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Balkan Heroes and Freedom Fighters

Balkan history is peppered with stories and legends about heroes and warriors who fought against the Ottoman occupiers.

Find out more about key historical figures in Balkan history on this page.

Marcus Tanner

Prince Lazar: Kosovo Martyr

Wrongly referred to in common parlance as an emperor or tsar, Lazar was no more than a prince. He was one of several contenders for power in Serbia following the death in 1371 of the emperor Uros, the weak son of the mighty Dusan, “Dusan silni” who died in 1355.

Born in 1329, Lazar was an old man by the standards of the time when he met his nemesis, Sultan Murad, at Kosovo Polje on St Vitus’ Day in June 1389. Both men perished in the fighting but the outcome was a defeat for Serbia, an historic turning point that marked the beginning of the end of the independent Serbian state.

After his death, Lazar’s role in the battle was heavily mythologized by the Serbian Orthodox Church and in epic poetry. Later generations rationalized the Ottoman conquest of Serbia, insisting that Lazar had deliberately chosen defeat in battle, opting for a heavenly rather than an earthly victory. The Battle of Kosovo, therefore, became a metaphor for the Serbs’ moral superiority over their rulers. Lazar’s remains are believed to lie in Ravanica monastery.

Skenderbeg: Albanian warrior

Heroic leader of resistance to the Ottomans in Albania, George Castriot “Skanderbeg” - “Lord Alexander” – was conscripted as a child into the Ottoman army, serving the sultans loyally and professing Islam. However in 1443, he defected, threw off the Islamic faith and seized the town of Kruje. From this base, he united the quarreling Albanian princes under his banner and saw off one Ottoman invasion after another until his death from malaria in 1468.

Skenderbeg’s military feats against the Turks earned him the hearty admiration of the Popes and many other rulers in the West. But their admiration was rarely backed up by hard cash, which hampered his ability to deliver the Turks a knockout blow.

After his death, the Albanians became disunited and the Ottomans soon overran the country. Skenderbeg’s memory lived on, however, in spite of the fact that most Albanians had by then converted to Islam, a faith he determinedly renounced. His emblem, the imperial double-headed eagle, remains the symbol of Albanian nationality to this day.

Karadjordje:  Father of Serbian Independence

A swarthy livestock merchant, “Black George” initiated a guerilla war against the Ottomans in the early 1800s that resulted in the rebirth of an independent Serbia. At the same time he fathered a dynasty that ruled Serbia, and then Yugoslavia, until the end of the Second World War.

Karadjordje at first claimed to be seeking reform of Ottoman rule in Serbia, not independence. But after routing Ottoman forces in Serbia’s central Sumadija region, and in Belgrade, he had himself declared knez, or prince in 1808. In 1813, however, an Ottoman army recaptured Belgrade and forced Karadjordje to flee to Habsburg territory.

In his absence, a rival, Milos Obrenovic, reached terms with the Ottomans and was recognized by the Sultan as prince of an autonomous Serbia. Enraged by this apparent betrayal, Karadjordje returned to Serbia in 1817 only for Milos to behead him – and send the stuffed head to the Sultan as a gift.

Rivalry between the houses of Obrenovic and Karadjordjevic dominated Serbia until 1903, when the Karadjordjevics claimed the throne for good, holding it until the abolition of the monarchy in 1946.

Goce Delcev: Hero in Two Lands

Jointly claimed by both Macedonia and Bulgaria, George “Goce” Delcev was a key figure in the underground movement to expel the Ottomans from Macedonia, known as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, which staged an abortive rising in Macedonia from the town of Krusevo in 1903.

Born in what is now Greek Macedonia, Delcev was an early convert to the idea of the national and social liberation of Macedonia. Like most Macedonian Slavs at the time he identified strongly with the Bulgarian cause. Delcev was killed in the Macedonian rising in 1903.

After his death, his memory became a subject of a tussle between Bulgaria and the post-Second World War Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. The Soviet Union, then siding with Tito, and with Tito’s attempt to build up a separate Macedonian identity in Yugoslavia, forced Bulgaria to hand over his remains, which were transferred from Sofia to Skopje.

Numerous statues and monuments have been erected to Delcev on both sides of the border, the most recent of which is a large equestrian statue in the centre of Skopje.

Marcus Tanner is a journalist, historian and author of Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, among other books. He has reported on the Balkans for more than 20 years. He edits Balkan Insight and was editor for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence from 2007 to 2010.

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