Chetniks: Serb Yugoslav troops who had evaded Axis capture
In some ways, however, the Axis victory remained a hollow one. For the writ of the Axis powers ran little beyond the towns and main roads. In the remote mountain regions, embryonic resistance forces soon emerged. But before the Germans could crush these nascent movements, their forces were redeployed from Yugoslavia to the east, in preparation for the now-imminent Operation Barbarossa.
Subsequently, those substantial Axis forces that did remain in the conquered Yugoslavia became locked in a protracted and appallingly brutal anti-partisan war, which raged across much of the territory. The resistance groups divided into two main movements - the Chetniks and the Partisans.
The first resistance group to emerge were the Chetniks - in Serbian the word means a detachment of men. These bands were nominally led by a former Yugoslav Army Colonel, named Dragoljub ('Draza') Mihailovic, who served the Yugoslav Royalist government in exile.
The original nucleus of these guerrilla bands were the ethnic Serb Yugoslav troops who had evaded Axis capture during the invasion, and then fled to the hills of Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Mihailovic established his first stronghold in the mountainous Ravna Gora area of western Serbia.
Soon Chetnik numbers were swelled by Serb peasants who had fled from Greater Croatia - non-Serbs were not allowed to join Chetnik bands. Many of these participants sought simply to defend their local village from the terrible brutalities of the Ustase. The latter were so brutal that they even drew protests from the Germans - not on humanitarian grounds, but because Ustase ethnic cleansing was fuelling the resistance movements.
The Chetniks were never a homogenous ideological movement, and many sub-groups paid no more than lip-service to Mihailovic's leadership. Some groups were implacably anti-German, whereas others saw the emerging rival resistance movement, that of the Partisans, as the greater threat. The elements that did unite the Chetniks, however, were their loyalty to the old Royalist regime, and their desire to ensure the survival of the Serbian population.
These disparate groups strove to protect the Serbs from what seemed to be the genocidal intent of the Croats and Germans, plus the hostility of Muslims (both Croatian and Serbian) and Communists. To achieve this goal, Chetniks strove to forge an ethnically-pure Greater Serbia by violently 'cleansing' these areas of Croats and Muslims.
On the other hand, Chetniks were often reluctant to attack Axis targets, in case this provoked brutal Axis retaliation against the local Serb population. In addition, Mihailovic wished to conserve his forces for the general uprising that would coincide with the envisaged Allied invasion of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia.
The Partisans were committed to social revolution
The rival resistance movement, the Partisans, were led by 'Tito' - real name Josip Broz - who was head of the underground Yugoslav Communist party (KPJ), and received support from Stalin's Soviet Union. Broz was a Croatian-Slovene peasant, who after capture as an Austro-Hungarian soldier by the Russians during the Great War, had become a fanatical Communist.
The Partisans' goal was to create an independent Socialist Yugoslav state by freeing the country from Axis occupation. For Tito, therefore, resistance to the Axis always went hand-in-hand with the fostering of Socialist revolution. To this latter end, the KPJ attempted to appeal to all the various ethnic groups within Yugoslavia, by preserving the rights of each group - including those of both Serb and Croat Muslims. While the ethnic composition of partisan units varied widely over time and between regions, Tito's followers on the whole were Serbs.
Whenever the Partisans established control of an area within occupied Yugoslavia, they forged a disciplined Communist mini-state. Tito's first 'liberated base area', termed the Uzice Republic, was located in western Serbia, just 40km south of the Chetnik stronghold of Ravna Gora.
In these liberated areas the Partisans disseminated propaganda, and established schools, cinemas, newspapers, weapons workshops, and railways. However, as the Partisans were subject to strict Party discipline and did not generally fight to protect a particular village, they had the freedom to abandon a stronghold when faced by overwhelming Axis military operations - a flexibility the Chetniks often did not have.
Partisan strategy often sought to deliberately attack the Axis, so as to provoke appalling reprisals - the Germans usually worked on the basis of 100 executions for every German soldier killed by the resistance. Tito's coldly-calculated rationale was that the greater the cruelty the Axis inflicted on ordinary Yugoslavs, the greater the numbers that would join the Partisans' crusade to liberate Yugoslavia.
Two movements in conflict
Women played a key role in the Partisans' People's Liberation Committees
Relations between the two movements were uneasy from the start, but from October 1941 they degenerated into full-scale conflict. To the Chetniks, Tito's pan-ethnic policies seemed anti-Serbian, whereas the Chetniks' Royalism was anathema to the Communists.
German intelligence, however, failed to identify this rift, and their misperception of deepening Chetnik-Partisan cooperation led to the first significant anti-partisan sweeps. The death of ten German soldiers in the guerrilla attack on Gornij Milanovas led to an orgy of retaliation, during which the Germans executed 2,324 men in the nearby town of Kragujevac. The dead included 144 schoolboys - a tragedy subsequently immortalised in an often quoted poem by Desanka Maksimovic. The atrocity set the tenor for the barbarity that was to follow.
From autumn 1941, after recognising Mihailovic as the official head of the resistance in Yugoslavia, Britain regularly sent Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents to the Chetniks to assist them in their efforts. This move further strained Chetnik-Partisan relations. Then in late 1941, the Germans assaulted both Ravna Gora and Uzice. To avoid the continuance of this onslaught, Mihailovic suggested a truce with the Germans, and offered to fight against the Partisans - his first step on the rocky road to collaboration. This time, the Germans declined.
In the face of the German attacks, Mihailovic's Chetniks either melted away back to their villages or fled with their leader to eastern Bosnia. Here, they became locked in a vicious struggle with Croat Ustase and Bosnian Muslim forces that were wreaking genocidal atrocities against local Serbs.
Chetnik Serb vengeance, in return, was equally brutal. At Foca (also in eastern Bosnia) they systematically raped Muslim women and slit the throats of over 2,000 men. When Tito's Partisans then arrived in Foca, after retreating from Uzice in the face of German attacks, they became locked into what was now a three-sided war.
The fighting between Partisans and Chetniks continued to escalate, and as it developed so did the collaboration of the latter with the Axis forces. Having expanded into Montenegro (located in west-central Yugoslavia, along the northern border of the Italian colony of Albania) during 1942, the Chetniks increasingly cooperated with the occupying Italian forces while attempting to annihilate the Partisans. Consequently, British support for Mihailovic waned.
The Partisans liberated Belgrade before the Red Army arrived
Finally, in early October 1944, the Soviet advance against German occupation forces reached the eastern regions of Yugoslavia. This compelled those Germans deployed in the southern Balkans to withdraw north into Serbia and Croatia - to link up with the units defending the Eastern Front. As a result, on the 20th, Partisan forces liberated Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, just a few hours before the Red Army arrived.
In the aftermath of the German withdrawal from the southern Balkans, sizable Partisan forces now controlled whole swathes of Yugoslav territory. During the remaining weeks of the war, the Red Army and the Partisans gradually drove the Axis forces north-westwards through Serbia and Croatia until the German surrender of 8 May.
The days that followed the end of the war led to one last round of vengeful blood-letting. Tito's Partisans executed at least 30,000 Croat Ustase troops, plus many civilian refugees. In addition, Tito's secret police - the OZNa - hunted down the Chetnik bands in Serbia, and in 1946 executed Mihailovic as a war criminal. Many Chetniks went into hiding, living a shadow existence constantly on the move between safe houses to avoid arrest.
One Chetnik who survived a Nazi concentration camp only to fall into the hands of the OZNa recalled, 'the Gestapo destroyed the body; OZNa raped the soul.' The violent struggles that occurred in Yugoslavia between 1941 and 1945 resulted in over 1.7 million dead.
Of these, one million were caused by Yugoslav killing Yugoslav, whether it was Croat Ustase against Jews, Muslims, Serbs, Chetniks and Partisans; or Partisans against Chetniks and Ustase; or Chetniks against Ustase, Muslims, and Partisans.
Sadly, too many of the dead met a gruesome end, like the 250 Serbs of the Glina district who, after being locked in a church, were beaten to death by Ustase wielding spiked clubs. Such was the reality of life - and death - in war-torn war-time Yugoslavia.