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Cetinje: Nikola Under the Elm

King Nikola - 1841-1918 King Nikola - painting
King Nikola, 1841-1918

For any serious student of Yugoslav history Ivo Banac's 1984 study of the antecedents, foundation and early years of the state is now a classic. For anyone seeking to understand the roots of all that was to take place in the twentieth century in this region the answers are here. It is also wonderfully written. In these extracts Banac discusses Prince Nikola, who from his capital in Cetinje, presided over Montenegro, as prince and then king, from 1860 until 1918.

Prince Nikola was himself the product of the contradictory new age. On the one hand, in the ancient patriarchal way, he was sufficiently acquainted with every notable Montenegrin to know each one's strengths and weaknesses. He dispensed his personal justice under an ancient elm tree in Cetinje and occasionally jotted down his disagreeable comments, which betrayed familiarity and rough insight, about his supplicants. The state's Book of Petitions is full of Nikola's glosses: "And all that you have guzzled, you sot?!" (on a petitioner requesting relief); "Give him a passport as big as highest position" (on a malconent requesting exit papers). Though addicted to medals, a modern weakness that he shared with most of his male subjects, he never gave up the Montenegrin national costume for a smart uniform. He genuinely believed in the old warrior code and until fairly advanced age personally led his men in battle. And although certainly not equal to Njegoš [The prince-bishop of Montenegro 1830-51] in poetic inspiration, Nikola, too, cultivated bardic leadership. He composed poems honoring each tribe, even ones he persecuted-praise to the adversary being required by the nobility of conduct.

The National Question in Yugoslavia: Origins, History, Politics. Ivo Banac. 1992.
[p. 276 / Cornell University Press]

April 2007
Tim Judah

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