World War II: Yugoslavia--Serbia (NAZI Puppet State)

World War II Sebian school boys
Figure 1.--Rgus photograph was taken by a German soldier, we think during the 1941 German invasion of Yugoslavia. We believe the boys in uniforms with the soldiers are Serbian schoolboys.

A NAZI controlled Government in Serbia was established headed by former royal Yugoslav army general Milan Nedich. He also initiated an ethnic cleansing campaign. Nedich operated concentration camps for Jews, non-Serbs, and his Serb political opponents. Some of these operations, especially aginst Jews were conducted for the NAZIs, other operations against non-Serbs were conducted to suppport Nedich's Serbian nationalist ideology. The first experiments in mass executions of camp inmates by poison gas were carried out by the NAZIs in one of Nedich's camps. Serbia became the first NAZI satellite to declare itself "Judenrein" ("cleansed" of Jews). Nedich's Serbian militia forces, which played a key role in this task, outnumbered both German security forces and resistance fighters within the wartime borders of Serbia.

Pre-War Situation

NAZI diplomatic policies in the Balkans were aimed at brininging the various countries within the German orbit. The NAZIs could yield considerable influence because of the imoportance of the German industrial economy. The ruse of Fascism in the area also assisted the NAZIs. This was assisted by the appeasement policies of Britain and France, especially by the abandoment of Czechoslovakia at Munich. The Anschluss brought NAZI Germany to the borders of Yugoslavia. To the west, Fascist Italy was hostile, with designs on Yugoslav territory and covert support given to the Croatians Ustache. To the east both Hungary and Bugaria which joined the Axis desired parts of Yugoslavia. Only Greece to the south remained outside the Axis. The defeat of France left Yugoslavia isolated and facing NAZI Germany with its powerful military. Yugoslavia was a federation. The largest ethnic group wthin Yugoslavia was Serbia. There was, however, considerable discension among many of the other ethnic groups--prticularly the Croats who resented Serbian domination of the Yugoslav state. While Mussolini desired to dismantle Yugoslavia to acquire territory along the Adriatic, Hitler wanted stability in the Balkans to secure his southern flank for Barbarossa which in early 1941 was absorbing his energies. He thought the best way to achieve this and to exploit the resources of Yugoslavia was to retain the Yugoslav federal structure. As a first step to dominating Yugoslavia, he forced Prince Paul to agree to entering the Axis.


News of the accord shocked Serbia (March 25). Announcent of this caused a violent reaction in Serbia. Riots in Belgrade forced Prince Paul from power and the new government that replaced repudiated the agreement that had been forced on him. The reaction in the rest of Yugoslavua (except Slovenia) was more muted. One woman who was arested by the NAZIs, but managed to reach America, writes movingly about the Coup, " The Serbs rose. A little race of not more than eight million souls deliberately, sternly decided to die rather than to submit to Axis vassalage. They were the only small race of Europe to come in openly on the side of the Allies before they were themselves attacked and while they still had promises of complete security of frontiers, of lives, and of property; the first and only small race themselves to declare war- a war they knew to be absolutely hopeless- against the invincible German war machine. .... The Serbs did not bargain with us for their help: they gave it, leaving our recognition of it to American honor, which they believe to be not inferior to their own." [Mitchell] I do think that the Serbs that rejected Prince Paul's accord with Hitler fully understood what Hitler's response would be or the reaction of non-Serb groups like the Slavs. Many probably thought that Yugoslavia could fight the Germans. Some may have thought negotiations were possible. Many must have realized, however, that with the Soviet Union and America not yet in the War, that defeat and occupation was inevitavle. None could have visualized the full extent of the horrors that would be visited on the country, not only by the NAZIs, but fellow Yugoslavs as well. One can only admire their determination. The result for the people of Yugoslavia, however, would be horendous.

NAZI Invasion (April 1941)

Hitler was outraged at the Yugoslav reaction, particularly in Serbia which had fought Austria and Germany in World War I. He ordered a Luftwaffe terror bombing of Beklgrade and a all out invasion of Yugoslavia abd Greece. Serbia which had effectively resisted ustria for months in World War I, fell in only 12 days.


The Axis countries partitioned the country. The partition was a complicated process. Italy and Germany split Slovenia in the north. Italy seized coastal areas. Istria had an Italian population. Dalmatia a Croatian population. Croatia itself became a NAZI puppet state (the NDH) and was compensated with loss of Dalmatia with much of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had a mixed population. Croatia was ruled by the ultra-nationalist Ustashe, a Fascist party. Northern Yugoslavia was annexed by Hungary and eastern and southern territories (Macedonia and Pirot) annexed by Bulgaria. Kosovo and Metohija were largely added to Albania which occupied by Italy. Montenegro lost territories to Albania and occupied by the Italians. Italy that also seized the Yugoslav Adriatic islands. Most of Serbia fell within the German occupation zone. The Germans created the Banat in northern Serbia which was to a territory for ethnic Germans--the Volkdeutsche Swabians.

Serbian Government of National Salvation (1941-44)

The NAZIs after taking control of Yugoslavia (April 1941), were unsure how to administer Serbia. Hitler at the time was focused on Barbarossa and desired to us as small a force in the Balkans as possible so he could concentrated his forces on the Soviets. To accomplish this he needed a collaborationist regime in Belgrade which would enforce NAZI policies and assist with security. NAZI authorities considered Dimitrije Ljotić, leader of the Fascist ZBOR Party. Ljotić declined, apparently concerned with the idea of collaborating with the NAZIs. He suggested a former royal Yugoslav army general Milan Nedich. The NAZIs selected Nedich who was not overly enthusiastic. Nedich was not pro-German, but thought that Serbia was defeated and had no choice, but to collaborate--much like Petain in France. Here there were legitimate concerns. The Croatian Utashe had initiated a horific program of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia targeting Serbs. Thousands were being killed. Large numbers of Serbian refugeees from Bosnia were flooding into occupied Serbia. He was also concerned with Yugoslav (mostly Serbian POWS) that the NAZIs had transported to camps in the Reich. Another concern was ways to stop the German reprisals against Serbian civilians. Historians disagree on the extent to which Nedish was motivated by a desire to protect Serbs as opposed to attacking other ethnic groups. The regimeestablished by Nedish was the Vlada Nacionalnog Spasa (Влада Националног Спаса) or the Government of National Salvation which functioned during 1941-44. Nedich assisted the Germans in operations against Jews and Gypesies. The Nedich regime operated concentration camps for Jews, non-Serbs, and political opponents. Some of these operations, especially aginst Jews were conducted primarily for the NAZIs, other operations against non-Serbs were conducted to suppport Serbian nationalist ideology. The first experiments in mass executions of camp inmates by poison gas were carried out by the NAZIs in one of Nedich's camps. Serbia became the first NAZI satellite to declare itself "Judenrein" ("cleansed" of Jews). Nedich's Serbian militia forces, which played a key role in this task, outnumbered both German security forces and resistance fighters within the wartime borders of Serbia.


While Bosnia-Herzegovina was west of Serbia, ethnic Serbs lived there and were targetted by the Croat-NDH administratuion. Bosnia was a province annexed by Austria-Hungary (1909). This angered Serb nationalists and eventually set off World War I when Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was assasinated there (1914). It was a province with an ethnically diverse population, including Orthodox Serbs, Catholic and Muslim Croats, Volkdeutsche, gypseys and Jews. Large areas of Bosnia had no Axis garison. The IItalians were concentrated along the coast. The relatively small German force concentrated on the road and rail links between Belgrade and Bulgaria. This thus presented almost limitless possivility for NDH Ustache mahem. The Ustache set about creating a Croatian Bosnia. Non-Croats were targeted in a series of bloody ethnic cleansing incidents. An estimated 750,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were killed. Thosands of Serbs fled west into Serbia proper controlled where the NASIs set up a pupet state by Milan Nedish.

Banat (1941-44)

The NAZIs created the Banat in northern Serbia. The term Banat developed during the medieval period, it was a region governed by a ban, a leader assigned aborder province. There were many banat in medieval Hungary before the Ottoman invasion. The Banat in occupied Yugoslavia was theoretically part of Serbia, but was actually administered autnomously under the direct control of the Germans rather than the Nedich puppet state. The Germans created the Banat as autonomous region within NAZI-occupied Nedić's Serbia. The Banat was created for the ethnic Volkdeutsch Swabian minority and administered by a civilian commissioner, Josef-Sepp Lapp. The problem for the NAZIs and Lapp was that the ethnic Germans were a very small part of the population. The NAZIs targeted the Jews and Gypsies as well as the Serbs who were the principal ethnic group. The NAZis immediated instituted anti-Semetic measures. One of the first roundups of Jewish occured at Zrenjanin. The Jews there were transported to the Tašmajdan concentration camp, located near Belgrade where they were killed. Many Serbian and Jewish civilians (September 1941). Other Jews were formed into labor brigades. The NAZIs killed Banatian Jews at Stratište. located near the village of Jabuka. The NAZIs used this site to kill people from the Sajmište concentration camp. About 20,000 people were killed there. Officials annonced that the Banat was Judenrein (August 1942). As the War progressed and German losses mounted on the Eastern Front, the Germans were pressed for manpower. They recruited the 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen was recruited primarily from the ethnic Germans in the Banat (April-October 1942). Many had military experience in the Yugoslav Army. The Division was the principal force of the Banat Protection Force (Selbstschutz). Himmler introduce compulsory military service for the Volksdeutsche in Serbia. primarily located in the Banat. In all about 21,500 ethnic Germans served in the Waffen SS. The Prinz Eugen SS Division was headquartered in Pančevo. The division was commanded by Romanian Volksdeutsche SS Gruppenfuehrer and Generalleutnant of the Waffen SS, Artur Phleps. The officers and NCOs were mostly Germans (Reichsdeutsche) transferred from other SS units. The enlisted men were the Volksdeutsche. The Prinz Eugen SS Division was deployed in the Banat and other areas of Yugoslavia to contain the growing resistance movement. After the War the Division was accused of terrible attricities.

The Holocaust

The Nedish Government issued anti-Semetic laws. Jews were deprived of civil rights and stripped of their property. This quickly shifted within in a very short period inyo the murderous phase of the Holocaust. Authorities began rounding up Jewd and confining them to concentration camps or makeship prisons. . Jews that could fled to the Partisans. Tito's Partisans were the only important multiethnic resistance movement. The Parisans essentially protected Jews where threy could. One of Tito's chief advisers was Moshe Piade who was Jewish.


The Resistance in Serbia and Yugoslavia consisted primarily of two groups, the Royalist Chetniks and the Communist Partisans. Yugoslav civilians during the War were caught between the German occupier, collaborationist puppet regimes, the resistance groups, and Allied bombing.

The Chetniks

The Royalist resistance became known as the Chetniks. The name from the Serbian word for compny--ceta. Chetniks groups played an important part of the independence movement against the Ottomans. The Chetniks did not have the strong centralized leadership of the Communists. Chetniks groups were formed locally and normally fought individually. As a royalist group, their primary support came from Serbia. The earliest Chetnik group appears to have been formed by Kosta Pećanac. He actually organized a small group in the 1930s well before the War. As war approched, the Yugoslav military turned to Pećanac to form guerrila groups and provided some arms. They ordered Pećanac to organize guerilla groups in southern Yugoslavia (Mascedonia and Kosovo). The goal seems to have been to control the pro-Bulgarian and Albania population. Pećanac did organize a small group, primarily in the Toplica River valley. His organization survived the German occupation (April 1941). More men joined after the invasion, mostly Serbs from Kosovo. Pećanac did not attack the Germans, but conducted several attacks on Albanians. Pećanac was politically a right-wing reactiinary. Within only a few months he came to see the Communist Partisans as the real threat to Yugoslavia. He thus reached an agreement with the Nedish collaboratinist regime. Nedish accepted Pećanac's demands (Coctober 7, 1941). Thus Pećanac began cooperating with Nedish and the Germans. He rejected offers from Mihailović to join forces. His groups proved generally ineffective and the Germans lost interest in him. The Pećanac group denined German support disbanded (March 1943). He was interned by Nedish and eventually shot by the Chetniks (June 1944). Former Yugoslav general, Draza Mihailovic, proved to be the dominant force in the Royalist resistance and the Chetnik movement. Mihailović was at first virtually unknown to the Serbian population. He began organizing his forces at Ravna Gora. As the War developed, Chetnik groups to varying degrees acknowledged the leadership of Mihailovic's Yugoslav Army of the Homeland (JVUO). Mihailović was war hero from the Balkans War and astring Serbian nationalists. He got into political trouble before the War by advocating dividing the Yugoslav Army along ethnic lines. After the invasion, King Peter's Government in London promoted him to general. The strength of the Chetnik movement was always centered in central Serbia where the peasantry reared on the national historical mythology of resistace to the Turks supported the Chetniks. The movement was further aided by Utache attacks on Serbs in Bosnia. Most Chetniks were Serbs, from Serbia proper as well as Bosnia and Montenegro. We note a fascinating account by a young soldier and Chetnik fighter of Yugoslavia's isintegration, ethnic strife, resistance against the Germans, and the civil struggle between Chetniks and Partisans. [Todorovich] The Chetniks in part because they were recruited locally hesitated to attack the Germans because of the draconian reprisals. The Allies recognized the Royal Government in exile which set up in London. The British and later the Americans at first supported the Chetniks. As the War progressed they increasingly fought with the Partisans, at times cooperating with Nedish and the Partisans. The Allies gradually shifted their support to Tito's Partisans. Attacks on Croats and Muslims in Bosnia further undercut the Chetnik's image. The Germans, perhaps influenced by thenumber of Yugoslav army officers who joined the Chetniks, at first focused their efforts against them rather than the Partisans. [[Porch, p. 181.] The Communists after the War tried and executed by executed Mihailovic as a NAZI collaborator. Ustache attacks on ethnic Serbs in Bosnia brought receuits to both the Partisans and Chetniks. Momcilo Dujic organized a small Chetnik group in Croatian areas, mostly Dalmatia and and other areas occuied by the Italians. They largely collaborated with the Italians. Montenegrowas politically divided. There were Communists. Montenegro nationalist were divided. One group, the Whites (Bjelaši), supported association with Serbia. Another group, the Greens (Zelenaši) supported separation from Yugoslavia. The Greens led by Sekule Drljevića and Montenegrin general Krste Popovića supported the Italian as liberators. The Communists and White began an insurection (July 13, 1941). The Italians supressed the rising within weeks. The Whites essentially accepted defeat while thec Partisans were determined to continue the resistance. The Italians offered assistance to the Whites if they would fight the Partisans. The White hesitated, but new of the split between Partisans and Chetniks in Serbia decided the issue. Nationalistic groups contacted Mihailović (end of November 1941). He recognized Captain Đurišić as Chetnik commander in Sandžak and Major Lašić as Chetnik commander in old Montenegro. Đurišić and Lašić returned and began mobilizing forced (mid-December). Combat with Partisans grouups began (January 1942). The Partisans were weakened by a costly attack on the Italians at Pljevljima (early December). Partisan terror attacks also lost them support. As a result, the Chetniks gained in strength. Local Chetnik commanders began making arrangements with the Italians. The first agrement was between Colonel Baja Stanišića and commander of Italian Division 'Taro' (February 17, 1942). Captain Đurišić and the military governor and commander of Italian Troops of Montenegro general Alessandro Pirzio Biroli reached agreement on the the collaboration of Đurišić Chetniks and Italian forces with the 'Venezia' Division. Colonel Stanišića and general Alessandro Pirzio Biroli reached agreement (March 6). These agreements involved actions against the Partisans, sometimes joint action. The Italians provided arms and supplies. Montenegrin who had been officers in the Royal Yugoslav Army met in Cetinje to chose general Blažo Đukanović as the Chetnik commandder. was chosen. Mihailović endorsed the choice and and have even suggested him.

The Partisans

The Communist-led partisans were organized by Josip Broz Tito who became known as Marshal Tito. He was part Croat and part Slovene. The Communist had an advantage over the Chetniks in that they were organized and operated covertly. They were ready for such operations even before the War began, although they did not have a substabntial armed militia. Tito built a truly national, multi-ethnic resistabce movement around about about 8,000 Communtist Party (KP) members before the War. They accepted recruits on a non-ethnic basis, including Jews. They were unphased with German reprisals against Serb notables which did discuse the Chetniks. The Partisans had generally proletarian roots and thus shooting notables did not concern them. Also because the Partisans were not based on local recruitment, they were willing to attack the Germans despite the reprisals that followed. In fact, they often planned attacks knowing that the Germans would retaliate and thus radicakize the local population. The calculation was that hatred of the Germans would overcome the ethnic differences dividing the Yugoslavs. [Porch, p. 182.]


Serbia and Yugoslavia were among the countries that suffered the most from World War II. An estimated 1.7 million people were killed (over 10 percent of the population). Damage was estimated at $9.1 billion dollars.


Mitchell, Ruth. The Serbs Chose War (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1943).

Porch, Douglas. The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2004), 796p.

Todorovich, Boris J. Last Words: A Memoir of World War II and the Yugoslav Tragedy.


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Created: 8:14 PM 5/2/2007
Last updated: 4:49 AM 12/21/2012