What is a Bosnian?

John Fine

  • Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm
    Macmillan, 340 pp, £17.50, March 1994, ISBN 0 333 61677 4

The war in Bosnia has produced a number of historical myths, all of which have proved useful to those Serbs and Croats seeking to tear Bosnia apart, for they justify the inaction of the international community. These myths claim, basically, that Bosnia is an artificial entity, made up of three ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – who have been feuding with one another for centuries, so that the present conflict is simply the latest of these ethnic wars. This picture is false, as Noel Malcolm’s new history of Bosnia helps to show.

The Bosnians have been a distinct people since at least the tenth century. In the Middle Ages, theirs was a no-man’s-land between the eastern and western worlds of Constantinople and Rome. Because of its mountainous terrain, the nobility retained much regional independence, but came together to resist foreign conquerors. Independent from the 12th century, Bosnia became a kingdom in 1377, by which time its boundaries had been established, roughly coinciding with those of the modern republic. Its people, when not using a local name, called themselves Bosnians. The names Serb and Croat, though occasionally appearing in peripheral areas, were not used in Bosnia proper. Bosnians then belonged to one of three Christian denominations: Orthodox, Catholic or a local institution, the Bosnian Church; but religious affiliation was not strong and was easily shed. The Bosnians did not fight one another for religious or for ethnic reasons. When they fought – and they fought a lot – it was over territory or for regional hegemony.

Bosnia was conquered by the Ottomans in the 1460s. Since the Churches had had few priests to attach their flocks to the faith, most Bosnians were shaky Christians, and, not surprisingly, over the years many of them accepted Islam. These conversions were a long-drawn-out affair; probably not until the 17th century did Muslims outnumber Christians. Regardless of their faith, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, as well as Christians, spoke dialects of what we now call Serbo-Croat. The Ottomans categorised people by religious community, not by ethnicity or nationality, and under Ottoman rule the local communities did not fight among themselves. Thus the current claim that the war in Bosnia is an outgrowth of centuries of religious or ethnic hatred is a nefarious fabrication.

Eventually, in the 19th century, nationalism took root, accompanied by the idea that a nation’s territory should include all its nationals. This idea gradually spread among Bosnia’s neighbours, in Serbia (then establishing itself as an independent state), and in Croatia (then part of the Habsburg Empire), who exported their ethno-nationalist ideas to Bosnia – increasingly so during the Austrian occupation, which began in 1878. Bosnians now came to accept the idea that if you were Catholic, you were a Croat; and if you were Orthodox, you were a Serb – entirely new labels for Bosnia at the time. In the Middle Ages very little of Bosnia had ever formed part of the Serb or Croat states, except for Hum (roughly present-day Hercegovina), which was part of Serbia from the 1170s to 1326; so these neighbours had no historical claims to Bosnia at all. Some Serbs and Croats may now claim that Bosnia is an artificial entity, but the fact is that its core lands have been together consistently, and calling themselves Bosnia, since the 13th and 14th centuries: first as an independent state, next as a recognised unit in the Ottoman (1463-1878) and Austrian (1878-1918) empires, and then in the state of Yugoslavia (1918-1992). Bosnia’s borders have been more consistent than those of either Serbia or Croatia.

The Bosnian political parties founded under the Austrian occupation, and those which later grew out of them in Royal Yugoslavia, between the wars, were ethno-religious in their allegiance, a tendency that re-emerged after the collapse of Communism in 1990. However, in the years prior to the Second World War, there was a regular dialogue between parties and a willingness, particularly in the leading Muslim party, to form coalitions and seek accommodation among competing points of view, whether on a Bosnian or a national scale. The developing quarrel between the Croats of Croatia and the Serbs of Serbia, which only began after the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918, spilled over to infect Bosnian Serbs and Croats; generally, however, Bosnians were less agitated by ethnic issues than their neighbours across the Drina and the Sava.

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