Serbia’s strategic location between two continents has subjected it to invasions by many peoples. Greeks have colonized its south in 4th century B.C.; the northernmost point of the empire of Alexander the Great being the town of Kale.Prehistoric capital of Europe, Belgrade alone is believed to have been torn by 140 wars since Roman times. The northern Serbian city of Sirmium (Sremska Mitrovica) was among the top 4 cities of the late Roman Empire, serving as its capital during the Tetrarchy. Contemporary Serbia comprises the classical regions of Moesia, Pannonia, parts of Dalmatia, Dacia and Macedonia. Around the 6th century, Slavs appeared on Byzantine borders in great numbers. Under nominal Serbian rule since the 7th century (having been allowed to settle in Byzantium by its emperor Heraclius after their victory over the Avars), through early history various parts of the territory of modern Serbia have been colonized, claimed or ruled by: the Greeks and Romans (conquered the indigenous Celts and Illyrians); the Western- and the Eastern Roman Empires (challenged by the incursions of the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Sarmatians, the Avars, the Serbs, the Frankish Kingdom, the Great Moravia, the Bulgarians and finally, the Hungarians). No less than 17 Roman Emperors were born in the land that is now Serbia.
Medieval Serb kingdoms and the Serbian Empire
Following their settlement in the Balkans around 630 A.D. Serbs were ruled by the descendants of the Unknown Archont; its three related medieval dynasties follow a continuous bloodline all the way to the 1400s A.D.
At first heavily dependent on the Byzantine Empire as its vassal, under the Višeslav-Vlastimirović dynasty- Raška (Rascia)- gained independence by expulsion of the Byzantine troops and heavy defeat of the Bulgarian army (847-850). Official adoption of Christianity soon followed (under Prince Mutimir Vlastimirović). First dynasty died out in 960 A.D. with the death of Prince Časlav, who managed to unify all the Serb populated lands, centered between contemporary South Serbia and Montenegro, almost all of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the coastal south of Croatia. The wars of succession for the Serb throne led to incorporation into the Byzantine Empire (971).
An uprising in Duklja around 1040 overthrew Byzantine rule and assumed domination over the Serbian lands between 11-12th centuries under the 2nd dynasty of Vojislavljević (descendants of the 1st dynasty). In 1077 A.D. Duklja became the first Serb Kingdom (under Michael I- ruler of Tribals and Serbs), following the establishment of the catholic Bisphoric of Bar. With the recuperation and rise of Raška from late 12th century onwards, however, the centre of the Serb world (Raska, Duklja, Travunia, Zahumlje, Pagania and Bosnia) has again moved northwards, further from the Adriatic coast. Although fully converted to Christianity as early as 865 AD, this relocation to the north and east also meant a shift towards the Eastern Orthodox rather than the Catholic faith (initially predominant in the south following the East-West Schism). By the beginning of the 14th century Serbs lived in four distinctly independent kingdoms- Dioclea, Rascia, Bosnia and Syrmia.
The House of Nemanjić, descendants of the kings of Duklja, have moved from Duklja to Raška, signaling this shift towards continental Serbia in the late 12th century. Direct result of this was the establishment of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1217, which rivalled the Catholic Bisphoric of Bar. The Serbian apogee in economy, law, military matters, and religion ensued; the Serbian Kingdom of Raška was proclaimed in 1219, joined later by the Kingdom of Syrmia, Banovina of Mačva and Bosnia; finally, the Serbian Empire under Stefan Dušan was formed in 1346. Under Dušan’s rule, Serbia reached its territorial peak, becoming one of the larger states in Europe, portraying itself as the heir of the run-down Byzantine Empire. The renowned Dušan’s Code, a universal system of laws, was enforced. The Serbian identity has been profoundly shaped by the rule of this dynasty and its accomplishments, with Serbian Orthodox Church assuming the role of the national spiritual guardian.
As a result of internal struggle between rival noble families, and heavy losses inflicted by the Ottomans in the epic Battle of Kosovo, the Serbian Empire had dissolved into many statelets by the beginning of the 15th century. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, constant struggles took place between various Serbian kingdoms on the one hand, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. The turning point was the fall of Constantinople and its last emperor (of Serbo-Greek ethnicity) Constantine Dragaš- Paleologus, to the Turks. The Serbian Despotate fell in 1459 following the siege of the “temporary” capital Smederevo, followed by Bosnia a few years later, and Herzegovina in 1482. Montenegro was overrun by 1499. Belgrade was the last major Balkan city to endure Ottoman onslaughts, when it joined the Catholic Kingdom of Hungary. Serbs, Hungarians and European crusaders heavily defeated the Turkish in the Siege of Belgrade of 1456. Several Serbian despots ruled in parts of Vojvodina as vassals of the Hungarian kings with the title of Hungarian barons. After repelling Ottoman attacks for over 70 years, Belgrade finally fell in 1521, along with the greater part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Forceful conversion to Islam became imminent, especially in the southwest (Raška, Kosovo and Bosnia). Republic of Venice grew stronger in importance, gradually taking over the coastal areas.
Ottoman and Austrian rule
The Early modern period saw the loss of Serbia’s independence to the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, interrupted briefly by the revolutionary state of the Emperor Jovan Nenad in the 16th century. Modern times witnessed the rise of the Habsburg Monarchy (known as the Austrian Empire, later Austria-Hungary), which fought many wars against the Ottoman Turks for supremacy over Serbia. Three Austrian invasions and numerous rebellions (such as the Banat Uprising) constantly challenged Ottoman rule. Vojvodina endured a century long Ottoman occupation before being ceded to the Habsburg Empire in the 17th-18th centuries under the terms of the Treaty of Karlowitz (Sremski Karlovci). As the Great Serb Migrations depopulated most of Kosovo and Serbia proper, the Serbs sought refuge in more prosperous (and Christian) North and West were granted imperial rights by the Austrian crown (under measures such as the Statuta Wallachorum in 1630). The Ottoman persecutions ofChristians culminated in the abolition and plunder of the Patriarchate of Peć in 1766. As Ottoman rule in the South grew ever more brutal, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I formally granted the Serbs the right to their autonomous crown land, speeding up their migrations into Austria.
The Serbian Revolution and independence (Principality of Serbia)
The quest for independence of Serbia began during the Serbian national revolution (1804-1817), and it lasted for several decades. For the first time in Ottoman history an entire Christian population had risen up against the Sultan. The entrenchment of French troops in the western Balkans, the incessant political crises in the Ottoman Empire, the growing intensity of the Austro-Russian rivalry in the Balkans, the intermittent warfare which consumed the energies of French and Russian Empires and the outbreak of protracted hostilities between the Porte and Russia are but a few of the major international developments which directly or indirectly influenced the course of the Serbian revolt. During the First Serbian Uprising (first phase of the revolt) led by Karađorđe Petrović, Serbia was independent for almost a decade before the Ottoman army was able to reoccupy the country. Shortly after this, the Second Serbian Uprising began. Led by Miloš Obrenović, it ended in 1815 with a compromise between the Serbian revolutionary army and the Ottoman authorities. The famous German historian Leopold von Ranke published his book “The Serbian revolution” (1829). They were the easternmost bourgeois revolutions in the 19th-century world. Likewise, Principality of Serbia abolished feudalism- second in Europe after France.
The Convention of Ackerman (1828), the Treaty of Adrianople (1829) and finally, the Hatt-i Sharif of 1830, recognised the suzerainty of Serbia with Miloš Obrenović I as its hereditary Prince. The struggle for liberty, a more modern society and a nation-state in Serbia won a victory under first constitution in the Balkans on 15 February 1835. It was replaced by a more conservative Constitution in 1838.
In the two following decades (temporarily ruled by the Karadjordjevic dynasty) the Principality actively supported the neighboring Habsburg Serbs, especially during the 1848 revolutions. Interior minister Ilija Garašanin published The Draft (for South Slavic unification), which became the standpoint of Serbian foreign policy from the mid-19th century onwards. The government thus developed close ties with the Illyrian movement in Croatia-Slavonia (Austria-Hungary).
Following the clashes between the Ottoman army and civilians in Belgrade in 1862, and under pressure from the Great Powers, by 1867 the last Turkish soldiers left the Principality. By enacting a new constitution without consulting the Porte, Serbian diplomats confirmed the de facto independence of the country. In 1876, Montenegro and Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, proclaiming their unification with Bosnia. The formal independence of the country was internationally recognized at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which formally ended the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78; this treaty, however, prohibited Serbia from uniting with Principality of Montenegro, and placed Bosnia and Raška region under Austro-Hungarian occupation to prevent unification.
Kingdom of Serbia
From 1815 to 1903, Serbia was ruled by the House of Obrenović (except from 1842 to 1858, when it was led by Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević). In 1882, Serbia, ruled by King Milan, was proclaimed a Kingdom. In 1903, the House of Karađorđević, (descendants of the revolutionary leader Đorđe Petrović) assumed power. Serbia was the only country in the region that was allowed by the Great Powers to be ruled its own domestic dynasty. During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the Kingdom of Serbia tripled its territory by acquiring part of Macedonia, Kosovo, and parts of Serbia proper.
As for Vojvodina, during the 1848 revolution in Austria, Serbs of Vojvodina established an autonomous region known as Serbian Vojvodina. As of 1849, the region was transformed into a new Austrian crown land known as the Serbian Voivodship and Tamiš Banat. Although abolished in 1860, Habsburg emperors claimed the title Großwoiwode der Woiwodschaft Serbien until the end of the monarchy and the creation of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918.
World War I and the birth of Yugoslavia
On 28 June 1914 the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Gavrilo Princip (a Yugoslav unionist member of Young Bosnia) and an Austrian citizen, led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Kingdom of Serbia. In defense of its ally Serbia, Russia started to mobilize its troops, which resulted in Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany declaring war on Russia. The retaliation by Austria-Hungary against Serbia activated a series of military alliances that set off a chain reaction of war declarations across the continent, leading to the outbreak of World War I within a month.
The Serbian Army won several major victories against Austria-Hungary at the beginning of World War I, such as the Battle of Cer and Battle of Kolubara – marking the first Allied victories against the Central Powers in World War I. Despite initial success it was eventually overpowered by the joint forces of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria in 1915. Most of its army and some people went into exile to Greece and Corfu where they recovered, regrouped and returned to Macedonian front (World War I) to lead a final breakthrough through enemy lines on 15 September 1918, freeing Serbia again and defeating Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bulgaria. Serbia (with its major campaign) was a major Balkan Entente Power which contributed significantly to the Allied victory in the Balkans in November 1918, especially by enforcing Bulgaria’s capitulation with the aid of France. The country was militarilly classified as a minor Entente power. Serbia was also among the main contributors to the capitulation of Austria-Hungary in Central Europe.
Prior to the war, the Kingdom of Serbia had 4.5 million inhabitants. According to the New York Times, in 1915 alone 150,000 people are estimated to have died during the worst typhus epidemics in world history. With the aid of the American Red Cross and 44 foreign governments, the outbreak was brought under control by the end of the year. The number of civilian deaths is estimated by some sources at 650,000, primarily due to the typhus outbreak and famine, but also direct clashes with the occupiers. Serbia’s casualties accounted for 8% of the total Entente military deaths or 58% of the regular Serbian Army (420,000 strong) has perished during the conflict. The total number of casualties is placed around 1,000,000-> 25% of Serbia’s prewar size, and an absolute majority (57%) of its overall male population. L.A.Times and N.Y.Times also cited over 1,000,000 victims in their respective articles.
The extent of the Serbian demographic disaster can be illustrated by the statement of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov: “Serbia ceased to exist” (New York Times, summer 1917). In July 1918 the US Secretary of State Robert Lansing urged the Americans of all religions to pray for Serbia in their respective churches.
World War II
Invasion of Yugoslavia
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was in a precarious position in World War II. Fearing an invasion by Nazi Germany, the Yugoslav Regent, Prince Paul, signed the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers on 25 March 1941, triggering massive demonstrations in Belgrade. On 27 March, Prince Paul was overthrown by a military coup d’état (with British support) and replaced by the 17-year-old King Peter II. General Dušan Simović became Peter’s Prime Minister and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia withdrew its support for the Axis.
In response to this Adolf Hitler launched an invasion of Yugoslavia on 6 April. By 17 April, unconditional surrender was signed in Belgrade. After the invasion, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was dissolved and, with Yugoslavia partitioned, the remaining portion of Serbia became part of the Military Administration of Serbia, under a joint German-Serb government, with military power controlled by the German armed forces, while a Serb civil government led by Milan Nedić was permitted to try to draw Serbs away from their opposition to the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia.
Not all of what is present-day Serbia was included as part of the military administration. Some of the contemporary Republic of Serbia was occupied by the Independent State of Croatia, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Bulgaria, the Fascist Italy’s Balkan protectorates, the Albanian Kingdom and the Kingdom of Montenegro. In addition to being occupied by the (Wehrmacht), from 1941 to 1945, Serbia was the scene of a civil war between Royalist Chetniks commanded by Draža Mihailović and Communist Partisans commanded by Josip Broz Tito. Against these forces were arrayed Nedić’s units of the Serbian Volunteer Corps and Serbian State Guard.
Genocide of Serbs by the Ustaše regime in Croatia
Memorial to Serb, Jewish, and Roma victims of the genocide that took place at theJasenovac concentration camp in World War II in the Independent State of Croatia now modern-day Croatia . The events had a profound impact on Serbian society and relations between Croats and Serbs.
Serbia’s society was profoundly affected by the events that took place during World War II, especially in the neighboring Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH), an Axis puppet state which controlled what is modern-day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and parts of modern-day Serbia. The regime selected to led the puppet state was the Croatian ultranationalist and fascist Ustaše movement. The Ustase promised to purge the state of Serbs, Jews, and Roma who were subject to large-scale persecution and genocide, most notoriously at the Jasenovac concentration camp. The Jewish Virtual Library estimates that between 45,000 and 52,000 Serbs were killed at Jasenovac and between 330,000 and 390,000 Serbs were victims of the entire genocide campaign. The estimated number of Serbian children who died is between 35,000 and 50,000. The Yad Vashem center reports that over 600,000 Serbs were killed overall in the NDH, with some 500,000 people of many nationalities and ethnicities murdered in one camp Jasenovac. After the war, official Yugoslav sources estimated over 700,000 victims, mostly Serbs. Misha Glenny suggests that the numbers of Serbs killed in the genocide was more than 400,000.
The atrocities that took place in Croatia against Serbs has led to a deep sense of antagonism by Serbs towards Croats, whose relations between each other had already been historically tense, but the war deeply aggravated this division. A number of governments have attempted to lessen. Reconciliation between the two peoples was attempted under Joseph Broz Tito’s policy of Brotherhood and Unity. To a degree this succeeded, as during the Tito-era, intermarriages between Serbs and Croats increased, but this effort was destroyed with the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s as rival Croat and Serb nationalism promoted xenophobia towards each other. The most recent attempt was made at the commemoration to the Serb casualties of the Jasenovic concentration camp in April 2003, when the Croatian president Stjepan Mesić apologized on behalf of Croatia to the victims of Jasenovac. In 2006, on the same occasion, he added that to every visitor to Jasenovac it must be clear that the “Holocaust, genocide and war crimes” took place there.
Socialist Yugoslavia (“Second Yugoslavia”)
On 29 November 1945, the constitutional assembly established by the Yugoslav Communist party proclaimed the abolition of the Serbian-led monarchy of Yugoslavia – and the royal family was banned from returning to the country. A communist regime was established under a dictatorship led by Yugoslavia’s Communist Party leader Joseph Broz Tito. Tito, who was of Croat- Slovene descent personally sought inter-ethnic unity in the aftermath of the violent division of the country in World War II through a policy called Brotherhood and Unity which sponsored cooperation between the peoples and promoted a united Yugoslav identity over existing ethnic or religious identities, repressed nationalists of any nationality, and forced the different peoples to work with each other to solve their differences. This would become highly controversial in Serbia in the latter years of Tito’s rule. Serbia was one of 6 federal units of the state, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Socijalistička Federativna Republika Jugoslavija, or SFRJ). Over time Serbia’s influence began to wane as reforms demanded by the other republics demanded decentralization of power to allow them to have an equal say as they claimed that the centralized system had allowed Serb hegemony. This began with the creation of the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina which initially held modest powers. However reforms in 1974 made drastic changes, giving the autonomous provinces nearly equal powers to the republics, in which the Serbian parliament held no control over the political affairs of the two provinces, and technically only held power over Central Serbia. Many Serbs, including those in the Yugoslav Communist party, resented the powers held by the autonomous provinces. At the same time, a number of Kosovo ethnic Albanians in the 1980s began to demand that Kosovo be granted the right to be a republic within Yugoslavia, thus giving it the right to separate, a right which it did not have as an autonomous province. The ethnic tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo would eventually have a major influence in the collapse of the SFRY.
Milošević era, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Kosovo War
Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Serbia in 1989 in the League of Communists of Serbia through a serious of coups against incumbent governing members. Milošević promised reduction of powers for the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. This ignited tensions with the communist leadership of the other republics that eventually resulted in the secession of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Republic of Macedonia, and Slovenia from Yugoslavia.
A skyscraper building in Belgrade on fire after being bombed by NATO aircraft during the Kosovo War.
Multiparty democracy was introduced in Serbia in 1990, officially dismantling the former one-party communist system. Critics of the Milošević government claimed that the Serbian government continued to be authoritarian despite constitutional changes as Milošević maintained strong personal influence over Serbia’s state media. Milošević issued media blackouts of independent media stations’ coverage of protests against his government and restricted freedom of speech through reforms to the Serbian Penal Code which issued criminal sentences on anyone who “ridiculed” the government and its leaders, resulting in many people being arrested who opposed Milošević and his government.
The period of political turmoil and conflict marked a rise in ethnic tensions and between Serbs and other ethnicities of the former Communist Yugoslavia as territorial claims of the different ethnic factions often crossed into each others’ claimed territories Serbs who had criticized the nationalist atmosphere, the Serbian government, or the Serb political entities in Bosnia and Croatia were reported to be harassed, threatened, or killed by nationalist Serbs. Serbs in Serbia feared that the nationalist and separatist government of Croatia was led by Ustase sympathizers who would oppress Serbs living in Croatia. This view of the Croatian government was promoted by Milošević which also accused the separatist government of Bosnia and Herzegovina of being led by Islamic fundamentalists. The governments of Croatia and Bosnia in turn accused the Serbian government of attempting to create a Greater Serbia. These views led to a heightening of xenophobia between the peoples during the wars.
In 1992, the governments of Serbia and Montenegro agreed to the creation of a new Yugoslav federation called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which abandoned the predecessor SFRY’s official endorsement of communism, but instead endorsed democracy.
In response to accusations that the Yugoslav government was financially and militarily supporting the Serb military forces in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, sanctions were imposed by the United Nations, during the 1990s, which led to political isolation, economic decline and hardship, and serious hyperinflation of currency in Yugoslavia.
Milošević represented the Bosnian Serbs at the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, signing the agreement which ended the Bosnian War that internally partitioned Bosnia & Herzegovina largely along ethnic lines into a Serb republic and a Bosniak-Croat federation.
When the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia refused to accept municipal election results in 1997 which resulted in defeat in municipal municipalties, Serbians engaged in large protests against the Serbian government, government forces held back the protesters.
Reports and accusations of war crimes being committed by Yugoslav and Serbian security forces led to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launching “Operation Allied Force”, bombing Yugoslavia for 78 days in order to stop Yugoslav military operations in Kosovo. The bombing ends with the agreement which upheld Yugoslav (and later Serbian) sovereignty over Kosovo but replaced Serbian government of the province with a UN administration, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).
Fall of Milošević and post-Milošević political transition
In September 2000, opposition parties claimed that Milošević committed fraud in routine federal elections. Street protests and rallies throughout Serbia eventually forced Milošević to concede and hand over power to the recently formed Democratic Opposition of Serbia (Demokratska opozicija Srbije, or DOS). The DOS was a broad coalition of anti-Milošević parties. On 5 October, the fall of Milošević led to end of the international isolation Serbia suffered during the Milošević years. Milošević was sent to the International Criminal Court on accusations of sponsoring war crimes and crimes against humanity during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo which he was held on trial to until his death in 2006. With the fall of Milošević, Serbia’s new leaders announced that Serbia would seek to join the European Union (EU). In October 2005, the EU opened negotiations with Serbia for a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), a preliminary step towards joining the EU.
Serbia’s political climate since the fall of Milošević has remained tense. In 2003, Zoran Đinđić was assassinated by a Serb ultranationalist. Nationalist and EU-oriented political forces in Serbia have remained sharply divided on the political course of Serbia in regards to its relations with the European Union and the west.
From 2003 to 2006, Serbia has been part of the “State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.” This union was the successor to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SRJ). On 21 May 2006, Montenegro held a referendum to determine whether or not to end its union with Serbia. The next day, state-certified results showed 55.4% of voters in favor of independence. This was just above the 55% required by the referendum.
Republic of Serbia
On 5 June 2006, following the referendum in Montenegro, the National Assembly of Serbia declared the “Republic of Serbia” to be the legal successor to the “State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.” Serbia and Montenegro became separate nations. However, the possibility of a dual citizenship for the Serbs of Montenegro is a matter of the ongoing negotiations between the two governments. In April 2008 Serbia was invited to join the intensified dialogue programme with NATO despite the diplomatic rift with the Alliance over Kosovo.