The Balkan wars in Serbian history textbooks 1920-2012

Balkan wars were convenient historical events for constructing a mythic national and historical awareness in Serbia. They were the most popular wars in modern Serbian history, in the media at the time announced as “the day of reckoning,” or “the realization of the Old Testament goal.” They achieved their “constructive potential” because of the great victory over the mythical, “age-old enemy,” and because, as their result, Serbia doubled in size.

Because of the quantity of material for creating politically useful narratives, during the past century, interpretations of Balkan wars went through interesting mutations in history textbooks. They entered the curriculum quite early, so one finds them in the 1920 textbooks, the first ones to be published after the First World War. Immediate historical experiences play a very important role in these books. The most recent enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is mentioned as the main culprit for the outbreak of the Balkan wars. Since 1930s, there was a more even-handed presentation of the causes of the wars, and standardization of the narrative, according to which, in Serbian textbooks, the decisive cause of the wars came to be hardship of Serbian people under Turkish rule, increased taxation, and overall worsening of conditions following the “Young Turks” revolution.

Beside factual, presentation of the causes for the wars in textbooks also had various ideological packaging. In the interwar period, members of the elite spoke about “the Serbia’s duty to liberate Serbian people, who have been harassed for centuries.” Thus, wars achieved one of their key interpretational frames: they were to be interpreted as liberation wars, defensive, and just – which in later textbooks almost became a formula reduced to a concise, apodictic language style that does not permit dilemmas or debate: “The First Balkan war was just, and the Second one was unjust.”

However, beside that early framed way of evaluating Balkan wars, different times and political needs brought various ideological shades. Thus, immediately following the First World War, it was stated that the problem that led to the wars was solved using the principle of nations, where one can see a clear Wilsonian influence. Some books published between 1918 and 1941 also include remnants of ideology of the integral Yugoslavism. They mention joy that Serb victories inspired with other Yugoslavs, which “considered that war as their own,” as these wars “realized the five centuries old Yugoslav dream.”

The socialist period brought its own ideological baggage. Books from that time include critical views and condemnations of expansionist aspirations of Serbian bourgeoisie, or direct questioning of its conquering intentions, especially attempts by “the Serbian bourgeoisie” to secure the access to the Adriatic Sea. However, despite these criticisms, Balkan wars were also perceived as convenient for sending useful and actual political messages. That is why a view that these wars also brought “liberation from feudalism” was part of these considerations, incorporated in the interpretation of history as the alteration of socio-political systems, and class struggle as its main cause. This ideological framework enabled Balkan wars to gain an additional liberation dimension during socialism, as they also liberated class, not just the nation. Textbooks published during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic retained that dualism, with slightly more emphasis on the greatness of national victory. It is interesting that the post-2000 textbook includes a new layer of national romanticism, in the key of the struggle for Christianity, as well as for one’s own, as the authors put it, Serbian civilization.

As the main key for interpreting Balkan wars in all generations of textbooks was the idea of defensive and liberation war, it was necessary to “creatively intervene” in describing some events, or presenting facts. Thus, the Serbian army’s exit to the Adriatic Sea through North Albania is not presented as Serbia’s war aim, but as an accidental military action. A 1927 textbook notes: “Serbs captured Ohrid and Resen, and the remains of defeated Turkish army retreated to Albania, through whose cliffs and mountains two Serb regiments went with great difficulties, reached the Adriatic Sea and entered Durres.” Such a narrative tries to explain that Serbian army accidentally entered Albanian mountains, while pursuing the remnants of the Turkish army.

More often, Serb incursion into North Albania is presented by chronologically changing places of certain events, so it seems that the Serb army ended up in North Albania only in order to help the Montenegrin units near Shkoder, even though these are different events; one is the November 1912 push to Durres, and another is the February 1913 operation near Shkoder. The first such interpretation is found in the 1922 textbook, in which the author wrote: “following the victory at Shkoder, our army began to conquer Albania, moving to the Adriatic coast and taking Lesh and Durres.” Such combining of two Serb army campaigns toward Adriatic into one masks Serbian territorial aspirations, and her longing to secure the access to the sea, and all of this would bring into question the allegedly purely defensive nature of these wars. Therefore, this “chronological mutation” is accepted in almost all consequent generations of textbooks.

The socialist period brought new interpretations, so the North Albanian campaign was condemned as an act of expansionism, with remarks that “the Serb occupation resulted in resistance and uprising by the Albanian people.” Textbooks published during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic delete this criticism, while the “chronological mutation” is back. After the fall of Milosevic, new layers of interpretation enter textbooks. They describe Serbia’s push toward the Adriatic and across North Albania as fully legitimate, and the creation of Albania as a problem. There is also an additional interpretation of the Serb-Albanian conflict, fully in accord with the needs of the political situation of the time, caused by the loss of sovereignty over Kosovo in 1999: “Through creation of the Albanian state, Serbia lost a significant part of the territory that she was supposed to have (…) The Albanian state was created, and in the decades that follow, it will be the factor of instability in this part of Europe, and always hostile to Serbia.”

The second Balkan war had a relatively stable interpretation, despite the different political systems which alternated during the 20th century. In this interpretation, Bulgaria is fully responsible for the war, and, because of this, she has acquired a status of an ideal archenemy. She has been described as an ally that asks for too much, breaks agreements, and hits from the back, traitorously.

Even here, the socialist period was slightly different, as, with remarks that this was an unnecessary and fratricidal war, there is also a criticism that the Second Balkan war was the consequence of the conflicting demands among the allies, so Serbia was partly to blame as well: “Both Serbia and Bulgaria demanded too much, so the conflict was unavoidable.” Textbooks from the Milosevic era evaluated the war as unjust, without commenting too much, while textbooks published after the fall of Milosevic include a prominent dose of national romanticism and the 1913 events are additionally used for insisting that Serbia is endangered. In bold print, it is noted that: “By losing the access to the Sea, Serbia was in less favourable position than other Balkan states. (…) Serbia and Montenegro were put into the situation that they had to defend their national interests from Bulgaria.” The latest textbooks, currently in use, again note that the war was caused by both Serbian and Bulgarian obstinacy.

Balkan wars were an ideal space for disseminating mythical content and epical value system. As a spangled victory, they offered an ideal framework for strengthening national pride and creating identity according to glorious military traditions. Celebrating army and its importance was an integral part of upbringing and education in all times during the last century, and under all political systems. All generations of textbooks especially insist on the enthusiasm and joy that the wars initiated. First generations of books note that “Serbs rushed to the battlefield,” and that “the news on preparations for the war against Turkey brought joy to the entire Serbian people,” who gained “the wings of the hawk and flew to fields of battle.” Descriptions note that “this was not about one army’s quest, but the quest of an entire people,” the one where “only one command was known: forward!” The entrance of the Serbian army to Kosovo was described in very emotional terms, including descriptions that soldiers “while going through Kosovo, wept with joy.” Even battles, like the one near Bitola, are described in epic terms: “The Serb army crossed in battle rivers and plains, going through hip-deep water, and singing. Through the thunder of canons and the blast of rifles, the song echoed ‘Hey Morava, my village in the plains’.” Textbooks published during socialism and during Milosevic’s rule were more temperate, and without emotional attitude, but such descriptions re-surface in the most recent books, published after 2000: “Officers especially lead the way in moral impetus, impatiently anticipating great victory over the age-old enemy.”

There is another common factor in all textbooks: the emphasis that the Serb army was more successful than the allied ones. The key idea is that the Serb victories were more important than others, as well as that the allies would have been unable to achieve their own goals without Serbian aid. This idea is mentioned in the very first textbook written after the First World War: “The allies won as well, but their armies could not go forward with such success. That is why Serbia, after accomplishing her task first, started helping her allies.” The help to Bulgarians at Edrene and Montenegrins at Shkoder are among the key topics, but some books also mention help to the Greeks. Thus, it is said for the First Balkan war that the Greeks “even though they suffered very much, regained strength through Serbian successes, and skilfully managed to get Thessaloniki from the Turks.” The same happened in the Second war: “The Serb army had the most glorious battle in Bregalnica and, after that, Greeks began to have some success as well.”

Such statements present a foundation for building a myth of chivalry, based on the concept of “the noble hero,” or, as formulated in one of the early textbooks: “A Serb is a good hero, brave and noble knight.” Such an image is in sharp contrast with another, but equally important and strongly outlined nation-victim motif, for which Balkan wars also provide a good matrix. It is provided through constant repetition of the formula of the ingratitude of allies, primarily Bulgarians. The great powers are also listed as enemies, as, according to all the textbooks, they prevented Serbia from gaining fully from her military victories, unjustifiably taking from her parts of the territories that Serbia regarded as her own. Lessons related to the great powers also use an emotional style, in order to present an image of the historical destiny: “The Serbian people were wronged at the London meeting of the great powers, just as they were in the Berlin congress.” Later this formed as a firm mythical story, according to which Serbia won in wars, but lost in peace.

However, for the evaluation of the interpretation of Balkan wars as “a model for historical consciousness,” the relation to ancient history is of prime importance. Balkan wars here serve as “transmitters” of the connection with the Middle Ages, as a “transformer” connecting contemporary generations with “the place of their historical birth.” They are a moment in the past that “corrects” a broken timeline, connecting ancestors and descendants, renews an epical understanding of time, where time stands still. The very first textbook that describes these wars has all the key motives: “revenge for Kosovo,” “fulfilling the Kosovo behest”; there is a cry for vengeance “For Kosovo Kumanovo, for Slivnica Bregalnica.” There are also key historical personalities, with whom a direct continuity is established. Thus, King Petar Karadjordjevic “after 520 years stepped into Skopje, the capital of [Medieval King] Dushan,” and Shkoder, “the seat of the first Serbian kings” is liberated. Ancient heroes were even recognized in the contemporaries: “The strength of Prince Marko was awakened in Serbs.” Since the socialist period, such historical connectedness is not present in the books, so since the mid-20th century there was no Kosovo myth in the school system.

This analysis demonstrated that the Balkan wars were very convenient events for building key components of the national romantic myth, as well as that all the political phases that Serbia and Yugoslavia went through during 20th century, by selecting facts, stressing some among them and ignoring others, used these events for sending political messages that they needed. It reaffirms an idea that history is “the science about the present,” and that each generation writes it from the beginning. This short essay shows how an analysis of certain historical events can tell us a lot about our contemporary world, which reflects in the image of the past like in a mirror.

The Balkan Wars 1912/13, Experience, Perception, Remembrance, International Conference on the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary, 11 – 13 October, 2012 at the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies / Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul.

Peščanik.net, 18.10.2012.


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Dubravka Stojanović
Dubravka Stojanović, istoričarka, magistrirala 1992 („Srpska socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918“), doktorirala 2001 („Evropski demokratski uzori kod srpske političke i intelektualne elite 1903-1914“) na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu. Od 1988. do 1996. radi u Institutu za noviju istoriju Srbije, pa prelazi na Odeljenje za istoriju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, gde 2008. postaje vanredna, a 2016. redovna profesorka na katedri za Opštu savremenu istoriju. U saradnji sa Centrom za antiratne akcije 1993. radi na projektu analize udžbenika. Sa Milanom Ristovićem piše i uređuje školske dodatne nastavne materijale „Detinjstvo u prošlosti“, nastale u saradnji istoričara svih zemalja Balkana, koji su objavljeni na 11 jezika regiona. Kao potpredsednica Komiteta za edukaciju Centra za demokratiju i pomirenje u Jugoistočnoj Evropi iz Soluna, urednica je srpskog izdanja 6 istorijskih čitanki za srednje škole. Dobitnica je odlikovanja Nacionalnog reda za zasluge u rangu viteza Republike Francuske. Knjige: Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socijaldemokratija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (1994), Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o “zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije” (2003, 2019) – Nagrada grada Beograda za društvene i humanističke nauke za 2003; Srbija 1804-2004 (sa M. Jovanovićem i Lj. Dimićem, 2005), Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (2008), Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije (2010), Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek (2011), Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (2013), Rađanje globalnog sveta 1880-2015. Vanevropski svet u savremenom dobu (2015) i Populism the Serbian Way (2017).
Dubravka Stojanović

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