Photo: BIRN.

Klasic has been to the police station three times to report threats, once after a threatening phone call, twice after receiving letters saying he should be killed.

“The police [officers] were very forthcoming, very professional, but then you spend a few hours in the police [station], fill out some records and so on. And then you come to the point that the inspector admits that he cannot do anything about it,” he recalled.

That is why he did not report the latest threatening letter, he explained.

He also said that he received an email from another man who said that threatening letters are not nice but that he needs to consider the fact that most people in Croatia hate him, suggesting that he go and live somewhere else – in Serbia, for example.

“I’m also receiving signed letters that are not direct death threats but are terribly vulgar, obscene and worrying,” he said and adds that he sometimes got insulting words on the street as well.

Messages like this do not discourage him from continuing to talk and write about the historical topics that he considers important.

However, others may be intimidated by such threats, he said – such as “history teachers who work in smaller communities where, literally, if you teach, for example, the [1990s] Homeland War in a different way, and a child of a war veteran goes to that class, then the father comes to you the next day”.

The state has not created a “society of dialogue”, Klasic said – and this is also reflected in the attitudes of Croatia’s youth. A recently published survey of Croatian high school seniors showed that fewer than a third of the participants consider Croatia’s World War II Nazi-allied state a fascist state, and over half were either undecided or unwilling to give their opinion.

Klasic argued that “schools, teachers and textbooks are no longer the main source of information”.

“For various reasons: sometimes because they are boring, monotonous and anachronistic, and there are much more interesting forms of information – from video games, social networks and forums to the public attitudes of their favourite [celebrities], football players, singers and YouTubers,” he explained.

He added that his students have explained to him that when young people glorify the Ustasa movement, they do so to rebel – because it is forbidden and because it attracts attention.

He is not sure whether this interpretation is entirely correct, but he hopes that words will not be translated into actions.

“I want to believe that most young people, even those who’ll shout ‘Za dom spremni’ at the [football] stadium, will not act like Ustasas in any situation,” he said.

Watch the video: The Balkans Crisis - How The Balkans Helped Start WW1 - GCSE History