Leyla Amzi-Erdoğdular considers how the newly-established Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes set about forcibly cleansing itself of its Muslim population, ruthlessly sent “back” to Anatolia – yet another example of how Lausanne normalized population exchanges as a “solution” to the “minority problem.”

Leyla is Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, Newark.

For Muslims, incorporation into the newly-created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in the aftermath of World War I began with violence. As early as 1919, barely a year after the kingdom’s creation Le Temps carried Bosnian Reis ul-ulema Čaušević’s reports of over a thousand people dead and 270 villages destroyed by the conquering Serbian forces.

“What a statement this is for us, Muslims, who celebrated the advent of Yugoslavia and were prepared to serve it,” he wrote, explaining that Bosnian Muslims were also Slavs. [1] In the same period, another report listing hundreds of Albanian villagers killed by Serbian and Montenegrin forces in Kosovo was sent to the British regional representatives and relayed to the League of Nations, hoping that they would offer protection. 

The Serbian rulers of Yugoslavia, as the Kingdom was later renamed, were not particularly original in their approach to Muslim populations in the Balkans. For over a century loss of Ottoman territories in Europe to the new states of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria meant massacres, forced conversions, and the expulsion of the Muslim population. This process continued with dispossession and other measures of “de-Islamization” in peacetime. Yugoslav Muslims, just like other Muslims in the Balkans, continued to migrate to Turkey after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. They did so in response to agrarian reforms that left Muslim landowners impoverished, which denied them access to education and state employment opportunities as well as political representation.

Yugoslav Muslims were ethnically and linguistically diverse and included Slav Bosnians, Albanians, Turks, Torbeš, Gorani, and Roma. The state officially recognized the religious but not the national diversity of its Muslim citizens, and so limited their political organization. The archaic term “Turk” continued to be used for all Muslims, in a pejorative sense. But it also assumed a new meaning, as “Turk” became a useful ethnic designation, making migration to Turkey appear to follow logically. Press calls for “Turks to Asia,” captured public opinion on the matter.

Yugoslav administrators devised policies to encourage Muslim migration from Southern Serbia, made up of former Ottoman Kosovo, Sandžak of Novi Pazar, and northern Macedonia. There was no pretence of legality, so murder, dispossession, ransom, forced labour, colonization, and other similar methods drove entire villages to migrate to Turkey, well into the 1920s.[2]

As colonization and migration did not achieve the desired pace, a need was recognized for agreement with Turkey, to compel migration. International agreements after the Great War normalized such policies as solutions to the “minority question”, borne along by the ideal of a homogenous nation-state.

Assimilation and colonization in disputed areas and borderland regions – combined with expulsion when that did not work – became tools in interwar state population management.

The principle of “unmixing” materialized in informal waves of migration and diplomatically-negotiated transfers of populations. Voluntary Greek-Bulgarian and compulsory Greek-Turkish population exchanges in 1919 and 1923 were “successful” examples to be emulated in the interwar Romanian-Turkish and Yugoslav-Turkish population transfer agreements and the Romanian-Bulgarian population exchange.

Both Yugoslavia and Turkey explored the idea of large-scale transfers in the 1920s. In 1935 the Yugoslav administration convened the Inter-ministerial Conference of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on the Resettlement of the Non-Slavic Element to Turkey. Turkey looked for ways to offset the costs associated with migrant settlement and stagger arrivals. As migrants could seldom sell their properties at fair value and often arrived impoverished, Turkish ambassadors in Belgrade worked to assess Muslim properties after each agrarian reform, assessments then used to calculate compensation in inter-state negotiations. The 1934 agreement to transfer Romanian Muslims to Turkey served as a framework for Yugoslav-Turkish negotiations.


An official agreement was reached in 1938. It stipulated a transfer of 200,000 Yugoslav citizens to Turkey over a six-year period to begin in 1939. Yugoslavia was to pay 20 million lira in compensation for migrant properties. The populations to be transferred were defined as Turkish, however, the vague phrasing in the agreement allowed for the “tossing in [of] a larger number of Albanians” in the words of the Yugoslav prime minister. Furthermore, the agreement exempted urban populations, many of whom were ethnically Turkish. Yugoslav government officials believed that they were taking advantage of Turkish ignorance about the size of the Turkish ethnic minority in Yugoslavia. However, Turkish sources show that Turkish officials were well aware of potential migrants’ diversity and their local circumstances.[3] Ultimately, the onset of World War II prevented the implementation of the agreement, but that did not interrupt the flow of Yugoslav Muslim migration to Turkey.

Although the economic conditions in Turkey were far from ideal for the incoming migrants, Turkey continued to admit them. Long-term state objectives envisioned population growth as an asset in economic terms, as well as strategically significant in order to “Turkify” the nation’s western and eastern borderlands. In his address to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1922, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) defined the incoming migrants as “our coreligionists who sought refuge from the regions that remained beyond our national borders.”

Turkish settlement laws of 1926 and 1934 defined acceptable migrants as Turks, as well as those “affiliated with Turkish culture,” which was taken to encompass Slav, Albanian, Greek, and other “foreign” Muslims. Turkish acceptance of diverse European Muslims, building on the Treaty of Lausanne’s conceptualizations, materialized in resettling populations that could become Turkish. An ahistorical notion of “return” to the national cradle was then employed to explain such migrations in national discourses still current across the Balkans and in Turkey. 


[1] Charles Rivet, “Les parties bosniaques” Le Temps 1 April 1919, 3.

[2] See League of Nations Official Documents, C-129-1933-I_FR (16 February 1933).

[3] Leyla Amzi-Erdogdular, “Muslim Migration and Nation-Building in Interwar Yugoslavia and Turkey,” in Kate Fleet and Ebru Boyar, eds., Borders, Boundaries and Belonging in Post-Ottoman Space in the Interwar Period (Leiden: Brill, 2023).

FEATURE IMAGE SOURCE: John Steele, “Trek of Moslems back to Turkey Alarms Europe: 7 million are Returning to Ancient Homeland,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 Dec. 1934, 2.

IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_I_of_Yugoslavia_and_Mustafa_Kemal_in_1933.jpg

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