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Adding Insult to Injury: Washington Decorates a Nazi Collaborator

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: June 11, 2005  

By Dr. Marko Attila Hoare

The sixtieth anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany is not, one might imagine, the time when one would expect the US government to decorate Nazi collaborators. But one would be wrong. Last month, a delegation of US war-veterans posthumously presented the Legion of Merit to Serbia’s General Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovic, leader of the ‘Chetnik’ movement during World War II; a convicted war-criminal and Nazi collaborator. The award was originally made to Mihailovic in 1948, two years after his execution by the Yugoslav authorities. Yet it is only now that the US has decided to hand over the award to Mihailovic’s daughter. It is as if the US had chosen the anniversary of VE day to present an award to Marshal Petain, or to the Dutch policemen who arrested Anne Frank. The US action has provoked sharp protests from Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars. To understand this bizarre decision, the tangled threads leading up to it require some untangling.

Yugoslavia entered World War II as an ally of the Third Reich. On 25 March 1941, Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic and Foreign Minister Aleksandar Cincar-Markovic signed a protocol making Yugoslavia a member of the Tripartite Pact, and therefore an ally of Nazi Germany. The Yugoslav government was bullied into signing this protocol by the Germans, despite the pro-Allied sympathies of most mainstream Yugoslav politicians - Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and others alike. Indeed, the Germans made it very clear to the Yugoslavs that the alternative to joining the Pact was war - one in which Yugoslavia would be easily pulverised by the Wehrmacht. Like other European statesmen since, Hitler had an exaggerated perception of Yugoslav military capabilities, and was ready to offer Belgrade relatively lenient terms: Yugoslav membership of the Pact would be a mere formality, not requiring actual military collaboration. This would have kept Yugoslavia effectively neutral during the impending German assault on Greece, forcing the Germans to attack the Greeks along the latter’s well-defended border with Bulgaria - the so-called ‘Metaxas Line’. Such was the price Hitler was willing to pay to keep Yugoslavia quiet.

At this point, Winston Churchill and British intelligence carried out one of the most cynical Allied crimes of World War II: they conspired with a clique of Yugoslav air-force and army officers to carry out a coup against the Yugoslav government, in the hope that this would bring Yugoslavia into the war on the Allied side. On the night of 26th - 27th March, therefore - as demonstrators in Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities marched under the self-consciously suicidal slogans ‘Better war than the Pact; Better the grave than a slave’ - the British-backed air-force and army officers seized power. The officers in question were scarcely anti-fascist: the coup organiser Borivoje Mirkovic kept a signed photograph of fellow aviator Hermann Goering on his desk; the new government released Serbian fascists imprisoned under the previous regime; and appointed the former chairman of the German-Yugoslav and Italian-Yugoslav friendship associations to be its new foreign minister. Their coup was motivated in large part by Serb-nationalist hostility to the concessions made to Croatian autonomy by the previous regime. Such were Churchill’s chosen allies.

The Americans, for their part, had attempted before the coup, through both diplomatic and unofficial channels, to push Yugoslavia into a confrontation with Nazi Germany. In this context it was - in ironic contrast with the 1990s - the liberal interventionists in American politics who lauded and exaggerated Serbian military valour, deceiving themselves and others with their estimates of the Yugoslav Army’s ability to resist foreign invasion. American diplomacy systematically pressurised Yugoslav statesmen in order to deter Yugoslavia’s entry into the Pact, culminating with the freezing in March 1941 of Yugoslav assets in the US. Although playing a junior role in relation to the British, the Americans were nevertheless closely involved in encouraging the Great Serb elements that staged the fateful coup. The American press’s euphoric reaction to the coup, as a blow against the Germans, may have helped convince the latter to attack Yugoslavia. Yet the US did not provide any actual military assistance to support the country its own diplomacy had placed in jeopardy: Roosevelt’s hands were tied by the anti-interventionist climate of opinion in the US, which neutralised effective American opposition to the Nazis.

Ever since the coup, its apologists have claimed that it involved the ‘repudiation’ of the Pact. On the contrary: once in power, the new Yugoslav government reaffirmed Yugoslavia’s loyalty to the Tripartite Pact, assuring the Germans that the coup had not been directed against them, but merely represented the settling of internal Yugoslav scores. Yet Hitler, aware of British involvement in the coup, no longer trusted the Yugoslavs. Up until March 1941, Hitler had supported a united Yugoslavia; he now moved to destroy the country. The Wehrmacht invaded its Yugoslav ally on 6th April and, with some assistance from the Italians and Hungarians, totally defeated the Yugoslav Army in a mere eleven days and at the cost of a mere 151 German dead. Yugoslav resistance collapsed ignominiously. The predominantly-Serb Yugoslav generals subsequently sought to blame the disgraceful defeat on the ‘treachery’ of Croat troops: in fact, the Yugoslav command had anyway planned to abandon the Croatian and Slovenian north to the enemy and retreat into the interior, leaving the Croats and Slovenes in the lurch. Moreover, the Germans captured Belgrade by invading Serbia from the eastern Balkans and Hungary, not by going through Croatia, and captured the Yugoslav capital without a struggle: the Serb troops on this front proved to be as ‘treacherous’ as the Croats in the north. The reality was that neither Serbs nor Croats were particularly willing to die for the rotten and brutal Yugoslav state.

Churchill and Roosevelt therefore succeeded in dragging Yugoslavia into the war - at an eventual cost of one million Yugoslav dead, including about half a million Serbs and eighty percent of the Yugoslav Jewish community. The coup leaders of March were not among the dead: they fled Yugoslavia, leaving their fellow countrymen to bear the consequences of their actions. Yet Churchill had shot himself in the foot. The Wehrmacht, now able to attack through Yugoslavia, invaded Greece along an extended frontline, crushed Greek resistance and pushed the British Army in Greece into the sea. Various Greek and Yugoslav historians have since claimed that the German invasion of the Balkans resulted in a delay of several weeks to the launch of Operation Barbarossa, meaning that the Wehrmacht could not reach Moscow before winter set in. Ergo: Germany lost the war because of Greek and/or Yugoslav resistance in 1941. In fact, as historians such as Martin van Creveld and Bryan Fugate have shown, Barbarossa’s launch was delayed due to logistical problems unrelated to the Balkans; the campaign there did not affect it. Not only did Yugoslavia’s entry into the war speed the Greek defeat, but it allowed the Germans to transport their troops back into position for Barbarossa more quickly, across Yugoslav territory.

The Serbs, like other nations occupied by the Axis, were divided between resolute anti-fascist resisters, committed ideological quislings, and opportunists ready to collaborate with both Axis and Allies in pursuit of their own interests (this, of course, applied to the political classes: the mass of ordinary people sought above all to survive). Among the Serbs, the resisters were the Partisans under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia; the quislings were the followers of the puppet prime-minister General Milan Nedic and of the fascist leader Dimitrije Ljotic; and the opportunists were Mihailovic and the Chetniks. In practice, there was very little difference in behaviour between Nedic’s and Ljotic’s outright quislings and Mihailovic’s Chetniks, who collaborated with the Nazis while seeking to crush the real resisters - the Partisans - and exterminate Muslims, Croats, Jews and others, into the bargain.

Mihailovic was a Yugoslav Army officer and member of Borivoje Mirkovic’s conspiratorial circle of 26th - 27th March, who had taken to the hills following the Yugoslav capitulation, intending to continue the resistance. Yet his version of ‘resistance’ meant essentially waiting for the Allies to win the war on Yugoslavia’s behalf, then to fall upon the Germans after they had already been defeated. It was the Partisans who launched a genuine guerrilla resistance while the Chetniks were waiting in the wings. Faced, by the summer of 1941, with a rival and genuine resistance movement in the shape of the Partisans, Mihailovic turned the Chetniks’ guns against his fellow Serbs, starting a civil war that would result in tens if not hundreds of thousands of dead. At the same time - already in the autumn of 1941 - Mihailovic began making overtures to the Germans, seeking to reach an accommodation with them for joint action against the Partisans. This would have placed the Chetniks in the position of German anti-Communist auxiliaries, helping to suppress the genuine Yugoslav resistance while waiting for the Great Powers to determine the outcome of the war amongst themselves. That Mihailovic failed to reach an agreement with the Germans at this time was not for want of trying on his part, but merely due to German unwillingness to deal with someone they considered a ‘rebel’.

Tito and the Partisan leadership were driven out of Serbia by the combined attacks of the Germans and Chetniks, and retreated to the neighbouring puppet-state, the ‘Independent State of Croatia’ (NDH - Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska). Hitler had supported a united Yugoslavia until March 1941, but following the Belgrade coup, he decided to set up a Great Croatian puppet-state - one that would include all of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Even so, he was less interested in Croatia than he was in Serbia - so Serbia was placed under exclusive German control, while the NDH was made an Italo-German condominium; a buffer state between the two Axis allies. The existence of the NDH is sometimes used by certain historical ignoramuses to ‘prove’ the existence of a traditional German interest in Croatia, one that supposedly explains the ‘German plot’ to engineer Yugoslavia’s break-up in the 1990s, in order to establish an independent Croatia as part of Germany’s ‘sphere’ in the Balkans. Pace such fantasies, the German establishment of the NDH was testimony to Hitler’s lack of interest in Croatia and Bosnia, and was to have serious repercussions for the development of an anti-fascist resistance.

Tito and Mihailovic both mistakenly assumed that Serbia would form the epicentre of the Yugoslav resistance. In fact, Croatia and Bosnia turned out to be the epicentre while Serbia became something of a backwater, and this for a number of reasons. The Nazis were unable to attract any mainstream or popular senior Croat politicians to serve as their quislings - the leadership of the principal Croat party, the Croat Peasant Party under Vladko Macek, refused to collaborate. Consequently, the Nazis were forced to rely on an extremist fringe movement, the ‘Ustashas’, under the leadership of Ante Pavelic. This was equivalent to placing the Ku Klux Klan in power in the USA. The Ustashas embarked on a genocidal policy of exterminating the Serb, Jewish and Gypsy populations of the NDH, killing hundreds of thousands and manufacturing a powerful Serb resistance virtually overnight. At the same time, the lighter German military control in the NDH than in Serbia meant that the rebels were not subject to such effective reprisals: simply put, it was more dangerous to remain passive in the NDH than in Serbia, but safer to resist.

The third reason for the Partisans’ success in the NDH was their championing of the national liberation of both Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, enabling them to win the support of Croats and Muslims as well as Serbs. Supporters of Slobodan Milosevic have sought - with considerable success - to sell to the Western public the idea that it was only Serbs who fought as Partisans. The reality was very different. At the start of their uprising in 1941, the Communists appealed to the ‘freedom-loving Croatian nation, that has for centuries struggled against its oppressors’ to ‘expel the fascist occupiers and destroy the hateful puppet government of the traitor Pavelic’, promising that ‘from the ruins of the tyranny of the occupiers and the Frankists [Ustashas] will rise a free and independent Croatia in which there will be no trace of the Frankists’ and occupiers’ tyranny, plunder, evil chauvinism and racial insanity’. Similarly, the Communists referred to their Partisan forces in Bosnia-Hercegovina as the ‘People’s Liberation Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina’, which was ‘composed of Muslims, Croats and Serbs’ and which was fighting a ‘decisive, ferocious struggle for the national liberation of Bosnia-Hercegovina’.

The Croatian Communists were the most powerful wing of the Yugoslav Communist movement; Tito himself was a Croat from the Croatian heartland of Zagorje. By the end of 1943 - shortly after Tito and the Communists had proclaimed a new, federal Yugoslavia - the western Yugoslav lands were dominating the Partisan movement: of ninety-seven Partisan brigades then in existence, thirty-eight were from Croatia, twenty-three from Bosnia-Hercegovina and eighteen from Slovenia. Of the thirty-eight Croatian Partisan brigades, twenty had an ethnic-Croat majority, seventeen an ethnic-Serb majority and one an ethnic-Czech majority. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, at this time, the Partisans were approximately two-thirds Serb and one-third Muslim and Croat, while the Slovene Partisans were overwhelmingly ethnic-Slovene. At the same time, the whole of eastern Yugoslavia (Serbia, Vojvodina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia) was contributing only eighteen Partisan brigades. Half a century later, Partisan veterans would lead Croatia during its transition from Communism and in its war of independence: Franjo Tudjman as President, Josip Manolic as Prime Minister, Martin Spegelj as Defence Minister and founder of the Croatian Army, Josip Boljkovac as Interior Minister and Janko Bobetko as Croatian Army Chief of Staff. This did not prevent Milosevic supporters from denouncing Croatia as ‘Ustasha’ - even as they resurrected the policies of Serbia’s own Nazi collaborators.

While the Partisans fought the occupiers, the Chetniks collaborated. Mihailovic’s officers in the NDH served as the auxiliaries of the Italians who, unlike the Germans, had no qualms about collaborating with rebels. Furthermore, various Bosnian Chetnik commanders signed treaties of cooperation with the very Ustasha state that had exterminated hundreds of thousands of their fellow Serbs. Mihailovic himself was careful not to put his signature on incriminating documents of this kind, but he never repudiated his own officers who did so. Meanwhile, under the military umbrella provided by their Italian allies, the Chetniks engaged in a genocidal campaign of their own against Muslims and Croats, in order to lay the foundations for a ‘Great Serbia’. Petar Bacovic, Mihailovic’s commander for eastern Bosnia-Hercegovina, reported in September 1942, that ‘our Chetniks - greatly embittered by the misdeeds committed by the Ustashas against the Serbs - skinned alive three Catholic priests between Ljubinje and Vrgorac. Our Chetniks have killed all men aged fifteen years or above. They did not kill women or children aged under fifteen years. Seventeen villages were entirely burned… We shall soon, God willing, attack Fazlagic Kula, the last Muslim stronghold in Hercegovina. After that in Hercegovina there will not remain a single Muslim in the villages.’ Pavle Djurisic, commander of the Lim-Sanjak Chetnik Detachment, reported to Mihailovic on 13th February 1943 the results of the Chetnik actions in the Pljevlja, Foca and Cajnice districts: ‘All Muslim villages in the three mentioned districts were totally burned so that not a single home remained in one piece. All property was destroyed except cattle, corn and senna.’ Furthermore: ‘During the operation the total destruction of the Muslim inhabitants was carried out regardless of sex and age’. In this operation, ‘our total losses were 22 dead, of which 2 through accidents, and 32 wounded. Among the Muslims, around 1,200 fighters and up to 8,000 other victims: women, old people and children.’

Mihailovic’s Chetnik movement was viciously anti-Semitic. Bacovic claimed in October 1942 that ‘the Jews, associated with much of the scum of the earth, fled to our country and began to propagate such a better and happier state of affairs in a Communist state.’ Dobroslav Jevdjevic, Mihailovic’s political representative in eastern Bosnia and Hercegovina, claimed in June 1942 that Partisan units were largely made up of ‘Jews, Gypsies and Muslims’. The following month, he accused the Partisans: ‘They have destroyed Serb churches and established mosques, synagogues and Catholic temples.’ A pamphlet distributed by the Chetniks around Sarajevo in the autumn of 1942 spoke of ‘the Communists, whose leaders are Jews and who wish to impose Jewish rule on the world’. A Chetnik proclamation of September 1942 claimed that ‘an Ustasha, German, Jew or Gypsy may become a Partisan; in other words anyone willing on behalf of the foreigner to participate in the slaughter and killing of the best Serb sons.’ A group of senior Chetnik commanders issued a proclamation in February 1943 to the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia, claiming that ‘since we have cleansed Serbia, Montenegro and Hercegovina, we have come to help you to crush the pitiful remnants of the Communist international, criminal band of Tito, Mose Pijade, Levi Vajnert and other paid Jews’. They called upon the Partisan rank-and-file to ‘kill the political commissars and join our ranks right away’, like the ‘hundreds and hundreds who are surrendering every day, conscious that they have been betrayed and swindled by the Communist Jews’. The 9th March 1943 issue of the Chetnik newspaper Vidovdan described the Partisans as ‘bandits led by the Zagreb Jew ‘Tito’ and the Belgrade Jew Mose Pijade’.

Mihailovic himself informed his subordinates in December 1942: ‘The units of the Partisans are filled with thugs of the most varied kinds, such as Ustashas - the worst butchers of the Serb people - Jews, Croats, Dalmatians, Bulgarians, Turks, Magyars and all the other nations of the world.’ On a previous occasion, he stated: ‘I have never made a genuine agreement with the Communists, for they do not care about the people. They are led by foreigners who are not Serbs: the Bulgarian Jankovic, the Jew Lindmajer, the Magyar Borota, two Muslims whose names I do not know and the Ustasha Major Boganic. That is all I know of the Communist leadership.’ Nor did Chetnik anti-Semitism stop at words. As Israel Gutman’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust notes: ‘There were many instances of Chetniks murdering Jews or handing them over to the Germans.’

Chetnik chauvinism and genocide were motivated by the desire to create a Great Serbia. A Chetnik pamphlet issued in 1941, endorsed by Bosko Todorovic, Mihailovic’s most senior commander in Bosnia, explained the Chetnik goal: ‘When it achieves freedom, a golden Serb freedom, then the Serb nation will - freely and without bloodshed, by means of the free elections which we are accustomed to in the Serbia of King Peter I - take its destiny into its own hands and freely say, whether it loves more its independent Great Serbia, cleansed of Turks and other non-Serbs, or some other state in which Turks and Jews will once again be ministers, commissars, officers and ‘comrades’.’

As early as the autumn of 1942, Colonel Hudson, a British agent sent to make contact with the Yugoslav resistance, reported that Mihailovic had agreed ‘to adopt the policy of collaboration with the Italians pursued by the Montenegrin Chetniks’. Another British agent, Colonel Bailey, reported that Mihailovic had made a speech in his presence in February 1943, at which he (Mihailovic) complained that the ‘Serbs were now completely friendless’ and that the ‘English were now fighting to the last Serb in Yugoslavia’, with no intention whatsoever of helping them. Consequently, ‘so long as the Italians remained his sole adequate source of benefit and assistance generally, nothing the Allies could do would make him change his attitude toward them’, i.e. cease collaboration. As far as Mihailovic was concerned, ‘his enemies were the Partisans, the Ustashas, the Muslims and the Croats. When he had dealt with them, he would turn to the Italians and Germans.’ In the crucial Battle of the Neretva that took place at this time, at which the Partisans succeeded with great difficulty in breaking out of Axis encirclement, the Chetniks fought on the Italian side. On this basis, the British gradually shifted their support from the Chetniks to the Partisans, finally ending all contact with Mihailovic in 1944 and designating Tito the sole leader of the Yugoslav resistance. Conversely, following the Italian capitulation in the summer and autumn of 1943, the Germans shifted their policy and began to collaborate directly with the Chetniks.

Apologists for Mihailovic and anti-Communist conspiracy theorists have claimed that the British decision to drop him was the work of Communist moles in British intelligence. Churchill’s decision was based, not only on the reports of his agents in the field, but on his own interception of German intelligence information that used the Ultra code. The conspiracy theorists allege that the intelligence reaching Churchill was filtered by Communist moles to create a false picture of which Yugoslav group was resisting and which was collaborating. Yet, although there were undoubtedly Communists in British intelligence at the time, the conspiracy theorists have so far failed to unearth a single shred of evidence in support of the existence of an actual conspiracy to skew Churchill’s perception of events in Yugoslavia. Indeed, Stalin was, in this period, mortally afraid of engaging in any kind of subversive activity that might alienate the Western Allies, and was consequently deeply wary of Tito’s revolutionary actions. As the American historian Walter R. Roberts writes: ‘The Soviets showed surprisingly little interest in their Communist allies in Yugoslavia, and because they did not wish unnecessarily to disturb relations with the British and US Governments, they supported the [royalist] Yugoslav Government-in-Exile until well into 1943’. And the ubiquitous Communist moles were hardly likely to annoy Stalin by pursuing an independent pro-Tito policy of their own: James Klugman, the conspiracy theorists’ favourite culprit among the Communists in the British intelligence establishment, became one of Tito’s most virulent critics following the Tito-Stalin split of 1948. The irony is that it was Churchill, not Stalin, who took the lead in shifting Allied support to Tito. On this occasion, Churchill’s hardheaded anti-Nazi realism and his romantic identification with the Partisans combined to trump his anti-Communism. Had the Chetniks won the Yugoslav Civil War, they would have plunged Yugoslavia into a bloodbath as they sought to exterminate non-Serbs in their efforts to create a Great Serbia. Churchill, therefore, redeemed himself somewhat, following his earlier blunder in dragging Yugoslavia into the war.

Mihailovic continued his opportunistic game of seeking to collaborate with both Axis and Allies. In this context, he assisted the US airborne evacuation of about two-hundred and fifty airmen from Chetnik territory in August 1944. This simply meant that the Chetniks allowed the Americans to use their airstrip for the evacuation - scarcely a particularly heroic action - while at the same time, Mihailovic sent a delegation along with the departing US planes in a fruitless effort to win back Allied support. Yet it was for the rescue of US airmen that Mihailovic would posthumously receive the Legion of Merit. On other occasions, however, Mihailovic’s Chetniks rescued German airmen and handed them over safely to the German armed forces - were he so inclined, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder could follow Washington’s example and decorate Mihailovic for saving the lives of his country’s servicemen. Yet none of Mihailovic’s intrigues saved him or his Chetnik movement from destruction at the hands of the victorious Partisans: the revolution in the western Balkans - Europe’s second and last successful Communist revolution - succeeded thanks to British and American military intervention, which enabled the reestablishment of Yugoslavia. This is a fact that Milosevic’s left-wing supporters usually prefer not to mention.

The Americans, with a weaker intelligence presence in the Balkans than the British, were less in touch with the realities of the Yugoslav Civil War. They were consequently less than enthusiastic about the British abandonment of the anti-Communist Mihailovic, and more reserved toward the Partisans. On 29th March 1948, at the height of the Cold War, US President Truman posthumously awarded Mihailovic with the Legion of Merit for his role in rescuing American airmen. This was at a time when Tito was still Stalin’s loyal henchman in Eastern Europe, and pursuing a confrontational policy toward the Western powers in Greece and elsewhere. Within months, however, the situation had changed: Stalin broke with Tito, whom the Western powers once again began to support - this time as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Americans refrained from making public their award to Mihailovic until 1967, and refrained from presenting his daughter with the award until this year.

The Bush Administration’s readiness to overturn American diplomatic tradition in this way should perhaps come as no surprise from an administration that has made a habit of overturning diplomatic tradition, for better or for worse. One of the Administration’s first diplomatic initiatives, following Bush’s recent reelection, was to recognise the Republic of Macedonia under its rightful name, delivering a well-deserved slap in the face to Greece, thanks to whose merciless chauvinistic bullying, Macedonia has been forced to labour under the clumsy official denomination of ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ since its independence in the early 1990s. The Bush Administration thereby rewarded a loyal ally, and may have felt that the presentation of the award to Mihailovic was a similarly harmless gesture of solidarity to the post-Milosevic regime in Serbia-Montenegro, whose Foreign Minister, the endearingly comical Vuk Draskovic, has combined a quixotic attachment to the Mihailovic legend with a sincere desire to improve relations with the West. Yet, so far as the peoples of Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, and indeed many anti-nationalist Serbs are concerned, the US has thereby rewarded an architect of the same genocidal Great Serbian project that brought them such misery, in the 1990s as in the 1940s. As on previous occasions, an ill-thought-out piece of realpolitik has had negative results - in this case, an insult to add to the grievous injuries of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia.

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada