All through the fourteenth century, the Ottoman Turks had made steady territorial gains in the Balkans in pursuit of their stated purpose of bringing all Europe under the banner of the Islamic crescent. It is not often appreciated that the Balkan Slavs bore the brunt of the task of keeping the Turks out of Europe. This function had for centuries been the task of the Byzantine Empire, but when it began its terminal decline around 1300, the burden of damming the Turkish tide fell to the south Slavs. It would prove to be a thankless and brutal one.
The beginning of the century had been a good one for the south Slavs: this was the era of the greatest of medieval Serb kings, Stephen Dushan. His adroit generalship allowed him to bring various principalities under Serbian sway, most importantly Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, even Thessaly in northern Greece. He even codified in 1349 the existing law of his domains with the “Lawbook of Czar Dushan” (Zabonik Tsara Dushana). But after his death, the forces of regionalism again reasserted themselves, and his kingdom effectively crumbled.
The Turks under Murad I were busy in the meantime. By 1385, Sofia in Bulgaria had fallen; Nish and Salonika followed in 1386 and 1387 respectively, and Greece was defenseless. Bosnians under Stephen Trtko and Serbs under Lazar I joined forces to meet the common danger; together they dealt the enemy a decisive defeat at Plochnik in 1388.
Murad was not amused, and raised a large force of between 30,000 to 40,000 men to crush Serbia and turn it into a vassal state. To meet him, the Serbs under Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović raised a coalition of Serbs, Bosnians, Magyars, Vlachs, Bulgars, Albanians, and Poles; their number is estimated to have been around 30,000, and was composed of Lazar’s own men plus some additional forces supplied by the Kosovo Serb nobleman Vuk Branković. The two belligerents were thus about equally matched. Together they would fight what was perhaps the most decisive military engagement in all Serbian history.
As is the case with many medieval battles, precise descriptions of the action are lacking. But the significance of the battle in Serbian history cannot be overestimated; it has assumed a spiritual resonance which can only be appreciated by someone who has been to the region and spoken with the people.
The battle was fought on June 28, 1389 (“St. Vitus’s Day”in Serbia) at a place called the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo. June 28 has strangely been a significant date in Serbian history since then as well: it was the date of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serb nationalist in 1914, and the day in 1876 when Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. It was also the day in 1989 where over a million Serbs gathered in Kosovo to commemorate the battle and listen to a nationalist oration (the “Gazimestan speech“) by Serbian president Slobodan Milošević.
According to legend, Murad’s commanders before the battle offered the Serbs the choice between peaceful submission or combat; Lazar and all of his nobles chose to fight to the death. It is only by appreciating these historical facts can we begin to understand the spiritual significance of Kosovo to the Serbian mind. Even Lazar’s physical remains are revered relics and were housed at the Orthodox monastery at Gracanica for centuries. Near the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia in 1991, Lazar’s relics were put on display with a great outpouring of sincere emotion.
According to tradition, the battle initially went well for the Serbs, but dedicated and skilled counterattacks by the Turks eventually caused Lazar’s army to wither. Vuk Branković is said to have fled the Field of Blackbirds when disaster loomed; under some versions of the tale, he betrayed his king to the enemy. We cannot vouch for the authenticity of these tales, but what is certain is that the battle was unmatched in ferocity. Casualties on both sides at the Field of Blackbirds were massive, and the leaders of each army perished in the fighting.
In the Balkans in this era, kings did not die in their beds. During the battle, a Serb knight named Milosh Kobilich, claiming to be an informer and deserter, was granted an audience with the Turkish sultan himself. He somehow managed to slash the sultan’s throat with a knife before himself being hacked to pieces by the sultan’s retinue. On the Serbian side, Lazar himself was captured and promptly decapitated. Serbia would remain under the Turkish yoke for the next five hundred years.
It is against this background that we must see the significance of Kosovo for the modern Serbian nation. These emotions were recalled by Slobdan Milošević in his Gazimestan speech of 1989:
Today, it is difficult to say what is the historical truth about the Battle of Kosovo and what is legend. Today this is no longer important. Oppressed by pain and filled with hope, the people used to remember and to forget, as, after all, all people in the world do, and it was ashamed of treachery and glorified heroism. Therefore it is difficult to say today whether the Battle of Kosovo was a defeat or a victory for the Serbian people, whether thanks to it we fell into slavery or we survived in this slavery. The answers to those questions will be constantly sought by science and the people. What has been certain through all the centuries until our time today is that disharmony struck Kosovo 600 years ago.
If we lost the battle, then this was not only the result of social superiority and the armed advantage of the Ottoman Empire but also of the tragic disunity in the leadership of the Serbian state at that time. In that distant 1389, the Ottoman Empire was not only stronger than that of the Serbs but it was also more fortunate than the Serbian kingdom…
Equal and harmonious relations among Yugoslav peoples are a necessary condition for the existence of Yugoslavia and for it to find its way out of the crisis and, in particular, they are a necessary condition for its economic and social prosperity. In this respect Yugoslavia does not stand out from the social milieu of the contemporary, particularly the developed, world. This world is more and more marked by national tolerance, national cooperation, and even national equality.
The modern economic and technological, as well as political and cultural development, has guided various peoples toward each other, has made them interdependent and increasingly has made them equal as well. Equal and united people can above all become a part of the civilization toward which mankind is moving. If we cannot be at the head of the column leading to such a civilization, there is certainly no need for us to be at its tail…
Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past.
Our chief battle now concerns implementing the economic, political, cultural, and general social prosperity, finding a quicker and more successful approach to a civilization in which people will live in the 21st century. For this battle, we certainly need heroism, of course of a somewhat different kind, but that courage without which nothing serious and great can be achieved remains unchanged and remains urgently necessary.
Symbolism and history are inseparable parts of a people’s identity. Those who underestimate–or discount–the influence of such spiritual factors absorb, to their detriment, only a tiny fraction of history’s immemorial lessons.