Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 5: The Serbian Revolution and the Serbian State

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 5: The Serbian Revolution and the Serbian State


Why should we present the modern history of the Balkans as “the age of nationalism?” Because the most apparent change in the region during the last 200 years has been the appearance of national states there. In 1800 the Balkans were divided between two dynastic empires — a century later we find independent states built on the national principle: Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Montenegro, followed shortly by Albania and Hungary.

I want to look at the so-called “national revolutions” of the nineteenth century beginning with Serbia and Greece. Is it accurate to say that these societies changed to an extent that was “revolutionary?” Was “nationalism” the main engine of that change? To answer these questions, we can look at the impact of nationalism during three periods associated with the events that took place in Serbia and Greece:

  • 1) developments before the unrest,
  • 2) events during the “revolutionary” period itself, and
  • 3) changes in the early years of the new independent states.


Serbia: Pre-conditions

We have already heard about weakness in the Ottoman and Habsburg systems. Both empires experienced peasant revolts and other kinds of unrest prior to the nineteenth century. Those kinds of episodes had created no new countries and no nationalist reorganization of societies. What developments now led to national revolution?

In 1804 there was no Serbian polity, only memory of the medieval Serbian Empire kept alive through epic poems like those about the Battle of Kosovo. The 1804 insurrection took place in the Belgrade Pashalik (an area ruled by a pasha). The pashalik was an oval running 150 miles along the south bank of the Danube River, and extending 100 miles south into forested hill country. The population of the pashalik was about 350,000. About 10% were Turks or other Muslims including janissary households displaced from lands to the north after a lost war with Austria in 1791. The city of Belgrade (the “White City”) was a center for the Ottoman administration, a janissary garrison and Muslim shopkeepers. Serbian society was rural and existed in the countryside.

The average Serb had no notion of “nationality” in the modern sense, but despite 400 years of Turkish rule, Serbian society was still alive and distinct from Ottoman Turkish society. In part this was due to Ottoman toleration: conquered Slavs were not required to convert to Islam (although some did, notably in Bosnia). However, this fact alone does not explain the cohesion in Serbian life that made the Serbian national revival possible during the next generation. There were powerful elements holding the society together.

First, we can cite the Turkish policy of religious separatism that accompanied religious toleration. Under the millet system, Christian Orthodox Serbs were clearly not Muslim Ottoman Turks, as evidenced by their subservient status in matters of law, taxes and privileges. No Serb could have failed to notice this difference.

The second pillar of the Serbian community was the Serbian Orthodox Church. It harked back to the pre conquest kingdom of Serbia. The Turks lumped all Orthodox believers together, both Slavic and Greek, into a single millet. However, a distinctly Serbian archbishopric continued to exist at Pec until 1766. There was also a Serbian Orthodox bishop across the river in Habsburg Hungary, the result of a mass migration of 70,000 Serbs into exile after a failed revolt in 1690. These Serbs were frontier soldiers living in special districts of the Habsburg “Military Border”: their descendants continued to live in the “Vojna Krajina” region along the Croatian Bosnian border until the 1990s. The Serbian Church’s hierarchy of priests was a repository of limited education and administrative experience for Serbs. Services were held in Old Church Slavonic and the church therefore preserved Serbian identity as a people who had a separate language, not Turkish or Greek, as well as a separate faith.

Third, Turkish policies preserved Serbian village life. The Ottomans made each village responsible collectively for the payment of taxes to the state and to the 900 timariot landlords in the pashalik. To collect payments efficiently there had to be village leadership. To run the villages, the Turks permitted the election of headmen (knezes) and advisory assemblies (skupstinas). These men became Serbia’s secular leaders. In 1793, Serb villagers even gained limited rights to bear arms: the anarchy created by displaced janissaries and the rise of renegade pashas forced the sultan to create local militias to maintain order. Serbian militia took part in Ottoman campaigns against Pasvanoglu, an “ayan” or rebellious pasha setting up an independent realm in northwest Bulgaria.

Rural society also sustained the “zadruga,” the extended household. A typical zadruga was made up of a couple and their adult sons with their families, perhaps a dozen people living communally and sharing farmland, herds and a living compound. The zadruga was flexibe enough to withstand the stresses of Balkan life: some members of the family could leave home for long periods to tend flocks in far-off pastures, make trading trips or go into the mountains as hajduks, adventurers who sometimes acted as bandits and sometimes as anti-Ottoman guerillas.

In the late 1700s, these long-standing institutions combined with new forces to create the pre-conditions for the successful revolution that began in 1804. What were these changes?

First, the Austrian reconquest of Hungary brought the border to the edge of Serbian territory: for a short time, the Austrians even occupied parts of Serbia. The border meant a revival of trading opportunities in Hungary. Enterprising Serbs fattened hogs on acorns in the region’s forests and then drove them north to market in Hungary, making a good profit.

The presence of the Habsburg state across the Danube also meant exposure to new ideas. Serbs now could visit a place where Christians were not second-class citizens. At the same time, Habsburg promotion of things German and Catholic again made Serbs aware of their separate identity. If the Ottoman system taught Serbs that they were Christian, the Austrians taught them that they were Slavic and Orthodox.

During the Austro-Turkish war of 1788-91, some Serbs served as soldiers and officers in Habsburg armies. They learned about military tactics, organization and weapons. Some “hajduks” put this knowledge to work even before the 1804 revolt. Other Serbs were employed in administrative offices in Hungary or in the occupied zone.

Serbs began to travel in search of trade and education, and were exposed to European ideas about secular society, politics, law and philosophy, including both rationalism and Romanticism. There was an active Serbian community in southern Hungary: from there, ideas made their way south across the Danube.

Serbs also found a model to admire in Russia, a Slavic and Orthodox country which had recently modernized itself and was now a serious menace to the Turks. The Russian experience implied hope for Serbia.

Other Serbian thinkers found strengths in the Serbian community itself. Two Serbian scholars were influenced by Western learning to turn their attention to Serbia’s own language and literature. One was Dositej Obradovic, born ca. 1743. After a brief career as a monk he traveled to Western Europe. Shocked that his people had no modern secular literature, he assembled grammars and dictionaries to create a modern Serbian language, wrote some books himself and translated others. Others followed his lead and revived tales of Serbia’s medieval glory.

The second figure was Vuk Karadzic. Born in 1787, Vuk was less influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and more by Romanticism with its belief in the values of unspoiled rural and peasant communities. Vuk collected and published Serbian epic poetry, work that helped to build Serbian awareness of a common identity based in shared customs and shared history. This kind of linguistic and cultural self-awareness was a central feature of German nationalism in this period, and Serbian intellectuals now applied the same ideas to the Balkans.


The events of 1804

Regardless of these pre-conditions, Serbian leaders had no plan to overthrow the sultan’s rule. The immediate cause of the armed Serbian uprising in 1804 was a further deterioration of the Ottoman system. Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798: when the sultan stripped the Balkans of troops to defend Egypt, the power of the central government to resist local Balkan notables declined. In 1801, the Belgrade area filled with unruly janissaries. Some were refugees from Hungary; others had been barred from the area in 1791 due to their abusive behavior and now returned. They murdered pasha Hadji Mustafa who had been on good terms with his Serbian subjects. The four most powerful janissary chiefs (known as “dahis”) jointly ruled the country. Robbery and murder became common. In February 1804 the dahis sent out bands of killers who murdered seventy prominent priests and village leaders. Meant to prevent the sultan from using the Serbian militia against the dahis’ misrule, this crime had the opposite effect. Other Serbian leaders, fearing that they too would be murdered, fled to safety in the forests, organized villagers and hajduks into armed units, and met as a council to decide what to do. At the head of 30,000 armed peasants they soon forced the janissary troops into the walled fortress of Belgrade. A military stalemate then ensued.

Was this a “national revolution?” Many Serbs only wanted to return to the old status quo. There was no organized conspiracy like the one that began the Greek Revolution a few years later. On the other hand, peasants had been increasingly unhappy even before the murders. Illegal chiftliks were growing and peasants found themselves forced to pay double taxes, once to local toughs with illegal control of the land and again to absentee legal landholders. Few peasants could have believed in a restoration of the ideal Ottoman system. Other Serbs had new interests that made change attractive.

Djordje Petrovic, also known as Karageorge or “Black George” because of his dark features, became the leader of the revolt. He was in many ways typical of a new class of prosperous livestock traders. In 1804 he was about 35 years old, the son of a farm laborer. Karageorge left his rural district to seek his fortune, sometimes tending sheep but also living as a bandit or hajduk. In the 1780s his family fled across the Danube to safety in the Vojvodina district of Hungary. During the Austro-Turkish war of 1788-1791 he served in a Serbian unit raised by the Austrians. After the war he raised pigs for the trade with Hungary. As a successful man he was elected to be a knez or village leader. The other Serb leaders had similar backgrounds: hajduks, knezes, officers.

The war began with no real plan to seek independence. The struggle lasted until 1815. It proceeded through four stages: each one changed the stakes and made it harder to go back to the status quo.


First phase of the revolt

The first phase, from 1804 to 1806, was a conservative reaction to new abuses by the janissaries and dahis. Most Serbs at this time wanted to restore the peaceful conditions in place when Hadji Mustapha had been governor. But this was not possible: neither the sultan nor the Serbs could expel the offending janissaries and appoint a new pasha. A negotiated settlement would have suited sultan Selim III but domestic politics made this impossible. Powerful conservative Muslim elements would not allow him to make concessions to Christian rebels. Nor could Selim guarantee that the Serbs would not face revenge from the janissaries if they laid down their arms. Selim sent an army to Serbia but it was driven away by the Serbs.


Second phase of the revolt

The second phase of the revolt, from 1806 to 1808, saw the rebels’ goals expand. Several factors were at work:

1) When they chose to fight off Selim’s army, the Serbs had to decide that they were not longer going to rely on the sultan for a remedy to the crisis.

2) The international situation also changed to the advantage of the Serbs. In 1806, the French and the Turks became allies, and this left Russia free to attack Turkey. With Russian support the Serbs were able to take Belgrade in 1807. The sultan then offered them full autonomy but the Russians (who wanted the distracting war in Serbia to go on) convinced the Serbs to refuse. The war continued with the Serbs now committed to a goal of complete independence.

3) Internal developments within Turkey also worked against a settlement. In an effort to create a more effective military, Selim III pushed too far ahead with plans to replace the janissaries with a modern army. Word got out and he was murdered by his own guards. The new sultan was in no position to offer any kind of compromise to the Serbs. Neither side now wished to seek a reform solution to the revolt.

The second phase of the war ended with a harsh lesson for the Serbs about Great Power allies. Russia had other interests: in 1807 Tsar Alexander made peace with Napoleon and ended his support of the Serbs. Left on their own, the Serbs lost Belgrade to a Turkish army in 1808. Many fled into exile and others continued a guerilla war in the forests.


Third phase of the revolt

The third phase of the revolt began in 1809 when Russia renewed its war with Turkey and ended in 1813 with the apparent defeat of the Serbs. The Serbs failed to win for two reasons. First, Russia’s support was inconsistent and never sufficient for a decisive effort. Wider Russian interests led to the restoration of peace with Turkey whenever war with France became a danger. When Napoleon invaded Rusian in 1812 the Russians abandoned the Serbs again. The Serbs offered to put down their arms in return for autonomy but the sultan refused. In 1813 a strong Ottoman army invaded Serbia. Karageorge, many leaders and 100,000 people had to flee into the Austria Empire.


Serbian politics

The second cause of the Serbian failure was internal dissension. Karageorge quarreled with his Council over supreme authority to make plans. These divisions not only affected the revolt but laid the foundation for a century of Serbian politics.

Karageorge became supreme military leader in 1804 but this did not mean that he held sole power. Serbian institutions of self-rule included the knezes, local popular assemblies called skupstinas, and military leaders called vojvodes. Karageorge was supreme vojvode, but he had been selected by an assembly that continued to meet each winter. A formal council of twelve was also created in 1805. Karageorge and the Council argued over various draft constitutions: Karageorge demanded a hereditary claim to supreme authority, while rival knezes on the Council wanted any leader to be appointed by a “senate”. In 1811, Karageorge used a vote of the national skupstina to get his way. The whole affair diverted energy from the war. Karageorge also replaced the best military leaders with men who were loyal to him. These factors contributed to the defeat of 1813.


Fourth phase of the revolt

The fourth phase (sometimes called the Second Revolution) took place in 1815 after an intermezzo of restored Ottoman rule. The restoration began well enough. The Turks offered an amnesty in 1813 and reappointed returning Serb leaders as knezes.

Among them was one Milos Obrenovic. Milos was in his early twenties when the first revolt began and about 32 in 1813. As a poor peasant youth he had travelled as far as the Dalmatian coast driving cattle to market. He had a half-brother Milan, a wealthy livestock merchant who was one of Karageorge’s opponents on the Council. Milos became a successful military commander during the revolt. Milan died in 1810, probably poisoned, and Milos blamed Karageorge for his death. After the amnesty of 1813, the new pasha appointed Milos to administer three districts, as a known enemy of Karageorge who could counterbalance his power.

Relations between Serbs and Turks soon turned bad. The Turks took supplies by force, tortured villagers while searching for hidden arms, and raised taxes. After a riot at a Turkish estate in 1814, the Turkish authorities massacred the local population and publicly impaled two hundred prisoners at Belgrade.

The Serbian leaders, including Milos Obrenovic, decided to revolt again for two reasons. First, they feared a general massacre of knezes. Second, they learned that Karageorge was planning to return from exile in Russia. The anti-Karageorge faction, including Milos Obrenovic, was anxious to forestall Karageorge and keep him out of power.

When fighting resumed at Easter in 1815, Milos became supreme leader of the new revolt. He advocated a policy of restraint: captured Ottoman soldiers were not killed and civilians were released. His announced goal was not independence but an end to abusive misrule. Wider European events now helped the Serb cause. The final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 raised Turkish fears that Russia might again intervene in Turkey. To avoid this the sultan agreed to make Serbia autonomous. The specific terms of the settlement addressed many of the original complaints of 1804:

1) taxes were precisely defined and would be collected by Serb officials without Turkish involvement;

2) all janissaries were excluded and the Turkish garrison or administrators were confined to a few fortress towns;

3) Serbian merchants gained the right to travel freely and conduct business anywhere in the Ottoman Empire;

4) there was an amnesty and Serbs kept their arms;

5) a Serbian administration and a national skupstina or assembly were created; and

6) Milos became supreme knez with authority to carry out the decrees of the Turkish pasha.

After the Russo-Turkish War of 1829-1830 a new treaty ended some abuses of the settlement. All Muslims left the country except a token garrison. Serbs acquired complete control of the internal administration, the postal system and the courts. Taxes and dues were replaced by a single annual tribute payment from the state to the sultan. Milos became the hereditary prince.


Was it a national revolution?

Was autonomous Serbia under Milos really different from the old pashalik of Belgrade? To answer this, we need to look at the new ruling class, what the Serbs did with their autonomy and what new institutions arose.

Measured against the Western European and American revolutions of 1688, 1776 or 1789, the achievement of 1815 was limited. The Serbian people gained no access to “democratic” or representative power. Milos was a tyrant who ran the country to suit his own interests. When the Turks were expelled he bought the best Turkish estates for himself. He pocketed portions of the state tax revenues. He enriched himself through monopolies on certain goods and indulged in foolish luxuries like a carriage (at a time when the country had no roads).

Milos used spies and secret agents to harass or kill his enemies including Karageorge, who was murdered when he came back to Serbia in 1817. To curry favor with the Turks, Milos had the great rebel’s head stuffed and sent to Istanbul. Other rivals died in mysterious “hunting accidents” or were jailed. In many respects Milos was simply a Christian pasha.


The revolution against Ottoman power

On the other hand there were trends in autonomous Serbia that signalled real change. Above all, the country was now ruled by Christians and not Muslims. Milos knew that he could never rely on real support from Muslim and Ottoman circles. Milos therefore secured a gradual but effective reduction of Turkish power and Serbian institutions inevitably filled the vacuum. For protection, Milos evaded treaty limits and created a Serbian army. He began this process with palace guards and police. After 1830 he was able to train soldiers openly. Milos’ land policies steadily shifted ownership from Turks to Serbs. Milos kept some prime land for himself but the state also sold land to Serbian families to build up a healthy rural peasant class. A series of “homestead laws” beginning in 1836 protected peasants from usurers and bankruptcies, and retarded the tendency to subdivide farms into tiny inefficient plots.

There was also a revival of that key national institution, the Serbian Orthodox Church. The separate Serbian bishopric had been abolished in 1766, submerged into the Greek-controlled hierarchy. Milos pressured the sultan and the patriarch to restore Serbian church autonomy. The Serbian state paid the Metropolitan of Belgrade, then withheld funds from appointees who were Greek. By the treaty of 1830 the Serbian government gained the right to name all candidates and soon secured a restored Serbian church hierarchy with its seat at Belgrade.

When he controlled the church, Milos also gained control of the schools. In the 1830s Serbia set up a school system with a curriculum that reflected national interests. Students now learned Serbian grammar, Serbian literature and Serbian history.


Milos as a revolutionary figure

Following in the footsteps of Karageorge and other leaders, Milos was a new kind of Balkan leader, a Christian who made his mark in opposition to the Turkish governing structure (unlike the Phanariot Greeks who gained power within that structure) and also outside the traditional Orthodox Church.

It is interesting to contrast men of this kind with figures like Ali Pasha of Jannina or Pasvanoglu, who had been successful in the preceding decades but soon found themselves set aside. There were certain obvious similarities and differences. Men of both types were ambitious, talented, tough and sometimes cruel. Men like Ali had followed careers that stayed within the conventions of Ottoman rule: they were Muslim, sought and achieved official ranks in the Ottoman hierarchy, and paid nominal obeisance to the sultan. The new men of Serbia were Christian. They rejected compromises that would have allowed progress up the ladders of the old Ottoman system: they did not convert to Islam or assume career paths in the Orthodox millet hierarchy. Instead, they relied for support on forces outside the Ottoman Empire, including fellow Slavs and foreign powers hostile to the Ottoman state. When they achieved power they used their positions not to assume Turkish offices and titles, but to create new government structures of their own. Unlike a man like Ali, whose interest was confined to manipulating the old system to benefit himself and his family, the new Serb leaders set aside the old forms to pursue goals that changed the position of their co-nationals as well.


National politics as change

It is impossible to say how much Milos or other early leaders consciously sought to create a national entity. While some leaders were exposed to Western European ideas, there was no completed model of a small Balkan nation-state for them to imitate. However, the natural course of things meant a steady widening of the circle of national political life in Serbia.

Naturally Milos had enemies: rival knezes, merchants who objected to monopolies and customs duties, or civil servants who wanted appointments for life.

To resist his enemies Milos had to build support from other elements in society or risk losing his office or even his life. In his maneuvering over constitutional issues and his search for allies, one finds the beginnings of national politics, however corrupt or limited.


Constitutional disputes

The basic outlines of nineteenth century Serbian politics were clear as early as 1805 when Karageorge clashed with his Council. Under Milos Obrenovic, the same question remained: who spoke for the nation?

Between 1815 and 1869, Serbian politics involved repeated tests of strength between the ruling princes and various manifestations of a “Constitutionalist” party, as jealous notables tried to gain power by revising the constitution. In place of tyrrany, the notables offered oligarchy. The mass of peasants were unrepresented or consulted as a national assembly only when one side or the other needed a rubber stamp to support its own wishes.

In 1835 Milos granted the first real constitution. An upper chamber called the Council or Senate gained legislative and administrative power, but all its members served at the pleasure of the prince. A lower chamber called the Assembly had no real powers.

This document did not appease Milos’ rivals. In 1838 Milos was on bad terms with the Russians, who therefore helped secure a new Serbian Constitution from the Ottoman sultan as an “Organic Statute” for a province that was still nominally Turkish.

Under this 1838 Constitution, the powers of the Council grew to suit the “Constitutionalist” notables. Council members would serve for life and could not be removed by the prince. The state ministries were responsible to the Council, not the prince. The Assembly disappeared so that the prince could not use it against the council. When a military mutiny failed to cow his enemies, Milos abdicated and left the country. His heir Milan was only 17 and deathly ill, so the Council took control of the state as a Regency. When Milan died, he was succeeded by his 16-year old brother Michael. After another abortive coup in 1842, Michael also left Serbia and the anti-Obrenovic notables completed their triumph by selecting Alexander Karageorgevic, Karageorge’s son, as prince. The Council retained true power.

One can read in the transition from the Obrenovic to the Karageorgevic dynasty another measure of national maturity. National identity and national political interest were no longer connected to the identity of a specific ruling prince and his family. The oligarchy certainly was not a democracy but on the other hand it was a far cry from a system in which the prince was a sort of “Christian pasha.” The rest of the century (as we will see in Lecture 13), brought an even wider expansion of political participation in Serbia and a politics that can only be called nationalistic, for better or for worse.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created May, 1996; last modified 11 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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