Notes on cities and places. The Balkans


“The Balkans produce more history than they can consume”

Winston Churchill, 1945


Trying to understand the history of Slavic and Balkan regions is a complex undertaking for the multiplicity of migrations, occupations and governments that over the centuries have continually redesigned political borders within which continued to coexist with different cultures and ethnicities. This region between the Adriatic Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea and the Danube in fact constituted, since prehistoric era, a transit area between East and West.


According to Strabone and Pliny the Elder Chronicles, the most ancient inhabitants of the Peninsula were the Illyrians, name with whom we identify one Indo-European population of uncertain geographic origin, which later settled in a very specific and limited region in the south of the Balkans, nearby the Greeks. By the time the name was then extended to refer to all those populations who lived or were originally from the geographic region known in modern times as Yugoslavia, although ethnically and linguistically different from each other: there are more than 80 Illyrian tribes including Istrian, Liburnians (linguistically related to ancient Venetians), Dalmatians, some groups of Thracians and Pannonians.

Skilled warriors and navigators, virtuous metal forgeries and dread pirates, the Illyrians were subjugated to the Roman Empire in 168 AD after more than two centuries of wars; riots and insurrections continued to run for more than a century, until a period of calm came, as a result of the recognition of privileges related to the land property by the Romans in exchange for military services by the Illyrians. Almost 5 centuries later, precisely in 395 AD, at the sunset of the empire, Rome decided to divide its reign from a territorial point of view: the northern part was included in the Western Roman Empire (Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) while the southern part was included in the Eastern Roman Empire (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia).

The progressive decline of the Empire had various factors, from the incursions and migrations of barbarian tribes to the widespread black plagues, the decline of administrative and civic structures, the spread of Christianity to the multiplication of civil wars, all of which left space to a great amalgam of peoples and kingdoms. Towards the 600 AD, the Slavs, from regions, which are supposed to correspond to today's Ukraine, occupied the central European territories left empty by the Germans' migration. By avoiding the Pannonia plain subject to the nomadic raids of the Avars, through Poland they came to Pomerania, went through the "Moravia Gate", crossed the Danube and through Serbia came to the region known as Balkan Peninsula, overlapping the pre-existing populations such as Illyrians, Dacian and Thracian, or mixing with them, as with Bulgars.


"If it was the Slavs that broke down in the 6th century the bridge that connected the Christian East and West, it can be said that from the 9th and 10th century and further on their historic task would have been to rebuild that bridge. The difficult destiny of the “hinge” populations awaited them, the prospect of participating, according to the epochs and the circumstances, to reconciliations and partial osmosis or vice versa to separations and misunderstandings between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, between two ways of conceiving the world and its structures, laws and finality, and the role that man is called to do voluntarily or unwillingly.”

Francis Conte, The Slavs. Civilisations of Central and Eastern Europe, Einaudi, Milan, 1991


Numerous were the "national" medieval states that emerged in the region, characterised by a certain degree of fluidity as they periodically expanded and contracted at the expense of their neighbours. In the beginning, Macedonia came to rule the southern part of Croatia, then the Croats themselves conquered the peninsula from Slovenia to Montenegro; subsequently, the Serbs, at their peak, ruled from the southern Dalmatian coast to northern Greece, ending up in the 14th century to the constitution of the Bosnian kingdom, encompassing almost the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia, but without an idea of reuniting the Slavic-Balkan population in one state.

In the 11th century, in the territories of present Croatia, the Kingdom of Hungary was first established, recognising administrative and constitutional autonomy to the Croatian Kingdom, and after almost three centuries of conflict with the Serenissima, the Venetian government was consolidated; during the time of countless crusades, Byzantine governments and Bulgarian governments alternated in "Macedonia" with a brief Serbian domination at the threshold of the Ottoman invasion. Under the guidance of Kulin Banan, "Bosnia" became one of the most powerful states in the Western Balkans, succeeding in constraining the pressure from one side of the Hungarians and the other of the Bulgars and subverting the influence spheres of the Catholic Church of Western Europe as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church. In these centuries, Serbia re-emerged as an autonomous political entity and thanks to the exploitation of silver, gold, copper and lead mines, it had the resources to support an expanding campaign and increase its commercial routes.

At the time of the crusades, in Western Europe the first universities were founded, while in Córdoba Averroè (1126-1198) began his work of translating and commenting on the texts of Aristotle, unknown to the contemporary western world for the absence of Latin versions; in Paris the mud roads were covered with stone while Frederick II, later Holy Roman Emperor, was building Castel del Monte in southern Italy, an astronomical machine in the shape of an octagonal building; the lemons, imported from Persia, were the first to appear in Sicily, while Sulmonte recorded the first trace of silkworms through an act of renting premises for bachiculture; the Genoese Vivaldi lost themselves in the Atlantic Ocean and Ligurian Lanzerotto Malocello discovered the Canary Islands while Marco Polo reached China in 1295 after a 24-year journey on the silk trail.


In 1324 Ottoman conquest began: Bursa, Nicomedia, Adrianopoli and Thessaloniki were the first steps of an unstoppable geo-political progress that inaugurated an Ottoman domain for 500 years in Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Danube and Croatia, from which only the Dalmatian coast remained frankly allied to the Austrian Empire. Ottoman law introduced a tolerant Islam in the form of Sufism, offering civil privileges to encourage conversion to the new religion. Numerous Bosnians and Albanians adhered to Islam; Macedonians, Serbs and Montenegrins were allowed to maintain Orthodox worship, though the latter two rebelled against Turkish rule, while the Croatian coast remained Catholic.

Suleiman the Magnificent brought the Ottoman Empire to the utmost expansion, accompanied the ferocious military campaigns with a far-sighted policy that led to full freedom of action in various Danubian states under the submission of the Empire; this was the case for the Republic of Ragusa, Montenegro, the Principality of Transylvania (independent after the fall of the Kingdom of Hungary), Moldavia and Wallachia. In the mountains of Bosnia and Albania construction of mosques, madras and han began; in other regions religious buildings were linked to dominant cult (Catholic churches and Orthodox churches), while civil architecture began to show Arab influences.

In 1683 Ottoman expansion stopped in Wien and the financing campaigns of the crowns of Spain and Portugal for the search of new commercial routes to the east broke the commercial hegemony of the Turkish empire. The following century was turbulent and characterised by a spark of punctual conflicts in all territories, with the background of the progressive weakening of the political and administrative reign of the Sultans and the Visir. In the time of the Enlightenment, where the flourishing of interest in math and in the "machine" shifted the focus of the advancement of knowledge and avant-garde from East to West, craftsmen of excellence migrated from city to city, from country to country, crossing the wars by means of luck. It is unique to imagine in this historical context the journey of the first three mechanical dolls, the writer, the drawer and harpsichord player, from Prussian Neuchatel to the court of Madrid, Paris, London, China.

The Napoleonic wars reached the Dalmatian coast marking the defeat of Venice and unifying in a single administrative environment Dalmatia, Istria and Slovenia under the name of Illyrian Provinces. In the Schönbrunn Palace, scenic staging of gardens and of salons enfilade, a meeting was held; known as the Vienna Congress (1814-15) it redefined the political geography of Europe after the Napoleonic reign.

Austria of the Habsburgs was invested in the role of ordering and administering a compact block of territories (Austria, Galicia, Bukovina, Bohemia, Hungary, Croatia, Trentino, Istria, Dalmatia, Lombardo-Veneto), strongly heterogeneous for culture, traditions, languages. The strong multiculturalism and multiethnicity of the territories was expressed in the Revolutions of 1848: Prague, Venice, Budapest, Milan, Belgrade, Croatia demanded autonomy. The riots of the Spring of Peoples, together with the pressures of the Kingdom of Hungary, the decline of the Ottoman empire crushed by the debts of the Pisces, the strong political-administrative cohesion of Prussia in Bismarck and the appearance of Tsarist Russia on the European continent brought in 1867 the Emperor Francesco Giuseppe to sign the compromise that envisioned an Austro-Hungarian empire as two state entities, with their own governments and parliaments united under the same crown: the Austrian state (Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Dalmatia and other regions) and Hungary (Hungary and other Slavic regions).

There were decades of cultural anxiety that echoed until today: in the world of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, Egon Schiele, Nikolay Vasilevich Gogol and Anton Chechov, Carl Friedrich Gauss was born the modern man.


Joseph Roth described this era in 1938:

"Well, even if I was prepared for the unknown, and indeed something extremely remote, most of it appeared then familiar and usual to me. Only later, long after the Great War, rightly named so in my opinion, is called "World War", and not because all the world was in war, but because of it we all lost the world, our world, only long after, I said, I had to realise that even the landscapes, the fields, the nations, the races, the huts and the cafes of the most different type and of the most different origin must be subject to the natural law that a powerful spirit is able to approach what is distant, to make the alien similar and to reconcile the apparently divergent. I speak of the misunderstood and even abused spirit of the old monarchy, which made possible for me to feel home in Zlotogrod as well as in Sipolje or Vienna.”

Joseph Roth, The Emperor's Tomb, 1938


On the eve of the First World War the Balkan area was a real powder keg.

With the privileges of the Ottoman Empire in exchange for military service, Serbia had a dominant position in the area and promoted, together with Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo, thanks also to the aid from Russia, the idea of a Great Serbia, independent by rulers, whether they were Habsburg or Ottoman. Bosnia was formally under Ottoman sovereignty, but in fact it was administered as a colony of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which prompted the development of unprecedented infrastructures. In Croatia, the vision of a state of the South Slavs consolidated in contrast to the Habsburg regency, which however helped build the first roads, railway routes, schools and hospitals in the region. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb-Bosnian revolutionary; after a month the Habsburg Empire invaded Serbia. In the years of the First World War the participants were, on one hand, by the Central Empires (Hapsburg, Bulgarian, Ottoman and German), on the other hand the states that have long struggled for autonomy and national unity or for expansion in Austro-Hungarian territories like Serbia, France, the Russian Empire, Great Britain, Kingdom of Montenegro, Kingdom of Greece, Kingdom of Romania and Kingdom of Italy) and lastly, the United States.

During the 1919 Conference of Peace, US President Thomas Woodrow Wilson had a speech at the Congress known as the "Fourteen Points" indicating guidelines for redesigning the geopolitical assets of post-war Europe according to the principle of the self-determination of peoples or principle of nationality. The 11th point, expressly dedicated to the Balkans, stated "the relations of the various Balkan states to one another determined by friendly advocacy along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality". However, defining goals in the Slavic-Balkan regions at sunset of the two empires was not easy. Italy and Germany contended for the region of Trentino Alto Adige; Rome and Belgrade contracted for years, until a solution was found at the Treaty of Rapallo, where it was chosen the division of the Croatian territories (Trieste, Gorizia, Gradisca, Istria, Zara and Kvarner Islands to Italy, the city of Rijeka as an independent state, all other Islands and coastal areas to the reign of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia); Banat, Bačka and Baranja were divided between Hungary, Romania and the Panslavic Kingdom.

On the Balkan Peninsula two lines of thought were already emerging about the constitution of the kingdom: on the one hand, Serbs and Montenegrins, winners of the war, had a state already established before the conflict, preferred a unitary state with a strong central structure; on the other side, Croats, Slovenes and Bosnians saw the new kingdom as a voluntary federation of equal peoples, and therefore preferred a federal state structure with federated units based on well-defined ethnic ends.


In the twenties years of armistice between the two wars, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr exchanged debates on theories that opened a new vision of the world, hypothesising space as a curved space, in expansion and elastic, and where light is made of finite elements, the photons. In the same period in the Balkan Peninsula the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was born. It was 1929 and the new kingdom was fragile and unstable for continual internal conflicts, especially in Croatian territories, where the Croatian nationalist movement of Ustaša led by Pavelic was strengthened and supported by the emerging Italian fascist party.

Confused years of dictatorship and ferocity in a predominantly agricultural and pastoral country that depended on exports almost exclusively from Weimar, nationalist fascists opposed each other by persecuting Jewish and Albanian minorities. With Hitler's rise in the European scenario, Belgrade attempted to maintain a neutral position but had to capitulate by joining the Tripartite Pact (Germany-Italy-Japan) when neighbouring states fell one after the other under the influence of the Third Reich.

The occupation of the Western Balkans by the Axis meant a dismemberment of Yugoslavia: Slovenia was divided between Italy and Germany; Serbia was dismembered, deprived of its peripheral regions and reduced to the central part driven by a puppet government; Macedonia was largely annexed to Bulgaria while Vojvodina to Hungary; the Banat annexed directly to Germany; Dalmatia and Montenegro occupied militarily by Italy; the puppet state of the "Great Croatia" was created, consisting of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, expressly wanted by the Germans and led by the ustaša of Ante Pavelić; while to pander the will of Italy, Kosovo and the eastern part of Macedonia were annexed to Albania to create "Great Albania".

There were numerous cases of violence by minorities: Serbs, Orthodox Christians, were obliged to convert to Catholicism; concentration camps were created; tens of thousands of people, including Serbs, Muslims, Jews and Gypsies, were beaten by Ustashas; many were the Serbs who had to flee from Kosovo for fear of retaliation by the Albanian population for crimes committed in the previous decades; thousands were deprived of their possessions.

It is in this context that the Croatian-Slovenian partisan resistance led by Josip Broz Tito, who maintained close ties with Stalin's Russia while orchestrating strategic alliances with the Allies. In 1944 Tito entered in Belgrade with the Red Army and was appointed prime minister by the Allies. The first post-war period was heavily burdened by mass killing by Yugoslav partisans, involving Italians, Hungarians and Germans, and the difficult geopolitical redefinition of Slavic-Balkan regions; however coincided with the beginning of a period of economic and cohesion resurgence, although kept with the "iron fist".


“ No country of people’s democracy has so many nationalities as this country has. Only in Czechoslovakia do there exist two kindred nationalities, while in some of the other countries there are only minorities. Consequently in these countries of people’s democracy there has been no need to settle such serious problems as we have had to settle here. With them the road to socialism is less complicated than is the case here. With them the basic factor is the class issue, with us it is both the nationalities and the class issue. The reason why we were able to settle the nationalities question so thoroughly is to be found in the fact that it had begun to be settled in a revolutionary way in the course of the Liberation War, in which all the nationalities in the country participated, in which every national group made its contribution to the general effort of liberation from the occupier according to its capabilities."

"The role of the Communist Party lay in the first place in the fact that it led that struggle, which was a guarantee that after the war the national question would be settled decisively in the way the communists had conceived long before the war and during the war."

"The Communist Party must always endeavour, and does endeavour, to ensure that all the negative phenomena of nationalism disappear and that people are educated in the spirit of internationalism."

"In the new, socialist Yugoslavia the existing equality of rights for all nationalities has made it impossible for one national group to impose economic exploitation upon another. That is because hegemony of one national group over another no longer exists in this country.”

Josip Broz Tito , Speech held at the Slovene Academy of Arts and Sciences, 26 November 1948, Ljubljana


In the 1950s, Tito stood in an intermediate position between the two superpowers that allowed him to receive economic and military aid from time to time on one side or the other, as well as leading the nascent Non-Aligned Movement. He strengthened alliances with Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Indonesia, Czechoslovakia and offered to be a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Tito's socialism had a significantly different impression; in fact, the Yugoslavs could travel freely both in western countries and in the eastern block, unlike the other communist countries.

In 1963, the Federal Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was founded, and ten years later a constitution based on a federal model was examined. Very soon tensions began between richer republics, such as Croatia and Slovenia demanding more power, Serbia, which called for centralisation of the administration, and poorer regions such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo were calling for recognition of Its own aspirations and greater investment by the central government.

After the death of Tito (1980), the worsening of the economic situation fueled the resumption of nationalist pushes even within individual republics, which in fact were themselves an amalgam of cultures, ethnicities and cultures: the demonstrations in Pristina 1981, the Nationalist Museum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986, the new Croatian constitution decreed in 1990 the Serbian-Croat minority, the 1991 plebiscite referendums for the independence of Croatia and Slovenia.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall coincided with the rise to the presidency of the Serbian Communist Party and the Serbian Republic of Slobodan Milošević, which launched a nationalist policy in contrast to independent referendums that were happening through all other republics. It was a civil war for all the nineties: first Slovenia, then Croatia, Kosovo and last Bosnia. Slovenian independence was almost eliminated without bloodshed because of its ethnic compactness.

Unlike in Croatia, where there was almost a 30% Serb population concentrated in the Krajina region, the clashes between the Croats, backed by US and NATO with the discussed operation Storm, and the Serbo-Croats, supported by Serbian militias and by the Yugoslav Army, were violent. In Bosnia, where Bosnian, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs had not pacified, the war of Bosnia was more complex, chaotic and the bloodiest in Europe since World War II, in the face of paralysis and insipidity of NATO forces.

Sarajevo was under siege without electricity and food for four years; Belgrade was bombarded by NATO forces, while in thousands appeared against Milosevic (1999); Sibenik and Zadar were bombed by the Yugoslav Army, and Vukovar was almost razed to the ground.

In 1995 the Dayton Accords sanctioned the creation of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a Confederate State of two entities, the Croatian-Bosnian Federation (51% of the territory) and the Serbian republic (49% of the territory) and recognised the traditional boundaries of Croatia, with the return of the Serb Krajina-Slavonia. Today, only Slovenia and Croatia are part of the European Union; further candidates are Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia; Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are also potential candidates.


Traveling across the Balkans what surprises is the coexistence of the living signs of a tormented history, which is witnessed by the empty lot caused by the bombs in urban centres and bullet holes in the walls as well as the plurality and stratification of architectures, and the serene vitality which daily life takes place. In Split, Sarajevo, Belgrade people speak with humbleness and shame about the recent history: they do not forget but they look forward, with a singular openness towards the contradictions that continue to mark the countries, which could be confused with a fatalist spirit, but perhaps it is more simply the wisdom of those who have lived a lot.

In these last few weeks, we read of the massive exodus of refugees, mostly Syrians, who walk through this vast region that still today is the land of the middle East and West, the cradle of the world we know.



Genova, 2015