History of Serbia

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Serbia was formerly a autonomous principality (1817-1878), independent principality (1878-1882), independent kingdom (1882-1918), part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (1918-1941) (since 1929 the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), nazi occupied puppet state (1941-1944), socialist republic within Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1992) and republic within Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (since 1992) (since 2003 Serbia and Montenegro).


Medieval Serbia 7th - 14th Century

The Serbs entered their present territory early in the 7th century AD, settling in six distinct tribal delimitations:

Missing image
Stefan Dusan, Serbian emperor

The first recorded Serb princes were Vlastimir, Viseslav, Radoslav and Prosigoj. By that time, the country had entirely accepted Christianity. In Zeta, today's Montenegro, Bodin was crowned by the Pope (the first mention of this is a century later, in the 10th century. The rulers kept changing and the country accepted supreme protection from the Byzantine Empire rather than from hostile Bulgaria. Serbia was freed from the Byzantine Empire a century later.

The first Serb state emerged under Caslav Klonimirovic in the mid-10th century in Rascia. However the first half of the 11th century saw the rise of the Vojislavljevic family in Zeta. Finally, the middle of the 12th century saw once more the rise of Rascia with the Nemanjic dynasty. The Nemanjic were to lead Serbia to a golden age which lasted for over three centuries and produced a powerful Balkan state which had its apogee under the reign of Tsar Stefan Dusan in the mid 14th century, before finally succumbing to Ottoman Turkish subjugation (with Zeta, the last bastion, finally falling in 1499).

Nemanjic's Serbia, 1150–1220, during the rules of  and
Nemanjic's Serbia, 1150–1220, during the rules of Stefan Nemanja and Stefan Prvovencani

Stefan Nemanja was succeeded by his middle son Stefan, whilst his first-born Vukan was given the rule of the Zeta region (present-day Montenegro). Stefan Nemanja's youngest son Rastko became a monk and took the name of Sava, turning all his efforts to spreading religiousness among his people. Since the Curia already had ambitions to spread its influence to the Balkans as well, Stefan used these propitious circumstances to obtain his crown from the Pope thus becoming the first Serbian king in 1217. In Byzantium, his brother Sava managed to secure the autocephalous status for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian archbishop in 1219. Thus the Serbs acquired both forms of independence: temporal and religious.

The next generation of Serbian rulers - the sons of Stefan Prvovencani - Radoslav, Vladislav and Uros I, marked a period of stagnation of the state structure. All three kings were more or less dependent on some of the neighboring states - Byzantium, Bulgaria or Hungary. The ties with the Hungarians had a decisive role in the fact that Uros I was succeeded by his son Dragutin whose wife was a Hungarian princess. Later on, when Dragutin abdicated in favor of his younger brother Milutin (in 1282), the Hungarian king Ladislaus IV gave him lands in northeastern Bosnia, the regions of Srem, Slavonia and Macva, and the city of Belgrade, whilst he managed to conquer and annex lands in northeastern Serbia. His new state was named Kingdom of Srem, and northern border of the state crossed not only river Sava, but also Danube. Thus, some of these territories became part of the Serbian state for the first time. After Dragutin died (in 1316), new ruler of the Kingdom of Srem became his son, king Vladislav II, which ruled this state until 1325.

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Tzar Dušan's Serbia
~ 1350 AD

Under the rule of Dragutin's younger brother - King Milutin, Serbia grew stronger in spite of the fact that occasionally it had to fight wars on three different fronts. King Milutin was an apt diplomat much inclined to the use of a customary medieval diplomatic expedients - dynastic marriages. He was married five times, with Hungarian, Bulgarian and Byzantine princesses. He is also famous for building churches, some of which are the brightest examples of Medieval Serbian architecture: the Gracanica (http://www.kosovo.com/egracanica.html) Monastery in Kosovo, the Cathedral in Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos, the St. Archangel Church in Jerusalem etc. Because of his endowments, King Milutin has been proclaimed a saint, in spite of his tumultuous life. He was succeeded on the throne by his son Stefan, later dubbed Stefan Decanski. Spreading the kingdom to the east by winning the town of Nis and the surrounding counties, and to the south by acquiring territories on Macedonia, Stefan Decanski was worthy of his father and built the Visoki Decani Monastery (http://www.kosovo.com/edecani.html) in Metohija - the most monumental example of Serbian Medieval architecture - that earned him his byname.

Medieval Serbia that enjoyed a high political, economic and cultural reputation in Medieval Europe, reached its apex in mid-14th century, during the rule of Tzar Stefan Dusan. This is the period when the Dusanov Zakonik (Dusan's Code 1349) the greatest juridical achievement of Medieval Serbia, unique among the European feudal states of the period. St. Sava's Nomocanon, Dusan's Code, frescoes and the architecture of the medieval monasteries adorning Serbian lands are eternal civilizational monuments of the Serbian people. Tzar Stefan Dusan doubled the size of his kingdom seizing territories to the south, southeast and east at the expense of Byzantium. He was succeeded by his son Uros called the Weak, a term that might also apply to the state of the kingdom slowly sliding into feudal anarchy. This is a period marked by the rise of a new threat: the Ottoman Turk sultanate gradually spreading from Asia to Europe and conquering Byzantium first, and then the other Balkans states.

Turkish Conquest

The Serbian Empire, which once held most of the Balkans, was destroyed by the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when most of the nobility, including Czar Lazar, has died in that battle. This historical defeat of this Christian Empire against the invading Muslims has however, produced numerous legends, poems and stories that have preserved the Serbian distinct nationality for the centuries to come under Muslim rule, with the Serbian Orthodox Church being the "guardian of the medieval times".

Having defeated the Serbian army in two crucial battles: on the banks of the river Marica in 1371 - where the forces of noblemen from Macedonia were defeated, and on Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Field) in 1389, where the vassal troops commanded by Prince Lazar - the strongest regional ruler in Serbia at the time - suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Battle of Kosovo defined the fate of Serbia, because after it no force capable of standing up to the Turks existed. This was an unstable period marked by the rule of Prince Lazar's son - despot Stefan Lazarevic - a true European-style knight a military leader and even poet, and his cousin Djuradj Brankovic, who moved the state capital north - to the newly built fortified town of Smederevo. The Turks continued their conquest until they finally seized the entire Serbian territory in 1459 when Smederevo fell into their hands. Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries. The Turks persecuted the Serbian aristocracy, determined to physically exterminate the social elite. Since the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic theocratic state, Christian Serbs lived as virtual bond servants - abused, humiliated and exploited. Consequently they gradually abandoned the developed and urban centers where mining, crafts and trade was practiced and withdrew to hostile mountains living on cattle breeding and modest farming.

In the battle of Mohac on august 29 1526, Ottoman Turkey destroyed the army of Hungarian-Czech king Louis Jagellion, who was killed on the battlefield. After this battle Hungary ceases to be independent state and becomes a part of the Ottoman Empire. Soon after the Battle of Moh醕s, leader of Serbian mercenaries in Hungary, Jovan Nenad established his rule in Backa, northern Banat and a small part of Srem (These 3 regions are now parts of Vojvodina). He created an ephemeral independent state, with city Subotica as its capital. At the pitch of his power, Jovan Nenad crowned himself in Subotica for Serb emperor. Taking advantage of the extremely confused military and political situation, the Hungarian noblemen from the region joined forces against him and defeated the Serbian troops in the summer of 1527. Emperor Jovan Nenad was assassinated and his state collapsed.

European powers, and Austria in particular, fought many wars against Turkey, relying on the help of the Serbs that lived under Ottoman rule. During the Austrian-Turkish War (1593-1606) in 1594 the Serbs staged an uprising in Banat - the Pannonian part of Turkey, and the sultan retaliated by burning the remains of St. Sava - the most sacred thing for all Serbs honored even by Moslems of Serbian origin. Serbs created another center of resistance in Herzegovina but when peace was signed by Turkey and Austria they abandoned to Turkish vengeance. This sequence of events became usual in the centuries that followed.

During the Great War (1683-1690) between Turkey and the Holy Alliance - created with the sponsorship of the Pope and including Austria, Poland and Venice - these three powers incited the Serbs to rebel against the Turkish authorities, and soon uprisings and guerrilla spread throughout the western Balkans: from Montenegro and the Dalmatian coast to the Danube basin and Ancient Serbia (Macedonia, Raska, Kosovo and Metohija). However, when the Austrians started to pull out of Serbia, they invited the Serbian people to come north with them to the Austrian territories. Having to choose between Turkish vengeance and living in a Christian state, Serbs massively abandoned their homesteads and headed north lead by their patriarch Arsenije Carnojevic. Many areas in southern Balkans were de-populated in the process, and the Turks used the opportunity to Islamize Raska, Kosovo and Metohija and to a certain extent Macedonia. A process whose effects are still visible today started.

Another important episode in Serbian history took place in 1716-1718, when the Serbian ethnic territories ranging from Dalmatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgrade and the Danube basin newly became the battleground for a new Austria-Turkish war launched by Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Serbs sided once again with Austria. After a peace treaty was signed in Pozarevac, Turkey lost all its possessions in the Danube basin, as well as northern Serbia and northern Bosnia, parts of Dalmatia and the Peloponnesus. The last Austrian-Turkish war was the so called Dubica War (1788-1791), when the Austrians newly urged the Christians in Bosnia to rebel. No wars were fought afterwards until the 20th century that marked the fall of both mighty empires.

Modern Serbia

Karadjordje Petrovic, leader of Serbian uprising in 1804
Karadjordje Petrovic, leader of Serbian uprising in 1804

Serbia gained its autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in two revolutions in 1804 and 1815, though Turkish troops continued to garrison the capital, Belgrade until 1867. Those revolutions have revived the Serbian pride and gave them hope that their Empire might come into reality again.In 1829 Greece was given complete independence and Serbia was given its autonomy which made her semi- independent from Turkey.

Southern and Northern Serbia (Vojvodina) in 1849
Southern and Northern Serbia (Vojvodina) in 1849

Between 1849 and 1860 there was an Austrian crown land known as Dukedom (Vojvodina) of Serbia and Tamis Banat. This region is latter known as Vojvodina.

Renewed war alongside Russia against the Turks in 1877 brought full independence for Serbia and large territorial gains toward the south-east, including Niš, henceforth Serbia's second largest city (Treaty of Berlin, 1878). Serbian Kingdom was proclaimed in 1882, under King Milan Obrenovic IV. Serbia was one of the rear countries at the time that had its own domestic ruling dinasty on the throne (only few more, German Empire, Italy, Britain, Austro-Hungary). However, milions of Serbs still lived outside Serbia, in Austro-Hungarian Empire (Bosnia, Croatia, Vojvodina, Sandzak) and the Ottoman Empire (South Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia).

The new country was, like most of the Balkan lands, overwhelmingly agrarian with little in the way of industry or modern infrastructure. The total population rose from a million in the early 19th century to 2.5 million in 1900, when Belgrade contained 100,000 inhabitants (northern part was held by AustroHungary), Niš 24,500 and half a dozen other cities 10-15,000 each.

Internal politics revolved largely around the dynastic rivalry between the Obrenovic and Karadjordjevic families, descendants respectively of Miloš Obrenovic, (recognised as hereditary prince in 1829) and Karadjordje (Black George), leader of the 1804 revolt but killed in 1817, allegedly at Miloš's behest,. The Obrenovici headed the emerging state in 1817-1842 and 1858-1903, the Karadjordjevici in 1842-1858 and after 1903.

Historical map showing Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia in 1897. The borders are result of enlarging of Serbia in 1877 and were unchanged until 1912, except for annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary.
To the north and west, Austria-Hungary; yellow to the east Romania; orange to the east, Bulgaria; to the south Ottoman Turkey; in bottom left corner a piece of Italy; large river in upper right is Danube.

After the 1880s the dynastic issue became entwined to some extent with wider diplomatic divisions in Europe, Milan Obrenovic aligning his foreign policy with that of neighbouring Austria-Hungary in return for Habsburg support for his elevation to king. The Karadjordjevici inclined more toward Russia, gaining the throne in June 1903 after a bloody palace coup by army officers hostile to Habsburg rule over neighbouring South Slavs.

Serbian opposition to Austria-Hungary's October 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina brought about a serious European crisis: German and Austro-Hungarian pressure forced Russia to prevail on Serbia (March 31, 1909) to accept the annexation, but Russia undertook to defend Serbia against any future threat to her independence.

Following Bulgaria's independence (October 1908) from Ottoman overlordship and a successful movement by Greek army officers (August 1909) to steer their government onto a more nationalistic course, Serbia joined with the other two countries and her Serb-populated neighbour Montenegro in invading (October 1912) Ottoman-held Macedonia (not the Republic of Macedonia) and reducing Turkey-in-Europe to a small region around Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Bulgaria failed in her subsequent attempt (July 1913) to take from her allies territory which she had originally been promised (see Balkan Wars), but to Habsburg alarm at another near-doubling of Serbia's territory was added Bulgarian resentment at having been denied what she saw as her just share of the territorial gains.

Serbia in World War I

The assassination in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo (June 28, 1914) of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, by a young Bosnian Serb, provoked an ultimatum from Vienna requiring Serbia to allow Austro-Hungarian investigation of the plot on Serbian soil. Despite Serbia's acceptance (July 25) of nearly all the demands, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28. Russia's mobilisation in support of Serbia in turn brought a German ultimatum requiring her to stand down her forces, and war was declared among the great powers in the first week of August.

Serbia repulsed three Austro-Hungarian invasions (August, September and November-December 1914), in the last of which Belgrade was held temporarily by the enemy. But during 1915 an epidemic of typhus decimated the Serbian army, and renewed invasion in early October, this time involving also German and Bulgarian forces, resulted in the occupation of the whole country. The remnants of Serbia's armed forces retreated into Albania and Macedonia, where British and French forces had landed at Thessaloniki. A terrible prosecutions and deaths followed.

The period of government exile in Macedonia was marked by a significant shift in the balance of political forces, when the pan-Serb militant Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic ("Apis") (a leader of the 1903 coup and head of the shadowy "Black Hand" organisation accused of complicity in the Sarajevo assassination) was tried and executed (June 1917) on charges of plotting against the royal government. Military circles would henceforth be dominated by the royalist "White Hand" faction of Gen. Petar Živkovic, later prime minister (1929-1932) of an extra-constitutional monarchical regime.

A successful Allied offensive in September 1918 secured first Bulgaria's surrender and then the liberation of the occupied territories (November 1918). On November 25 the Great Peoples Assembly of Vojvodina voted to join the Serbia. Also, on November 29 the National Assembly of Montenegro voted for union with Serbia, and two days later an assembly of leaders of Austria-Hungary's southern Slav regions voted to join the new State of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. For subsequent history, also see history of Yugoslavia. Comparing to the other European countries Serbia had by far the greatest casualties in the war, having over 30% (1,3 million) of its total population perished.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia

With the end of World War I and the downfall of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire the conditions were met for proclaiming the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in December of 1918. The Yugoslav ideal had long been cultivated by the intellectual circles of the three nations that gave the name to the country, but the international constellation of political forces and interests did not permit its implementation until then. However, after the war, idealist intellectuals gave way to politicians and the most influential Croatian politicians opposed the new state right from the start.

The Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) headed by Stjepan Radic, and then by Vlatko Macek slowly grew to become a massive party endorsing Croatian national interests. According to its leaders the Yugoslav state did not provide a satisfactory solution to the Croatian national question. They chose to conduct their political battle by systematically obstructing state institutions and making political coalitions to undermine the state unity, thus extorting certain concessions. Each political or economic issue was used as a pretext for raising the so-called "unsettled Croatian question".

Trying to match this challenge and prevent any further weakening of the country, King Aleksandar I banned national political parties in 1929, assumed executive power and renamed the country Yugoslavia. He hoped to curb separatist tendencies and mitigate nationalist passions. However the balance of power changed in international relations: in Italy and Germany Fascists and Nazis rose to power, and Stalin became the absolute ruler in the Soviet Union. None of these three states favored the policy pursued by Aleksandar I. In fact the first two wanted to revise the international treaties signed after World War I, and the Soviets were determined to regain their positions in Europe and pursue a more active international policy. Yugoslavia was an obstacle for these plans and King Aleksandar I was the pillar of the Yugoslav policy.

During an official visit to France in 1934, the king was assassinated in Marseilles by a member of VMRO - an extreme nationalist organization in Bulgaria that had plans to annex territories along the eastern and southern Yugoslav border - with the cooperation of the Ustashi - a Croatian fascist separatist organization. The international political scene in the late 30's was marked by growing intolerance between the principal figures, by the aggressive attitude of the totalitarian regimes and by the certainty that the order set up after World War I is was loosing its strongholds and its sponsors were loosing their strength. Supported and pressured by Fascist Italy and nazi Germany, Croatian leader Vlatko Macek and his party managed to extort the creation of the Croatian banovina (administrative province) in 1939. The agreement specified that Croatia were to remain part of Yugoslavia, but it was hurriedly building an independent political identity in international relations.

Serbia in World War II

At the beginning of the 40's, Yugoslavia found itself surrounded by hostile countries. Except for Greece, all other neighboring countries had signed agreements with either Germany or Italy. Hitler was strongly pressuring Yugoslavia to join the Axis powers. The government was even prepared to reach a compromise with him, but the spirit in the country was completely different. Public demonstrations against Nazism prompted a brutal reaction. Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade and other major cities and in April 1941, the Axis powers occupied Yugoslavia and disintegrated it. The western parts of the country together with Bosnia and Herzegovina were turned into a Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and ruled by the Ustashe. Serbia was occupied by German troops, but the northern territories were annexed by Hungary, and eastern and southern territories to Bulgaria. Kosovo and Metohija were mostly annexed by Albania which was under the sponsorship of fascist Italy. Montenegro also lost territories to Albania and was then occupied by Italian troops. Slovenia was divided between Germany and Italy that also seized the islands in the Adriatic.

Following the Nazi example, the Independent State of Croatia established extermination camps and perpetrated an atrocious genocide killing over 750.000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. This holocaust set the historical and political backdrop for the civil war that broke out fifty years later in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992.

The ruthless attitude of the German occupation forces and the genocidal policy of the Croatian Ustasha regime generated a strong Serbian Resistance. The Serbs stood up against the Croatian genocidal government and the Nazi disintegration of Yugoslavia. Many joined the Partisan forces (National Liberation Army headed by Josib Broz Tito) in the liberation war and thus helped the Allied victory. By the end of 1944, with the help of the Red Army the Partisans liberated Serbia and by May 1945 the remaining Yugoslav territories, meeting up with the Allied forces in Hungary, Austria and Italy. Serbia and Yugoslavia were among the countries that had the greatest losses in the war: 1.700.000 (10.8% of the population) people were killed and national damages were estimated at 9.1 billion dollars according to the prices of that period.

Serbia in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

While the war was still raging, in 1943, a revolutionary change of the social and state system was proclaimed with the abolition of monarchy in favor of the republic. Josip Broz Tito became the first president of the new - socialist - Yugoslavia. Once a predominantly agricultural country Yugoslavia was transformed into a mid-range industrial country, and acquired an international political reputation by supporting the de-colonization process and by assuming a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement. Socialist Yugoslavia was established as a federal state comprising six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro and two autonomous regions of Serbia - Vojvodina and Kosovo and Metohija. Because of such an administrative division and due to historical reasons, the Serbs - the most numerous of the Yugoslav peoples - lived in all six republics and both autonomous regions. The trend to secure the power of the republics at the expense of the federal authorities became particularly intense after the adoption of the 1974 Constitution that increased the autonomy of Croatia, Slovenia,Bosnia and Kosovo.

The Break-Up of Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s after the secession of Slovenia and Croatia. The Yugoslav wars that followed were initially fought in the name of forcibly keeping Yugoslavia united. They soon became overtly nationalist in character, with a clash between the nationalist ideologies personified by Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

On April 281992 Serbia and Montenegro proclaimed themselves to be the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Their claim to be the legal sucessor state to the Yugoslav federation did not gain wide international acceptance.

The Serb-Croat conflict was greatly complicated in Bosnia by the presence of the large Muslim (Bosniak) population, which caused it to develop into a three-way conflict that was by far the bloodiest of the Yugoslav wars.

The Yugoslav wars in the west were ended by the military withdrawal in Slovenia and the defeat of Serbian rebels in Croatia, and the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995 for Bosnia following NATO airstrikes against the Bosnian Serb army and its warning to Muslim-Croat forces that a rout of Bosnian Serbs would not be tolerated. The Dayton agreement foresaw a unitary Bosnian state consisting of ethnic enclaves (See Republika Srpska).

In 1999, reported Serbian military action in Kosovo led to NATO aerial bombardment (See Kosovo War). The war stopped only after Milošević agreed to the retreat of the army and police from Kosovo. The province is now governed by the UN. In June of 1999, a NATO-led force (KFor) entered Kosovo following the war. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovo residents — Albanian and Serb — were displaced and the province became increasingly divided along ethnic lines. Interethnic conflict between the two groups flared occasionally despite the NATO presence. Recent unrest in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians in March 2004 that led to violent clashes and several deaths was the worst the province had seen since 1999.

Slobodan Milošević remained in power after the Kosovo conflict. He claimed victory in the September 242000 elections, which the opposition claimed had been rigged in his favor. Opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica declared himself the rightful winner, and half a million protesters rallied in front of the parliament in Belgrade on October 5 to demand Milošević stand down. After demonstrations and fighting with police still loyal to Milošević, he was overthrown and later arrested, and Kostunica took power as President. Following democratic parliamentary elections in January 2001, Zoran Djindjic became Prime Minister. After two years in office, Djindjic was assassinated in Belgrade on March 122003 by assailants believed to be connected with organized crime.

Immediately after the assassination, the government declared "war" on the mafia. Zoran Zivković led the government until a new election was held in December 2003. After almost three months of negotiations, Vojislav Kostunica formed the new government in March 2004. Three months later, Boris Tadić, successor of Zoran Djindjic as President of the Democratic Party, became the new President of Serbia.

In 2003 the name Yugoslavia was finally retired, as the two states agreed a looser union, to be known as Serbia and Montenegro.

See also

External links

Former Yugoslavia (SFRY) Missing image
Flag of the SFRY

Bosnia and Herzegovina | Croatia | Macedonia | Montenegro | Serbia | Slovenia
Autonomous provinces of Serbia
Kosovo | Vojvodina
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