This is a useful overview of the history of Serbia, starting in neolithic times and going right through to the present (it was published in 2018).
The book starts by describing the early inhabitants of the territory now known as Serbia, including the surprising fact that it produced 15 Roman emperors, more than the city of Rome itself.
Then we get to the arrival of the Serbs in the 620s, as part of a great migration of other Slavic tribes to the Balkan region, and the gradual emergence of a Serbian nation.
What’s interesting is that Serbia moved around quite a bit, as it was buffeted by larger neighbours like the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, and later Venice on the coast, the Ottoman Empire in the south, and the Habsburg Empire in the north. It started off closer to the Adriatic coast, around Zeta (present-day Montenegro), before moving inland and finding its centre around Kosovo.
And therein lies the problem. For many centuries in the medieval era, when Serbia was at its most powerful, it was centred on what is now Kosovo. The most important historical sites of the Serbian people are the 800-year-old monasteries in “Old Serbia”, which is now Kosovan territory.
But then the Ottomans arrived in Europe. Serbia was defeated, and its territories, which once stretched into much of modern-day Greece, Albania and Montenegro, were lost. The Serbs were forced to move north, and over the centuries, Albanians gradually moved into the territory of Old Serbia. So that’s the essence of the conflict in Kosovo: Serbs saw it as their historic homeland, but Kosovar Albanians have lived there for centuries and now form the majority.
Conversely, most of the northern half of Serbia belonged to the Habsburg Empire or Austria-Hungary until the 20th century. Medieval Serbia never reached further north than the Danube, on which Belgrade sits. Later, in the wake of the Ottomans’ failed Siege of Vienna, tens of thousands of Serbs moved north into the newly liberated Vojvodina, which is now the northern half of Serbia, and they came to form a majority, but remained within the Habsburg Empire until after World War I.
In the 19th century, after more than four centuries of Ottoman rule, Serbia rose up in a series of rebellions, at first gaining more autonomy within the Ottoman Empire and then finally becoming fully independent in 1878.
After fighting on the side of Britain and its allies in World War I, Serbia was rewarded with enlarged territory and the lead role in the new Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, which later became Yugoslavia. It’s significant, I think, that Yugoslavia was not formed voluntarily by its own constituent peoples, but stitched together by the “Great Powers” in the wake of war. Maybe that’s why some of them were so keen to leave at the first opportunity.
The downside of books like The History of Serbia, which give a big sweep of centuries of history in 350 pages, is that they have to skip over important issues quite quickly. I’m conscious of skipping over a lot in this review too.
I would have liked more detail in places, especially with the breakup of Yugoslavia. And in the earlier periods, when all the leaders and battles and place names were so unfamiliar, it sometimes felt like a recitation of facts, with not much to hold on to.
There are some good maps included in the book, but since many of the place names would be unfamiliar to a non-Serbian reader, it would have been good to ensure that those names appeared on the maps, so that we could look them up. And an index is a must, for me, in a book like this, so I was shocked to find it missing. And although the English translation was generally good, it could have done with more rigorous copy editing.
But overall, despite these drawbacks, I’d recommend The History of Serbia as a good introduction to the subject. It sheds light on some important conflicts in recent history and provides a useful background for Balkan politics today.