Montenegro - Background information

Natural history
People and culture 


Abridged from the History section in Montenegro: The Bradt Travel Guide

The Birth of Yougoslavia

Between the two world wars, Montenegro disappeared from the map and suffered from malign neglect at the hands of Serbia, which turned itself into Yugoslavia in 1929. The assassination of Yugoslavia’s King Alexander by a Croat in 1934 and his replacement by the Regent Prince Paul, uncle of King Petar II, made little difference to the centrist Belgrade regime. An effective programme of land reform turned Yugoslavia into a reasonably prosperous country of small farmers. As Germany under Hitler led the interwar European economic revival, Hitler deliberately built links with Yugoslavia and by 1938, 53% of Yugoslav exports went there. Following that year’s Anschluss, Yugoslavia worked hard to maintain its political independence in the face of German pressure to join the Axis. The invasions of Czechoslovakia and, by the Italians, Albania added to the pressure, as did the 1939 Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact. In March 1941 Prince Paul finally caved in and signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy.

World War II and the Partisans

The popular response was one of outrage, leading to a bloodless coup fronted by the air force. The regent was exiled and King Petar II’s immediate accession was proclaimed by the Government of National Unity. Within a month Germany invaded and Petar fled to London with his government-in-exile. Yugoslavia was split up and shared between Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. Most of Montenegro was handed to the Italians, the rest to Italian-ruled Albania. An ill-starred Italian attempt to restore a puppet monarchy in Montenegro was short-lived. An enlarged and autonomous Croatia under the fascist Ante Pavelić and his Ustaša movement adopted a policy of extreme racial purification, exterminating what may have amounted to hundreds of thousands of Jews, gypsies and Serbs. Th e rump of the Royal Yugoslav Army went into hiding and formed the Chetniks under Dragoljub Mihailović. Th e third and much the most significant resistance force were the Communist Partisans led by Josip Broz, using the nom de guerre of Tito.

These three military groups were coming from totally diff erent directions. Ustaša troops acted as little more than an adjunct of the Axis armies. The objective of the Chetniks was to maintain the prospect of a reunifi ed Yugoslavia which could be handed back to King Petar when the war fi nally ended. The Partisans, on the other hand, waged all-out guerrilla war almost regardless of casualties or reprisals, aimed both at taking some pressure off the beleaguered Soviet Union and at establishing  a communist state in post-war Yugoslavia. Their success in harassing the Axis can be judged by the savagely high reprisal tariff of 50 executed Yugoslavs for every wounded Axis soldier and 150 executed Yugoslavs for every killed Axis soldier.

Inevitably all three groups clashed with each other, especially the Ustaše and the Partisans. Britain did what it could to support resistance but initially the shortage of supplies and transport meant that support was largely moral. At first Churchill and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) inclined instinctively towards the royalist Chetniks and their London-based leader, but as intercepted signals traffic made it increasingly obvious that only the Partisans were infl icting significant casualties on the Axis troops, so British and (in due course) American assistance swung behind Tito. By early 1944 all the Allied backing was going to him and the presence since 1941 of a British military mission on the ground (albeit a small one), led first by Bill (later Sir William) Deakin and then by Fitzroy (later Sir Fitzroy) Maclean, gave Britain something of a unique relationship.

Montenegro’s relatively isolated position and mountainous interior, together with the strength of the local Communist Party and the country’s warlike traditions, made it an ideal operating zone for the Partisans. When Italy surrendered in 1943 the Partisans in Montenegro became even better placed as they took over huge quantities of Italian weapons and ammunition.

By the summer of 1944 the end of the war was in sight. Tito met Churchill in Naples in August and then flew without notice to Moscow. There, plans were laid for the liberation of Yugoslavia. With Russian assistance the Partisans liberated Belgrade in October and quickly took possession of the rest of the country.

Natural history


According to a report written in 2001 by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Yugoslavia, it is still possible to find bears, wolves, lynx and jackals in the wilder parts of Montenegro.

The number of Balkan brown bears at large is said to be around a hundred, largely spread across the mountainous areas of the north. Montenegrin bears generally live between 900m and 2,600m, concentrated in the 1,000–1,500m band. They prefer broad-leaf forests to conifers and like human presence to be minimal, but they do not mind a few sheep and cattle in the summer and they fancy some orchards and fields in the vicinity. Plums are a particular favourite.

There are believed to be 200–300 wolves in the northern hilly/mountain areas. They like deciduous forests with a few glades and meadows and are not averse to some livestock in the vicinity. There is said to be no recent record of a wolf attacking a human, except occasionally when they are rabid – though it is not necessarily easy to tell at a distance whether they are in this state.

A small number of lynx are believed to inhabit the area around Plužine. They prefer to live between 550m and 2,500m in scarcely populated, rocky areas of oak or beech forest. They are not known to attack humans but will occasionally go for a dog. Like jackals, lynx avoid the home bases of the bigger and stronger wolf. A few jackals exist in southern Mediterranean and sub-Mediterranean areas but they do not bother anyone much.

The variety of terrain and climate in Montenegro means that, despite its small size, it is home to an astonishingly large variety of birds. It is reliably reported that over 300 bird species (of a total of 526 European species) can be found regularly in the country. Of these, some 200 actually nest in Montenegro, including raptors, forest and wetland species. The coast attracts waders, cormorants and pelicans, as well as – on the Ulcinj Saltpans – fl amingoes. Freshwater lakes, such as Šasko Lake, host many different species of swamp bird, as well as a heron colony, while at Skadar Lake National Park, eagles, ibis, bitterns, herons, warblers, ducks, pelicans, owls and buntings are among the 290 recorded species, with wintering fl ocks numbering some 200,000 birds. The virgin deciduous–coniferous forest of Biogradska Gora National Park is home to a profusion of forest birds, including eagles, owls, woodpeckers, thrushes, larks, nightingales, tits, buntings and partridges, while the mountainous Durmitor National Park, with its thick coniferous forest, claims 167 diff erent species of bird.


Montenegro, especially in spring and summer, is filled with a wide variety of wild flowers, some unique to this corner of the Balkans, and at all times is host to an extensive range of plants.

The Dalmatian coast climate of generally hot dry summers, mild damp winters and early springs means the vegetation is attractive and quite varied. There are a lot of evergreen trees, small, greyish aromatic shrubs and brightly coloured flowers, especially in the spring and at the beginning of autumn, and a high degree of cultivation. Sometimes the land suffers from deforestation or overgrazing. The trees are often varieties of pine or less familiar members of the oak family, as well as junipers and, of course, olives. There are also large areas of maquis, a sort of high dense scrub growing to 2–3m, composed largely of hardleaved evergreen shrubs. Maquis often results from deforestation and may just be a stage on the way to garrigue, which is a stunted version of maquis. In spring the garrigue can be quite colourful, but by high summer it is distinctly monochrome.There are two main varieties of maquis, one in which myrtles predominate and the other characterised by holm oaks, which despite their family name are catkinbearing evergreens.

Grove of olive trees Montenegro by Pelevina Ksinia, Shutterstock A grove of old olive trees © Pelevina Ksinia, Shutterstock 

Further inland and at higher levels the characteristic vegetation of oaks, hornbeams, planes, willows, some elms and poplars with oleanders, birch and tamarisk is called by the botanists ‘Mediterranean mixed deciduous’. There are also some big beech forests. Above about 600m one finds wide areas of fir and pine rising to nearly 2,000m, which is the treeline.

There are five national parks, together incorporating a full 10% of the country, and all well worth visiting: Biogradska Gora, Lovćen, Skadar Lake, Prokletije and Durmitor. For further details, contact the National Parks of Montenegro Public Enterprise.

People and culture  

The population at the 2011 census was 625,266, which marks a continuing decline. Unfortunately the last decade has seen a steady exodus of better-educated young Montenegrins looking for a higher standard of living abroad, though their remittances are a useful source of income. Around 58% of the population now lives in urban areas. The refugee problem is exacerbated by the age spread: a large number are either under 14 years of age or over 60 with only a comparatively small percentage falling within the more productive years in between.

The real ethnic and cultural differences between Serbian and Montenegrin are interminably debatable and interminably debated. There have been constant population shifts and intermarriage among the two and also with Croatians, Albanians and Bosnians. Th e latest (2011) census puts ethnic Montenegrins at about 45%, Serbs at about 28%, with Albanians at 5%, Croats at about 1% and Bosnians at over 8%. A sizeable number of Montenegrins live in Serbia.

In a notable social shift , the farming percentage of Montenegro dropped from 61.5% of the population in 1953 to 7.4% in 1991. Th e vast majority of the working population is engaged in services, another sizeable percentage in industry and only a very small percentage in agriculture.

National costume

National costume is not much in evidence these days, even in the remoter areas. Around 75 years ago a highlander would typically be wearing a red embroidered waistcoat, a white coat, dark breeches and white leggings. Around his shoulders, pashmina-style, would be draped a wide all-purpose wrap. Arms were carried at all times, often extravagantly, including not just several pistols but knives and a sword as well. A man would not wish to be seen without his belt. On the head every male would, in keeping with his sovereign, wear a traditional black rimless hat (képi), its crown embroidered with red and gold. These colours were said to declare red for blood, gold for glory and black for remembrance. Until 1910, this was also his battle-dress.

Men in traditional Montenegro dress  Cetinje  Montenegro by National Tourist Organisation of MontenegroMen of Cetinje in traditional Montenegro dress © National Tourist Organisation of Montenegro

Literature and printing

Montenegro has a strong literary tradition dating back nearly a thousand years. The oldest literary work, Kingdom of Slavs, was written in Bar in the 12th century by an anonymous Benedictine priest. Monasteries and other libraries contain a number of manuscripts from the 13th century, many  illustrated with magnificent miniatures, but book production really stems from the introduction to Cetinje in 1494 of the first printing press in southern Europe, and one of the first anywhere on the continent. The first Montenegrin book, Oktoih (The Book of Psalms), was published in Cyrillic the same year, with intricate engravings. The Cetinje press, which was actually located at Obud just outside the nearby village of Rijeka Crnojevića, played a major role in diffusing literacy and culture in the area. As a consequence of Turkish attack this early press was closed in 1496. A subsequent one was installed in 1834 by Petar II Petrović Njegoš but during a Turkish siege in 1852 the type was melted down by the Montenegrins for deployment as bullets, as indeed was the roof of Njegoš’s palace, Biljarda.

Poetry and history both ranked highly in Montenegrin book production, though the histories were sometimes quite blatantly spun. The earliest history of Montenegro, written by Prince-Bishop Vasilije and published in Moscow in 1754, was really an appeal for Russian military and financial support. Montenegrin rulers also used their literary efforts for political ends, leading the way in writing and encouraging books which served to unite the disparate clans in national solidarity against the Ottomans and in the pursuit of freedom. The work most highly regarded by Montenegrins even today is the 19th-century verse play The Mountain Wreath, written by vladika Petar II Petrović Njegoš. This philosophical piece gains little in translation.

Montenegro has often inspired authors from the rest of Europe and the United States, and books by Montenegrins were published abroad, especially in Venice and London. Rime Vulgari (Vernacular Rhymes), written by Ludovico Pasquali of Cattaro, was for some reason published in London in 1593. G Wheeler started the series of descriptive works on the area with his A Journey to Dalmatia, written in 1682, while the various wars of the 19th century inspired a number of works on both politics (including Gladstone’s Montenegro in 1879 and a mediocre semi-political sonnet of the same name by Tennyson in 1877) and travel. 

By the beginning of the 20th century a number of intrepid ladies were venturing into the Balkans. One of the books written in 1904 by Edith Durham, probably Rebecca West’s only rival as doyenne, is prefaced by a publisher’s note apologising that: 

"Owing to the absence of Miss Durham in Macedonia, the following pages have not had the advantage of her revision in going through the press." 

Various books and operas in the second half of the 19th century took up the theme of Montenegro the exotic. Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is based on Prince Danilo and the romantic goings-on of the court at Cetinje. Alphonse Daudet borrowed the persona of a real-life Montenegrin con artist and lady-killer for Tartarin de Tarascon. Paris saw the operetta The Montenegrins in 1894. Pierre Loti drew upon his military experiences in the Boka, and a number of Italian authors profited from the traditional ties to feature things Montenegrin in miscellaneous works; indeed a Montenegrin bibliography published in 1993 lists no fewer than 1,043 Italian books on the country published in Italy between 1532 and 1941.

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