Much ill-informed and superficial nonsense has been published in recent weeks on the Habsburgs in general and on their role in the Balkans in particular. This is a pity because that role is genuinely interesting, often filled with drama and heroism, and in its final stages marked by hubris, folly, and tragedy. Well worth a sober revisit.

The Militärgrenze—The engagement of the Habsburgs in the Balkans started in 1527, after the Hungarian rout at Mohacs, when the title of the slain King Louis II passed to the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand. Ferdinand and his heirs proceeded to establish a fortified cordon that came to be known as the Military Border in Croatia-Slavonia and, eventually, points further east. They did so at a time of Europe’s supreme peril. The Ottomans had subjugated Serbia, Bulgaria, and most of Hungary, until that time a major European power. They ruled all of the Balkans except an outer fringe of Hungary and a few fortified Dalmatian cities supported by Venice, and they were on the move.

Much of the land the Turks conquered in the western Balkans was remarkably inaccessible until recent times. It was beyond the rule of ancient and medieval states and was a refuge for rebels and resisters until recent times, an upland universe of thinly-populated areas. Into this almost stateless zone the Ottoman state pushed remorselessly in the 15th and 16th centuries, establishing its control of towns, valleys and fortresses, and offering new religion or new taxes to the new subjects. As the Turkish raiding parties moved northward, they pushed ahead of them a devastated no-man’s land (serhat). Final attacks were often preceded by years of raiding. This key feature of Ottoman warfare created utter wastelands on both the Turkish and the Christian side of the borders. After the fall of Serbia (1459) and Bosnia (1463), tens of thousands of mostly Orthodox Christians moved into depopulated lands in central and southwestern Croatia, between the Sava River at the southern edge of the Pannonian plain and the Adriatic, which had been ravaged by Turkish attacks.

The Austrians were desperately short of manpower and wanted to deploy the newcomers in defense against Ottoman incursions. To settle them down and give them a stake in the land they were supposed to defend, Vienna was willing to exempt them from feudal obligations and grant them religious liberty in return for military service. The settlers thus became Grenzers, granièari, the guardians of the Habsburgs’ vulnerable southeastern border, the backbone of the antemurale Christianitatis. This German overlay on the enfeebled Hungarian-Croatian line of defense, established at the moment of the Ottoman zenith, proved successful: the Grenzer-reinforced line held. By 1578 the whole Croatian Border from the Adriatic to the Sava River was administered by the Hofkriegsrat in Graz.

In the earliest Habsburg charter for the Border, issued by Ferdinand I Habsburg on September 5, 1538, the settlers were referred to as “Serbs or Rascians” (Serviani seu Rasciani). A century later, in 1630, the Grenzer privileges were codified by Ferdinand II in the Statuta Valachorum, while other contemporary Austrian documents refer to Rasciani sive Serbiani atque Valachi. In the 1660s the Roman Catholic Bishop of Zagreb, Petar Petretiæ, used the designation “Vlachs or Rascians, better still Serbians” (gens Valachorum sive Rascianorum vel potius Servianorum). He also wrote of “Vlachs, or Rascians, or, correctly speaking, Serbs,” Valachi siue Rasciani uel ut verius dicam Serviani nam ex regno Serviae prodierunt (in a report to the Crown Council dated April 21, 1662). The language they spoke, according to the bishop, was the ‘Serbian language, which is by us here known as Vlach’ (Lingua Serviana quae apud nos Valachica dicitur). The semantic confusion is unsurprising. While many settlers referred to themselves as Serbs from the moment of their arrival—which was reflected in their well-documented reverence for the mythologized saga of Kosovo—by geographic origin they were Rascians, as soldiers they were Grenzer, and as shepherds they were Vlachs, members of an upland economy of wandering pastoralists without a fixed locality. (The word Vlach in Bosnia is colloquially used by Muslims for all Christians, Orthodox as well as Catholic, while in Dalmatia it is still used in coastal towns for the people who live inland, regardless of religion or ethnicity.)

Understanding Identities—The notion that Balkan peasantries were uniformly pre-national before their “awakening” around 1848, or that “bourgeois nationalism” kicked into action to the beat of the Marseillaise to astonish an unsuspecting world, is incorrect. It is not a primordialist heresy to state that some identities are far older than the continuous documentary evidence for them. In the Balkans, nationality—a name, its memory, and loyalty to a myth—is plainly older than 1789, let alone 1848. They could not be conjured ex nihilo back in the early 19th century, just as various modern and postmodern constructs (Macedonian, Montenegrin, Bosniak…) are yet to prove their staying power.

However used or abused by later generations, the foundations of Serb and Croat identity alike rested on real bonds of shared memory and collective experience rooted in medieval times. The argument applies to both sides of the Serb-Croat equation. No less than their Catholic neighbors, Orthodox Grenzers had an extensive religion-supported oral history and a grasp of family origins by the time the modern nation-state system was codified by the Peace of Westphalia. They were Serbs long before they emerged from the “Vlach” chrysalis. The claim that an ethnically undifferentiated Orthodox mélange, formerly Croat or else Vlach in origin, was “Serbianized” under the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its autonomous schools in the 19th century, has its mirror image is the Serbian nationalist claim that most modern “Croats” are the offspring of Catholicized Serbs. It unintentionally gives credence to the assertion that religious conversion created both Serbs and Croats. This claim, however dubious, is often treated as axiomatic by all too many Western authors.

The legal entity of the Kingdom of Croatia survived under the Habsburgs, making it one of the chartered historic nations of the Empire. The resulting notion of its state rights included the key claim that no inhabitants of Croatia were exempt from the jurisdiction of its political and legal institutions. The Military Border was kept separate from the political, legal and administrative system of “Civil Croatia.” For the upholders of Croatia’s state rights the Serbs were unwelcome aliens for as long as they insisted on retaining their distinct name, their autonomous socio-economic and legal status vis-à-vis Civil Croatia, and their Orthodox faith. An obsessive aristocratic resentment at Grenzer priviliges was passed on from one generation to another, and became “democratized” after the collapse of feudalism in 1848. At the historical root of the bloodbath of 1941-5 and the conflict of 1991-95 lay a centuries-old striving of the Croatian elite class to impose legal and religious homogeneity and to re-establish political obedience.

A culturally homogeneous nation-state could not be created from the diversity of nationalities without ethnic cleansing, however. The notion of a racially distinct national community with an exclusive claim to its land was the necessary ingredient to make such a project emotionally and culturally legitimate and therefore possible. That notion was eventually articulated in the aftermath of 1848, in the period of rapid modernization, with the Serb as the essential ‘other’ at its center. The old distaste for the Vlach of the Croatian Estates was about to spread down the social scale. This happened fairly rapidly, within a generation, in the second half of the 19th century. Far from being ancient hatreds the rivalries were ancient in origin but modern in form.

Yugoslavism—It has been said that the identities of latter-day Serbs and Croats had been pre-national until the early 1800’s; but the speed and irreversibility with which they gelled into their distinct national communities indicates that those identities had been well developed long before the fall of the Bastille. Throughout the Habsburg Balkan lands there had existed a division along confessional lines; but what may have been a key cause of differentiation in the early-modern era became but its visible manifestation in the 19th century. Pre-modern religious affiliation, early-modern culture and newly-codified language combined to produce modern identity. The tensions and rivalries had ceased to be ostensibly religious and became openly nationalist. The process was still incomplete when the revolution of 1848 shook the Habsburg Empire. During the revolution the provincial authorities in Zagreb, supported by Vienna, propagated the Serb-Croat commonalities and common interests. This seemed a small price to pay for the willingness of both Serbs and Croats to fight for the Austrian Crown, but proved costly in the long run.

Hungarian resistance to centralism, after the setback of 1849, was crowned almost two decades later with the Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867 which created a confederalized Austria-Hungary. Within the Dual Monarchy Hungary was effectively left to deal with its multiethnic, multilingual plurality of non-Hungarian subjects of the Crown of St. Stephen as it deemed fit. The ensuing Croatian-Hungarian “Agreement” (Nagodba) of 1868 governed Croatia’s political status as a province of Hungary for half a century until the end of the First World War. It recognized Croatia-Slavonia as a distinct political unit but it also confirmed its subordination to Hungary. These developments coincided with the demilitarization (1871) and final abolition (1881) of the Military Border, which after the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1878 no longer served any military purpose.

In the late 1890’s a new generation of political activists started to emerge on both sides of Croatia’s ethnic and confessional divide. They were known simply as “the Youths” (omladina). The discourse of the Omladina came to be characterized by the avoidance of old-style nationalist rhetoric, by political pragmatism, and by heightened concern for social and economic issues. On the Croat side its members (the Progressive Youth) were ready to discard the old denial of the Serbs’ existence and identity. On the Serb side they were ready to accept the notion of Croatian statehood and civic identity as the framework for joint political action. This was the formula that eventually produced the “New Course” in Croatian politics. It key novelty was the notion that the individual, rather than the corporate entity, was the basic political actor. The formula paved the way for the establishment of the Croat-Serb Coalition, the ruling political force in Croatia in the years before and during the Great War. It remained in power until the momentous events in late 1918. It also created the intellectual and emotional climate for the rise of a Yugoslav sentiment.

The Bitter Fruits of 1914—In the decade preceding Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary was in a state of latent crisis. Its mosaic of nationalities could hardly be held together without radical constitutional reforms. A group of scholars around the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, suggested the creation of the ‘United States of Greater Austria’ (Vereinigte Staaten von Groß-Österreich), a federation of autonomous units based on language and ethnicity. These were opposed, for different reasons, by the Hungarian land-owning nobility in the east and by the German nationalists in the west.

The Monarchy tried to overcome domestic tensions, among other means, through expansion in the Balkans, by occupying Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 and annexing it three decades later. In doing so it turned Serbia from a reliable client state of the Habsburgs—as it had been in the 1880’s under King Milan Obrenoviæ—into a rival and ultimately an an enemy under the rival Karadjordjevic dynasty, which was restored after the coup d’etat in May 1903. The Monarchy’s attempts to subjugate Serbia by the means of a tariff war (1906-1911) proved ineffective and even counter-productive, by enhancing Belgrade’s links with Paris and St. Petersburg.

The immediate trigger of the European war in 1914 was the desire of Austria-Hungary to settle accounts with Serbia once and for all, with Germany’s protection vis-à-vis Russia. The essential precondition for the chain reaction was Berlin’s cheque blanche to Vienna, which reflected Germany’s desire to force a preventive war on Russia before its anticipated growth into a first-rate economic and military colossus. The reckless risk included the assumption that Britain would stay out of the war, even though the Shlieffen Plan entailed the blatant violation of Belgian neutrality.

Such issues were hardly considered in Vienna, where the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand was seen as an opportunity to neutralize Serbia’s perceived Piedmontism. Vienna watched with consternation the triumph of Serbian arms against Turkey, then Bulgaria, and the doubling of its territory by the Treaty of Bucharest ending the Second Balkan War in 1913. July 1914 was neither an accident nor a tragedy beyond human control. With its blank check hastily granted from Berlin, the Monarchy presented Serbia with an ultimatum that was meant to be unacceptable. It was not meant to be accepted: Austria-Hungary willed a Balkan war, and Germany wanted an European war. With the German march on Liège they ended up fighting a world war that destroyed Europe. The popular Viennese jingle of August 1914, Serbien muss sterbien, suggested that distinctly Balkan bile had been approved in the Mitteleuropa. The consequences were dire.

The sobering news of the Habsburg armies’ military debacles in Serbia were followed by their complete withdrawal by the end of 1914. In 1915 the Monarchy shifted its focus to the Russian front; but after the Allied landings at Gallipoli in April 1915, Germany could no longer ignore Serbia and proceeded to open the Danubian link to Turkey. In October German Field Marshal August von Mackensen led the attack from the north, while Bulgaria joined the war and cut off Serbia’s southern flank. The campaign crushed it but it did not destroy the Serbian army, which, though cut in half, marched across Albania to the coast. Allied ships evacuated 150,000 Serbian soldiers. Following recuperation and rearmament by the French, these troops re-entered fighting on the Salonika Front where they won a decisive victory against Bulgaria in September 1918.

As the war entered its decisive stage in early 1918, the future of the crumbling Monarchy was becoming uncertain. The Allies were prepared to see Serbia expand, after the war, into Habsburg lands with large Serb populations, such as Bosnia and Vojvodina. Until the final months they did not envisage the creation of a Yugoslav state or a thorough dismemberment of Austria-Hungary. Even President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points provided for “autonomous development” for the Monarchy’s nationalities rather than full sovereignty outside its framework.

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Wilson’s was a revolutionary doctrine that could not be contained. It accelerated competing aspirations among the smaller nations of Central Europe and the Balkans that hastened the collapse of transnational empires and gave rise to ethnic conflicts and territorial disputes that still remain unresolved.

Europe may have moved beyond blood-and-soil atavism, west of the Oder at least, but in the Balkans the old heart of darkness keeps beating—and the last heir to the Habsburg mantle helped stoke the ambers in the final decades of his life. He chose to ignore the fruits of the suicidal blunders of 1914 by denying that they were blunders in the first place.