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Knives at Each Other’s Throats: The Resistance Movements of Mihailović and Tito in Yugoslavia

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Operation 25, the invasion of Yugoslavia, part of Adolf Hitler’s strategic blunder added this Balkan nation and Greece to the list of countries conquered by the German Army. After military victory was achieved in April 1941, Yugoslavia was divided into nine pieces (perhaps the most apt term as the assortment included military zones of occupation, territory annexed by five nations, and an “independent” state with a puppet government).

As the Nazis did not anticipate any significant resistance movements forming, the bulk of the German Army soon left to prepare for the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, instead of control, the German-imposed reorganization re-lit the fuse to the historic “Balkan powder keg” and German troops soon found themselves caught in a crossfire between two rival resistance groups at war with each other as much as they were with the Teutonic enemy.

Serbs and Gypsies who have been rounded up for deportation are marched to the Jasenovac concentration camp under Ustasa guard. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum photo courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Naroda i Narodnosti Jugoslavije

Serbs and Gypsies who have been rounded up for deportation are marched to the Jasenovac concentration camp under Ustasa guard. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum photo courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Naroda i Narodnosti Jugoslavije

One resistance group called itself the Chetniks and contained a cadre of officers and troops of the Royal Yugoslav Army who had escaped capture, led by Col. Dragolub Mihailović. The other was named the Partisans, a communist-dominated group led by Josip Broz Tito.

Initially both groups were small, but their ranks would soon grow. As historian Misha Glenny observed, “Governance was replaced by state terror on a horrifying scale.” The most important player in this terror – at times outdoing even the Nazis – was the fascist Croatian separatist movement called Ustashe. Seeking racial and religious (the Ustashe were fanatically Catholic) purity, they unleashed a campaign of persecution and genocide against Serbs, Jews, and Romani (Gypsies). Faced with the stark choice of fight or be slaughtered, those that could flocked to the resistance groups more out of a need to protect themselves and their families than a desire to kill Germans.

“We are Serbian children. Shoot.”

– Kragujevac high school class about to be executed by a German firing squad

In short order Yugoslavia became a massive killing field in which old scores were settled, new ones opened, and anyone and everyone from senior German officers to newborn babies were fair game for torture and death. The violence quickly escalated to civil war, and when it began affecting German north-south communications, garrisons, and military operations, Hitler began redeploying troops to the region in September. On Oct. 13, he followed this up with a telex to Gen. Franz Böhme, the German commander in Serbia, containing the following order:

Josip Broz Tito (far right) with some of his Partisans in Yugoslavia, May 1944. Eventually the British threw their support to the communist Tito. Imperial War Museum photo

Josip Broz Tito (far right) with some of his Partisans in Yugoslavia, May 1944. Eventually the British threw their support to the communist Tito. Imperial War Museum photo

“Henceforth one hundred prisoners or hostages are to be shot for every soldier killed and fifty for every wounded. Every regional garrison to arrest as many communists, nationalists, democrats and Jews as possible without endangering combat capability thereby. Announcement in public of operation aims and to arrested and their relatives.

The orders immediately led to two massacres in response to attacks on German garrisons. The first began on Oct. 17, in Kraljevo. When it concluded several days later, German troops had killed “1,736 men and 19 communist women.”

For their role in the massacre, 22 German soldiers were awarded the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. The second massacre began on Oct. 18, in the town of Kragujevac, in which 2,324 males were slaughtered. Among the killed were 144 secondary-school students. Their deaths inspired Serbian poet Desanka Maksimović to write the poem Krvava Bajka (“Bloody Fairy Tale”).

It was in a land of peasants
in the mountainous Balkans,
a company of schoolchildren
died a martyr’s death
in one day.

– Excerpt from Krvava Bajka

German soldiers escort people from Kragvjevac and its surrounding area to be executed, October 1941. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum photo courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Naroda i Narodnosti Jugoslavije

German soldiers escort people from Kragvjevac and its surrounding area to be executed, October 1941. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum photo courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Naroda i Narodnosti Jugoslavije

Though Tito’s Partisans conducted most of the attacks on German troops, initially it was Mihailović, through his contacts with the Yugoslav government-in-exile, who got British recognition for the Chetniks as the only legitimate resistance force in Yugoslavia. The Allied press quickly turned Mihailović into a hero. Tito was marginalized. One American journalist went so far as to write that Tito was not a person, but an acronym for an ineffective conspiracy known as the “Third International Terrorist Organization.”

Unlike President Franklin Roosevelt, who refused to drop support of Chiang Kai Shek’s corrupt and ineffective National Chinese government and back Mao Tse-Tung’s communist organization as allies against the Japanese, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill eventually discovered that Mihailović had duped him. By 1943, the British were backing Tito.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...