<Cetniks and Partisans>

Resistance to the Axis was to be expected in lands where the traditions of fighting alien rule were still living parts of most people's national identites.

Fragments of the army gendarmerie, who adopted the traditional Serbian name of Cetniks (from 'ceta', regiment), had taken to the hills as the magnitude of their defeat became obvious in April 1941. There they regrouped, waited developments, and rallied gradually to the command of Mihailovic.

The communists, or Partisans as they came to call themselves, were also organizing themselves under their party secretary since 1937, Josip Broz Tito, though they too were fewer in number. Unlike the Serb loyalists, they were awaiting the revolutionary situation they trusted the Soviet entry into the war would unleash.

Both movements sought to take control and advantage of the spontaneous and inchoate Serb risings which the Ustasa pogroms were provoking in the Independent Croatian State, or NDH.

Not wanting to be left out, and encouraged by the Soviet Union's entry into the war and the communists' consequent call to arms -as well as the Germans' earlier transfer of front-line troops to the east- the Serbs of Montenegro and the rump of Serbia rose in rebellion in July and August. Such unity as these various local uprisings possessed was not destined to endure, as their would-be-leaders, the communists and the Serb officers, were fighting for different ends. These, in turn, implied different strategies.

Mihailovic's movement sought Yugoslavia's restoration as a Serb-dominated monarchy. Its appeal to non-Serbs was thus small. But in summer of 1941, the popular demand was for resistance; and Mihailovic and his commanders went along with it so as to maintain their claim to both wartime and post-war leadership. By the autumn, however, the mass reprisals against Serb civilians (on ratio of 100 executions for every German soldier killed) which had become Hitler's answer to revolt confirmed Mihailovic in his original belief that the uprisings were premature and that the communists were no better than criminals for seeking to provoke and prosecute them. In this assessment lay the seeds of the Cetniks' collaboration with the Axis and a long civil war; although in November the Germans rejected Mihailovic's offer to fight the communists in return for arms.

The communists, on the other hand, were fighting for a revolutionary transfer of power. Although this, their ultimate objective, was more or less effectively camouflaged after the spring of 1942, from the start they sought to appeal both individually and collectively to all the Yugoslav peoples. Militarily the differed from the Cetniks by emphasizing unremitting was on the Axis and its Yugoslav helpmates: at first in order to lend assistance to the embattled 'first country of socialism', but later because to do otherwise was to serve the enemy and to betray one's own people. They denounced Mihailovic, the various Croat and Slovene leaders, and parties who refused to concede their right to command the resistance as collaborators. Most of these anti-communist potential resisters fell into the trap, becoming what the communists alleged they were.


<Civil war>

So the lands of the dismembered Yugoslav state became not only the scene of Europe's greatest resistance struggle, but also one of its bloodiest civil wars.

Partisans and Cetniks fought the occupiers, their servants, and each other in order to win anti-Axis leadership and the right to organize the post-war state. The several regimes and movements involved in collaboration fought the resisters and occasionally each other under the benevolent of worried gaze of their rival Axis patrons. For example,

Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims massacred each other in the name of politics. Most of the 1.2 million Yugoslav who died in the Second World War perished at the hands of other Yugoslavs.


<In 1942 and 1943>

Mihailovic's movement was in the ascendant during 1942. By partially 'legalizing' itself with the Nedic regime, it had managed to escape destruction in the German offensive which chased the Partisans out of Serbia at the end of 1941. Its natural appeal to Serbs as a reincarnation of 19th-century insurgencies against the Turks was buttressed by the legitimacy accorded to it by King Peter's government and by the propaganda backing it received from the Allies.

Outside narrow Serbia, in Montenegro, Herzegovina, and inland Dalmatia, Mihailovic's sub-commanders joined with the Italians in waging war on the communists and/or keeping the Ustasas at bay. By such means they expected both to preserve themselves and to eliminate their rivals against the day when the Italians, quitting the war, should bequeath their arms, equipment, and control of the coast. The British, unable themselves at this stage to supply the Cetniks, did not oppose these arrangements.

The Partisans, however, were recovering from their set backs of late 1941 and early 1942. Their 'long march' from south-east to north-west Bosnia in the summer of 1942 translated them from an area which they had worn out their welcome to one sympathetic to their now less revolutionary demeanour. When they convoked the first meeting of their all-national front, the Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation (AVNOJ), in Bihac in November they gave it a moderate and patriotic guise. In the first half of 1943 they survived -just- two great Axis offensives, while inflicting crippling defeats on the Cetniks outside Serbia in the process. They also extricated themselves from negotiations with the Germans for an anti-Cetnik modus vivendi without being found out by the British, who had chosen this moment (April) to send their first missions to them.

By the end of 1943 they claimed to have more than 200,000 men and women under arms. More importantly, from the Allied point of view, they were credited with holding down some 35 Axis divisions which might otherwise have been available for service on the Italian or Eastern Fronts.

<For the post occupation developments click here>



Oxford Companion to the Second World War (1995), pp.1298,1299