The Serbs entered their present territory early in the 7th century, settling in six distinct clans:
The first entry point was at Stari Vlah in Serbia. The first recorded Serb princes were Višeslav, Radoslav, Prosigoj, and Vlastimir (see also: List of Serbian monarchs#Earliest rulers). By that time, the country had entirely accepted Christianity. In Zeta, today's Montenegro, King Mihailo was crowned by the Pope in 1077. At this time, Serbs were Catholics as well as Orthodox. Due to Serbia's location on the Theodosian line. King Mihailo also obtained from the Pope the title of Archbishop for the city of Bar. With this act, the Serbs managed to achieve religious independence. His son, Konstantin Bodin, claimed the throne in 1080, and ruled until his death in 1101. The rulers kept changing and the country accepted supreme protection from the Byzantine Empire rather than from Bulgaria. Serbia was freed from the Byzantine Empire a century later.
Serbs have not been united since the Middle Ages. The nation was split into several states, which were at times independent but at other times united. The names of those states were Duklja (Zeta), Zahumlje (today's Hercegovina, with the city Dubrovnik), Travunija (Trebinje, part of today's Bosnia and Croatia), Pagania (today's eastern Dalmatia with the Islands), Bosna (Bosnia) and Rascia (today's Sandžak). Eventually Rascia emerged as the strongest and took the name Serbia instead. The first Serb-organized state emerged under Časlav Klonimirović in the mid-10th century in Rascia. The first half of the 11th century saw the rise of the Vojislavljević family in Zeta. Marked by disintegration and crises, it lasted until the end of 12th century.
After a struggle for the throne with his brothers, Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjić dynasty, rose to power in 1166 and started renewing the Serbian state in the Raska region. Sometimes with the sponsorship of Byzantium, and sometimes opposing it, the veliki župan ('Grand Župan', a Slavic title, then equivalent to the rank of prince) Stefan Nemanja expanded his state by seizing territories in the east and south, and newly annexed the littoral and the Zeta region. Along with his governmental efforts, the veliki zupan dedicated much care to the construction of monasteries. His endowments include the Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery and the Studenica Monastery in the Raška region, and the Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos. The Nemanjići led Serbia to a golden age which produced a powerful state with its apogee under Tsar Stefan Dušan in the mid-14th century, before finally succumbing to the Ottoman Empire (with Zeta, the last bastion, finally falling in 1499).
Stefan Nemanja was succeeded by his middle son Stefan II, whilst his first-born, Vukan, was given the rule of the Zeta region (present-day Montenegro). Stefan Nemanja's youngest son Rastko became a monk and took the name of Sava, turning all his efforts to spreading Christianity among his people. Since the Curia already had ambitions to spread its influence to the Balkans as well, Stefan Prvovenčani of Serbia used these propitious circumstances to obtain his crown from the Pope Honorius III, thus becoming the first Serbian king in 1217. He was actually only the first Serbian King to come from Rascia, because the first Serbian king was King Mihailo (1077) from Zeta. In the Byzantine Empire, his brother Sava managed to secure the autocephalous status for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian orthodox archbishop in 1219. Thus, the Serbs acquired both forms of independence: temporal and religious.
The next generation of Serbian rulers - the sons of Stefan Prvovenčani - Radoslav, Vladislav and Uroš I, marked a period of stagnation of the state structure. All three kings were more or less dependent on some of the neighboring states - Byzantium, Bulgaria or Hungary. Hungary's ties played a decisive role in his son's Dragutin succession to the throne because of his son's marriage to a Hungarian princess. Later when Dragutin abdicated in favor of his younger brother Milutin (in 1282), the Hungarian king Ladislaus IV gave him lands in northeastern Bosnia, the region of Mačva, and the city of Belgrade, whilst he managed to conquer and annex lands in northeastern Serbia. Thus, some of these territories became part of the Serbian state for the first time. His new state was named Kingdom of Srem. In that time the name Srem was a designation for two territories: Upper Srem (present day Srem) and Lower Srem (present day Mačva). Kingdom of Srem under the rule of Stefan Dragutin was actually Lower Srem, but some historical sources mention that Stefan Dragutin also ruled over Upper Srem and Slavonia. After Dragutin died (in 1316), new ruler of the Kingdom of Srem became his son, king Vladislav II, which ruled this state until 1325.
Under the rule of Dragutin's younger brother — Milutin, Serbia grew stronger in spite of the fact that it had to fight wars on three different fronts occasionally. King Milutin was an apt diplomat much inclined to the use of customary medieval diplomatic expedients — dynastic marriages. He was married five times, with Hungarian, Bulgarian and Byzantine princesses. He is also famous for building churches, some of which are the brightest examples of medieval Serbian architecture: the Gračanica monastery in Kosovo, the Cathedral in Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, the St Archangel Church in Jerusalem etc. Because of his endowments, King Milutin has been proclaimed a saint, in spite of his tumultuous life. He was succeeded on the throne by his son Stefan, later dubbed Stefan Dečanski. The kingdom spread to the east by conquering the town of Niš and the surrounding counties, and to the south by acquiring territories in Macedonia. Stefan Dečanski was worthy of his father and built the Visoki Dečani Monastery in Metohia — the most monumental example of Serbian medieval architecture — that earned him his nickname.
Medieval Serbia enjoyed a high political, economic, and cultural reputation in Europe. It was one of the few states that did not practice the feudal order. Medieval Serbia reached its apex in the mid-14th century, during the rule of Tzar Stefan Dušan. This is the period of the Dušanov Zakonik (Dušan's Code, 1349), a juridical achievement unique among the European states of the time. Tzar Dušan opened new trade routes and strengthened the state's economy. Serbia flourished, featuring one of the most evolved countries and cultures in Europe. Some of Serbia's greatest Medieval arts were created during this period, most notably St. Sava's Nomocanon. Dušan doubled the size of his kingdom seizing territories to the south, southeast and east at the expense of Byzantium and conquered almost the entire of today's Greece without Peloponnesia and the islands. After he conquered the city of Ser, he was crowned as the Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks by the first Serbian Patriarch in 1346. Before his sudden death, Stefan Dušan tried to organize a Crusade with the Pope against the threatening Turks. He died in December 1355 at the age 47. Modern necropsy of the emperor's body revealed that he was poisoned. He was succeeded by his son Uroš, called the Weak, a term that might also apply to the state of the kingdom slowly sliding into feudal anarchy. This was a period marked by the rise of a new threat: the Ottoman Turk sultanate which, gradually spread from Asia to Europe conquering Byzantium first and then the remaining Balkans states.
Two of the most powerful barons in the Serbian Empire, Mrnjavčević brothers, gathered a great army to fight and push back the Turks. They marched into Turkish territory in 1371 to attack the enemy but they were too confident in themselves. They built an overnight camp near the river Maritsa at Chermen in today's Bulgaria, and started celebrating and getting drunk. During the night, a detachment of Turkish forces attacked the drunken Serbian knights and drove them back to the river. Most of the Serbs were either drowned or killed, thereby annihilating the Serbian army that was gathered from southern states. The event eventually become known as Battle of Maritsa.
Serbs heavily defeated Turks in Battle of Plocnik in 1386.The most famous Serbian knight Milos Obilic was wounded by arrow in battle. The Battle of Kosovo was a turning point in the war. Vassal troops commanded by Prince Lazar, the strongest regional ruler in Serbia at the time, killed Turkish sultan Murad I but suffered a defeat, due to the legendary "sudden departure" of Vuk Branković's troops. The Battle of Kosovo defined the fate of Serbia, because after it no force capable of standing up to the Turks existed. Kosovo as a whole was taken by the Ottomans in the coming years whereby the Serbian realm was moved northwards. That unstable period was marked by the rule of Prince Lazar's son, despot Stefan Lazarević, a true European-style knight a military leader as well as a poet, and his cousin Đurađ Branković, who moved the capital north to the newly built fortified town of Smederevo. The Turks continued their conquest until they finally seized the entire northern Serbian territory in 1459 when Smederevo fell into their hands. Only free Serbian territories were parts of Bosnia and Zeta, but they lasted only until 1496. A Serbian principality was restored a few years after the fall of the Serbian Despotate by the Brankovics and existed as a Hungarian dependency situated in what is now Vojvodina and northern Hungary/Romania. It was ruled by exiled Serbian nobles and existed until 1540 when it fell to the Turks after about a century of continuous resistance.
From the 14th century onward an increasing number of Serbs began migrating to the north to the region today known as Vojvodina, which was under the rule of the Kingdom of Hungary in that time. The Hungarian kings encouraged the immigration of Serbs to the kingdom, and hired many of them as soldiers and border guards. Therefore, the Serb population of this region highly increased. During the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and Hungary, this Serb population performed an attempt of the restoration of the Serbian state. In the Battle of Mohács on August 29 1526, Ottoman Turkey destroyed the army of Hungarian-Czech king Louis Jagellion, who was killed on the battlefield. After this battle Hungary ceased to be independent state and much of its former territory became part of the Ottoman Empire. Soon after the Battle of Mohács, leader of Serbian mercenaries in Hungary, Jovan Nenad established his rule in Bačka, northern Banat and a small part of Srem (These three regions are now parts of Vojvodina). He created an ephemeral independent state, with city of Subotica as its capital. At the pitch of his power, Jovan Nenad crowned himself in Subotica for Serb emperor. Taking advantage of the extremely confused military and political situation, the Hungarian noblemen from the region joined forces against him and defeated the Serbian troops in the summer of 1527. Emperor Jovan Nenad was assassinated and his state collapsed.
European powers, and Austria in particular, fought many wars against the Ottoman Empire, relying on the help of the Serbs that lived under Ottoman rule. During the Austrian–Turkish War (1593–1606), in 1594, the Serbs staged an uprising in Banat — the Pannonian part of Turkey, and sultan Murad III retaliated by burning the relics of St. Sava — the most sacred objects for all Serbs, honored even by Muslims of Serbian origin. Serbs created another center of resistance in Herzegovina but when peace was signed by Turkey and Austria they abandoned to Turkish vengeance. This sequence of events became customary for the centuries that followed.
During the Great War (1683–90) between Turkey and the Holy League — created with the sponsorship of the Pope and including Austria, Poland and Venice — these three powers incited the Serbs to rebel against the Turkish authorities and soon uprisings and guerrilla warfare spread throughout the western Balkans: from Montenegro and the Dalmatian Coast to the Danube basin and Old Serbia (Macedonia, Raška, Kosovo and Metohija). However, when the Austrians started to pull out of Serbia, they invited the Serbian people to come north with them to the Austrian territories. Having to choose between Ottoman reprisal and living in a Christian state, Serbs abandoned their homesteads and headed north lead by patriarch Arsenije Čarnojević.
Another important episode in Serbian history took place in 1716–18, when the Serbian ethnic territories ranging from Dalmatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgrade and the Danube basin newly became the battleground for a new Austria-Ottoman war launched by Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Serbs sided once again with Austria. After a peace treaty was signed in Požarevac, the Ottomans lost all its possessions in the Danube basin, as well as northern Serbia and northern Bosnia, parts of Dalmatia and the Peloponnesus.
The last Austrian-Ottoman war was the so-called Dubica War (1788–91), when the Austrians urged the Christians in Bosnia to rebel. No wars were fought afterwards until the 20th century that marked the fall of both Austrain and Ottoman empires.
Serbia gained its autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in two uprisings in 1804 (led by Đorđe Petrović - Karađorđe) and 1815 (led by Miloš Obrenović), although Turkish troops continued to garrison the capital, Belgrade, until 1867. The Turkish Empire was already faced with a deep internal crisis without any hope of recuperating. This had a particularly hard effect on the Christian nations living under its rule. The Serbs launched not only a national revolution but a social one as well and gradually Serbia started to catch up with the European states with the introduction of the bourgeois society values. Resulting from the uprisings and subsequent wars against the Ottoman Empire, the independent Principality of Serbia was formed and granted international recognition in 1878. Serbia was a principality or kneževina (knjaževina), between 1817 and 1882, and a kingdom between 1882 and 1918, during which time the internal politics revolved largely around dynastic rivalry between the Obrenović and Karađorđević families.
This period was marked by the alternation of two dynasties descending from Đorđe Petrović — Karađorđe, leader of the First Serbian Uprising and Miloš Obrenović, leader of the Second Serbian Uprising. Further development of Serbia was characterized by general progress in economy, culture and arts, primarily due to a wise state policy of sending young people to European capitals to get an education. They all brought back a new spirit and a new system of values. One of the external manifestations of the transformation that the former Turkish province was going through was the proclamation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882.
During the Revolutions of 1848, the Serbs in the Austrian Empire proclaimed Serbian autonomous province known as Serbian Vojvodina. By a decision of the Austrian emperor, in November 1849, this province was transformed into the Austrian crown land known as the Vojvodina of Serbia and Tamiš Banat (Dukedom of Serbia and Tamiš Banat). Against the will of the Serbs, the province was abolished in 1860, but the Serbs from the region gained another opportunity to achieve their political demands in 1918. Today, this region is known as Vojvodina.
In 1885 Serbia is against the unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia and attacks Bulgaria. This is also known as Serbo-Bulgarian war. Despite the better weapons and commanders Serbia loses this war.
In the second half of 19th century, Serbia gained statehood as the Kingdom of Serbia. It thus became part of the constellation of European states and the first political parties were founded, thus giving new momentum to political life. The coup d'état in 1903, bringing Karađorđe's grandson to the throne with the title of King Petar I opened the way for parliamentary democracy in Serbia. Having received a European education, this liberal king translated "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill and gave his country a democratic constitution. It initiated a period of parliamentary government and political freedom interrupted by the outbreak of the liberation wars. The Balkan wars 1912–13, terminated the Turkish domination in the Balkans. Turkey was pushed back towards the Bosporus, and national Balkan states were created in the territories it withdrew from.
The June 28, 1914 assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip, a member of Young Bosnia and one of several (seven) assassins organized by The Black Hand (Crna Ruka), served as a pretext for the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, marking the beginning of World War I, despite Serbia's acceptance (on July 25) of nearly all of Austria-Hungary's demands (they refused to hand over the assassin to Austria). The Serbian Army defended the country and won several victories, but it was finally overpowered by the forces of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, and had to withdraw from the national territory marching across the Albanian mountain ranges to the Adriatic Sea. On 16 August Serbia was promised by the Entente the territories of Srem, Bačka, Baranja, eastern Slavonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and eastern Dalmatia as a reward after the war. Having recuperated on Corfu the Serbian Army returned to combat on the Thessaloniki front together with other Entente forces comprising France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy and the United States. In World War I, Serbia had 1,264,000 casualties — 28% of its population of 4,5 million , which also represented 58% of its male population — a loss from which it never fully recovered.
With the end of World War I and the collapse of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires the conditions were met for proclaiming the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in December 1918. The Yugoslav ideal had long been cultivated by the intellectual circles of the three nations that gave the name to the country, but the international constellation of political forces and interests did not permit its implementation until then. However, after the war, idealist intellectuals gave way to politicians, and the most influential Croatian politicians opposed the new state right from the start.
In the early 1920s, the Yugoslav government of Serbian prime minister Nikola Pasic used police pressure over voters and ethnic minorities, confiscation of opposition pamphlets and other measures of election rigging to keep the opposition, and mainly the Croatian Peasant Party and its allies in minority in Yugoslav parliament. Pasic believed that Yugoslavia should be as centralized as possible, creating in place of distinct regional governments and identities a Greater Serbian national concept of concentrated power in the hands of Belgrade.
However, what pushed the Kingdom into crisis was when a Serb representative opened fire on the opposition benches in the Parliament, killing two outright and mortally wounding the leader of the Croatian Peasants Party , Stjepan Radić in 1928.
Taking advantage of the resulting crisis, King Alexander I banned national political parties in 1929, assumed executive power, and renamed the country Yugoslavia. He hoped to curb separatist tendencies and mitigate nationalist passions. However, the balance of power changed in international relations: in Italy and Germany, Fascists and Nazis rose to power, and Stalin became the absolute ruler in the Soviet Union. None of these three states favored the policy pursued by Alexander I. The first two wanted to revise the international treaties signed after World War I, and the Soviets were determined to regain their positions in Europe and pursue a more active international policy. Yugoslavia was an obstacle for these plans, and King Aleksandar I was the pillar of the Yugoslav policy.
During an official visit to France in 1934, the king was assassinated in Marseille by a member of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization — an extreme nationalist organization in Bulgaria that had plans to annex territories along the eastern and southern Yugoslav border — with the cooperation of the Ustaše — a Croatian fascist separatist organization. The international political scene in the late 1930s was marked by growing intolerance between the principal figures, by the aggressive attitude of the totalitarian regimes, and by the certainty that the order set up after World War I was losing its strongholds and its sponsors were losing their strength. Croatian leader Vlatko Maček and his party managed to extort the creation of the Croatian banovina (administrative province) in 1939. The agreement specified that Croatia was to remain part of Yugoslavia, but it was hurriedly building an independent political identity in international relations.
In the pretext to WW II, Prince Regent Paul signed a treaty with Hitler (as did Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary). However, a popular uprising amongst the people rejected this agreement and Prince Regent Paul was sent to exile. King Peter II assumed full royal duty.
Thus the beginning of the 1940s, Yugoslavia found itself surrounded by hostile countries. Except for Greece, all other neighboring countries had signed agreements with either Germany or Italy. Hitler was strongly pressuring Yugoslavia to join the Axis powers. The government was even prepared to reach a compromise with him, but the spirit in the country was completely different. Public demonstrations against Nazism prompted a brutal reaction.
In April 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade and other major cities. Ground forces from Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria invaded Yugoslavia. After a brief war, Yugoslavia surrendered unconditionally. Acting upon advice and with a heavy heart, King Peter II left the country to seek Allied support. He was greeted as the hero who dared oppose Hitler. The Royal Yugoslav Government, the only legal body of Yugoslavia, continued to work in London. The occupying Axis powers then divided Yugoslavia up. The western parts of the country together with Bosnia and Herzegovina were turned into a Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and ruled by the Ustashe. Serbia was set up as another puppet state under Serbian army general Milan Nedić, which was known as Nedić's Serbia. The northern territories were annexed by Hungary, and eastern and southern territories by Bulgaria. Kosovo and Metohia were mostly annexed by Albania which was under the sponsorship of fascist Italy. Montenegro also lost territories to Albania and was then occupied by Italian troops. Slovenia was divided between Germany and Italy, which also seized the islands in the Adriatic.
In Serbia, the German occupation authorities organized several concentration camps for Jews and members of the communist Partisan resistance movement as well as the royalist Chetniks who remained loyal to the King and who started a resistance movement of their own.
The biggest concentration camps were Banjica and Sajmište near Belgrade, where, according to the most conservative estimates, around 40,000 Jews were killed. In all those camps, some 90 percent of the Serbian Jewish population perished. In the Bačka region annexed by Hungary, numerous Serbs and Jews were killed in 1942 raid by the Hungarian authorities. The persecutions against ethnic Serb population also occurred in the region of Syrmia, which was controlled by the Independent State of Croatia and in the region of Banat, which was under direct German control.
The ruthless attitude of the German occupation forces and the genocidal policy of the Croatian Ustaša regime, aimed at Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-Ustaša Croats, created a strong anti-fascist resistance in the NDH. Many Serbs and other nationalities stood up against the genocide and the Nazis. Many joined the Partisan forces created by the Communist Party (National Liberation Army headed by Josip Broz Tito) in the liberation and the revolutionary war against Nazis and all the others who were against communism. There was another resistance movement, namely that of royalist General Dragoljub Draza Mihailovic, which was mostly active in Serbia, and among the Serbian people in Montenegro, Bosnia, Hercegovina. The Royalists fought the Ustashe and the Communists, as well as the Germans. Thanks to the shifts of the big powers, in the end, the Communists illegally seized power in all of Yugoslavia.
During this war and after it, the Partisans killed many civilians who did not support their Communist ideals. The Communists shot people without trials, or following politically and ideologically motivated courts. It is believed that tens of thousands of people, mostly Serbs, were killed by the Communists in the first few years after the war. The Agricultural Reform conducted after the war meant that peasants had to give away most of their wheat, grain, and cattle to the state, or face serious imprisonment. Land and property were confiscated on a massive scale. Many people also lost civil rights and their names were smeared. Also, a censorship was enforced on all levels of the society and media, and a cult of Tito was created in the media.
By the end of 1944, the Red Army liberated Serbia, and by May 1945, the remaining republics were meeting up with the Allied forces in Hungary, Austria and Italy. Yugoslavia was among the countries that had the greatest losses in the war: 1,700,000 (10.8% of the population) people were killed and national damages were estimated at 9.1 billion dollars according to the prices of that period.
The basic motto of Tito's Yugoslavia was "brotherhood and unity", workers' self-management, state-owned property with minimal privately owned property. In the beginning, the country copied the Soviet model, but after the 1948 split with the Soviet Union, it turned more towards the West. Eventually, it created its own brand of socialism, with a hint of a market economy, and milked both the East and the West for significant financial loans.
The 1974 constitution produced a significantly less centralized federation, increasing the autonomy of Yugoslavia's republics as well as the autonomous provinces of Serbia. Many today see this as the actual point when things in Yugoslavia started to go downhill and when cracks began to eat the system, which would become visible some time later.
When Tito died in 1980, he was succeeded by a rotating presidency that led to a further weakening of ties between the republics. During the 1980s the republics pursued significantly different economic policies, with Western-oriented Slovenia and Croatia allowing significant market-based reforms, while Serbia kept to its existing program of state ownership. This, too, was a cause of tension between north and south, as Slovenia in particular experienced a period of strong growth. Prior to the war, inflation skyrocketed. Then, under Prime Minister Ante Markovic, things began to improve. Many say 1989 was the best year of the former Yugoslavia. Economic reforms had opened up the country, the living standard was at its peak, capitalism seemed to have entered the country and nobody thought that just a year later the first gunshots would be fired.
All the countries of the former Yugoslavia are now believed to be democratic and in transition towards market economy, respect of human rights and potential membership in the European Union. Only the status of Kosovo remains unsolved, and presents a potential region of instability not only for Serbia, but for the wider Balkan region as well. So far, of all the countries that have emerged from Yugoslavia, only Slovenia has become a member of the European Union.
Regarding the actual causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia, this would require long and objective analyses of the truly numerous internal and external events that led to the tragedy of a once beautiful country. Such analyses do not exist at this point. Western media and politicians have proven to be extremely one-sided, and the same goes for each of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, whose relations between each other remain quite fragile, but improving.