The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day

TitleThe History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsKarčić, Harun
Author(s) of reviewed materialHoare, Marko Attila


PublisherSaqi Books
ISSN ISBN: 978-0-86356-953-1
Full Text

Marko Attila Hoare’s book The History of Bosnia provides a clear and succinct overview of the major events that have unfolded in the territory of this tiny Balkan state. The book is divided into seven chapters that cover the country’s history from medieval times to post-Dayton Bosnia. They include Bosnia-Hercegovina before Yugoslavia; Bosnia-Hercegovina in the Yugoslav Kingdom; The Seeds of a New Bosnia-Hercegovina; Bosnia-Hercegovina under the Axis; The Bosnian Revolution; Bosnia-Hercegovina as a Yugoslav Republic; and lastly The War of Independence and its Aftermath. Hoare treats the longest period ranging from medieval Bosnia till the end of World War I in merely seventy pages. The chapters that follow are far more detailed and balanced as they show the author’s in-depth familiarity with the major events and his unusual, praiseworthy ability to discern the meaning of the Austro-Hungarian period.

Although, the book scarcely deals with the Ottoman period ranging from 1463 to 1878 which ought to be seen as fundamental to the understanding of later times, Hoare nevertheless touches upon some enlightening points here. For example, of three commonly discussed and rather controversial topics regarding Ottoman rule in Bosnia, devsirme, millet system and conversion to Islam,the author covers only the process of Islamisation but does so in an excellent way (p.43). For instance, unlike some historians such as Franciscan Father Mandic and Ivan Franjo Jukic who claim that Islamisation in Bosnia was forced on the population, Hoare concludes that “The process of Islamisation was more gradual than the ‘Bogumil myth’ suggests: successive generations of Bosnians converted to Islam throughout the late fifteenth, sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, creating a Muslim majority in Bosnia by the 1620s” (p.43).

At another point in the book while speaking about the history of the Serb Orthodox Church during Ottoman times, Hoare points out what most contemporary Serbian historiography fails to acknowledge: namely, that the Orthodox Church working within the Ottoman millet system could serve as the institution that inculcated the basis of Serbian national identity. He even states that “it was the Ottoman Empire – so demonized in the later Serb-nationalist mythology – that created the basis for a Serb nation on both sides of the Drina” (p.52). Another interesting fact that Hoare mentions in a later chapter dealing with the Bosnian uprising of 1875-78 is that Serb rebels during that period identified themselves both with the Serb nation as well as with their Bosnian homeland and often referred to themselves as Bosniaks (p.62) – a term used today for identification exclusively by Bosnian Muslims and staunchly rejected by Serbs en masse.

Hoare markedly differs from some political scientists (see, for example, the works of Raju Thomas, Earl Scartlett, Steven Burg) in his analysis of the break up of Yugoslavia. He shows that in early June 1990 Milosevic, Kadijevic and Borisav Jovic decided, with regard to Slovenia and Croatia, to “expel them forcibly from Yugoslavia, by simply drawing borders and declaring that they had brought this upon themselves through their decisions” (p.349). In the same paragraph, again contrary to the claim of some historians that Serbia alone remained in rump Yugoslavia, Hoare writes that in March 1991 Milosevic “effectively seceded from Yugoslavia when he announced that Serbia no longer recognized the authority of the Yugoslav Federal Presidency.” Likewise, Hoare shows his in-depth knowledge and sober understanding of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the reasons which led to the Bosnian declaration of independence when he presents the latter decision as the last resort of the actors involved. The brilliant way this particular paragraph was written begs for a full citation:

Serb nationalists would subsequently accuse Izetbegovic of pursuing a ‘separatist’ policy. This charge ignores the fact that Bosnia-Hercegovina only declared sovereignty within Yugoslavia on the 14-15 October 1991, over a year after Serbia had declared its independence within Yugoslavia on 29 September 1990; seven months after the Karadordevo meeting of March 1991, at which Milosevic and Tudman discussed the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina between them; a month after the SDS had begun to form SAOs on Bosnian territory; ten days after Serbia and Montenegro had staged a coup within the Yugoslav Presidency, depriving Bosnia-Hercegovina of its right to participate in the top Yugoslav body; and five days after Mihailo Markovic had already announced Serbia’s plan to unify Bosnian and Croatian Serb territories to form a new Serb entity, in violation of Bosnian borders and statehood. (p.362)

On some other points, the author’s discussion ought to be criticized, in particular his representation of the Young Muslims during the inter-war period as well as his later interpretation of SDA policies seem somewhat questionable. For instance, in the chapter titled “Bosnia-Hercegovina in the Yugoslav Kingdom” Hoare makes some unsubstantiated statements about the Young Muslims organization when he states that the Young Muslims formed the Muslim counterpart to other extreme-nationalist movements such as the Ustashas (p.135) and later in another chapter he refers to them (i.e. the Young Muslims) as “extremists” (p.272). To compare the Young Muslims – who were an Islamic revivalist movement concerned primarily with educating the youth and providing humanitarian aid to Bosnian Muslims during the inter-war period – with the Ustashas who had a fascist orientation and committed horrendous crimes is simply not correct.1 Later on, speaking of SDA policies during the war, Hoare writes that “The SDA’s retreat from support for a unified, sovereign Bosnia-Hercegovina to effective support for a Muslim rump-state in a Bosnia partitioned either de facto or de jure had its roots in the separatist ideology of the Young Muslims, as reinterpreted by Izetbegovic and his circle.” (p.375). On the same page Hoare makes a similar statement when he states that “Izetbegovic’s Islamic Philosophy provided the ideological underpinning for his retreat from support for a unified Bosnia-Herzegovina…” (p.375). The connection Hoare makes between SDA policies in the early 1990s with the Young Muslims ideology from the inter-war period as well as Alija Izetbegovic’s Islamic Declaration written some thirty years earlier is rather weakly justified. Although some former members of the Young Muslims organization turned into leading members of the SDA, there is no concrete proof, save for speculation, that the Young Muslim ideology became the political platform of the SDA. Likewise, true as it is that Izetbegovic may have expressed some controversial ideas in the Islamic Declaration, making such a direct link between a little read booklet from the early 1970s and the SDA leadership in the early 1990s does not sound well-founded.

Hence, aside from such (perhaps unintentionally) misleading sentences, attempting a more comparative approach to the political climate and the actions of the SDS, HDZ, and SDA during the war would have been worthwhile. It is highly probable that in a country with three warring factions, the (separatist) policies of one party may have directly influenced the policies of the other.

Despite such debatable statements, Hoare’s book is well researched and is especially good at providing an overview of the modern period of Bosnian history. Even so, the book can offer neither the encompassing depth of Mustafa Imamovic’s Historija Bosnjaka, nor the concise coverage of Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia: a short history. The modern period is treated in a reliable way, given the length of the undertaking. All in all, Hoare offers a solid work that contains balanced conclusions on a number of controversial issues that have been hotly contested by Balkan historians. The History of Bosnia is based on a great number of sources ranging from published documents, historical texts, eyewitness accounts and, above all, on plentiful secondary sources. It is recommended reading not only for students and researchers dealing with Bosnia-Hercegovina today, but due to its accessible and engaging style it can serve as a fruitful read for the general public as well.

1 For more clearer view on the Young Muslims and their activities during the interwar period, see “Bosnian Young Muslims: A Review Essay“ by University of Sarajevo Law professor Fikret Karcic published in Islamic Quarterly, vol.45, no.1 (2001), pp. 67-78.

2 See Marko Attila Hoare, How Bosnia Armed, Saqi Books, 2004, p.98.