The bus ride from Belgrade to Novi Sad took an hour and half. This gave me an opportunity to get a closer look at the Vojvodina countryside in January. It was exactly what I expected, frozen fields of upturned earth in every direction. This landscape stretched far off to the horizon. It was monotonous and trance inducing. The monotony was reflective of the region’s topography, but not its demography. The Vojvodina may be one of the flattest regions in Europe, but it is also one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Eastern Europe.
Conflict and conquerors have swept through the Vojvodina time and again. This has meant successive waves of depopulation and repopulation, migration and expulsion over the centuries. The result has been an unrivaled ethnic mix. Though Serbians at 66% make up by far the largest population group in the Vojvodina, there are no less than 24 other ethnic groups. They speak a variety of tongues, which account for the fact that there are 6 official languages. Due to its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nature, Vojvodina was given a high degree of autonomy under Yugoslav rule. Today it still enjoys autonomous status as part of the Serbian nation.
The Ruling Class – Kingdom of Hungarians, Austrians & Serbs
What would Vojvodina be without ethnic diversity? The answer is a lesser place. The most prominent of Vojvodina’s ethnic minorities are the Hungarians. The more obscure include the Bunjevci (Roman Catholic Serbs) and Gorani (Slavic Muslims). It is the Hungarians who loom largest as the region’s most populous minority and whose history has had the greatest effect upon the region’s development. Hungarians have ruled over the area longer than anyone else. Their most crucial period of administration occurred from 1867 – 1918 when agricultural and industrial development of the region soared.
The Vojvodina was taken from Hungary under the postwar Treaty of Trianon and given to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (changed to Yugoslavia in 1929). As late as the mid-1950’s a quarter of the population were ethnic Hungarians. Since 1989 that proportion has continually dropped due to a series of factors including the fall of the Iron Curtain, collapse of Yugoslavia and Hungary joining the European Union. These factors sent many Hungarians scurrying northward in search of better job prospects. I have always been intrigued by Vojvodina’s Hungarian past. The Magyar influence was both historically prominent and well known. Across many villages and towns in the far north of the region, Hungarians are still in the majority.
A Vanishing Presence – Ottomans, Austrians & Oblivion
Ironically, two ethnic groups which hardly figure in the area anymore are just as responsible for Vojvodina’s present-day ethnic mix. The first of these was the Ottoman Turks. Their invasion of the area, starting in the mid-15th century, swept away the Hungarians who mainly lived in the northern portion of the Vojvodina. Two hundred and fifty years later, at the tail end of the 17th century, it was the Turk’s turn to be thrown out of the region. The Vojvodina was then incorporated into the Austrian dominated Habsburg Empire as part of the Military Frontier. This area was setup along the border to safeguard against another Ottoman incursion.
The Austrians brought stability and settlement, inviting in a host of different ethnic groups to resettle what was a despoiled wasteland. The German influence proved decisive, encouraging mass migration to the area. Along with migration came peace and prosperity. The ethnic Germans, like the Ottomans before them, were swept away by conflict, in their case the Second World War and its violent aftermath. Today there are very few traces of either Turks or Germans, their actions have been resigned to the dusty pages of history books. The Serbians, who have been in the region the longest, have managed to outlast all other rulers. All the peoples that have been woven into Vojvodina’s ethnic tapestry were nowhere to be found on the bus taking me to Novi Sad. From the words spoken by passengers, everyone seemed to be Serbian.
Of course, there was no way for me to tell otherwise. Thus, I contented myself by viewing the scenery which was non-scenery. That was until the highway crossed the Danube. Central and Eastern Europe’s most famous river looked just as gray as the sky. There was not much excitement to be had while looking at it on a day like this. The trees lining the riverbanks were bare. Nothing moved except for the dreamy flow of the river, sliding along at a barely discernible pace. In past decades, the river would have been frozen solid at the height of winter. Those days were a distant memory for this mighty river. It lay naked and exposed, a sheet of misty glass laid upon the landscape. This was the stuff mediocrity was made of, a scenic highlight that made me long for sleep.
Turning To Technicolor – An Applied Science
The bus trip seemed much longer than it actually took. When the bus arrived in Novi Sad, I was shocked by the liveliness around the station. There were university students laughing and socializing everywhere. This was like a shot of caffeine to my senses. The gray day had suddenly turned to technicolor. It was a welcome introduction to a city known as the “Serbian Athens.” Today, it is home to thousands of university students as well as the nation’s oldest theater. In the past, Novi Sad has been a center of learning and culture for Serbs since the 18th century. Most of the great Serb novelists and poets in the decades prior to the First World War spent time living and writing in the city.
During this period, the city was ironically under Austrian and then Hungarian rule. This resulted in Novi Sad and the Vojvodina coming under the influence of Central European culture rather than the rest of Serbia and the Balkans. Even today it is still somewhat a world apart, especially owing to the city’s emphasis on education which continues to provide Europe with highly intelligent professionals. This became apparent when I met one of Novi Sad’s native sons. A man of medium height, who looked to be in his early 30’s, with dark features and warm, intelligent eyes checked me into the apartment that I had booked a short walk from the bus station.
The man told me that his mother would usually be the one who checked people in, but she was unavailable. I was amazed how fluently he spoke English. I did not detect much of an accent. There was a good reason for that. Though he was from Novi Sad, the man was only back visiting for the holidays. He lived in London, working as an investment banker for a major financial institution. His education had begun right here in the “Serbian Athens”. Hundreds of years after Novi Sad was given that nickname, it still applied.