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MARK NOLL


HISTORY WARS I: Some Recent Battles

Battles over history are no joke. In June 1989 most of East-Central Europe was beginning to look toward the future. Pressure applied by Solidarity in Poland, the patient integrity of political prisoners in Czechoslovakia, and a handful of popular meetings at a few Lutheran churches in East Germany were pointing to the political miracles that soon spelled the end of communist regimes. But for Greater Serbia, the past seemed much more important. On June 28 of that year, over one million Serbs gathered at the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo Province to observe the six-hundredth anniversary of a battle in 1389 when a doughty band of their ancestors, after heroic struggle, was finally overcome by a much larger army of Saracen Turks. The featured speaker of the day, Slobodan Milosevic, passionately reminded his fellow Serbs of the ignominy they had suffered at the hands of the Turks, then during their subjugation by the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and finally from assorted enemies in the twentieth century. It was a powerful message. Others had heeded it before, like Gavrilo Princip, the Serb nationalist who in 1914 assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, by so doing, plunged Europe into war. The date of that assassination was also June 28. Warfare that Milosovic's 1989 speech helped to precipitate has not been as extensive as the great conflagration of World War I, but it has proven every bit as vicious.

In the United States, "history battles" have featured prominently in the culture wars of the last two decades. The cancellation in January 1995 of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum which was to have commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the deployment of the first atom bomb at Hiroshima, and a raucous brouhaha in 1994–95 over the publication of guidelines for the teaching of history in U.S. public schools, are among the most prominent of these battles. But there have been many other conflicts over many other contested ...

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