Chetniks pose with German soldiers
The Partizans had the organizational strengths the Chetniks lacked. The need for secrecy and strict obedience to orders under conditions of pre-war illegality led to the quasi-militarization of the Communist Party, which proved adept at mobile guerrilla warfare. Tito’s forces crossed and re-crossed Bosnia several times during the war, whereas the Chetniks were able to break out of their local strongholds only on the coat tails of Axis offensives. Party discipline, expressed in a puritanical code of personal conduct, was constantly reinvigorated by purges, keeping local commissars responsive to Central Committee orders even when the Partizan movement expanded in numbers far beyond its core of Communist cadres. On the run from the Axis, the Party set up in every liberated enclave the rudiments of civil administration, embodied in ‘Regulations’ establishing Peoples’ Committees, and set the presses to work publicizing the Partizan cause. In addition to the Party newsheets, such as Borba and Proleter, the Communists took over a pre-war title, Woman Today, and made it the official organ of the Women’s Anti-fascist Front, founded in December 1942. The mobilization of women turned out to be a remarkable success. Between 15 and 20 per cent of Partizan fighters were women – the Chetniks called them ‘whores’, in the true voice of patriarchal Serbia.
German reprisals drove thousands of young men and women into the arms of the Partizans. A Wehrmacht directive ordered that 100 hostages should be shot for every German soldier killed, 50 for every one wounded. The readiness of the German commanders to obey (they included many senior officers formerly in Habsburg service), led to one of the most notorious war crimes to capture the popular imagination of the Serbs after the war. Failing to find enough grown men in Kragujevac, the death squads rounded up the older boys of the town gymnasium (there was only one) and shot them (22 October 1941), together with their elderly schoolmaster.
Partizans and Chetniks reacted to total war in quite different ways. The Partizans left the uncommitted civilian population to take their chances, as a way of discouraging collaboration, and attacked the occupying forces wherever they could. Chetnikoperations against the Axis started later, were less frequent, and inflicted fewer casualties. The Italians used the Chetniks as a buffer in their own zone of occupation, allowing them to protect Serbs against Ustasha terror attacks and to maintain some kind of civil order. This policy, compounded by the Party’s early blunder of ‘left deviationism’ (that is, mass terror), explains why the Partizans made no headway at all in Montenegro until the spring of 1943. In the areas of the Independent State of Croatia controlled by Italy, Chetniks (about 20 000 of them) actually fought as auxiliary forces, in an anti-Communist militia armed by the Italians and owing notional allegiance to the NDH. Serbia remained a Chetnikstronghold for all but the last few months of the fighting. The Germans oscillated between attackand truce in their dealings with the Chetniks, depending on the fluctuating military situation. They allowed the Chetniks far less rope than the Italians, but Mihailoviç’s men were obviously useful for keeping the Partizans busy and out of the German zone.
After perfunctory initial attempts to organize combined operations against the occupation forces, Partizans and Chetniks settled, from the beginning of 1942, into a struggle to eliminate each other, with the Slav Muslims caught in the middle. The Chetniks recruited exclusively among Serbs and Montenegrins. Serbs from Bosnia and Croatia, young men fleeing from Ustasha killings, also formed the backbone of the early Partizan formations, but the movement did attract support from other nationalities in the later stages of the fighting.
The Independent State of Croatia became the main slaughterhouse of war. Deaths of Yugoslavians from all causes attributable to war numbered 1.027 million, 80 000 of whom died abroad. Of the 947 000 deaths which occurred on Yugoslav soil, 587 000 (62 per cent) were deaths suffered on the territory of the NDH. Most of the remaining victims are accounted for by the 273 000 deaths in Serbia (29 per cent), 250 000 of them in the Vojvodina and Inner Serbia. Montenegro (37 000), Slovenia (33 000) and Macedonia (17 000) complete the territorial distribution of deaths within the borders of Yugoslavia.
Turning to the ethnic distribution of the total number of 1.027 million war dead, Serbs, Croats and Bosnia’s Muslims together accounted for 81 per cent of Yugoslavia’s war losses (825 000 dead). Serbs bore the brunt of the killing, with 530 000 deaths (52 per cent of the total number of war victims), followed by 192 000 Croats (19 per cent) and 103 000 Bosnian Muslims (10 per cent). Jews and Gypsies suffered the most grievous proportional losses. Four out of every five of Yugoslavia’s Jews were killed (57 000 of them), and a third of the Gypsy population (18 000 deaths). The remaining losses are accounted for by the 42 000 Slovenes, 28 000 ethnic Germans, 20 000 Montenegrins, and 18 000 ethnic Albanians who lost their lives.
About 300 000 Serbs perished in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia – one in six of the Serb population, and 56 per cent of the total number of Serbs killed in the war. Paveliç’s Ustasha followers treated the Serbs as the Nazis treated the Jews, as vermin to be exterminated. This was not a task imposed by the occupying forces, but sprang out of the Ustashas’ own ideology, which incorporated a conception of Croats as a pure Aryan race. The Serbs were classed as racial enemies, and made to wear armbands carrying the letter ‘P’ for Pravoslavac, ‘Orthodox’. The Ustasha commanders carried out their grisly work in the villages and small townships where their control was unrestricted by Axis authority. Their trademark was to descend at night on dazed and defenceless Serbs, who were massacred in their homes, in pits, in forest clearings and in burning churches. Orthodox priests were killed in their hundreds. No attempt was made to keep the killings secret: on the contrary, knowledge of them was intended to instil fear and compliance in the Serb population. Only lack of means prevented the Ustashas from carrying out their genocidal mission by Nazi methods. Although they set up death camps like the infamous Jasenovac, there was no Eichmannesque bureaucracy, no detailed railway timetables or inventories of rolling stock, no neat blueprints of gas chambers. The NDH was run as an economic satellite by the Germans, who were unwilling to divert precious war resources to killing Serbs, and were for this reason opposed to state terror being applied against the Serb population. Powerless to murder all the Serbs, Paveliç decreed that the remainder should be forcibly converted or driven into Nediç’s Serbia, where they found asylum of a sort until the Germans sealed the borders in the autumn of 1941.
The National Liberation Struggle also claimed the lives of 192 000 Croats, 172 000 of them in the NDH. It has been estimated that 12 000 Ustasha core members were active when the state was proclaimed in April 1941, and that the Ustasha movement eventually comprised 40 000–50 000 men enrolled in the militias and gendarmerie. Even if we make the simplifying assumption that all of them were killed, 120 000 Croat deaths remain to be explained. There were 170 000 Croatian troops under German command, and they must account for the bulk of deaths during the bitter fighting on the Srem front and in Communist reprisals. But Croats fought on both sides, and by the end of the war made up a third of the Peoples’ Liberation Army. Croats joined the ranks of the Partizans, not just for opportunistic reasons when the Communists seemed to be gaining the upper hand, but because the ideal of Croatian statehood had been irretrievably compromised, both morally and politically, by the criminal character of Ustasha rule. The Communists’ promise of a federal state seemed to many Croats the best offer available – the Allies were not going to present them with an independent successor state to the NDH when the war ended.
Those who died included ‘left’ members of the Croatian Peasant Party; others were rounded up because they had criticized the Ustashas before the war, or simply because they were in the way at a random moment. To his credit, Macek refused to accept office in the Ustasha government and was sent to a concentration camp before being released into house arrest, while a third of the CPP leaders nominated to serve in the Zagreb Sabor in 1942 declined the honour. But Macek nullified the effect of his personal stand by publicly advising Croats not to resist the Ustasha government. The attitude of the Catholic clergy was equally ambivalent. With a few honourable exceptions, they mostly took their lead from Cardinal Stepinac, whose ‘blood and soil’ patriotism prompted him to welcome the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia in glowing terms. Stepinac is credited with a deepening sense of private unease and with behind-the-scenes interventions that saved many lives, but his public utterances gave no sign of this repentance.
The Slav Muslims suffered war losses totalling 100 000; three-quarters of them lost their lives in Bosnia-Hercegovina, a further 15 000 in Serbia, 4000 each in Montenegro and Macedonia, and 2000 in Croatia. Some historians have spoken of Chetnik genocide against the Muslims, and certainly not just the numbers alone, but the bestiality of the killings (flaying, boiling alive) convey an intensity of ethnic hatred which suggests a will to exterminate the entire Slav Muslim people. Judgement about Mihailoviç’s personal responsibility for war crimes is complicated by the possibility of forgery in the case of a key document, but the scale of the killings is not a matter of dispute. During the course of a single night, 13 February 1943, 8000 women, children and old men were butchered by the Lim-Sandzak Chetnik forces, a deed recorded laconically in the commanders’ own reports. Massacres occurred along the entire line of the borders of Bosnia-Hercegovina with Serbia, Montenegro and the Sandzak, and the roll call of place-names is an all too familiar one: Srebrenica, Visegrad, Gorazde, Rogatica.
The Ustasha onslaught on the Serbs initiated the cycle of inter-ethnic butchery, but once it took hold causes and effects intermingled. The presence of some Muslims in Ustasha units could be advanced as a pretext for retaliatory killings which drove even more of them into the arms of Paveliç, but the Muslims generally by no means favoured the Ustasha regime. The official revival of Starceviç’s old claim that the Muslim Slavs represented the purest stream of Croatian nationhood was a sinister compliment, and attempts to absorb the leadership of the Yugoslav Muslim Organization into the government of the NDH were rebuffed. In their struggle for survival, the Muslims did not conform to any dominant pattern of collaboration or resistance. Early in the war, some members of the Muslim clergy protested vigorously against the ill-treatment of Serbs and Jews, as well as defending their own community from the lawlessness and brutality of the regime. By 1943, others were encouraging their young men to enlist in the Muslim SS division then being formed. Individual Muslim leaders were prepared at times to cooperate with the Chetniks against the Ustashas; sometimes Muslim guerrillas were numerically strong enough to fight without allies, yet others chose to join the Partizans.