The development of nationalism by intellectuals in the Balkans in the 19th century: A comparison of Greek and Serbian national movements

By Darius Ruda | 29 March 2018

To quote this document: Darius Ruda, “The development of nationalism by intellectuals in the Balkans in the 19th century: A comparison of Greek and Serbian national movements”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 29 March 2018,, displayed on 24 March 2019

Greece and Serbia start their national movements under similar circumstances, share their goals and follow the same examples, but a different social landscape and diverse historic paths combined with non-comparable cultural, linguistic and religious realities end up shaping those movements differently.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Balkan countries were provinces or protectorates of foreign empires. All Balkan peoples were ruled (and some of them split) by the Ottomans, the Habsburgs and the Russians, and in the case of certain Greek islands, also shortly by the French and later by the British. Therefore, when culture-based and language-based nationalistic ideas of German thinkers and philosophers like Fichte and especially Herder started spreading and becoming popular in most of the European territories, the Balkans were one of the places where the thought that the linguistic and cultural reality of the peoples who inhabit the territory must be personified and embodied by the structure and borders of the state itself, would find considerable support from the local intellectuals.

Origins, goals: German influence and cultural revival

Greek and Serbian national movements had a very clear model: the German one. Balkan merchants came across ideals that were spreading all over Western Europe and brought them into their own territories. Furthermore, well-educated scholars, many of whom were also political figures of either ideological significance or position of power, and for whom it was common to study at foreign universities and master not only Latin but also languages as French, German, Italian or Russian, started imitating foreign political and cultural concepts and tried to implement them into their own territory.

Nationalism in Greece and Serbia begins with intellectuals, and it remains first for a minority, estranged to the mass of the population, which is illiterate, mostly rural and concerned with rather different aspects of public life. Intellectuals with nationalist ideals can be tracked down in both countries already during the Enlightenment (despite the universal values that were common in most of Europe), which arrived rather late to the majority of Greek lands, for example, because of the so-called Tourkokratia . Dositej Obradović, in Serbia, and Adamantios Korais, in Greece, are probably the best examples. They were both favourable to the Enlightenment, but at the same time they were heavily influenced by the national ideas of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and German idealism.

Obradović and Korais lived between the 18th and the 19th centuries and can be considered to be the first of a long row of intellectuals, linguists and writers who will be politically active, often from public institutions, and involved in the pre-statehood period of Serbian and Greek history onwards. They supported normalisation and standardisation of the popular language against the tongue of ‘foreign oppressors’, and even if nationalism in these countries was firstly more focused on language and culture, the political factor and desire to create an independent Greek and South Slavic state were quickly strengthened among the local intellectuals. Obradović insisted under the principles of the Enlightenment that Serbian identity must be based on language and common origin, never on religion , even if the dilemma of the Serbian population between linguistic nationalism and a religious ‘Orthodox Serbness’ was present from the very beginning of the national movement . After Obradović, Serbian culture went into the great influence of the linguist and folklorist Vuk Karadžić, who standardised the grammar and created the first modern Serbian dictionaries. Contrarily to Korais, who defended an extremely purist version of Greek with Byzantine features as opposed to the ways in which ‘the mass’ spoke in the 19th century, Karadžić wanted a modernised version of Serbian, a fact that opposed him to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which continued to use Old Church Slavonic. He also defended the unity of the South Slavic language, and through it of the South Slavic people, which he considered to be one nation, similarly to the language-based German nationalism of Herder. In fact, Karadžić was a personal friend of many German nationalist thinkers of the time, especially of Jacob Grimm.

This means that Karadžić made no distinctions between South Slavs according to their religion or on whether they were under Ottoman or Habsburg rule. At the time this idea was very welcome by a clear majority of Croatian intellectuals. Ljudevit Gaj, an influential Croatian linguist and politician, and his Illyrian Movement, seconded the idea of a united South Slavic language and people, beyond religious differences and imperial borders. On the other hand, the Greeks, who were not truly split in different beliefs, and were all under the same Ottoman rule (except for the Ionian Islands, and Cyprus only after 1878) were not facing any internal identity partitions that South Slavs could (and indeed afterwards did) suffer. However, the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches were at the beginning opposed to both national movements, because they were endangering their power inside the imperial structure, and in the South Slavic case linguistic unity jeopardised the religious communities.

Balkan intellectuals were at the beginning of the 19th century mainly occupied trying to form a standardised version of their vernacular languages and to recollect the folklore which was distinctive for their respective nations, preferring a ‘sanctified’ idea of national particularism rather than common universal developments , searching for exemplars that would proof the Herderian cultural concept of Volksgeist. Nevertheless, the political speech that the people had to be freed from the ‘foreign oppressor’ became less symbolic and made its way through the Balkan intelligentsia, becoming more realistic. In the Greek case, the generation of Korais, who was mainly preoccupied with language and literature, was substituted by a much more politicised intellectual elite under organisations such as Filiki Eteria, which originated in 1814. This organisation was created with a clear political intention to overthrow Ottoman rule and had figures at its head such as Ioannis Kapodistrias, who was highly cultured and studied in Italy. He administrated the Septinsular Republic supported by Russian authorities. Afterwards he was the Foreign Minister of Russia (1816-1822), and in 1827 he became the first Governor of the Hellenic Republic.

Politics, outcomes: statehood and independence

Greek and Serbian nationalists experienced at first the opposition of the local Orthodox Church, which enjoyed the support of the vast majority of the population, while national ideals seemed to remain rather for the well-educated minority, which in many cases in the Balkans was even anticlerical (but not always). Anyhow, nationalists found a way to use religion for their own benefit (especially the Greeks), at least at the international level, calling upon the ‘Orthodox brotherhood’, a concept that exists in Serbo-Croatian as well as in Greek (pravoslavna braća, or ορθόδοξα αδέρφια) and unites not only Serbs and Greeks with Russians, but also Serbs and Greeks themselves. Both countries asked for help from the Russian Empire on their path towards statehood, since the only independent Orthodox nation at the time were the Russians. Thanks to the shared faith, Serbian uprisings were supported by Russia, which was interested in weakening the Ottoman Empire, and the semi-independent principality of Miloš Obrenović had Russia as a recognised guarantor . Kapodistrias also obtained the support of the population on the Ionian Islands to become a Russian protectorate against the former Ottoman rule, not thanks to national, cultural and linguistic claims, but thanks to the fact that people preferred to be governed by Orthodox powers. Greek independence, recognised in 1830, had also been able to count on Western European Romanticism and Hellenism to be accomplished, something that Serbia could not really expect for herself , but the creation of a Greek state was nevertheless mainly due to the Russian help.  The end of oppressive native nobility changes in the Ottoman Empire into an abusive tax system and an ever more theocratic regime, and the peasant population of the Balkans starts considering new possibilities , and nationalism, which first seemed to satisfy only the intellectual elite, becomes more popular, finding support in mass rebellions in both countries. 

The Ottomans never had an absolute dominion over their lands as the Habsburg did, which led to a great autonomy for the peasants, but also several Ottoman regions were under the rule of local nobility, like most of Bosnia and the territories on the Danube, whereas in the Habsburg Empire most of Serbian and Romanian towns and villages were managed by foreign nobles . This situation also helped the intellectual elite to convince many peasants into their national cause, since it seemed a way to get rid of the ruling nobility in many areas.

Besides the lack of support of the Church itself at the beginning of these national movements, religion posed also another problem for Serbian intellectuals, which barely existed for the Greeks: while virtually all Greeks were Orthodox, the first steps of Serbian nationalism were almost exclusively pan-South Slavic, and South Slavs were divided into Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox communities. If the recently formed Principality of Serbia and the later established Principality of Montenegro had preferred to use the argument of religion instead of language as the main one, they would have constrained many of the possible future territorial claims inside the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empires (except perhaps for the Habsburg Vojvodina and parts of the Ottoman Sanjak of Novi Pazar). It is nevertheless true as well that the rulers of the first South Slavic states were all Orthodox, while Greece crowned at the beginning a Bavarian and therefore Catholic king, which sometimes brought the new ruling elite in conflict with the Church even after independence .

In fact, Albanian nationalism was facing a similar situation as the South Slavic one, since Albanians are also divided into several faiths, but this never seemed to be a real problem to unify all individuals into the same national ideal . South Slavism seemed to have a severe identity problem from the very beginning. The so-called South Slavic people had always lacked of a naturalised, common name, which was not the case of Greeks and Albanians. South Slavic, or Yugoslav, is a geo-ethnographic denomination, which seems more artificial than the words Serb and Croat. For intellectuals like Vuk Karadžić, all South Slavs were to be called Serbs, but this idea did not have much success, and once ‘common oppressors’ like the Ottomans and the Habsburg disappeared entirely in the 20th century, divergences between South Slavs emerged, and the historicist national narrative of separated medieval kingdoms and different religions started to be seconded even by intellectuals, especially in Croatia . Anyhow, several experts consider that the acceptance of a cultural union between Serbs and Croats was never under real threat until the 1970s , for a general mixture of cultural elements and traditions between Catholic and Orthodox peasants, especially inside the Habsburg Empire, had always been the norm .

On the other hand, just like the Albanians, the Greeks had no onomastic nor identity problems, since their national history and the name of Hellas could be traced almost three thousand years back in history. Plus, virtually all Greeks were Orthodox. While it could be discussed at the time whether all South Slavs were the same people, nobody disputed the ethno-national unity of all Greeks. The only problem they experienced, as the Serbs, was how to delimit their own territory, since many Greeks shared several regions with other ethnicities, mainly with Albanians, Bulgarians and especially Turks. Although Greece was the first Balkan state to enjoy absolute independence, the irredentist concept of Megali Idea, which was quite successful first and could benefit from Ottoman weakness at the beginning and allowed Greece to gain several parts of land to Turks and Bulgarians, came to a collapse (as a desire expressed by the Greek state itself) once Eastern Thrace and Ionia were given back to Turkey by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 (although in 1947 Italy still ceded the Dodecanese to Greece). Perhaps the sole exception of further irredentist claims by Greece was Cyprus, which until the late 20th century was expected to integrate into Greece by several majoritarian political actors in Greece proper and on the island, where the idea of Enosis remained much more alive than in other Greek communities outside from the Greek state.


From a theoretical perspective, nationalist ideas in both countries started off with the same cultural and political goals: to create independent states unified under ethnical principles, which ought to follow linguistic and cultural patterns beyond religious and historic differences between regions and individuals. This goes along the model of German nationalism, it begins with the intellectual elite and it finds the support of the rural population only later, as a mean to get rid of ruling minorities and find more autonomy.

Nevertheless, The Serbian and Greek peoples underwent different paths before experiencing nationalism, and those theoretical principles found different oppositions and had to be applied diversely in the Greek and Serbian frameworks. Serbs were scattered in two empires, but Greeks were found almost exclusively inside Ottoman borders. Whilst Greek ethnic unity was not disputed, the Serbian national ideal had to find its own borders within the South Slav spectrum of populations, something that jeopardised religious unity. Greek nationalists could use either linguistic or religious claims depending on their own interests without coming into a contradiction, whereas Serbs had to abandon religious claims if they yearned to acquire a pan-South Slavic unity. Serbian nationalism has more difficulties than the Greek one to define itself ontologically and onomastically due to the pan-South Slavic factor.

Both movements accomplished statehood and expanded considerably through irredentist demands, but Greece never acquired all her desired territory, and even if Serbia accomplished not only statehood for herself but also a pan-Yugoslav unification, the last one came to an end in the 1990s.




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