Srdjan Milosevic


Historical Myths in the Yugoslav Successors States

Stolen Development

Myth about “Five Hundred Years of Turkish Yoke”


“Mitskom misljenju svojstvena je ideja  sudbine.”[1]


Why Is This a Myth?


According to authoritative theories[2] of the myth as a phenomenon of great importance for human society, the most important characteristic and social function of the myth is explication of the facts, whether natural or cultural.

Long-lasting Ottoman rule over the Balkans produced a huge number of influences, estimated in different ways by the Ottomans and even modern Turks at one side and “enslaved” peoples at the other side.[3]

From Serbian point of view, this was period filled by sufferings and stagnation, period of “five hundred years”, which I am not able to define precisely: it is clear that it should looked for somewhere between 1371 (more probably from 1389, which is the year of famous Battle of Kosovo) and 1912, according to official interpretations connected with territorial and ethnical aspirations of the Serbian political elite from XIX and the first half of XX century, including the Macedonians in the corps of Serbian nation. Namely, 1912 is the year of liberation or “liberation” of “Old Serbia” which means Kosovo and Metohija and Macedonia from Ottoman rule. Possible upper time-borders are also 1804, 1815, 1830 or 1878.

Thus, the myth is born: as it is obvious, territorial and chronological area is not firmly established, which is not the problem when speaking about myth. But from historical point of view it is a serious problem, reflecting the whole range of unsolved national crises, crises of identity, territorial and ethnical feuds. It also supports the mythical character of the question. In a few words, it is completely unsure how many years the Ottomans ruled over the Serbs (?), because it is not clear who the Serbs are (sic!): Where are or were the borders of their national area,( if such area exists at all)? Are or were the Macedonians Serbs?[4] Which one, historical or ethnical right is stronger when speaking about Kosovo and Metohija?… etc. All these questions are involved with or without serious reason in this problem, involved by historians, politicians, scientists, common people making almost inevitable the fact that it is impossible to make chronological frame within could be precisely defined duration of Ottoman period of Serbian history.

Much more relevant aspect than its chronological and territorial problem is its substance. Given in the simplest interpretation, the myth could be displayed as such: the Turks interrupted glorious development of Serbian mediaeval state, ruled over the Serbs for five hundred years, torturing and exploiting “raya”, brought misfortunes and lack of possibility to make progress, which is the main reason for contemporary unsatisfying positions of Serbian social and political institutions, which are doomed to be corrupted and backward because their Turkish legacy. Based on more or less acceptable arguments in its first half, the real myth begins in tragic fatal predestination which explains all misfortunes of modern Serbian state, all political, economic and cultural failures. This point is suggested in the title of the work.

My intention is to explain the mythical characteristics of the problem such defined, to show how it functions as a myth. I am inclined to look for these characteristics in many aspects: in unquestioned validity of the story which is of unknown origin and at least partially traditional, in almost uncritical acceptance of epic tradition, in explicative social function with brutal simplifications, supported by historiography and especially by textbooks. There are not so many other Serbian “national” themes about which exists similar accordance between epic tradition, historiography and popular opinion.

Modern historiography, dealing with this problem, is faced with her own responsibility, because that the “officially” promoted version of this myth and its explicative social function one is supposed to look for in works of Serbian historians from the end of XIX century up to nowadays, which means in romantic or neo-romantic historiography. In these works there could be find a lot of story but lack of history! Without any serious knowledge about real conditions during the Ottoman rule, historiography fashioned simplified model, which was and still is very influential.

Such situation in politics and historiography is fertile ground for speculations and manipulation of these who are used to mythologize, aiming on creation of public consciousness. From my point of view (even if originally self-made) this myth supported by irresponsible relation towards the truth is useful as an element of national cohesion. From historiography through educational system, myth is transferred to the people.

This work is based mostly on analysis of textbooks, particularly History textbooks, because they are “most important means of shaping national identity and historical awareness”.[5] This fact directed this attempt of fundamental research, because the myth is mostly widespread amongst common people, who are educated almost entirely on these textbooks. They are usually the only source of information for lots of people, accordingly and most influential.

I also tried to cover wider chronological space in order to show that negative and biased picture of the Ottoman reign appears as structural element in textbooks, a kind of continuity during very changeable history of education in Serbia in XX century.   



The Image of “the Turks” in the Textbooks[6] – Typical “We-They” Relation


        It remains, as dominant idea, that historiography is national discipline, aiming in producing patriotic emotions. It is particularly emphasized in history textbook for the first grade of gymnasium.

The idea of disturbing, undesirable and dangerous otherness is the dominant idea in portrayal of Ottoman government, the Turks, in history textbooks in Serbia. Plural and almost unavoidable term, the Turks faced with “our people(s)” underlines that “we-they” division.

Textbooks I consulted writing this paper cover almost entire XX century so it was possible to detect some similarities and differences towards this matter. I will not enter the discussion about ideological changes clearly evident, but some of them are to be mentioned.

Textbook “History of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians” [7]from 1925, which was modified textbook from 1902, tried to present histories of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians as process with inner connections, to define their mutual problems, to  emphasize their common enemies. Of course, common enemy par excellence are “the Turks” or more poetical “a Turk”.

Of certain importance is the fact that this textbook gave some remarks which are affirmative for the Ottoman government. Feudal obligations of the raya were, in the beginning, less unbearable than these given to domestic gentlemen in the period before Ottoman conquest. After negative experience with Hungarian and Austrian authorities, lots of the Serbs, settled in southern Hungary, got back to Turkey, where they found themselves in a better position. Similar situation repeated when Austria governed northern Serbia (1718-1739). Having  mentioned these facts, author, albeit superficially, emphasized some issues of feudalism. He gave structural context to the problem,  which provides wider revue over the feudal order, within Ottoman government appears as less sever in comparison with Middle-European.

Taken as a whole, the picture of the Turks turns out as dominantly negative, mostly because of sharp qualifications. Key words are slavery, sufferings, yoke, harac, kuluk, “blood-tribute”, evil masters and without omission plural form “the Turks”. “Ottoman government”, for instance, is hardly mentioned as a term. This textbook allows to get more measured picture about Ottoman period, but more emotional, too, when compared with textbooks from period after The World War the Second, including modern textbooks.

For period after the World War the Second I consulted two[8] textbooks used in the period between 1960-1992, for elementary school, and three textbooks used from 1992 to nowadays[9]. In the first two textbooks there is the picture of (again) the Turks as common enemies of our peoples, underlining explicitly “we-they” division. Textbooks from 1992 are the first which use the terms Ottoman government, Ottoman reign (just sporadically the Turks), South Slavic peoples instead of “our peoples” etc., but this attempt of neutral approach turns into grotesque because of omitted wider context of events, explanation of the nature of Ottoman feudal order. For instance it is said that “majority of the Christians became raya, subjected to social exploitation…by numerous feudal rents etc.” Omitting to remind students about the fact that these feudal rents are normal in feudal society, it appears that the position of the Christians in Ottoman Empire was something entirely unusual, as if feudal “exploitation” was the exclusive burden of Ottoman Christians. Giving of “pure” information is not wrong in itself, but the selection of the facts, creates negative picture of Ottoman state as a whole. Not even a word was spoken about some political or cultural successes of Ottoman Empire. The image remains negative at all. Ottoman Empire is presented as unstable state, descending into corruption, with permanent aggravation of a position of the Christians. Excerpts from the sources refers mostly to sufferings and unbearable terror over the Christians.

As particularly sever and monstrous burden usually is mentioned “devshirme”, “blood-tribute”. Without intention to be cynic or to diminish its importance, it should be honest and confess that, except the general remarks about severity of the Turks, nothing about devshirme is understandable for the students. Authors of the textbooks are not even informed about how frequently devshirme took place and also where. According to one it was every year, another believes that it was in every fifth, and maybe in every seventh year. Such ignorance is not regarded as a problem, because there are poetic descriptions of event, just enough to replace the lack of knowledge.  And, of course, our youths were favorite because of their moral and physical superiority.

Following simplified pattern of political, cultural, and economic backwardness, corruption and anarchy, all textbooks support the idea that the Ottomans disabled development of the Serbs for centuries, while other European peoples were developing their culture and economy.[10] The continuation is logical, implicitly suggested: these European peoples are on higher level than the Serbs because the Serbs were enslaved by the Turks.[11] Why should be other Europeans mentioned unless because of that message? Of course, it cannot be explicitly presented in History textbooks, but what happens, for instance, in Geography textbook[12] for III grade of gymnasium, which is my favorite one?

There are 44 lessons about Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in this textbook, of which 24 contain remarks about Turkish reign over “our people”! In the lesson about protection of nature (sic!), when speaking about forests in mountain region, author finds as inevitable to remind students about the fact that the forests were refuges and fortresses for tortured inhabitants who were running away from valleys in higher areas under the pressure of the Turks. This is followed by verses from Njegos’  “Mountain Wreath”: “Oro gnjezdo vrh Timora vije, jer sloboda u ravnici nije.”[13](Cursive is mine. S. M.)

Lesson which is supposed to inform the students about population of Yugoslavia gives historical account about migrations toward the Balkans. “Arrival” of the Slaves is described as beginning of the process which resulted in brilliant development: “During the XIII and XIV century Serbia was culturally and economically the most developed state in Europe.”[14] Unlike Slavic “arrival” (as if it was not violent process) Turkish “invasion” (najezda) and their “five centuries” long reign disabled further progress. In the view of this example, it is interesting to mention another general remark given by the author of the textbook: “Influences of foreign forces (i. e. the Turks and Austrians S. M.) produced difficult consequences towards the development of our economy. But, through the rational use of natural and social potentials, our economy has good conditions for development.”[15] It appears that these influences has just disappeared and finally “our” economy is enabled to prosper!

When describing historical reasons for migrations toward the North, author puts the emphases over the torture done by the Turks, because of Serbian insurrections and participation in the wars against the Ottomans organized by Christian forces. But, beside all torture, crimes, pounding (satiranje), annihilating, economic reasons were much more influential, because, as a matter of fact, “ the Dinarci answered the Turkish crimes by the same measure[16].

 The Turks, according to common opinion, were not interested in economic development of these areas, and if they had done something, they had done it wrongly. One cannot help hating the Turks, knowing that they, together with other conquerors, were using our termo-mineral sources, and their “medical and recreative  functions[17].

The story never ends! Examples are numerous, and it is impossible to mention them all. Cultural retardation, illiteracy, economic backwardness, bed condition of routs, absence of communications and their wrong orientation, all that and much more, according to the author, is “direct consequence of long-lasting government of the Turks[18].

Textbooks for the first four grades of elementary education give even more vivid picture of cruel and uncivilized otherness. Quotations from epic poetry are carefully chosen  to show atrocities and crimes, making dangerous mixture of history and legend, instead of trying to divide them. Thus, textbooks supports a very deviant  pattern, adopted in early childhood. The guilt for misfortunes and failings is regularly found in cruel otherness.

*   *   *   *   *

       This myth remains, mutatis mutandis, approving over and over again its mythlike  nature. The story about “five hundred years” of “Turkish enyokement” has her modern life,  influential, as myth should be. I would mention just a few interesting details.

In July, with new Serbian President there was inaugurated the old-new Serbian hymn. One verse of that hymn recalls the idea that Serbian state is “the fruit of five centuries long struggle”. Thus, albeit symbolically, being a part of Serbian hymn, the idea of these “five centuries” gets or recovers another, somehow official meaning. In some manner the myth presented in this work got an official approve.

Sometimes the myth gets also the form of joke: for instance, popular Serbian writer Momo Kapor explained interest for spending summer in Turkish seaside resorts as a kind of historical debt, born from the fact that “the Turks had been spending their summers and winters in Serbia for five hundred years”. Popular singer Z. Joksimovic expected to revenge the sufferings of  his ancestors by winning the first position in Eurosong competition in Istanbul, continuing never ending struggle against the Turks.

Even if having been finished, historically, somewhere deep in history (?), that imaginary and eternal struggle against the Turks continues as inevitable destiny, living its mythical life as fatal predestination.




The effects of such simplified interpretations are at least expectable and in their basis logical: having been enslaved and tortured, out of common European development, the Serbs had lost their chance to prosper in culture and economy. Turkish legacy was and still is regarded as that fatal “yoke” over the neck of the people. That “yoke” is deeply emerged in the souls and mentality of raya (J. Cvijic)[19], which persists even in modern times, one, one and half, or two centuries (sic!) after the Turkish government had disappeared.  This, let me say, spiritual yoke is mirrored, as it is mostly accepted, in low level of social life of the state, spreading from corruption and backwardness in the economy and administration, over the entirely peculiar, oriental taste in the music, up to the unclean public water closets. If accepted, these interpretations introduce one logical question: Is it possible to make some conclusions about the people who had adopted only these negative influences?

 Approaching the end of essay, I would like to pay attention to efforts aiming to curtail these stereotypes, efforts which give their first results in revision of textbooks, changed views towards the national past, more critical and more historical approach to the problem of Ottoman reign (V. Dabic, S. Katic, A. Fotic…)[20].
























Istorija srpskog naroda, III-V, Beograd 1992.

Istorija naroda Jugoslavije, II, Beograd 1963.

Pregled istorije jugoslovenskih naroda, I-II, Beograd 1963.

V. Corovic, Istorija Srba, Nis 1999.

Istorija Osmanskog Carstva, ed. R. Mantran, Beograd 2002.

J. Cvijic, Balkansko poluostrvo i juznoslovenske zemlje, I-II, Beograd 1966.

D. Plut, “Socijalizacijski obrasci osnovnoskolskih udzbenika”, Ratnistvo, patriotizam, patrijahalnost, Beograd (1994) pp. 11-37.

R. Rosandic, “Patriotsko vaspitanje u osnovnoskolskim udzbenicima”, Ratnistvo, patriotizam, patrijahalnost, Beograd (1994) pp. 39-53.

D. Stojanovic, “Udzbenici istorije kao ogledalo vremena”, Ratnistvo, patriotizam, patrijahalnost, Beograd (1994) pp. 77-103.

D. Stojanovic, “History Textbooks and the Creation of National identity”, in Theaching the History of Southeastern Europe, Thessaloniki (2001) pp. 27-32.

Y. N. Soysal, V. L. Antoniou, “A Common Regional Past? Portrayals of the Byzantine and Ottoman Heritages from Within and Without”, Clio in the Balkans, The  Politics of History Education, Thessaloniki (2002) pp. 53-72.

I. Raicevic, N. Lukic, Poznavanje drustva, udzbenik za V razred osnovne skole, Beograd 1972.

B. Vlahovic, B. Mihailovic, Poznavanje prirode i drustva za 3. razred, Beograd 1992.

M. Vukicevic, Istorija Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca za srednje i strucne skole, Beograd 1925.

S. Jantolek, Istorija naroda Jugoslavije za studente VPS u Beogradu, Beograd 1950.

M. Jugovic, Istorija srednjeg veka za vise razrede gimnazije, Beograd 1957.

Dj. Grubac, Istorija za 7. razred osnovne skole, Beograd 1967.

M. Perovic, M. Strugar, Istorija za 7. razred osnovne skole, Beograd 1995. (First edition 1992)

M. Perovic, M. Vojvodic, Lj. Sparavalo, Istorijska citanka za 7. razred osnovne skole, Beograd 1992.

M. Perovic, R. Novakovic, Istorija za III razred gimnazije opsteg tipa i drustveno-jezickog smera i III razred strucnih skola, Beograd 1997. (First edition 1992).

D. Rodic, Geografija za I ili III razred srednje skole, Beograd 1996. (First edition 1993).




[1] “Mythical taught owns the idea of destiny.” T. Kuljic, Prevladavanje proslosti, Beograd 2002, p.56.

[2] Here I would mention Malinovsky’s and Levi-Strausse’s theories.

[3] Y. Soysal, V. L. Antoniou, “A Common Regional Past? Portrayals of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires from Within and Without”, in  Clio in the Balkans, The  Politics of History Education, Thessaloniki (2002) pp. 53-72. Paper from conference “The Balkan Empires: Common Heritage, Different Heirs”. Analysis was made using history textbooks. Cf. “…into Turkish history textbooks… Byzantine rulers are depicted as corrupt and cruel hegemons, exploiting the inhabitants… The peasants, priests, merchants, the poor and the rich, all accept the rule and providence of the Turk as their salivation and road to prosperity.” Op. cit. p.62. According to the Greek textbook, for instance, there begins “darkness of slavery.” Op. cit. p.64.

[4] cf. O. Milosavljevic, U tradiciji nacionalizma ili stereotipi srpskih intelektualaca XX veka o “nama” i “drugima”, Beograd 2002, pp. 209-217.

[5] D. Stojanovic, “History Textbooks and the Creation of National identity”, in Theaching the History of Southeastern Europe, Thessaloniki (2001) p. 27. 

[6] “Socialization patterns are the answers, given by certain community, about the questions of vital importance for the survival of the community.” These patterns are “operationalized as systems of rules explicitly or implicitly present in the textbooks “ (Cursive is mine. S. M.) See D. Plut, “Socijalizacijski obrasci osnovnoskolskih udzbenika”, Ratnistvo, patriotizam, patrijahalnost, Beograd (1994) p. 11.


[7] M. Vukicevic, Istorija Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca za srednje i strucne skole, Beograd 1925.

[8] Dj. Grubac, Istorija za 7. razred osnovne skole, Beograd 1960; Dj. Grubac, Istorija za 7. osnovne skole, Beograd 1967.

[9] M. Perovic, M Strugar, Istorija za 7. razred osnovne skole, Beograd 1997; M. Perovic, R. Novakovic, Istorija za 3. razred gimnazije, Beograd 1997; M. Perovic, M. Vojvodic, Lj. Sparavalo, Istorijska citanka za 7. razred osnovne skole, Beograd 1992.

[10] All consulted textbooks, more or less, mostly implicitly suggest such an idea. See references in the end of the text.

[11] It is right place to emphasize that Turkish textbooks gives completely different interpretation. In these textbooks “…peoples of the Balkans… are referred as the most privileged minorities”, living “very rich lives” keeping their language and religion, “thanks to a great tolerance and understanding of the Ottoman State”. Analysis was made by D. Erpulat and belongs to unpublished materials from conference “The Balkan Empires: Common Heritage, Different Heirs” which took place in Istanbul, in September 2000. I was in a position to use these materials by kindness of D. Stojanovic, who took part on the conference.

[12] D. Rodic, Geografija za I ili III razred srednje skole, Beograd 1996. (First edition 1993).

[13] Ibid. p. 43.

[14] Ibid. p. 47.

[15] Ibid. p. 62.

[16] Ibid. p. 56.

[17] Ibid. p. 36.

[18] Ibid. p. 100.

[19] J. Cvijic, Balkansko poluostrvo i juznoslovenske zemlje, I-II, Beograd 1966, p. 119.

[20] See, for example, the text written by A. Fotic, “Ka drukcijem razumevanju istorije Osmanskog carstva” in Serbian edition of manual “Istorija Osmanskog Carstva”, ed. R. Mantran, Beograd 2002, pp. 909-914.