Lessons From the Perpetuation of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo

By Sylvia DeTar, Associate Contributor

In 1389 on Saint Vitus’ Day, a Serbian religious holiday, hero and martyr Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and many other Serbian Orthodox Christians died defending their faith, among other things, against the Ottoman Empire and its affiliates in the Battle of Kosovo. Although they lost, the Battle of Kosovo has been used as a source of nationalistic and spiritual inspiration throughout Serbian history. Six hundred years later to the day, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević invoked the Battle of Kosovo during his Gazimestan Speech, against a backdrop of ethnic tension and crisis in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He compared Serbs who fought against “the Turks” in 1389 to Serbs fighting for Serbian nationalism in 1989. Milošević’s campaign, according to James Gow in The Serbian Project and Its Adversaries: A Strategy of War Crimes, “was predicated on the notion of redressing this mood of victimization and restoring the sense of Serbian pride and . . . power.” In the wake of the deaths of approximately 100,000 people, on Saint Vitus Day twelve years later, Milošević was deported to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) on charges including “genocide” and “persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds.”

Republika Srpska military commander Ratko Mladić, regarded by some in the 1990s as a modern-day Prince Lazar, also spoke out openly against “the Turks” and “Islamicization.” After the fall of Srebrenica, Mladić addressed a local television camera: “Here we are, on the eleventh of July of the year 1995, in Serbian Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday we present this town as a gift to the Serb nation. The moment has finally arrived when, after the revolt against the Dahijas, we will have vengeance against the Turks in this place.” The Battle of Kosovo occurred long ago, yet it has not ended: its memory has been used continually to reinforce victimization of Serbs and more recently to inspire the eradication of Bosnian Muslims.

The long-lasting memory of the Battle of Kosovo can be a lesson to the United States (“U.S.”), whose government abolished slavery as recently as 1865. To Justice Brennan in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, however, “the Equal Protection Clause . . . was largely moribund . . . . Worse than desuetude, the Clause was early turned against those whom it was intended to set free, condemning them to . . . a status always separate but seldom equal.” It was only in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that the U.S. Supreme Court held segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Desegregation efforts expanded slowly, but only twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Court in Milliken v. Bradley held that school districts could only take remedial measures countering segregation and unequal opportunity for racial minorities in the face of de jure segregation. Various justices in dissenting opinions have protested the “myopia” of decisions that restrain efforts to counter the lasting effects of racial oppression. However, the Court has continued to deny remedial action for de facto segregation, ignoring the immense challenges of making up for “more than two centuries of firmly entrenched official discrimination.” This near-sightedness is especially alarming given the short history of the U.S. and the severe ramifications of the lasting memory of the Battle of Kosovo.

The perpetuation of the Battle of Kosovo can also be a lesson to the French government, which seems to have failed to see parallels between oppression of Judaism prior to the Holocaust and current oppression of Islam. Nazis began to segregate German Jews in the 1930s, and Germany passed the Nuremburg Laws in 1935. These laws denied citizenship, attendance in schools, and military participation to German Jews, and they forbade marriages between Jews and non-Jews. In Comparative Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law: Cases, Codes, Constitutions, and Commentary, David B. Oppenheimer, Sheila R. Foster, & Sora Y. Han compare these regulations in 1930s Germany to the growing popularity of France’s National Front party known for its anti-immigrant views, the 2004 French law prohibiting the display of conspicuous religious symbols in schools, especially impacting Muslim women, the 2010 French National Assembly’s bill prohibiting women from wearing clothing that covers the face in any public place in France, and France’s 2011 banning of Muslims from praying outside crowded mosques. Amid increasing regulations and growing sentiments against immigrants and Islamic expression in Europe, Oppenheimer expresses surprise that parallels between the Holocaust and current regulations against the practice of Islam are not more evident to French lawmakers, exposing France’s myopia to the perpetuation of oppression.

Constructed differences may create a victim/persecutor mentality and further perpetuate oppression. The various groups in the former Yugoslavia constructed differences between themselves, as evident in Milošević’s and Mladić’s commentary against “the Turks.” Despite speaking the same Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language (apart from Kosovo Albanians), sharing a common geographic history, and a history of proclamations of being “the same by blood,” these differences became an important motivation behind the war in Yugoslavia. According to an interview with historian Ozren Jungić:

[victim/ persecutor mentality] is the logic that keeps coming up in the Balkans: our group X is a historical victim of group Y. We need to protect ourselves from group Y. Therefore, we should expel members of group Y from our territories. X and Y at different periods have been various ethnic groups and political leaders have . . . invoked the notion of historical victimhood to justify their political and military campaigns.

Former Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadžić exemplified Jungić’s insight during his trial at the ICTY: “There is not a Serb or any man in the world that would convince the Serbs that there wasn’t a threat of a genocide against them.” These differentiations persisted despite many years of attempts for a unified Yugoslavia, and their contribution to a victim/ persecutor mentality played a significant role in the eventual Bosnian genocide.

Perpetuation of victim/ persecutor mentality is evident in the denial of the Bosnian genocide by former and present presidents of Serbia and Republika Srpska. During his trial at the ICTY, Karadžić denied the Bosnian genocide and claimed, “I never made any discrimination, my hairdresser of many years was a Muslim.” Republika Srpska’s current president Milorad Dodik argued, “Bosnian Serbs will never accept that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Muslims was genocide. . . . If a genocide happened then it was committed against Serb people of this region where women, children, and the elderly were killed en mass.” Current Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić recently shared Dodik’s sentiment: “[t]here was no genocide in Srebrenica.” These denials have sparked worldwide critique, and show that the ramifications of the Battle of Kosovo and its victimization have not ended.

Since the last half of the twentieth century, the U.S. has strived for unification of groups that have been perceived historically as different. Although academics and judges contest racial classification and apply strict scrutiny in Court decisions, explicit incorporations of racial classifications continue in censuses, school exams, and Court considerations. This enables the collection of statistics that courts may use to identify systemic discrimination. However, the explicit use of race in legislation often leads to denial of race-conscious remedial measures against disparately impacted groups, perpetuating unequal segregation and thus subordination.

The use of racial classification has the danger of creating a victim/ persecutor mentality. There is no law in the U.S. against the denial of slavery or oppression of minorities, although Justices’ dissents in Missouri v. Jenkins, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, and Grutter v. Bollinger have equated majority opinions with ignorance or perpetuation of continued oppression. These cases also illuminate victim/ persecutor mentality, such as where plaintiffs complained of “reverse discrimination.” Further exposing victimization mentality in the U.S., Arkansas Representative Jon Hubbard recently claimed that slavery was “good for black people,” whose integration in the U.S. has “rewarded” them citizenship “in the greatest nation ever established” but has brought “white” people down.

In France, the government explicitly avoids use of racial and ethnic classifications, in part because of the memory of the use of census information in persecuting Jews during the Holocaust. Therefore, providing statistical evidence for systemic discrimination has been a challenge in courts. In lieu of race, disparate impacts in education and employment occur based on photographs, names, geographic location, immigration status, and economic status, enabling ignorance of the unequal treatment of individuals who are still perceived as different by the majority of the populous. In contrast, Holocaust denial is illegal and something about which France has been extremely cognizant, perhaps due to France’s participation in the persecution of Jews during World War II. For example, Professor Robert Faurisson was criminally convicted under the Gayssot Act of 1990 for denying “this policy of extermination of Jews,” “the magic gas chamber,” and “the myth of the gas chambers.” Persecutor/victim mentality was evident in Faurisson’s claims that he has been “a victim of violations of his human rights by France.” Sensitivity to the memory of the Holocaust adds support to Oppenheimer’s surprise at the increasing regulations targeting Islamic expression.

The Battle of Kosovo provides an important lesson because it exposes how strongly an interpretation of historical oppression may perpetuate social divides and foster new conflicts. Its continued impacts also illuminate the complexity of the perpetuation of oppression: despite years of attempts at unification in the former Yugoslavia, constructed divisions persevered and fed a mentality of victim/ persecutor. Although the U.S. explicitly identifies race, religion, and ethnic difference in its censuses, Courts feed victimization mentality and allow continued oppression by denying remedial action against unequal segregation when legislation or school districts use racial classifications, such as in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. Although French laws refute racial constructs and strongly penalize Holocaust denial in memory of oppression of Judaism, minority populations and religions such as Islam remain disparately impacted under the government’s laws and the population’s practices. The Battle of Kosovo further illuminates the importance of attention to oppression. At some point, the constructed victims of oppression may retaliate and ensure the victim/ persecutor cycle persists in future generations.

For qualifications and sources of statements, please contact detar@berkeley.edu.