How Past Is Shaping Serb Views Historical Images of Bygone Wars Bolster Serb Cause, Help Paint US Asan Oppressor

Article excerpt

To justify the war in Kosovo, the United States cites human rights, self-determination, and other modern ideals.

To bolster their side, the Serbs point to a 14th-century prince named Lazar and a 20th-century dictator named Hitler.

At heart, this war may be a battle between American ideals and Serbia's sense of its ethnic past. History is helping the Serbs rationalize an almost impossible fight against NATO, the strongest military alliance in the world created 50 years ago this week to protect democracies in Europe. State television here airs footage of the German Luftwaffe blanketing Belgrade with bombs on April 6, 1941. The attack by Hitler's troops killed from 5,000 to 20,000 Serbs who were opposed to the Axis powers. "Politics is politics," says an analyst in Belgrade. "The memories of the brutal German bombing are real, and it's best for {the government} to capitalize on emotions that already exist." Serbian leaders refer to NATO soldiers as "genocidal killers." Swastikas can be seen on abandoned Western embassies throughout the city. And almost every NATO-country leader has been likened to Adolf Hitler. "Between Hitler and Clinton, there is no principal difference," ultranationalist Serb leader Vojislav Seselj said yesterday. But historical images amid today's crisis run far deeper than World War II, when Hitler's forces bombed and then occupied Yugoslavia for some three years. And those emotions run especially high with regard to Kosovo, the southern province that is considered the birthplace of the Serbian Christian Orthodox Church. Ethnic Albanians are trying to wrest it away, but the Serbs say they will never surrender Kosovo. The image of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje has become a standard symbol of Serbia's willingness to fight to the death, even if it's in a losing cause. In that battle, and a in a series of others afterward, the Ottoman Turks defeated and ruled the Serbs, who were led by Prince Lazar, the self-proclaimed "ruler of all Serbs." At anti-NATO demonstrations throughout Serbia, protesters raise reproductions of a famous painting called "Kosovo Girl," in which a Serbian soldier reclines on a dead Turk, while a young girl quenches his thirst. Milosevic and 'Field of Blackbirds' It even appears that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who rose to power by exploiting Serbian nationalism in Kosovo 10 years ago, wants to style himself as the next Prince Lazar. According to Serbian folklore, Lazar told his soldiers before the battle of Kosovo Polje - Field of Blackbirds - that "It is better to die in battle than to live in shame. …