On Mythology and Genocide

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Branka Magas

THE WAR IN former Yugoslavia began under the sign of a myth—the Kosovo myth. Its historical reference point is the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Field, whena multinational Christian force was defeated by its Ottoman foe, in the course of a sustained military effort by the Porte (Ottoman empire—ed.) that was eventually to expend itself at the gates of Vienna some three centuries later.

What actually happened in the Battle of Kosovo, or how crucial was its outcome for the consolidation of Ottoman power in the Balkans, is a matter of dispute. But one cannot doubt its importance for the population of this region—Bosnians, Serbs and Albanians—all of whom commemorated it in their folk songs.(1)

Mythical Constructions

It was only the Serbs, however, who turned the defeat on Kosovo Field into a powerful national myth. This happened in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Serbia became an internationally recognized kingdom and was able to contemplate the liberation” of ‘ancestral land?—the Sandjak of Novi Pazar, Kosovo, Macedonia—from Ottoman rule.

Since much of this territory was inhabited by non-Serbs, the Kosovo myth involved reinterpretation of the Kosovo battle as an exclusively Ottoman-Serb affair. The aim was to present the Albanians in particular, ethnically dominant throughout the Kosovo region, as usurpers of Serbian historic territory, indeed essentially “people without history,” a barbarian tribe genetically incapable of cultural or political development.

Serb-Albanian conflict was thus built into the very foundation of the Kosovo myth. Indeed, from its early days the Serb state practiced a policy of mass expulsion and/or forced assimilation of non-Serb populations present on its territory, turning an ethnically heterogeneous area into a homogeneous Serb one.

In the mythical reworking of the Kosovo battle, the conflict was presented also as one between Christianity and Islam, ignoring the fact that the Ottoman side included the Sultan’s Christian vassals, some of them ethnically Serb. This served to justify a view of the Serbian-Ottoman conflict five hundred years later as a religious war. Since according to the myth, moreover, the Kosovo debacle was caused by a Serb—Vuk Brankovic, fighting originally with Prince Lazar—switching sides at the crucial moment, the need was emphasized for total national (religious and racial) unity.

The Kosovo myth thus represents a textbook example of reinventing national history in response to contemporary political needs, in this case the legitimation of monarchical rule (in a society constituted overwhelmingly of small farmers) and territorial expansion.(2) It implies that the Serbs were original masters of this part of the Balkans—the proof being the existence of Tsar Dushan’s mighty empire a few decades earlier.

Although Dushan’s empire was multinational in character and in any case of fleeting duration—it fell apart after Dushan’s death in 1355—the myth conveys the impression that it, or at least its direct heir, was in fact extinguished on Kosovo Field. The reconquest of Kosovo, by implication, was not just a matter of revenge for the past but a precondition for the very existence of the Serb state and of Serbs as a free people.(3)

The Kosovo myth in fact mirrors similar national myths created throughout the region at this time; but what is specific to it is its religious overdetermination. According to the “classic Serb version of the Kosovo epic cycle, the defeat in battle had a spiritual cause: Lazar’s conscious preference for a heavenly rather than an “earthly” empire. His choice, by extension, made the Serbs into a “heavenly” people, i.e. a people chosen by God.

It seems that this particular interpretation came later and was the work of the Serbian Orthodox Church, reflecting its primary loyalty not to the Serbian state but to Constantinople, the ancient capital of Eastern Christianity now under Ottoman rule. Following the final extinction of medieval Serb statehood a few decades after the Baffle of Kosovo, the Orthodox Church survived the ensuing centuries as the only Serb national institution in both Ottoman and Habsburg lands.

Other key components of national integration—such as the codification of the vernacular as the print-language, or political independence—were acquired by the Serb nation only in the nineteenth century. The Serb Church was thus a state in embryo, a spiritual state in anticipation of a secular one.

Whereas in Russia, to take a contrasting example, the church always remained subordinated to the secular authorities, in the Serbian case the church long substituted for the state, preparing the ground for the latter’s eventual rebirth and—when the multiconfessional state of Yugoslavia came into being a hundred Years later, at the end of World War I—remaining the most jealous guardian of Serb national hegemony.

This nation-state-church symbiosis —the unmediated divine legitimation of the Serb state and nation—lies at the heart of the Kosovo myth, imparting a strongly mystical dimension to Serb nationalism that has survived the extensive subsequent modernization of Serbian society. It is here too that Serb intellectuals seeking to grapple with the current violent outburst of chauvinism find the seeds of Serb fascism.

A Twentieth-Century Revival

Yugoslav nationalism, emerging immediately before World War I, took over this aspect of the Kosovo myth. Yugoslav nationalists hailed the creation of the South Slav state as an historic revenge against the original defeat in Kosovo and as an affirmation of that state’s divine origin.

Here is how the prominent Croat sculptor Ivan Mestrovic rendered the Kosovo myth in 1915 (i.e. in the middle of the Great War):

“Kosovo is a crown of thorns borne by the suffering Yugoslav nation … On that day, the nation saw its state buried and with it the freedom of this world. But the fateful moment linked it also with eternity. There, on Kosovo, its Tsar spoke to God the night before the battle and chose the heavenly kingdom as the only eternal empire, thus making himself and hence also his people eternal. The whole army died for love of the eternal kingdom.

“Only one soldier of the holy army remained, his eyes gouged out by the Turks. This far-sighted blind gusleplayer took up his gusle of dry wood and set out among his enslaved people, preaching to them that justice is gained not by arms but by sacrifice and repentance. The people believed the blind gusle-player and the army of Tsar Lazar is now counted in millions: the whole of the Yugoslav nation has become Tsar Lazar’s soldiers.”(4)

For the sake of its contemporary relevance, it is worth quoting here part of the speech given by Lord Robert Cecil at the opening of an exhibition of Mestrovic’s work in London in 1919:

“For years they were telling us how Germany stands between Europe and Slav barbarism, and how in uniting with Russia and Serbia [in the wartime alliance—ed.] we showed a disregard for the higher needs of culture and civilization in Europe. To this complaint we can today respond with justice by mentioning one name only: Mestrovic. For we find here evidence of an artistic inheritance of quality not to be found in Germany and Austria put together….

“It is possible that this war can be seen as the source of a new influence in Europe, unprecedented in the past five centuries. It might be possible to counterpose to the heritage of German materialism the poetry and idealism of the Yugoslav race.”

The noble lord’s words exhibit a set of attitudes which the British political establishment has maintained to the present day: dislike of “German materialism” identification of Yugoslavia with Serbia, and a general tendency to sacrifice truth for expediency. Thus the work of a Vienna-educated Habsburg Croat becomes an example of Serb artistic genius, untainted by Germanic influence and unmatched anywhere in Germany and Austria.

It was the British writer Rebecca West, with her romantic espousal of Serb nationalism in White Lamb and Grey Falcon, who in the period between the two world wars was to become the chief purveyor of the Kosovo myth in the Anglo-Saxon world, inspiring Balkan “experts” to this day.(5)

Myth as Reality

In 1986, a year before Slobodan Mbsevic came to power in the Serb republic, the Kosovo myth resurfaced in all its force to mobilize Serbs for an all-out conflict with other Yugoslavia.

Prince Lazar’s bones were dug up and carried in procession through the cities and villages of Serbia, where they were waited upon by still-Communist state and party functionaries. Several hundred prominent intellectuals signed an anti-Albanian petition, in which the aggressive content of the Kosovo myth was revealed to the full.(6)

The Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences produced its notorious Memorandum, which in essence was nothing but a revamped version of the myth, a call to arms against the racial Other—the Albanian Barbarian, the Moslem Infidel, the Ustasha Croat, the Slovene Servant of Austria, the Turncoat Montenegrin—behind whom stood “century-old” enemies such as the Vatican, Lenin with his policy of national equality, and, of course, the “decadent’ West. All were charged with the attempted murder of Serbia and the Serbs: Genocide became the most frequent word in Great Serb agitprop.

As the crowning event, in June 1989 at a mass rally held on the original site to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Kosovo Field, Milosevic, flanked by Great Serb generals dressed in the uniforms of the Yugoslav Peoples Army—an army born in a national liberation war that was also meant to liberate Serbs and Yugoslays from the Kosovo curse—announced his readiness to go to war.

In this latest attempt to “right the wrongs of Kosovo” the Serbian state started to prepare its army and its people for a war of territorial aggrandizement. Some of its conquests took place even before the actual war began, while Yugoslavia was still formally in place. Between 1987 and 1990 Serbia imposed its rule over three of the other seven members of the Yugoslav Federation: Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosova.

As for the rest, Slovenia was attacked frontally in June 1991, Croatia in August of the same year, Bosnia-Herzegovina in April 1992. Only Macedonia has so far escaped unscathed. Serbia’s war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina quickly revealed its true aims: the destruction of these states and the expulsion of all non-Serbs (“ethnic cleansing”) from conquered territory.

The original charge that the Other was intent on destroying Serbdom turned out to be a simple case of displacement—an outward projection of Serbdom’s own murderous designs.

Serbia’s Historic Defeat

This is a war driven by obsession, not reason. Two years after its inception, it has lost all meaning beyond its own perpetuation. What will follow, even in the event of victory? This is a question to which the Serbian regime has no answer.

Winning has become as dangerous as losing. Six hundred years after Kosovo, Serbia is fighting another lost war. The Kosovo myth has turned out to be not just an irresponsible adventure, but the nemesis of modern Serbia.

In the view of the democratic opposition, the war amounts to Serbia’s historic defeat. As Bogdan Bogdanovic, ex-mayor of Belgrade and an early opponent of Miosevic, told a Croatian paper in the summer of 1991:

“Serbia has lost this war. When I say ‘this war’ I am thinking not only of the current one, but of all our modern wars and our entire qiodem history from the Hatt-i-Sherf(7) to the present day. A feeling of failure lies at the very heart of Serb nationalism, and with that comes all the various justifications for this failure: all the various Cominterns, Vaticans and their unbelievable plots. This history gambled away—this century and a half gambled away—is what can be described as a lost war.”


  1. See Albert D. Bond in Arshi Pipa and Sami Repishti (eds.), Studies on Kosova, East European Monographs no. CLV, New York, 1984.
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  2. Michael Born Petrovic, A History of Modern Serbia, 1804-1918, New York 1976.
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  3. For the power of this myth among Serb peasants turned soldier during the Balkan Wars, see the account given by Leon Trotsky in his Balkan Wars 1911-12, New York 1980.
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  4. Quoted in Miroslav Krleza, Deset krvavih godina [Ten Bloody Years], Zagreb 1957. During the War, Mestrovic was an active member of the Yuoslav committee working for the unification of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
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  5. Fora recent example see Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, New York 1993.
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  6. The text of the petition is reproduced in my The Destruction of Yugoslavia, London 1993, 49.
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  7. The Hatt-i-Sherif (Imperial Decree) of 1829 established Serbia’s autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. See Magas, op. cit., 344.
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January-February 1994, ATC 48