The Yugoslav Partisans and the Nazis – A war story by Tito’s man turned political prisoner, Milovan Djilas
Aleksandra’s Note: The story of Milovan Djilas is that of a communist who became disillusioned with his boss, Marshal Tito. For his “disillusionment”, he was jailed as a political prisoner in Yugoslavia multiple times. Thankfully, for the sake of the historical record, he wrote a lot. In 1995 Milovan Djilas died a “free man”, leaving behind a number of war stories that deserve to be “revisited”, especially now given the current events in Serbia with regards to the movement to officially rehabilitate Tito’s nemesis, General Draza Mihailovich and his Chetniks. The following is a chapter from “Wartime” which was published in 1977, while Josip Broz Tito was still alive.
WARTIME, by Milovan Djilas
Part IV. In the Cauldron
Translated by Michael B. Petrovich
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977)
Some dozen Germans were captured in the Gornji Vakuf battles, among them a high-ranking officer by the name of Stoecker, a short man of dignified bearing. The idea came up in a conversation involving [Vlatko] Velebit, [Alexander-Leka] Rankovic, Tito, and myself that a letter be sent to the Germans through the captured Major Stoecker, offering the captured German in exchange for our arrested comrades, especially since the Germans had agreed to such an arrangement in 1942.
It was Tito who developed the idea – or rather, immediately sought ways of putting it into effect. He brought together the Central Committee members – Rankovic, Pijade and me – in his water mill by the Rama River, and suggested that we send a letter to the Germans through Major Stoecker proposing, in addition to an exchange of prisoners, that the wounded and prisoners be treated according to international conventions, and demanding specifcally that the Germans recognize us as a “belligerent force.” We had been briefed before in detail on the issues of the “belligerent force” by Vlatko Velebit, who was a good lawyer. The covering letter bore the seal of the Supreme Staff, but [Velimir] Terzic’s signature, not Tito’s. However, it was clear to the Germans that the offer had been made with the knowledge and approval of the supreme command: they knew that our movement was centralized. Our assumption was that the Germans would not easily agree to our proposal, and we phrased the proposal in a way that left room for negotiation. [p229]
This Central Committee meeting was held the day after the Chetniks had been defeated on the Neretva, and a passage had been cleared across the Prenj highlands. But this hardly brought our difficulties to an end. What if the Germans attacked us after the breakthrough, and tied up our forces while they were protecting the passage of our wounded? The number of wounded in our central hospital alone had risen to four thousand, while typhus fever had hit some of our units hard, despite the vigilance and care of our medical corps: the regions along the way were infected, as were the houses we stayed in and the clearings where we bivouacked. What was to become of our basic plan to rally in southern Serbia? We would disintegrate before we even got started.
Besides, the Chetniks were a problem for us – more of a political than a military one. What if the Allies landed and came upon broad areas of Chetniks, most of whom would join them? Even if no landing took place, the Chetniks could hold on for a long time in league with the occupation forces, perhaps to the war’s end, and then get support from the British, as from the Royal Army.
Surprisingly, we received an answer from the Germans within two or three days: the message that we could immediately send our negotiators was signed by an officer and sealed with an eagle. On the day the German reply came – March 9, 1943 – another meeting was held, attended only by Tito, Rankovic and myself, to appoint a delegation and work out tactics to deal with a hypothetical German offer. Tito regarded the matter as so delicate and important that he proposed that I be appointed to the delegation as a member of the Politburo. No one raised any objection, and I did not demur. I knew enough German to follow a conversation and get along somehow or other. After all, we didn’t intend to discuss Goethe and Kant. Tito also felt that a senior commander should go: Koca Popovic was designated; he knew German fairly well. Vlatko Velebit’s participation in the delegation was taken for granted; he had shown adroitness in handling the exchange with the Germans in Livno, and he knew German so well – he had studied it in Vienna – that the Germans thought he was Viennese.
The tactics to be followed in the negotiations could only be formulated generally, especially since Tito did not get into hypothetical situations and strategies. The Germans were not to know that our chief objective was to penetrate into Serbia, or that we intended to occupy northern Montenegro, Sandzak, and parts of Kosovo and southern Serbia. We were aware of German sensitivity with regard to Serbia as a central Balkan region with a strongly anti-German population and a sense of national identity. [p230]
But we had to offer them something convincing: Sandzak was the most expendable, being our poorest and most backward territory, while the Chetniks were an enemy of ours of whom the Germans were also apprehensive – though they had not fought against one another in some time, but on the contrary were collaborating, as on the Neretva.
In short, we were to name Sandzak as the future Partisan territory, and the Chetniks as our main enemy. The question of our position with regard to the Italians was to be avoided, but in extremity it had to be defined sharply: as long as the Italians were arming the Chetniks and collaborating with them, clashes could not be ruled out.
There was not a word about the cessation of fighting between the Germans and ourselves, but this too was understood. Tito’s views and reactions could be summed up as follows: while we were spreading and growing stronger, the Germans would grow weaker, and then we would see.
This was never clearly outlined, but it followed in part from the actual situation, and in part from Tito’s thought – sufficiently, so that everything took shape in my consciousness. I would not make public the essence of these negotiations with the Germans, if they had not already been made widely known abroad. (n1) Moreover, some Yugoslav historians as well – among them, Vladimir Dedijer in 1967 – have tried to explore the course and content of these negotiations. The official Yugoslav silence has only enhanced the rumor. There is no reason for this silence today, except to preserve the idealized image of the leaders of the Yugoslav revolution, as if it weren’t sufficient for them to have carried out an original revolution.
We were in agreement on the course of the negotiations, though Tito was the least skeptical of all. I raised the question, “What will the Russians say?”
Tito replied almost angrily – in anger at the Russians, not me – “Well, they also think first of their own people and their own army!”
That was the first time that a Politburo member – and it was Tito – expressed so vehemently any difference with the Soviets: a difference not in ideology, but in life. I was very pleased with Tito’s reaction: yes, it was clear to me that we were beginning to differ with the Soviets over a very sensitive question – the most sensitive of all – and one that was vital to us. Had someone asked me then if this divergence from the Soviets agreed with our ideology, I would have replied, “Well, our struggle is also a contribution to the Marxist-Leninist teaching.” In other words, as long as life fits into the ideology – as long as the ideology makes possible a productive orientation – the ideology is alive. [p231]
Besides, Tito had already received Moscow’s reply. At the same time as the letter to the Germans, a dispatch had been sent to Moscow which mentioned only an exchange of prisoners. But this time Moscow was quick and discerning, and we received an immediate and angry reply, true to style: Is it possible that you who were an example to all of enslaved Europe – you who have until now shown such heroism – will cease the struggle against the worst enemy of mankind and of your people?
The next day Koca Popovic joined us, and the delegation met with Tito; this time there was less attention to detail than at the meetings of the Central Committee. On the evening of March 10 Tito left for the Neretva. That same day we were informed that the Germans had entered Prozor: our defensive units were crossing the Rama while our heavy weapons – howitzers and mortars captured from the Italians – were being put out of commission and dumped in the river.
The three of us spent the night in the little mill. At the break of day on March 11, 1943, we set out for Prozor with a little white flag on a stick. The last of our units had crossed the Rama and the wooden bridge over the river was in flames; meanwhile the Second Proletarian Brigade was dispersing the Chetniks around Lake Borak.
About a dozen kilometers of highway along a terraced hill separated the little mill from Prozor. We made our way without haste, but we were tense, expecting to come across the Germans at any moment. However, there was no sign of them, nor any noise or movement. We felt extremely anxious: what if we came across the Ustashi first? We decided we would show them the German letter, bluff them into thinking that hundreds of captured Germans were involved, and tell them that the Germans were expecting us. Yet we weren’t sure that the Ustashi would give a damn about all this; they might simply slaughter us on their own. In our desperation, we joked and insisted that Velebit should be the one to carry the white flag because he had the lowest rank.
We reached Prozor without meeting a soul along the way. In Prozor we spotted a German sentry in front of an old fortress. He stepped into the house next to his post; we understood that he was telephoning the command of our arrival, which reassured us. Going on, we reached the first few cottages, which were demolished and charred, where some ten Germans sprang forward with pointed tommy-guns; one of them, an officer, demanded sharply – much more sharply than we had expected – that we identify ourselves. Velebit handed him the letter, while the soldiers took away our pistols – in accordance with international law. [p232]
With the German escort on all sides of us, we proceeded down the main street. To the left, along the walls of a razed house, several Ustashi, in tatters and half-uniforms, were doling out breakfast. We stopped for a moment – I no longer remember why – and as the Ustashi gazed on us in astonishment, one said, pointing at me, “That one sure has nice shoes!” The officer escorted us into a little house on the right and set up a guard. We waited for about an hour, then another officer let us out and put us in an automobile blindfolded. We were still tense, but now we were curious as well. Trucks frequently roared by, and occasionally a tank rumbled past. Since we couldn’t see them, they sounded all the louder – like heavy iron rods hurtled down a chute. We spoke sparingly, even reluctantly. Koca could not resist his own cynicism: “That’s nice! We’ve just moved out of the Rama Valley and they’re pouring two divisions into it. That valley is so narrow that they’ll need a lot of time and a lot of thought to get them out again.”
We were not surprised when our car stopped in Gornji Vakuf. We knew by the incline where we were going. Our blindfolds were removed and immediately we were taken into a small building to the left of the road. We were led up a flight of wooden stairs and into a little room. Behind a table sat a German lieutenant-general, the commander of the 717th Division which we had just recently pinned down, He was a ruddy man, graying, in his fifties, with cultivated manners and very neat. I now know from published documents that his name was Benignus Dippold. He didn’t shake hands with us, but with cold courtesy invited us to sit opposite him, on previously arranged chairs.
The general immediately pointed out that he was not empowered to discuss the matters at issue, but would listen to us and report. Our conversation with the general lasted for a little over an hour, and was terse and tense, for the simple reason that he wanted to gain as much as possible while giving nothing.
We concluded our talks around eleven o’clock, when the general told us that we would have to await the reply of his superiors. Again he didn’t shake hands, though he was now less reserved. They put us up some fifty yards away, in a small one-story building, in a room with three plain beds covered with blankets. In Gornji Vakuf one could hardly find better lodgings; not even the general’s was much better.
We were now under the jurisdiction of the military intelligence service of the Abwehr. We had not expected anything of the sort, and would have preferred to remain under the army. [p233]
Immediately two intelligence officers joined us who talked with us more out of curiosity than to ferret out secrets. They behaved properly and unobtrusively, and did not ask questions regarding our mission. This was their first contact with high Partisan officers, and they were interested in our mentality. We in turn were interested in them, all the more so in that they departed from our preconception of German officers as narrow chauvinists or fanatical racists.
One of them was a captain, slender and very handsome, and the other, I believe, a major, rather heavy and with a coarse face. They took care not to linger with us, and we not to provoke them by attacks on Nazism, but neither side concealed its views. Moreover, they were rather defensive, more concerned with Germany and the German army than with Hitler and Nazism. What surprised me more than anything during all these negotiations was how little of the Nazi ideology and mentality was evident in the German army, which did not seem at all like an unthinking automated machine. Officer-soldier relations seemed less disciplined and more cordial than in other armies. The junior officers ate out of the soldiers’ kettle, at least here on the battlefield. Moreover, their army did not appear particularly organized or blindly obedient. Its militancy and homogeneity sprang from vital national sources rather than from Nazi discipline. Like any other men, they were unhappy that events had embroiled them in a war, but once embroiled they were resolved to win, to avoid a new and worse defeat and shame.
We had agreed that only Koca Popovic would give his real name: because he had introduced himself as the commander of the First Division, it made no sense to conceal it, and the Germans probably knew of him through prisoners. Velebit changed his surname to Petrovic for fear of reprisals against his family, while I assumed a common name – one borne by a Montenegrin hero of long ago: Milos Markovic. I was too prominent a figure to reveal myself, and too tempting a prisoner for the Gestapo in case the Germans reneged on their bargain. Later, when Velebit and I went to Zagreb to negotiate, I permitted Velebit to give his real name and to visit his family. The Germans in Gornji Vakuf took photographs of us by surprise, but I covered my face. Later, when Velebit and I arrived in Sarajevo, I caught sight of one of our deserters in the corridor of the German command, and tried to cover up. I am convinced that he recognized me, but I don’t think that he reported me. Thus my pseudonym remained unidentified until the publication of Roberts’s book. (n2) [p234]
Prior to that, only Vladimir Dedijer had mentioned – in the third edition of his Diary, published in 1972 – that I was with Velebit in Zagreb.
Yet the German officers in Gornji Vakuf were not deceived by our secrecy. When I told them that I was the quartermaster of a division, the coarse major remarked with irony, “This one is their commissar!”
On the morning of March 14 both officers wished Koca a happy birthday with cordially ironic expressions. Koca wasn’t at all taken aback; he thanked them and added, “That was easy enough for you to find out: the Belgrade police have had a file on me for a long time.”
The German officers spoke with contempt of the Chetniks and the Home Guards. And the Ustashi, they said, were cruel, and had no experience or real military organization. We agreed with this analysis, adding that the Ustashi fought like desperadoes. They asked us where we got all those mortars. We replied that we took them away from the Italians. To which they retorted with devilish irony, “Of course! Who else? Our dear allies!”
Both officers had fought on the Eastern front. They did not think very highly of the Red Army. The coarse major said, “They surrendered in droves. In 1941 only small isolated units put up any real resistance.”
But the handsome captain added, making a clucking sound, “In front of Moscow, the Siberian divisions were wonderful. They fought to the last man.” He wore a ribbon on his lapel, for a wound he received at Moscow.
The defeat at Stalingrad bothered them, though they belittled its importance: “So what? We lost two to three hundred thousand men, but in some operations the Russians lost a million!” We argued that this wasn’t at all the same, that Stalingrad had come after a year and a half of war, on foreign soil, when there were no longer any surprises. They replied that no one had a monopoly on the fortunes of war. They regarded Africa as a secondary theater of war, though one could feel their dread of the American potential.
When we commented on the unprovoked nature of their attack on the Soviet Union, they replied, “It had to come. Russia would have attacked us the minute we became engaged in the West.” We did not deny such a possibility, but held that just as there was no victory in the East, there would be no compromise in the West. Though they spoke of a German victory, we were under the impression that they were simply hoping for an outcome which wouldn’t bring ruin to Germany. [p235]
When we tried to prove to them the hopelessness of Germany’s position, they replied, “Others are giving thought to this.” They never once said, “The Führer is thinking for us!”
They thought highly of the fighting qualities and discipline of the Partisans, but they were horrified at our warfare. The handsome one said, “Look what you have done to your own country! A wasteland, cinders. Women are begging in the streets, typhus is raging, children are dying of hunger. And we wish to bring you roads, electricity, hospitals.”
We did not deny Yugoslavia’s backwardness, but we added, “Still, one could get along here until the Germans attacked. Perhaps you would give us roads and electricity, but in exchange for our ores and our food!”
We demonstrated the senselessness of their warfare against us. “We can’t be beaten,” I insisted. “Even if you destroyed our organization, we would regroup somewhere else, our other units would stay intact.”
Koca added, “1 can slip my division through your ranks whenever I want – tonight, if you like!”
The coarse major conceded: “Yes, it’s easy to make war that way – a piece of bread and some bullets in a bag, and off you go into the mountains!”
“We can make an exchange if you like; we get the tanks and motorized equipment, and you . . .”
“You’ll never get your hands on that – never!” the coarse one shouted.
The food was good – soldier’s fare. They gave us cigarettes, then offered us liquor, but we declined it. We were served by a Croat, a young man from the Devil’s Division, who was ashamed to look us in the eye, let alone talk to us. Was this chance, or did the Germans wish to confront us with the bad blood among our own people?
We stayed in Gornji Vakuf until March 14, waiting for the negotiations to begin. But no answer came, so we decided that Koca should go back, which he did that day. Later that same day an order came through directing us to Sarajevo. The officers returned our ammunition, on condition that we not load our guns. Velebit and I took an almost cordial leave of them, before we drove off in a military car.
In Sarajevo the Germans put us up in the apartment of a dark-skinned, pretty woman of thirty – a Serb and, if I’m not mistaken, the wife of a captured officer. She received us graciously – almost as if we were relatives – though she was on intimate terms with the German officers staying in her apartment. She hated the Ustashi, and saw in us Serbs who weren’t very smart, but Serbs nevertheless. Her apartment was on the bank of the MiljackaRiver, luxuriously and tastefully furnished. And like all Serbian women she was an excellent cook. [p236]
The next day [March 15] we were escorted to the German command, which was located in the building known as the Konak. This was the headquarters of General (later Field Marshal) Alexander Lohr. We were taken to Section 1C, that is, to the Abwehr, where we were received by several high-ranking officers. The conversation was informative and restrained on both sides. They mostly asked questions, and we tried to say as little as possible. We stayed within the limits of set positions. The Germans made no commitment other than that they would exchange prisoners. The atmosphere was not menacing or even unpleasant. The Germans then demanded that, prior to any negotiations, sabotage on the Zagreb-Belgrade railroad be stopped immediately. However, we did not commit ourselves to this, but tied everything to the recognition of our rights as a belligerent.
It was our impression that this was only the beginning of our talks. But then the Germans came to a standstill, which led us to believe that they didn’t know when the negotiations might continue. I decided to go back, but to leave Velebit in Sarajevo so he could let me know if the negotiations were to continue; if not, he was to come back, too. Since the Germans insisted that we send back Major Stoecker and the other prisoners as soon as they could be rounded up, I asked to have one German come with me so we would give them a definite answer.
I left Sarajevo for Konjic in a truck with a semi-trailer driven by a noncommissioned officer, which was to bring back Major Stoecker. The noncom was rather short, apparently obtuse, and spoke reluctantly in some dialect; he may have been a Yugoslav “Schwab.”
The road was bumpy and the land devastated, but we traveled unhindered. At Konjic the noncom received information concerning the sector where Rankovic and I had agreed that I would cross over. This was some four to five kilometers south of Konjic, where the Germans held the highway while our side held the heights. The noncom and I immediately drove there.
On the highway the Germans took cover behind tanks, and brought several wounded men there for protection. From a jagged crest the Partisans were firing in short bursts, the bullets whistling all about us, so we stopped below an overhanging cliff. The noncom quickly explained our mission to an officer, and while the soldiers gazed at us with curiosity, he and I ran across the meadow overlooking the road.
Near the top of a hill small groups of Germans were making their way through the bushes. Several Stukas swooped down, circled around the crest with great noise, and then dove headlong to plaster the heights with volleys of bombs. [p237]
A battery on the right bank of the Neretva also began to pound the crest, which seemed to be swaying in the gleaming light. The Germans rushed forward under a cloud of smoke. I was almost indifferent, although it never left my mind that my comrades were dying on the crest of the hill. But when the Stukas descended into the valley and, one by one, greeted their troops by dipping their wings, I was overcome by a bitter envy.
Apparently the Germans had taken the hill, for the fire had subsided. The escort and I had to climb up the slope. We came upon two Germans, one of whom was unwinding a telephone cable from his back. On the hillside a German was resting, screened by a crag. On the ground below lay a young Partisan, in a brand-new Italian overcoat, woolen peasant stockings, and peasant shoes; the image of our fervent hopes, our victories, and our backwardness. Driven back by the attack, the Partisans hadn’t managed to take him away.
We rested and smoked. The Germans received us calmly, as if they hadn’t just been through a skirmish. “They didn’t get us. If it hadn’t been for the Stukas, we would have gotten ours!” They spoke about their experience as if it had been a quarrel in a tavern.
Carefully sticking out my head, I surveyed the scene: a rocky valley with sparse underbrush, ending with a ridge on the horizon. “Where are the Partisans?” I asked a German officer, trying to find our units with his binoculars.
“Over there!” He waved toward the ridge.
It was around three in the afternoon. I began to call out, “Comrades, don’t shoot! I’m a Partisan! I’m returning from a parley!” I shouted it several times loud and clear. Not a sound or sign of life from the other side.
I told my escort to stay under cover: the Partisans might be suspicious on seeing me with a German. I emerged from my shelter and started to run, but after fifteen paces a volley of bullets rained down on my left. I shouted, “Don’t shoot! I’m a Partisan!” Two short volleys answered me, ricocheting on the rocks all around. I returned at a fast pace, but not at a run, to my shelter. Again I called, again I went out, and once more was turned back by volleys showering on the crags nearby. While I was returning to my shelter a German soldier in a helmet, and with a martial air just like in the posters, snapped at me, “You should be more careful. They’re good shots!” [p238]
I was probably never closer to death, but not even for a moment did I feel danger, at least not the reflexive kind to which one reacts with a quick jump or a fall. Rankovic later explained what had happened: there had been a change of units, and the outgoing commander hadn’t passed the word on that I would be crossing over in that sector.
There was nothing for me to do but to make my way at night, when at least they couldn’t aim with such precision. I waited for nightfall and set out with my escort. I began to climb toward the ridge, shouting now and then, ‘Comrades, don’t shoot! We are Partisans!” At the top, I was stopped by a sharp shout, unexpectedly near: “Halt!” I said I was a Supreme Staff delegate. The voice continued, unchanged: “Hands up! One come forward, the rest halt!”
It was a junior officer of the Fifth Brigade. He recognized me on shining his flashlight into my face. I explained that I was exchanging prisoners, and I summoned the sergeant out of darkness. “You almost killed me today,” I told him. He replied laconically, “That’s our machine gunner. How could he know who it was?” At the battalion headquarters I was told that Sava Kovacevic, the commander of the brigade, was up front not far away.
Sava was sprawled out by a fire, eating supper. He said to me, “The Supreme Staff must be somewhere around LakeBorak.” And suddenly, with a sly smile, he added, “Don’t you go making peace between us and the Germans!”
I felt trapped and confused, nevertheless I was on the offensive: “Don’t be a wise guy! Don’t you have any confidence in the Central Committee? This is an exchange of prisoners. And to protect the wounded from being killed.”
“I do trust them!” Sava said, “but the army has just barely gotten started against the Germans. They’re our worst enemies.”
Even so, Sava gave my German escort a good supper, and we continued on our way, overtaking long columns of soldiers, many of them wounded. We traveled through the night. Morning found us on the slope between Bijela and LakeBorak. We overtook a small group of young men – typhus cases. One of them staggered and sat down, propped against a tree, I walked over to him and encouraged him to go on. He looked at me – and died. I resented having the German witness our suffering but was proud of our determination, which amazed him.
As we were descending to LakeBorak, several Stukas flew overhead. We got off the road and hid under a pine, though their target proved to be elsewhere. [p239]
The roar of the Stukas impressed the German more than us; we had already grown accustomed to it. At the tip of the lake I ran into Major Stoecker and left the noncom with him. Stoecker did not know where I was going or to whom: Tito and the Supreme Staff were up there by a cliff, deep in the forest.
Tito was overjoyed to see me. I recounted the negotiations briefly: no firm commitments, except over the exchange of prisoners; the Germans didn’t seem averse to further talks, but as a condition demanded an end to the fighting in Slavonia. Tito was dubious: “Ha, I knew that’s where it hurts them! We can’t agree to this until they stop attacking us.” Of the Central Committee members, only Rankovic was there. We decided to go on with the talks – but nothing more specific than that, as the Germans hadn’t presented a stand on a single political issue. I was convinced that the Germans would turn over their prisoners, and that the release of Major Stoecker and the other prisoners by us would be looked upon as a token of good will, so Tito approved this immediately.
We sent Major Stoecker and my escort on their way to Konjic within the next twenty-four hours. As for the remaining dozen or so prisoners – there were no more – we couldn’t send them yet because they weren’t rounded up.
“And how did the Germans treat you?” Tito inquired.
“Correctly, very correctly.”
“Yes, it seems that the German army has kept something of the spirit of chivalry,” Tito commented.
I told Tito and the others of my impressions and experiences, talking until the afternoon, when Tito had to go on to Glavaticeva and I had to return to Bijela, to await word from Velebit.
Tito’s wife Herta, with whom lived before Zdenka and who had borne him a son on the eve of the war, was on the list of prisoners whom we were seeking from the Germans. During our conversation Tito returned to the subject three or four times. Obviously her situation pressed upon him, and he said feelingly, “The most important thing now is to get our comrade back! Do all you can to have her released.”
I waited several days in Bijela while the German prisoners were assembled. The fighting went on, though not as intensively. The German troops had nowhere else to deploy, while our smaller units were engaged in protecting the evacuation of the wounded. Even so, the Germans bombed Bijela while I was there. It was there, too, that I saw Mitra again. I heard that the Germans had come upon our wounded in several villages and, instead of killing them as they used to, had distributed cigarettes and chocolate. Apparently, some good had come from our negotiations. [p240]
One evening while supper was being dished out – it must have been on March 23, 1943 – there was an uproar in Bijela: “The Germans!” Someone reported that they were bearing a white flag and shouting, “Don’t shoot! A parley!” Realizing that these were the Germans who had come for the prisoners, I restored order and went out on the road to meet them. The Germans were already standing before the nearby houses. Koca Popovic was also there, commenting cynically, “That’s how my army stands guard! It’s a good thing the Germans don’t know who they’re dealing with!”
A German officer brought a message requesting that I go to Sarajevo. The prisoners were waiting. One of them was gravely wounded; lifting himself up on the stretcher, he stammered, beaming with joy, “How good to see you!”
The officer knelt down, stroked the man’s head, and said with emotion, “Now everything will be fine. Don’t worry, everything will be just fine.”
The Germans took over the wounded and we set out for Konjic. In Konjic, in a tavern dimly lit by a gas lantern, I saw bearded faces around the tables – Chetniks drinking raki. But the Germans paid them no heed. Then we got into a truck. They sat next to the driver, and we set out for Sarajevo. There I found Velebit and Hans Ott, the engineer who had arranged the first exchange between the Germans and the Partisans in the fall of 1942. The next day we set out with Ott for Zagreb: we traveled as far as Brod by car, and from there proceeded in a guarded train compartment.
Having renewed their acquaintance, Ott and Velebit spoke fairly openly, though not without tact. On the other hand, I was quite tactless: I stated that the whole world, except for the Germans who had been gleichgeschaltet by Goebbels’s propaganda, were already aware of Germany’s impending downfall. Hans Ott strained to deny this, but in doing so just confirmed our impression that not even he believed in Germany’s victory. Moreover, from our lengthy talk with Ott on the train, we gathered that among the upper classes in Germany, particularly among the officers, uncertainty and discontent were beginning to emerge. At one point Ott even let slip, “Hitler is a maniac!” Did Ott belong to the active opposition? And was he close to Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, the German general commanding in Croatia, who was said after the war to have been against Hitler? I don’t know, and all that was incidental at the time. Ott was a mere engineer, involved by an accident of fate in German-Partisan relations. [p241]
Very likely he reflected the critical thinking of the German leaders in Croatia, and the discontent among the higher strata in Austria and Germany. At the end of the war our intelligence people hauled him back to Yugoslavia, not for any wrongdoing, but on the assumption that he might know German intelligence agents who were close to the Partisan leaders. Rankovic told me that they never found out anything from Ott, even though he stayed in prison until his sad end.
Ott was the most convenient person through whom to get Tito’s former wife Herta Has released. Ott complained that the Ustashi were giving false information about the prisoners we were seeking, so that the Germans had to check through their own agents. Such was the case with Herta as well. Velebit had already spoken with him about her, and I was so adamant that he finally asked me, ‘Why are you so insistent over her release, if she’s no longer a high official?”
I thought it best to be frank to a degree: “She’s the girl friend of one of our commanders.”
“Oh, then I understand,” said Ott.
The German service knew that on her father’s side Herta was a Volksdeutscher, but since she was a Communist this made no difference to them. Ott promised that Herta would be found and exchanged, and so she was.
The Germans put us up in a hotel-like room in one of their institutions on or near Zrinjevac. The negotiations were conducted in the same building. They must have begun on March 26, the day after our arrival. As there was nothing for us to do, the Germans offered to take us to the movies. We went, while Velebit went to visit his parents.
If I remember correctly, there were two meetings. The German team was headed by a colonel with fine blond hair who acted more like a diplomat than a military officer. He continued to keep the negotiations on a low level; this was unexpected, and in my eyes diminished their significance. Even so, progress was made toward a truce: the Germans indicated that they would cease operations as soon as we stopped our raids on the railroad line in Slavonia. But no agreement was ever signed, nor was there talk of our getting any weapons or help from the Germans.
No cessation of our struggle against the Ustashi was ever discussed. We acted as if we had special rights with the respect to the Ustashi, as well as the Chetniks, since they were our internal enemies. But we didn’t place emphasis on them as our main enemies since the Germans regarded them as allies. [p242]
If the Germans brought up our stand toward the Ustashi, we were to argue that the Ustashi were killing our people, massacring the Serbs, and so on, and therefore we couldn’t cease fighting them. The Germans, in turn, avoided the Italian issue. Or else they simply didn’t get around to raising it, since the negotiations never got beyond a discussion of general positions.
We didn’t shrink from declarations that we would fight the British if they landed. Such declarations didn’t commit us, since the British hadn’t yet landed, and we really believed that we would have to fight them if – as could still be concluded from their propaganda and official pronouncements – they subverted our power, that is, if they supported the Chetnik establishment.
Again, there was a delay on the part of the Germans. They told us that they had gathered together the required prisoners in Sarajevo, which was a good reason for us to go to the Supreme Staff. We arrived in Sarajevo on the morning of March 30. I believe that Velebit was also with me. The Germans told us that some of our prisoners taken in recent battles – their names weren’t on our list – were in the military prison, and would be turned over to us.
I went there – to the barracks of the former officers’ school. While I was talking to a German in the corridor, I suddenly recognized that the girl scrubbing the floor was Lenka Jurisevic, a close friend of my sister Dobrana. I called to her to get ready, because she was about to be exchanged. With her wet arms she clasped me about the neck and wailed on my chest. The German officer was moved to tears as I comforted her. Later, on the way back, she told me that when she heard my voice, she thought that I too had been captured and that the Partisans were done for. “That was the worst moment in my life,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it, though I saw, I heard.” Lenka was extremely brave. The Germans had come upon her while she was asleep and captured her. She lost her life toward the end of the war. Perhaps that is why the memory of her today so moves me.
After lunch we set out by truck for Trnovo with our exchangees – about fifteen of them, a few more than the exchanged Germans. In Trnovo we stopped to get information about our positions. An officer of the Croatian Home Guard gave us the information. I tried to persuade the Home Guard officer to join our side. At first he was startled, then he said, “That’s not so easy. We’re under the control of the Ustashi.”
We continued by truck for another ten to fifteen kilometers, and then proceeded on foot. Among the exchanged prisoners was Ivo Frol, the author, whom I knew personally. [p243]
He told me in great excitement that the Ustashi in Jasenovac had turned him over to the Germans in Zagreb, in the belief that he was being summoned for interrogation. When the Ustashi learned what was going on, one of their officers remarked, “We’ll see each other again, over a rifle sight!” On the way to Sarajevo the German officer kept reassuring him, “You have no need to worry, Herr Professor, the Partisans are not bandits. They have printing presses and schools, and there is order among them.”
I found Tito and the Supreme Staff in a village not far from Kalinovik. I made my report to Tito, but he didn’t seem quite as interested as before: the Germans had, in fact, already called a halt to their drive, while our units had won a hard-fought victory over Pavle Djurisic’s Chetniks, and were penetrating into Hercegovina toward Montenegro and Sandzak. Tito immediately approved Velebit’s return to Zagreb, and stopped the operations of the Slavonian Partisans, particularly on the Zagreb-Belgrade railroad. Velebit carried out this assignment, taking quite a bit of time. He also brought Herta back. He told me that he had trouble in Slavonia: the Partisans suspected him of being a provocateur, and the supreme command in Croatia had to intervene.
At the beginning of our stay among the Germans, it occurred to me that they could turn us over to the Gestapo for torture and execution. But the Germans gave no reason for such misgivings, and eventually the misgivings vanished.
Neither I nor the other Central Committee members had any pangs of conscience that by negotiating with the Germans we might have betrayed the Soviets, internationalism, or our ultimate aims. Military necessity compelled us. The history of Bolshevism – even without the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the Hitler-Stalin Pact – offered us an abundance of precedents. The negotiations were held in great secrecy. There were no differences among the top leaders, except that Rankovic and I were more dubious of the outcome than Tito. As for a more permanent truce or broader agreement, no one really believed in that.
The negotiations with the Germans could not have produced any more significant results. This was because we essentially sought a respite, while the Germans were setting a trap for us. The Germans couldn’t permit our stabilization and expansion, and we couldn’t permit them to gain strength with the help of pro-German elements and to continue the war in the Balkans. Among the Germans in the army, and among German representatives in Croatia, there was an element that favored a truce. But this element didn’t even have the courage to make its desires known. [p244]
Hitler cut off the negotiations – to be sure, at a moment he regarded as propitious – with one of his categorical fallacies: “One does not negotiate with rebels – rebels must be shot.” (3)
With this, Operation Weiss passed over into Operation Schwarz. In official Yugoslav historiography these two operations are called the Fourth and Fifth Offensives, though they constitute a whole – both in the analysis of historians and in the experience of the participants. [p245]
1. In greatest detail in Roberts. Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, pp. 106-112.
2. Walter R. Roberts, Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, N.J., l973.)
3. Roberts, Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, p.110, citing the work by Walter Hagen, Die Geheime Front, p.268.
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