Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Krajina Chronicle: A History of Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia

The Balkans, it has been wittily observed, produce more history than can be consumed locally. Conservative Serbian historian Srdja Trifkovic has produced an extremely informative history of a major strand in Balkan history with his The Krajina Chronicle: A History of Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. (The most famous Krajina Serb is the inventor Nicolas Tesla.)

The history, particularly the recent history, of the region is so fraught that I read the book with an wary eye – would the author’s Serbian perspective mar or inform his presentation of the history? I am happy to report than the author’s perspective very much informs, rather than mars, his work.

The author starts, in his Preface, with the present-day and the expulsion of the Serbs from Krajina, which has, it appears, brought a long episode of history to an end – the final end of the Military Frontier that was such a part of the history of the area. As Trifkovic writes:
In some ways the Krajina was the nursery of Yugoslavia. Both the acute anxieties of nineteenth-century Croatian nationalists against the Serbs and the possibility of ‘Illyrian’ or South Slave cooperation are hard to comprehend if the history of Krajina is not understood. This book is presented in the hope that it can and will be better understood. The only way we can meaningfully judge the present is by the example of the past (p.7).
I certainly came to understand the history of the region, and its current travails, a lot better after reading the book.
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Trifkovic starts by describing the setting; the geography, longstanding trade patterns, and migrations. These preliminaries conclude with the Serene Republic of Venice dominating Dalmatia, the Habsburg monarchy, as its Christian neighbour, both facing an expansionary Ottoman empire. The Turkish conquest of Bosnia led to various Serbs (Ushoks, from the Serbian for ‘intruder’) moving into Venetian and Habsburg territory. They proved unruly and troublesome, resorting to piracy until finally suppressed in 1617 (Ppff).

Muslim aggression
We then move to tracing the long history of Muslim (Arab then Turkish) aggression into the Balkans. The Turkish conquest destroyed – indeed devastated – what had been a region of thriving Christian civilisation, which took a long time to recover its former vitality. Trifkovic sets out the dhimmi structure of Turkish rule, and how it was efficiently organised for permanent war. The Turkish forces, at least in the C15th and C16th, were more professionally organised than their Christian opponents. Raids and invasions pushed the border of Turkish control outwards, with conquered Christians being harnessed to conquer more Christians in what was a standard pattern in times of Islamic vigour:
Perpetual warfare was supported by a huge taxation base of Christian dhimmis subjected to the rigour of Sharia (p.18).
Trifkovic covers very effectively the patterns – as they applied in the Balkans – set out at far greater length, detail and historical and geographical coverage in Andrew Bostom’s compilation on Jihad.

As Turkish raids and military advances threatened the borders of the Serene Republic and the Habsburg lands, the latter set in place:
a series of measures to defend the borders against the Turks, to control flight beyond the border belt, and to restore economic life and political authority in a wasted no-man’s land (p.20).
Turkish advance was based on particularly effective development of a longstanding Islamic pattern. Raiders devastated border regions, promoting flight and reducing economic activity (and thus long-term ability to resist) while the spoils of raids (already sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence) motivated and maintained the raiders. Larger armies periodically probed the borders. Eventually, conquest of a new region would be accomplished, the surviving inhabitants would be subject to the jizya poll tax on non-believers, Muslim warriors were settled as “tax-farmers” in the newly-conquered region and the process would roll on from the new (expanded) borders.

The Turks added the extra twist of levying a tax of young dhimmi boys to form the Janissaries: highly professional, well-trained troops who helped maintain and extend Ottoman rule (which proved far more stable and long-lasting than previous forms of Islamic rule). It was a system very much grounded in Muslim religious war that was very effective at promoting Islamic expansion. If expansion stopped, however, maintaining the vigour of the system was more problematic since the arrangement did not promote internal economic development. Though this was only a problem if Islam came up against a civilisation that did. Until the C17th, Christendom was not quite that civilisation.

Though signs of possibility were there. The Reconquista occurred because the Iberian Christians managed to stop the expansion of Islam in the peninsula and then developed the capacity to roll Islam back. But that had mainly been the result of developing more stable institutions of rule (a comparative, not an absolute, judgment) with attached military institutions (such as the military orders).

While the Kingdom of Hungary resisted the Turkish advance for some decades, it collapsed over a period of 30 years after the disaster of the battle of Mohacs in 1526, leaving nothing left of the kingdom but a thin line of forts. The Habsburg Monarchy and Serene Republic devised a system that was able to halt the Turkish advance (an advance that had continued, in fluctuating waves, from the disaster of Manzikert in 1071 for five centuries, across Anatolia and the Balkans, to a few miles from Vienna).

Defending Christendom
In 1553, the Habsburgs organised the military frontier as a single command: a zone 30-50 miles deep based on a chain of 12 major and 130 minor fortified posts manned by 5,000 soldiers and relying on 20,000 Grenzer militiamen available for service at short notice.
This time the line held. The Turks were kept out of Italy, Germany and Bohemia, during the rest of the sixteenth century, by the power of Austria and Venice acting behind a screen provided by the Dalmatian Krajina, by the Croatian and Hungarian Military Border, and by the settler-soldiers (p.23).
It is only by looking at the pattern of the previous centuries that one can see what a genuine achievement that was.

Part of the process of resistance was offering incentives to settlers to the border regions largely depopulated by Turkish raids. How such settlers conceived themselves in identity is a question both difficult to untangle and redolent of later national claims: Trifkovic is frankly sceptical of the notion that national/ethnic identity was something that Balkan peasantries entirely lacked prior to the rise of “bourgeois nationalism” in 1789, describing this notion as:
one of the oddest conjectures ever to have captured historical attention (p.30).
Something with a long history was Croat political identity. Croatia had formed a personal union with the Crown of St Stephen and that sense of continuing existence was maintained when the Crown passed to the Habsburgs. It suited the Habsburg monarchy to maintain the notion of Croatia’s political continuity, since the Croat elite was a reliable ally against the turbulent Hungarian magnates.

The Croat elite was much less happy at the privileges granted to the Grenzer soldier-settlers – many of whom were Orthodox, not Catholic – since their direct relationship to the Crown kept them out of the control of the Croat nobility. But the Grenzer were far too useful to the Crown, which reliably supported them against the claims of the Croat nobility.

A set of privileges grew up which was codified by Emperor Ferdinand in 1630 as the Statuta Valachorum (the Turkish border was quiet, but the Grenzer provided 25 regiments for Austrian forces in the decisive “Swedish” phase of the Thirty Years War). They were exempted from feudal dues or the jurisdiction of the Croatian diet, instead granted direct allegiance to the Crown, elected their own captains (voivode) and magistrates (knezovi), while their obligatory labour service (rabota) was limited to maintenance of fortifications. They could engage in trade, including in cattle and salt, without paying customs dues, though certain commercial restrictions kept the area underdeveloped (i.e. focused on military service). The structure of the Military Border – of a life defined by the role of free peasant and lifetime soldier – was confirmed by repeated legislation. The land remained owned by the Crown, but was granted to families in lieu of pay for military service. They lived in extended farming households (zadruga) of several married couples and children presided over by a paterfamilias and his wife – an arrangement which clearly improved their defensive capacity:
The zadruga was a community based on blood, kinship, culture and economics (p.34)
An arrangement with no precedent in medieval (or later) Croatia but with precedent in medieval Serbia.

The Grenzer may have been a free peasantry with a direct alliance with the Crown – much to the frustration of the Croatian nobility – but the need for large families (to cope with men being away on military service), the diversion of resources from investment in farming improvements and techniques generated an endemic economic crisis from the 1750s onwards (Pp34-5).

In the 1690s, there was a massive migration of 50-80,000 Serbs, led by their Orthodox Patriarch, from Turkish lands to the Habsburg lands – recently expanded by successful campaigns that culminated in the taking of Belgrade and which had been assisted by thousands of Serbian volunteers. The Habsburg advances ground to a halt, however, as Louis XIV’s aggression forced the Habsburgs to divert military forces to counter French advances. As rebellious dhimmis, under Sharia, the lives, families and property of the Serbs would be forfeit.

Emperor Leopold (1658-1707) issued a letter of invitation, inviting the Serbs withdrawing with the Austrian forces to enter and settle in Habsburg lands. A Serbian assembly met in Belgrade, and voted Leopold “Serbian king”. Leopold issued a Charter of Privileges in 1690 (others followed in 1691 and 1695) taking the Serbs into “royal protection”, including free exercise of their (Orthodox) religion. The Military Frontier now became much more explicitly Serbian and Orthodox. A similar process took place in the Dalmatian lands of the Serene Republic, which was also enjoying military success against the Turks.

The end of the Great Turkish War in 1699 meant, particularly after Prince Eugene of Savoy’s victory at Belgrade in 1717, the end of Turkish advances in Europe. From then on, there was a long process of the shrinkage of Turkish territory: a process only brought to an end by the Turkish victory in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22. Indeed, Trifkovic plausibly argues that Prince Eugene’s string of military successes against the Turks could have led their control of the Balkans to unravel in the C18th if the European balance of power had not come to their aid (p.42).

Catholic enmity
The Catholic Church constantly worked against the rights of the Orthodox Church. The Hungarian and Croatian diets recurringly complained about the Grenzer exception to their authority. (Their example as free peasants also provided a destabilising example to the bonded peasants on their own estates.) The diminishing of the Turkish threat was regularly cited as removing the justification for the exception. But the Grenzer provided forces in numbers and quality to Habsburg forces greatly disproportionate to their population base (their regiments regularly suffered 25-30% losses in campaigns). So, the tensions persisted but so did Grenzer role and identity (Pp35ff).

The Grenzer faced an alliance between Croatian nobility and Catholic Church – the former seeking to enserf them and bring them under the authority of the Croatian diet, the latter to Catholicise them. The latter pressure in particular was bitter and relentless. A pattern emerged whereby the Orthodox would be granted privileges, the Catholic Church would mount relentless struggle against these, the privileges would gradually rescinded until the next military emergency, when they would be granted again (Pp43ff).

The same pattern emerged in the Dalmatian lands of the Serene Republic (Pp51ff). It is safe to say that there has never been a time – from the emergence of the Christian Church as the established religion of the Roman Empire until now – when the Catholic Church has not been at war with the principle of equality before the law: the story Trifkovic tells, for example, is very similar to that of the struggle the Catholic Church waged against Jewish legal equality under Karl-lo-magne and his successors. At a talk the historian gave in Melbourne on 28 April 2010, he noted that edicts of religious toleration in Protestant Europe tended to stick, those in Catholic Europe tended not to: a fair observation.

A period of brief French rule in Dalmatia (1805-1813) had the same disruptively egalitarian effect it had elsewhere in Europe, with the Orthodox being granted full legal equality (Pp57-8). The return to Habsburg rule (they had originally acquired Dalmatia after the collapse of the Serene Republic) saw the pressure on the Orthodox Church and identity continue until the pressures of the 1848 Revolution resulted in the issue of the March 4 1849 Decree on Religious Tolerance (p.59).

The long struggle over confessional rights created separate identities that became expressed in the nationalist political language of the C19th (p.60).

The rise of nationalism
With the rise of national claims, who was what became a more salient, and more contested, issue. Croatian nationalism took over from Croatia gentry politics and Catholic confessional aggrandisement, seeking to define the Serbs on Croatia borders as Croatian, as having no separate existence. In part, to make as strong a resistance as possible to Hungarian claims, especially after the Ausgleich (Compromise) of 1867 created the Austria-Hungary Dual Monarchy. The Croatian-Hungarian Agreement (Nagodba) of 1869 created a subordinate Croatian autonomy within the Kingdom of the Crown of St Stephen. The Hungarian elite saw it as a way-station to increased integration in Hungary, many Croatians as a way-station to increased Croatian autonomy. Neither gave the Serbs much credence (Pp61ff).

The abolition of the Military Border in 1871, and its full integration into Croatia, created turmoil for the Krajina Serbs, aggravated by the long agrarian crisis (1873-1895) of the Dual Monarchy. There was a revolt in 1883 while many Krajina Serbs migrated to the US. Serbian aspirations lacked a suitable instrument in the evolving political dispensation (Pp69-71).

A form of “state right” Croatian nationalism emerged that sought full Croatian sovereignty and to extinguish absolutely any Serbian claims – Croatian identity was thus to be asserted “upwards” against Hungarian power and “downwards” against Serbian aspirations (including aspirations to any legitimate identity at all, apart from a Croatian one). The apostle of this creed was Ante Starcevic (1823-1895) whose advocacy extended to a “final solution” to the Serbian “problem” – either they acknowledged that they were “really” Croats (albeit of an Orthodox persuasion) or they should be exterminated as sub-human traitors who have failed to be worthy of Croat sovereignty (Pp71ff).

Just as relentless Catholic denigration and antipathy towards Jews bred a “secularised” denigration of them as sub-human, so the relentless Catholic war against Orthodox identity did the same in the Balkans against the Serbs. If an identity is established a vile and malevolent, that characterisation – which is what has the real emotional power – can patently be transferred from one framing (such as a religious one) to another (such as a racial/biological one).

A Serbian counterclaim against Croat denial of Serb identity – that all Croats were really Serbs, based on the notion that language defined ethnicity – was mounted by linguistic reformer Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic. He was culturally influential but politically unimportant. No so Starcevic, who founded a significant political party, the Party of Rights, and whose political legacy ensured Serbs were reluctant to support Croatian claims against Hungary (Pp75ff).

Trifkovic defines the central question of Serbian politics for centuries as being: who will grant us our rights in return for our loyalty? The Hungarian Crown, in the person of the Ban (governor) Karoly Khuen-Hedervary, was willing to grant rights in return for support, in the time-honoured Habsburg style. This pragmatic politics was seen by many Croats as treacherous malevolence:
The circle was thus closed: Croat resentment of the Serbs’ quest for rights and guarantees, first under the Austrian crown and now under Khuen, was turned by Starcevic into malevolence towards Serbs as such. Their reaction fed a self-fulfilling prophecy (p.82)
“South Slav” politics as a study in the destructive viciousness of group rights was intensified.

But it was not the only form of politics offered. Serbs used educational and religious autonomy as a basis for economic advancement and political organisation. The Radical Party sought to continue the deal-making with the Crown, the Serbian Independent Party that Serbs should claims rights as citizens of Croatia, albeit ones with a distinct identity.

The influence of the ideas of Prof. Tomas Masaryk began to make themselves felt: that South Slavs should work together to support their rights, Masaryk warning of the dangers of a German Drang Nach Osten. If the individual was the key political actor, capacities for cooperation were greatly increased. Serb-Croat alliance politics grew up – particularly after violent anti-Serb demonstration in Zagreb in 1902 – and dominated the politics of the area until the end of the Great War. Based on the reality of Austria-Hungarian political institutions, it hoped for an end to Maygarising policies: a hope not fulfilled (Pp83ff).


This review is concluded in my next post.

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