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Apr 1, 1999

Most relations in Central Europe are, unfortunately, based on conflicts. I would like to briefly cover the majority of ethnic conflicts that is (and was) evident in Central Europe. First, I will briefly explain the types and bases for ethnic conflicts in general and, include a brief history of the concept. Then, I will focus on ethnic conflicts in Central Europe.

There are three kinds of ethnic conflict with two types of patterns. The three kinds of ethnic conflict are pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. The three kinds of conflict, it is believed, have emerged from different, clashing interests; these interests may be tangible or intangible. The resulting conflicts of interest follow certain patterns that are connected with society and the impact of certain politics. For example, these three types of conflict tie in closely with the level of industrialization a society has achieved. The first kind of ethnic conflict, pre-modern, is one that developed before industrialization. An important factor within this type of conflict is religion. Conflicts in Europe first occurred among denominations, and then between “clerical” and “secular” interests. Also, the concept of “social class” (upper, middle, and lower) was introduced during these times, which caused another basis for friction. The second kind of ethnic conflict is modern, which resulted from the establishment of an industrialized (capitalist) society. Although this type of conflict still involved conflicts between social classes, the conflicts were more in terms of labor and business. The third type of conflict, post-modern, came from a highly industrialized society and a well-educated middle class that also involved gender and environmental conflicts. Although there are three types of ethnic conflicts, the first two, pre-modern and modern, fit into today’s major conflicts. They are pre-modern in the sense that religious conflicts play a large part in today’s conflicts, as well as, class conflicts. Additionally, ethnic conflicts have a modern aspect due to the idea of the “nation-state.” The idea of a “nation-state,” and the strong feelings toward this term with hopes for independence and, perhaps, unity, tie in closely with these modern types of ethnic conflicts.

Among the kinds of conflicts mentioned above, are two patterns of ethnic conflict: international and intra-national. International conflicts are crosscutting conflicts that exist between international borders. This type of pattern includes possible conflicts between sovereign states. Usually, one state claims the role of advocate for an ethnic group within the borders of another state. Examples of international conflicts are many. Conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe are among the many examples of international conflicts. For example, conflicts between Turkey and Bulgaria, conflicts between Hungary and Romania concerning the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, and the conflicts between Albania and Serbia about the Albanian population are all examples of international conflicts.

On the other hand, intranational ethnic conflicts are between ethnic groups within existing borders. In this example, there is no international legal right of interference by another sovereign state that might be claiming the role of ethnic advocate. It is said that this pattern of ethnic conflict can be more jeopardizing in the sense that it can splinter a state into two or more states. An example of this is the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian ‘Dual Monarchy’ in 1918 that will be discussed. Moreover, cases of intranational conflicts in Eastern Europe are numerous. An example of this would be the two multi-ethnic federations, the former USSR and former Yugoslavia. Both had traditions of claiming leading roles: Russians in the case of the USSR and the Serbs in the case of Yugoslavia. Another example of intranational ethnic conflicts, the Czecho-Slovak Republic was based on a compromise between Czechs and Slovaks. The explosion of ethnic conflict within a border has seemed to be more evident when the political unit had been successfully claiming independence from the central institution; an example of this is the Serbian minority in Croatia. When looking back in history searching for a cause or resolution for conflicts, one can see a system that was used to reduce the likelihood of conflicts by the Ottoman Empire.

By the 1500s, the Ottoman Empire had conquered many nations. It first conquered its neighboring peoples, and then by the fourteenth century they had spread out to the Balkans. In 1453 Constantinople was conquered, in 1465 Bosnia and Herzegovina was annexed, and then they conquered almost all of Hungary and Transylvania. The Ottoman rulers, who were Muslim, controlled a wide variety of people for centuries and had a great impact on religion, political formations, and other aspects that controlled the lives of the people they had conquered. However, in 1453, Sultan Orhan introduced an innovative system, at the time, called the “millet system” or “nations system” (millet meaning a nation of people). The “nation system” allowed autonomy for non-Turk and non-Muslim groups. Back then, it was used in terms of a community or nation of people with a particular religion within the Ottoman Empire. This system gave rights to members of the “nation” to use their own languages, have their own religious, cultural and educational institutions, and have a leader who was responsible for all public affairs of the “nation”. At the beginning of this system there were four “nations”: Christian, Armenian, Jewish, and non-Ottoman Muslims. Within time, though, the system began to change. The Orthodox, Armenian, and Jewish “nations” were reorganized from 1862 to 1866. The patriarchs were elected by members of the community who were government assembling traders, or non-religious elements, began to handle secular matters. Also, new “nations” were developed by the nineteenth century. Romanian, Bulgarian, and Serbian “nations” were formed under separate churches and gradually grew into separate nations. The Greeks established their own Orthodox Church in Istanbul separate from the patriarch. Also, converted Muslim-Bosnians and Muslim- Albanians incorporated their new Islamic identities with their own ethnic identities. Another change was the organization of “national nations”, a national identity along with communal and religious identities. Along with this, missionaries of various denominations arrived who were seeking certain rights and protection. These missionaries received protection and rights from their own government, especially the Russian, French, and the British. Later, these countries supported their own people. For example, the French supported the (French) Catholics, the Russians supported the (Serb) Orthodox, and the British supported the (English) Protestants. However, when the Ottoman Empire began to weaken and especially when the French Revolution introduced national spirit and independence, everything changed radically. As I mentioned earlier, the “nation” system was innovative; some see it as a factor that most probably held the Empire together for such a long time, and reduced the likelihood of conflict. On the other hand, some people see this system in the sense that it eventually became a base for the national consciousness of various ethnic groups. Either way, the “nation” system played an important role in Central European countries.

Central Europe has always been a region of great ethnic diversity; and such diversity can cause many conflicts. There are three main language groups in Central Europe: Slav, German, and Hungarian. Albanians and Macedonians may, however, argue that they do not “belong” to these language families. Also, Czech and Serbian are two different languages. However, due to early migrations, Central Europe has been the “meeting place” of the three linguistic groups whose cultural patterns have differed from one another. In addition to languages, there are three major religions in this region: Western Christianity, Eastern Christianity, and Islam. Again, this does not imply that these are the only religions in Central Europe. However, the three religions mentioned above are to show that Central Europe had become a “meeting place” for world religions as well. Other factors that may be the cause of conflict in the examples that will be mentioned are language, religion, history, and territorial claims.

The Slavic Peoples: (Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians of the Southern Slavs; and the Czechs of the Western Slayv).

It is believed that the Serbs migrated to the Balkans in the 12th century and converted to Orthodox Christianity in the foollowing centuries when the first Serb political formation emerged. It was in 1389 that the Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs in the well-known Battle of Kosova. This battle is deeply remembered in Serbian history books and has a significant part in the conflict between the Bosnians and the Serbs gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Language: The Serbian language and the Croatian language are written in the Latin script. It was once proposed that Serbs and Croatian form a nation together based on this fact. Religion: Serbs have a commonality with Russians due to the Orthodox religion, however, they are neighboring with Muslim Bosnians, Albanians, and Bulgarians, and with Catholic Hungarians. History: There was a rivalry between Bulgarians and Greeks, and Southern Slays and Magyars. Also, the memory of defeat at the hands of the Turks in the 14th century still lingers. Territory: The Serbs believe they were the ones to first form the “Serb kingdom” in Bosnia. Also, Hungary may claim Vojvodina that is controlled by Serbs.

The Southern Slav Croats settled in Croatia in the 17th century and had accepted Roman Catholicism by the ninth century. They formed a kingdom in the tenth and eleventh century, and then conquered Dalmatia from the Venetians. However, in 1091, Hungary conquered much of the Croatian land. In 1092, a union was formed between Croatia-Slavonia and Hungary under the Hungary monarch. Croats formed a southern frontier of Christendom and then another southern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1527. After the revolution during 1848-49, Croatia received independence from Hungary in 1851. In 1918, Croatia became part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and then later of Yugoslavia. Language: There are similarities with other Slavic languages but the latin script distinguishes it from the Serb language. Religion: There is a split between them and neighboring Eastern Orthodox and Muslim Bulgarians, and Bosnian and Albanian Muslims. History: There was a long rivalry with the Hungarians and the defeat by the Ottoman Turks. Territory: There is possibly a claim of the northern part of Bosnia and in northern Croatia by Hungarians.

Today’s Bosnians and Herzegovians are descendants of Serbs and some Croats. They settled in what became Bosnia, in the 12th century, during the seventh century. Bosnians and Herzegovians lived separately until the Ottomans conquered Bosnia in 1463 that then conquered Herzegovina in 1482. The Berlin Congress placed Bosnia-Herzegovina under the Austro-Hungarian rule in 1878. Later in 1918, Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of Serbia, which was turned into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Language: The language is Serbo-Croatian written primarily in Latin script. Religion: Bosnian Serbs are mainly Roman Catholic, but there are Bosnian and Herzegovian Muslims. History: There are the recurrent claims to Bosnia-Herzegovina by both Serbs and Croats. Territory: There does not seem to be any territorial conflicts.

The Czechs have a similar history with Bohemians and Moravians. The Bohemian Czechs continuously arrived from the first through the fifth century. The first Bohemian dynasty was established in the ninth century. Until then, it was a part of the Moravian Empire and had accepted Roman Catholicism. In 1526, Bohemia lost its autonomy that was gained in 950 when the Austrian, Habsburg rule began. When the Austrian-Hungarian Dual Monarchy was formed in 1867, Bohemian citizens were not granted independence and were a part of the Empire. Only in 1919, independence was brought to Czechoslovakia. Language: The language is Czech written in Latin script. Religion: They are either nominally Roman Catholic or Protestant. History: The most significant elements are the Habsburg-Austrian rule in 1526-1919 and the gaining of independence as Czechoslovakia in 1919. Territory: They are alongside borders between Bohemia, Germany, and Poland.


The Magyars migrated to the region of today’s Hungary and Transylavania in the ninth century. The Hungarian kingdom first united under the first Hungarian king, St. Stephen, who brought the Christian religion to the population. Under pressure from lesser nobles, the Golden Bull was granted in 1222 limiting the power of the nobles and established the beginnings of a Parliament. In 1241, the Mongols occupied the country. Overall, the borders included the Slovak population, Romanian population in Transylvania, and in the Balkans the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croatians. In 1526, Ottoman Turks defeated the Hungarians. The Hungary was then split into three parts; one part was ruled by Austrian and Hungarian nobles, the second part (the central part) was completely under Turkish rule, and the third part was ruled by Hungarian nobles. Later the Turks gave all of Hungary to the Austrians in the Peace of Kalowitz. Vojvodina was part of Hungary and Croatia until the 16th century, which was later restored to them in the same century. The three regions of Vojvodina are the Screm, Backa, and the western part of Banat. Also there were diverse interests by other ethnic groups such as the Serbs, Romanians, and, German colonists. The collapse of the Austin-Hungarian Empire was, undoubtedly, also due to ethnic conflicts and diversity, while the geographic location may have played a role since Austria was closer to Western Europe. Western Europe is considered by many to have been the place where the spirit of independence originated.

Of course ethnic conflicts continue to occur in Central Europe. Central Europe has, also, become a main area of conflict since the dismantlement of communist rule. For example, in Germany, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989, that marked the end of the Cold War was followed by an eruption of ethnic conflict that no one had expected. Two years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall people in many regions continue to struggle with conflicts between groups based on language and religion.

Finding a solution for Central Europe is no easy task. All over the region there are many “ethnic pockets.” Also, Europe is very much characterized by nationalism, wars, and ethnic tensions, which make it more difficult for true peace. There have been suggested solutions to the ethnic conflict problem, though. One author mentions that “. . . the key to reduction of ethnic conflict, requires structural change”(Ronen). Although it is not possible to completely change the structure, some attention must be brought to it. The structure should be made into new democratic ones. Conflicting groups should sincerely try to find a compromise between their conflicts and try to resolve them peacefully. It is also important to bring honest, peace seeking governmental leaders to the countries; because no matter how one tries to change the structure, the ones leading the country must be sincere and try to convince others to do so. Only through peace, is there a true possible solution.


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  • Deak, Istvan. Assimilation and Nationalism in East Central Europe During the Last Century of Habsburg Rule. University of Pittsburgh. 1983.