Bosnian History

Figure 1.--These are Bosnian children displaced during the Bosnian phase of the Yugoslav Civil War (1992-95). Failing to hild Yugoslavia together, Serbian leaders set out to create a Greater Serbia, adding parts of Croatia and Bosnia to Serbia and retaining Kosovo.

Bosnia is today a small Balkan state with a very complicated history. After the fall of Rome, Slav tribes moved into the Balans and several Slave kingdoms developed. Historians disagree as to political developments during the medieval era. Some claim that for a tome there was an independent Bosnian kingdom. Other historins mintain that Bosnia like Croatia was from an early pont a fiefdom of Hungary. The Hungaria influence introduced a degree of diversity among the most Orthodox Slavs. Bosnia thuis developed a tolerance for religioys diversity tht was unusual in Europe. This may have been a factor in the reltive success of the Ottomons in covering some of the population to Islam. Except for Albania, few Slavs, Croats, Bulgarians, Romanians converted to Islam. At the end of Ottoman rule, as aresult Nosnia was perhaps the most ethnically and religious diverse corner of Europe. The Serbs when they achieved independence saw Bosnia as rightfully theirs and were oytraged when the province was awarded to Austria-Hungary (1878). Bosnia was split on the issue. Orthodox Slavs favored Serbia while Croats and Muslims were more willing to accept Austria rule which was more open to diversity than Serbia. Serbian terrorism sparked World War I (1914). World War II turned Bonia into a killing field with horific acticons conducted by the Crotrian Ustace, Muslim SS units, and the Communist Partisans. Titio supressed the ethnic tension, but with the break up of Yugoslavia, Milosivich turned Bosnia into a killing fiekd again. The killing did not end until NATO intervened.


There is evidence of human habitation in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Neolithic age.

Ancient Era

The area of Bosnia and Herzegovina was populated by several Illyrian and Celtic populations. We know most during the Roman Era. Like the rest of the Mediterranean region, the area of modern Bosnia was incorporated into the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD. It was part of the Roman province of Illyricum. After the fall of Rome, the area of Bosnia came under the control of the Byzantine Empire.

The Slavs

Slav tribes moving west settled Bosnia and other areas in the Balkans during the 5th-7th century AD, gradually wrestling varying degrees of political control from the Byzantines. The Slavs formed a number of counties and duchies. The Slavs established independent kingdoms bordering on Bosnia: Serbia and Croatia (9th century). Bosnian nobels ruled under the authority of Hungarian monarchy which also conqured neighboring Croatia. Bosnian Slavs also established the first independent banate in the Balkans--the Banate of Bosnia (early-12th century). Ban was a noble title commonly used throughout Central and Southeastern Europe beginning in the early medieval era. The term for the area governed by a ban is a banate. They people of the Banate of Bosni called themselves Dobri Bošnjani ('Good Bosnians'). The Banate evolved into the Kingdom of Bosnia (14th century).

Late Medieval Bosnia (ca. 1200-1463)

There is some difference of opinion among historians concerning Bosnia in the late middle ages. One report indicates that about 1200 AD, Bosnia gained its independence, fighting both Hungarians from the north and Serbians from the east. An independent medieval Kingdom of Bosnia endured for more than 260 years. [Riedlmayer] Another source indicates that King Bela IV of Hungary subordinated Bosnian rulers in 1254. Bosnia became banats dependent on the Hungarian crown. A banat was derived from a Persian term meaning ruler or keeper of a frontier area, similar to a German "Markgraf" (margrave). Stephen Kotromanic, the ruler of Bosnia extended his control over Hum or Zahumlje which had appeared in the 10th century AD and became known as Herzegovina. What ever the politicalmstatus, the population of Bosnia was initially almost entirely Christian, but unlike the rest of Europe there was a unusually tolerant situation. In fact there were three Christian faiths. Most Bosnians were Roman Catholics, buth there were also Orthodox and a schismatic local Church. The church structure was weak and not strongly supported by the state. The clergy were not well organized and largely uneducated. This was to be a factor in the large numbers of converts to Islam after the Ottoman conquest. In other areas of the Blakans (Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Serbia, and Romania) there were far fewer converts, even though Ottoman rule was for a longer period.

The Ottomans

The Ottoman Empire was founded Othman or Osman I (1259-1326). Othman was born in Bithynia. On the overthrow of the sultanante of Iconium in 1299 by the Mongols, Osman seized a portion of Bithynia and subsequently a portion of Nicĉa, and gradually subdued a great part of Asian Minor, and so became the founder of the Turkish or Ottoman Empire. Othman died at Pausa, in Bithynia, in 1326. Othman was followed by a series of waring princes, considered some of the most war-like in history. They rapidly expanding the boundaries of their Turkish dominions in Anatolia, at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. They crossed the Hellespont about 1357 when Murad I made Adrianople the capital of the Turkish Empire, gradually reduceing the dominions of the Byzantines. The Bosnian Kingdom and other Christin kingdoms in the balkans were conquered and annexed by the the Ottoman Empire (mid-15th century). After a long siege, Mahomet II overcame the defenses of Constantinople. Other Sultans expanded Ottoman control of the Balkans. They were finally turned back at the gates of Vienna.

The Ottoman Conquest

The Ottoman Turks even before seizing Constaninople, the last Byzantine city, in 1453 embarked in the 14th century on the conquest of the Christian kingdoms in the Balkans. Prince Lazar of Serbia and Vuk Brankovic rallied a numerically inferior Serbian force aided by forces sent by King Tvrtko of Bosnia. They faced a large Ottoman army commanded by Sultan Murad on June 28 (15), 1389 (St. Vitus Day). The Serbs suffered a catrotrophic defeat at the battle of Kosovo Polje, (the Plain of the Blackbirds). (The date discrepancy is due to the acceptance of the Gregorian calendar by the Serbs later than Europe). King Prince Lazar of Serbia was captured and killed. Serbia was reduced to an Ottoman vassal. This date in not unimportant it became a sacred date in the Serbian calender and it is not accident that Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated close to this date--bringing about World War I. Through skillful maneuvering between its more powerful neighbors, the Christian Bosnia state managed to remain independent until 1463, when it was also absorbed in ther Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Rule (1463-1878)

The conquering Ottoman armies marched on only to be turned back at the gates of Vienna, eventually by a Polish army. Süleymân I known to history as Süleymân the Magnificent at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, killed the Jagiellan Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia and most of the Hungarian nobels. Louis' brother-in-law, Ferdinand of Austria, future Emperor and brother of the Emperor Charles V, pressed claims to both crowns for the Hapsburgs, ending an independent Hungarian crown. This would lead to Austria pursuing claims to Bosnia in the 19th century. After the Ottoman conquest, many Bosnians decided to convert to Islam. Here both spiritual and social reasons were inolved. The Christain churches were weak and disorganized. Their Christian clergy was largely uneducated. Today we look on Islam as a backward religion with medieval social concepts and failing to embrace umanism and modern technology. This was not the case in the 14th century when in many ways, the Ottomans were more progressive than the Christan states of Western Euroipe. In Bosnia, Islam was better organized and energetic. It seemed the wave of the future. These were not mass conversiuons at sword point. The spread of Islam was aided by itinerant Muslim preachers, who taught a popular, broad-minded and inclusive form of Islam. This allowed Bosnians to adapt many of old traditions to the new faith. The Ottoman sultans and local governors built magnificent new mosques and supported schools, Islamic seminaries, libraries, orphanages, soup-kitchens and almshouses. There were also material enducements. Non-Muslims were subject to higher tax-rates and most government and military posts in the Empire were reserved for Muslims. Muslim Bosnians rose to prestige ranks in Ottoman ruling elite as soldiers, statesmen, Islamic jurists and scholars; not a few attained the highest posts in the Empire. Within previously Christian Bosnia, a distinctive Bosnian Muslim culture arose, with its own architecture, literature, social customs and folklore. There were of course Bosnians caught up in the spiritual ferment of the 15th and 16th centuries who remained Christians. Some switched allegiances between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The schismatic Bosnian Church faded away. Some Christain Bosnians emigrated. There were also immigrants from other parts of the Balkans. Unlike many modern Islamic states, the Ottomans were relatively tolerant of the non-Muslim minorities. Certainly the Ottomans were more tolerant of non-Muslims than Christain kingdoms of the age were of non-Christains or even of other Christian faiths. The Ottomans allowed non-Muslims freedom of worship and the right to live and trade as they pleased. [HBC note: This is a not uncommon trend in world history. It is often the societies that are the most inclusive and most open to outside influences and most willing to tolerate diversity that expand. It is the empires that close their borders to outside influence and supress diversity than decline. Often inovation is stringly assocaited with diversity and immigration.] Bosnia for more than 400 years retained a distinct identity within the Ottoman Empire as the Eyalet of Bosna. While other Balkan areas were suspect, there was considerable support for the Empire in Bosnia. A Bosnian aristocracy ruled the province in all but name, ready to defend their autonomy by force of arms, if need be, against any efforts to curtail it. Bosnia as a result shared in the Empire's glorious expansion and in the decline that began in the 18th century. As the Ottoman Empire's borders receded, Muslim Slavs who had been driven out of the lost provinces found a refuge in Bosnia. Christian kingdoms were not as willing to accept Muslims as Muslims had accepted Christains. This immigration strenthened the already large Muslim sector of Bosnia's multi-ethnic population. [Riedlmayer]

Sick Man of Europe

The Ottomans by the 19th century were clearly seen as the "Sick Man of Europe" and unable to resist the Russians by themselves. The other Great Powers were concerned with Russia's expansion. The British in paticular were concerned with Russian movement south and possible threats to India and Egypt where there was an overland connection to India and thought was being given to the future Suez Canal. The British, French, and Austria even fought the Crimean War (1853-56) to limit Russian advances. Britain and other European powers were limited in the degree of aid that could be offered the Ottomans as European newspapers were full of lurid stories of Turkish reprisals and attrocities against peoples widely seen as Christian freedom fighters. These stories of attricites, many based on fact, often included references or were in addition to other articles on the white slave trade and Christian women being forced into the Sultan's harem. Lord Byron had gone to Greece to write poetic odes to the valiant Greeks and the other natioanl groups were regarded in much the same light. Gradually the Ottomans were forced to great increasing autonomy to Balkan principalities and by the end of the century there were independent kingdoms in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Serbia.

Russo-Turkish War (1877-78)

Russian and the Ottomans fought a series of Balkan Wars. In each the Russians gained ground. Yhe Ottoman Empire would have collpased early in the 19th century, had the major European powers not differed on how to carve it up. Concerned about the Russian succeeses, Britain and France intervened in the Crimean War to support Turkey. The last Russo-Turkish War occurred in 1877-78. It was also the most important one. Tsarist Russia in 1877 came to the aid of its fellow Christian Orthodox ally Serbia as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria in local rebellions against Ottoman rule. The Russians attacked diretly through Bulgaria toward Turkey and gained considerable success. After completing the Siege of Pleven, the Russians advance into Thrace, taking Adrianople (now Edirne, Turkey) in January 1878. The Ottomans conceded and in March 1878 agree to the Treaty of San Stefano with Russia. This treaty liberated Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro from Ottoman rule. It granted autonomy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and created a Bulgaria (much larger than modern Bulgaria) under Russian protection. The great powers, especially Britain and Austria-Hungary, were concerned with the massive Russian gains confirmed by the treaty. Here the British were coflicted. Public opinion had been aroused against Ottoman attricities against Christians in the Balkans, yet Queen Victorian was stongly anti-Russian and many officials were concerned about the Russians mocing south toward Suez. The great powers this compelled Russia to accept more limited gains under the Treaty of Berlin (July 1878). Russia's gains from the war were sharply reduced.

End of Ottoman Rule

Ottoman rule in Bosnia ended with the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and the Congress of Berlin (1878) peace settlement. The Great Powers had aspirations of carving up the Ottoman Empire to their own benefit. The Ottomons at this time have been partioned as Poland had been. The Empire was unable to meet its financial obligations. There were internal civil disorder, restive minorities, and hotile neighboring coubntries, especially Russia and Austria-Hungary. The Ottomon Empire, however, survived the crissis because the Great Powers could not agree on how to divide it.

Austro-Hungarian Administration

Austro-Hungary was determined to administer Bosnia-Herzegovina as a showcase. The Austrians built railroads one of many technologies that had been sadly negleted by the Ottomans. The Austrins also developed industries with state subsidies. Other public works included schools, public buildings, parks and other symbols of modernity. There was a building-boom in Sarajevo and little intellectual circles began discussing modern European ideologies in the many coffeehouses. One of these ideologies was nationalism that had been unleased in the rest of Europe by the French Revolution and Napoleon. Bosnia was a calderon for nationalism. Not only was the population ethnically Slavic, but many Orthodox Bosnians resented Austrain Catholic rule and were drawn to the neighboring new Serbian monarchy. The situation was complicated there were Roman Catholic Bosnians and a much larger number of Muslim Bosnians. The Muslim Slavs were not attracted by the Serbians. They saw no place for themselves in an Orthodox South Slav or Greater Serbian state. They continued to support the Bosnian ideal of a pluralist, multi-faith society. The Austro-Hungarian authorities supported this vission, seeing the Serbs as a growing threswat to the Empire. A few Bosnian Muslims emigrated to Turkey and other parts of what remained of the Ottoman Empire, fleeing Austrian military conscription and a politically uncertainties in Bosnia. Most Bosnian-Muslims stayed in Bosnia and benefitted from the educational and economic opportunities promoted by the Austrians and Bosnia did benefit economically by Austria-Hungarian administration.

Serbian Nationalism

The new Serbian Kingdom established in 1878 strongly supported Slavic nationalism which now was seen as Serbian natioanlism. The dream was for a great Balkan South Slav state united under the leadership of Orthodox Serbia. The Serbs believed that Bosnia should be part of this new Slav state and were outraged that the Great Powers had put Bosnia under Austro-Hungarian administration. Serbian agents promoted groups in Bosnia opposing Austrian rile. This effort was covertly financed by the Russians who shared both ethnic and religious ties with the Slavs. The Russians themselves as the protector of Orthodox Christians. Serbian nationalists were also actively plotting to overthrow Austro-Hungarian rule in other South Slavic lands, Croatia and Slovenia.

Austrian Annexation (1908-09)

Austro-Hungary in 1909 decided to formerly annex Bosnia. The immediate cause was the Turkish Revolition of 1908. This cause a major European crisis at it upset the Austro-Russian entente of 1897 that had stabilized the Balkan situation. Russia protests were met with German backing for Austria. This reversed the Bismarkian concept of a purely defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary. From 1908 until the outbreak of World war I, the Russians and Austrians were at loggerheads over the Balkans. The essentially German "offensive" support for Austria-Hungary also had the affect of further consolidating Russia ties to the French. The Austrain to formally annex Bosnia-Herzegovina only added to desire on the part of Serb nationalists to resist Austri-Hungary before they had fully incorporated Bosnia into the Empire.

World War I (1914-18)

War had been brewing in Europe for decades. The Balkans in particular were apowder keg. It was a Serbian nationalist youth named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914 lighting the fuse that began World War I. The Arch Duke was in Bosnia to direct army maneuvers in the neighboring mountains. He had ignored warnings of a possible assassination plot and decided to tour the capital on the anniversary of the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje. This date was sacred to Serbian nationalists who took it as an insult to the Serb people. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia and France began to mobilize its troops. As a result of Kaiser Wilhem's bumbling, France had succeeded in signing a mutual defense treaty. Germany felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The German Army entered neutral Belgium (August 4), in an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. Britain declared war on Germany over the violation of Belgian neutrality. But it was terroism was at the heart of World War I in a chilling reminder to our modern age. World War I was the most destructive War up to that time. Millions died or were maimed throughout Europe. Bosnians werwe drafted to fight in the Austro-Hungarian army . The caualty statisdtics are staggering. Perhaps no nation suffered more than Serbia. More than half of Serbia's military-age male population was dead, wounded, or missing in battle.

Yugoslavia (1918-41)

World War I had been initiated by terrorists and they fact achieved their goal. Serbian was overrin by the Austrain Army, but the Allies in the post-war Versailles Peace Treaty created a new unified South Slav nation as Serbian nationalist had dreamed. Serbia's king was crowned King of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, of the newly-created greater South Slav statewhich was renamed Yugoslavia ("yugo" means south). As the original name of Yugoslvia indicates, there was to be no special provision made for people who considered themselves neither Serbs, Croats, or Slovenes and in the interwar years Bosnia's Muslim Slavs were pressured to register as either Serbs or Croats. The Muslims became pawns in the contending political ambitions of Serb and Croat nationalists. The Yugoslav Government in the 1920s and 30s became increasingly dictatorial and centralist. Many non-Serbs who had initially welcomed the creation of Yugoslavia became critical of the new state. The Croats were particularly disappointed. They had enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many thought that they would be equal partners with the Serbs in Uugoslavia. It gradually became claer that this was not what Serb nationalist had envisioned for Yugoslavia. This became clear for many Croats when in 1928, the popular Croat Peasant Party leader Stjepan Radich was shot in the Yugoslav parliament in Belgrade by a radical Serbian deputy. King Alexander I in 1929 staged a royal coup in 1929 to prevent Civil War. He dissolved parliament suspended the country's constitution. The internal provincial borders within Yugoslavia were redrawn to eliminate historical boundaries, especially Croatia and Bosnia. The new provinces were placed under control of mostly Serbian military governors who did not hesitate to use force. Some Croats joined anti-Serbian extremist organizations, especially the Fascist Ustasha movement which received support from Italy which wanted Yugoslavian territory. King Alexander was assassinated in 1934 by a Macedonian terrorist working with Croatian extremists, reportedly with Hungarian and Italian support. He was killed in Marseilles while on a state visit. The French Foreign Minister, Louis Barthou, also died in the attack. The Kings' 11-year old son, Crown Prince Peter, succeeded his father. The Government launched a new crackdown. The unresolved natioanlity issues as well as social and economic issues, combined with the local effects of the global economic depression during the 1930s increasingly polarized Yugoslav political life. Extremist groups of the right and the left grew in influence, including the still rekatively small Yugoslav Communist Party.

World War II (1939-45)

Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, launching World War II. Yugoslavia managed to stay out of the initial round of fighting. Musolini who joined Hitler in June 1940 when iy was clear that France had been defeated, wanted Yugoslav territory, but judged the Yugoslavs to be to tough an opponent to attack. Rather he launched an attack on Greece which proved unsuccessful. All of Yugoslavs neighbors but Greece by 1941 were under NAZI domination or influence. Prince Paul to avoid bloodshed felt obliged to sign a formal pact with Germany and Italy. Shortly afterwards, however, on March, 27 1941, he was unseated in a coup and the young King Peter II was declared of age. Within a week, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Italy invaded Yugoslavia as part of an offensive against Greece. The Yigoslav Government was forced to surrender. While a military disaster for the Yugoslavs, the Germans action forced them to delay the planned invasion of Russia. The precious weeks of delay was a critical element in the German failure to smash the Red Army before the onset of winter in 1941. King Peter II, with the Yugoslav Government, made his way via Athens, Jerusalem and Cairo to London where he joined numerous other governments in exile from NAZI occupied Europe. The NAZIs partioned Yugoslvia among allies and local clients. The northernmost part (Slovenia) was split. Part was annexed into German Reich. The other part of Slovenia and the Adriatic coastline of Croatia was goven to Fascist Italy. Macedonia in the south was given to Bulgaria. What remained of Yugoslavia was divided up between two NAZI puppet-states. Croatia which was compensated for the losses along the coast by being granted all of Bosnia. ) A NAZI controlled Government in Serbia was estblished headed by former royal Yugoslav army general Milan Nedich. Yugoslavia with the pent up natioanlist feelings before the War fueled by NAZI geocidal occupation policies became perhaps the greatest killing field of World War II. Perhaps no other European nation except Poland suffered more and tragically it was the Yugoslavs themselves more than the Germans that did much of the killing. By late 1944 the Germand were withdrawing from Greece through Yugoslavia and back to the Reich. Tito's partisans carried out successful attacks on the Germans and managed to liberate and gain control of much of Yugoslavia by the end of the War. Their tactics and substantial supplies of Allied war material enable Tito's Communist Partisans gain control of the country with limited support from the Red Army--unlike the situation in the rest of Eastern Europe where it was Soviet tanks which drove out the Germnas. Tito's Partisans carried out mass executions of tens of thousands of Croat and Slovene militiamen who surrendered to them at the end of the War.

The Cold War and Communist Yugoslavia (1945-1990)

The Communists abolished the monarchy (November 1945). This was done without a referendum and Yugoslavia. Tito established a roto-type Communist people's democracy. Tito crushed all political opposition. Concentration camps were set up to eal with anti-Communists. Yugoslavia remained a totalitarian single party state for more than four decades. King Peter II never abdicated. The first crack in the Iron Curtain appeared when Tito broke with the Stalin, but continued Communist rule. Tito unlike other Eastern European Communists decided not to collectivize agriculture. Bosnia had become a hot-bed of inter-ethnic violence. Tito put an immediate stop to that. He did not address the root priblem, byt while hgge and Yufoslabia existed ibter-ethnic conflict nded.

Yugoslav Civil War

Fighting in Bosnia brokeout and became a vicious civil war (1992). Estimates suggested that 250,000 people were killed in the Bosnian Civil War. Another 20,000 people are missing and believed to have been killed. Over 300 mass graves have been found throughout Bosnia. Not all have been exhumed but the remains of about 18,000 have been exhumed as of mid-2004. Those killed include members of all three major groups (Croats, Muslims, and Serbs, but the majority of thise killed were Muslims killed (in many cases executed) by Serbs. The United Nations guaranted the safety of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. The United Nations had declared Srebrenica to be a safe haven. In the end Dutch U.N. peace keepers were ordered to abandon the Muslims to the Serbs. Bosnian Serb military and police units aided by special para-military forces proceeded to murder as many as 8,000 Muslim boys and men (1995). Bosnian military commander Ratko Mladic has been called 'the spiritual father and executioner of ethnic cleansing'. The chilling photograph on the previous page shows Mladic patting a Bosnian Muslim boy on the cheek. At the time, his men were killing Muslim men and older youth. Mladic even passed out candy to the children in the town square. Meanwhile his men were preparing the slaughter of the men and older boys. The younger children and women were allowed to leave. This has been well documented, although denined by the Serbs. Bosnian Serb officials in 2004 finally admitted Serb complicity. [Krilic] The U.N. War Crimes Tribunal have declared it an act of genocide. The U.N. and Bosniann investigators have found the remains of about 5,000 bodies in numerous mass graves throughout eastern Bosnia. More are being found all the time. About 1,200 victims have been identified as from Srebernica through DNA testing. Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serb leader, and Ratko Mladic, Bosnian Serb military commander, have been indicted by the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal for the Srebrenica and other Serb attrocities. The Srebrenica massacre was the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Most Europeans thought that such attrocities were no longer possible. The shock finally promoted an American led NATO intervention. The fighting in Bosnia ended with the Dayton Peace Accords (1995). Bosnia is now divided into a Serb-Bosnia Federation and a Croat-Muslim Federation. NATO troops act as peace keepers. Karadzic was arrested (2008), Mladic his ubntil (2011).


Andras Riedlmayer, "A Brief History of Bosnia-Herzegovina", internet site accessed June 24, 2002.


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Created: 5:43 PM 10/22/2007
Last updated: 8:12 PM 12/29/2016