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Over several centuries, Bosnia found itself at the centre of struggles between great powers and civilizations, which all left their imprint on the land and people as the hilltop towns with their churches and castles were taken one by one. Ottoman forces advanced slowly through the Balkans in the late medieval period and their arrival was anticipated. Fleeing the conquerors, Orthodox Serbs had started to pour into Bosnia from the 1430s onwards. By 1451 the Ottomans had taken Sarajevo, much of the rest of Bosnia fell in 1463 and Hercegovina by 1481. Jajce remained under the Hungarians until 1527 after the Turks lost possession of the town. Bihać was the last Bosnian city to fall and by the sixteenth century the Ottomans were in control not only of modern-day Bosnia and Hercegovina, but also Lika and parts of Slavonia known as the Bosnian Eyalet from 1580. What defeat by the Turks actually meant to ordinary Bosnians we can surmise from the surviving fragments of evidence, but it is likely to have been traumatic for many. Dalmatia served a safe haven for those escaping from Ottoman rule and many of its cities had fortifications erected to protect them against Turkish incursions. The family of the Renaissance humanist who experimented with the design of the parachute, Faust Vrančić (known also by his Venetian name Fausto Veranzio), is believed to have fled from Bosnia in the sixteenth century and settled in Sibenik. Some Bosnians were sold into slavery in the empire. Some seized the moment to change religion. Stjepan Hercegović, brother of the last Christian ruler of Hercegovina Vladislav, changed his name to Ahmed in 1473 and served the sultan as grand vizier in Constantinople. A tekija or Sufimonastery was built in the second decade of the sixteenth century on the Buna river near Blagaj and became well-known for Dervish religious devotion.
In the nineteenth century, as Ottoman imperial power collapsed in the Balkans, national groups and states vied to replace its domination. The Bosnian lands were caught in a greater regional struggle for power that involved the British Empire, Imperial Russia and the Central European powers, as well as all the Balkan states. This struggle became known as the Eastern Question and preoccupied the European diplomatic communities until the establishment of the modern Balkan states from 1912 to 1918 and Turkey in 1923. Horror at atrocities committed during the long break of Turkey-in-Europe often dominated news coverage. In 1875, the Ottomans began to lose control after a rebellion in Hercegovina, which was linked to the spread of nationalist aspirations in neighbouring Montenegro and Serbia. The small village of Nevesinje lit the spark that spread across the region. After a bad harvest, the villagers were unable to pay their tithes. In order to avoid Ottoman retribution, they fled to Montenegro. The remaining rayah, too old to flee, were slaughtered in their homes by Muslims. In revenge, the inhabitants of Nevesinje committed atrocities against Muslims once they had returned and forced many of their neighbours to join the rebellion. Rebel Bosnians were killed after attempting to overthrow the Ottomans, but soon began to turn the tide against the authorities as Catholics from Hercegovina also joined the uprising. A vivid account of the events was set down by the archaeologist Arthur J. Evans who sent his reports to the Manchester Guardian and later wrote his experiences up in a book. He was sympathetic to the rebels who he saw as oppressed by centuries of Ottoman rule. Nevertheless, Evans also recorded crimes committed by them and the use of coercion: ‘If a village refused to throw in its lot with the rebels, they first burnt one house or one maize-plot, and then another, till the unhappy villagers, forced to choose between ruin and rebellion, consented to join their ranks.
In the period of the dissolution of state between the spring of 1990 and 1992, some of the Yugoslavian republics found themselves in a more straightforward position to move towards independence than others. Although Croatia had been ‘silent’ for many years before the elections in 1990, some important issues with regard to the national question had been determined by the active diaspora community. In other words, most Croatian nationalists in 1991 were not overtly seeking a slice of Bosnia: the breakdown in Bosnian–Croatian relations occurred later in 1993. Slovenians had prepared for independence at all levels of society and this political transition had few important enemies by July 1991. Bosnia found itself singularly badly prepared for the end of Yugoslavia and, in particular, a Serb nationalist insurgency instigated from outside the republic. From early 1992 until the winter of 1995 Bosnia was mired in the worst military conflict in Europe since the Second World War. The immediate causes are to be found in the revival of a Četnik programme among a small stratum of Serb intellectuals that quickly reignited popular nationalism. Bosnian Serbs went from being good Yugoslavs to enemies of their neighbours within a matter of months. Many of these nationalists were from outside Bosnia and their aims were significantly abetted by Slobodan Milošević in Serbia. The more long-term causes of conflict were the malaise in the economy, residual notions of ‘self-defence’, the chasm between the city and countryside and the absence of strong, unifying political leadership when the League of Communists collapsed.
In many respects, the situation in Bosnia came to resemble the deteriorating circumstances in Croatia in 1991. The declared independence of the neighbouring republic had led to intense fighting in contested regions that bordered on Bosnia.
Exactly 50 years after the apogee of the Independent State of Croatia, the Bosnian Serb Republic created by Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić was at the peak of its territorial extent. The Serbs had pushed through Bosnia expelling, raping and murdering the local populations. By 1993, they controlled approximately 70 per cent of Bosnia and Hercegovina. As a consequence, Mladić was reluctant to sign the Vance–Owen Plan precisely because for him this would have represented territorial rollback. The year 1993 probably represented the peak phase of Serbian nationalism and expansion. In 1995, the Bosnian Serbs agreed to the partition of the state and reluctantly accepted the loss of Sarajevo and its environs as the tide of the war had turned against them. To create greater Serbian or greater Croatian states, both the Ustaša and Bosnian Serbs had committed or attempted to commit genocide. For a historian, the common denominator linking the 1940s to the 1990s is not simply the readiness of some political agents to commit war crimes including mass murder, but also the inherent instability of Bosnia as a state. The root cause of violence was the Serbs' discontent with borders of the successor states. Serbs revived old fascist plans for ethnic cleansing from the Second World War during which Bosnian Muslims had been attacked by Serb nationalists. Undoubtedly distrust of Muslims existed at the level of Serb popular culture as well as a hatred of the Ustaša and Croatian nationalism, but this itself was not the primary cause of the fighting. The war was one of intricate strategy to gain as much territory and people for any future Serbian state(s) as possible and frequently coordinated by nationalists from within Serbia itself. This strategy failed in Kosovo, Krajina and Croatia but worked in Bosnia, where violence was ‘rewarded’ by the Dayton Treaty.
A Concise History of Bosnia integrates the political, economic and cultural history of this fascinating, beautiful, but much misunderstood country. Drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary literature, this objective and engaging history covers developments in the region up to the present day and offers an accessible interpretation of an often contested and controversial history. Importantly, Cathie Carmichael looks at Bosnia over the long term, moving away from a narrow focus on the 1990s to offer a historical rather than a nationalist perspective on events. Integrated within the narrative account, there is a particular focus on the themes of culture and religion, and the effect of geography and regional changes in the landscape on Bosnian history. Engaging and authoritative, the book succinctly explores how Bosnia has changed over many centuries, and focuses on the dynamic and creative aspects of Bosnia's past as well as the darker elements.
In 1918, the Allies accepted the right of the enemies of the Habsburgs, the Serbian Karadjordjević Dynasty, to create a new state. Many South Slav intellectuals had wanted a union of the peoples who spoke the shared language of the region, but as a union of equals. The creation of a Royalist Yugoslavia that included all of Bosnia and Hercegovina was a radical departure, but for the 23 years of its existence it was weighed down by the past. Initially named the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, it was known unofficially as Yugoslavia from the outset (and officially by 1929). That the Karadjordjević Dynasty was Serbian and Orthodox mattered to the Muslim and Catholic peoples in Bosnia. For decades they had effectively been ruled from Vienna, and the Austrian regime had retained the privileges of property holders. If the spark that lit the First World War had been fuelled by the poverty of Bosnia's Orthodox community, then the establishment of a Serbian king in power was a kind of nemesis for the remnants of an Ottoman ruling class that had been propped up by the Habsburgs. Land in Bosnia was radically redistributed, leaving many Muslim families facing poverty after 1919. This created a crisis of self-esteem and purpose as well as financial difficulties among Muslims, used for centuries to owning the land.
Being part of Yugoslavia brought some clear benefits, but also disadvantages to Bosnia. Aleksandar Karadjordjević was a brave man who had led the Serbian army into battle during the war, but he had distinctly authoritarian personality traits. He was a personal friend of the Croatian Peasant Party (Hrvatska seljačka stranka, HSS) leader Stjepan Radić and sincerely tried to represent the cultures and traditions of all the peoples. However, he had been the head of state of their official enemy when Bosnians had fought in the Austrian army against their southerly neighbours, and divisions of that magnitude were not easily erased by state policy.
At the end of the war, Tito and his comrades at the top of the party took the historic decision, codified in the 1946 Constitution, to create a Bosnian republic drawing on an earlier move by the Partisans in 1943. Paradoxically, a system that was designed to contain nationalism actually ossified pre-existing categories. The Communist Partisans, like other Marxists, were highly influenced by Stalin's work on the national question and the Yugoslavia that they constructed as a federation of republics in 1946 was modelled closely on the Soviet Union. The future status of Bosnia-Hercegovina was debated until the Communists rejected the idea of it as an autonomous region and decided instead that it should be a separate republic with three constituent nationalities, all of whom were equal. Although the new Yugoslavian state was ‘largely manned by the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia’, as Stevan K. Pavlowitch has argued, the new Republican divisions were specifically designed to keep Serbia smaller and weaker in a confederation in which they represented 42 per cent of the overall population. Perhaps as significantly, the Communists created Slovenian and Macedonian republics for the first time and restored the old polity of Montenegro, which had in effect disappeared in 1918. The first prime minister of the new Bosnian Republic was Rodoljub Čolaković, a long-term Communist who had been involved in Crvena Pravda in the 1920s. Originally from Bijeljina, in 1937 he had travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans. Between 1946 and 1955 he published five volumes of an influential ‘memoir of the liberation war’, Zapisi iz oslobodilačkog rata. He had honed his writing skills in the Comintern before the war and writing for Borba. Čolaković remained prime minister of the republic until 1948, when he was replaced by another prominent Partisan Djuro Pucar, nicknamed ‘Stari’ (‘the old guy’) even though he was only in his early forties during the war.
Since 1988, I have been to the country formally known as Yugoslavia almost every year. I was lucky enough to receive a British Council Studentship in 1989 that allowed me to study at the University of Ljubljana, which proved a great base not only to read about but to explore the region. At that time, Bosnians lived in every republic of the country taking their culture, food, religious practices and upbeat worldview with them. There was a discernible uneasiness about daily interactions between Yugoslavs by this time and the political system looked shaky. Nationalism seemed to be on the rise and almost everywhere I went people would stop me to talk about the wrongs that had been committed against their nation. The exception to this general pattern of urgency and radicalization seemed to be in Bosnia. Staying with a Croat family in Hercegovina in 1990, I was told about the way in which they respected the religion of their neighbours while we all watched an Orthodox service on the television. This embrace of tolerance, which has sometimes been described as the Bosnian spirit (bosanski duh), was not just the forced repetition of the Communist regime's mantra of brotherhood and unity and it came from the heart. If Bosnia came late to nationalism, then it suffered the most for its tardiness and the belief of its citizens that a multi-faith society was possible, even preferable.
As a historian I have always been fascinated by the change that occurs over time as well as the deeper currents that only move very slowly. It is unlikely that many regions have changed as much in those years. In just one generation, Bosnia has generated more history than most of its inhabitants would have wanted. I started to write this book in the summer of 2011 in Sarajevo and travelled through many of the towns mentioned here including Bugojno, Jajce, Livno and Travnik and was at all times struck by the energy, intellectual zest and vision of the Bosnians that I met.
Bosnia and Hercegovina is extraordinary and beautiful, a country of extremes in landscapes, personalities and history. Visually stunning and able to draw in thousands of tourists despite the devastation of civil war in the 1990s, it combines climatic zones and both Eastern and Western styles of living. In Livanjsko polje, an almost completely flat valley where wild horses graze, there is an intriguing disappearing karst river called the Jaruga. At Vrelo Bune, extremely cold and clean water flows out of a small cave from a huge subterranean lake carrying a large variety of fish with it. In Visoko there is a rare symmetrical pyramid, a type of hill that is known to geologists as a flatiron. It looks like an ancient Egyptian temple that has been covered in shrubs and trees and it draws in tourists from around the world. The series of salt lakes in the centre of the city of Tuzla are rare to Europe and are a small remnant of the once vast Pannonian sea. Bosnia's highest peak Maglić, in the Sutjeska National Park, forms part of the border with Montenegro and stands 2,386 metres above the sea. Beneath it lies the virgin forest of Perućica, one of the wildest and least accessible parts of Europe where bears and wolves live almost undisturbed by humans. In the Middle Ages, the remote towns of Vratar and Vratac were only accessible by single file and were a place of refuge during political crises. Bosnia's scenery such as the waterfall at Jajce has been captured by numerous writers and artists, both native and foreign. Sketches of daily life, the costumes worn by locals and their houses, musical instruments and food have all been carefully recorded for posterity.
Bosnia has a rich natural heritage, but has been subject to almost every major social movement or ideological experiment in the last millennium.