Final Paper – Religion in ECE Nationalism


Religion’s Role in Yugoslavia and Poland in the Twentieth Century: Evolution of Ethnoreligious Nationalism

by Gary E. Wightman

6 December 2007


Dr. Mills Kelly

Hist 635


            Religion has played an important role in national politics in East Central Europe during the twentieth century, at times serving the desires of the Church at the national or Papal level, at times serving the desire of the national leaders, at times serving the desires of both the Church and national leaders, and at times serving the advantages of one party at the disadvantage of the other party. Regardless of the benefactor or loser, the Church has been a factor in the nationalism equation during the 1900s,. Indeed, some outsiders have blamed religion as a major catalyst or contributor for some of the wars or atrocities during this period, such as the Holocaust and the Ustashe campaigns during World War II, as well as the Yugoslavian conflict in the 1990s, although some historians of late have refuted this statement to some degree regarding the Yugoslavian conflict. For instance, Donia and Fine in Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed, argue that the conflict is not a product of centuries of bad blood over religious conflict and wars in former Yugoslavia. The meaning of  nationalism of the nineteenth century has evolved into ethnonationalism for East Central Europe during the twentieth century in an effort to further refine the definition of Self and Other. Religion has not been relegated to insignificance during this evolution of nationalism. Indeed, religion has played an important role in the evolution of nationalism, so much so that some historians refer to the evolution of nationalism as ethnoreligious nationalism. To investigate this transformation and assess the role and impact of religion on nationalism in East Central Europe, and therefore, on communism, this paper will consider several events during the twentieth century, specifically focusing on the Polish struggle against the Communist regime during the 1980s and conflict in Yugoslavia since World War II.

 Multiple Ethnicities and Religions Unite and Implode Communist Yugoslavia

A quick glance backward to the sixty years before Tito’s Communist Party rose to power in Yugoslavia illuminates the underlying structure and sources of friction that contributed to the conflict in the 1990s and religion’s role in the conflict. Beginning in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and quickening when Austria-Hungary took over in 1878, nationalism became the leading ideological focus in Europe, and the ideas put forward were of ethnonational and ethnoreligious lines, where a Croat was a Catholic, and Orthodox was a Serb. Bosnian demographics, however, represented a greater population diversity, a “complex population blend that existed in almost every region of the land.”1 From the late 1800s through the early 1990s, Orthodox and Catholics felt religion was a mandatory component of national identity, yet the Muslims had either not yet adopted this conceptual framework, or as we will see later, once they had adopted the framework, they were not permitted to claim a Muslim based nationality during Tito’s reign.2 Consequently, Donia and Fine argue that the Bosnian Muslim is a more recent phenomena resulting from the split of Yugoslavia, the media, and Milosevic’s nationalist rhetoric.

During the period that Bosnia was under Austrian control, the Muslim landowner-Christian peasant social construct remained in place in an effort to reduce social unrest, which the Austrians felt would be significant if they tried to change the existing laws. Instead, the Austrians implemented an incremental approach to changing the laws, for example, Austria passed a law in 1911 that encouraged peasants to purchase land that they tilled.3 Austria’s actions during this period exemplified an attempt to create a Bosnian identity that transcended the religious identification with nation, as Donia and Fine describe in Austria-Hungary’s three-phased approach: encourage religious hierarchies and religious education and the idea of bosnjastvo (Bosnianism);4  increase liberalization of policies and tolerance of political activities and expression in the early 1900s; and repress Bosnian Serbs, who exhibited strong nationalist intentions that threatened the Bosnia identity Austria supported.5 Austria sought to use religious toleration as a tool to offset, diminish, and possibly to eliminate Serbian nationalist actions in Bosnia.6

            World War I and an inconclusive interwar period failed to resolve nationalist tensions or provide long-term solutions in Europe. After World War II, a Communist Yugoslavia regime emerged that included Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia, led by Tito. When defining nationalities in Tito’s Yugoslavia, one could only claim to be a Serb, Croat, Slovene, Macedonian, or Montenegrin. The Bosnian Muslims, however, were not given the same treatment as Serbian Orthodox or Croatian Catholics, as shown in the Yugoslav census in 1948, which “…reflected the Party’s view that Bosnia’s Muslims made up a separate community but that they, unlike Serbs and Croats, had no separate national identity.” 7 Being Muslim could not be used to specify a nationality, while one could specify being a Serb or Croat as their nationality. Titoism may have conceptually included national equality and federalism, however, Titoism did not necessarily mean ethnoreligious equality or confer nationality for all religions.

Although Communism generally sought to suppress or repress religion, Tito’s Communist Party nevertheless recognized that the religious component could be an ally, as demonstrated when his party sought to consolidate power at the end of World War II by exterminating its enemies, such as the Germans, Ustashe and Chetniks, while simultaneously soliciting support from the Serbian Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim religious communities.8 Donia and Fine argue that the Yugoslav Communist regime of the 1940s acted similarly to the Austrians in the 1870s, following a doctrine of collaboration with the leaders of the significant religious communities.9 Tito’s regime allowed these religions to exist as long as they did not oppose his political actions. If they attempted to oppose the Communists, they were quickly suppressed, such as the religious contribution system for Islamic cultural institutions which the Austrians had put in place in the 1870s. Once the Muslims ended their opposition in the late 1940s, the Communists permitted the resumption of the Vakuf System. The Catholic opposition met greater turmoil once they refused to open a Croatian national church separate from the Vatican, resulting in the sentencing of Archbishop Stepanic of Zagreb to prison. Ultimately, Stepanic became a Croatian national hero and his tomb became symbol of Croatian nationalism after his death in 1960.10 The Catholic Church’s actions with Yugoslavia represented a consistent doctrine of frustration more than support, also seen in many of the Communist or Socialist regimes in other East Central European countries, such as Poland. Further agitation occurred between Yugoslavian and the Catholic Church due to agrarian reforms, where the State took Church lands and gave some to the peasants.11

Following fifty years of Communist repression of religion in East Central Europe, the disintegration of the Communist regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s coincided with a reawakening of religious zeal and an emergence of ethnoreligious nationalist activities in East Central Europe. In the wake of these events, war erupted in Yugoslavia, pitting Serbs and Bosnia Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Muslims against each other. Each participant used racial, ethnic and religious based rhetoric to create nationalist fervor and to define Self and Other. For example, in 1991, attacks were not restricted to military targets, as Serbians attacked cultural and religious monuments in Dubrovnik to scare civilians into fleeing the cities, resulting in an indirect form of ethnic cleansing as the cities would be repopulated with Serbs. Croats conducted similar attacks, such as Mostar in 1993, when they destroyed the Mostar bridge a significant cultural landmark. Fighting between Croats and Muslims around Mostar illustrated that they participants fought along ethnoreligious nationalist lines, with atrocities committed by both sides against civilians, churches and clergy, leaving little doubt that religion constituted a critical component of the Yugoslavian war in the 1990s.12

 Poland’s Catholic Faith and Solidarity Unite to Overcome Communism

In an attempt to erase the memory of Other, or the pre-Communist Polish identity, from the end of World War II to the fall of Communism in Poland the Communist regime of the Soviet Union sought to eliminate or severely repress the Catholic Church and institute a new Self,  the Communist Pole. The Catholic Church countered the Communist ploy, playing a supportive, unifying role in Poland, where the Polish Catholic represented the Self and Communist Regime represented the Other. Obviously, these two ideologies collided after the Communist came to power post-World War II and have continued to butt heads throughout the twentieth century. Exasperating the relationship were the exclusionary policies of the Communist regime against the Church and the taking of church property during the late 1940s and early 1950s, as well as actions by the Catholic Church, such as Pope Pius XXI excommunicating all Communists in 1949. These actions only widened the rift between the Communists and both the Catholic Church and the Pope. Ultimately, as discussed below, the Catholic Church successfully opposed the Communist regime, primarily through alliances with other social and ethnonational movements. According to Rothschild and Wingfield, the Polish Catholic Church was “…the only national institution that managed to checkmate its attempted subordination by the Communist regime and to retain a strong autonomous role in public life.” 13 This would be leveraged by the Polish nationalist and anti-communist movements of the 1980s.

During the 1980s, religion impacted the nationalist and anti-communist movements in Poland through several events, including three visits by Pope John Paul II and movements by the Polish Catholic Church. In a curious if not somewhat naïve or miscalculating manner, Communist leaders permitted Pope John Paul II to visit Poland on three separate occasions during the 1980s. These visits instilled or renewed hope, faith and strength to the predominantly Catholic Polish population. The Polish Catholic Church provided new avenues, through social or civic organizations, for the Polish population to protest against the perceived evils of Communism and promote Polish nationalism over Soviet communism. For instance, the Church initiated temperance and homeless programs thereby creating a means for the people to fight politically for improvements in living conditions through alternate social means, thus avoiding direct political, military or unacceptably overt opposition with the Communist regime. The Catholic Church organized two brotherhoods, the Sobriety and the Brother Albert Brotherhoods, to address alcoholism and the homeless, respectively. The Sobriety Brotherhood was actually an example of collaboration between Solidarity and the Catholic Church, which sought to recognize their workers, fallen war heroes, and prior pilgrimages as demonstrated in a passage issued during the June 1986 papal pilgrimage, which read: “August without vodka: this is our modest sacrifice to the memory of all those who gave their lives for the Homeland in August. August without vodka: this does honor the worker of August, who were the first to raise the banner of sobering up. August without vodka: this repays God for those who in their drunkenness degrade human dignity, and is an act of our solidarity with those harmed by vodka.”14 Through the temperance movement, the Catholics sought to provide moral support while denigrating the Other, or Communist, with slogans such as  “Drink, you’ll turn Red.!;” “Don’t drink – In Gdansk they didn’t.” to create the perception that the Communist wanted Polish to be alcoholics so they would lose their will, and hence undermine the political resistance.15 The Brother Albert Society represented another way the people and the Church could avoid martial law in the 1980s and oppose communism by simultaneously pointing out how the Communist regime could not and did not take care of its citizens while the Church could. Kenney argues that the church served two roles: as a vent to relieve the pressure on the Poles and also a way to increase the pressure on the Communist regime, thus the Church helped keep Solidarity and Polish nationalism alive underground or indirectly during the 1980s that would eventually lead to more public opposition later in the decade, ultimately resulting in the fall of Communism in Poland.16


East Central Europe has witnessed the dynamic emergence of nationalism in which secular, ethnic based nationalist communities began to overtake religious based communities, yet religion has persistently interacted in the East Central European nationalism movements over the past two centuries. Religion has provided a critical pillar of resistance and moral strength in Poland and Yugoslavia, a pillar that supported nationalism while thwarting communism. In post-communist Poland, the Catholic Church held significant political influence such that the candidates did not dare ignore the Church’s demands for fear of losing voters in the 1990 election.17  While the Church’s influence has waned since the 1980s, the Church has substantially contributed to the building of Polish civil society.18

Although religion has aided in the fall of Communism and played a role in the nationalist movements of the twentieth century, the consequences of religion’s involvement have not always led to peaceful reactions or solutions. At the moment, Bosnia represents a failed attempt at a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multinational state, in part due to actions of its ethnoreligious nationalists neighbors and the West. The result may indicate the importance of considering extended nationalism and the power of the irredentist as discussed by Brubaker’s Nationalism Reframed, by extending his argument to ethnoreligious national forces at work within and across national borders.

End Notes


  1. Robert J. Donia and John V. A. Fine, Bosnia and Hercegovina, pp. 80-86
  2. Ibid, p. 112
  3. Ibid, p. 96
  4. Ibid, p. 97
  5. Ibid p. 99
  6. Ibid p. 36
  7. Ibid, p. 175
  8. Ibid, p. 162
  9. Ibid, p. 163
  10. Ibid, p. 164
  11. Ibid, p. 166
  12. Ibid, p. 226
  13. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield, Return To Diversity, p. 87
  14. Padriac Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution, p. 49
  15. Ibid, p. 49
  16. Ibid, pp. 55-56
  17. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield, Return To Diversity, p. 235
  18. Ibid, p. 266


Bucur, Maria, and Nancy M. Wingfield eds., Staging The Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Habsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present, West Layfayette: Purdue University Press, 2001.


Donia, Robert J., and John V. A. Fine, Bosnia and Hercgovina: A Tradition Betrayed, New York: Columbia University Press,  1994.


Kenney, Padriac, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.


Rothschild, Joseph and Nancy M. Wingfield, Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II, 3rd edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


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