The German View of Mihailović’s Chetniks in Serbia

RatPlak-22 ri

The report of the ABWER command in Belgrade (written on August 8, 1941) occurs around the same time as the initial orders issued by Mihailović and offers insight into the German perception of the Chetniks. The report stated that the natural goal of the ‘Chetnik bands’ would always be to engage in the struggle against foreign occupation39.
The report noted the fluidity of the situation, stating that many individuals constantly switched between the Chetniks and the Partisans40.
The German commander in Serbia also said that atrocities in neighbouring Croatia, in particular the influx of Serb refugees expelled from Croatia, increased both the manpower and aggressiveness of guerrilla units; the population itself was not described as pro-communist, but many joined the communist-led band because of the terror they faced41.
With regards to Serbia itself, the German commander in Belgrade noted that further unrest could be expected due to the additional shrinkage of Serbian territory – the proposed handover of the Banat region to Hungary (which did not materialise)42 and of Belgrade’s Zemun suburb to Croatia (in October 1941)43.
The Kosovska Mitrovica region in Serbia was identified by the German commanders as another flashpoint, because local Albanians were engaged in an independence movement that could prove troublesome44.

The report included a section on the insurgent movements in Serbia and the ISC. Part of the report devoted to Serbia provides the main reasons for the uprising (from the German perspective)45.
The first reason cited was the speedy recovery from the short war (referring to the April War), which had little or no effect on more remote parts of the country. It further noted Pan-Slavic (Yugoslav and/or pro-Russian?) or communist tendencies and the combining of remnants of ‘the Serbian army’46.
Last but not least, it commented on the side effect of the ethno-religious violence in the neighbouring Independent State of Croatia, which fuelled the insurgent ranks in Serbia (‘Serb refugees, who are expelled from the territories handed over to Croatia (one hundred and ten thousand), Hungary (thirty-seven thousand) and Bulgaria (twenty thousand), without any means and nowhere to go’)47.
The main culprits of the insurgency were identified as the remnants of the former Yugoslav army, ‘communist bandits’ and ‘national units, the Chetniks’48.
The report gave the following assessment of the Chetnik organisation:

The Chetniks are a volunteer military-type organisation (Cheta = Schar, a company), which has existed since the wars of liberation against the Ottomans, and which following the Great War received official status with the creation of the Chetnik Association. The words spoken at the beginning of each secret radio transmission are: ‘These are not communists, these are national Chetniks who are ready to fight for the liberation of Serbia and Yugoslavia’49…’Vojvoda’ (the leader of the band) is the master of life and death with regards to his men, and his will is supreme50

Concerning Vardar Macedonia, the report noted that all Serbs who came to the region after 1918 had to leave Bulgarian-annexed territories there51. Interestingly, it concluded that relations with ‘Macedonians’ were friendly52. It is unclear from this particular wording if the author used a geographic label (meaning the population of Macedonia), or whether he was making an ethnic/national distinction between the Bulgarians and Macedonians53.
Despite the existence of the nominal framework, Nedić’s government had no effective control over the northern and southern periphery of Serbia; in Banat, local Germans were in charge of the (nominally) Serbian security forces, while in the part of the Kosovo region that was included in Serbia, local ethnic Albanians populated security and administrative positions under the watchful eyes of the Germans. The limits of Serbia (or rather Nedić’s regime) are evident from a historical distance, but it took some time for the Chetnik leadership of the day to establish exactly where those limitations lay.
A note from the presentation (held on August 29, 1942)54 of the commander of the SS and police in Serbia to the commander of the armed forces Southeast provides interesting information about the Chetniks in Serbia, and the situation in Banat. The note states that in the Banat region some two thousand Volksdeutsche had been trained for police roles – one thousand utilised as border guards, and the other thousand as town and village guards. In Serbia, Nedić’s forces were known as the Serbian State Guard (Српска државна стража), subdivided into Serbian Border Guards (Српска гранична стража), Serbian Town Guards (Српска градска стража) and Serbian Village Guards
(Српска пољска стража) 55.
In the Banat region (Serbia north of Danube), the Serbian State Guard was known as the Banat Guard (and subdivided into border, town and village segments). The note explains that police authorities in the Banat region were in the hands of the local Germans (Volksdeutsche), although they were nominally subordinated to the Belgrade’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The note also demonstrated the lack of trust Germans placed in their Serbian collaborators: the Serbian police were armed with (captured) arms from the Netherlands and France to keep tight control of the ammunition supply, and although this was not explicitly stated, to track down any leaks in case these weapons were later captured from the Chetniks or Partisans56.

Commenting on the political situation in Serbia, the note moves on to the Chetnik issue. It emphasises that Nedić’s government was carefully ensuring that the-so called government-loyal Chetnik units remained active and under its control (it is unclear if the units in question were those of Kosta Pećanac, the so-called ‘legalised’ Chetniks that came from Mihailović’s organisation and remained tied to him secretly)57.
The author points out that the Chetnik units were often unknown, full of Mihailović’s men, and were using their ‘legal’ standing with the Serbian government to train the population according to the Krümpersystem (used in Prussia from 1807-1812 in order to quickly train the general population for warfare); these units, however, proved quite useless in their effectiveness against ‘the bands’ (presumably the Partisans)58.
Moreover, the note states that the Chetniks lived like idlers, plundered the local population because of the scarce supply of food, and were to be regarded as candidates for an anti-German uprising at the opportune moment, as well as the source of manpower for patching up rebels operating in the ISC. According to the author, it was now proven that a number of these Chetnik units were being rotated in and out of the ISC’s territory59. Thus, these government-loyal Chetnik units represented a danger (the Germans never trusted them), and the author believed that there was no justifiable reason for these troops to exist in an occupied country60.
The Struggle against the Rebel Movement in the area Southeast from June to August 1942, written by the higher military archival advisor Ernst Wisshaupt61 at the request of the German commander of the armed forces Southeast provides a historical narrative of the given period from the German perspective. Regarding the situation in Serbia and Croatia at the end of June 1941, the document noted that a large number of soldiers and officers of the defeated Yugoslav royal army (estimated at 300,000 men) remained outside of Axis captivity. The largest part of the weaponry, ammunition and military equipment also remained in the country. At the beginning of July 1941, close to the town of Aranđelovac (north-east of Topola) in Serbia, armed groups appeared for the first time. The author notes that even the generals of the former Yugoslav army joined these groups. Even west of the River Drina, in Herzegovina (east of Nevesinje) rebel groups started forming in the Italian sphere of influence. The report thus gives a simultaneous timeline with regards to the rise of guerrilla groups in Serbia and Croatia (although, as other research clearly shows, the reasons for these two rebellions were quite different). The author also made no differentiation between the Chetniks and Partisans at this point, nor was there any description of the political goals of the rebels With regards to the uprising in Serbia, the author noted the following:
In case the help of the Serbs is not wanted, then there is only one – very radical – measure, which is to allow neighbouring nations to enter Serbia itself and to create order there once the rebels are destroyed. Such a decision, which can be made only by Berlin, would be welcomed only by Hungarians, Croats, Albanians and Bulgarians. This would have as a consequence the removal of Serbia from the German sphere of influence. This option was apparently announced to the government of Serbia, and it was explained that in case of its uprising against the German occupational troops the country would face a downpour instead of a rain62.

This document is proof that the Germans contemplated dividing occupied Serbia after the rebellion erupted there in the summer of 1941 along the same lines they had implied for dividing occupied Yugoslavia in April 1941. Even if the threat of dividing Serbia had no prior backing by Berlin (i.e. if it was only a tactical move by local German commanders in order to scare Nedić and his associates into anti-communist action), the prospects of Hungarian, Croat (especially the Ustaša), Albanian and Bulgarian troops entering Serbia must have created a powerful effect in Belgrade. Nedić and Mihailović (the latter through his contacts with Nedić’s government in Belgrade) were pushed into a fierce response against the communists in Serbia, in order to prevent the pacification of Serbia by division among the neighbouring Axis states. Thus, it is very likely that the threat of Serbia’s divisions influenced Mihailović’s attack on the communists (in order to force them out of Serbia and quiet down the uprising), i.e. this precipitated the outbreak of the civil war between the communists and the royalists63.
The Report of the Commanding General and Commander in Serbia (dated March 7th, 1943)64 provides clues on the numerical strength of the ‘legalised’ Chetnik forces in Serbia. The report comments that the Wehrmacht disarmed 12,000 men who were in the so-called ‘legalised Chetnik battalions’ during 1942; the units had been abolished (except negligible remnants). It is unclear, however, if this number includes only the ‘legalised’ units under Mihailović’s command, or if the number combines Mihailović’s legalised Chetniks with Pećanac’s Chetnik forces.

The Wehrmacht started the reorganisation of the ‘legalised’ Chetnik units on October 4th, 1942, and completed it by the end of that year (this reorganisation was a general one, encompassing all collaborationist forces in German-occupied Serbia)65.
The ‘legalised’ Chetnik units were disbanded during the reform, and the manpower waseither transferred to the Serbian State Guard, taken to prisoner of war camps or given labour tasks (in Serbia itself, or taken forcefully to factories in Germany or Norway), or simply escaped back into the woods and mountains to rejoin Mihailović’s ‘illegal’ Chetnik forces. The remainder of the report of the operative division of the militaryadministrational Commander of Serbia (dated August 27th, 1943)66 provides detailed information regarding the various armed forces operating in Serbia – including Mihailović’s Chetniks. The German police units were described as being composed of the regular police battalions and auxiliary police battalions comprised of Volksdeutche, Russian immigrants and ‘Albanians in German police uniforms’67. It is unclear where the latter groups operated, but most likely ethnic Albanians were employed in Serbia’s part of Kosovo (and German police uniforms were most likely distributed to them so that they would not have to carry the Serb police insignia in Albanian settlements). Members of the Serbian State Guard (SSG) were described as being dressed in dark green uniforms; according to the German assessment, they were reliable only against the communists (another sign that the Wehrmacht had no trust in Serb collaborationist forces). The border guards (Grenzwache) – a branch of the SSG (Serbian Border Guard) – were described as equally unreliable except against the communists68.
The document noted that Serbia was only superficially peaceful. There were two permanent rebel movements in Serbia (discussed concurrently in the document): the movement led by Mihailović and the communist movement. Mihailović’s movement was described as ‘nationalistic’, with a commanding network throughout Serbia that was secretly mobilising. In various Chetnik headquarters there were ‘numerous English officers’ and the supplies gained through British airdrops were increasing (by that time, the opposite was true). With regards to strategy, the document stated that Chetnik ‘bands are still refraining from open hostilities against occupation forces (because of reprisals), but they are attacking Serb Volunteer Corps, members of the Serbian administration and the communists’69. This assessment demonstrates that German Intelligence in Serbia had a fairly accurate portrayal of the Chetnik mindset and tactical reasoning, including the effects of previous German reprisals against the Serbian civilians. The communist movement was described as a weaker force in Serbia, but where it operated it acted ‘without any compromises’ (presumably attacking the German occupation forces without regard for subsequent reprisals carried out against the civilians).
There is also a general assessment of the Serb and Muslim population in Serbia. German soldiers were cautioned that they should always be on guard with regards to the Serbs: ‘Serbs are nationalists by nature, and they constantly think about the liberation of their homeland – the only differences are with regards to the method and tempo of that struggle’. In contrast to the hostile attitude of the Serb population, ‘the Muslims living in the Novi Pazar – Kosovska Mitrovica – Podujevo area are friendly towards the Germans’’ 70 (here, the author obviously lumped Slavic Muslims and ethnic Albanians together). This document repeats recommendations for respectful behaviour of the German armed forces towards the Muslims (including visiting mosques only when invited, not taking any pictures and not making contact with Muslim women).

39 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 267, s. 880-1. At the time of writing (August 12, 1941), the German military authorities still made no differentiation between Mihailović’s and Pećanac’s Chetnik
movement.
40 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 267, s. 880-1. Even at this early stage of rebel activities and despite Chetnik-Partisan cooperation, German commanders were aware of the Chetniks and
Partisans as separate entities. According to the German commander in Serbia, most attacks on German soldiers, Serbian authorities, railway tracks etc. could be attributed to the communists.
41 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 267, s. 880-1.
42 Hitler verbally promised Banat to Hungary’s leader Miklos de Hagyhanya Horthy, but he never gave a clear timeline for the realisation of this project. On August 6, 1941, a GermanHungarian conference was held in Budapest on the mechanics and implication of Banat’s annexation by Hungary. However, the last word on this issue came from Hitler. For a German report (written on August 9, 1941) from the Budapest conference see AVII, London 2, s. 297962-4).
43 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 267, s. 880-1.
44 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 267, s. 880-1.
45 AVII, NAV-T-312, r . 454, s. 8039155-73.
46 AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 454, s. 8039155-73. It is interesting here that the report uses the term ‘Serbian army’ rather than Yugoslav army.
47 AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 454, s. 8039155-73. Atrocities against the Serbs quickly changed Chetnik behaviour, especially outside Serbia, but also with Serbian Chetniks, creating another major challenge to Mihailović’s original vision.
48 AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 454, s. 8039155-73. The remnants of the Yugoslav army are listed separately from the Chetniks, indicating that the Germans believed the Chetniks came from pre-war Chetnik associations rather than the Yugoslav army (a logical but erroneous conclusion).
49 The civil war between the Chetniks and Partisans was breaking out at the time; this is probably why Chetnik radio transmissions started with a sharp distinction between the two. Interestingly, the citation lists Serbia first and Yugoslavia second; this corresponds to the established Chetnik ideological stance.
50 AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 454, s. 8039155-73. The rest of the report is devoted to other areas, Montenegro and Bulgaria (with the emphasis on former Yugoslav Macedonia). With regards to Montenegro, the report notes that the Serb General Ljuba Novaković was fighting the Italians and Croats in the territory of the former Sandžak of Novi Pazar and northern Montenegro. AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 454, s. 8039155-73. General Ljuba Novaković initially reached Mihailović’s quarters, but they parted ways. He acted (with men under his command) independently from both the Chetniks and the Partisans. Perhaps the report is calling the local Muslims ‘Croats’, and the reference should not be taken to signify Croat armed forces operating in Montenegro (there were none at that time).
51 AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 454, s. 8039155-73. The report states that the Turkish minority was being treated harshly by the Bulgarians, and their religious freedoms had been restricted.
52 AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 454, s. 8039155-73.
53 The German ethnic map of the Yugoslav kingdom from 1940 found in the AVII distinguishes – besides Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – Slavic Muslims, Montenegrins and Macedonians. Curiously, this view mirrors that of the CPY in postwar Yugoslavia (Muslims were added in 1963).
54 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 248, s. 586-93.
55 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 248, s. 586-93
56 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 248, s. 586-93.
57 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 248, s. 586-93.
58 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 248, s. 586-93.
59 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 248, s. 586-93.
60 The note added that the volunteer corps (Serbian Volunteer Corps) were better disciplined, but the author stated that, in the long term, they would likely develop along similar lines and that they should therefore be disbanded as well. The movement of Mihailović was presented as encompassing the territory of the entire former Yugoslavia, that in Serbia the movement was engaged in the recruitment of the entire civil population and organisation of its own units, and that with its supporters the movement had managed to infiltrate Nedić’s government and his armed forces as well. The movement was described as a carrier of open resistance, active in Serbia on the organisational and propaganda fronts (fully aware that in case of massive instability in Serbia it would lose its organisational base). However, the note adds that in the ISC the movement was engaged in an open struggle (although it is not defined why and against whom). Taking all this into account, the German author recommended taking steps so that both Mihailović and Nedić were without any means to engage in armed resistance; he added that it was completely inappropriate to show any trust towards Nedić’s
government because ‘the Serbs are always putting their money on two cards at the time’. Moreover, the author was strongly against the establishment of the Serbian national work service; according to the author, such an organisation would transmit the ‘national-socialist ideological good’ to the Serbs, including establishing organisations with political and premilitary training. The bottom line was that the head of the SS and police in Serbia expressed (and recommended) a complete mistrust of the Serbs, including Nedić and his government (as German-created occupation tools). AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 248, s. 586-93.
61 A copy of the original is located in AVII, Na, Reg. No. 18/1, k. 70. The original document contained 247 pages, one detailed map of the area and numerous figures and illustrations.
62 AVII, Na, Reg. No. 18/1, k. 70.
63 A similar threat to divide Serbia among the neighbouring Axis satellite states was apparently used by the Germans to convince Nedić to form his government in the first place.
64 AVII, NAV-T-501, r. 249, s. 60-4.
65 For more information on the ‘legalised’ Chetnik formations, the Wehrmacht reorganisation of the collaborationist forces in Serbia and the fate of manpower from the disbanded units see: AVII, NAV-T-312, r. 464, s. 8056660-2, s. 80507172-8; T-315, r. 2258, s. 1049-63; r. 2242, s.
412-7; Ca, Reg. No. 1/1, k. 30; Reg. No. 2/4, k. 61; Reg. No. 1/3, k. 120; Reg. No. 1/15, k. 18.
66 AVII, NAV-T-313, r. 174, s. 7454202-6.
67 AVII, NAV-T-313, r. 174, s. 7454202-6.
68 AVII, NAV-T-313, r. 174, s. 7454202-6.
69 AVII, NAV-T-313, r. 174, s. 7454202-6.
70 AVII, NAV-T-313, r. 174, s. 7454202-6.

(The Transformation of Mihailović’s Chetnik Movement: From Royalist Yugoslav Forces to Serb Nationalist Guerrillas, by Aleksandar Petrovic. M.A. (History), Simon Fraser University, 2003, B.A. (History), University of British Columbia, 2000, p. 91-99)

Comments are closed.