Serb Nationalism and the Ignition of the Balkans: why we should remain wary of a Greater Serbia

There are concerns in some quarters that rising tensions and ultra-nationalist influence in the Balkans are being overlooked in light of the myriad other crises affecting the world today.

Serbia, in particular, has seen an erosion of its democracy under nationalist President Aleksandar Vucic, whose government has made it known – in not particularly subtle tones – that the question of Bosnian and Kosovan sovereignty, not to mention other states in the region, is far from settled.

Vucic has been unapologetic in his calls for a ‘Greater Serbia’

As history has shown, when Serbian nationalism peaks so do regional anxieties, with conflict often only just over the horizon.

This isn’t to say that ultra-nationalism is rife in Serbia today and perhaps that is why Vucic has deemed it necessary to undermine the democratic institutions of his country in a bid to satiate his desires, and those of his supporters. It is no coincidence that he has moved closer to Vladimir Putin, who has shrewdly mobilised nationalist pride and a sense of ‘Russianness’ to distract from the economic decline facing his country, even if that means invading neighbouring states.

Of course, nationalism is typically wrapped up with a fear and repulsion of the ‘other’, the ‘foreigner’. In Serbia’s case this means the large Muslim minority living in the Balkans, those people denying a unified people a unified nation. The refugee crisis precipitated by the civil wars of the Middle East has only added to this ‘problem’ in the eyes of some Serbs, yet it is an historic issue in the nationalist cause.

A train painted with the moniker ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ had the backing of Belgrade

Nor is this confined inside the borders of Serbia itself, but anywhere that the Serbs inhabit. Controversy has recently been stirred in Bosnia’s autonomous Republika Srpska, with the decision of its Serb president Milorad Dodik to cut the pay of his Bosniak (Muslim) vice-president for his ‘permanent war-like rhetoric…full of lies and misinformation’ aimed at undermining the governing authorities.

More vociferous, and occasionally violent, protests are commonly seen at football matches and in certain Serb-dominated neighbourhoods throughout the region.

Ethnic Serbs demonstrating in Mitrovica, Kosovo

For some, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s may seem like a distant memory, subsequent criminal prosecutions and increased European integration creating an illusion that all has been forgotten. Yet it was these horrific conflicts that were born from the desire for a ‘Greater Serbia’, evidenced most in the actions and rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb President of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia’s aggression was countered by a NATO bombing campaign against the Milosevic state

Standing tallest amongst many atrocities during these wars is the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica. It is little wonder that every time the nationalist dial is ratcheted up in Belgrade, when the calls for a homogeneous Serbian nation increase in volume, that Europe waits with baited breath.

As discussed, this trepidatious situation is not a modern phenomenon and indeed Serbian nationalism is widely credited as a primary cause for the First World War.

The idea of uniting Serbs in a common territory had been gaining ground during the 19th century, with a parallel state of agitating military and security officials operating alongside the political leadership of Nikola Pasic.

Austria-Hungary’s formal annexation of Bosnia, with its large Serb population, in 1908, set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent July 1914 crisis that brought about global conflict.

The Archduke and his wife were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist

As a precursor to this was the Serbian foray into the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, largely aimed at acquiring more territory for a ‘Greater Serbia’, including gaining access to the Adriatic through slicing off a wedge of Albania.

It was in neighbouring Macedonia during these earlier Balkan Wars that a lesser known massacre occurred. In a place called Gostivar, advancing Serbian forces vented that wrath on a town thought to have engaged in partisan activities:

Some 300 Gostivar Muslims who had played no role in the uprising were arrested and taken out of the town during the night in groups of twenty to thirty to be beaten and stabbed to death with rifle butts and bayonets (gunshots would have woken the sleeping inhabitants of the town), before being thrown into a large open grave that had been dug beforehand for that purpose. (Clark, pp.112-113)

Other reports of murder, rape and pillage by Serbian forces against Muslim civilians filtered their way back to Belgrade. The authorities were unwilling, or unable, to do anything and Serbian ultra-nationalism continued on its fateful course.

Serbian cavalry enter Skopje in 1912

Now this is not to intimate that we are on the verge of similar atrocities, or that even a tangible nationalist swing in Serbia is a sure sign that the Balkans will go up in flames again. But it speaks of an historic hatred, of a people harbouring a perception that they have been denied their true destiny by outsiders; Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarian imperialists, international organisations, Muslims. Such hatred has the potential to ignite given the right conditions.

World leaders should not be so naive as to believe that the political, ethnic and religious entanglements of the Balkans are at an end. Greater integration may be a step in the right direction but uneven development and historical memory will continue to influence events. And when Serb nationalism peaks, and the clamour for change grows louder, it is often a concrete sign that trouble is brewing.


Clark, C. Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012)


Netherlands Overlooks Past as Wilders Tops Polls

Few nations have such an uneasy relationship with their World War Two past than the Netherlands. As with the Germans and the Japanese, the majority of the Dutch people tend to look upon this period of history with regret, if not shame.

The Dutch had their Nazi equivalent, the unoriginally named Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB) (National Socialist Movement), a fringe party that secured a best of 300,000 votes in the 1935 election. Their leader was Anton Mussert, a vile if pragmatic fascist who realised that his only means of wielding any kind of power was to first encourage and then to assist a German invasion.

Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on
Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on

Mussert got his wish in May 1940 when the Wehrmacht invaded the neutral Netherlands, with the Luftwaffe almost obliterating Rotterdam in a simultaneous bombing blitz.

The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis
The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis

Hitler, who did not reciprocate Mussert’s adoration of him, humoured the NSB leader by giving him responsibility for quelling Dutch resistance to the invasion. Whilst he was eventually named ‘Leader of the Dutch People’ by Hitler in 1942 – the Dutch ‘Leider’ coincidentally translating into the German for ‘Unfortunately’ – Mussert never governed, with the Fuhrer preferring instead the Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his Reichskommissar in the Netherlands.

Where Mussert was more useful was in his rounding up and deportation of thousands of Dutch Jews. He had help, however, and it is here where the Dutch historical guilt lies.

With Queen Wilhelmina leading a government-in-exile in London, many Dutch people unable or unwilling to flee their homeland had a difficult choice. Take up a potentially futile resistance against Nazi occupation, or collaborate with their new German overlords? History suggests that the vast majority took the latter course, creating one of the most collaborationist regimes of the war.

Whilst acts of bravery and heroism occurred – particularly the harbouring of Jews by Dutch families – the Nazis had little difficulty in compelling complicity from their new subjects. Dutch Jews were deported and murdered in their thousands, a repressive Gestapo state was established, and some Dutch men even fought for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.

Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam
Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam

Fanatics like Mussert – who was executed at The Hague for high treason in 1946 – can be easily dismissed. The actions (or lack thereof) of the average man and woman on the street, on the other hand, are hard to overlook. Given the minority support for the NSB prior to WWII, it suggests that few Dutch people shared their extremist and racist views. Yet thousands still collaborated with the Nazis.

This being so, it is somewhat surprising that the far right Freedom Party (PVV), led by the populist and controversial Islamophobe Geert Wilders, is threatening to top polls in the Dutch election on the 15th March.

Using slogans such as ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’ and ‘The Netherlands is Ours’, Wilders has ridden a populist wave in Europe and the West that is demanding an overthrow of the established liberal order.

Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda
Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda

Even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has initiated a last-ditch plea to court a restless public increasingly sceptical of open borders an EU interference. ‘Act normal, or go away’ Rutte declared in an open letter published in a national newspaper. His cries smack of desperation, having lost significant ground to the PVV in recent months.

That Wilders is a man possessing beliefs and rhetoric not incomparable with the fascist leaders of WWII is obviously worrying. The Dutch people seem to have forgotten their not too distant past, focusing instead on current grievances that populists such as Wilders promise can be fixed with a healthy dose of nationalism and xenophobia.

Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands
Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands

There are undoubted concerns across Europe over uncontrolled immigration, the bureaucratisation imposed by Brussels and the weakness of some of the newer EU member states. The victory for Brexit in the UK and the rise of the National Front in France are testament to this.

Still, some perspective must be gained. Demanding change should not go hand-in-hand with racist and hostile politics, scaremongering or turning a blind eye to existing inequalities.

The Dutch more than most should recognise this given their experiences in WWII. Memories can fade and collective responsibility may be rejected or conveniently forgotten, but the dark stains of the past persist within the national identity.

It is fortunate that Wilders and the PVV are unlikely to be able to form the coalition government that they will surely require. Similar hopes must be held for the rest of the Europe, where a populist, nationalist resurgence is looming large.

To think that history cannot be repeated is a dangerous and delusional sentiment. Europe has been warned.