Aleksa Santic – Poet of the Balkan Soul, a Signpost of Unity

Introduction- Between Two Empires

The city of Mostar first appeared in history books in 1474.[i] Its strategic location contributed to its fast development and expansion. From once a tiny kasaba (settlement), it has since developed into a strong economic and cultural centre. The city itself has a mixed demographic structure with Muslims, Eastern Orthodox and Catholics all living together on the banks of the river Neretva.  Mostar is now the largest city in the southern region of Herzegovina, one of two historical regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Due to its location on the main trade route from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, Mostar developed a Čaršija (market street) which became an important trading centre during Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. By the end of the 19th century, the city had become one of the literature hubs in the region. Prominent poets such as Aleksa Šantić, Osman Djikić, Svetozar Ćorović and Jovan Dučić lived and created in the city on the Neretva. This article focuses on the life and work of Aleksa Šantić in particular and how his legacy became a symbol of unity and hope for both Mostar and Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole.

Many empires ruled over the Balkan people, from the Byzantines to the Ottomans and the Austrians. The 19th century saw the creation of some of the first Balkan nation states, first among Serbian and Bulgarian populations and, a few decades later, Croatians and Slovenes. Very soon after, the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic populations of Bosnia and Herzegovina started to develop Serbian and Croatian national consciousness. This process started only later for Muslims living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Berlin Congress gathered the great powers of Europe to draw new boundaries in the Balkans. At the Berlin Congress, the Austro-Hungarian occupation was recognised, and the four hundred years of Ottoman rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina were over. Austro-Hungary was one of the many non-Slavic empires that had ruled the South Slavs for centuries. The Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina found themselves in a vacuum after the Ottoman retreat from the region. Without a Muslim supreme rule many of them left the country (together with the Ottoman forces in 1878), and this process continued into the following decades. The Austro-Hungarian Occupation fostered nationalist movements among the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially among the Serbian population. At this time, Mostar was one of the cultural centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the effects of the occupation were felt strongly. It became the place of both national and civil movements in Herzegovina.

Aleksa Šantić – Pan-Slavist by Soul

When Mostar is mentioned, the first thought that comes to the minds of many Mostarci (people from Mostar) is Aleksa Šantić. Mostar had other notable poets before Šantić, but no one has left such a big impact and memory as he has. He was born in 1868 in Mostar, where he spent most of his life.[ii] He spent his life in a trading family within which his talents were never truly appreciated. After finishing trade school in Trieste, Italy and then in Ljubljana, Slovenia, he returned to his native Mostar. His poetry marked the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, connecting the ideas and sufferings of the time when Bosnia and Herzegovina were under Austro-Hungarian Occupation. His poems are full of emotion, from great sadness, love, pain and defiance to the suffering of socially endangered people. He spent most of his life in the period between the Berlin Congress, the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Two important events thus played a crucial role in his life: the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia, and the Serbian victory in the Balkan wars against the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. These two events influenced Šantić’s social and patriotic songs. Being the poet he was, he overcame the divisions based on religion and ethnicity, typical for 19th century Bosnia and Herzegovina. He acted as a catalyst for unification and peaceful coexistence for the people living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Being an ethnic Serb, he contributed to the Serbian national identity of Orthodox population in Bosnia and Herzegovina but was at the same time one of the first pan-slavists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pan-Slavism was the first movement among the Slavic people that advocated closer unity and cooperation among the Slavic people. The Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina increased the pan-Slavic feelings among many notable poets of the time. Šantić realised that only with the unity of all people in Bosnia and Herzegovina can they achieve freedom and build a better future.

Aleksa Šantić – Pan-Slavist by Soul

When Mostar is mentioned, the first thought that comes to the minds of many Mostarci (people from Mostar) is Aleksa Šantić. Mostar had other notable poets before Šantić, but no one has left such a big impact and memory as he has. He was born in 1868 in Mostar, where he spent most of his life.[iii] He spent his life in a trading family within which his talents were never truly appreciated. After finishing trade school in Trieste, Italy and then in Ljubljana, Slovenia, he returned to his native Mostar. His poetry marked the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, connecting the ideas and sufferings of the time when Bosnia and Herzegovina were under Austro-Hungarian Occupation. His poems are full of emotion, from great sadness, love, pain and defiance to the suffering of socially endangered people. He spent most of his life in the period between the Berlin Congress, the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Two important events thus played a crucial role in his life: the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia, and the Serbian victory in the Balkan wars against the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. These two events influenced Šantić’s social and patriotic songs. Being the poet he was, he overcame the divisions based on religion and ethnicity, typical for 19th century Bosnia and Herzegovina. He acted as a catalyst for unification and peaceful coexistence for the people living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Being an ethnic Serb, he contributed to the Serbian national identity of Orthodox population in Bosnia and Herzegovina but was at the same time one of the first pan-slavists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pan-Slavism was the first movement among the Slavic people that advocated closer unity and cooperation among the Slavic people. The Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina increased the pan-Slavic feelings among many notable poets of the time. Šantić realised that only with the unity of all people in Bosnia and Herzegovina can they achieve freedom and build a better future.

During the period of Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Šantić and Đikić became leading voices in the struggle for political and national identity. Šantić emphasizes suffering and sacrifice as the most important moments in the destiny of the people – portrayed in his poem ‘We Know the Faith’. Đikić, however, is considered a controversial figure by many. Muslim by faith, he declared himself as an ethnical Serb. He was one of the leading figures of Gajret, a cultural organisation that promoted Serbian identity among the Slavic Muslims in Austro-Hungary. 

Yet both Šantić and Đikić represent a time when all citizens of Mostar were one. Šantić’s poetry represented Mostar as a city of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews and immigrants, who helped, appreciated and respected one another. For example, his famous song ‘Stay Here’ is dedicated to his compatriots within the Mohammedan faith. As discussed previously, after the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina many Muslim families decided to migrate to the remaining territories of the Ottoman Empire. This song is a call to these families to stay in their homeland. The opening verse gives a strong message: ‘stay here!… the sun that shines in a foreign place, will never warm you like the sun in your own.’ We can sense the feelings of national unity throughout the song, especially strong in the following verse: ‘who would find a better mother than one’s own, and your mother is this country.’ The song shows Šantić’s anti-sectarian views, and although the poet was very active in his fight for the cultural autonomy of Serbian people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, many of his songs illustrate the unity of the South Slav people. Šantić also invited Croatian actors to be guests in the Serbian Singing Society “Gusle” and Serbian actors to be guests in the Croatian Singing Society “Hrvoje”.

Conclusion

Šantić died on the 2nd February 1924. His funeral was like no other event in Mostar before. That February morning, the whole city, no matter the religion, gathered in grief. His death showed how beloved he was by his compatriots with houses across the city hanging black flags from their balconies and windows. His body was carried through the city by members of both “Gusle” and “Hrvoje” singing societies.  A priest gave the last prayer from the Minaret of the Mosque, and the proceeding lasted for 5 hours. However, not many places still bear the memory of this great poet. After the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mostar became a divided city. Šantićeva street, named after the late poet, was the most famous street in Mostar before the war. During the war, the same street became the frontline between the Croat and Muslim forces. Instead of being a symbol of unity, this street divides the city along ethnic lines today. Ironically, the song “Stay Here” can now be dedicated to all those that left Mostar during the war, the majority of which were Eastern Orthodox. In 1992, the eyes on Šantić’s monument were blindfolded by the citizens of Mostar so he could not see how brothers from three different faiths were killing each other. His monument was destroyed during the war but later rebuilt together by the citizens of Mostar with the hope for a better future and for peace.


[i] https://www.traveltill.com/destination/Bosnia-and-Herzegovina/Mostar/history.php (accessed on 15 of March 2021)

[ii] http://santic.org/biografija.php (accessed on 20th of March 2021)

[iii] http://santic.org/biografija.php (accessed on 20th of March 2021)

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