For the Homeland, until Death
Identified with the slandered Ravna Gora movement for decades and its caricaturized depiction in ”partisan movies”, this famous war flag actually originates from the XIX century. It was brought to Serbia by Russian volunteers in the Serbian-Turkish war in 1876. It was the flag of Serbian komitas and chetnik organizations in Macedonia, the ”Unity or Death” organization, the Serbian strike units in the Balkan wars and World War I, and the flag of the chetnik command, belatedly established in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia Army in 1940. Sworn to the Homeland to fight until death, those marching under this flag say: ”We shall win! We don’t fear death, since we’re already dead”

By: Vladimir Matevski

The banner with the ”death’s head” symbol is one of the most recognizable Serbian war flags. It has been stigmatized for decades as the slandered chetnik flag, emphasized in public, shaped by the then ruling ideology, by caricaturized depictions of fighters of the Ravna Gora movement in partisan movies. Only in the 1990s, the wider public in Serbia was introduced to the roots and meaning of the chetnik movement, whose most distinguished symbol was the black banner. The flag with the ”death’s head” (skull with crossbones) was often completely wrongly interpreted and understood. It symbolizes nothing else but readiness to ultimate self-sacrifice, at the cost of life, in order to achieve victory and freedom. The legend goes that the dust of forefather Adam is on Golgotha, where, as it is widely known, the crucifixion of the Savior took place. According to divine providence, the blood of Christ washed Adam’s skull from sin, and the entire mankind through it, opening the path of redemption. From that aspect, Adam’s head has the meaning of liberating from Hades and death, the meaning of salvation. In many depictions of Christ’s crucifixion, the ”death’s head” can be seen in the foot of the cross, with or without crossbones.
The flag with ”death’s head” and crossbones appeared in Serbia in the second half of the XIX century. It was brought by Russian volunteers in Serbian-Turkish wars. In his book Fragments from the Diary of a Volunteer. Memories from Serbian-Turkish War 1876, Pera Todorović writes about this flag:
”In mid-August, there were only several Russians with us, mostly simple soldiers, only 20-30 people. Those thirty-odd Russians and as many Montenegrins made the so-called plostunov squad, under the command of Russian Kirilov. This squad had a black flag with white skull and crossbones, as engraved on tombstones, and was also called the legion dedicated to death.”
Todorović further explains that these brave warriors have already deleted themselves from the army records. They showed it to the enemy by raising a black flag with ”Adam’s head”, in order to intimidate them. ”We shall win. We are not afraid of death, since we’re already dead!” That is why they were, as Pera Todorović writes, the ”legion dedicated to death”.
This symbolism was later partially accepted by other Balkan warriors and other nations. It was most popular among members of the Serbian Revolutionary Organization, guerilla fighters in Old Serbia and Macedonia, supporting the fight of Serbian people against Bulgarians, members of VMRO, Turks and Arnauts until the liberation in 1912.
The choice of such flag is no wonder. Every chetnik-volunteer, when joining the organization, had already sacrificed his life, in order to achieve a noble cause – liberating Serbian people and uniting them with the motherland.


Members of the ”Unity or Death” organization, more famous as the ”Black Hand” also liked to display the ”death’s head” with crossbones at their meetings. ”Adam’s head” has an important place on the ritual cross, under the Savior’s feet, before which members of this organization took their oaths. The secret room of this organization, where they took oaths, was without any furniture, except one desk covered with black cloth, with embroidered ”death’s head” and inscription: ”Unity or death”. A ritual cross, skull, knife, revolver and ampoule with poison were on the desk, and the walls were covered with black flags with ”death’s head” and the same inscription.
Under such a flag, the chetniks in World War I participated in all important battles and were celebrated as special units, assault and striking, acting as the advance guard or in the back of the enemy lines.
The chetnik symbol was officially introduced in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia armed forces on April 24, 1940. Upon the decree of the army and navy minister, the Chetnik Command was established, a core around which special (chetnik, assault) units were founded for sabotage operations behind enemy lines. The decree also prescribed their uniform, as well as the marks of these units, which shouldn’t be mixed with later chetniks of general Mihailović. The knife was carried in casings with the assault units’ sign – ”death’s head” with crossbones. That symbol, same for all ranks, was also worn on the collars.
At the beginning of World War II, after the treason and quick crash of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the guerilla fighters of the Yugoslav army also displayed the flag with ”Adam’s head” and two versions of the inscription: ”With faith in God – for the King and Homeland” or ”With faith in God – Freedom or death”. People called this part of the Royal Yugoslav Army, who didn’t recognize the capitulation to German occupation forces, chetniks, so it was logical they took over the symbols from their celebrated predecessors.
During the unfortunate wars in the ruins of ”second Yugoslavia”, Serbian warriors began using this flag again.


Gift of Russian Nuns
Yakov Petrovich Baklanov (1809-1873), general of the Don Army and one of the heroes of the Caucasus War (1817-1864), was the first who raised a war banner with the ”death’s head”. He commanded the 17th and 20th Cossack regiment in Caucasus. The highlanders feared him and were certain he was connected with demons. Russians often compared him with Yermak Timofeyevich, the famous conqueror of Siberia.
Yakov Petrovich once received a package from nuns from one of the Russian monasteries. The package included a black flag with embroidered white ”Adam’s head”, and fragment from The Nicene Creed: ”Чаю воскресения мертвых. И жизни будущего века. Аминь.” (”We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”) That flag, which the general never parted until the end of his life, spread even greater fear among highlanders, ”often made order and won battles”.


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