Today In Fact, 28 June

Today is St. Vitus’s Day. A Sicilian who was martyred around 303 during one of the many persecutions of Christians by Roma authorities. Vitus is the patron saint of comedians, dancers and most ominously, of Serbia.

A very popular martyr, Vitus seems to have acted as a sort of human blotting paper for various myths and legends because very little was known about him or the two others that died with him. The very absence of historical information on St. Vitus seems to have allowed people to attach different stories to his name.

Perhaps this why the Serbs loved him so much. He is a most malleable saint. The Serbs lost their country to the Turks on this day in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. Prince Lazar, the Serb leader was killed in the battle and this battle became the central founding myth for Serbian nationalism.

Serbian nationalism flourished hidden in the homes and hearths of Serbians for half a millennium despite their lack of a country. The sense of humiliation and defeat was nurtured by Serb nationalists who used the Battle of Kosovo as a tragic touchstone for their national aspirations.

Serbian nationalists chose terror and assassination to further their ends. Eventually Gavrilo Princip, a fervent young Serb nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife in Sarajevo on this very day in 1914. The assassination triggered the First World War.

The First World War ended in 1918 but the Treaty of Versailles was signed on this day in 1919. Its terms were so onerous and humiliating to Germany that it contributed to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War.

In keeping with our Serbian theme today, we may also note that this day in 192, King Alexander I of Serbia proclaimed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes with the Vidovdan Constitution. This proclamation prefigured the establishment of Yugoslavia after the Second World War. Yogoslavia came under the control of Marshal Tito after the Second World War and developed a form of Communism which even the communists found odd. Today in 1948, the Comintern expelled Yugoslavia from Warsaw Pact.

All the while the national founding myth of Serbia festered in the hearts of this fractious people. Such tales of humiliation and defeat can be used for political power. Slobodan Milošević did precisely that when he delivered the Gazimestan Speech in 1989 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in which he talked of armed battles for Serbian nationalism to around 1 million gathered Serbs.

The resulting internecine war saw the killing of thousands of Muslims and citizens as Yugoslavia fell apart. It may have been a form of justice then that Slobodan Milošević was, on this day in 2001, deported to stand trial for crimes against humanity at the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

The humiliation of a people and the creation of national myths surrounding this humiliation will be used by unscrupulous politicians to gain power and commit genocide against those they consider to be their oppressors. Today also shows that this process can also be used for the good, to define a movement and seek a more balanced and just dispensation.

Today in 1964, Malcolm X formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity in response to his visit to Africa and his admiration for the formation of the Organization of African Unity.

Today is also the day in 1969 when the Stonewall riots in New York broke out. The Stonewall Bar was a Mafia owned gay dance venue in Greenwich Village and during a routine police raid, the customers resisted arrest and started to riot. The Stonewall riots lasted a few days but led to the foundation of the Gay Rights movement.

A social group experiencing humiliation and oppression can use its collective experience to organize and gain power, even if it takes half a millennium as the Serbs did. It may also abuse its experience to go on and oppress others or it may use its experience for the common good. How might we fashion history, narratives, myth and legends to serve the common good?

– Posted by Douglas Racionzer (