Was nationalism the main cause of the wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia?

Scientific Essay 2005 21 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security



1. Definition and theories of nationalism
1.1. Primordialism
1.2. Modernism
1.3. Ethnicism

2. The nature of the Yugoslav state

3. The primordialist perspective

4. The modernist perspective
4.1. Reinforcement
4.2. Manipulation and war
4.3. How useful is the modernist theory for explaining the causes of war?

5. Conclusion



The bloody wars of secession in former Yugoslavia have been one of the greatest tragedies in the post-Cold War-period. Hardly anyone was “(…) entirely prepared for the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ensuing civil war (…).” (Simić, 2000:103) Within a short period of time the multinational state, which had consisted of a diversity of ethnic groups that had lived together for decades, simply ceased to exist. In the cruel wars from 1991-1995 huge numbers of people were killed, ethnic cleansing was quite common. But what were the causes of the drama? Why did neighbours suddenly turn against neighbours?

The Yugoslavia-wars have been subject to numerous studies that have tried to analyse the reasons for the drama. The concept of nationalism is frequently referred to in this context.[1] However, nationalism does not always imply such a negative notion, it can also lead to positive developments.[2] By examining the causes of conflict in former Yugoslavia one immediately finds that this case is very complex, many different factors contributed to the outbreak of the wars.[3]

This essay analyses the connection between nationalism and the wars in Yugoslavia by taking into account the complexity of this specific case. First, it provides a definition of nationalism and explains three nationalism-theories, followed by a brief outline of the nature of the Yugoslav state in section two. Sections three and four examine the different theories and the role of nationalism in light of the various factors and developments that led to war. The essay concludes by providing an answer to the question of whether nationalism was the main cause of the wars of secession in former Yugoslavia.

1. Definition and theories of nationalism

Heywood (2000: 254) defines nationalism as “(…) the belief that the nation[4] is the central principle of political organisation.”[5] Nationalism as ideology includes different forms: political, cultural and ethnic nationalism.[6] The linkage between nationalism and ethnicity, which is frequently applied in the Yugoslavia-case, derives from the organic idea of nationhood.[7] Ethnic nationalism, often advanced by conservative nationalists[8], is the belief that the organic nation-concept is the central principle of political organisation. This exclusive concept gives priority to a common ethnic identity and shared history and blurs the distinction between nation/nationalism and race/ethnicity.[9]

The relation between nationalism and ethnicity has been subject to different theories of that focus on the origin of nations. The three main theories in this context are primordialism, modernism and ethnicism.[10]

1.1. Primordialism

Primordialists draw on the link between nationalism and ethnicity and hold that nations were primordial entities, embedded in human nature and history, striving for political autonomy and identifiable through distinct features such as territory, culture, blood, language, religion and physical characteristics.[12] These scholars argue for a continuity between the modern and ancient nation and claim that ethnic attachments and identities are a cultural and natural given with overpowering emotional quality.[13][11]

1.2. Modernism

Modernism rejects the notion of ethnic nationalism and opposes the view that nations are

primordial entities with distinctive cultural attributes that shape modern societies. Connor for

example argues that many people are ethnically quite distinct from their alleged ancestors.[14]

Modernists[15], regarding nations as modern phenomenon, claim that the rise of nationalism has occurred only in the last two centuries, mainly with the great revolutions of modern time.[16] They hold that national élites have invented nations and see a great scope for elite manipulation of

popular ethnic identities.[17]

1.3. Ethnicism

The ethnicist theory could be regarded as a synthesis of primordialism and modernism. Ethnicists such as Smith[18] or Armstrong show sympathy for ethnic nationalism and contextualize the emergence of nations, which endows its members with identity and purpose, within the larger phenomenon of ethnicity that shaped them. However, they emphasize that the modern and pre-existing forms of nations differ significantly in terms of conceptions of human identity, democratic character of societies and intensity of interactions.[19] Ethnicists argue that the power of nationalism is due to the connection between the modern nation and pre-modern ethnic communities but they also state that this nationalism is distorted and fabricated.[20] In other words, nationalism has both, a constraining primordial element and a manipulable, flexible element (identity), which can be (re)constructed.[21]

2. The nature of the Yugoslav state

Before its dissolution Yugoslavia consisted of six republics - Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia- and two autonomous regions- Kosovo and Vojvodina. Some 18 diverse ethnic groups with different languages and religions[22] lived scattered in the republics and autonomous regions.[23] Since the different groups were so intermingled Yugoslavia’s administrative borders never constituted ethnic boundaries. Thus the nature of the state can be best described with one word: “double-diversity”.

The following sections will now analyse the impact of nationalism on the various processes that led to the wars in Yugoslavia. It will be examined whether two theories of nationalism- primordialism and modernism- can provide a profound explanation for these developments.[24]

3. The primordialist perspective

Primordialists explain the wars in Yugoslavia with the notion of ancient hatreds. They regard the conflicts as the natural outcome of a deeply felt ethnocentrism, manifested by cultural and religious differences as well as profound ethnic hatred, which has deep roots in the past and constitutes a pattern of historical repetition.[25] Primordialists believe that despite the seemingly cooperative relations between the nationalities, mistrust and enmity were just below the surface. These hatreds, fuelled by fear and uncertainty, turned neighbour against neighbour.[26]

To examine whether Primordialists do have reason to apply the ancient hatreds-argument to Yugoslavia, it becomes necessary to discuss the historic relations of the South Slavs.

Two Yugoslavia’s existed in the past, one from 1918-1941 and one from 1945-1991. Yugoslavia was originally created as independent state after the First World War by the unification of the two kingdoms Serbia and Montenegro, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire, with the South Slav provinces of the Austrian-Hungarian empire (Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia).[27] Two points are important in this context: First, before the Balkans were divided between the two empires, peoples of the same language and origin lived cooperatively together. Yet, the empires forced these people to fight against each other.[28] Second, both empires suppressed their Slavic provinces, which had always struggled for liberation. Serbia and Montenegro gained full independence in 1878[29] but Croatia and Slovenia, under the dominant auspices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were unsuccessful.[30]

All this led to the development of strong national sentiments, especially in Croatia and Serbia, which were reinforced by the imprints the empires left on their provinces.[31]

It also has to be kept in mind that the unification of the South Slavs was possible only because the Austro-Hungarian Empire was defeated in the First World War. With the split of the empire, Western Europe claimed its strategic frontiers. This put the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs of the old empire under pressure to merge without too much negotiation with Serbia and Montenegro.[32] The weak position of the Croats and Slovenes and the expansionism of Serbia, which regarded the new state as opportunity to unify all Serbs in an extended state, caused fear of a Serbian domination on the non-Serbian side and a reinforcement of national sentiments on both sides.[33] This was also supported by the Croat-, Slovene- and Bosnian-view of Yugoslavia as a voluntary federation of equal peoples, which conflicted with the Serbian position. However, the creation of the Yugoslav state generally enjoyed widespread support among the nations.[34]

Nevertheless, nationalist sentiments were strongly provoked during World War II and the Civil War from 1941-1945, which were characterised by brutal ethnic violence. The Croat fascist Ustaše massacred Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia[35] and Serbian Chetniks fought against Muslims and Croat villagers.

However, the Croats were horrified by the massacres and many participated in the wars of liberation against the fascist Ustaše.[36]

Historic evidence suggests that, apart from the period of massacres, the South Slavs lived together cooperatively and interethnic tolerance and peace rather than hate characterised Yugoslavia.[37] Interethnic marriages were quite common; Petrović states that until 1981 some 6 million people lived in mixed marriages.[38] From 1945-1991[39] the federalist policy of the Communist party under the general-secretary Tito held together the multiethnic state and balanced the national sentiments by assigning equal autonomous power to all nations.[40] Furthermore, by promoting ‘Brotherhood and Unity’, the Communists created a common Yugoslav identity, declared by many people in the 1960s-1970s.[41] Even at the eve of war in 1990/91, sociological polling showed high levels of tolerance, especially in the mixed regions of Yugoslavia.[42] Oberschall argues that nationalist contentions in the public arena did not translate into hostile interpersonal ethnic relations.[43]

It can be noted that no evidence for ancient hatreds could be found, due to the following arguments:

First, Yugoslav-relations were largely characterised by mutual cooperation and tolerance. Second, different national sentiments among the various ethnic groups existed but this kind of nationalism was, at least most of the time, of a peaceful kind and is probably better described as awareness of diversity.[44] Third, nationalist sentiments were less a natural given than triggered by several external factors, such as the influence of the empires, the church or the unfavourable circumstances regarding the creation of Yugoslavia, which resulted in opposing views about the nature of the state.[45] All this contributed to the development of violence during the Civil War and World War II. However, the war-brutality proved to be an exception and has to be seen in light of the horrifying circumstances (i.e. dominant Nazi-ideologies) of that time. Finally, any form of nationalism was not based on deep-rooted ethnic hatred or religion.[46] Petrović argues that if hate would have been inherent and constant, ethnically ‘clean’ territories would have been formed long ago and different nationalities would not have lived together in potentially hostile territories.[47] In fact, the South Slavs do share linguistic and ancestral origins and 83% of the population speak one language (Serbo-Croatian).[48] The only identifiable difference is religion.[49] However, religious tolerance (between orthodox Serbs, catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians) was much more pronounced than confrontation in Yugoslavia[50] and religion itself was not a decisive factor for nationalist sentiments. Denitch, for example, states that Muslims often identified themselves as Croats or Serbs.[51]


[1] There are also approaches that focus on other factors than nationalism. Roe (2000) for example explains the wars in Yugoslavia with the concept of the security dilemma. However, the focus of this paper will mainly be on the nationalism-concept.

[2] An example for the Velvet Revolutions are the peaceful mass demonstrations in the former GDR in 1989, which, inspired by the slogan “Wir sind ein Volk”, led to the reunification of Germany in October 1990. Heywood (2000: 256) demonstrates that nationalism can mean freedom and democracy on the one hand but also oppression, intolerance and conflict on the other.

[3] At this point it has to be remarked that an explanation, which would focus on nationalism as a natural phenomenon, would simply be an oversimplification.

[4] Nations are shaped by cultural, political and psychological factors. Culturally, a nation is a group of people bound together by a common language, religion, history and traditions. Politically, a nation is a group of people who regard themselves as a natural political community. Psychologically, a nation is a group of people distinguished by a shared loyalty or affection in the form of patriotism. (Heywood, 2000: 251-252)

[5] Heywood (2000: 254) argues that this belief is based on two core assumptions: first, humankind is naturally divided into distinct nations and second, the nation is a political community. Consequently, the doctrine of nationalism is the belief that all nations are entitled to independent statehood.

[6] Heywood, 2000: 254-255. Also see Halliday (2001: 440-454).

[7] Heywood, 2000: 252.

[8] Conservative nationalism, drawing on the idea of history and shared past, is a form of political nationalism.Political nationalism also encompasses liberal nationalism (focus on self-determination) as well as expansionist and anticolonial nationalism.

[9] Heywood (2000: 226) defines ethnicity as loyalty towards a distinctive population, cultural group or territorial area, which has cultural and racial overtones. Members of the ethnic group are seen as derived from common ancestors and form a cultural identity that operates at a deep and emotional level.

[10] A fourth approach, which criticises this classification, explores the nature of human identity in relation to ethnicity. These scholars focus on the psychological dimension of identity. However, for reasons of space this approach is not discussed in more detail. For an overview see Hale (2004: 458-485) and Schöpflin (2003: 477-490).

[11] The primordialist theory arose in the 19th century. Major figures in this field have included historians such as Palacky or Iorga.

[12] Hutchinson (1994: 3).

[13] Oberschall (2000: 982) and Hale (2004: 460). Hale (2004: 460) summarizes the view of Primordialists as follows: nations are the stones that constitute a wall (society) with clear-cut boundaries (ethnic differences) between them. Extended kinship relations hold each nation-group together.

[14] Hutchinson (1994: 4).

[15] Modernism arose in the 1960s and includes scholars such as include Gellner, Deutsch or Hobsbawm. Compare Gellner (1994) and Liebich (2003: 456-457).

[16] Hutchinson (1994: 4-6). The great revolutions are referred to as industrial, democratic and rationalist (i.e. the French Revolution). Modernists also argue that the modern state needs to create a national identity for industrial development, fighting wars and to overcome social alienation. (Dannreuther, 2005).

[17] In applying the metaphor of the stonewall again, Hale (2004: 460-461)notes that for Modernists the wall is a mere façade: the defining and distinguishing features of ethnic groups (culture or kinship) are merely perceived and constructed.

[18] See Smith (1995) and (1986).

[19] Hutchinson (1994: 9).

[20] Hutchinson (1994: 7) and Dannreuther (2005).

[21] Hale (2004: 461). Ethnicity is centred on extended kinship relations but also multidimensional and therefore manipulable.

[22] Petrović (2000:164). See appendix: The table shows the share of the main ethnic groups in Yugoslavia.

[23] People of the main nations were divided as follows: approximately 700,000 Serbs lived in Croatia and twice as many in Bosnia; 800,000 Croats resided in Bosnia and 200,000 in Serbia (and some in Montenegro) and 2,000,000 Albanians were scattered between Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Denitch (1994: 26).

[24] As outlined above, ethnicism can be seen as a combination of modernism and primordialism. Therefore only the two ‘competing’ theories of nationalism are discussed here.

[25] Petrović (2000: 167), Gagnon (winter 1994/95: 131-133), Simić (2000) and Van Evera (1996).

[26] Oberschall (2000: 982).

[27] Denitch (1994: 22). The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes of 1918 was renamed in Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. The multiethnic Austrian empire had been transformed into a joint state of its two dominant national groups under the name of Austria-Hungary in 1866. On the creation of Yugoslavia also see Prpa-Jovanović (1997: 43-63).

[28] Ridgeway (1997: Preface).

[29] Crnobrnja (1996: 36). Back then Serbia also gained control over Kosovo.

[30] Van Evera (1996: 424) argues that the empire strongly resisted secessions before 1914 because it contained many potential secessionists who might have encouraged a spiral of secessions if they would have been tolerated.

[31] Denitch (1994: 23-24). Religion was also reason for discrimination and maintaining a distinct national identity. Denitch holds that the Central European Germanic culture (and Roman Catholicism), which influenced the Austo-Hungarian Empire, was the reason why the Serbs in Croatia kept their separate national identity and strongly identified with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

[32] Serbia and Montenegro had been on the allied side and thus could offer some kind of protection

[33] Denitch (1994: 24), Sekulic (1997: 167-171) and Pavković (2000: 98-99).

[34] Denitch (1994: 25).

[35] Ibid: 30-31. In the Jasenovac death camp run by the Ustaše-fascists, thousands of Serbs died.

[36] Denitch (1994: 62). As a consequence of the brutal violence of the Croat fascists, Croatia laid down the equality of the Serb minority in Croatia with the Croat majority in their Constitution.

[37] Ibid: 62. Also compare Petrović (2000: 167), Oberschall (2000: 984-986) and Konrad (1999).

[38] Petrović (2000: 167), Botev (2000). 16% of all children in Bosnia were from mixed marriages. (Crnobrnja, 1996: 23)

[39] The Communists adopted the Yugoslavian administrative borders in 1945 and balanced the three ‘old’ nations (Croats, Slovenes and Serbs) with three new republics: Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vojvodina and Kosovo were declared autonomous provinces of Serbia. Kosovo was carved out following the areas of the Albanian majority. Denitch (1994).

[40] On Tito see Tepavac (1997: 64-79).

[41] Petrović (2000: 166). Oberschall (2000:988) also states that the postwar-generations of Yugoslavs widely accepted Yugoslavia as multi-ethnic society.

[42] Gagnon (1994/95: 134). Glenny (1992: 19) states that people lived together in relative contentment before May 1991.

[43] Oberschall (2000:988).

[44] This argument has been suggested by Simmons (2002).

[45] For example, Sekulic (1997:173) states that the relations between South Slavs were characterized by mutual cooperation before the Yugoslav state was created.

[46] Compare Simmons (2002: 625) and Udovički and Torov (1997:80).

[47] Petrović (2000:166).

[48] Denich (2000:42) and Denitch (1994:28). Crnobrnja (1996: 19) holds that the argument that Yugoslavia had four languages (Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian) is contentious. Serbian and Croatian (spoken by the majority) are so similar that they can count as one. Additionally, Serbo-Croatian as single language was promoted by the Communist-Regime. Yet, other languages were also regarded as official. (Denitch, 1994: 30).

[49] The church had a considerable influence in Yugoslavia and three religions were most common: Greek Orthodox Christianity (especially Serbia), Roman Catholicism (especially Croatia) and Islam (especially in Bosnia).

[50] Crnobrnja (1996:19). The massacres during WWII were an exception. Gagnon (1994/95:133) states that the Balkans never saw such religious wars as in Western Europe.

[51] Denitch, 1994:30.


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Title: Was nationalism the main cause of the wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia?