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: Both Croatia and Serbia had pro-Axis governments during World War II. All of the nations of Yugoslavia had elements which supported the Axis and all had elements that were anti-Axis during the War. However, it was the Croatian dominated Partisans, led by the Croatian Josip Broz Tito which formed the only true anti-Fascist 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 Stojadinovic.
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 title. 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. A secret protocol was attached to the Axis pact which promised Yugoslavia access to the Aegean Sea at the expense of Greece in the New Order.
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. Belgrad 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 safe 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 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 Cetniks who wanted to restore the Serbian monarchy and the Communist-led Partisans, the Croatian State joined the Axis and later sent troops to the Russian front.
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 Herzegovina 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 of the Croatian 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 spheres of influence. Roosevelt canceled 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 Cetniks
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 Cetniks which had existed as an all-Serbian para-military police force under Alexander and Paul to enforce loyally from non-Serbian members of the armed forces. When Yugoslavia disintegrated, one faction of cetniks 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 Partisans 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. Ninty-five per cent of the Jewish population of Serbia was exterminated.
Still other Cetniks 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 Cetniks were inflicting great damage on the Axis, the Cetniks did little for the war effort and openly collaborated with the Germans and Italians while fighting Ustase and Partizans. At its peak, Mihailovic's Cetniks claimed to have three hundred thousand troops. In fact they never numbered over thirty-one thousand.
Mihailovic was executed in 1946 for treason. The extent of Cetnik collaboration with the German and Italian armies as well as their vicious war against the pro-Allied Partisans is well documented in dozens of books, including Professor J. Tomasevich's scholarly and definitive work The Chetniks.
The Partisans, 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 Partisans and thirty-nine of the Partisan's eighty brigades were Croatian. On June 22, 1941 Croatian Partisans began what would come to be known as the War of Liberation in Yugoslavia. On July 13, 1943 a Democratic Republic of Croatia under the leadership of Andrija Hebrang was declared in those areas occupied by the Croatian Partisan forces. As the war progressed more and more Croatians, especially from Dalmatia, joined the Partisans. 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 Partisans were the only recognized Allied force fighting in Yugoslavia. 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, were occupied by the Axis and had governments which collaborated with the Axis. Both Croatia and Serbia also had Partisan 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 by Belgrade's mythology.