Written by Giorgio Zambello
Following the article proposed by Balkan Hotspot on Greek independence, I decided to start a small series of articles about the wars of independence of the various Balkan nations from the Ottoman Empire.
I find this part of history particularly important not only because I am personally fascinated by the European events of the 17th century, which I tried to explain in a very short part in the previous article 200 years of the Greek revolution: an introduction, but also because to understand why the Balkans are still considered today the “powder keg of Europe” we must refer primarily to the uprisings and revolutions that involved this part of the world in the 19th century.
I consider history the only factor that can allow us to have a clearer vision of the present, which is particularly useful in a historical period like ours where Europe, after years of economic growth, is returning to being a place of instability: I think about the Chinese interference in Montenegro, the renewed tensions between Greece and Turkey, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or Brexit with the consequent difficulties in establishing a border between the UK and Ireland. It is more necessary than ever to have a vision as clear as possible of the past to face the challenges of the present.
The management of the Serbian territory at the time of the Ottoman domination
Before Greece, it was Serbia that gained independence from the Sublime Porte.This territory was for many years subdued by Istanbul, domination that had strongly experienced this region: the big cities had been depopulated by the orthodox Slavs to be then repopulated by Slavs converted to Islam or more simply by Turks and the ethnic Serbian population survived as communities only in the villages scattered throughout the territories, where however they were often subject to raids and abuses.
Those who administered the Serbian territories were for a long time the “Janissaries”, one of the main bodies of the Ottoman army made up of converted Christians. This group of soldiers went over the years from being one of the most formidable adversaries for the rivals of the Ottoman Empire to being, after having accumulated enormous wealth and power, one of the main problems for the Sultan, becoming almost a private army within the Turkish army, difficult for the Empire to control.
In my opinion, the practice of “Devscirme” (literally “The Collection”), the main method of enlisting the “Janissaries”, deserves a little study.
The “Devscrime” was a recruiting practice used in the Ottoman Empire from the 13th to the 15th century (already used in the Muslim world by the Abbasid dynasty), in which young people were recruited once every four or five years (at the beginning by choosing them practically children, from ten to twelve years, and then, over time, to prefer eighteen-year-olds), by some generals of the “Janissaries”, in the Christian provinces of the Empire. These, from that moment on, became the Sultan’s slaves and, after a period in the Islamic territories of the empire where they learned the Turkish language and converted, in most cases, they went to form the army of the “Janissaries”. Unlike what one might think, however, to be a slave to the Sultan, it was not a shameful thing. Being chosen in the collection meant for the boys involved the certainty of leading a comfortable life in the future, most of them going to thicken the ranks of the “Janissaries” and a minority part, those who were considered the best by the Sultan himself, going to hold positions of primary importance in the army and the administration of the Empire. This practice then, even if it may seem chilling to us, we cannot consider it solely the result of the Sultan’s tyranny, especially because from some sources it appears that the populations of European villages at a certain point began to pay the officials of the “Janissaries” in charge of worrying about the ” Devscirme” so that his son was chosen. We must think that an Albanian or Bulgarian peasant was perfectly aware of the difficulties that his offspring would encounter in being able to survive in conditions of absolute poverty within his village; hence the possibility of serving under the Sultan was an extraordinary opportunity.
It is therefore important to keep in mind that the Turkish Empire, which for years represented the greatest threat to Europe was entirely governed by officials of European and Christian origin, just as the soldiers of the famous “Janissaries” corps were also Europeans.
The first riots in the area
Those who administered the Serbian territories were therefore the “Janissaries”, which they controlled harshly from the fortress of Belgrade. The various abuses perpetrated on the Serbian population led to the birth of rebel movements which in Serbia passed under the name of “Hajduk”. These guerrillas between the 16th and early 18th centuries sought to undermine Ottoman control in their territory. The response to these actions was almost always violent, captures, killings, or impalements were the order of the day, this reaction, which aimed at showing the strength of the Turkish Empire, however, ended up coalescing the local population even more with the ” Hajduk”, the only ones to fight against Ottoman abuses.
Things began to change at the end of the 18th century when the Ottoman Empire, defeated by the war against the Austro-Russians, was forced to surrender territories. Many “Hajduk” also participated in this conflict, in the hope of regaining some territory, which, however, was not granted in the peace treaty.
One of the causes of the Ottoman defeat, however, was recognized by the Sultan in the body of the “Janissaries”, who had not only, in his opinion, fought badly, but had themselves treated the surrender, instead of the Sultan, with the rival coalition, then refusing to fight, therefore, disobeying the orders that were given from Istanbul.
The result was that in 1791 the Sultan had decided to no longer entrust the control of Serbia to the “Janissaries” (that was also largely dissolved) and to replace their power in Serbia he had given the order to the new local governor who took office in Belgrade. to appoint a series of Serbian village chiefs who were to govern those territories in place of the Sultan.
Napoleon in Egypt… a riffle effect
All this led to an improvement in the situation in Serbia which lasted until 1798 when Napoleon invaded Egypt (at that time, an Ottoman territory). Because of this, the Sultan decided for the complete reintegration of the body of the “Janissaries” to whom, once the battle was over, Serbia was again assigned and with them, returned also the abuses that they had previously perpetrated against the population, even reaching to kill Mustafa Pasha, the governor indicated by Istanbul, in Belgrade, taking his place and power.
All this led in 1804 to the so-called “felling of princes” when many village chiefs were called to Belgrade and were killed there (about seventy in total). This massacre led to a general uprising in Serbia on February 14th, 1804. In the village of Orasak, the various representatives of the Serbian villages appointed a “Hajduk” called Karađorđe Petrović as their leader, and under his leadership, they attacked the Turks on several occasions. They first chased them from the villages, then attacked the caravans, thus also conquering cities, to get to siege the same Belgrade which fell in 1806.
With the fall of this city, the whole of Serbia considered itself free, so much so that Karađorđe Petrović appointed himself prince of the newborn country. In this, it is important to say that the rioters were aided by the Austro-Russians, who provided military aid in support of the Serbs.
The series of victories of the Serbs managed to keep the Ottomans away until 1813, a time that the Serbs used to give themselves a state identity, a government, ministers, an army (bringing together the troops that had fought under the orders of Karađorđe Petrović) and to even create a university in Belgrade.
Within the new state, however, not everyone was in favor of the new prince. The main opponent of Karađorće Petrović was, in fact, Miloš Obrenovic, and the two immediately began to fight for power within the newborn country.
The birth of the principality of Serbia
The situation in the Balkans was still changing, in 1811 the war between Austro-Russians and Turks had ended and the latter had again prepared a new army which in 1813 invaded Serbia, took Belgrade, and forced Karađorđe Petrović to leave the country, appointing Miloš Obrenovic among the ministers who had to lead the country (the latter having entered the favor of the Istanbul court).
The new Ottoman governor Suleiman Pasha, however, did not intend to act diplomatically, what he wanted to do was to restore complete Ottoman control over Serbian territory, also because the Belgrade fortress was essential to the Sublime Porte to control the course of the Ottoman Danube.
By force, the Istanbul Empire restored control over the major urban centers of Serbia, without however being able to penetrate the more peripheral villages, still under strict control of the Serbian forces. Precisely for this reason in 1815, Suleiman Pasha invited, as had happened previously, the village leaders to Belgrade, but this time they did not accept the invitation but gathered around the figure of Miloš Obrenovic. This then decided to lead a new revolt, which succeeded again, freeing, after two years of fighting, the Serbian territory.
The following year peace was therefore signed with the Ottoman Empire which granted the establishment of a semi-autonomous principality in the Serbian territory (which, however, was still linked to the Ottoman Empire by a relationship of vassalage).
At the head of this new state, there was Miloš Obrenovic, who however managed the power in a tyrannical and despotic way and this led him to have to manage many revolts inside the country during his principality.
However, Serbia gained more and more autonomy over the years, eventually being declared independent in the Treaty of Berlin in 1878.