Only Unity Saves the Serbs
Only Unity Saves the Serbs (Serbian: Samo sloga Srbina spasava, Само слога Србина спасава) is an unofficial motto used in Serbia and a popular slogan among Serbs, often used as a rallying call against foreign domination and during times of national crisis. The phrase is an interpretation of what is taken to be four Cyrillic letters for "S" (written С) on the Serbian cross.
The symbols are more commonly referred to as "firesteels" (Serbian: ocila, оцила), and were based on Byzantine heraldry from the Middle Ages. Popular tradition attributes the motto to Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The phrase "Only Unity Saves the Serbs" (Serbian: Samo sloga Srbina spasava) has been a part of Serbian national and religious symbolism since the Middle Ages. The origins of the phrase lie in the so-called Serbian cross—or Cross of St. Sava—which has four stylized C shapes pointing out from all corners (C being the letter S in the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet). This cross traces its origins back to the 12th century, when a similar cross stood on the emblem of the Byzantine Empire's ruling Palaiologos dynasty. This cross was flanked at each corner by four B-shaped firesteels and read as the Greek motto "King of Kings, Ruling Over Kings" (Ancient Greek: βασιλεὺς βασιλέων, βασιλεύων βασιλευόντων, Basileus Basileōn, Basileuōn Basileuontōn). The motto was adopted by Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261–1282) when he founded the Palaiologos dynasty and was used on Byzantine flags and coins. The Byzantine historian George Kodinos (fl. 1261–1282) incorrectly described the emblem as "a cross with four fire-steels" (σταυρον μετα πυρεκβολων). Crosses with firesteels had been used as symbols since Roman times, but not as coats of arms or emblems. Some historians associate them with the labarum, the imperial flag of Constantine the Great. Known as a tetragramme, the cross with four fields (with either letters or heraldry) appears on Byzantine coins as early as the 6th century and was adopted by the crusaders during the People's Crusade of 1096. However, it was distinct from the cross found on the emblem of the Palaiologos dynasty.
According to legend, the origin of the C-shaped Serbian cross lies with Saint Sava, the first Archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian Church and the patron saint of Serbs, who based his design on the Byzantine original. The phrase "Only Unity Saves the Serbs" is traditionally attributed to him. He is said to have uttered it to urge the Serbian people to declare national autonomy and resist domination by the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Sava's phrase resonated with Serbs, and his cross design was adopted by Serbian nobility within 100 years of his death. Historian Stanoje Stanojević argues that it was first used in the Serbian Empire in 1345, under the reign of Dušan the Mighty (r. 1331–1346), while historian Stojan Novaković writes that the first recorded use of the Serbian cross as a national symbol occurred in 1397, during the rule of Stefan Lazarević (r. 1389–1427).
The Serbian cross reappeared during the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire, from 1804 to 1813. Prince Miloš Obrenović included the Serbian cross as part of his military flag when forming the first units of a regular Serbian army in 1825. The cross was part of the flag of the Principality of Serbia until 1836. It served as a reference to the medieval Serbian Empire and professed the part which Serbs played in defending Christendom against the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century.
Author Biljana Vankovska argues that the first interpretation of the acronym CCCC was "Serbia Alone Delivered Herself" (Sama Srbija Sebe Spasila), which then changed to the current "Only Unity Saves the Serbs", reflecting the growing Serb fear of internal enemies. The acronym CCCC is traditionally featured on the Montenegrin cap.
The acronym began appearing in Serbian nationalist graffiti during the 1980s. In 1989, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević delivered his infamous Gazimestan speech before a large, stone Orthodox cross bearing the acronym. In the early 1990s, as Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, Milošević's propaganda apparatus effectively utilized the phrase "Only Unity Saves the Serbs" to portray all of his political opponents as traitors. The acronym form of the phrase was featured with the Serbian cross on the insignia of the Army of the Republic of Serb Krajina (Srpska Vojska Krajine, SVK) during the Croatian War of Independence and on the insignia of the Army of Republika Srpska (Serbian: Vojska Republike Srpske, VRS) during the Bosnian War. The Serbian cross with the CCCC acronym was also used as a wing and fuselage marking on aircraft used by the Republika Srpska Air Force (Ratno vazduhoplovstvo i protivvazdušna odbrana Vojske Republike Srpske, V i PVO VRS). The phrase was often scrawled on the walls of abandoned houses in towns captured by Serb forces, usually followed alongside the acronym JNA (for Yugoslav People's Army) and the names of individual soldiers. In the immediate aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars, license plates throughout the Republika Srpska featured the acronym. These were replaced several years later, following the introduction of nation-wide license plates.
Cross versus slogan
The cross with the fire-steels and the interpretation of the fire-steels as letters have a well documented medieval Byzantine origin. However, the popular belief that the phrase "Only Unity Saves the Serbs", more literally translated as "Only Unity Saves a Serb", is of ancient (medieval) origin is highly suspect. In particular, it is highly unlikely that an internationally respected Christian reformer such as St. Sava would have coined the phrase, seeing that it is blasphemous against the fundamental Christian teaching that only God saves.
There are no historical records of the phrase prior to mid-to-late 19th century. Judging by the authoritarian spirit of the slogan it likely originated during this time, when ideologies like nationalism and later fascism and communism were growing all over Europe. The person who coined the term is most likely Svetozar Miletic, a 19th century political leader of Vojvodina Serbs. Miletic used it as a simple rallying cry and did not promote or foresee its use in national symbolism.
The slogan has been widely utilized during the post-communist authoritarian regime associated with Slobodan Milosevic as a propaganda tool for political coercion, with the implication that those who do not toe the government's party line are undermining the nation. Superimposing the slogan over the Christian symbol of the cross makes it all the more powerful because it suggest that those who transgress it are not only traitors within the atheistic authoritarian framework, but also sinners against God. The great irony here is that the slogan is in clear conflict with 1st and 2nd of the Ten Commandments: it ascribes salvific power to the concept of unity, while according to monotheistic doctrine that power belongs to God alone.
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- James 4:12
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