July 19, 2010

The Battle of Kosovo: Defeat or Victory?

by Bojan Ratković
July 22, 2009

Serbian military defeat at Kosovo fields in 1389 paved the way for the victory of Christian Europe against Islamic tyranny at the gates of Vienna.

On the 28th of June in the year 1389, an army of Serbian Christian knights faced off against the invading Ottoman Muslim Turks on the famous and infamous Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo, the heartland of Medieval Serbia.

The massive Turkish forces were far better equipped than the Serbs and they outnumbered the Serbian army by more than three to one.

The two armies clashed like great rivers of steel and by the time the battle was over, both the Serbian leader Stefan Lazar Hrebeljanovic and the Turkish Sultan Murad I had lost their lives.

It is a popularly held belief that the Serbs were in fact defeated by the stronger Turks on that day in 1389 and that this defeat ultimately led to the occupation of Serbia by the Ottoman Empire. Even the Serbs themselves believe that the Battle of Kosovo was a defeat for the Serbian side, but they continue to celebrate the bravery of the Serbian army against a much stronger enemy and the martyrdom of Stefan Lazar, who chose to die defending Christendom rather than bow at the feet of the Muslim invaders. The Battle of Kosovo became Serbia’s Thermopylae and Stefan Lazar became Serbia’s King Leonidas.

Nevertheless, when the aftermath of the Battle of Kosovo is examined more closely in the appropriate historical context, the question of who won and who lost on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389 becomes more complex.

The Battle of Kosovo left both the Serbian and the Turkish armies virtually destroyed and neither was able to strike a final blow against the other.

Following the death of Sultan Murad I, who was the only Turkish Sultan ever to be killed in battle, his son Bayezid secured his own succession to the throne by having his brother Yakub killed. Weakened, the Ottoman Turks were forced to halt their advance into Europe and they returned from whence they came without pushing any further into Serbia. It wasn’t until 1459, some 70 years after the Battle of Kosovo, that the Ottomans finally managed to subdue Serbia following a slew of further battles and conflicts.

With these things in mind, it becomes increasingly more difficult to argue that the Ottoman Turks really were the undisputed victors in the Battle of Kosovo. A powerful empire with a large and well-equipped army was stopped from advancing further into Europe by the much smaller and weaker Serbia; the Ottomans lost their Sultan and their plans for conquering the Balkans were derailed for seven decades. It is hard to imagine that the Turks would have considered this kind of outcome a decisive victory for the Ottoman Empire.

In fact, the Serbian King of Bosnia, Stefan Tvrtko I Kotromanic, who himself contributed forces to the Battle of Kosovo, sent numerous letters to European capitals in which he claimed that the Christian Serbs defeated the Ottoman Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo. His letters reached Trogir, Venice, Florence, Vienna and Paris, and in return he received letters of congratulations from his European allies.

Some 250 years following the Battle of Kosovo, Benedict Kuripesic, member of the Austrian diplomatic mission to Constantinople and historian of the Balkans region, came to the conclusion that when the circumstances of the battle are considered in the appropriate historical context, the Turks were in fact defeated in the Battle of Kosovo. This Islamic military campaign in Serbia was put to an abrupt halt and it was forced to retreat, which, according to Kuripesic, signified defeat.

Despite these facts, the majority of modern historians and even the majority of Serbs themselves consider the Battle of Kosovo a military victory for the Ottoman Empire and a military defeat for Serbia. They arrive at this conclusion mostly through historical hindsight, pointing out that the Turks did eventually occupy Serbia in 1459. It seems clear, however, that although the Battle of Kosovo proved more devastating for the Serbs in the long run as the smaller Serbian state could not recover its loses as quickly as the massive Ottoman Empire, when looking at the Battle of Kosovo in the appropriate historical context it is difficult to conceive that the outcome of the battle itself would have been considered a victory for the Turks.

After finally conquering Serbia in 1459, the Ottoman Empire would eventually set its sights on Vienna, and in 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the Austrian city in an attempt to conquer the whole of Central Europe.

The Europeans were ultimately successful in repelling the Ottoman siege of 1529, but had the Serbs not engaged the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389 the Ottoman Empire would likely have arrived at the gates of Vienna long before 1529, and the outcome of the Siege of Vienna could have been far less favorable for the Europeans.

The Battle of Kosovo and the Turkish retreat that followed turned out to be an important victory for Christian Europe in the long run.

On June the 28th in the year 1389 the powerful Ottoman Empire faced off against a much smaller and weaker enemy, and yet the Ottoman Empire lost its Sultan and nearly its entire army in the battle that ensued. The Ottoman Turks were forced to retreat and their advance into Europe was effectively stopped for a number of years. The Ottoman conquest of the much smaller and weaker Serbia was delayed for 70 years.

The Serbian people are famous for celebrating the Battle of Kosovo as a defeat in the Earthly Kingdom that became a victory for Christianity in the Kingdom of Heaven, but when analyzed in the appropriate historical context, the Earthly outcome of the Battle of Kosovo was most certainly not a decisive victory for the Turks.

With all things considered, the outcome of the Battle of Kosovo was in fact a stalemate between the Serbs and the Turks that was finally broken by the Turks some seven decades later, in the year 1459.

The 70-year-long stalemate allowed other European nations to prepare for the impending threat of Ottoman expansion and the end-result was the successful defense of Central and Western Europe from Turkish invaders and the complete eradication of the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 20th century.

The stalemate at the Kosovo fields in 1389 between the Serbs and the Muslim Turks paved the way for the victory of Christian Europe against Islamic tyranny at the gates of Vienna and ultimately became an important victory for Christian Europe.