Peace Science Digest

Resisting Exclusionary Nationalism During the Bosnian War

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Filic, G. (2018). Rejection of radical nationalism in wartime Yugoslavia: The case of Tuzla (1990-1995). Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 13(3), 55-69.

Talking Points

  • The city of Tuzla was able to resist exclusionary nationalist forces during the Bosnian War due to its identity formation from 1878 to 1990 as a “multi-ethnic working class society with strong anti-fascist, anti-nationalist ideals.”
  • The widespread immigration of workers to Tuzla during the city’s industrialization and the growing solidarity between these diverse workers in the labor movement account for Tuzla’s tolerant, multicultural, and non-nationalistic ethos. 
  • Tuzla’s history of resistance against authoritarianism and fascism became part of the city’s identity, which also became intertwined with the values and identity of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia when it formed after WWII.
  • Political elites in Tuzla were able to make risky decisions—maintaining non-nationalist parties, protecting minorities as well as the city’s multicultural ethos against fascist/nationalist forces during the Bosnian War—because large portions of the population had developed a strong multicultural and socialist identity and therefore supported these decisions. 


During the early 1990s, while the rest of Yugoslavia was succumbing to virulent and exclusionary nationalism, the city of Tuzla—located in what is now northeastern Bosnia & Herzegovina—resisted these same forces, electing the only non-nationalist city government in wartime Yugoslavia and maintaining a proactively multicultural society. What explains this anomaly? What was different about Tuzla that enabled it to maintain itself as an inclusive enclave amid the ethnic violence of the Balkan Wars?

As the author notes, this research fills a gap in existing scholarship on the former Yugoslavia, as most studies look at the reasons for rising nationalism and violence in the 1980s and 1990s but not at explanations for why these processes did not unfold everywhere. To examine this question, the author engaged in field work in Tuzla in 2015, interviewing “Tuzla’s wartime political elites, workers, members of civil society, members of academia, war veterans and members of the religious community” and also analyzing local and regional media sources and other documents. The research concludes that Tuzla’s capacity to resist exclusionary nationalist forces derives from its identity formation from 1878 to 1990 as a “multi-ethnic working class society with strong anti-fascist, anti-nationalist ideals.”

To explore the development of Tuzla’s distinctive identity, the author divides the city’s history into three identity formation processes: “bonding” (1878-1914), “forging” (1914-1945), and “cementing” (1945-1990). The first “bonding” process was marked by the industrialization of Tuzla under Austro-Hungarian administration, which required the immigration of skilled workers from the reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to run the area’s salt and coal mines and other industries. What emerged was a diverse work force and society in Tuzla—“Italians, Slovenians, Germans, Polish, Slovaks, Austrians, Czechs and even Russians” in addition to various Bosnian ethnicities and an influx of people from rural areas—that saw itself as the backbone of this new industrial economy. Most of those interviewed in this research identified this widespread immigration of workers as the root of Tuzla’s tolerant, multicultural, and non-nationalistic ethos.

This ethos was further strengthened during the identity “forging” process between the world wars. A labor movement started to organize itself in response to poor working conditions amid the economic and human devastation of World War I. To fill gaps in the workforce due to wartime casualties, Tuzla had to bring in miners from Slovenia. Their presence provided an opportunity for fellow miners to demonstrate the solidarity that was developing between workers of various ethnicities and nationalities in Tuzla. In order to pre-empt a massive strike, the central government in Belgrade jailed potential strikers and ordered Slovenian miners to return home, spurring their local colleagues to take them in. When police forces tried to force Slovenian miners out, they were met with armed rebellion, which then spread to other cities. The armed rebellion was ultimately quelled by the army, but it and the rousing act of solidarity that precipitated it remain touchstones of Tuzla’s emergent identity as a unified, multi-ethnic, working-class community unafraid of standing up to injustice. The latter aspect of this identity was further solidified during World War II when “anti-fascist partisan forces” fought to free Tuzla from Nazi control in 1943 and again in 1944.

Finally, the identity “cementing” period corresponds with the end of World War II until 1990, during which time Tuzla adopted and embodied the values and identity of the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: “multiculturalism, anti-fascism, self-management socialist economy, cultural, social and educational growth.” Two features of Tuzla’s experience are key: “economic prosperity and a high rate of worker immigration.” After WWII, Tuzla’s economy “flourished,” with higher GDP growth than anywhere else in the country, again resulting in workers immigrating, especially from other corners of Yugoslavia. This allowed for greater mixing between rural and urban populations and reinforced Tuzla’s multicultural identity. With such a large percentage of the city’s population working in the mines and other industries, a strong, diverse workers identity took hold, creating a “cohesive social fabric” and the vigorous adoption of Yugoslavia’s “socialist principles [of] solidarity and equality.” In the 1991 census, for instance, Tuzla had the highest numbers of people identifying as “Yugoslav” rather than narrower ethnic or religious identities. Combined with Tuzla’s “anti-fascist tradition,” these dimensions equipped the city to resist ethnic polarization and nationalist violence when it swept the rest of Yugoslavia.

Importantly, political elites in Tuzla were able to make risky decisions—maintaining non-nationalist parties, protecting minorities as well as the city’s multicultural ethos against fascist/nationalist forces during the war—precisely because large portions of the population had developed a strong multinational and socialist identity, signaling their support for these actions that countered the prevailing forces of the day.

Informing Practice

As exclusionary forms of nationalism once again take hold throughout Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, cases such as Tuzla acquire ever greater significance and have much to teach us. What are the most effective ways to resist nationalism and the violence against those marked as “outsiders”—whether ethnic/racial minorities or immigrants/ refugees—that can accompany it? At first glance, the findings in this research seem difficult to apply, as the author identifies long-standing structural factors and identities that account for Tuzla’s unique ability to withstand the attraction of ethnic  nationalism in the midst of war. Upon closer inspection, however, there are  a few lessons that can be useful in other contexts. First, it is important to note that the citizens of Tuzla had a strong workers identity that allowed them to resist the gravitational pull towards their respective ethnic identities. In other words, the presence of a common, cross-cutting identity may be necessary to ward off or supplant more exclusionary identities. It is worth considering what that cross-cutting identity might be today: a proactively multicultural national identity (as the U.S. American identity can be), a human/planetary identity, or a workers identity, depending on the context. Cultivating strong yet benign forms of identity through historical narratives, community rituals, holidays, forms of recognition, and soon—rather than simply rejecting malicious forms of identity—may be the key to preventing exclusionary forms of nationalism from taking hold.

Second, although the steady influx of workers from diverse locales into Tuzla is identified as one of the factors contributing to this multicultural ethos, it was how the community reacted in key moments to challenges against specific groups that solidified this ethos. For instance, it took many workers deciding to take in their Slovenian colleagues when they were being ordered to leave that reinforced the solidarity so central to Tuzla’s identity. In other words, agency and free will matter, even in the context of predisposing (or challenging) conditions. We are always in the process of shaping and reinforcing the group identities to which we belong. Though we may experience these identities as structural forces that constrain or influence our behavior, our everyday actions also create these identities. Many of us already live in diverse societies, but that in itself may not be enough to create an ethos that celebrates that diversity. If we want to become a welcoming society that can withstand xenophobia and racism, then we can engage in everyday actions that resist these forces by standing in solidarity with the most vulnerable groups among us. In doing so, we create a welcoming identity that can then, in turn, start to have its own constraining effects on other people’s actions, as they start identifying with it and acting accordingly.

Finally, we must remember that it was the widespread multicultural, anti-fascist, workers identity among Tuzla’s citizens that enabled political elites to stick their necks out to safeguard non-nationalist politics and protect minorities. Often, it is easiest to blame our politicians for the messes we may find ourselves in. But we, as citizens, are the ones who create the space they need to act, and it is ultimately the work of convincing and mobilizing one another and communicating our support (or disapproval) to our representatives that will make risky leadership possible, especially resisting nationalist or militarist impulses.

Continued Reading

Weiss, J. (N.d). Tuzla, the third side, and the Bosnian War. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from the Third Side website:

Ghitis, F. (2018, May 28) Is Bosnia heading back to the dark old days of the 1990s? Washington Post.


Post-Conflict Research Center:

Youth for Peace:


Ordinary Heroes:

Keywords: Bosnian War, Tuzla, nationalism, fascism, ethnic violence, multicultural ethos, solidarity, anti-racism, resistance, identity

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 3 of the Peace Science Digest.