The Balkans remain a ground of contention where the past is never dead.

As the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, the Yugoslavia of the late Communist strongman Josip Broz Tito descended into a series of civil wars and then finally broke apart. Conflict started in the former province of Slovenia in 1991, spreading to Croatia later that year and Bosnia in 1992. NATO finally intervened in Bosnia and Croatia in 1994–95. Then in 1998 the province of Kosovo tried to break away from Serbia, the heartland of the former Yugoslavia. Most Serbs considered Kosovo the birthplace of their nation, although by the end of the 20th century Orthodox Christian ethnic Serbs were a minority in the province. Muslim ethnic Albanians comprised the majority of Kosovars.

Serbia tried to hold on to Kosovo by force. In 1999 NATO again intervened, carrying out a bombing campaign against Serbia. Moving forces into Kosovo, the alliance also threatened a ground invasion of Serbia unless it stopped its attacks on Kosovo. Once the shooting stopped, NATO troops remained in Kosovo as peacekeepers, maintaining an edgy ceasefire between the hostile factions, each strongly supported from outside the province by Serbia and Albania, respectively.

Among the most fiercely contested pieces of ground in Kosovo was a 14th century battlefield, marked by a central 100-foot stone monument, just a few miles northwest of Kosovo’s present-day capital, Pristina. To the Serbs the Field of Blackbirds (Kosovo Polje) was sacred ground—like Valley Forge to Americans or Verdun to the French. To the Albanians the battlefield and its monument were ugly reminders of Serbian repression and the sectarian strife that have dominated the Balkans for the last 700 years. Thus, NATO troops found themselves standing round-the-clock guard over the site of a 600- year-old battle of which most of them had never heard. But for many local residents the battle might have been fought yesterday.

The Ottoman wars in Europe lasted 400 years. After defeating the Byzantine empire in what is now Turkey, the Ottomans pushed into Byzantine Europe in 1299. Bypassing the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, they took much of present-day Albania by 1385. Ottoman forces converted the local population to Islam by force, and it remains largely Muslim. Continuing their push up through the Balkans, the Ottomans found themselves checked temporarily by the Serbs at Ploc˘nik in 1386 and by the Bosnians at Bile´ca in 1388. Then they moved into Kosovo, one of the key crossroads of the Balkans.

The Battle of the Field of Blackbirds was fought on St. Vitus’ Day, June 15, 1389. Some 12,000 to 30,000 troops of the Serbian Principality under Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovi´c faced an estimated 27,000 to 40,000 troops of the invading Ottoman army under the personal command of Murad I, the reigning sultan. Murad’s older son, Bayezid, commanded the right wing, and his younger son, Yakub, commanded the left. The battle started with Ottoman archers shooting at the heavy cavalry deployed across the Serbian front. The Serb cavalry then charged and rolled up the Ottoman left flank, but the center and right held. The Ottomans launched a ferocious counterattack in the center, driving back the Serbs. The Serb flanks held, however, until Kosovar warlord Vuk Brankovi´c withdrew from the fight with his 5,000 troops after concluding victory was hopeless. At that point the battle turned decisively against the Serbs. Prince Lazar and most of his troops were killed.

Though a tactical victory, it was a Pyrrhic one for the Ottomans, as they too suffered devastating losses, which temporarily halted their conquest of Kosovo. Murad himself was killed. But while Serb military manpower was virtually wiped out, the Ottomans had many more troops in Turkey from which to draw. The check at the Field of Blackbirds only occasioned a strategic pause. Serbia finally fell to the Ottomans in 1459. Hungary reconquered part of Serbia in 1480 but lost it again in 1489. The Ottomans, meanwhile, finally defeated the Byzantine empire in 1453 by capturing Constantinople. They then continued their long advance into southeastern Europe until stopped at thegatesofViennain1529, and again for the last time in1683.

On the 600th anniversary of the battle, Serbia’s then strongman Slobodan Miloševi´c invoked the Field of Blackbirds as one of the reasons his nation would never relinquish Kosovo. Serbia still refuses to acknowledge the 2008 self-declared independence of Kosovo. Meanwhile, a NATO-led international peacekeeping force continues to protect the battlefield and its monument, while the descendents of both sides of that battle inhabit the surrounding countryside in a very fragile state of peace, the centuries-old grievances lurking just below the surface.


Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.