I’m fascinated with the former Yugoslavia. I’ve read every history book I can find on the subject, including the ham-fisted polemics from the various warring sides. Why? Because none of it made any sense. I had to untangle the knot. I’m a curious bastard.
Through 15 centuries of endless subjugation the “southern Slavs” carefully maintained their various cultural identifications: Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Kosovars and yes, even those zany Voivods. They are all small republics whose identities and cultures persevered against overwhelming outside forces.
That’s what I like about them. These people are scrappy. They revere tradition, but they’re not afraid to try new things. Everyone tells them they are nothing – just a bunch of tiny “nations”, each about the size of West Virginia – but each has enough cultural pride to make an English football supporter hang his head in shame. They refuse to believe they are “small”. I appreciate that deeply. Everyone feels small sometimes, even here in America where we’re all supposed to be big and proud and rich and happy.
Alas, the same nationalism that defines the southern Slavic peoples nearly destroyed them. The breakup of Yugoslavia was marked by some of the most heinous and hateful warring in Europe since WWII. Rather than bore you with the entire history of the place and the why’s and wherefore’s of the various wars, I want to hone in on what makes the place fascinating to me.
The Slavs moved into what was known as Roman Illyria around 500AD. Around this time, a penniless Illyrian named Justinian left home seeking his fortune and found it by becoming the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. It’s good work if you can get it.
Trouble is, Justinian didn’t treasure the land of his father. As invading barbarians and bubonic plagues swept across Illyria, Justinian left the poor bastards to twist in the wind. He had bigger fish to fry in northern Africa and Italy. It goes without saying that the Illyrians weren’t the happiest subjects of the Emperor.
And this unhappiness would continue. Illyria had art, culture, civic institutions and churches on par with their European neighbors, but they got no respect. “Oh, the Illyrians,” everyone would sniff. “Aren’t they a bunch of dumb farmers on the wrong side of the Adriatic? Whatever.”
Things got even worse when Muhammed invented Islam. They needed to spread the Word, and the best place to start was close to home. And guess where you end up when you cross Turkey into Europe? Yup. Illyria.
After centuries of being bitch-slapped by raiding barbarian hordes and Muslim lunatics, in 1389 the Ottoman Empire walked in and turned the place into a godforsaken peasant colony.
The Ottomans ruled Yugoslavia for 500 long years. Their one weak spot was relying on Muslim vassals (rhymes with “assholes”) to rule the colonies. This meant that Istanbul’s political reach was weak even though their military was mobile and effective. Political weakness made Yugoslavia a tempting No Man’s Land , an endless battleground between the Ottomans from the south and the Austro-Hungarians from the north.
Some of the Yugoslavs (Kosovars, Bosnians, Albanians) converted to Islam as a matter of expediency. The Serbs tended to connect with Orthodox Christianity and adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. Closer to Austria, the Croats and Slovenes looked to Rome and were as Catholic as the Pope’s foreskin. The seeds of cultural disparity were sown.
The see-saw between Turkish and European control eventually ended in 1918 when both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed in the wake of WWI. This is somewhat ironic, for it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that started the whole goddamn war.
For a brief period after WWI, Yugoslavia had a measure of new-found independence. Yugoslav thinkers and writers started waxing philosophical about a New Illyria, an independent republic of combined peoples born of a common Slavic heritage.
But while the academics puffed on their pipes and published their papers, an obscure Austrian corporal with a gay little mustache was busy building a new political party in Bavaria. Things in Europe were about to unravel again.
As world war once again swept into Yugoslavia, the passions of ethnic groups who had longed for centuries to express themselves vented in violence. The Croats formed a pro-German fascist state while the Serb majority aligned themselves with Russia against the Nazi onslaught. The lines between ethnic groups were never drawn clearer. Atrocities were committed throughout the region, and any Jew caught in the crossfire was quickly liquidated.
After the war, the Croats had some ‘splainin’ to do. Before anti-Croat reprisals got too out of hand, a new face emerged that promised to end the strife, heal the wounds and unite the people. This is that face:
Josip “Tito” Broz was a communist organizer who kicked some Nazi ass during the war. After the war, he muscled his way up the food chain to unite Yugoslavia under one banner: “Brotherhood and Unity”. To stitch his new nation together, he created his own version of a communist-style planned economy. Tito’s plan re-imagined Yugoslavia as a tightly-knit confederation of workers who put aside ethnic animosity towards a common goal of self-sufficiency.
“But, Ted!” you say, “Communism blows!”
Well, you’re right. Sort of. Difficult times call for drastic measures. And Tito wanted all Yugoslavs pulling together on the same rope, so he put a yoke on them all. And to everyone’s surprise, it worked.
Unlike Stalinism or Maoism, Titoism was a kinder, gentler communism. Sure, he had secret police. And yes, his planned economy was fairly unyielding. And yes, life under Tito was significantly less fun than life across the Adriatic in Italy. But Tito had a hard road to walk. Like his countrymen, he was sick and tired of foreigners exploiting the southern Slavs. He wanted to kill two birds (ethnic strife and economic weakness) with one stone (communism).
At first, the communist government under Tito was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. But Tito didn’t like Moscow dictating how he should run his hodge-podge of excitable Slavs. Eventually, Tito told the Soviets to go fuck themselves. And let me tell you, back then NOBODY told the Soviets to go fuck themselves. Tito had brass balls and wasn’t afraid of waving them around.
At home, he loosened the apron strings. Compared to their Russian counterparts, Yugoslavs had some freedoms. Tito introduced a more mixed economy and eased off on central planning. It was easier for Yugoslavs to travel abroad, start a small business, listen to western music, move to a new apartment or just relax and enjoy a nice glass of Slivovitz without some party apparachik demanding to see an alcohol permit.
After ruling a unified Yugoslavia for about 30 years, Tito died in 1980. Unfortunately, his successors were not up to Tito’s standards. They were barely fit to lick the man’s boots. As the Russian economy nose-dived and western Europe worried more about a unified economy than about trade with those weirdos in the Balkans, Yugoslavia began falling apart. Its economy was in the shitter and nobody was happy.
The Slovenians were the first to bolt. After all, they had borders with Italy and Austria and no border at all with the politicos in Serbia. They knew which side of the bread their butter was on.
When Serbia failed to force Slovenia back into the fold, Croatia saw that the gettin’ was good and declared independence with great haste.
Serbia told Croatia they weren’t going anywhere – not as long as Serbs lived within the borders of the new Croatia. Thus began the ungodly wars over every inch of various West Virginia-sized republics.
I won’t get into the land claims of the Serb Krajina, Republika Srpska, Croatian Bosnia, Albanian Kosovo, etc etc etc. There isn’t enough space on this webpage to recount the details of the wars. Suffice it to say that shortly after he died, Tito’s “Brotherhood and Unity” went out the window as quick as you can say “Fuck you, leave me alone.”
After much internecine warfare, the various proud republics (who had labored under various occupation for over a thousand years) finally settled in behind uneasy borders. Slovenia is now a full member of the European Union. Croatia is a hot tourist destination. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are at peace but with an obstinate Serbian presence. Serbia still considers herself the heart and soul of a greater Yugoslavia. They even have a “J” (for Jugoslavia) sticker on their cars.
You’re probably not as obsessed as me about the former Yugoslavia. But if you like watching movies, there have been a few good ones about the wars in Yugoslavia. One I recommend to everyone is No Man’s Land. It encapsulate the subject with irony and tension worthy of comparison to Dr. Strangelove.
The film takes place outside Tuzla, near the Serbia/Bosnia border. The two armies – well-funded Serbs and scruffy Bosnians – stare at each other from distant strongholds. In the middle, a Serb recruit and a battle-hardened Bosnian find themselves stuck together in a trench. Caught in the crossfire of a heated ethnic war, the two men barely eke out some common ground while a hapless UN force tries its best to accomplish nothing.
If you want a glimpse of what happened in Bosnia, watch this film.
In the mean time, I’m thinking about taking another trip to the region. I’ve been to Croatia and Slovenia and enjoyed them both immensely. I want to see Belgrade and cross the tense border into Bosnia. I want to sip nuclear Turkish coffee in Sarajevo and walk the bridge in Mostar. I want to see the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. I want to see the battle-scarred streets of Vukovar and the calm islands of Dalmatia.
It’s a beautiful place, which makes all the violence all the more troubling and pitiful. One is hard-pressed to countenance ethnic hatred when beholding the bucolic rolling hills, snowy mountains and palm-lined seasides of the former Yugoslavia. It’s the Mediterranean paradise that everyone wants to forget about.
In parting, here’s some photos from my last trip. Enjoy!
Thanks for reading!