On June 17, the anniversary of the murder of General Dragoljub Mihailović, we interviewed Serbian historian Miloslav Samardžić (Милослав Самарџић), author of the 3500-page “Draža Mihailović and the General History of the Chetnik Movement”, and screenwriter of the documentary series “Kingdom of Yugoslavia in WW2″
Reiss Institute: Who was Draža Mihailović?
Miloslav Samardžić: Colonel Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović was one of the elite officers of the Royal Yugoslav Army. He was a General Staff officer, one of only 160 in the country – equivalent to today’s Ph.D in military science. He was an excellent mixture of theory and practice, finishing all the military schools available at the time (including one in France), and fighting in all of Serbia’s wars between 1912 and 1920. Those last two years involved the so-called Albanian rebellion, which counted separately from the Great War. This is where Mihailović had his first experiences in guerrilla warfare. Later he would teach guerrilla warfare at the Belgrade Military Academy, in addition to strategy and tactics. Another of his specialties was intelligence work.
How did Mihailović end up in charge of the resistance?
Miloslav Samardžić: He was the expert on guerrilla warfare. Col. Albert Seitz of the OSS – another guerrilla specialist, dispatched to Yugoslavia in 1943 – considered Mihailović the second best guerrilla in history, right after Lawrence of Arabia. Seitz studied Mihailović’s concept and wrote about it in his memoirs, in some detail.
Anyway, when the Axis forces occupied Yugoslavia in April 1941, Mihailović immediately began assembling the units that had refused to surrender into a guerrilla force. The guerrilla war began almost right away: on April 15 there was a skirmish with the Germans near Doboj, in present-day Bosnia. During the war, the Yugoslav Army marked April 15 as Insurrection Day.
By the end of May, there had been more skirmishes with the Germans and the Ustasha. By the end of the summer, Mihailović had a network of over 100 Chetnik units. His was the strongest guerrilla force in Europe, and it would remain so until the arrival of the Red Army into Yugoslavia in September 1944.
Why “Chetniks”, rather than, say, “Yugoslav Army in the Homeland”?
Miloslav Samardžić: The guerrilla warfare concept of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia called for switching to “Chetnik warfare” in case the conventional fronts were breached by an invader. Six “Chetnik” battalions – special units of the regular army – and several Chetnik organizations, which were militia associations, were supposed to be the mainstay of this plan. Three Chetnik “warleaders” – Birčanin, Stanković and Pećanac – had specific written authorization to engage in guerrilla warfare. But of all the officers and warleaders who had avoided capture, Col. Mihailović quickly proved to be the most effective.
Following procedure, he renamed his Quick Strike Force (Брзи одред) into the Mountain Force, on April 15, 1941. By the end of May, he had established the Command of Chetnik Forces of the Yugoslav Army. This formation would be renamed “Yugoslav Army in the Homeland” by the end of 1941 – since there was also the Yugoslav Army in Exile, mostly the air force and naval components that ended up with the British in Egypt and the Middle East. And then there was the army in captivity, too. In June 1942, on the order of the King and the royal government (in exile in London), Mihailović’s command became the Supreme HQ of the Yugoslav Army, and Mihailović himself, promoted to General, became its Chief of Staff. Until then, the Supreme Command had been in Egypt.
It is important to stress here this continuity with the pre-war Yugoslav Army. The “Army in the Homeland” was basically just an internal subdivision. Mihailović always used the term “Yugoslav Army,” always when addressing foreigners and often internally. For example, the “Bulletin of the Supreme Command of the Yugoslav Army” was published almost daily.
Official history of the Socialist Yugoslavia, as well as in Serbia today, has never actually used the proper name – “Yugoslav Army” – for these forces. They were called either Chetniks, or the Ravna Gora Movement, or Yugoslav Army in the Homeland.
In the beginning, “Chetniks” was the most heavily used term, intended to associate Mihailović with those Chetniks – like Pećanac – who joined with the occupier. Sometime in the 1980s they switched to calling them “Ravna Gora Movement,” to create a parallel with the “People’s Liberation Movement” – i.e. the forces of the illegal Communist Party. This was the “two resistance movements” line, popular even today.
Now, Mihailović’s staff actually used the term “Ravna Gora Movement” during the war, but only casually – there were no official seals with it, for example. Mihailović did not want to start a new movement, as that would have been illegal.
To illustrate how far this muddle with the terminology goes, I’ll mention that histories, and even schoolbooks, keep writing about the “Central National Committee of the Ravna Gora Movement,” yet these historians know all too well that the actual name of this body was the “Central National Committee of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.”
How did the Chetniks and the Communists deal with the genocide of Serbs by the Independent State of Croatia?
Miloslav Samardžić: Chetnik committees and the leftover Army forces had a major role in starting the Serb insurrection against Croatia in 1941, while Mihailović helped the uprising inasmuch as he could as soon as he got word of it, sending officers, money and troops across the Drina [the river dividing the German-occupied “Serbia” and Nazi-allied Croatia at the time].
For their part, the Communists were allied with the Croatian Ustasha even before the war. There was an article from the 28th issue – from 1932 – of the official Communist newspaper, “The Proletarian”, which literally said: “The Communist Party salutes the Ustasha movement of the Lika and Dalmatia peasants and entirely sides with them.”
The Ustasha and the Communists openly collaborated until the German attack on the USSR. For example, here is a note from the diary of Pavelić’s deputy, Slavko Kvaternik, dated April 22, 1941:
“Mile (Budak) visited again. Asked we speed up the agreement on cooperation with the Communists. The Leader signed the agreement. Lorković was informed right away. He was tasked with the cooperation”.
Some cooperation continued after June 22, 1941, but kept secret from the occupiers. In January 1943, when he dispatched his envoy to meet with the Communist leader and fellow Croat Josip Broz Tito, Croatian Leader Ante Pavelić stressed that the contact be kept secret from the Germans and the Italians. He promised to back Tito on condition that the Serbs “do not assume leadership” of the Partisan formations.
Naturally, while the western Serbs prepared for an uprising in the spring of 1941, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia condemned the “attempts of Serbian bourgeois elements to blame Croats for the slaughter of Serbs.” This was the line adopted at a Party meeting near Banja Luka, with the conclusion that “Nazi fascists” were to blame for the atrocities. The Ustasha, in turn, set free ten Serbs identified as Communists from their prisons in Banja Luka, as well as 12 more from Travnik. Another 70 Serbs were kept imprisoned in Travnik, and were later tortured and killed.
At the meeting in Mostar, on June 22, 1941, the Communists again concluded that it was “unfair to blame all the Ustasha” for atrocities against the Serbs. The following day, local Croats rounded up 164 Serbs in Popovo Polje, slit their throats and threw them into a pit near the village of Kotez (on the Trebinje-Ljubinje road). The Ustasha also raided the villages and fields around Gacko, murdering any Serbs they found.
Was Mihailović a legitimate representative of the royal government? And if so, what of the 1944 royal order to submit to Tito and the Communists?
Miloslav Samardžić: He absolutely was. In fact, he was the Defense Minister in the royal government. Now, on September 12, 1944, King Peter II went on air at Radio London and read a plea to his soldiers to submit to their mortal enemies, the Communists. But obviously, this was an absurd order and something was terribly wrong.
King Peter, then only 22, was basically threatened and pressured by the British, including PM Churchill personally, to make that statement. Under threat of being interned in Africa, he cracked and read the proclamation. Later, however, he recanted.
A speech on the radio cannot be considered a legitimate order – especially since the King, and Prime Minister Dr. Purić sent a communique to Mihailović in April 1944, literally telling him to believe nothing he heard on Radio London, and if any news came of a new government without Mihailović, to carry on under the slogan, “The King is captive – long live the King!” And so it was done.
After the war, the Communists accused Mihailović of being a “traitor” and “collaborator with the enemy”, asserting moral equivalence between the Chetniks and the Croatians. Is there any truth in those charges?
Miloslav Samardžić: No. Mihailović was the leader of the biggest guerrilla resistance in Europe during WW2. If you want to make a comparison with Croatia, or rather the Ustasha, they were like the Partisans – both ideological, illegal military forces inclined to commit mass murder of civilians. Civilians were the primary enemy of both those movements – both the Ustasha and the Partisans killed far more civilians and prisoners than actual soldiers in battle. Certainly around 90% of all the people they’ve killed. While the Chetniks, like any proper army, waged war on the enemy soldiers, rather than civilians. Unlike the Ustasha and the Partisans, they’d killed far fewer – almost beyond comparison – civilians and prisoners of war.
In other words, in Chetnik documents we see explicit orders no to kill civilians – due to reprisals for atrocities – while the Ustasha and Partisan documents order the murder of civilians, on grounds of either ethnic (Serbs, Jews) or class warfare (“enemies of the people”, “kulaks”).