The Balkan Wars

The Balkan Wars
The Eternal Conflict

Essay by Rosina T. Schmidt
Presented at the Danube Swabian Conference in Mt. Angel, Oregon, September 2012

When researching our Danube Swabian 300 year old history, we hear so often about the Ottoman Empire and their atrocities towards the people under their occupation and then we hear about the atrocities done to us in the newer times by the Serbs who were living under Turkish occupation for 400 years prior to the arrival of the settlers, who later became the Schwobs. And I wondered what inflamed the Serbians hatred towards the Donauschwaben?

The Balkan states stand at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, Russia and Africa. All through the centuries large and small armies marched through it and often left destruction behind while marching on their way to build empires. No wonder that this legacy of war has influenced the region with a tradition of fatalism and became the cultural heritage of the Balkan peoples. “Tooth for tooth”, “eye for eye”.

That kaleidoscope of Balkan history, success or failure has in the past provided the justification for future conflict. Great defeats are fodder for revenge. Great victories are prelude for further conquest.

It is not a myth that the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip compliment each other. In the West the assassination of the archduke, the future Emperor, was murder, while for the Serbians the assassin became a national hero. The Kosovo legend, meanwhile, has been the driving force of Serbian nationalism. Alas, for those living in Kosovo at the end of the twentieth century it represented the savagery of the Balkan wars.

In 1914, most Serbians were as horrified by the killing of a member of the royal house as anyone else. The elevation of Gavrilo Princip to national hero and martyr came later, as a reaction to Austrian government, which claimed that the Serbian state was an accomplice to the assassination.

The Serbs were not the only Balkan people who longed for the return of past glories and frontiers of their ancient lands. But those lost territories could be only reclaimed at the expense of the Ottoman Empire or Austro-Hungary or other Balkan states. No wonder this region has two names: it’s called Balkans when it is at war and Southeastern Europe during the peace times.

Sometime in the 13th century the Serbs under their King Stephan Uros I, established an independent kingdom, spreading their territory to include present day Montenegro and Kosovo at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. By 1331 they conquered northern Macedonia and most of the Vardar valley and hoping to establish a Serbo-Greek empire. Even though the Serbian monarch Dušan had brought two-thirds of the Balkan under his rule, his ambition to establish a new Byzantine dynasty failed. After his death the Serbian empire lacked competent successors to continue the momentum of conquest and unity.
The harbinger of Serbian nationality took place on June 28th 1389 when the Serbian army led by Prince Lazar confronted the Ottoman’s much bigger forces under sultan Murad I on the Kosovo Polje (Blackbirds Fields.).

Sultan Murad I had expanded the Ottoman’s frontiers in Anatolia and Southeastern Europe, even reduced the Byzantine Empire to a vassal state and was now intending to expand his conquest of the Balkans. It was a misfortune for the Serbs that competing nobles had fragmented the state at a time when they had to face the Ottomans. Instead of uniting against the far more dangerous adversary each hoped to make individual peace agreements with the sultan for their own benefit. The battle was lost and the new Sultan instead of honouring the peace agreements, had all those nobles beheaded and their families put into slavery.

It is those intrigues, those disloyalties and empty promises that the Serbs think on when they talk about the battle of Kosovo Polje. It is a great irony that the Battle of Kosovo would have for future generations, as the armies facing each other on June 28, 1389 included contingents from almost all of the Balkan nations. They were not all on the same side though. Lazar’s army depended on Serbs, Bosnians and Albanians in addition to the Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians, Czech, etc., who fought side by side to preserve Serbian independence. Opposing them were the Ottomans, Serbs, Bulgarian and other Christian troops who fought to subjugate, and to destroy the Serbian kingdom.

The Kosovo legend in its final form includes an assassin, a martyr, and a traitor.  The Serbs, in an attempt to understand a world that forced them into a subservient role in their own country, made Kosovo the vent that carved as the watershed between independence and subjugation. The collapse of medieval Serbia could thus be explained with one glorious defeat. The Kosovo epic and the cult of Lazar, and the killing of Murad I at that battle became vital elements in the historical consciousness of the Serbian people. 

No wonder that Gavrilo Princip, who shot Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, was both patriot and martyr, as well an assassin and victim. As a Bosnian Serb Princip was a symbol of the unredeemed Serbians under the thumb of the Habsburgs, who acquired the right to administer the Ottoman provinces as part of the settlement of the Congress of Berlin in 1879 that was organized to limit Russian gain in the Balkans, a result of their victories in the 1878 war against the Turks. The Habsburg formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina 30 years later in 1908.

Under the rule of the Ottomans, the Serbs were treated as infidel serfs, and under Austro-Hungarian monarchy, they were regarded a less than second-class subjects. The Austrians also failed to address the agrarian problem, which went a long way in perpetuating the ill feelings of the Serbs toward their new masters. During twenty years of Austro-Hungarian rule of Bosnia (1878-1908), 6,000 Muslim landowners still kept more than 100,000 Serb peasants under feudal conditions .  Princip and some of his accomplices in the assassination plot in 1914 were the children of Serb peasants who could not overcome poverty because of the Turkish land laws retained by the Hapsburgs. Yet the unfortunate murdered archduke Franz Ferdinand was the advocate of transforming the empire into a federal system, with equal rights for the South Slavs and all other minorities. The dual monarchy would have given way to a triple monarchy.

In the end destiny was kinder to Princip than to the archduke. Princip achieved the martyrdom and glory that he wanted. Even the spot where he fired the two shots has been preserved with impressions of his feet imprinted onto a concrete slab. The bridge from which corner he fired the shot at the driving-by archduke Franz Ferdinand was renamed to Princip Bridge. What Princip did not foresee, though, the assassination sparked the First World War that led to the defeat of Austria-Hungary and the unification of the South Slavs in the new state of Yugoslavia. However, just like his hero, Milos Obilic, who killed Murad I on Kosovo Polje, Princip did not live to see those events. Charged with high treason, he was sentenced to twenty years hard labour and spent the reminder of his life in chains. Two years later, on April 24, 1916, he died on tuberculosis. The Great War, as the First World War was called before the world conflicts were numbered, had less to do with the little drama in Sarajevo than with other complex geopolitical factors beyond the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But let us return to the Ottomans, who first had to occupy Constantinople, the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire on their way to occupy the Balkans. The walls of that great city withstood twenty-nine sieges over almost two thousand years, and succumbed to only eight. After each assault or capture, the city had recovered. But it was incapable of resisting the onslaught of the Turkmen tribesmen who overran Anatolia and Asia Minor in the 14th century. They were united under the chieftain Osman, followed by Orkhan, who died in 1361, after ruling for thirty-seven years. Murad I, of the Kosovo Polje fame, inherited from Orkhan a powerful army and a feudal state that depended on both Muslim and Christian vassals of the sultan.

For the Ottomans war was the vital element that sustained continuous growth, affording each sultan the means to provide his followers with land and booty. However, land given to Muslim warriors was rewarded only for the lifespan of the individual, and successors could claim territories for themselves only in exchange for their own exemplary service to the sultan. The Ottoman rulers had to perpetuate this cycle of war, conquest and distribution of new lands, which created a momentum that attracted fresh Turkish recruits to the Ottoman camp that in turn necessitated additional campaigns to reward the successful warriors. No wonder that centuries later, when the Ottoman Empire ceased to grow, the process of decline was very rapid. One vital factor was that the military establishment, represented by the Sipahi cavalry and the elite Janissary corps, eventually evolved into a hereditary land-owning class. When these soldiers began inheriting their own land there was no longer any use for the policy of awarding estates on the basis of military merit.

One of the most horrid memories of Turk’s occupation to this day, in Greece, Bosnia and Serbia was the “child tax” (Danak u krvi in Serbian language). Women and especially children continued to be handed over to the authorities.  The government “tax collectors” would choose the best child of each household. The boys to be raised as Janissaries, who were fiercely loyal to the Sultan, and the girls for the slave market.
The sultan’s agents scoured the slave markets of the Balkans and the Middle East for beautiful and totally powerless females. These women became Sultan’s non-committal liaisons, and their children gave the sultans a reservoir of potential heirs from which to choose. There was no legal tradition of succession form father to eldest son, and so all of the sultan’s male children were on an equal footing. Not so in the practice as the absence of a system of succession lead to cruel practice of killing of the new ruler’s male siblings. The Janissaries, on the other end, despite their Christian upbringing, became fanatical Muslims and earnestly maintained their faith as warriors of Islam.

Today we would say this “brain cleansing” of the Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire is perhaps the most inhuman Turkish legacy .

The last remnant of the Byzantine Empire, the city of Constantinople, fell into Turkish hands in 1453. In the same way as the Battle of Kosovo served and still serves as the beginning for the Serbian national identity, the sack of Constantinople provides a dramatic end to universal Hellenism and the genesis of Greek national consciousness. For the Greeks the biggest insult was that their magnificent Church of Holy Wisdom was turned into a mosque. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1924, the new Turkish republic still hesitant to part with the vestiges of Ottoman glory turned the mosque into a museum. Today we know Constantinople as Istanbul and Church of Holy Wisdom as Hagia Sophia.

It is interesting to note that the Ottoman period is defined as a negative and regressive historical experience, while the earlier Roman conquest of the same area is characterized as benevolent and a positive contribution to the Western civilization.  In fact, though, all the Balkan peoples, including the Turks, engaged in a relentless tally of the horrors their ancestors suffered. This in turn has often served as justification for the mistreatment of other religious groups. More recently, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915 and the Serb’s genocide against the Danube Swabians in 1944 perpetuated the tradition of blood lust against an unwelcome and inconvenient minority. Is this explaining the genocide of 1990’s when they have been fighting against their own people?

Count de Talleyrand, the French diplomat during the rule of Louis XVI, the rule of Napoleon and Louis XVIII, said:  “Balkan and European ethnic groups, whether Christian or Muslim, have learned nothing and remember everything.”

The Habsburg – Ottoman competition along the Danube and the mass population movements in the Balkans defined the future course of Balkan national territorial, and state demarcation. The great Serb migration in 1690 from the Ottoman Empire to the Habsburg Monarchy under Patriarch Arsenije III ?arnojev?, (some 37,000 families or ca. 400,000 to 500,000 people) provided the opportunity for the Austrians to establish a new military frontier manned by refugee settlements. Our own Danube Swabian history starts with the Turks being expelled from the gates of Vienna in 1688 all the way to south of the great River Danube and the city of Belgrade. South of the Danube the Turks reigned for another 2 centuries.

It is interesting to note that in the period from 1453 to 1623, of the forty-nine grand viziers (or prime ministers in the Ottoman administration) 11 were Albanian, eleven were South Slavs, and only five were actual Turks!

During the Greek War of Liberation from the Turks (1821 – 1830), Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians and even one Cuban rushed to Greece to liberate the land of Plato, Aristotle, and Homer, from the Turk’s 500 years of occupation. Perhaps European outrage to atrocities in the former Yugoslavia had its historical antecedents in the killings in the Greek mountains in the 1870s, when the Greek bandits killed English and Italian diplomats, citizen of the very same nationalities who 40 years earlier rushed to their help.

The Ottoman Empire was essentially a series of segregated religious communities ruled by an Islamic elite. As long as the Ottomans continued to expand and generate wealth from conquest, the system remained self-generating. Once the era of expansion passed, however, the empire came under pressure from the periphery.  So in 1804 the Serbs revolted in response to a massacre by the Janissaries, a year later was the Battle of Austerlitz, and in 1806 Sultan Selim III declared a holy war against the Serbs, which lead in 1815 to the Second Serb uprising. 60 years later Ottoman Empire declared bankruptcy. In 1876 the first Ottoman constitution is proclaimed and as we heard earlier in 1924 the Ottoman Empire was extinguished.

For the South Slaws, though, it took the civilian war of the 1990’s to make out of Yugoslavia independent states of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and at the very last even Serbia and than Montenegro, after the Americans went to war against Serbia on March 2, 1999. President Clinton articulated his policy on the day the NATO bombing commenced by stating: “We act to prevent a wider war, to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results.”

Have the Balkans shed the war fatigue of the past? After all, the Balkan battlefield has been consuming lives for more than a millennium, and certainly the past 600 years have offered only brief respites from conflicts. Our own Danube Swabian Leidensweg during and after WWII is still fresh in our hearts and memories.

Will the grim cycle resume, with perhaps the Serbs once again exacting vengeance and hoping to reclaim Kosovo? Perhaps the answer is of the integration of the region into the European Union. The blurring of frontiers will provide the political, economic and social security needed for distinct and ancient communities to adjust their cultural, religious, and linguistic boundaries without fear of retaliation. Only then will national chauvinism and insecurity die a quiet death.



Andre Gerolymatos, The Balkan Wars Myth, Reality and The Eternal Conflict.

Andre Gerolymatos, The Balkan Wars, 2001

Emmert: Serbian Golgotha

Stavrinos: Balkans since 1453

Finlay: History of the Greek Revolution & Leake: Travels in Northern Greece

Charles Oman: A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages

The Janissaries, Saqi Books, 1997

Andre Gerolymatos, The Balkan Wars