Nazi Reprisal Policy in Serbia Shamelessly Exploited by the Yugoslav Communists
By Aleksandra Rebic
On September 6, 1941, following the successful attacks by Mihailovich forces against the Germans in Western Serbia, Adolph Hitler issued the decree that for every German killed, 100 Serbian hostages would be shot. For every German wounded, 50 Serbs would be shot. This decree would be posted throughout Belgrade, Serbia on September 13, 1941. The Germans were not kidding.
General Boehme, the German Commanding General of the occupation forces in Serbia from September 16 to December 2 of 1941, issued three orders to supplement Hitler’s decree. These orders were dated September 25, October 14, and November 10 of 1941. “Order to the German Army in Serbia” was the first of Boehme’s orders, and it was unequivocal in its lack of mercy:
“As a result of the Serbian rebellion, hundreds of German soldiers have been killed. Our losses will be enormous unless we crush the rebellion without mercy.
Your task always is to be in total control in every village in this country in which German blood was shed also in 1914.
The heavy hand of our retribution must be felt by the entire population of Serbia. Those who show them pity, thereby, deny pity to their own. Any such person will be court martialed, whoever he may be.”
Thousands of Mihailovich’s followers would pay with their lives in the German reprisals that followed each successful action against the Nazi forces in Serbia by the Chetnik forces. Posters listing the names of the executed were put on display throughout Belgrade. Tito’s Serbian followers were also included as targets of the reprisals, however there were two primary differences in sacrifice. Tito’s followers were highly mobile, while those civilians that followed Mihailovich tended to be tied closely to their homes and families. The second, and most significant difference, was that when it came to reprisals against the Serbian civilian population, Tito did not care. He was more than willing to sacrifice Serbian lives, while General Draza Mihailovich did care, so much so, that it would greatly affect how he would conduct his resistance actions against the Nazi enemy in the future. This concern would end up being used against him by the communists.
Still, General Mihailovich and his forces would continue the resistance against the Germans. General Bader, who succeeded General Boehme as the Commander of the German Army in Serbia, would publish his own proclamation on January 29, 1943:
“A band of outlaws, led by the former Colonel Draza Mihailovich, goes on fighting. These outlaws misrepresent themselves as the regular Yugoslav army with the intention of continuing the war which was lawfully ended by authorized officials a long time ago.”
General Bader was referring to the quick capitulation of the official Yugoslav Army in April of 1941 when the Germans attacked Yugoslavia, successfully occupying the country, and the subsequent Nedich administration established in Serbia. General Mihailovich did not surrender, but took his people into the hills to mount the first successful resistance to the Nazis in all of occupied Europe through the guerrilla warfare made legendary by the Chetniks in previous wars.
Bader, like Boehme, like Hitler, was merciless. One of the methods used by the Germans to punish Mihailovich’s “outlaws” was to imprison their families and close relatives.
General Mihailovich addressed the atrocities being committed by the German army, addressing the German commander, directly:
“It is now a year and a half since I began a life and death battle to rid the country of occupation forces. Our fighting spirit is based on our traditional love of freedom and unshakable faith in the victory of our allies…For every German soldier killed or missing in action, you are executing a hundred innocent Serbian victims. I warn you of the impending judgment for your misdeeds. I will subject German soldiers to the same treatment unless you suspend your bestial reprisals.”
General Mihailovich’s response to the German reprisals, though made in Lipovo, reached Hitler. Hitler took Mihailovich seriously for he was well aware of the damage the Chetniks had done and could do in sabotaging his plans. On February 16, 1943, just days after Mihailovich’s declaration, Hitler wrote to his colleague in the fascist cause, Mussolini, whose Italian forces had occupied western Yugoslavia:
“In addition to the current operations against the communists I see, Duce, I perceive a particular long term danger in the plans of Mihailovich’s followers to destroy or disarm your own forces in Hercegovina and Montenegro [Yugoslavia]…Being conscious of the danger posed by Mihailovich’s movement, I ordered my forces to destroy all his detachments in the occupied territory. I would consider it desirable for your Second Army similarly to treat Mihailovich and his officers as sworn enemies of the Axis.
”I ask you, Duce, to instruct your military commanders accordingly. It goes without saying that the liquidation of Mihailovich’s detachments will not be a simple task, considering the forces at his disposal…The territories occupied by these bands should be cordoned off carefully and resistance should be stifled by starvation and interdiction of supplies. The remnants of those forces will then be destroyed definitively in a concentric attack.”
Hitler’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop delivered Hitler’s message to Mussolini in Rome and the Duce replied on March 13, 1943, agreeing with the German appraisal:
“Minister von Ribbentrop has surely informed you, Fuehrer, about the conversations we had concerning the Partisans and the Chetniks. We totally agree that the Partisans and the Chetniks are equally hostile to the Axis and that in case of an Allied landing they will assist the invasion forces to our grave detriment. Although the Partisan radio treats Mihailovich as a traitor, he is therefore no less an enemy of ours…”
As it would turn out, Mussolini’s appraisal of Partisan hostility toward the Axis gave too much credit to Tito’s communists, who would become far more hostile toward the Chetniks than they ever were toward the Germans.
The reprisal policy of the Germans against Serbian civilians would come to haunt even their own generals. After the war, testifying before the Yugoslav communist court in November 1947, General Meisner, another German commander in Serbia, perhaps in an attempt to cleanse his soul, regretted how the orders from Berlin were expedited. His testimony before the communist court would include condemnation of the extent to which the German reprisal policy was shamelessly exploited by the Yugoslav communists and its consequence:
“The seeds of tragedy were sown by the communists who would descend from the mountains into the towns and villages of Serbia, ambush some German officer, and then again disappear in the mountains, lacking courage to join in battle with German troops and to accept the consequences of their raids. As soon as German troops would appear in the area, they would sneak back into the forest leaving the defenseless people behind to pay the price for their acts.”
This German appraisal came sixteen months after General Mihailovich had been executed, not by German hands but by Yugoslav hands, the very same that had exploited the German reprisal policy against their own brothers and sisters in Yugoslavia.
A tragic fratricidal war developed in Yugoslavia shortly after the Axis occupied the country. This fratricidal war would ultimately prove to be far more destructive in its consequences for the future of that country and its people than the occupation itself. Long after Hitler and his people were gone, Tito and his people, those that would come to power following the exit of the Nazis, would do more damage than the Germans had ever done in Yugoslavia.
Innocent Serbian civilians, said General Meisner, paid the price for communist exploitations. General Mihailovich, too, paid with his life, and ironically it was the Germans who provided the most honest testament to his dedication to the fight for freedom in Yugoslavia.
Who knows how things would have gone in Yugoslavia during World War II had the German reprisal policy not been a factor. General Mihailovich certainly considered it a primary factor in planning his actions against the enemy. His policy was simple: Consider the benefit and effectiveness of the action against the enemy in proportion to the human cost it would entail against your own people. Mihailovich would wage his resistance accordingly. Tito’s policy, too, was simple, brutally simple: He did not care about human cost.
The Germans understood this. As history would prove, the British did not, and their lack of understanding and appreciation for this very simple fact about Tito would effectively enable him to fulfill his agenda and rise to power with the help and support of the very Allies whom he disdained.
0ctober 31, 2006