What is a Bosnian?
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 16 No. 11 · 9 June 1994
In his review of Bosnia: A Short History (LRB, 28 April) John Fine comes up with an extra-ordinary definition: ‘A Bosnian is someone who supports the Bosnian Government.’ This definition helps to explain Noel Malcolm’s hastily compiled ‘short history’, written in support of currently fashionable Bosnjak (read, Muslim) theories. Malcolm’s book depends wholly on Fine’s earlier writings. However, both are absolutely right that the tragedy of Bosnia was made by external forces; to a large extent by foreign historians. That apart, Malcolm must be given credit for making a relatively great leap forward from the histories of Bosnia published in English so far. But his work is far from being the last word on the matter.
Malcolm states in the Introduction that ‘the very existence of Bosnia as a historical entity has been denied by some writers, who have confidently asserted that “Bosnia has never been a state.” ’ There is, however, a clear distinction between a ‘historical entity’ and a ‘state’, and whilst I am a supporter of the Bosnian state, it is a fact that Bosnia was never a true state in the contemporary sense, but a feudal creation of the Croatian Catholic nobility, a fact which cannot be obscured by Malcolm’s statement elsewhere that ‘for more than a century, Croats have written books claiming to prove that Bosnians are “really” Croats.’ To prove that the majority of ‘Bosnians’ were not, originally, ‘really’ Croats, but some odd ‘Catholics’ requires refutation in depth. Fortunately, the Croatian origins of the Bosnian nobility are extremely well documented.
The evidence for the link between Bosnian Catholics and the name ‘Croatian’ are too numerous to be ignored: which evidence Malcolm and Fine painstakingly avoid. Already in 1514 (only 51 years after the Turks occupied part of Bosnia), at the general meeting of the Franciscan Order in Assisi, it was decided that the Bosnian Franciscan province should be divided into two parts, one under the Turkish occupation (Bosnia Srebrenica) and the other in free Bosnia (Bosnia Croatiae) or Croatian Bosnia. However, on page 56 of his book, in an exception to his general tendency, Malcolm contradicts himself and accepts that ‘Croatian Bosnia [is in fact] non-Ottoman Croatia.’ It is clear that the unoccupied part of Bosnia, with monasteries in Bihac, Glamoc, Jajce, Soli (Tuzla) and Bijeljina, could not have had a Croatian name if certain ‘Bosnian Catholics’ rather than Croats had lived in these regions.
Malcolm’s and Fine’s argument that religion was the main factor in determining Croatian nationality in Bosnia cannot stand any serious test. During the whole period of the Turkish occupation Croats in Bosnia were in constant physical contact with the rest of Croatia, as were members of my own family, who escaped from the Turks into Croatia in 1463, leaving the rest of the family in Bosnia, and remained there until the Peace of Madrid, 1617, when they returned to Bosnia.
The irony is that in the pursuit of their ‘Slav’ and ‘Bosnian’ theories, Malcolm and Fine are let down by the very people whom they champion: the present Muslim leadership, who (only a few months ago) decided officially that their nationality is Bosnjak – against considerable opposition from the Muslim masses.
A further example of Malcolm’s and Fine’s confusing of the linguistic environment of Bosnia is their insistence on the use of the term ‘Serbo-Croat’, as the language supposedly spoken there before 1918. Malcolm also resurrects ‘Slavs’ as the original Bosnian population: ‘then, within a few years, two new Slav tribes arrive’ (i.e. Croats and Serbs), after which he immediately contradicts himself: ‘Scholars have long been aware that the name Croat (Hrvat) is not a Slav word.’ All this, in order not to upset the present Muslim ruling class by reminders of an ethnic origin which they would rather like to forget! Instead of getting to grips with this difficult problem (which is the essence of the present conflict) and accepting defeat, Malcolm and Fine rely on outdated ‘Yugoslav’ theories. Like the English and the Americans, Croats and Serbs are divided rather than united by the ‘same’ language. The best example of this linguistic abyss is the Aljamiado literature, written by Muslims, who called their Croatian dialect Ikavski. Regionally this was Bosnian and often Croatian, but never Serbian, because the Serbs never spoke Ikavski.
Noel Malcolm minimises (and in his review, John Fine ignores) the persecution and ethnic cleansing of over one million Croat Catholics under the Turkish occupation. He skirts over the very first example of apartheid in Bosnia when Christians were forced to wear black. Although he discusses the Muslim charitable institution of the Vakufs, he does not mention that their origins in Bosnia lay in the plundering of Christian property.
What we are left with are contrived theories whose only purpose is to justify (on John Fine’s own definition) the hold on power of the present Muslim government in Bosnia.
Vol. 16 No. 13 · 7 July 1994
Paul Tvrtkovic (Letters, 9 June) is wrong to say that I wrote my book Bosnia: A Short History to support currently fashionable theories. I wrote it in order to dispel a large number of fashionable myths and fallacies, among which, I am afraid, Mr Tvrtkovic’s all-Croat theory is one.
He accuses me of inventing a Bosnian identity and concealing the fact that the people of Bosnia were always ‘really’ Croats. All I have done is to state the historical facts, which are that Bosnia has been a distinct geographical and political entity with an almost continuous history as such during the last eight hundred years. I use the term ‘Bosnian’ as it has been used by writers for most of that period, to refer to the people who lived in that Bosnian entity. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, the term ‘Croat’ or ‘Croatian’ was similarly used to refer to the people who lived in the Croatian geographical and political entity. There was some overlap, of course, as the boundaries between those two entities fluctuated over time. But in general the people of Bosnia did not call themselves ‘Croats’ – not even the Catholic Bosnians, who called themselves ‘Christians’ or ‘Latins’ instead. In his own published work on the history of Bosnia, Mr Tvrtkovic goes to great efforts to show that the Bosnians were identified as Croats; but for the entire Ottoman period he can come up with only a tiny smattering of evidence, some of it indirect and some of it false.
It was only in the 19th century that modern concepts of national identity, based on criteria of religion, language, history and self-identification, began to be applied in that part of Europe. It then became possible for Catholic Bosnians to be identified as ‘Croats’ and Orthodox Bosnians as ‘Serbs’; the crucial factor determining this identification had to be religion, since these ‘Serbs’ and ‘Croats’spoke the same form of the Serbo-Croat language and had a history which set them apart from the people of Serbia and Croatia.
Of course, attempts were then made to show that the Serb or Croat identity of the Bosnians could be anchored in ancient racial history. As I state in my book, it is probably true that most of Bosnia was settled by Slavs under Croat rule in the seventh century. But ‘Croat’ at that stage was a tribal label. It makes no sense to apply it to the people of Bosnia a thousand years later, any more than it would be sensible to call the inhabitants of some parts of 17th-century England ‘Angles’ or ‘Jutes’.
Mr Tvrtkovic accuses me of two particular ‘contradictions’. In each case, he is just adding a confusion of his own to an otherwise simple matter. I state that the Croats were a Slav tribe, and I also state that the word ‘Croat’ (Hrvat) was not originally a Slav word. This is not a contradiction, just a statement of two commonly recognised truths. The Croats had originally acquired their name from an Iranian language, and may at some point in their early history have been under an Iranian ruling caste; but they were by the seventh century clearly a Slav tribe. I have explained these matters quite fully in my book, and can only suggest that Mr Tvrtkovic read it again a little more carefully.
He also accuses me of self-contradiction when I explain that the Catholic administrative area of ‘Bosnia Croatiae’ was not in Ottoman Bosnia. Again, this is just obfuscation on his part. Catholic administrative areas often bore little relation to the facts of political geography at the time. The Franciscan Vicariate of Bosnia, for example, at one time covered a huge expanse of Eastern Europe, including most of what is now Romania. Would it be a ‘contradiction’ to point out that much of this Franciscan ‘Bosnia’ was outside Bosnia? Of course not. It is Mr Tvrtkovic’s logic which is faulty: on the basis of that Franciscan administrative area, he might as well argue that the Bosnians were therefore ‘really’ Romanian.
Mr Tvrtkovic’s statement that my book ‘depends wholly on Fine’s earlier writings’ must come as a surprise to readers of John Fine’s review (LRB, 28 April), which showed that Fine’s views on Bosnia differ quite strongly from my own. It also comes as a surprise to me, since until I read Fine’s review I had not seen anything by him on the history of post-medieval Bosnia, which is the subject of most of my book. This claim by Mr Tvrtkovic, and his dismissal of my book as ‘hastily compiled’, can only seem rather comical to anyone who knows Mr Tvrtkovic’s published work on Bosnian history, in which the detailed references to sources are taken wholesale (as he admits in his acknowledgments) from two books by one other historian.
Daily Telegraph, London E14