History of the Serbs


The Serbs are believed to be a purely Slavic people who originated in Ukraine. Some scholars now argue that the original Serbs and Croats were Central Asian Sarmatian nomads who entered Europe with the Huns in the fourth century C.E. The theory proposes that the Sarmatian Serbs settled in a land designated as White Serbia, in what is now Saxony and western Poland. The Sarmatian Serbs, it is argued, intermarried with the indigenous Slavs of the region, adopted their language and transferred their name to the Slavs.

Arrival to the Balkans

Byzantine sources report that some Serbs migrated southward in the seventh century C.E. and eventually settled in the lands that now make up southern Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rival chiefs, or "zupani," vied to control the Serbs for five centuries after the migration. Zupan Vlastimir formed a Serbian principality under the Byzantines around 850, and the Serbs soon converted to Eastern Christianity. The Serbs had two political centers in the 11th century: Zeta, in the mountains of present-day Montenegro, and Raska, located in modern southwestern Serbia.

First Serbian State

The zupan of Raska, Stefan I Nemanja (1159-96), threw off Byzantine domination and laid the foundation for medieval Serbia by conquering Zeta and part of southern Dalmatia. His son and successor, Stefan II Nemanja (1196-1228), transformed Serbia into a stable state, friendly with Rome but with religious loyalty to Constantinople. In 1218, Pope Honorius III recognized Serbian political independence and crowned Stefan II king. The writings of Stefan II and his brother (canonized as St. Sava) were the first works of Serbian literature.

Later kings in the Nemanja line overcame internal rivalries and pressure from Bulgaria and Constantinople. They also rejected papal invitations to link the Serbian Orthodox Church with Rome, and they ruled their country through a golden age. Serbia expanded its economy, and Dalmatian merchants sold Serbian goods throughout Europe and the Levant. The Nemanje dynasty left to Serbia masterpieces of religious art combining Western, Byzantine and local styles.

Serbia dominated the Balkans under Stefan Dusan (1331-55), who conquered lands extending from Belgrade to present-day southern Greece. He proclaimed himself emperor, elevated the archbishop of Pec to the level of patriarch, and wrote a new legal code combining Byzantine law with Serbian customs. Dusan had ambitions toward a weakened Byzantine Empire, but the Byzantine emperor suspected his intentions and summoned the Turks to restrain him. Dusan repelled assaults in 1345 and 1349, but was defeated in 1352. He then offered to lead an alliance against the Turks and recognize the pope, but those gambits also were rejected.

Rival nobles divided Serbia after the death of Dusan in 1355, and many switched loyalty to the sultan after the last Nemanja died in 1371. The most powerful Serbian prince, Lazar Hrebeljanovic, raised a multinational force to engage the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo Polje on St. Vitus Day in 1389. The Turks barely defeated Lazar, and both he and the sultan were killed. The defeat did not bring immediate Turkish occupation of Serbia, but during the centuries of Turkish domination that followed, the Serbs endowed the battle with myths of honor and heroism that helped them preserve their dignity and sense of nationhood. Serbs still recite epic poems and sing songs about the nobles who fell at Kosovo Polje. The anniversary of the battle is the Serbian national holiday, Vidovdan (St. Vitus’s Day), June 28.

St. King Milutin
St. Milutin, the King of Serbia fresco in Gracanica Monastery
Turkish Conquest of Serbia

Civil war in the Turkish Empire saved Serbia in the early 15th century, but the Turks soon reunited their forces to conquer the last Serbian stronghold at Smederjevo in 1459 and subjugate the whole country. Serbs fled to Hungary, Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia and Bosnia, and some formed outlaw bands. In response to the activities of the latter, the Turks disinterred and burned the remains of St. Sava.

By the 16th century, southern Hungary had a sizable Serbian population that remained after the Turks conquered the region in 1526. Montenegro, which emerged as an independent principality after the death of Dusan, waged continual guerrilla war on the Turks, and was never conquered. The Turkish threat, however, did force Prince Ivan of Montenegro to move his capital high into the mountains. There, he founded a monastery and set up a printing press. In 1516 Montenegro became a theocratic state.

Social and economic life in Serbia changed radically under the absolute rule of the Turkish sultan. The Turks split Serbia among several provinces, conscripted Serbian boys into their elite forces, exterminated Serbian nobles, and deprived the Serbs of contact with the West as the Renaissance was beginning. The Turks used the Orthodox Church to intermediate between the state and the peasantry, but they expropriated most church lands. Poorly trained Serbian priests strove to maintain the decaying national identity.

In 1459, the sultan subordinated the Serbian Church to the Greek patriarch, but the Serbs hated Greek dominance of their church, and in 1557, Grand Vizier Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic, a Serb who had been inducted into the Turkish army as a boy, persuaded the sultan to restore autonomy to the Serbian Church. Turkish maltreatment and exploitation grew in Serbia after the 16th century, and more Serbs fled to become "hajduci" (mountain outlaws).

Unsuccessful Serb Rebellions

From 1684 to 1689, Christian forces attempted to push the Turks from the Balkans, inciting the Serbs to rebel against their Turkish overlords. The offensive rebellion ultimately failed, exposing the Serbs south of the Sava River to the revenge of the Turks. Fearing Turkish reprisals, the Serbian patriarch, Arsenije III Carnojevic, immigrated in 1690 to Austrian-ruled southern Hungary with as many as 36,000 families.

Serb Migration before Ottomans
Great Serb Migration in front of Ottomans, 1690

The Austrian emperor promised these people religious freedom as well as the right to elect their own "vojvoda" (military governor), and incorporated much of the region where they settled, later known as Vojvodina, into the military border. The refugees founded new monasteries that became cultural centers. In Montenegro, Danilo I Petrovic of Njegos (1696-1737) became bishop-prince and instituted the succession of the Petrovic-Njegos family. His efforts to unify Montenegro triggered a massacre of Muslims in 1702 and subsequent reprisals.

Austrian forces took Serbian regions south of the Sava from Turkey in 1718, but Jesuits following the army proselytized so heavily that the Serbs came to hate the Austrians as well as the Turks. In the 18th century, the Turkish economy and social fabric began deteriorating, and the Serbs who remained under the Ottoman Empire suffered attacks from bands of soldiers. Corrupt Greek priests, who had replaced Serbian clergy at the sultan’s direction, also took advantage of the Serbs. The Serbs in southern Hungary fared much better. They farmed prosperously in the fertile Danubian plain. A Serbian middle class arose, and the monasteries trained scholars and writers who inspired national pride, even among illiterate Serbs.

The 18th century brought Russian involvement in European events, particularly in competition with Austria for the spoils of the Turkish collapse. The Orthodox Serbs looked to the tsar for support, and Russia forged ties with Montenegro and the Serbian Church in southern Hungary. In 1774, Russia won the diplomatic right to protect Christian subjects of the Turks; later it used this right as a pretext to intervene in Turkish affairs.

When Russia and Austria fought another war with Turkey in 1787 and 1788, Serbs fought guerrilla battles against the Turks. Austria abandoned the campaign, and the Serbs, in 1791. To secure their frontier, the Turks granted their Serbian subjects a measure of autonomy and formed a Serbian militia. Montenegro expanded in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Bishop-Prince Petar I Njegos (1782-1830) convinced the sultan to declare that the Montenegrins had never been Turkish subjects, and Montenegro remained independent through the 19th century.

In 1804, renegade Turkish soldiers in Belgrade murdered Serbian leaders, triggering a popular uprising under Karadjordje ("Black George") Petrovic, founder of the Karadjordjevic dynasty. Russia supported the Serbs, and in 1806, the sultan granted them limited autonomy. Internal discord, however, weakened the government of Karadjordje, and the French invasion of Russia in 1812 prevented the tsar from protecting the Serbs.

In 1813, the Turks attacked rebel areas. Karadjordje fled to Hungary, then Turkish, Bosnian and Albanian troops plundered Serbian villages. The atrocities sparked a second Serbian uprising in 1815 that won autonomy under Turkish control for some regions. The corrupt rebel leader Milos Obrenovic (1817-39) had Karadjordje murdered and his head sent to the sultan to signal Serbian loyalty.

Serbia as Principality

In 1830, Turkey recognized Serbia as a principality under Turkish control, with Milos Obrenovic as hereditary prince. The sultan also granted the Serbian Church autonomy and reaffirmed the Russian right to protect Serbia. Poor administration, corruption and a bloody rivalry between the Karadjordjevic and Obrenovic clans marred Serbian political life from its beginning.

After the sultan began allowing foreign governments to send diplomats to Serbia in the 1830s, foreign intervention further complicated the situation. Despite these obstacles and his autocratic manner, however, Milos Obrenovic stimulated trade, opened schools and guided development of peasant lands. He abdicated in 1838 when Turkey imposed a constitution to limit his powers.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Serbian culture made significant strides. Dositej Obradovic, Vuk Karadzic and other scholars accelerated a national renaissance. Through his translations and autobiography, Obradovic spread the Enlightenment to the Serbs. Collections of Serbian folk songs and poems edited by Karadzic awoke pride in national history and traditions. Karadzic also overcame clerical opposition to reform the Cyrillic alphabet and the Serbian literary language, and he translated the New Testament. His work widened the concept of Serbian nationhood to include language as well as religious and regional identifications.

The European revolution of 1848 eroded relations between the Serbs and their neighbors. As part of their revolutionary program, the Hungarians threatened to Magyarize the Serbs in Vojvodina. Some Serbs there declared their independence from Hungary and proclaimed an autonomous Vojvodina; others rallied behind the Austrian-Croatian invasion of Hungary. The Serbs nearly declared war, but Russians and Turkish diplomacy restrained them. The Serbs in Hungary gained nothing from helping Austria to crush the revolution. Vienna ruled Vojvodina harshly after 1850 and silenced Serbian irredentists there.

When Austria joined Hungary to form the Dual Monarchy in 1867, Vienna returned Vojvodina and its Serbs to Hungary. Meanwhile, Peter II Njegos of Montenegro (1830-51), who was also a first-rate poet, reformed his administration, battled the Turks and struggled to obtain a seaport from the Austrians. His successor, Danilo II (1851-60), abolished the Montenegrin theocracy.

Prince Mihajlo Obrenovic (1860-68), son of Milos, was an effective ruler who further loosened the Turkish grip on Serbia. Western-educated and autocratic, Mihajlo liberalized the constitution and, in 1867, secured the withdrawal of Turkish garrisons from Serbian cities. Industrial development began at this time, although 80 percent of Serbia’s 1.25 million people remained illiterate peasants. Mihajlo sought to create a South Slav confederation, and he organized a regular army to prepare for liberation of Turkish-held Serbian territory. Scandal undermined Mihajlo’s popularity, however, and he was eventually assassinated.

Celekula - Skull Tower in Nis

Political parties emerged in Serbia after 1868, and aspects of Western culture began to appear. A widespread uprising in the Ottoman Empire prompted an unsuccessful attack by Serbia and Montenegro in 1876, and a year later those countries allied with Russian, Romanian and Bulgarian rebels to defeat the Turks. The subsequent treaties of San Stefano and Berlin (1878) made Serbia an independent state and added to its territory, while Montenegro gained a seacoast.

Alarmed at Russian gains, the growing stature of Serbia, and irredentism among Vojvodina’s Serbs, Austria-Hungary pressed for and won the right to occupy Bosnia, Herzegovina and the Novi Pazar in 1878. Serbia’s Prince Milan Obrenovic (1868-89), a cousin of Mihajlo, became disillusioned with Russia and fearful of the newly created Bulgaria. He, therefore, signed a commercial agreement in 1880 that made Serbia a virtual client state of Austria-Hungary. Milan became the first king of modern Serbia in 1882, but his pro-Austro-Hungarian policies undermined his popularity, and he abdicated in 1889.

A regency ruled Serbia until 1893, when Milan’s teenage son, Aleksandar (1889-1903), pronounced himself of age and nullified the constitution. Aleksandar was widely unpopular in Serbia because of scandals, arbitrary rule and his position favoring Austria-Hungary. In 1903 military officers, including Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijevic, brutally murdered Aleksandar and his wife. Europe condemned the killings, which were celebrated in Belgrade.

Petar Karadjordjevic (1903-14), who knew of the conspiracy, returned from exile to take the throne, restored and liberalized the constitution, put Serbian finances in order, and improved trade and education. Petar turned Serbia away from Austria-Hungary and toward Russia, and in 1905 Serbia negotiated a tariff agreement with Bulgaria hoping to break the Austro-Hungarian monopoly of its exports. In response to a diplomatic disagreement, Vienna placed a punitive tariff on livestock, Serbia’s most important export. Serbia, however, refused to bend, found new trade routes and began seeking an outlet to the sea.

In 1908, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, frustrating Serbian designs on those regions and precipitating an international crisis. The Serbs mobilized, but under German pressure Russia persuaded Belgrade to cease its protests. Thereafter, Belgrade maintained strict official propriety in its relations with Vienna; but government and military factions prepared for a war to liberate the Serbs still living under the Turkish yoke in Kosovo, Macedonia and other regions.

Balkan Wars and the First World War

The Balkan Wars and World War I had dramatic consequences for the South Slavs. In the Balkan Wars, Serbia helped expel the Turks from Europe and regained lands lost in medieval times. By 1914, the alliances of Europe and the ethnic friction among the South Slavs had combined to make Bosnia the ignition point, and Serbia one of the main battlegrounds, of World War I. When Austria-Hungary collapsed after the war, fear of an expansionist Italy inspired Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian leaders to form the new federation known as Yugoslavia

Ethnic hatred, religious rivalry, language barriers and cultural conflicts plagued the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) from its inception. The question of centralization versus federalism bitterly divided the Serbs and Croats; democratic solutions were blocked and dictatorship was made inevitable because political leaders had little vision, no experience in parliamentary government, and no tradition of compromise. Hostile neighboring states resorted to regicide to disrupt the kingdom, and only when European war threatened in 1939 did the Serbs and Croats attempt a settlement. That solution, however, came too late to matter.

The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes encompassed most of the Austrian Slovenian lands, Croatia, Slavonia, most of Dalmatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina, Kosovo, the Serbian controlled parts of Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Territorial disputes disrupted relations with Italy, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Albania. Italy posed the most serious threat to Yugoslavia. Although it received Zadar, Istria, Trieste and several Adriatic islands in the postwar treaties and took Rijeka by force, Italy resented not receiving all the territory promised under the 1915 Treaty of London. Rome subsequently supported Croatian, Macedonian and Albanian extremists, hoping to stir unrest and hasten the end of Yugoslavia. Revisionist Hungary and Bulgaria also backed anti-Yugoslav groups.

The creation of Yugoslavia fulfilled the dreams of many South Slavic intellectuals who disregarded fundamental differences among 12 million people of the new country. The Serbs, Croats and Slovenes had conflicting political and cultural traditions, and the South Slav kingdom also faced sizable non-Slav minorities, including Germans, Albanians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Turks, with scatterings of Italians, Greeks, Czechoslovaks, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Russians, Poles, Bulgars, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews and Romanies.

The Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Islamic, Uniate, Jewish and Protestant faiths all were well established and cut across ethnic and territorial lines. In addition to the divisiveness of a large number of minority languages, linguistic differences also split the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Macedonian Slavs. Many people regarded the new government and its laws as alien, exploitative and secondary to kinship loyalties and traditions.

The Serbs’ memories of their medieval kingdom, their 1389 defeat by the Ottoman Turks, their 19th century uprisings, and their heavy sacrifices during 20th century wars contributed significantly to their feeling that they had sacrificed much for Yugoslavia and received relatively little in return.

After the Second World War

After World War II and German Nazi occupation, a socialist federation of Yugoslavia, including Serbia, Montenegro and the other former Yugoslav territories, was formed. Josip Broz Tito became the leader and remained in power until his death in 1980.

In the late 1980s, a passionate Serbian nationalist revival arose from this sense of unfulfilled expectation, from the postwar distribution of the Serbs among various Yugoslav political entities, and from perceived discrimination against the Serbs in Kosovo in the 1970s and 1980s. In this process, the Serbian Orthodox Church re-emerged as a strong cultural influence, and the government of Serbia renewed celebrations of the memories of Serbian heroes and deeds. These events caused leaders in Slovenia and Croatia to fear a resurgence of the Serbian hegemony that had disrupted interwar Yugoslavia.

The Serbian-Albanian struggle for Kosovo, the heartland of Serbia’s medieval kingdom, dominated Serbia’s political life in the 1980s. Between 1948 and 1990, the Serbian share of Kosovo’s population dropped from 23.6 percent to less than 10 percent, while the ethnic Albanian share increased in proportion because of a high birth rate and immigration from Albania.

The demographic change was also the result of political and economic conditions; the postwar Serbian exodus from Kosovo accelerated in 1966 after ethnic Albanian communist leaders gained control of the province, and Kosovo remained the most poverty-stricken region of Yugoslavia in spite of huge government investments. After reasserting political control over Kosovo in 1989, the Serbian government announced an ambitious program to resettle Serbs in Kosovo, but the plan attracted scant interest among Serbian emigres from the region.

In the republics of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs’ situation was more complex and potentially more explosive than in Kosovo. Despite denials from the governments of both republics, Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina complained bitterly in the late 1980s about ethnically based discrimination and threats. The Serbian government reacted with published exposes of World War II atrocities against Serbs and the Croatian chauvinism that had inspired them.

Milosevic comes to power

In July 1990, a referendum was passed essentially removing the autonomous designations from Kosovo and Vojvodina. Then, in November and December 1990, Slobodan Milosevic was elected to the presidency. During 1991 and 1992, thousands were killed during the civil war between the republics of former Yugoslavia. In early 1992, United Nations peacekeeping troops were deployed to the area to help quell the fighting in the region.

In the course of 1991-92, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina seceded from Yugoslavia through violence, while Macedonia separated peacefully. The secessionist republics quickly won international recognition. Serbia and Montenegro chose to stay in Yugoslavia. At the joint session of the assemblies of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade on Apr. 27, 1992, the Serbs and Montenegrins adopted the constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Since Serbia-Montenegro was under de facto rule of President Milosevic, the army was under the control of Milosevic’s ally, General Momcilo Perisic. No particular opposition movement, including the Serbian Renewal movement or the semi-fascist Serbian Radical Party, managed to offer a serious challenge to Milosevic’s control. Indeed, when opposition leaders called for a non-confidence vote in the government, Milosevic dissolved parliament and called for new elections.

Milosevic’s regime was faced with trying to maintain political control of the volatile and predominantly Albanian region of Kosovo, as well as the unstable Sandzak Muslin enclave next to Bosnia. Interestingly, the Milosevic administration had some degree of a challenge from then-Montenegrin president, Momir Bulatovic, who, in the early 1990s, demonstrated an increasingly independent pattern of policy making. At that time, several Montenegrin members of Milosevic’s coalition in parliament resigned in protest of Montenegro’s subordinate relations with Serbia.