The Balkans as Inspiration? (Part 1)

How many of you learned in high school world history that the Balkans was “the powder keg of Europe?” A show of hands. Yep, about right. Some of you probably first heard of the Balkans as the place where World War I started or the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo or the place where ethnic cleansing occurred in the 1990s or the place NATO bombed in 1999 because of more ethnic cleansing or that place where the dictator had really nice hair.

All of that is true. Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in 1914 meant that established alliances among the European monarchies, most of whom were related to each other, lined up on opposite sides of the issue, and they fought a bloody war that brought down quite a few of those monarchies. All Princip wanted was an independent Serbia, free of Austro-Hungarian rule.

Yes, Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, and people around the world saw a beautiful city in a peaceful country then called Yugoslavia. Less than a decade later, that peaceful, for the most part, Yugoslavia was ripped apart by a dictator’s whims (and yes, he had great hair) and ethnic cleansing.

Many countries make up the geographical area of eastern Europe called the Balkans, but the most prominent country, when it was created, was Yugoslavia.

A Made-Up Country

Now, I’m an historian, yes, but I’m summarizing here because this is an area of the world with a long and complicated history. I’ve hit the highlights because I know you’re not expecting a lecture disguised as a blog post. Darn it. I’ve left out a great deal, even though I’d love to give you a dissertation.

Yugoslavia is the country that forms the setting of many of my short stories as well as the upcoming reader magnet, Dateline: Belgrade, and the new trilogy, Self-Inflicted Wounds. So, for now, here’s a brief history of Yugoslavia.

When Princip fired his gun at the heir to the throne of the Empire of Austria-Hungary, he was carrying the weight of the south Slavs–or Yugo Slavs, yugo meaning south in both Russian and Serbo-Croatian. No sooner than the South Slavs freed themselves from the Ottoman Empire did the Austro-Hungarian Empire claim the territory. The hills and mountains of this part of Europe are lined with precious metals and minerals–silver, copper, lead, chromite, and zinc.

After World War I the peace treaty negotiators decided to create a country for the South Slavs and called it Yugoslavia. But it’s not quite that simple. The country was initially called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and came into being from the merger of the provisional states of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. Within those three larger states were smaller ones: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia (not the country), Montenegro, Kosovo, among them.

The appointed king of this new country–yes, it was a monarchy; Europe still isn’t quite done with that even now–was Peter I, who had been King of Serbia. Peter agreed to a constitution, a free press, and other progressive (for the time) aspects of government.

Between the world wars because Yugoslavia and the Balkans were somewhat of a buffer between western Europe and the now Soviet Union, the Balkans were crowded with spies from many nations. As espionage author Alan Furst (who wrote a wonderful book entitled Spies of the Balkans“) has said, “I love the combination of the words ‘spies’ and ‘Balkans.’ It’s like meat and potatoes.”

The Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941 but found it didn’t go as smoothly as had other parts of Europe. Part of that was terrain–hilly and mountainous, difficult for tanks and other vehicles but harboring many hiding places for the Partisans who fought back. The other difficulty for the Nazis, even though some parts of Yugoslavia were pro-Nazi, was the fierce independence of all the ethnic groups in the country. Serb, Slovene, Bosniak, and others banded together to hold off a modern and powerful army. The Partisans declared a Yugoslav Republic in 1943, and King Peter I’s replacement, Peter II, recognized this as the legitimate government from his exile in Cairo. (Peter II is a fascinating historical figure who was actually beloved by many of his people, but again, this is a summary.) This Partisan government abolished the monarchy in 1945, and in 1946 became the Yugoslavia that existed until the 2000s, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito.

Brotherhood and Unity

From his time in the Partisans, Tito knew his country was ripe for nationalistic division. After all, a large portion of it supported the Nazis for nationalistic reasons. Tito’s policy was all Slavs were brothers and that brothers should be united, and he imposed that, often by force.

However, Tito broke from the strict socialism of the Soviet Union and fostered one of the more “liberal” of the Soviet satellite states. People enjoyed having a steady job, decent health care, and a prosperous economy, such as could be had in a communist state. Tito, though “officially” an atheist, didn’t suppress (much) the three major religions in Yugoslavia: Eastern or Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and Islam. Indeed, in many Yugoslavian towns and villages, major intersections would have an Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a mosque on its corners. In some areas, they’d be joined by a synagogue.

And the various ethnicities married each other without obvious ethnic distinction because “all Slavs are brothers.” In reality, regardless of which area of Yugoslavia you were from, genetically and ethnically you were of Slavic descent. There was, perhaps for the benefit of Tito’s spies, religious tolerance. One half of a couple might go to Friday prayers at the mosque and then accompany a spouse to Mass on Sunday.

Yugoslavia seemed like the perfect combination of benevolent dictator, socialist government, and a prosperous population benefiting from a thriving economy.

As with most everything in the old Soviet Bloc, it was a Potemkin Village, smoke and mirrors, as the Yugoslavians discovered after Tito’s death in 1980. The government had been rife with corruption and, like the rest of Europe, suffered from the economic crises of the 1980s. Without Tito’s will (and his secret police) to hold this made-up country together, it all began to crack at the seams.

In Part 2 I’ll take us through the Yugoslavia of the 1990s, which is what I’ve written about and why I looked there for inspiration for my espionage fiction–beyond Yugoslavia’s being a hotbed of spies.