The History of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Middle Ages to the Death of Tito

Christopher Hunt

The history of Bosnia has been twisted and forgotten and recalled many times to justify current actions and views. The emotions of the moment and the demands of journalism disregard the long historical background and obscure rather than clarify the real issues. Worse yet, analysis of the ethnic structure of Bosnia and of the rest of Yugoslavia, has been savagely distorted. If the conflict in Bosnia is seen in a long historical perspective, clearer understanding will emerge about the motives behind the current struggles in Bosnia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia. To look at the Balkan experience through the eyes of only one ethnic group is not only intellectually irresponsible, but dangerous. What follows is an overview of some of the definitive moments and turning points in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia takes its name from a river called Bosanta or Bosanius in Classical times. This was the name that Slav tribes who arrived in the seventh century AD gave the land. In the north and west were Croats; to the south and east, the Serbs, and further south the Bulgarians and Greeks.
The multi-ethnic regions have been controlled by many hands - Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Turks and Austrians.
Separated into autonomous tribal units or "zupe", divided by rugged topography, and having neither clearly defined natural frontiers nor a strong centre, the Slavs of Bosnia did not achieve a separate collective identity until the end of the twelfth century AD. From the beginning, the Bosnians did not call themselves "Serbs" or "Croats". They called themselves "Bosnians". At that time, the ruler or "Ban" named Kulin (1180-1204) appears as the first great figure in the history of Bosnia. His rule was famous for its prosperity. Craftsmanship flourished in Bosnia and merchants came from beyond to trade valuable goods.
During this period, Bosnia was exposed to the rivalry between the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This rivalry was complicated by a religious group known as the Bogomils. Their ideas were thought heretical by both the Western and Eastern Christians. The Bogomils are said to have taken their name from a tenth century priest called "Bogomil" which means "Beloved of God". They created a separate church which they called a "Bosnian Church". Its many followers including noblemen as well as common people were persecuted by both the Western and Eastern churches.
The Bosnian lands were controlled by Hungarians, their Croatian "vassals", Franciscan monks, Bogomils and Serbs. Eventually the Bosnian Trvtko declared himself "King of the Serbs, Bosnia, and the Coast".
Meanwhile, the Turks were invading Europe. They began in Gallipoli in 1354. By 1360, the Turks conquered Adrianople and quickly seized Thrace and Bulgaria south of the Danube. Central authority in Serbia collapsed. The Balkans seemed destined to fall entirely to the Turks. Before Trvtko died, he helped the ruler of northern Serbia, Lazar Hrebeljanovic, to form a pan-Serbian alliance to save the Balkans from the Turks. Any hope of stopping the Turkish threat and keeping the Balkans safe depended on a military victory. On15th June, 1389, a combined Christian army of Serbs, Albanians, Croats, Bulgarians, and Hungarians faced the Turks on the "field of Blackbirds" (the plain of Kosovo). By the end of the day, the Turks prevailed. The Serbs and the other Balkan peoples were ruined. The disaster was so great that it left a deep impression on the Serbs and inspired the creation of an oral epic poem, The Epic of Kosovo. The terrible fate of the Serbs and the other Christians was remembered by poets and singers for hundreds of years. The anniversary of the battle is still celebrated each year in Serbia on Vidovdan (28th June). After the defeat at Kosovo, many Serbs fled in terror to the north and west. Some settled in Bosnia but the full effect of the Turkish victory on Bosnia came later.
In 1391, Trvtko died and his lands fell into disorder. From 1398, the Turks began to influence affairs in Bosnia. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the complete suppression of Serbia in 1459, Bosnia's fate was sealed. When the Turks invaded Bosnia in 1460, no one came to help. Not Venice, or Hungary, or even the Catholic West. In 1463, the last king of Bosnia, Stephen Tomasevic, surrendered to the Turks who promptly cut off his head. The Bogomils welcomed the Turks as a kind of liberation from the persecution of the Western and Eastern churches. So, the Turkish takeover of Bosnia was easy. Many Bosnian Christians fled to Croatia-Slavonia, Hungary, and even to Venice and Rome.
Significantly, for the history of Bosnia, the Bogomils converted to Islam and thus, were able to keep their land and privileges. Conversely, the Christians in Bosnia lost their land and privileges. In Serbia, the Moslem Turks were foreign occupiers. In Bosnia, the Bogomils who converted to Islam became a privileged class.
Unlike other territories the Turks conquered, the Turkish governor or "vali" in Bosnia did not interfere with the local administration. Bosnia was administered by the new aristocracy of Bosnian Moslems. The Turks allowed Christians religious autonomy, but they were repressed not only by the Turks but also by their Slav brothers who were now Moslems. The Christians, forced to grow food and pay taxes to their new masters, were reduced to crushing serfdom.
Before the invasion of the Turks, the Balkans ex perienced civil and political wars, but nothing like the ethnic and tribal conflict that followed. To understand the degree of ruin brought by the Turks one must know not only the sheer numbers of people they massacred and repressed, but also the nature of Turkish rule in the Balkans.
Many characteristics of Turkish rule in Bosnia, as throughout the Balkans, help to explain the problems of the Balkans down to this day. First, the Turks imposed a political disenfranchisement of the Christians. Throughout the Balkans, the Turks caused misery to all except, of course, the Moslems.
Demographically, another interesting change developed: towns and cities became centers of Turkish rule while the countryside remained heavily Christian. The Christians were forced to retreat as Islam became the religion of power and prestige. The Turks were aware of the ethnohistorical difference among their subjects and exploited it to great effect until their empire collapsed in the late nineteenth century.
The most devastating consequences of Turkish rule in the Balkans was that it erased the individual cultures and the interaction of ethnic groups. By eliminating the Christian noblemen and the educated classes and by repressing their Christian subjects financially and morally, the Turks eradicated the carriers of the cultures and civilization which preceded them. While the West was inspired by the values of the Renaissance, the Balkan Christians, especially the Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians lost their established pattern of culture and the leaders who embodied and preserved the history of their people. The historical memory of the mass of Balkan Christians was virtually wiped out. People became isolated from "formal culture". Literary traditions suffered greatly, and most culture became folk culture, popular culture. The Turks also succeeded in isolating and alienating the Balkan peoples not only from each other but also from the West.
Thus, the catastrophe of Turkish occupation continues even to this day; the Balkan peoples never experienced the cultural awakening of Western Europe. During the hundreds of years of Turkish domination, the Balkan peoples were not stirred by the Renaissance, the Revival of Greek and Roman ideas, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution.
Politically, the Turks were at war with various neighboring states from the fifteenth to thenineteenth centuries. Bosnia was strategically important because it was a gateway to Hungary and beyond. Turkish expansion into Europe was finally stopped at the gates of Vienna in an epic battle in 1683. Combined Christian forces led by the Polish army halted the Turkish advance. To the end of the seventeenth century, Bosnia became the field of contest between the Turks and the advancing Austrians. During the next century, Austria fought the Turks several times.
The nineteenth century brought great turmoil to Bosnia as to Europe. After centuries of oppression, the Christian peasants throughout the Balkans began to resist. The Turkish sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839), recognizing the possibility of a Christian uprising, decided to offer a few reforms which angered the Bosnian noblemen and caused them to revolt against the sultan. After repeated attempts by the Turks to assert their direct rule, the reigns of power in Bosnia still lay in the hands of the Bosnian aristocracy. Finally, in 1850, the Turks wrested power from the Bosnian Moslem aristocracy and imposed direct rule. In the same year, the capital of Bosnia moved from Sarajevo to Travnik.
In the meantime, the conditions of the Christian subjects in Bosnia remained essentially miserable. Elsewhere in the Balkans, Christians had already successfully risen up against Turkish oppression. The Serbians revolted in 1804-1813, the Greeks in 1821. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Western diplomats realized that the Turkish empire was weakening. Life had become so degrading for the Christians of Bosnia that they rose up repeatedly. Recognizing the opportunity to intervene, in 1876, the Austro-Hungarian empire demanded that the Turks make reforms in Bosnia. That same year, Serbia and Montenegro, naturally sympathetic to the Bosnian Christian peasants, united against the Turks. In 1877, Russia joined the war and the Turks lost.
The Treaty of Berlin (July 1878) placed Bosnia and Herzegovina under the control of Austro-Hungary. Under the new rule there was little change for the Christian peasants so that they revolted in 1881. The Austro-Hungarians were obliged to make further reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, by the end of the century, living conditions significantly improved. The Austrians had long wanted to add the Balkans to their own empire. So, in 1908, Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially annexed by the Austro-Hungarian empire. That annexation also had the advantage of weakening Serbia, now a regional competitor, by blocking Serbia's access to the sea.
In 1910, a legislature with limited powers was set up and representation in the new Parliament was
di-rectly proportional to the religious composition of Bosnia. According to a census taken the same year, the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina was: 825,418 Orthodox Serbs (43.5 %), 612,137 Moslems (32.4 %), 434,061 Catholic Croats (22.8 %) and 11,868 Jews (0.6 %). Compounding internal differences, the respective groups looked outside Bosnia for leader-ship and help. The Moslems lost their aristocratic privi-leges as their Turkish sponsors weakened. The Catholic Croats were concerned with events in Croatia. The Orthodox Serbs looked to their Serb brothers. Real political power still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian administration.
After the First and Second Balkan wars of 1912-1913, which resulted in the further liberation of European territory from the Turks, many Bosnians decided to throw off their Austro-Hungarian overlords. Many secret societies, created to resist the Turks, were operating throughout the Balkans. In Bosnia, the Serb terrorist group called the "Black Hand", plotted to kill Austro-Hungarian administrators. In 1914, the future emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, chose to visit his future subjects in Bosnia on the 28th of June, the anniversary of the fatal battle of Kosovo. He was assassinated by the "Black Hand" in Sarajevo. Then further tension grew between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Serbia. Vienna accused Belgrade of assassination; Belgrade denied all responsibility. Although Serbian complicity is not altogether clear, the Austrians were looking for an excuse to fight Serbia because Serbia was the strongest southern Slav nation at that time, the only nation that stood between them and domination of the Balkans.
After the revival of Serbia in the nineteenth century, the Austrians and then the Germans decided to repress the Serbs. They were prompted by the dream of "Drang nach Osten", penetration to the East, They were also motivated by the historic racism of the Germanic peoples against the Slavs. Eager for war against Serbia, Austria issued an ultimatum that was so extreme that Serbia could not possibly accept it. When Serbia refused the ultimatum, the Austrians bombed Belgrade. However, no one was aware of the complicated series of secret alliances that had developed in the years before 1914. Russia, sympathetic towards their fellow Orthodox Christian Slavs, called for a full mobilization of troops. Germany, supporting her Austrian allies, demanded that Russian mobilization stop. When Russia did not comply, Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August, 1914. Thus a chain of events led to the First World War.
By 1915, Serbia was occupied by Austrians, Germans, and Bulgarians. The Serbs suffered heavy losses. The pre-war population of Serbia and Montenegro was reduced by twenty per cent: one million out of five million Serbs died.
One unintended result of World War I was that it helped to unite the southern Slavs. Southern Slav
intellectuals and political leaders discussed Yugoslav unity. The Declaration of Corfu on 20th July 1917 favored a union of all Serbs, Croats and Slovenes as a single nation. Southern Slav or "Yugoslav" nationhood soon materialized.
By 1918, the Balkans were largely free of Turkish and Austro-Hungarian rule. On 29th October, 1918, Croatia, with Slovenia, joined a Yugoslav nation.
On December 1st the "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes" was declared. Naturally, the new state incorporated the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian principalities of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Bosnia was subsumed into a much larger Yugoslav nation. At that time, Bosnia was understood to be a geographic region containing different ethnic groups, none of which formed a majority. Bosnia did not correspond to a single ethnic/national state in the same way as Serbia, for example.
Almost from the start, to establish a workable political system was difficult. Between the World Wars, constant tension divided Serbs and Croats in the Yugoslav Parliament. Some argued for a federation, others for a highly centralized system, but behind the arguments were ethnic rivalries. Hindsight suggests that the creation of Yugoslavia after World War I was too hasty.
The most valiant attempt to save the original Yugoslavia was made by King Alexander. He was a Serb but was committed to Yugoslavia. The instability of the parliamentary system forced him to assume personal control in January of 1929. He changed the name of the nation from the "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes" to the "Kingdom of Yugoslavia" in an attempt to emphasize national unity. He even forbade the flying of any flag other than the flag of Yugoslavia. More importantly, he reorganized Yugoslavia into nine administrative regions. Their boundaries in no way corresponded to ethnic or national borders. King Alexander sought to create a new "Yugoslav" identity, but opposition in Serbia and Croatia made his plans difficult. 1934 King Alexander was assassinated.
Although Yugoslavia somehow survived King Alexander's death, the years before World War 2 were marked by confusion and disagreements mainly about the status and borders of Croatia. The pre-World War 2 leaders of Yugoslavia sought a new agreement between Serbia and Croatia to stabilize the union. Historically, the boundaries of what was defined as Croatia changed constantly. In 1939, Croatia was enlarged to include the territory of Dalmatia and parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. At about this time, a terrorist group called the Ustashi appeared among some Croats. Based in Italy, the Ustashi had links with Italian and German fascists.
When war broke out in the fall of 1939, Yugoslavia tried to maintain neutrality. In 1941, the Germans demanded free passage through Yugoslavia on their way to attack Greece. Yugoslavia refused. On April 6, 1941, the German army attacked Yugoslavia. Defenseless Belgrade was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe and 20.000 people were killed. Within two weeks, the German Wehrmacht overran Yugoslavia.
A week after the German invasion, an independent Croatia was declared under the leadership of the Croatian Ustashi. The remainder of Yugoslavia was occupied by German, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. Bosnia and Herzegovina were entirely engulfed by Croatia.
Under Ustashi rule, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma were massacred or driven out. The policy of the Ustashi toward the Serbs was summed up by its leader, Ante Pavelic: "One third we will kill, one third will be driven out of Croatia and one third we will convert to Catholicism." This policy was implemented in Croatia proper and areas under Croatian control including Bosnia-Herzegovina. Estimates of the number of Serbs exterminated range from three hundred thousand to more than a million. From the pre-war population of about sixty thousand Jews, fifty thousand were killed. In Yugoslavia, most of the victims of Hitler and his Croatian allies were Serbs and Jews. Many were killed immediately, others sent to death camps. In numerous instances, Jews and Serbian women and children were herded into Orthodox churches which were then set on fire.
During World War 2, resistance against the Germans in Yugoslavia was divided into two main groups: the Yugoslav Army also known as the Chetniks (Cheta refers to Serb irregular fighters), and the Partisans who were Communists. The Partisans operated mainly in the mountains of northern Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Chetniks, based mainly in Serbia, aimed only to liberate Yugoslavia from her invaders. The Partisans aimed to create a new Communist Yugoslavia with Josep Broz (also called Tito), a Croat, as leader. The Chetniks were an informal group; Tito had an efficient organization that obeyed his orders promptly.
Tito gradually eliminated his Chetnik competitors through propaganda and other means. Although the Allies initially supported both the Chetniks and the Partisans, in 1944, they began to support the Partisans only. As Hitler's Third Reich collapsed, the Germans were forced to withdraw. By the end of September 1944, the Germans were gone from the Balkans. When the Soviet Red Army entered Yugoslavia, the Chetniks were the first to welcome their Russian liberators, but the Soviets immediately exterminated the Chetniks in favor of the Communist Partisans. Thus, Tito inherited political power.
Tito reorganized Yugoslavia into six republics along ethnic lines. Under King Alexander, ethnicity was deliberately avoided. He wanted people to think of themselves as Yugoslavs first and foremost. Con-versely, Tito deliberately drew ethnic lines that were destined to cause trouble. Most historians agree that Tito established policies with the intent of hurting Serbia and the Serbs. During World War 2 most support for the rival Chetniks came from Serbia; Tito did not forget that. So, Tito created two autonomous provinces within Serbia - Vojvodina and Kosovo. His nationalities policy left thirty percent of Serbs outside the republic of Serbia and has caused lasting bitterness among the Serbs.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the pre-war composition was altered radically by the German and Croatian atrocities against the Serbs. The Moslem population of Bosnia-Herzegovina was now 45 percent of the total population. Serbs were reduced to 34 percent and Croats were 17 percent.
Before Tito, the Moslems of Bosnia were not considered a separate ethnic group or "nation". Tito decided to recognize them as a separate unit, treating their religious affiliation as an ethnic identity. This decision has had profound and unfortunate consequences.
After 35 years of Tito's rule, significant and benefical change took place in Yugoslavia. Population expanded greatly and industrial output increased sharply although about half of the workers were still involved in agriculture. The standard of living rose in Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere. After many political changes, a new Constitution drawn up in1974 proved fateful. It required the universal consent of the republics and the two autonomous provinces when the parliament and cabinet did not agree. Tito also created a collective eight-man presidency. After his death in 1980, the weakness and contradictions of Yugoslavia's political system became apparent. In this years since his death, growing confusion and disagreement dissolved the union, leading to the present bloodshed. Tito's nationalities policy continued to be deadly and destructive.
In the 1980s, high-ranking, life-long Communist officials rose to power by repeating nationalistic propaganda.
The Communist mindset is epitomized by Franjo Tudjman, a Partisan general in Tito's army, now the President of the newly independent Republic of Croatia, and by Slobodan Milosevic, head of the Communist Party of Serbia who became president of Serbia. Mr. Tudjman and Mr. Milosevic are rather shallow men but are also typical products of a totalitarian society. Their primary concern is clearly not humanitarian, but to remain in power as long as possible.
Claims by ignorant persons that the conflict in Yugoslavia has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years are incorrect. The tension between Serbs and Croats dates from the 1919, the creation of the First Yugoslavia. The tension between the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Moslems clearly relates to the bitter memories of the Turkish occupation. Intercommunal strife has not been common among the southern Slavic peoples until the twentieth century.
Distinct ethnic groups in the Balkans have always existed. Modern nationalism in the Balkans is an overlay of ethnic differences that existed long before the coming of the Turks. Territory and "nationality" rarely coincide. The present borders of Bosnia were not established until the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
World War 2 brought essentially only two logical alternatives: dissolve Yugoslavia, redraw the frontiers of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and if necessary, transfer populations (which was done throughout Europe from 1919 to 1945) or abolish all internal frontiers and forbid the recognition of any ethnic group other than Yugoslav.
A fuller understanding of the events of the present conflict in Bosnia will have to wait for a quieter period when more information and documentation are available. In the meantime, the need for action in the present remains. Further suffering and bloodshed of the innocent must end.

Christopher Hunt, New York, July 1994