Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Yugoslav Wars: The "Revenge of the Countryside" between Sociological Reality and Nationalist Myth

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Yugoslav Wars: The "Revenge of the Countryside" between Sociological Reality and Nationalist Myth

Article excerpt


Numerous journalists and intellectuals have, with good reason, rejected the Hobbesian presentation of the Yugoslav wars--the idea of a "war of everyone against everyone"--as a mere reflection of the age-old hatred between more or less barbarian Balkan people. Unfortunately, many of them reintroduced through the window what they drove out through the door. First of all, the presentation of the Yugoslav wars as a "revenge of the countryside" has led to some exaggerations and misunderstandings. For instance, the Sarajevian architect Ivo Straus, in his book Sarajevo, The Architect and the Barbarians, describes the Serbian fighters besieging and shelling the town as "armed, toothless and ill-washed primitives," and considers that they are the representatives of a specific social category: the "hardly cultured newcomers."(1) Of course, it is quite understandable that a direct victim of Serbian shelling would use such expressions. But it is nonetheless regrettable that some western commentators turned them into analytical categories.

During the Yugoslav wars, identifying the fighters with uneducated and barbarian country people was not just the habit of a few pacifist intellectuals. In Sarajevo, the inhabitants did willingly contrast the "raja," the peaceful urban people, with the quarrelsome "papci" on the surrounding hills.(2) A similar hostility was expressed by the fighters themselves when they spoke about their enemies' the Serbs often used the word "Balije" for the Muslims, and the Muslims called the Serbs "Vlasi" ("Vlachs"). In both cases, the enemy was likened to a nomadic population, foreign to the city and to civilization.(3) The opposition between "civilized" towns and the "barbarous" countryside has not only red conversations between the Sarajevian intellectuals and their visitors, but also various class hatreds and war discourses.

This does not mean the absence of a link between the origins of the Yugoslav wars and the rural and mountainous areas of the Yugoslav space. Many warlords are natives of the Dinaric Alps,(4) and these areas were the first strongholds of the nationalist parties and their militias. Conversely, the Yugoslav wars were characterized by great fierceness against the urban centers and the very symbols of their urbanity, as seen during the deliberate destruction of Vukovar in Croatia, or during the sieges of Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the state of devastation of many Croatian and Bosnian villages, comparable with Vukovar or Mostar, shows to what extent the idea of a "revenge of the countryside" during the Yugoslav wars is out of place.


Since the publication of The Balkan Peninsula, the founding study on the Balkan written by Serbian geographer Jovan Cvijic (1865-1927), the insistence on the opposing towns and countryside or, more precisely, towns, plains and mountains, is constant in sociological and ethnological works on this area. It is thus not surprising to find it again in the analyses of the Yugoslav wars.

A good illustration of this phenomenon is the recent fancy in Croatia for the sociologist Dinko Tomasic (1902-1975), whose main works underline the opposition of two "cultural types" within the Balkan societies: the tribal culture (plemenska kultura) on one hand, structured around the pleme (clan, tribe) and characteristic of the mountains' stockbreeders, and the cooperative culture (zadruzna kultura) on the other hand, structured around the zadruga (household organized as indivisible economic unity) and characteristic of the plains' peasants.

In a paper published in 1936 called "The Tribal Culture and its Contemporary Remains,"(5) Tomasic analyzes more specifically the role of tribal culture in the violent practices of Balkan societies, as well as in the formation of Balkan national states. According to him, physical strength and spatial mobility of the Dinaric populations explain "that the tribal social organization generated bands [cete] of looters and warriors, that within it carrying a weapon became synonymous with manliness, and `heroism'--that is, outbidding in plunder and crime--became the dominant social value. …

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