Belgrade, capital city of Serbia

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.

Characteristic of the early social structure was the constant interrelation of transhumant pastoralism and settled forms of agriculture which was caused by the Ottoman conquests. These conquests were accompanied by a massive process of migration from south to north. Parts of the plains became completely deserted. The mountain areas, in contrast, were densely populated and were hardly integrated in the Ottoman Empire. The inhabitants of the mountain regions developed social structures and survival strategies of their own. In this process the existing older patterns grew stronger and stronger. All these strategies were based on the extended family structure, the zadruga. The central regions of the patriarchally organised zadruga were the mountain areas of Montenegro and the north of Albania. The principal aim was to provide for the protection of family groups in a hostile environment. The man and his weapon came to be the dominant symbols. With the resettlement of the plains around this central region more zones developed in which the traditional family organisation, strictly organised in lineages and zadrugas,  represented the determining social pattern for a long time. They included Bosnia, Serbia, parts of Bulgaria, Macedonia, the rest of Albania, the northernmost parts of Greece and the southern and eastern regions of Croatia which primarily formed the areas of the Austrian military frontier. The almost permanent military conflicts with the Ottoman state after the settlement of the plains were closely connected to a scarce economic basis, a patriarchal organisation, marauding raids, and a very deep-rooted ideology of heroism. Many events in the Balkans wars of the 1990s can be seen as marauding and looting of lineages in the old pastoral tradition from a historical point of view. Then, quite as in the times of the revolts against the Turks, small armed groups resorted to “hayduk”-like warfare in a “modernised” form. This war, just as in the past, was also a conflict  between the rural and the urban sphere. Then the few cities were dominated by the Turks and well-organised by them. This traditional anti-urban behaviour became particularly obvious in the siege of Sarajevo.


If the external conditions were favourable for the extended families structures these forms were preserved for some time, otherwise they disappeared quite rapidly. When the system of the zadruga broke down, the characteristic behaviour patterns that had developed in the pastoral societies over centuries did not, especially the interrelation of pastoral and martial ways of living. For example the “Sumadija” in Central Serbia: The area around Belgrade was very thinly populated in the beginning of the 18th century. With the gradual disintegration of the Ottoman power in Europe the resettlement started. The Serbian state began to emerge, characterised by a multitude of military conflicts. The fighter’s ideal was very strongly present at that time. The family Karadjordje, later founder of the Serbian state and Yugoslav royal house, came to Sumadija at the end of the 18th century, when it was completely covered with wood. The zadruga later lived in a house similar to all the others in this area: a long rectangular hut, equipped with gun ports, one side facing the woods where the whole family fled to in times of crisis. They lived on livestock trade with the Habsburg Empire. The region became more and more densely populated, with nearly no emigration overseas, no industrialisation and very little urbanisation. At the beginning of the 20th century small-scale agriculture, minimal class differences, small landownership and a series of wars characterised the Sumadjia.

Another example of the special form of pastoral societies was the Croatian-Slavonian military frontier, a militarised defence zone against the Ottoman Empire organised by the Habsburgs. The Austrian military administration offered the settling colonists land and exemption from feudal tax burdens in return for active service in the battles against the Turks. Each family was guaranteed landownership. These families were self-sufficient, living on extensive farming and pastoralism and on thieving sprees across the border into Ottoman territory. On the Ottoman side there was a similar militarised defence zone. Both frontier zones were mostly populated by Vlachs, transhumant shepherds. In the process of forming nations the orthodox Vlachs became Serbs, the catholic Vlachs became Croats, together with other migrants. This distinction was fairly irrelevant then since there were hardly any differences with regard to ways of life. Only in the 19th century “national” differences gained significance. The population of the “Krajina” , covering an area in today’s Serbia and Croatia, was a full part of the military system, organised in regiments and companies. The society was based on the strictly patriarchal principles of zadruga, which had up to 50 members. The Habsburgs were interested in keeping the families large for recruitment purposes and in order not to jeopardise farming and stockbreeding in times of war. This system existed until 1881 and these men fought in all wars of the Habsburg Empire. The state of economic development there was very low as compared to the other parts of the Habsburg Empire. After the end of the military frontier, integrating the frontier people into civilian society caused massive problems and unrest.


The pride taken in military service and the participation in a war has to be seen in close context with the heroic ideals of the traditional stories. During World War II the intense fights between the rival resistance groups, the Partisans and “Cetniks” resembled former hostilities between lineage groups. The war was waged with extreme brutality, concentration camps, expulsion and eradication. In the Balkans wars of the 1990s they resorted again to the fighter’s role, sometimes one felt taken back to the times of the military frontier. The majority of men constantly wore uniforms, even while working on the farms and carried arms. In the evening the military units of the village gathered fully dressed in combat uniforms and commands were issued for military assignments.


After World War II the communist regime transformed Yugoslavia at lightning speed. Industrial centres, urbanisation, migration, education and modern infrastructure transformed life in the Balkans region. But the traditional world of values and legends persevered. Most peoples in the Balkan region were deeply committed to this tradition of heroism. The communists fostered this tradition and added their heroes. The breakdown of socialism led to an orientation crisis; the world the people were used to living in crumbled. A new ideology was supposed to replace the communist one. So they tied on to a tradition of national confrontation which had already existed before. Political propaganda aimed strongly at people’s fears. Nationalism would never have led to war without conscious steering” from above”. A media war with national myths, legends and demonization of the “enemy” prepared the people for the real war. The atrocities of the war, the lootings, plundering, rapes, massacres, mutilations were characteristic elements of former conflicts in this area; they constituted historical patterns. In a patriarchal world you hurt the enemy most by perpetrating atrocities against his women. The brutal violence against women was aimed at the male family members that “cannot protect their women”.


Families that were integrated into tribal units, often decimated by blood feuds and that demonstrated excessive pride in their heroic forefathers were specific traditions of the inhabitants of the mountain areas only but gained a special importance in the eventual shaping of the Balkan societies, as described in Milovan Djilas’ autobiography. In Montenegro and northern Albania blood revenge had survived until the 20th century. Bloody confrontations between enemy groups, originating from blood revenge, had a lasting effect on the forms of conflict settlement in the Balkans. They had however lost their original social context through the radical transformations in the 20th century and so they also lost their once clearly defined limits to the potential of violence. If blood-guilt had arisen then revenge could not only be exacted on the actual culprit but also on any other adult male of the family. There was a collective responsibility of the male side of the household. Blood-guilt was also punished up to 100 years later. Blood-guilt would never be forgotten due to the cohesive power of honour within the tribal communities and a strong group identity to which the individual takes but second place only. In the rest of Europe blood revenge was common in the early tribal societies, but had been overcome in the early Middle Ages. Authorities of state and church superseded family authority. In the Balkans the church and the Ottoman state were unable to exercise this authority in the mountainous regions of the Balkans. A similar characteristic like blood jurisdiction is house jurisdiction. Any form of right lies with the house father, brother or spouse, where the harshest form of punishment was killing. In Albania a bride left her parental home with a cartridge clipped to her bridal dress. Her husband kept it in case of unfaithfulness, when she would be killed with it – and in that way killed by her father or brother. A common saying reminds of this practice: “A bride has a cartridge in her neck”. The right of corporal punishment was exercised by the male head of the family including frequent beatings of women and children. But domestic violence increased when the social structure was in a process of radical change and the old system lost importance.

In the Balkans another interesting tradition was perpetuated, the Christian house cult “slava”. The family constituted a cultic unit, and the festival of the patron saint of the house, “slava”, was the most important event of the religious year, more important than Easter or Christmas. This was a singular phenomenon of Christian churches. The slava candle was lit for the dead and the complete line of male ancestors was recited. The rites were conducted by the house father and the traditions were passed on by sons only or by adoption. This cult could be found in Orthodox, catholic and even some Muslim families. The slava cult was characterised by nearly no church going. So there was no parish as a community that bound people together and transported values. Usually the cemetery, often secluded family burial sites, was much more important than the church. This had an enormous effect on education as there was no ecclesiastical school system. After World War II the illiteracy rate in the Balkans was between 30 and 50% among adults. The lack of school education went hand in hand with little opportunity of alternative orientation and individualisation. The family performed all educational functions.

The family functioned furthermore as unit of organisation of labour. After World War I 83 % of the populations of the Balkans was rural population, when in Italy it was 44% and in England 5%. Even after the break-up of the zadruga certain characteristics were perpetuated. Migrant workers sent a large amount of their money home to increase the family resources for example. In addition “patrilineality” persisted. The special importance of the male line as one that was far superior to the female line was widely accepted. All women came from outside and had to leave their families behind completely until the 20th century. This phenomenon was not found in Central or Western Europe. In the Balkans there were no non-related members of the house community. Early marriage age, much earlier than in the rest of Europe, to preserve the male line, similar to aristocratic traditions, and a surplus of males in all age groups characterised these extended family groups. The Balkans has the lowest figures of illegitimate children because pre-marital motherhood was inconceivable and entailed the killing of both mother and child deep into the 20th century. The relationships between fathers, sons and brothers stood at the centre of the family, not husband and wife. The young wife could not expect any help or support from her husband or his family. This system compelled to conformism and left little space for individualist development. In societies with a strong consciousness of the ancestors authority is always exercised by the elders according to the seniority principle. In central or western Europe the farmer hands over the farm to his son or son-in-law, but there is no counterpart in the Balkans. Authority was handed over among the male members according to age. Women did not count at all. An older sister had to show respect to her baby brother for instance.


In the phases of abrupt and radical transformation of these social structures phenomena of family strife and disunity appear accompanied by an increase of physical violence against women, children and the aged and on a general basis a growing brutalisation becomes visible and the decrease of level of care for family members with enormous potential of aggression on the family level and alcoholism. The Habsburg Empire followed a concept of promoting and diffusing economic development to counter separatism in the region. Ambitious development plans were drawn up for the Balkan region as well and the remarkable economic dynamism of the Habsburg Empire’s core was diffused among outlying provinces, such as Bosnia Herzegovina, where the Croatian and Muslim minorities cooperated, but the Serbs remained hostile. No region in Europe evidenced such abrupt social changes as the Balkans since the beginning of the 20th century.


The Balkans. Traditional Patterns of Life, Beiträge zur historischen Sozialkunde, Special Issue 1999