Yugoslavia, as a sovereign state, was a purely twentieth-century phenomenon. However, the manner in which its constituent peoples emerged from imperial rule during the nineteenth century had a great influence on the course of Yugoslav history after 1918. This process drew strength from the past, particularly the histories of medieval statehood which were resurrected in this period to give legitimacy to the notion of South Slav identity as a distinct cultural and political entity. The primary motivation of South Slavs during the nineteenth century was to achieve and preserve a measure of autonomy if not always independence from powerful imperialist states. Such endeavours were necessarily defined by recourse to the language of national self-consciousness, precisely because European political discourse following the late eighteenth century revolutions determined that the coincidence of nation and state was the measure of political legitimacy. By demonstrating the existence of a nation, so the tribes of south-eastern Europe might also persuade the great powers to acknowledge their right to self-governance. Nationalism was therefore a means of achieving leverage over the strong by appealing to the very foundations from which European statehood drew its strength.
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