CROATIA: MYTH AND REALITY
C. Michael McAdams
MYTH: "ALL CROATIANS WERE FASCISTS DURING WORLD WAR II; ALL SERBS WERE PRO-ALLIED "
Myth: All Croatians were Fascists during World War II. The Serbian apologist writer Nora Beloff writing in the Washington Post may have been the first to add the astounding claim that "all Serbs were pro- Allied."
Reality: Like virtually every country on the European continent during World War II, both Croatia and Serbia had governments which collaborated with the Axis. All of the nations of Yugoslavia had elements which supported the Axis, and all had elements that were anti-Axis. However, it was the Croatian dominated Partizans, led by the Croatian Josip Broz Tito which formed the only true antiFascist fighting force in Yugoslavia and the most formidable Allied force in occupied Europe during World war II.
Flirting with Fascism
World War II came to Yugoslavia as a direct result of the pro-Axis sentiments of the Serbian controlled Yugoslav government. Under Prince Paul Yugoslavia moved steadily away from France and toward Germany after the death of King Alexander. As early as February of 1936, Hitler promised to support the government of Premier Milan StojadinoviE.
By 1937 Stojadinovic had visited Mussolini, developed his own squad of "Green Shirts" and adopted the Nazi salute. It was perhaps taking the title Vodja (Fuhrer) that finally sent Prince Paul into action, replacing Stojadinovic with Dragisa Cvetkovic who maintained the same pro-Axis foreign policy but with fewer Fascist trappings.
Prince Paul saw the Third Reich as the only power able to maintain the artificial state of Yugoslavia and he began secret negotiations with top Nazi officials in December 1939. He hoped that he could become King under the New Order, denying the young Crown Prince Peter his throne. Yugoslavia joined the Axis on March 24, 1941. The only member of the government who refused to sign the "Pact of Steel" joining the Axis was the Croatian minister, Vladko Macek of the Croatian Peasant Party.
After the signing Cvetkovic assured Hitler that Yugoslavia "...would be ready to cooperate with Germany in every way." In fact, Paul had been cooperating since 1939 with mass arrests of Jews, strict racial laws, and the prohibition of trade unions. By 1940, legislation had been passed limiting the types of businesses which Jews could own, direct, or work in and severely limiting educational access for Jews.
Coup and Invasion
On March 26, 1941, two Serbian generals, Bora Mirkovic and Dusan Simovic, led a British-assisted coup against the Cvetkovic government. The Anglo-American press went wild with stories about the Serbs stand against the Axis. In fact, the coup had its roots in both foreign and domestic policy.
Lost in the mythology is the fact that the generals did not think Germany would invade and wanted to maintain cordial relations with the Axis. On March 30, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister made a formal statement to the German envoy that the new government respected the Axis pact and that Simovic was "devoted to the maintenance of good and friendly relations with its neighbors the German Reich and the Kingdom of Italy." Simovic believed that his close personal friendship with several top Nazis, especially Reichmarschall Goring, would save the day. His error led to a German invasion on April 6.
Before seeing a single German soldier, the Serbian-led army withdrew from Slovenia and Croatia to defend Serbia, leaving the Croatians and Slovenes without supplies or ammunition. Most Croatian soldiers simply went home. The Yugoslav military disintegrated at first sight of the Germans as 100 of 135 generals in the top-heavy Serbian officer corps surrendered during the first week. Belgrade was taken by a single platoon of Waffen-SS shock troops led by a second lieutenant on April 12. As General Simovic and his government fled the country with millions in gold, only the Croatian Peasant Party minister Vladko Macek stayed to share the fate of his people.
Once a sale distance from the fighting, Simovic immediately announced that Yugoslavia had fallen because of the Croatians, all of whom were traitors and Fascists. Ignoring the military abandonment of Croatia and Slovenia, the mass surrender of the Serbian officer corps, and the obvious fact that the entire government had fled, Simovic announced that Serbia had been stabbed in the back. The Yugoslav ambassador to the United States, Konstatin Fotic, worked overtime spreading the tale that Yugoslavia had been defeated only because of Croatian disloyalty, despite the fact that his cousin headed the new pro-Nazi government in Serbia and that another cousin was leader of the Serbian Nazi Party.
The Croatian State
Croatia was occupied by Germany and Italy and divided into German and Italian occupation zones. The Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was established with the consent of Germany and against the expressed wishes of Italy which wanted to make it an Italian Kingdom. Italy went so far as to name a "King of Croatia," who never set foot in his erstwhile kingdom. The Croatian government was led by Ante Pavelic and his Ustase movement.
Pavelic had been an elected Deputy in Parliament and vice-president of the Croatian Bar Association when Alexander declared the dictatorship and dissolved Parliament. Pavelic founded the Ustase in exile with the aim of liberating Croatia by force. When war broke out, underground Ustase throughout Croatia took control of the government well before the Germans arrived. As in the Soviet Union, when the Germans did arrive, they were at first welcomed as liberators.
The new Croatian government adopted German racial and economic laws and persecuted Jews, Serbs, Communists, Peasant Party leaders and others. While fighting primarily for its own survival against Serbian Cetnik who wanted to restore the Serbian monarchy and the Communist-led Partizans, the Croatian State joined the Axis and later sent troops to the Russian front where thousands died at Stalingrad. While the majority of the Croatian people favored an independent Croatian state, many did not support the Ustase regime. When the war broke out there were fewer than twelve thousand members of the movement representing less than one per cent of the Croatian population. At its height in 1942, there were only sixty thousand Ustase. Over sixty per cent were from impoverished Western Hercegovina with a strong anti-Serbian sentiment from the dictatorship of Alexander. Some twenty per cent were Muslims who joined in direct response to Serbian massacres in Bosnia. The leader of Croatia's popular Peasant Party was jailed by the regime during the War.
Many members ot the Croatian Domobran (regular Army separate from the Ustase) officer corps were pro-Allied and supported the Croatian Peasant Party. In September 1944, pro-Allied officers attempted a coup against Pavelic. The plotters had been promised an Anglo-American landing in Dalmatia and would have turned the Croatian Army against Germany to support the Allied invasion. The landing never took place. Dr. Ivan Subasic of the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile learned of the plot and informed the Soviets. Stalin immediately contacted Roosevelt and informed him that any such action would be a violation of the Tehran agreement dividing Europe into spneres of influence. Rovsevelt cancelled all plans for the landing, but British secret channels withheld the information from the Croatians on the premise that any revolt, even one doomed to failure, was better for the Allied cause than nothing.
Serbia and the Cetnik
In Serbia, a new pro-Nazi government was first established under the leadership of Milan Asimovic and later under former Minister of War General Milan Nedic which governed until 1945. Nedic supported Hitler and met with him in 1943. This new government established even harsher racial laws than Prince Paul had enacted and immediately established three concentration camps for Jews, Gypsies and others. Nedic formed his own paramilitary storm troops known as the State Guard. The Guard was comprised of former members of the Cetnik which had existed as an all-Serbian para-military police force under Alexander and Paul to enforce loyalty from non-Serbian members of the armed forces.
When Yugoslavia disintegrated, one faction of Cetnik swore allegiance to the new Serbian Nazi government. Another group remained under the pre-war leader Kosta Pecanac, who openly collaborated with the Germans. A third Cetnik faction followed the Serbian Fascist Dimitrije Ljotic. Ljotic's units were primarily responsible for tracking down Jews, Gypsies and Partizans for execution or deportation to concentration camps. By August 1942, the Serbian government would proudly announce that Belgrade was the first city in the New Order to be Judenfrei or "free of Jews." Only 1,115 of Belgrade's twelve thousand Jews would survive.
Still other Cetnik rallied behind Draza Mihailovic, a 48 year-old Army officer who had been court- martialed by Nedic and was known to have close ties to Britain. Early in the war, Mihailovic offered some resistance to the German forces while collaborating with the Italians. By July 22, 1941, the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile announced that continued resistance was impossible. Although Mihailovic and his exiled government would maintain a fierce propaganda campaign to convince the Allies that his Cetnik were inflicting great damage on the Axis, the Cetnik did little for the war effort and openly collaborated with the Germans and Italians while fighting the Ustase and Partizans.
At its peak, Mihailovic's Cetnik claimed to have three hundred thousand troops. In fact they never numbered over thirty-one thousand. By February 1943 the Western Allies condemned the Cetnik as collaborators and threw their support to the Partizans. Mihailovic was executed in 1946 for treason. Ironically, his son and daughter Branko and Gordana went over to the Partizans in 1943 and both publicly supported their father's execution after the war. The extent of Cemik collaboration with the German and Italian armies as well as their vicious war against the pro-Allied Partizans is well documented in dozens of books, including Professor J. Tomasevich's scholarly and definitive work The Chemiks.
The Partizans, founded by Josip Broz Tito, a Croatian Communist, represented the only true resistance to the Axis in Yugoslavia during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Croatians joined the Partizans and represented the majority of its brigades. On June 22, 1941, Croatian Partizans in the Brezavica Woods near Sisak launched what would come to be known as the War of Liberation in Yu oslavia. The date remains a national holiday in Croatia and is celebrated as the "Day of the Anti-Fascist Uprising." On July 13, 1943, a Democratic Republic of Croatia under the leadership of Andrija Hebrang was declared in those areas occupied by the Croatian Partizan forces. As the war progressed more and more Croatians, especially from Dalmatia, joined the Partizans. Serbs joined in great numbers late in the War as entire Cetnik units changed their allegiance. By 1943 Allied support shifted to Tito and by 1944 the Partizans were the only recognized Allied force fighting in Yugoslavia.
In many countries after the War, the numbers and deeds of resistance fighters grew more and more impressive as the years passed. For example, the famed French Resistance existed primarily in Hollywood where studios released film after film about the underground which was virtually nonexistent in Vichy France. In post-war Yugoslavia the deeds of the Partizans took on mythical proportions as monuments to the heroes of the Liberation War were erected in every village. As more and more benefits were announced for veterans, more and more veterans appeared. Exiled Cetnik claimed that it was they, not the Partizans, who held down "dozens" of Nazi divisions. Depending on which source was cited, up to twenty "crack" Nazi divisions were tied down in Yugoslavia. The numbers were cited frequently by politicians and even military "experts" opposing intervention to stop Serbian aggression in the 1990s.
Although the official Partizan history lists thirtytwo German divisions, there were never twenty or even twelve full German divisions in all of Yugoslavia during World War II. After the initial invasion, Italy occupied or annexed one third of Croatia and a few German units remained in the NDH. None could be considered elite.
Three "German" divisions, the 369th, 373rd and 392nd Infantry Divisions in Croatia and Bosnia were in fact manned by Croatian soldiers with Volksdeutsche ethnic German officers. Attempts to form a Bosnian Muslim division failed when the conscripts revolted against the Germans at a training base south of Le Puy, France in September 1943. It was the only large-scale mutiny within the German army during the War.
The only unit that might be considered "elite" in name only, was the 7. SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs- Division "Prinz Eugen, " (7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division). Despite its name, it never reached division strength, its ranks consisted primarily of Volksdeutsche conscripted from Yugoslavia's 700,000 ethnic Germans, and its commanding officer was a general in the Rumanian Army. The "Division's" weapons and vehicles came from captured stores or were appropriated from the postal service.
[Popular myth, especially in film, depicts the SS as an elite force of dedicated Nazi volunteers of pure Germanic blood. That was largely true in 1939, but because the SS could not draft within Germany, most SS divisions were manned by conscripted non-Germans by 1944. By War's end, Indians wearing turbans, Muslims in fezes, and Vietnamese former French Foreign Legionnaires could be found in the "elite" Waffen-SS!]
The complexities of World War II saw Croatian fighting Croatian, Serb fighting Serb, and both fighting each other as well as German, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian forces. Both Serbia and Croatia, like Finland, Hungary, France and virtually every other nation in Europe had governments which collaborated with the Axis.
Both Croatia and Serbia also had Partizan governments fighting for the Allies. A half century later Germany and Japan were again great world powers and Italy was a full partner in the European community while Croatia, having been occupied by Germany and Italy, continued to be tarred with the brush of fascism. Unlike many other European countries, Croatia attempted to deal with the realities of its past.
At the commemoration events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995, a wreath was laid at the Oltar Domovine, the monument to fallen Partizans and at the graves of the leaders of the anti-fascist movement. The following week a ceremony commemorated those who were killed by the communists in the post-War Bleiburg Massacres. Finally, a ceremony was held at Jacenovac the sits of a concentration camp run during the war by the NHD and for two years after the war by the communists. On Croatia's National Day in May of 1995, for the 1st time, World War II veterans of Croatia's Domobrans and Partizans marched side-by- side in a parade. The Second World War had finally ended in Croatia.
Author's Preface to the Third Edition
Croatia and the Croatians
Myth: "Croatians asked to join Yugoslavia
Myth: "Croatian Assassinated King Alexander
Myth: "All Croatians were Fascists
Myth: "The Basket of Human Eyeballs"
Myth: "Two Million Serbs Died"
Myth: "Croatians Executed American Airmen"
Myth: "No Retribution Against Croatia"
Myth: "Borders were Drawn to Benefit Croatia"
Myth: "The Serbo-Croatian Language"
Myth: "Tudjman and Milosevic were Late Converts"
Myth: "Serbs had no Guaranteed Rights in Croatia"
Myth: "The Fascist Finders"
Myth: "The Croatian Coat of Arms is Fascist"
Myth: "The Fascist Ferret"