“Why are the Balkans worth studying?”

Any high school student worth his AP European History score could answer this question. Fierce nationalist movements in the region helped ignite a pair of wars that would establish a new global system.  Nearly-identical sentiments 80 years later would introduce terms like “ethnic cleansing” into the English vocabulary. These tensions, the student would explain, rose from the competing political and religious interests of the Balkan Peninsula’s different ethnic groups.  Students hoping to go the extra mile would include names like “Gavrilo Princip,” “the Black Hand,” “Srebrenica Massacre” and “Slobodan Milosevic.” Any answer would agree that Bosnia-Herzegovina, the peninsula’ ethnic crossroads, has been the focal point of Balkan conflicts throughout the last century.

But this answer wouldn’t paint the entire picture. The Balkan Peninsula was a site of ethnic divisions far before words like “Catholic” and “Muslim” even existed. In classical antiquity, the region marked the intersection of Greek and Roman cultures, a boundary formally demarcated by the east-west division of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Throughout the Dark Ages, Germanic, Slavic, and even Celtic tribes migrated through the region, leaving behind pieces fo the cultures for the Balkan peoples to take as their own. Between the Catholic and Orthodox hegemonies rose countless smaller denominations, including the gnostic Bogomils. The peninsula brushed against Islamic civilization when the Turkic Muslims from the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople in 1453.

The boundaries between Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam were never fixed. They ebbed with each state’s successful campaign. Muslim Rumelia one year could be Orthodox Macedonia the next. Even the region’s inhabitants approached their religions with fluidity. When the Turks took Bosnia in 1463, the Bosnian’s unique church all but disappeared in the wake of Islamic influences.

The fragmentation that defines ‘Balkanization’ is hardly a monolithic principle of the region. The Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Vlachs, and Bosniaks are not ancient races locked in struggle. Until the 19th century, many of the Balkan “races” did not formally exist. How, then, did these young ethnic identities evolve into the politicized racial boundaries that they behave like today? And how, two decades after the Yugoslav Wars began, do these identities affect politics in Bosnia today?

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