Serbs

Serbs

Serbs live mainly in the western part of the Central Balkan Peninsula. The majority of Serbs inhabit the state of Serbia (with its capital at Belgrade). According to the 2002 census, Serbia has 7,498,001 inhabitants, of which 6,212,838 (82.9%) self-identify as Serbs. These figures exclude the province of Kosovo, where perhaps 150,000 (7.5% of a population of 2 million) are Serbs; Kosovo has been under United Nations protection since 1999, and in 2008 the Albanian ma-jority unilaterally declared Kosovo’s inde-pendence, a move disputed by Serbia. Serbs also reside elsewhere in countries formerly making up the Federal Republic of Yugo-slavia, namely Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Mace-donia; in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbs represent the majority of the population in Republika Srpska, one of its two contempo-rary parts (1,267,000 or about 88%).

Serbs also reside in Romania, Hungary, and Al-bania; in Western Europe (especially Ger-many and Austria); and overseas (the United States, Canada, Australia). The total official estimated number of Serbs living outside of Serbia is 3.5 million. Serbs speak Serbian, which belongs to the South Slavic branch of Indo-European Slavic languages. Ser-bian has two alphabets—Cyrillic and Latin; the official alphabet in contemporary Ser-bia is Cyrillic, but the Latin alphabet is also widely used. The primary religion of Serbs is Serbian Orthodox.Serbs belong to the South Slavic peo-ples. The name Serbs is one of the old Slavic tribal names, traces of which can be found in toponymy of the ancient Slavic homeland (today’s Germany, Russia, and Poland). The ancestors of Serbs settled in the Balkans in the 6th and 7th centuries CE.

With gradual tribal unification and under the influence of neighboring powers, a Me-dieval Serbian state emerged. Christianity and literacy arrived in the late 9th century, spread by Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius and their disciples. Deci-sive moments in the development of the Serbian state include the establishment of the House of Nemanjić (the royal house of Serbia from 1168 to 1371), the archbishop-ric in 1219, as well as the church cult of the same royal house, starting with its founder, Stefan Nemanja (St. Simeon) and his son Rastko (St. Sava). This new state was known as the “Serbian land” and also as Raška (Rascia) and was centered in south-ern Serbia. The medieval state reached the peak during the rule of Tsar Dušan (1331–1355), when its borders encompassed present-day Serbia south of the Danube and the Sava rivers, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and most of Greece.

Dušan’s heirs proved incapable of re-sisting the advancing Ottomans. The Bat-tle of Kosovo (1389) is often viewed as the decisive event in the collapse of the Ser-bian state; the fall of Smederevo in 1459 marked its actual end. The Turks would remain until the 19th century in cen-tral Serbia and until the beginning of the 20th century in southern Serbia. Only what is today known as Vojvodina was within the Ottoman Empire for a shorter period of time, from 1521 to 1688, when it became part of the Habsburg Monarchy. With the gradual dismemberment of the state, the elites, joined by large numbers of lower classes, moved mostly to the Hab-sburg Monarchy or to inaccessible moun-tainous regions. During the 18th century, there emerged a Serbian middle class con-sisting of merchants and artisans living in urban centers in the Habsburg Monarchy (Vienna, Budapest, Timisoara, Novi Sad, Trieste) with modern cultural and political views on, for example, nationalism. South of the Sava and the Danube rivers, Otto-man influences were strongest in cities. During the Ottoman rule a part of the local population converted to Islam.

While non-Muslims did enjoy considerable autonomy, converts were eligible for social advance-ment. For example, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Em-pire (1565–1579), was of Serbian descent. The territory of modern Serbia was thus a meeting point of cultures. Serbian tradition represented a complex mixture of Slavic, Balkan, Byzantine, Ottoman, Mediterra-nean, Central European, and other influ-ences. The elites that created the national culture during the 19th and 20th centu-ries attempted to reduce cultural pluralism and eclecticism, emphasizing above all Slavic relationships, as well as belonging to Byzantine legacy. The national identity of Serbs has above all else been founded on the language and religion, as well as on glorification of heroism and martyrdom in struggle against foreign rule.

The modern history of the Serbs starts with the First (1804) and Second (1815) Serbian Uprisings, which led to grad-ual liberation from Turkish rule. Serbia gained full independence from the Otto-man Empire in 1878, and in 1882 it was proclaimed a kingdom. Two dynasties originating from the uprising leaders, the Houses of Karađorđević and Obrenović, took turns at the throne. Dominating the politi-cal and social scene, particularly in the sec-ond half of the 19th century, was the goal, through “wars for national liberation and unification,” to expand Serbian borders to encom pass all Serbs living under Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. World War I and the collapse of Austria-Hungary led to the unification of South Slavic lands in a single new state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929). Serbs perceived themselves as a pillar of the new state; Serbian elites however, underestimated its complexity and fragility, and the intrana-tional political relations soon became ex-tremely tense.

In 1929, King Aleksandar Karađorđević declared a dictatorship, which only made matters worse and led to the king’s assassination in 1934 in Marseilles, France, by Croatian and Macedonian na-tionalists. In World War II, Yugoslavia was divided among different occupation forces. With the king and political elite in London, the antifascist movement, led by the Communist Party and Josip Broz Tito, continued to gain supporters in Yugosla-via and recognition abroad. Tito’s forces prevailed against the Serbian nationalist royalist Chetnik movement, whose collab-oration with Axis powers is still disputed, but which undoubtedly committed many war crimes, and the Nazi puppet Ustaše re-gime in Croatia. This regime, among other misdeeds, committed mass murders of Ser-bian and other “objectionable” populations in its territory.

Severe conflicts during the last two cen-turies occurred between the Serbs and sev-eral neighboring peoples in the period of developing nationalism, but intensive cul-tural cooperation occurred as well, par-ticularly among Southern Slavs, which enabled the creation of a common state in 1918. The first Yugoslavia (1918–1941) attempted to solve national diversity by creating unitary Yugoslavian citizenship, while the second Yugoslavia, socialist and federal (1945–1991), tried to accomplish the same goal with a specific form of mul-ticulturalism. In the period of socialism, openness toward the world and elements of market economy, as opposed to the So-viet bloc, from which Yugoslavia managed to secede in 1948, led to greater Western influence in everyday life.

A consumer so-ciety has been developing in Serbia since the end of the 1960s. During the period of Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the 1990s, Serbia became an independent state, which opened the process of reconstruction of its national identity. That process unfolded during the largest crisis in modern Serbian history, characterized by attempts to fill in ideological and identity emptiness by the revival or reinvention of national culture and tradition. In addition, today globaliza-tion and influence of media on culture and everyday life are evident.

Ever since the times of their arrival in the Balkans, Serbs have devoted themselves to agriculture. In the early 20th century, 84 percent of Serbs were still farmers. However, urban population began to grow and political and economic elites were formed during the 19th and 20th centuries. These elites held opposing views regard-ing modernization. Some were in favor of Europeanization and some supported the anti-Europeanizing movements. Part of the elite perceived the village, peas-antry, and zadruga (a characteristic type of traditional large family) as the national ideal. A belated industrialization, how-ever, changed Serbian society. The cap-ital, Belgrade, increased its population 15-fold from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century and became a local hub of urban culture. Urbanization spread to smaller towns as well, though the inte-gration of rural migrants was not without problems and a rural-urban contrast re-mains even today.

A key event in the cultural development of Serbs was the linguistic reform of the first half of the 19th century, in which the Cyrillic alphabet was adjusted to the pho-netic principles and everyday speech that formed the basis of written Serbian. A key figure in contemporary cultural and liter-ary developments was Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787–1864). With his disciples, Karadžić collected a large body of material on traditional life and oral traditions. What would come to be considered Serbian na-tional culture is rooted in Karadžić’s work, especially his collections of epic ballads. Indeed, the singing of decasyllabic heroic poems with the gusle (a single-stringed in-strument) according to traditional pattern is still alive in some parts of Serbia. While most forms of traditional culture have dis-appeared over the past century, dancing traditions were maintained through the folkloristic work of cultural artistic associ-ations supported by the socialist state. Tra-ditional music exerts a certain influence on today’s popular music and is also affirmed as a form of national music.

Serbs traditionally observed the Ortho-dox religion and have an autocephalous church headed by a patriarch. However, the residues of pre-Christian religions, es-pecially the cults of nature and the dead, remain recognizable under the Christian layers even today. A trend toward secular-ization dates to modernization, a process emphasized during the socialist era, when religion was largely suppressed. Recent changes in Serbia and the Balkans have given new impetus to religion, which is again thought central to national identity. Some of the rituals and customs, particu-larly slava (a feast celebration of family patron saint) and the manner of celebra-tion of Christmas, are popularly accepted as symbols of ethnic distinctiveness in re-lation to other peoples.

The symbolic borders between Serbs and others have been linguistic and reli-gious in character. Since the end of the 19th century, when the language was shared with the others, religion played the distinguishing role—thus Serbs were dif-ferent from Catholic Croats and Muslims/Bosniaks. The relation toward Montene-grins was more complex, owing to shared religion, language, and traditions; the es-tablishment of separate states allowed room for the emergence, albeit contested, of separate national identities. At the be-ginning of 20th century, Serbian elites also saw Macedonia as Serbian in character, but this conflict was overcome by the creation of Yugoslavia, within which Macedonians were a recognized nation.

After World War II, Yugoslavia be-came a socialist federal republic with a single-party system. It consisted of six fed-eral units, with Serbia being one of them. Josip Broz Tito was the head of the state, army, and party until his death in 1980. Tito’s death was followed by a crisis of federal government regarding its legiti-macy and ideology. In Serbia a hybrid re-gime emerged, combining a conservative monoparty system and populist national-ism. The breakup of Yugoslavia into its federal units (1991–1995) was accompa-nied by a series of devastating wars. Sub-jected to Slobodan Milošević’s autocratic leadership and his regime’s role in the 1990s events, Serbia was for several years placed under United Nations sanctions.

As a consequence of Serbia’s armed attempts to prevent secession of the province of Ko-sovo, in 1999 a three-month-long NATO bombing campaign ensued. Among the consequences of the events of the 1990s was the arrival of large numbers of Serbian refugees from the other, war-torn parts of the former Yugoslavia. Opposition to the regime had very limited influence until 2000, when it finally gained an absolute electoral majority. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Serbia remained in federation with Montenegro, under the name of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, known after 2003 as Serbia and Montenegro. When Montenegro seceded and declared its independence in 2006, the country be-came the Republic of Serbia.

The weak-ness of the democratic state in Serbia was demonstrated when its prime minister, Zoran Đinđić, who led modernization pro-cesses, was assassinated in 2003. Populism in political life as well as an underdevel-oped civil society still represents serious obstacles for the advancement of democ-racy in Serbia. The Serbian economy suf-fered devastating decay during the 1990s, and the transition from socialism to market orientation brought about new challenges. Yet another problem facing Serbia today is depopulation caused by low birthrates and emigration, particularly of young and educated people.

Mladena Prelić

Further Reading

Calic, Marie-Janine. Sozialgeschichte Serbiens 1815–1941: Der aufhaltsame Fortschritt während der Industrialisierung ( Social His-tory of Serbia 1815–1941: Slow Progress in Industrialization ). München: Südosteur-opäische Arbeiten 92, R. Ouldenbourg Ver-lag, 1994.

Ćirković, Sima. The Serbs. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Ćorović, Vladimir. Istorija Srba ( The History of Serbs ). 3 vols. Beograd: BIGZ, 1989.

Pavlowitch, Stevan K. Serbia: The History be-hind the Name. London: C. Hurst, 2002.

Petrovich, Michael Boro. A History of Modern Serbia 1804–1918. 2 vols. New York: Har-court Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Sundhaussen, Holm. Geschichte Serbiens: 19.-21. Jahrhundert ( History of Serbia: From 19th to 21st Centuries ). Wien: Bohlau Verlag Ges.m.b.H und Co.KG, 2007.