Projekat Rastko Gracanica-PecElektronska biblioteka kulture Kosova i Metohije
Projekat Rastko Gračanica - Peć: Istorija: Old Serbian and Albanians

Ljubinka Trgovčević

The Kosovo Myth in the First World War

The Myth

Kosovo polje (the Kosovo field) is the central part of some 80 kilometers long valley on the south of Serbia, with river Sitnica running through, making it the natural crossroads between the Adriatic Sea, Morava Valley and Macedonia. On 28 June 1389 (15 June according to the Gregorian calendar) this field was the scene of battle between the Turks who were penetrating the Balkans, and Serbs, whose medieval state was located there. According to all evidences, the battle was very violent, and both rulers - Turkish Sultan Murat I and Serbian Duke Lazar Hrebeljanović - perished in it, as well as many soldiers on both sides. During the history Serbs were considered as having lost the battle. It is now believed that it was a tie, since both armies withdrew after the battle. However, there are those who claim that the victory was on the Serbian side, because the Turks did not completely conquer Serbia until 70 years later (in 1459). Whatever the outcome was, it had significant consequences for incomparably weaker Serbia, because the loss of an entire generation and economic collapse marked the decline of the Serbian state, its gradual crumbling, fragmentation and ultimate breakdown.

Gracanica (Kosovski božuri), Nadežda Petrović, (1913)

The death of the last great Serbian ruler there and the fact that after that battle the Serbian state started to collapse, were conducive for the emergence of the cult.1 Thus, over the centuries Kosovo became synonymous with the state’s downfall and subsequent slavery. Through chronicles, notes and oral tradition the legend gradually evolved, over time greatly exceeded the significance of the battle and its consequences and spread throughout the territories populated by Serbs, and even among some neighboring nations. At the time of national romanticism this long-developed legend became an important element of ethnic feeling, something that united Serbs, and at the same time distinguished them from other peoples and played an important role in the process of their integration. The presence of this legend was particularly conspicuous during the 19th century, in the process of emergence of the new Serbian state, when it acted as factor of political and cultural homogenization.

The Kosovo legend, like others that constitute the elements of historic memory of certain peoples, contains some attributes common to all national myths, and also some specifics.

The essence of this myth is struggle for freedom, and it is shown in two ways - defense of Christianity and need for the creation of a free state.

Nadežda Petrović, (1913)

1) The struggle to preserve Christianity is a logical element of the myth, because it emerged after Serbs fell into the long-lasting Turkish slavery. That is why the distinction between the orthodox and non-believers, i.e. oppressed non-Muslim subjects (raja) and occupiers is emphasized. Referring to the historic examples, the myth demands the preservation of the religion of forefathers, and those who fight for salvation of the faith are promised glory, either as holiness, or different and better life, “the kingdom of heaven”. Duke Lazar thus became the epitome of all those who fought for defense of Christianity and became the saint, and the myth suggests that his example should be followed.

2) The legend developed after the collapse of the state and tendency to its restoration is a commonplace. Moreover, the right to an independent state is implied by reference to its previous existence (“former empire” or “Dušan’s empire”, which did not even exist at the time of the battle).

The myth contains the following elements:

a) Vengeance, which refers both to the struggle for Christianity and to restoration of the state. “To get revenge for Kosovo” implied to restore the state, free the territories where it once existed, i.e. first Kosovo polje and drive away “non-believers”, i.e. Turks. The example from the Balkan Wars is the slogan “For Kosovo Kumanovo” (victory over Turks in 1912, when Kosovo and Macedonia were annexed to Serbia) or, a more recent opinion: “At Kosovo our national sword became the cross, but (...) our national poet had no doubts that one day the cross will again become the holy sword”. In fact, the defeat at Kosovo over time became accepted among the people both as the ill fate and as the national insult - which deserved to be revenged.

b) Freedom and faith need sacrifices, so that the legend promotes martyrdom and sacrifice. It implies complete sacrifice, until death, and in return offers promises of hereafter. A Word about Duke Lazar by Danilo Yr. quotes the words of Duke Lazar: “It is better to die a heroic death, than live with shame. It is better to die of sward in battle, than bow to our enemies.” This motive is elaborated in folk poetry and thus justifies the death at battlefield as contrasted with the life with enemies. Therefore, the myth has its role in wartime, because it suggests heroism, martyrdom and sacrifice and hence “the kingdom of heaven”. The heroes are promised eternal glory and memory.

c) The motive of betrayal is important for strengthening the national self-consciousness. That is in fact justification before the contemporaries, because it suggests that the enemy was no better of braver, but that the cause of defeat was betrayal. This motive is an important element of most national programs based on myths and as such is a warning to contemporaries. That is the warning that one should belong to the majority, sacrifice for noble goals; otherwise follows anathema and lasting expulsion from the community. In the Kosovo myth the traitor, like Judas, appears at the Kosovo Supper, but in this case the historic truth has not been observed, because innocent Vuk Branković was proclaimed the traitor.

Medal of Miloš Obilić

d) Unlike traitors, to all those who accept sacrifice and heroism the myth offers glory and eternal memory, like those earned by victims in the battle of Kosovo. That is not only Duke Lazar, but foremost the assassin of the Turkish Sultan - Miloš Obilić (Kobilić). The glory is promised to all those who follow the legendary examples: mothers who raise sons for battle, like the mother of Jugović brothers, girls and sisters who heal the heroes’ wounds, like Kosovka girl (Kosovka devojka)... Thus military medals after 1912 bore the name of Miloš Obilić, while awards to invalids showed the relief of Kosovka devojka.

At the time of national integrations myths composed of simplified stereotypes also played an educational role because they united the society around “higher goals”, such as freedom, state creation, revenge, sacrifice. They taught about virtues and warned about faults, and limited the choice to the followers between the sacrifice or “kingdom of heaven”.

The Myth at War

The Kosovo myth, as the myths of other nations, was revived at times of major historic events, such as the First World War. During the decades prior to war it had an important function in strengthening patriotism and national awareness, not only in Serbia, but everywhere where Serbs lived. In the pre-war years, the day of the Kosovo battle - the old Serbian holiday, Vidovdan (St. Vitus Day), when heroes competed - has been observed not only in Serbia but throughout the Austria-Hungarian and Turkish empires.2 After all, the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914, when Franz Ferdinand was killed, happened on Vidovdan. For the youth that used to be brought up on the tradition of Kosovo, the arrival of the Austrian-Hungarian prince was the fateful concurrence of circumstances: “It was Vidovdan (...) that motivated me,” said Nedeljko Čabrinović, one of the assassins.

The cult particularly flourished during the First Balkan War in 1912, when Kosovo was liberated from Turks and again annexed to the Serbian state. Everywhere in public it was spoken that the testament of forefathers has been fulfilled and revenge awaited for nearly five centuries done. Gustav Gesemann noted: “That is Kosovo, the grave of an old Serbian freedom; that is Kosovo, the realization of the new Serbian freedom since 1912, Kosovo whose earth soldiers used to kiss and carry back home in bags, to show to their wives and children.”

But only three years later, by the end of 1915, when Serbian army was again encircled in Kosovo and retreated therefrom toward Albania, reminding of the Kosovo battle of 1389 was inevitable for most Serbs. “The Serbian people was destined to experience the collapse of its state for the second time in Kosovo,” wrote Milan Nedić, and Henri Barby offered a similar observation: “Kosovo polje, where the Serbian empire collapsed in the middle ages, became the grave of Serbia for the second time.” For Gustav Gesemann, Kosovo was the place where “all efforts of the world war failed, as once of the Duke Lazar’s army”, while sergeant Mileta Prodanović, reminiscing about the Balkan Wars, noted: “Back then we set out with glory and proud heart to revenge our sad Kosovo, and now we leave the same way, abandoning our hearth, with sad heart.” That was too heavy a blow for people nurtured on the Kosovo legend. “All officers, soldiers and masses of people fleeing away - they all cried”, noted Ludwig Hirschfeld. The repeated loss of Kosovo convinced many that “Kosovo is our philosophy of suffering”, i.e. that it is the Serbian Golgotha.

Although the myth suggested fatality, particularly if tragedy repeated, it was also the lesson. One of these lessons was about the Kosovo betrayal. When the army started to retreat by late 1915, and many returned to their homes, Mileta Prodanović wrote: “I warned everyone of our past history, that our empire perished in Kosovo in 1389 because there was not enough unity among the officers and because the soldiers abandoned their officers and returned to their homes; the temptation was just like the present one and therefore, we should persevere (...) it is better to die as an honest man, loyal Serb, than live as a traitor; when virtue and honor are at stake, life is forsaken (...) we should all, like Miloš Obilić, die for our honor.”

The Myth in Emigration

The Kosovo myth was continuously present in propaganda, literature and art in emigration. As before 1912, the liberation of Kosovo and its revenge were demanded. It was more and more believed that it is a phoenix of the Serbian history and that the state will resurrect again. The myth had its new life and new use. Thus, several dozen publications with Kosovo themes were published among the Serbian emigrants in the USA. One of them is the Serbian National Calendar, published by bishop Nikolaj Velimirović in New York in 1916, which contains a text on Kosovo, where the following is stressed: “The battle of Kosovo is the watershed of Serbian history”. The Kosovo legend was also present in South America among the emigrants, mostly of the Croatian origin, so that the branch of the Yugoslav National Defense in Antofagasta was named “Kosovka devojka”.

Epic folk poems from the Kosovo cycle have been published several times in France during the war. André Chaboseau wrote that they are “Serbian poem of Roland”, while Feliciene Pascal in the text Le souvenir de Kossovo saw the significance of the myth in strengthening “the energy for revenge” and asked: “Does not listening to the name of Jeanne d’Arc help us to understand how the word Kosovo resounds in the hearts of Serbs?” Through poetry and public lectures, the image of a “small allied nation” developed among the French public. The Kosovo legend, with its simplified patterns, was very suitable for this purpose.

In the public opinion Kosovo was mostly present in Great Britain, where 28 June was proclaimed the Kossovo Day. It was an occasion for manifestations in favor of Serbs organized throughout the country. On the eve of Vidovdan in 1915 an exhibition of sculptures by Ivan Meštrović from his Kosovo cycle was opened in Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and had an exceptional propaganda effect. Next year almost the entire Britain took part in the celebration of the Kosovo Day. Text by R. W. Seton-Watson Serbia Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow was read in 12,000 schools and 23,000 churches. On the same day, the Kosovo Committee, chaired by Elsie Inglis, organized a mass in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where Archbishop of Canterbury and Nikolaj Velimirović spoke, and a choir of 300 Serbian boys sung. Over 200,000 pamphlets were distributed, and about 1,000 cinemas showed Serbian movies. The celebration was also organized in the colonies of Serbian students, and Pavle Popović, literary historian and professor of the Belgrade University, delivered a speech at the celebration in Cambridge. Similar festivities were organized in 1917 and 1918.

The Myth in Arts

Although poets became silent immediately after the withdrawal because “they will write about Kosovo no more”, as Proka Jovkić wrote, their verses were there soon enough. By the end of his life Milutin Bojić published in Salonica in 1917 Poems of pain and pride (Pesme bola i ponosa), a lyrical view of the people’s torment during the war. In one of the poems, Sowers (Sejači), deeply touched by what has happened, he wrote: “We bravely sow our new graves (...) O, Lord, haven’t we had enough punishment (...) It is time to lift the gravestones”. Poet Milosav Jelić wrote Serbian sequence (Srbijanski venac, Salonica 1917), Dragoljub Filipović The Peonies of Kosovo (Kosovski božuri, Corfu 1917), and then young Rastko Petrović The Kosovo Sonnets (Kosovski Soneti, Zabavnik, Corfu 1917). This poetry was mainly inspired by the need to write again about that heroic time, often in epic form, which extolled the old glory and famous heroes. Particularly popular were Filipović’s poems, full of patriotism, with idealized characters. To boost the morale, they closely followed the pattern of the Kosovo myth, with the sole difference that they did not designate a traitor. This poetry was mainly archaic and far below the literary achievements of the pre-war Serbian modern.

The Kosovo cycle of folk poems was printed for Serbian students and refugees in France. Anđelija Jakšić made a similar selection, and Leo d’Orfer was awarded by the French Academy for their translation (Les Chants de guerre de la Serbie), while Milan B. Nedić published The Kosovo Nights (Kosovske noći, Bizerta 1918). Kosovo was mentioned in almost everything he published.

Although the myth of Kosovo was first affiliated with the Serbian people, with the emphasis on tendency to unification of Yugoslavs by the end of 1914 it began to be treated as the common cultural heritage of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and as proof that they are the people with common origin, same tradition and same culture. At the opening of his exhibition in London on 24 June 1915 Ivan Meštrović stressed that all Yugoslavs have their Kosovos - in addition to Serbs, the Croatian Kosovo is the place where Croatian peoples’ king Petar Svačić was killed by the soldiers of the Hungarian King Koloman, while the Bosnian Kosovo is the place where Turks killed King Tvrtko Kotromanić and conquered Bosnia. In other words, he considered Kosovo as a symbol of all defeats in which the Yugoslav peoples lost their medieval states and for all of them it was the “sacred place” that united them. “In the entire Yugoslav nation, everyone shivers at the mention of Kosovo and feels deep sorrow at heart”, continued Meštrović. This Croat-born artist gave the greatest contribution to the use of the Kosovo myth during the war, because since 1907 he started to design the Vidovdan Temple, which he envisaged as a “temple dedicated to the religion of ultimate sacrifice”. “The foundations of the temple are victims, pillars are all those who suffer and endure, the steeple are purified souls... ”

The Vidovdan Temple was intended to epitomize the spirit of the artist’s race, “the eternal ideal of heroism, loyalty and sacrifice, from which our race draws its faith and moral strength”, i.e. that was the “collective ideal of the Serbian people”. The design for this huge church and previously made sculptures of Kosovo heroes (Kraljević Marko, Miloš Obilić, Srđa Zlopogleđa, etc.) were first exhibited in Vienna (1910), then in Rome (1911), Belgrade (1912), subsequently in Serbia’s pavilion at the Biennial in Venice (1914), and then in 1915 and 1917 in London, 1915 in Glasgow, 1918 in Bradford and 1919 in Paris.

Srdja Zlopogledja,
Ivan Meštrović, (1908)

The Kosovo cycle by Ivan Meštrović aroused enormous interest, so that the Honorary Committee for his exhibition in London, for example, included Earl Curzon of Kedleston, A. J. Balfour, Sir Arthur Evans and Auguste Rodin, while the text for the catalogue was written by James Bone and R. W. Seton-Watson. Most commentaries of that time glorified these monumental sculptures, which became the basis for the creation of the national style. As Jovan Dučić wrote in 1917, these sculptures show that “the Serbian race, created by heroes and martyrs, is quite naturally destined for supernatural dreaming”. Moreover, he believed that the Kosovo heroes may compare only with antic ones, while he compared Meštrović with Wagner and his presentation of the Nibelungen myth. Although then, and particularly after the war, there were those who denied that Meštrović had created a national style and expressed all “racial features”, he nevertheless contributed more than any other artist to the expansion and maintenance of the Kosovo legend, particularly during wartime. Namely, at that time the awareness of Serbia was limited to the knowledge about a small, heroic and suffering people, and the Kosovo épopée only added to these images and illustrated them. The Yugoslav Committee (organization of Yugoslav emigrants, set up in 1915) followed the same pattern and in their Manifest to “brothers Yugoslavs” in November 1916 they wrote: “Little Serbia has unsheathed the sward of revenge (...) this country of legendary heroes, cradle of Miloš and Marko... ”

Works by other artists exhibited during the war also nurtured this impression. At the Yugoslav exhibition in Grafton Gallery in London by the end of 1917, Mirko Rački was represented by his paintings The Jugović mother, Nine Jugović brothers, Kosovka devojka and Miloš Obilić, and Jozo Kljaković presented his painting Boško Jugović (both painters were Croats). At the same time Vasa Eškićević painted The last salute to the Kosovo avenger, and Uroš Predić in Serbia Uroš rejects the kingdom on Earth (1917).

All these examples from World War I show how deeply rooted the Kosovo myth was. Although it evolved from a historic event less significant than suggested by the legend, at the times of great turmoils, such as the world war, it became the common property of all Serbs. It served as a political program in demands for freedom, unification and independent state, as a patriotic motive when it was necessary to strengthen the confidence in one’s own devices, as a war cry when it was necessary to show heroism. It was used in developing moral principles, judging good or evil. On the other hand, it nurtured irrational notions, such as those on racial specifics, it promoted reconciliation to one’s fate, fatality and necessity of sacrifice by promising “the kingdom of heaven”, it favored death over life. This myth, as any other national myth, plays an important role as part of the cultural heritage, while its role was fatal when it became the lifestyle or political program.


Old Serbia and Albanians


1. There is vast literature about the emergence of the cult. On this occasion we will mention only the recent and more general studies:

2. Prior to war it became customary to mark Vidovdan - the anniversary of the Kosovo battle - with singing festivals, conventions, memorial services in churches. Dramas with Kosovo motives were also popular. The Death of the Jugović Mother, the play by Ivo Vojnović, playwright from Dubrovnik, was continuously played in full theaters. Political and literary weekly Vidovdan was published in Belgrade, but this date was entered as holiday in church calendar only in 1914.


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