Yugoslavia, King Aleksandar and the Карађорђевићи/Karađorđevići, addendum — and a digression about Serbian slava celebrations

14 Nov

In responding to the post of the philatelic enthusiast who found the vintage Yugoslavian stamp from 1939: Yugoslavia: Yeah, you found a very cool stamp. Do you have any clue what it means?“, there was no meaningful answer or comment I could give without bringing up King Aleksandar I Karađorđević.  But there was one important point I couldn’t fit into that post about the founder of that Serbian royal house. They (along with its rival Obrenović family — we’ll get into that below) are the only post-Ottoman royal families in the Balkans to be of indigenous stock.


The founder of the family, the legendary Карађорђе (Karageorge) was a pig-herder from the Šumadija who led the first general Serbian uprising against the Ottomans in 1804.  It’s believed that his near ancestors moved to that central Serbian region from Montenegro, but claiming Montenegrin descent has always been a way to establish your butch/macho credentials in Serbia, plus it’s a good claim to use as part of an insanity plea if you’re the defendant in a legal case.  Other genealogists claimed that they had discovered links between Karageorge’s Petrović clan and the glorious rulers of mediaeval Serbia, the Nemanjići, which include Car Stefan DušanBut sometimes it seems that all of Montenegro, most of Herzegovina and half of Raška claim to be descended from the Nemanjići, so let’s feel free to not take that claim too seriously.

Actually, Montenegrins see it the other way around; they don’t think they’re descended from the Nemanjići, they think the Nemanjići were descended from them.  And there’s that great joke: someone in 1913 asked a Montenegrin notable what their relationship with Russia would be, now that the Turks had been chucked out of the Balkans.  And the Montenegrin replied: “We will NEVER abandon the Russians!”

And…in all fairness, until modern times Serbs were a very clan-tribe-lineage oriented culture where families kept extensive and detailed memories of genealogical maps in their heads going back for centuries, so much of their claims may actually be true and not concocted historical fictions.  A really powerful proof of that is that the Serbs are the only Orthodox Christians to not observe personal namedays.

Serbian-Slava-Festivityὁ σῖτος, ὁ οἶνος καὶ τὸ ἔλεον τοῦ δούλου σουthe wheat, wine and oil of Thy servant

Instead they observe the saint’s day on which their clan’s ancestors first converted to Christianity in a beautiful celebration called a slava, (the “glory”) and hereworth reading — which is essentially an offering and feast of remembrance, a ritual of ancestor-worship that proves that Serbs probably have more of one foot still in the pagan past than any other group of Slavs.  I don’t know how seriously modern Serbs still take the observation of this custom, but I’m going to be in Belgrade December 19th this year, St. Nicholas Day, which is the most widespread slava in Serbia, so maybe I can finnaegle my way to an invitation from someone.

Slava 1

Many of their funerary customs are similar to ours — like the artos or artoklasia above and koljivo below — meaning they developed together spontaneously or they represent the influence of known Slavic sub-strata in the language, genes and culture of modern Greeks — and now that I said that I’ll have to go into a witness protection program.


Koljivo or Koliva just like Greeks make.  Commemorating the dead with the seeds of life.

Whhhooooo…  long digression, even for NikoBako.

Anyway.  Karageorge wasn’t particularly wealthy or an Ottoman archon of any type, like the Greek Phanariotes who ruled Roumania as Ottoman vassals were.  He raised pigs and herded them across the Danube to the Prečani-Serb* inhabited regions of Austria and further in.  But he led a revolt that led to — if not complete independence — significant autonomy for Serbia.  He was assassinated fairly soon after but his descendants came back as kings of the independent country later on, in an often vicious see-saw dynamic with the rival Obrenovići which has always been too complicated for me to remember accurately, and then established themselves as the sole ruling house of Serbia in 1903, after the last Obrenonović monarch, also ironically named Aleksandar I, and his wife Draga, were chopped into pieces by a military coup who then threw their bodyparts off the balcony of the royal palace in Belgrade.

This, of course, did not exactly do wonders for Serbia’s image abroad, and is one of those events where Serbia might have needed to find a good public relations firm to work for them.

Why all this?  I dunno.  I just think it’s one of the very cool things about Serbs that they refused to be Frank-ridden after centuries of being Turk-ridden, and would not accept some lame, impotent, manic-depressed, inbred, rickety little 17-year-old nerd, tenth-in-line German or Danish princeling who spoke no Serbian as their king, the way all of the rest of the new Balkan states did.  They chose their own.  And he was a pig-herder.  And that rocks.

No joke.

Below — Karagiorge Servias Street in downtown Athens

Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 1.11.20 AM


* Prečani-Serbs: It’s doubtful that any Balkan peoples suffered more from the see-saw wars between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs than the Serbs did.  It’s easy to see why; Serbian lands are pretty much the highway for getting from the south Balkans to Vienna.detailed-political-map-of-the-former-yugoslavia-1983It’s the easiest proof there is that war always had “collateral damage” and civilian casualties.  The Ottomans launched rapid campaigns up through to Vienna in 1529 and 1683.  Both times they failed to take the city and retreated.  Thank the gods, because the idea of Turkish armies at the walls of Vienna is even more terrifying than the idea of Arab armies in the Loire valley at Tours just 70 kilometers from Paris in 732. But in 1683 they not only failed to conquer Vienna, the Hapsburgs chased the retreating Ottomans across the Danube and as far south as Kosovo.  That could have meant Serbian liberation from the Ottomans 200 years before it actually happened.

But then the Austrians made the fateful decision to retreat.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps they felt overextended or thought they were getting too deep into imperial overreach.  And of course this meant horrific retaliatory violence on the part of Turks and local Muslims against the southern Serbs who had welcomed the Austrians as liberators.  And an epic exodus of the Serbs northwards, in what are called the Great Migrations of the Serbs, began.  This resulted in a massive shift to the north of the Serbian nation’s center of gravity and, perhaps most fatefully, marks the beginning of the de-Serbianization of Kosovo, which was the spiritual heartland of the Serbs.  An influx of increasingly aggressive highland Albanians, now Islamicized and emboldened in their impunity as such, only accelerated the departure of Kosovo Serbs to the north.

Conditions in northern but still Ottoman Serbia were better than in the south.  But for many Serbs this was not enough.  A great many crossed the Danube and settled in what is now the autonomous region of Vojvodina and the parts of Croatia called Slavonia and Krajina.  Ironically, just as the Ottomans made Serbia prime recruiting country for their system of enslaving young boys to turn them into the most powerful unit in the Ottoman army, the Janissaries, the Austrians themselves also recognized that Serbs were, as always, good soldier material, and they invited Serbian fighters and their families into Austria’s border regions to protect the boundaries of the Hapsburg empire from possible Ottoman aggression.

So Prečani-Serbs, refers, very broadly, to those Serbs who went and settled in the borderlands of the Austrian empire; the term comes from “preko” or “over there” or “the other side”, across the Danube, Sava and Drina rivers, in other words, that were the borders between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs for centuries.

I don’t know whether Krajina Serbs from around Knin — shown in green in map below — are considered prečani or not, those from that part of Croatia that was largely Serbian until 1995, when its Serbian inhabitants were expelled with American help in what was the largest single act of ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars, with some 200,000 Serbs expelled from their homes.  Serbs are soldiers and poets, as I’ve quoted Rebecca West saying so many times; Croatians are lawyers; but with the detestable Milošević having abandoned Krajina Serbs (Venizelos-style), and with Americans arming, training them and watching their backs, Croats proved themselves to be formidable warriors indeed.


So, if one can put one’s biases aside, the poignant tragedy of this whole set of over 600-years of pain and trauma becomes clear.  Bullied out of Kosovo over the centuries, Serbs move north, even so far north as to settle in Austria itself.  Then, with no one’s help, they gather Serbs from Kosovo to the trans-Danube-Sava lands where they had settled over the centuries into one state.  And less than 100 years later, they lose and are almost entirely expelled from both the Kosovo they had fled from and from the Krajina and Prečani lands they had fled to.

It’s good to know the whole story, people, and not just buy the villain myths wholesale.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

One Response to “Yugoslavia, King Aleksandar and the Карађорђевићи/Karađorđevići, addendum — and a digression about Serbian slava celebrations”


  1. X. doesn’t like my post on “The insufferable entitledness of bikers” — or lots of other things I’ve written | Jadde-ye-Kabir - November 14, 2019

    […] mercenary force.  There’s a reason Serbs looked — somewhat ambiguously, with their typical wariness and sense that they don’t really need or think they should trust a… — to Austria, and that Bulgarians and Armenians looked to an Orthodox Russia for most of the […]

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