Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1943, Europe, Volume II
The Yugoslav Chargé (Rybář) to the Assistant Secretary of State (Berle)
Dear Mr. Assistant Secretary: During the conversation I had with you at the State Department two weeks ago, you had expressed [Page 989]the desire to have some facts concerning the activities of General Draža Mihajlovich and his army, as well as the position of the so-called Partisans.
I am pleased, therefore, to send to you enclosed a condensed exposition based on facts and documents which the Yugoslav Embassy has received and which it considers as trustworthy.
Believe me [etc.]
The Yugoslav Embassy to the Department of State
The following account of the nature and extent of guerrilla activities in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia is based on facts and documents which the Yugoslav Embassy after careful consideration regards as trustworthy. The Yugoslav Embassy will be pleased to cite the source of any statement made.
The Origin of the Chetniks
Guerrilla warfare began in Yugoslavia immediately after the country was overrun and dismembered by the Axis powers in 1941. The invaders did not succeed in completely disarming the Yugoslav Army; parts of it escaped with equipment to the inaccessible mountainous regions of central Serbia and Montenegro. American and foreign correspondents, who withdrew as the German invaders advanced, have stated that they were eye-witnesses of the orderly retreat of entire detachments of the Yugoslav Army into the mountains. These Yugoslav soldiers were the first who waged guerrilla war and by the summer of 1941 their activities were well-developed.
Ever since then, patriotic Yugoslavs, singly and in groups have been joining these army detachments, combining with them to form “Chetas”. The new recruits were either men anxious to continue the struggle against the Axis or refugees from Axis persecution. For example, all those who succeeded in escaping the massacres in Bosnia and Hercegovina joined the “Chetas” in Serbia, those who escaped persecutions at the hands of Germans and Italians in Slovenia joined the “Chetas” in Slovenia, and finally those in central Croatia who fled from the regime of the Ustashis joined the groups in northern Bosnia. These groups of northern Bosnia are composed of patriotic Croats and also of Serbs from Serbian settlements which are dotted like islands throughout Croatia. The most recent reports received tell of a large organization of guerrilla groups in Dalmatia organized on the “Chetas” basis, which, after fighting the enemy independently for some time, have now joined the central command of General Mihailovich.[Page 990]
The Rise of General Mihailovich
These guerrilla bands, composed of soldiers who refused to recognize defeat, and of embittered and desperate men whose families had been killed and whose homes had been destroyed, would not have been able to hold out for very long even in their natural mountain fortresses, and would have finally been wiped out by the enemy if a systematic organization of the various independent groups into a united whole had not been undertaken.
It is difficult to say whether Draža Mihailovich, then a Colonel, was the first who attempted this task. If there were others who tried and failed, it only proves how difficult the task was. In any case, it was Mihailovich whose personality and military qualities finally brought together the various scattered and independent guerrilla groups into a nation-wide organization and changed their sporadic and uncoordinated resistance into a true national campaign against the Axis invaders and their satellites.
Mihailovich made use of two means to achieve this end; first, his organizing genius which enabled him to create the military structure most suited for the type of warfare in which his forces engaged, and secondly, his ability to weld together men who had joined the guerrilla bands for many different reasons under the inspiration of a common ideal. The realization that they are fighting against the enemy of their national independence, that they are fighting to regain their freedom and to secure a better future for their country now unites them all under the banner of General Mihailovich, whether on the battlefields of Serbia, of Bosnia, or Slovenia.
General Mihailovich told his men from the very first that he would lead them in a war for the liberation not only of some particular section of the country but the whole of Yugoslavia and all her people. Skill and patience were needed even to win general acceptance of this apparently obvious goal. It must be remembered that the first “Chetas” were composed almost exclusively of Serbs and that the Serbian masses were at that time strongly influenced by the crimes committed by the Ustashis in Bosnia. Some Serbian people had been so shocked by these crimes that they believed that as a historical consequence the union of the Serbs and Croats could never be renewed. Colonel Mihailovich, however, predicted from the start that historical circumstances and practical necessity, combined with the healing influence of time, would remedy this condition and that means would be found to prevent anything similar happening again in a freed and reconstructed Yugoslavia. In holding this view, he was far in advance of prevailing public opinion.[Page 991]
His Political Position
General Mihailovich was well-known for his liberal outlook but did not wish his struggle to be bound to the narrow formula of any political group. He therefore consulted prominent party leaders as patriots, not as politicians and took care to make it perfectly plain that, for his part, he had no political ambitions and that his conduct was governed solely by his duty as a soldier and his loyalty to his King. By his loyalty to the King, he identified his cause with the prevailing sentiment felt for a family which is historically first in the nation and from which has sprung many a national hero. The people of Yugoslavia are more attached to the Royal Family as a national symbol than to even monarchy as a form of government. The wide extent to which the Chetnik leaders now share this popular feeling for the King can be gauged by the fact that the right-hand man and principal aide of General Mihailovich is the author Dragisha Vasich, who formerly occupied an important position in the republican party.
The views which General Mihailovich holds about social and economic future of the country which he and his fighting followers are fighting to liberate can best be judged from the following telegram:
“From the very beginning my men and I are fighting for a free, democratic and reconstructed Yugoslavia against the spirit of the past. Constructive forces of people are assembled in the ranks of my army. The idealistic aim of the army, besides national freedom, is that the regimes in Yugoslavia be inspired and led by great ideas. We emphasized that the social policy was negative and inconsistent in Yugoslavia. Aware of the new spirit of the times we started the struggle for social and national freedom. I endeavor to be the most faithful interpreter of the feelings of the people who are with me and am personally the most bitter opponent of dictatorship of any kind.
I organized a Central National Committee in August, 1941, whose task was to investigate all political errors of earlier regimes. The Committee completed its task and started to study all problems whose decisions represent the prerequisites for improving the social order in Yugoslavia. The Committee is composed of men from all parts of the country—Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.”
Even the opponents of General Mihailovich have never doubted the integrity of his past conduct, his modesty, the firmness of his convictions nor the progressive nature of his opinions.
How the Chetniks Operate
Due to his personal qualities, General Mihailovich was able to create a very intricate organization in the face of an extremely efficient German system of occupation. His organization is of so detailed a nature that it is able to supply, feed and keep in touch with its fighting groups even in the most remote geographical regions of Yugoslavia. It is [Page 992]undoubtedly the most perfect organization of its kind ever to exist in the Balkans and one which has flourished under almost unbelievable circumstances. It has maintained its existence through two difficult years, cut off from contact with the outside world, assailed by powerful enemies savagely determined to crush it, and with scarcely any help in arms or food from the Allies. Under these adverse conditions Mihailovich’s warriors have engaged in skirmishes with the enemy, carried on various military activities, conducted acts of sabotage, and even when necessary, shifted their main strength from one region to another without destroying its effectiveness or unity. At present, there are Chetnik forces in Dalmatia, southern Serbia, Slovenia, Banat and Montenegro, all under the leadership of General Mihailovich. The approximate number of fighters at his disposal is 100,000 and he can assemble hundreds of thousands at the opportune moment.
Aid From Neighboring Nations
General Mihailovich recognized that Yugoslavia could only prosper in the future as a member of an international community which he believed would have more vitality and cohesion if its members had been associated from the start in the fight for freedom. He therefore tried to find elements in neighboring countries who would join immediately in the struggle against the Axis. His efforts in this respect brought a response from Roumanians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians while he also established contacts with the Poles and Czechs. The Yugoslav headquarters in Cairo is assisting in this task and in many ways is working under the direct instructions of the General.
The Background of the Rival Partisan Movement
Meanwhile, how could it happen, as has been reported, that in Yugoslavia the forces of General Mihailovich clashed with other national groups who were also fighting against the Axis, while abroad General Mihailovich was condemned as a traitor by a section of allied public opinion at the very time the Axis press was acknowledging him as its principal enemy?
To understand this situation it is important to distinguish the various factors involved.
General Mihailovich undertook to organize guerrilla forces in every part of the country but he could not do this everywhere at the same time. Circumstances compelled isolated groups to organize on their own, often for no other reason than that they were unable to get in touch with General Mihailovich.
This was especially true of the guerrilla forces in northwestern Bosnia and Croatia. These guerrillas, who were ordinary peasants or small town folk, accepted the leadership of better educated men [Page 993]from the larger cities; men who came in most cases from the ranks of the young left-wing intelligentsia.
Communism Not Widespread
In Yugoslavia, as in many other European countries during the years immediately preceding the war, a part of the youth of the cities was very much impressed by Marxism and the Soviet Union. The nation is not divided in groups among whom some have inherited social privileges since it has no nobility. Almost the entire population of the cities is descended from peasant stock and therefore maintain their ties with the place of their birth or ancestry. The great mass of peasants, however, never provided a favorable ground for the growth of socialist ideas due to their attachment to the soil and the equitable distribution of farmlands (far-reaching agrarian reforms were instituted after the first World War). The city proletariat and industrial and trade labor groups, who form an insignificant part of the population, was Communistic only in spots, and where Communism was present it was frequently linked with Pan-Slavic sentiment. Social legislation in Yugoslavia, though it was only inaugurated twenty years ago was of a most liberal character. It therefore followed that political movements in Yugoslavia were usually animated by other causes than a desire for social change. In Slovenia, political life revolved around a large clerical party; in Croatia, a political organization of peasants drew its inspiration from Croat national consciousness, while in the Serbian regions politics was bound up with national history and those forces in the country which had brought about national and constitutional freedom in the course of a century.
Despite the political upheavals which took place in Europe in the past twenty years and the rise of personal government in many countries, the people of Yugoslavia of all classes were fundamentally democratic both in their convictions and ways of life. However, in certain regions, due to highly complex causes, the people in fact at times showed a livelier disposition for political struggle which had very little to do with real Communistic belief. This happened at times in Montenegro, the district of Užice, and Belgrade itself, where the temperament of the inhabitants is more dynamic, volatile and prone to violent expression in face of discontent than elsewhere in the country.
Partisan Failure To Establish a Central Organization
Whenever the people of the country districts became embittered for any reason, the leftist intellectuals from the cities endeavored to make capital out of their discontent. Something of this kind happened in the case of the guerrilla groups in Croatia proper. These [Page 994]groups were composed of nationally-conscious Croats, fleeing from the regimes of traitors; Serbs, fleeing from fanatical Croat Ustashis, and Jews who fled from Axis persecutions. In spite of their diverse and even conflicting background, they were brought together under the slogans of revolutionary socialism.
The very fact that in three places and on three separate occasions in the course of two years, unsuccessful attempts were made to form central Partisan organizations, proves that the Partisan movement did not meet with the same response from the people at large as did that of General Mihailovich. Attempts were made to create central Partisan organizations in Užice, Montenegro, and in Bihać, in that order. In each instance the Partisans held their general assemblies, adopted resolutions and fought unceasingly against all opposition. But the people of each region in turn abandoned the Partisans, although these same people held and still hold their Russian kinsmen in warmest affection. These attempts were made moreover in regions where the peasants are, more than anywhere else, sympathetic towards Communism and glad to fight under the red banner. They fought, as the gray book of Pavelich’s government states, at one and the same time for Stalin and King Peter. As long as the Partisan leaders encouraged loyalty to both the King and their Russian ally, they were supported by the people, but no sooner did they try to impose Communism than the people would very clearly demonstrate that they had no use for imported revolution.
Outside Aspect of Partisan Chetnik Controversy
The tolerance and cooperation between the Partisans and Chetniks which once existed has now disappeared and has been replaced by bitterness and animosity. This situation will either eventually be smoothed out by the good will and consultations of the Allied governments or, in course of time, will disappear of its own accord and cease to be of importance. However, there is a possibility that if not carefully handled it might leave a deep imprint on the future of the country.
The solution of this problem depends only in part on the people of Yugoslavia themselves. It depends just as much upon the ability of other members of the United Nations to bring the outside influential forces into harmony as part of their program for a better and just world order.
This conflict assumes an entirely different aspect inside and outside Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia the people judge the facts for themselves and act according to the real situation. It is only when seized upon and made an issue outside Yugoslavia—and here again much depends upon how correctly it is interpreted—that it can lead to a fatal misunderstanding [Page 995]by the Allies regarding the war efforts of the Yugoslav people, and adversely affect the opinion of the Yugoslav people about the understanding the Allies have of their situation.
General Mihailovich’s Difficult Position
In Yugoslavia, General Mihailovich from the start welcomed all groups which showed a desire to join him. If any particular group wished to remain autonomous he was perfectly agreeable because he considered the all important fact to be that it was fighting against the common enemy. As soon as conflict arose between the Partisans and his own forces, General Mihailovich informed the Yugoslav Government in London and requested intervention in order to end it. He likewise informed the Government that people in many parts of the country had begged him to protect them from the new wave of terrorism. When the intervention of the Yugoslav Government did not bring any immediate results, it appears that General Mihailovich felt compelled to take necessary action, otherwise he risked losing his authority both over his own fighting men and with the general population, a development which would have hampered further resistance by the people of Yugoslavia.
Guerrillas under Communist leadership and forces led by Yugoslav patriots have come into conflict. But you never found the Communist population of one region fighting their neighbors who declined to accept Communism, nor have there been any instances in which one group liquidated the other.
False Charges That General Mihailovich Cooperated With the Axis
The radio station “Free Yugoslavia” and the Communist newspapers in America accuse General Mihailovich of cooperating with the Italian occupational forces in his struggle against the Ustashis and Partisans. It is difficult to imagine that General Mihailovich, who, by his initiative and personal sacrifice placed himself at the head of a national movement for the liberation of Yugoslavia, would do anything that might cause his integrity to be questioned and himself to be regarded as a traitor by his people. Some observers, apparently wishing to defend General Mihailovich have argued that should such accusations prove to be true, the conditions in Yugoslavia rightfully justify General Mihailovich’s cooperation with the enemy since guerrilla warfare is conducted on an entirely different plane from ordinary warfare (for example, see article of Mr. Seton-Watson in the London Spectator of February 26, 1943). However, it must be emphasized most strongly that such contact and cooperation never existed and that General Mihailovich has notified his government several times that his enemies would use every possible means to discredit his reputation. Therefore, he informed his government that under no circumstances [Page 996]will he compromise with the enemy, especially not with the Germans and Italians, and will fight till final victory. In his last telegram General Mihailovich declares those accusations to be preposterous. The telegram states:
“The forces under my command are not permitted to cooperate in any way with the Italians and occupiers. The liberation of the people and the resurrection of our Fatherland are the only aims of our struggle.”
The above telegram was received in January, 1943 and the following telegram from General Mihailovich was received in March, 1943:
“By all means disclaim all false accusations and present the real situation to the American public about which I have already sent ample proof. I will send detailed material of our activities in individual parts of Yugoslavia.”
Who Leads the Partisans
The names of the principal Partisan leaders were unknown in prewar Yugoslavia. Tito43 and Nagy,44 two names frequently mentioned, are from all appearances partly or completely foreign. Other names are doubtful. The name of Ribar is mentioned the most, under the presumption that he might be the former first President of the Yugoslav Parliament. Ribar was always considered to be a politician with moderately liberal ideas but more than ten years ago he retired from political life due to old age and illness. His son, between twenty and thirty years of age, took an active part, however, in Communist activities among the Belgrade youth. Kosta Popovich, another Partisan leader, was a Communist who was arraigned, prior to the German invasion, on a charge of translating a French pamphlet on how to commit sabotage in the army in case of war. Bora Markovich, who has been presented as one of the most prominent leaders of the Partisan guerrillas, has informed the Embassy at the same time that he is a prisoner of war in Italy. There is reason for believing that one of the objectives of the Partisan leaders is to prepare the people of Yugoslavia to take their place as a component part of a revolutionary Europe after the war.
False Views of the Conflict
Abroad, this conflict of General Mihailovich and the Partisans has been interpreted in many different ways: 1. As a Serbo-Croatian conflict; 2. As Serbian imperialism; 3. As a counterpart of the Spanish civil war, with reactionary elements suppressing the liberals; 4. As an obstacle to the organization of Europe and the world on social-revolutionary [Page 997]lines. Amid such confusing interpretations it is natural that the commander of the Chetniks should be presented as: a Serbian nationalist, an imperialist, a reactionary and a Fascist.
The explanation of the conflict as a clash between Serbs and Croats can be recognized as false not only from various proclamations dealing with the struggle issued by General Mihailovich, but also from the fact that Mihailovich has the full support of the Yugoslav Government in London which contains Croat ministers within its ranks and from the fact that in Yugoslavia itself he is supported by the Slovenian and Croat-Dalmatian guerrillas.
Yugoslavia and the Future
As regards the problem of social reforms and internal changes, General Mihailovich believes that as long as the country is under enemy occupation the people are not in a position to choose freely and democratically the kind of life they desire. If the people of Yugoslavia are to become part of a Europe organized on international revolutionary lines, a possibility which is not dismissed, they should do so of their own accord when they have regained their liberty. The people of Yugoslavia now fighting the Axis took up arms in order that they might freely pursue their own way of life in the future, and they have no wish to see a new way of life imposed upon them while they are still struggling against their oppressors.
Many Centers of Resistance
The guerrilla warfare waged by the Yugoslav Army for the past year and a half has been conducted from different points. Last autumn the fighting which was carried on in Serbia resulted in 10,000 Germans being killed, but the Serbian population paid in blood for this result. According to General Mihailovich’s report, 78,000 persons were killed by the German punitive expeditionary force. More than 120 villages were burned and razed to the ground while the towns of Šabac, Gornji Milanovac, Rudnik, Kraljevo, Užice and Čačak were bombed by Stuka dive-bombers. The well-known massacre of Kragujevac where high-school students between the ages of 15 and 18 were executed in addition to approximately 6,000 men from Kragujevac and the vicinity belongs to this period. In spite of all misfortunes the people did not falter and are continuing the struggle against the forces of occupation while the men of the Yugoslav Army have withdrawn to the mountains of Sandžak and Montenegro.
In the Spring of last year fighting was carried on in Montenegro against the Italians, and later shifted to Hercegovina, eastern Bosnia and then to western Bosnia. This fighting resulted in the withdrawal of Italian garrisons to towns, the migration of Germans from Bosnia and Hercegovina, while several thousand Italians, Germans and [Page 998]Ustashis were annihilated. Many Serbs from Montenegro and Hercegovina were killed in this fighting.
At the same time there was fighting in Voyvodina against the Hungarians who tried by every means in their power to exterminate the Serbian population north of the Sava and Danube rivers. According to the report of General Mihailovich the result of this fighting was that several thousand Hungarians were killed though the innocent Serb population paid a heavy price with over 30,000 men, women and children dead. Fighting was likewise carried on in Slovenia against Germans and Italians who forced entire sections of the Slovenian population to leave their homes and brought in their own colonists to settle there. This fighting then spread also to the south around Mount Velebit and northern Dalmatia where the Italians had devastated several villages killing many thousand people. According to the latest reports the fighting is being carried on simultaneously as far west as Dalmatia and central Bosnia and likewise in the south of Serbia (Vranja region).
Aiding the North African Campaign
When the Allies began their offensive in North Africa, General Mihailovich saw how important from the Axis point of view were their lines of communication through Yugoslavia to Salonika. The Germans used this route to bring reinforcements in material and men to North Africa. In October and November, units of General Mihailovich’s forces cut important communications in Yugoslavia and the result was that two more German divisions had to be sent to Yugoslavia while the German minority in Yugoslavia was mobilized and sent to the valley of western Morava. These two German divisions were in addition to the 17 Italian, 7 Bulgarian, 4 Hungarian, 4 Ustashi and 5 German divisions. These Axis troops performed mopping up operations in Serbia in November and the beginning of December, killing several thousand innocent people especially in Kopaonik and the district of Trstenik. In all villages and towns of Serbia mass arrests of the followers of General Mihailovich were made and over 2,000 persons have already been killed in different places. In the village of Jajinci near Belgrade 1,000 of the most prominent Serbs were shot on a charge of being followers of General Mihailovich. In Belgrade itself about 27,000 people from Belgrade and vicinity were executed as Mihailovich’s sympathizers.
In spite of all these sacrifices, the morale of the forces of the Yugoslav Army under the command of Draža Mihailovich and that of the civilian population is very high.
A “Second Front” Which Already Exists
The Balkans, with Yugoslavia occupying a central position is the part of Europe where people are fighting against Hitler’s “new order” [Page 999]with weapons in their hands and it is this struggle which keeps 30 Axis divisions constantly tied up in Yugoslavia. General Mihailovich’s forces are ready for the right moment when the Allies will join their action against the common enemy.