The Slavic Situation

27 Oct


April 6th, 1941, began like any other day. With the remainder of Europe crushed beneath the oppressive sole of Nazi jackboot, the Balkan Peninsula, already immersed in long-standing socio-ethnic tensions, had managed to maintain some degree of relative freedom and peace, although it would be short-lived. With the German campaigns of 1939-40 having steamrolled over French and Dutch armies, and subsequently crushed a joint Anglo-French expeditionary force in Norway, the German seemed inexorable in its might, and equally undefeated. The first tremors of war reached the Balkan peninsula in November 1940, when the German government dispatched the Tripartite Pact, a document pledging alliance to Nazi Germany throughout the duration of the war. Among the previous signatories was Galeazzo Ciano, Foreign Minister of Fascist Italy and Saburo Kurusu, ambassador to Germany from the Empire of Japan, as well as a host of German representatives. It had mainly been designed to help mediate a rift that had formed between the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany following the August 1939 signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR. The document was presented to the Kingdom of Hungary, whose authority was being greatly undermined by the Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which had begun to gain serious support and backing within the nation. It was then presented to Romania, a nation which had fought alongside the victorious Allies in the First World War. Following the cessation of the war, the Kingdom of Romania had been dissolved, and the subsequent disillusionment had created a power vacuum ripe with possibility and struggle. Coming out on top was the Fascist Iron Guard Party, who readily signed the document. The document was then presented to Slovakia, a relatively young nation, having only just been created in the 1939 Munich Accords between Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to settle the territorial dispute between Czechoslovakia and Germany over the control of the Sudetenland, and then Bulgaria. Yugoslavia, and the region of Croatia, were then presented with the document. All nations signed, pledging their utmost, fastidious support for Nazi Germany in its war with Great Britain. Yet the situation in Yugoslavia was far more volatile than had been imagined, and soon after Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic placed his signature atop the paper, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was overthrown in a military-backed coup d’etat led by future partisan leader, Josip Broz Tito.

For centuries prior to the opening acts of aggression of Nazi Germany against her neighbors, the Balkan peninsula had been a breeding ground for conflict and ethnic and religious tension. The primary factor behind this was its constant changing of hands between the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, who all possessed desires and interests in the region. With this constant switching between nations with such different religious and ethnic ancestries, the result was obvious. The Balkan Peninsula became Europe’s “melting pot”, yet this euphemism fails to portray the real situation inside the Balkans. It was not a happy and peaceful world, it was a hostile world of constant warfare, infighting, and even genocide. And with this cohesion of such ethnicities, they begin to possess and develop differing national interests, and thus gives birth to more conflict. The region had not been new to war at the commencement of the Second World War, in fact, the Balkan people had more experience than anyone else. 

Following the cessation of the First World War, the Allies were faced with a conundrum. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, a multitude of nations that had previously been under their control were suddenly free, and with no governments to rule them, power struggles were bound to break out. The Balkan peninsula was a breeding ground for conflict, and pregnant with possibilities, none of them good. Warfare and genocide were the most likely, and the British government wished to keep such horrific atrocities from happening. The solution was obvious: create a government to control a loose confederation of states, thus no state’s rights can be trampled upon and they can enjoy a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Interstate warfare could be also be avoided, and so the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was born. Encompassing the territories of present-day Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Slovenia, Yugoslavia was far larger than any other nation surrounding it, dwarfing Greece and Albania, and rivaling Hungary and Romania. Yet no plan is perfect, and certainly Yugoslavia was no exception. Within years of its creation, Serbia, by far the most nationalist of the Balkan states, seized power by a series of rigged elections and assassinations of rival politicians, thus cementing their control over the peninsula. The Serbian nationalists had dreamt of a place known as “Greater Serbia”, in which all nations with a Serbian majority populace were subjugated beneath the control of the Serbian government. In most circumstances, this had brought them into conflict, and sometimes open warfare, with their rival Croatia, who possessed a Serbian majority in its southeastern frontier. Serbian attempts to annex southeastern Croatia, as well as parts of Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina soon gave birth to anti-Serbian movements and extremist groups, among them being the Chetniks in Bosnia, and the fascist Ustase regime in Croatia, which would later seize power and form a collaborationist government fighting alongside the Nazi occupation forces, evening erecting a concentration camp of its own. The region was ripe for war.

Following the military-led coup d’etat that overthrew the Yugoslav collaborationist government and replaced it with a shabby and unsound government led by then-seventeen-year-old King Peter II. The act was seen as a direct insult to Germany’s military authority, and the plans for Unternehmen Barbarossa, or Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR, were postponed, and the plans for Operation Punishment, the invasion of Yugoslavia, were drawn up. Within months, the Nazi German government possessed the outline for crushing the Royal Yugoslav Army and laying waste to Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. Simultaneously, the plans for Unternehmen Marita, the invasion of Greece, were just departing from the drawing board. The two nations, which shared a southern border, would be struck simultaneously, mainly through Germany’s Balkan allies of Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Germany’s only real worry would be the Greek Hellenic Army, guarding Greece’s northern frontier along the vaunted Metaxas Line, named for the deceased Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, a defensive breastworks stretching from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace, through Macedonia, and into the Pindus Mountains of Epirus, near Greece’s border with Albania. With the Italians having fought the Hellenic Army to a standstill in the Greco-Italian War of 1940-1941 in Albania, the Germans, under the command of General Wilhelm List, would strike through Bulgaria, with simultaneous, coordinated strikes into northern and eastern Yugoslavia through Romania and Hungary. On April 6th, 1941, the invasion began. Just prior to the first of the German armor clanking over the border, the Ustase regime seized power in Croatia, and assisted in facilitating Nazi movement through the area. Fighting in Yugoslavia was brief and bloody, with the invasion only lasting eleven days. The Royal Yugoslav Army, possessing relics of the previous war and only derelicts of machines to ward off the German armor, was crushed and collapsed. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia dissolved completely, and was replaced instead with the Independent State of Croatia, a quisling, or collaborationist, government headed by the Ustase regime, and sponsored by Nazi Germany itself. Croatia controlled the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia throughout the war, with the rest falling under the subjugation of a Nazi military administration, yet not without dispute. The hotbed for partisan activity rested in Bosnia, where Josip Broz Tito, the man who had orchestrated the Yugoslav coup, had taken hold, as well as former Royal Yugoslav Army colonel Draza Mihailovic, the leader of the Monarchist Chetniks.

Allied support to the nations of the Balkans had been little, with the primary effort aimed at Greece. Having deployed British General Henry Maitland Wilson and Australian General Bernard Freyberg to the nation in April 1941 to assist Alexandros Papagos, the joint Anglo-Australian force was soon driven from the mainland by the sheer weight of the Nazi invasion, and were pushed onto the island of Crete, the largest of the Aegean islands, as well as host of other islands resting in the Aegean Sea. The British Admiralty had an invested interest in the Balkans, namely for colonization following the end of the Second World War, which at this point seemed extremely far off. In order to better its position and prestige in post-war politics and negotiations, the British wished to annex regions of Greece, and potentially other areas in the Balkans. Yet this would, and could, only happen if the British installed pro-British governments in nations following a Nazi surrender, if one ever came. Yugoslavia was the largest hotbed for activity, mainly in the subject of guerrilla warfare and heavy partisan activity. The British government began to place Special Operations Executive, or SOE, an intelligence organization, at the helm for a potential intervention. It soon came in contact with Mihailovic and his Chetniks, the monarchist guerrilla force inside Bosnia. Unbeknownst to the British, they were actually assisting the wrong side. The Chetniks had remained relatively apathetic to aid from either the British or the Germans, and had openly accepted aid from each. Yet soon, they had begun to accept aid only from the German forces inside the nation, which had come as a shock to the British, yet not to the other partisans in Yugoslavia, to which it had come as expected. The British had initially been reluctant to support the other primary partisan leader, Josip Broz Tito, whose pro-communist ideology had turned the British away altogether and put them at the will of the Chetniks. Yet after the Chetnik betrayal, the British found themselves sending aid in any way possible to the Tito. Within months, Tito was fighting three enemies simultaneously: the Chetnik and Ustase anti-partisans, and the Nazi occupying forces, and their defeat seemed imminent when Tito fled to a small island off the coast of Dalmatia. Yet with the oncoming Soviet Red Army in the autumn of 1944, the situation went from bleak and hopeless, to the prospect of victory. With Tito and his Communist partisans having Yugoslavia locked down, attention was turned to Croatia.

With the Ustase regime running activity from Zagreb, Fascist and pro-Nazi activities began to take hold inside Croatia, namely with the construction of the Jasenovac concentration camp. The camp was designed not just to exterminate Jews and the nomadic Romani, or gypsy, people, but also to exterminate Serbs inhabiting the nation. The Croats took on a plan that amounted to an ultimatum: one-third of all Serbs would be exterminated, one-third evicted and deported to Serbia, and the other third converted to Catholicism to be assimilated into the Croatian population. The plan was brutal, as was the Ustase’s strict adhering to it. They carried it out with their utmost brutality, unveiling centuries of anti-Serbian sentiment in only three years. The results were as could be expected. Inter-ethnic warfare played a serious role in the Ustase’s waging of their war, yet in Bosnia it was neither ethnicity nor religion, yet political ideology that would dictate how the war would be won. By autumn 1944, Belgrade had been seized by the advancing Red Army, Romania had surrendered, and the German military that had occupied Yugoslavia for nearly three years was in full retreat into Hungary, yet by spring 1945 this defensive works would become untenable, and they would be forced to retreat further to Austria, where they would surrender in April 1945. That same month, Tito’s partisans, now in virtual control of Bosnia and Serbia, pushed into Croatia and toppled the already crumbling Ustase Croatian nationalist regime, and either captured or executed the primary ringleaders of the organization. Those who were captured faced trial and were later executed themselves: a fitting end. Yet the Balkans were not safe from the inter-ethnic and religious warfare that had come to dominate the region’s foreign politics. In 1991, the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, which had been created by Tito in 1945 following the cessation of the Second World War and had been administered by him until his death in 1980, began to crumble with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although Tito had refused to be assimilated into the USSR in the 1950s, and had kept Yugoslavia free of outside control, the nation’s collapse went hand-in-hand with its nearby neighbor. Soon, civil wars and invasions took place, the most infamous being the Serbian invasion of Bosnia in 1992, and the subsequent interracial and ethnic war that took place, with some of the most brutal massacres, amounting to full-blown genocide disguised under the term “ethnic cleansing”, taking place, and being orchestrated by Slobodan Milosevic, who was captured and sentenced to trial by the United Nations. In 2006, he took his own life rather than be executed by the UN. Since the 1990s, the Balkans has remained relatively at peace, but we can only imagine how long such peace will last.     



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