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Essay: Serbia in wartime

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  • Subject area(s): International Relations
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  • Published: September 15, 2019*
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  • Serbia in wartime
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Kosta Nikolić aptly referred to Serbia in wartime as the ‘Kingdom of Nonexistence’ (carstvo nepostojanja), implying that the population was perpetually uncertain about what tomorrow would bring.

In October 1934, yet another Serbian king was murdered. Undoubtedly, this assassination changed the course of history for Yugoslavia and the Balkans in general. In a Europe with the far-right on the rise, Yugoslavia had its own autochthonous organisations. The most popular of them was ZBOR, the united forces of Serbian monarchist nationalists. It was a complex reaction not only to the external changes and anger with democracy but also to the internal Yugoslav economic and political problems. The programme of ZBOR involved an authoritarian state and the preservation ‘national life-force’ which seemingly corresponded with Nazi ideology. ZBOR was soon spotted by the German intelligence services and its leader, Dimitrije Ljotić, interested German officials. In the 1930s, Europe was entering yet another war and different countries were picking sides and allies. Yugoslavia was surrounded by enemies due to its territorial gains after the Versailles Treaty. Soon after, the Tripartite Pact became the apple of discord, enhanced by the discontent with the leadership and interference of foreign powers into internal affairs. Two days after being pressured into signing the Pact, the Yugoslav government was abolished during a bloodless coup in March 1941 after which Yugoslavia’s fall from German grace began. The March Coup made Yugoslavia an ‘uncertain factor’ and it had to be punished. Blaming the ‘communists’, Hitler used it as a casus belli to invade Yugoslavia impromptu in April 1941, promising Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy parts of it. Ljotić and his relative, General Milan Nedić, fought against the Germans for the second time already but the Yugoslav army was poorly equipped and much of it was pro-German, so it did not offer much resistance. After the brief ‘April War’, however, Ljotić and Nedić would become the main candidates to head the puppet government of the rump state of Serbia. Germans aimed to exploit Serbia economically, turning it into a supply-and-transit base, and to eliminate the communist threat, making it a safety zone; the puppet government was to be set up to facilitate those two tasks. This paper will attempt to analyse the origins and the nature of collaboration in wartime Serbia, focusing on the motivations and perceptions of historical actors rather than historical hindsight. First, it will assess Ljotić as the trendsetter in Yugoslav politics, secondly, the dilemma of signing the Tripartite Act and lastly, the reasons behind the German invasion of Yugoslavia and its goals.

In order to analyse the collaboration during the war, it is necessary to analyse its roots first. Most Serbian nationalist groups were created in reaction to and in support of the royal dictatorship of King Aleksandar which commenced on January 6th 1929. Organisations such as Jugoslovenska akcija (Yugoslav Action), Otadžbina (Fatherland) and Zadružna Borbena

Organizacija Rada (United Active Labour Organisation), or ZBOR, attracted members of the banned political parties after 1929. By October 6th, 1934, these groups decide to dissolve

themselves to create a united nationalist movement; many of the people who signed the agreement, e.g. Ratko Parežanin and Djordje Perić, were later Ministers in 1941-1944. Three

days later, King Aleksandar was assassinated in Marseille by a Bulgarian terrorist who had links to Macedonian and Croatian extremists. This facilitated the fusion of the groups and convinced the Serbian nationalists even more in the righteousness of their ideas; on January 6th, 1935, as reverence to the deceased King Aleksandar, the new Yugoslav National Movement of ZBOR was established and Dimitrije Ljotić, the former Minister of Justice, was proclaimed its leader. Viktor von Heeren, the German consul to Yugoslavia, noted that ZBOR was German-oriented and had shared values with the national-socialists and soon enough, Ljotić was trusted by the Germans ‘more than any other Serb’.

The figure of Dimitrije Ljotić is key when it comes to Serbian pre-war nationalism and wartime collaboration; his background and personal beliefs often explain the doctrine of his movement and the policies of Nedić’s puppet ‘Government of National Salvation’(VNS). Dimitrije’s father was a former diplomat and a member of Parliament, who fought alongside Karadjordje Petrović in the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottomans. Therefore, Ljotić was close to the Karadjordjević dynasty and to Yugoslav politics by right of birth. In 1913, having completed his studies in law, Ljotić was sent to Paris by King Petar I, where Ljotić falls under the influence of Charles Maurras. Maurras and his ‘Action Française’ had a huge influence on Ljotić and largely shaped his views on history, politics and economics. It is important to note that at the time Benito Mussolini was still a member of the Italian Socialist Party, so ‘Action Française’ was a proto-fascist movement. Both men rejected the values of the French Revolution, of individualism and pluralist parliamentary democracy and advocated for the monarchy, Christianity and a traditional state of estates (‘staleška država’, as opposed to fascist corporatism). They saw nations as ‘organic entities’ composed of interdependent estates, where the state ‘lives off class estates’. The concept of ‘pays réel versus pays légal’, the struggle between the societal realities of life and the government, imposed on it by law, became one of Ljotić’s main principles. During the First World War, Ljotić stepped away from Christian non-violence described by Tolstoy and started reflecting on ‘how people can be lead’. Like any nationalist, he believed that Serbians were destined for a ‘certain grand role’ in history and he was proud to be part of his nation, not the Yugoslav one. But the bedrock of Ljotić’s worldview was the sincere belief in God; he saw his acceptance into the Radical Party in 1920 as ‘God’s will’, just as later he considered Hitler ‘an instrument of God’s Providence’. For Ljotić, God was the universal ‘domaćin’ (pater familias), the King was the ‘domaćin’ of a nation and the man is the ‘domaćin’ of the family; this was Ljotić’s patriarchal worldview which would influence both ZBOR and the Government of National Salvation later on. Ljotić’s anti-parliamentarism would also cause him to resign from being the Minister of Justice in 1931 because King Aleksandar rejected his draft constitution based on the Italian and German models. Shortly after, Ljotić gets involved in different nationalist movements from different parts of Yugoslavia, always seeking to speak his truth to power.

As the head of ZBOR, Ljotić’s first objective was to legalise the organisation and make it a legitimate political party in order to participate in the 1935 Yugoslav elections. Even though

ZBOR attracted the clergy, police officers, military officials and wealthy farmers, it was not able to obtain even 1% at the elections. But nonetheless, ZBOR had a considerable impact on Yugoslav politics; in 1937 the newly formed Yugoslav government of Milan Stojadinović shifted visibly to the right. Stojadinović even tried to emulate the German and the Italian models: he set up pro-regime trade unions, organised the ‘green shirts’, increased surveillance and introduced some anti-Semitic legislation. Inevitably, Stojadinović and Ljotić became political adversaries for the reason that their agendas somewhat converged. Both men tried to discredit one another: Ljotić called Stojadinović unoriginal for copying Mussolini and Stojadinović blamed Ljotić for being a German-financed fifth column. Many ZBOR members were even invited to assume government positions, e.g. Velibor Jonić and Danilo Gregorić who would also be part of the 1941-1944 government. Stojadinović allegedly stated: ‘ZBOR wants what I want, therefore there is no place for ZBOR’, so eventually in 1938, ZBOR rallies and publications were banned and some members (including Ljotić himself) arrested. But in 1939, due to heightened internal tensions and Stojadinović’s ambitiousness, Prince Pavle removed Stojadinović from power, to the dismay of Italy and Germany. The new Prime Minister was the malleable and undistinguished Dragiša Cvetković, the Foreign Minister was the pro-Nazi Cincar-Marković and General Milan Nedić, a WWI hero, became the Minister of the Army. During his time in office, Nedić was in contact with Ljotić and helped him publish his ‘Bilten’ illegally, which soon became influential in the Royal Yugoslav Army. In August 1939, Ljotić predicted that after attacking England and France as the pillars of liberalism, Hitler would eventually attack the Soviet Union in an attempt to eradicate communism; Ljotić did not believe in the victory of the Axis, calling Mussolini and Hitler ‘unconscious agents of bolshevism’. Duobus litigantibus, tertius gaudet; Ljotić feared that while the ‘democracies’ battle the Axis, communism would prevail. But at the time, ZBOR and Ljotić were already marginalised and unpopular, so those predictions were unheard. Ljotić saw communism as the main threat to the national interests of the Serbian people and rejected the idea of siding with the Soviets; the Soviet state could not be perceived as ‘Russia’ because it ‘turned its back to Christ’. Some compare Zbor to the Ustaša movement, claiming that both facilitated the collapse of Yugoslavia; but Zbor as an illegal underground organisation and Ljotić as an advocate for Yugoslavia’s integrity and neutrality, were unable to ‘help’ the Germans even if they would have the desire to do so.

By early 1941, Yugoslavia was under increasing pressure to sign the Tripartite Pact, since all of its neighbours were hostile and it was in no position to defend itself. Neville Chamberlain admitted that the League of Nations could not protect the ‘little states’ from German aggression. Nonetheless, Prince Pavle and the Yugoslav government were traditionally pro-British but realised they have no choice but to maintain a good relationship with Hitler; they

were caught between affinity for the Allies and alarm about the Axis. By that time, ZBOR lost its legal status and proclaimed guilty of treason for its anti-Croatian rhetoric; Milan Nedić has been removed from government due to his alleged pro-Axis views after proposing to

Pavle to either join the Axis or seek alliance with the Soviets, not wanting for the catastrophe of WWI to repeat. Mostly due to Stojadinović’s pro-German policies and German agents in ZBOR, the German leaders were pro-Serbian (rather than pro-Croatian) and were willing to cooperate with Yugoslavia. On March 4th Prince Pavle and Hitler met in Germany to discuss the signing of the Pact; Pavle insisted that Yugoslavia’s integrity had to be respected and that it would not have to enter the war, Hitler accepted all conditions but refused to publish them. After weeks of negotiations, on March 25th Prince Pavle signed the Pact and it was immediately condemned by the public, causing mass demonstrations chanting slogans like ‘Better grave than slave’. Two days later, Yugoslav general Dušan Simović, backed by the British, staged a bloodless coup and unseated the government. Churchill declared that Yugoslavia has ‘found its soul’, recognising the new government but was unaware that the motivations were actually anti-Pavle, not anti-Axis. Prince Pavle was unpopular among the military, considered to be lukewarm to national traditions and responsible for the Sporazum with Croatia of 1939, which angered Serbian nationalists.

For Hitler, the coup was a betrayal which had to be ‘punished with inexorable severity’; operation ‘Retribution’ began on April 6th with the bombing of Belgrade and the April War started. Ljotić and Nedić were the only prominent Yugoslav politicians to go to the front, to the north border and south border respectively. On the 17th of April, after the unconditional surrender of the Yugoslav Army, the Germans had to start developing a plan on how to govern the rump state of Serbia and choose the head of the new puppet state. The first choice was Ljotić but they concluded that a Ljotić government would be a political failure; years of political struggle against Stojadinović compromised him. Ljotić himself agreed that an ‘uncompromised man with recognised authority should be responsible for the nation’, therefore making him ‘unsuitable’.  Jovan Byford claims that Ljotić had a ‘Führer complex’ which made him reject any secondary positions in the administration but in fact Ljotić preferred to be its ‘attorney before the domestic and foreign public’, knowing he would have more freedom and influence. Like Charles Maurras in France, Ljotić considered the collapse of the old state, which he blamed for the defeat, to be beneficial for the national regeneration; he saw Germany as a bulwark against communism. Nedić believed that eventually Serbia would be independent and saw German occupation as a painful but necessary stage towards renewal. In fact, the defeat was later compared to the Kosovo Battle ‘which awakens new forces more than a victory’. Germans, on the other hand, considered Serbia an ‘emergency state’ which had to fulfil specific tasks, e.g. liquidating the communist threat, and mistrusted the Serbs, using the doctrine of collective responsibility to ensure cooperation. After the failure of the first administration, the Germans pressured Nedić into heading the new one, threatening him with Bulgarian expansion ; Nedić’s conditions like expanding Serbian territory, releasing POWs and giving the administration more authority were rejected. Himmler wrote that ‘anything that would in any way

contribute to the strengthening of the Serbian government must be avoided’ and this attitude influenced official policies until the end of the war.

When it comes to the German invasion of Yugoslavia, temporary economic and strategic considerations prevailed over racial sentiment; it was merely an appendage within the German political-economical space in Europe. German rule was ‘colonial’ like in Poland; Germans were a big part of the bureaucratic apparatus, while the native administration and police were merely cogs of the occupation system, decreasing the degree of German involvement. Any vestiges of sovereignty were abolished in Serbia, the administration was completely subordinated; Serbia had to be a self-sustaining agricultural unit, supplying the occupation forces and fighting against the resistance. The Germans used an ideological smokescreen as a distraction from factual exploitation; the struggle against communism became a ‘holy war’ for Ljotić and his followers, who saw WWII as an apocalyptic ‘fight to the death’ in which each nation had to finds its ‘soul and national path’ in order to survive. Both Ljotić and Nedić were manipulated into thinking that accepting collaboration would prevent a worst outcome: communism, further territorial losses or extinction. ZBOR and VNS became increasingly obsessed with internal enemies like communists and Jews, making a Manichean distinction between forces of good and godless evil, partly because nothing could be done about external enemies. German reprisal policies and the Ustaša treatment of Serbs were sufficient motivations for the collaborators to equate survival to compliance. Although Ljotić never believed in the Nazi victory, he had to strive to it for mostly pragmatic reasons. Because of his views and collaboration, Ljotić is considered a fascist, but it is indeed ‘too one-sided a characterisation’.

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