In the context of World War I the marginalization of the Serbian and thereby of the larger Balkan dimension already began during the July crisis itself. Serbia and its actions occupied a subordinate place. Furthermore the fact that Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia emerged as one of the victor states of the war seemed implicitly to vindicate the act of the murder of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince and his wife on 28 June 2014. In an era when the national idea was still full of promise, there was sympathy with south Slav nationalism and little affection for the ponderous multinational commonwealth of the Habsburg Empire. But our moral compass has shifted by now. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have reminded us of the lethality of Balkan nationalism. Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as a historical force in its own right. From the perspective of today’s European Union we are inclined to look more sympathetically on the vanished imperial patchwork of Habsburg Austro-Hungary. Putting Sarajevo and the Balkans back at the centre of the outbreak of World War I does not mean demonizing the Balkans or their politicians. We need to understand the July crisis of 1914 as a complex event. Far from being inevitable this war was in fact inconceivable for most Europeans of the time, at least until it actually happened. So the conflict was not the consequence of a long-run deterioration, but of short-term shocks with the Balkans at the centre.
On the Balkans nationalism has been a significant characteristic of political and social life since the 19th century. There was an ethnic nationalism in former Yugoslavia that is still very powerful and which has to be differentiated from a bourgeois or political nationalism. Bourgeois nationalism is based on the idea of common blood relations, common culture and excludes any kind of multiculturalism. The concept of political nationalism is based on a common territory and the acceptance of the laws in this territory. In contrast ethnic nationalism is founded on myths and legends of a nation that is God-sent. Even nowadays these myths dominate public communication in the Balkans. The fascination with such myths concerning their own nation which are propagated and perpetuated by autocratic and democratic leaders alike is the reason why the people in these countries are often prevented from seeing future potential and realising it. One famous example is the “Kosovo myth”. The Serbian historian Popovic already stated in 1976 that that was a secondary artificial myth developed by politicians from folklore legend dealing with the historical battle between Turks and Serbs on the Kosovo Polje in 1389. The rather irrelevant defeat escalated in the historical memory of the Serbs to a catastrophe and was scandalously distorted.
The various national movements in the Southern Slavonic countries concerned themselves thoroughly with their respective village cultures. In them they sought to find their origins in a world of rapid modernisation. This resulted in a romantic transfiguration and idealisation of rural or village value patterns. These patterns were supposed to be “characteristic” of the nation and should serve as models. The processes of industrialisation and urbanisation fundamentally changed and influenced the existing traditional society. In spite of the growing economic and social differences between the urban and the rural world the influence of the village culture in the development of the nation and society must not be underestimated. These “traditional” values had persevered despite the processes of modernisation in the socialist society of former Yugoslavia. In the Balkans rural traditions had their impact on life in the cities and shaped the cities rather than the other way round. Mass migration to cities led to the urbanisation of the villages, but also to the ruralisation of the cities. Almost all Serbian cities for example, due to centuries under Turkish domination, developed only in the last 150 years from small villages and market communities. Until the 20th century there existed no specific Serbian urban tradition whatsoever. The village roots remained strong, mutual obligations between the family in the city and the kin in the country further strengthened these ties. Children often still spend their holidays in the country and village children move in with their relatives in the city for higher education. The process of urbanisation began very late in former Yugoslavia. In the beginning of the 20th century the urban populations began to grow and then especially after World War II.