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Kosovo’s History

In response to:

Will There Be a War in Kosovo? from the May 14, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

While Iam grateful to Tim Judah for some kind remarks about my book Kosovo: A Short History [NYR, May 14], Ishould like to clear up three potentially serious misunderstandings.

He casts doubt on my account of one key episode of Serbian history, the so-called “Great Migration” of the Serbs from Kosovo in 1690, on the grounds that I have not “consulted the archives of the Serbian Orthodox Church.” Reviewing my book for The Economist he made the same point, saying I had been too “hasty” in reaching my conclusions without consulting the documents in that archive. Similarly Misha Glenny, reviewing my book in a London newspaper, declared that my case was “unproven” because it suffered from a “glaring absence” of documents from Serbian archives. Before a bandwagon of criticism on this point gets fully underway, may I just explain that the reason I do not refer to such documents is that no such documents exist? Indeed, not only are the documents nonexistent; so too are the archives. There is no proper Serbian archive, ecclesiastical or otherwise, for that period of Serbia’s history.

The Patriarchate in Pec, like some other monasteries, has a collection of medieval manuscripts, but these are liturgical texts, not historical records. After the “Great Migration” a small and patchy archive was accumulated at Karlowitz (Sremski Karlovci), which became the seat of the Serbian Church in exile; but it acquired nothing relevant to the “Great Migration” itself apart from a few copies of Austrian documents (the originals of which I have consulted in the state archive in Vienna).

There is also a modern administrative archive, the “Archive of the Holy Synod of Bishops”; but most of its materials are twentieth-century. The Serbian government archives, similarly, begin only in the nineteenth century. Various earlier chronicles, inscriptions, and manuscript fragments do exist in scattered collections: these have been printed, most notably in the edition published by Ljubomir Stojanovic, which Icite in my book. But unfortunately even Stojanovic’s six-volume edition contains no evidence of any significance about the “Great Migration.”

Both in your pages and in The Economist, Mr. Judah also asks whether I have read anything in a library in Serbia. This may give some readers the seriously misleading idea that I have not bothered to investigate the Serbian side of the historical argument. As Mr. Judah must have noticed, I have studied a large number of works by Serbian (and Montenegrin) historians, including Batakovic, Cirkovic, Corovic, Djurdjev, Grujic, Kostic, Novakovic, Popovic, Radonic, Samardzic, Stanojevic, Tomic, Trickovic, Veselinovic, and Zirojevic, to name only a few. I cannot believe that my reading of these works is invalidated by the fact that I may have read them in, say, Paris rather than Belgrade: what matters is what you read, not where you happen to be sitting at the time.

Many of those historians have been diligent archival researchers, with full access to Serbian institutions of all kinds. Their accounts of the “Great Migration” (and of virtually all other episodes in the pre- nineteenth-century history) are based, just like mine, on archival materials from outside Serbia and on published sources. If there is some great stock of documents in Serbian archives that validate Serbian claims about that important event, it must strike Mr. Judah as odd that no Serb historian has ever cited them either.

Finally, Mr. Judah also says that I have set out to “explode virtually all Serbian historical claims to the province [of Kosovo].” This may give a very misleading idea of the aim with which I wrote this book. So far as historical claims “to” the territory are concerned, I explicitly argue that such claims, whoever they may come from, cannot be used to overrule the basic human and political rights of the people who actually live there. As for historical claims about Kosovo, I have set out to “explode” not just the claims of one side, but all claims that are false. Where Serbian historians have made what I believe to be true claims, I have supported them; where Albanians have made false ones, I have tried to demonstrate their falsity. But it is a simple fact that Serbs have invested much more symbolic and ideological capital in their version of the history of Kosovo, and I cannot help it if, in the end, there are more Serb myths to be dealt with than Albanian ones.

Noel Malcolm
London, England

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