Yugoslavia: the war of liberation 1941-45

FRFI 149 June /July 99


Imperialist intervention in the Balkans is not new. History shows us that the Balkans have been a battleground for the Great Powers since the dawn of modern imperialism. At various times since the mid-nineteenth century, each of the Balkan nations has sought to ally itself with one or other of the imperialist nations, either to bolster the claims of one ruling class against another, or to suppress rebellions of the oppressed. This characteristic of the local ruling classes -- their weakness, their dependency on imperialism -- means that they have been willing pawns in the hands of competing imperialist interests and that, as a consequence, their national demands have always involved the subjugation of other nationalities within the region.

However, there is a different form of nationalism, a revolutionary, anti-imperialist nationalism, which expresses the interests of the working class and the oppressed. Such nationalism links the struggle for national liberation with that for social liberation, the challenge to imperialism with the challenge to its local agents. It fights against any national exclusivity, on the basis that all the Balkan nations have equal rights and, in particular, equal rights to self-determination. Such a movement does not exist today, but it has to be built if the poor and oppressed of the region are to achieve peace. That it can be built is proved by the history of the Partisan movement from 1941 to 1945, whose war of national liberation ended in social revolution. Their victory was secured against overwhelming military odds, at an enormous human cost, and against the designs of the western imperialist Allies. It proved possible because the struggle was led by a genuine communist party -- the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), which championed the right of all the nations making up the Yugoslav federation to self-determination. It fused the struggle for national liberation with that for social emancipation. In so doing, it created an unstoppable army made up of and led by the working class and poor peasantry. The outcome was over 30 years of peace and social development, destroyed only by the economic might of Western imperialism.

Today, the epic struggle of the people of Yugoslavia has been forgotten, the revolution and its leadership -- in particular, its General Secretary Josip Tito -- condemned by opportunists, "Stalinists" and "Trotskyists" alike. Yet as NATO bombs pour down on Serbia and Kosovo, it is vital for us to understand that peace in the Balkans will once again require the sort of movement that Tito and the CPY built and led.

The Balkans: the powderkeg of imperialism

It was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo by Serb Bosnian nationalists that sparked the First Imperialist War. To understand why, it is necessary to go back to the 1860s, when the Balkans were occupied by two enfeebled imperialist powers. The south, including Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, was under the control of the Turkish Ottoman empire. The northern parts, including Slovenia and Croatia formed part of the Austrian empire. The Ottoman empire was economically bankrupt, whilst the Austrians were reeling following defeat, first at the hands of a united Italy, and then in 1867, by a resurgent Prussia. The formation of the so-called Dual Monarchy with Hungary in 1867 gave Austria a temporary respite, and allowed Hungary to gain almost complete control over Croatia.

A peasant uprising in 1875 in Bosnia-Herzegovina swiftly turned into a war against the Ottoman empire on whose military support the mainly Moslem landlords depended. Serbia and Montenegro declared war on Turkey, which speedily defeated them. Tsarist Russia, which had long sought control of Constantinople to protect its access to the Mediterranean, saw an excuse to settle a score left over from the Crimean war. After a brief conflict a settlement was imposed on Turkey which gave Serbia independence and greatly enlarged Bulgaria. This was completely unacceptable to both Britain and France, and the carve-up was renegotiated in the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. This gave Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria, thwarting plans for a Greater Serbia and assuring Serbian support for Bosnian nationalism.

The assassination of Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, set in train a remorseless series of events. Austria demanded that Serbia undertake to restrain the activities of Serb nationalists, investigate Serb nationalist groups, and hand over any accomplices to the murder. Serbia agreed to every demand except one: that Austrian officials be allowed onto Serbian territory to aid' the investigation. At the end of July 1914, Austro-Hungary ordered a general mobilisation. Russia ordered a counter-mobilisation as, in rapid sequence, did German imperialism (in support of Austro-Hungary) and then British and French imperialism (in support of Russia).

Four years of war and 20 million dead set the scene for another carve-up. The secret Treaty of London in 1915 had promised Italy swathes of Slovenia and Croatia if it were to come into the war against Austria. The sudden collapse of the Austrian empire in 1918, however, left Serbia in a militarily dominant position. It was able to play on Croatian and Slovenian fears of Italian occupation to bounce them into a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia under the rule of a ruthless Serb monarchy. Serbian control of the state tightened during the inter-war period; Croatian nationalists were subject to intense repression, as was the Communist party of Yugoslavia (CPY).

Yugoslav foreign policy was dominated by hostility to Italy, which drove it towards Germany, particularly after the victory of fascism in 1933. The Italian invasion of Albania and Greece in October 1940 sowed panic in the Serbian ruling class. As a weak, dependent bourgeoisie, it could only survive in alliance with one or other imperialist power. British imperialism, anxious to safeguard its precarious position in the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, sought to prevent the Yugoslav monarchy from concluding an agreement with Germany and Italy, but failed. At the end of February 1941, Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact with the fascist powers, turning it into little more than a protectorate. Popular opposition was immense, and on 26 March, a group of officers deposed Regent Prince Paul, installed King Peter in his place, and rejected the pact.

The response was immediate and devastating. The German invasion of 6 April 1941 was accompanied by a bombing campaign which killed 20,000 in three days in Belgrade. Within three weeks, Yugoslav forces had collapsed, and the King exiled. German forces partitioned Yugoslavia, taking direct control of Slovenia and Serbia. Italy occupied Bosnia and Montenegro, whilst Bulgaria was given Macedonia. A puppet Independent State of Croatia' was set up under the leadership of the Croatian nationalist Ante Pavelic, who initiated a blood bath of unprecedented proportions. Under the guise of defending Catholicism, Croatian Ustashe forces slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Serbs in the most barbaric manner, laying waste to entire regions of Croatia.

The Partisan struggle begins

The CPY, understanding that it would be impossible to build an urban-based revolutionary army in such conditions, took to the mountains and established the Partisan movement. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 triggered a generalised uprising throughout Yugoslavia against the brutal fascist occupation. Italian forces were almost completely driven out of Montenegro. Huge quantities of arms fell into Partisan hands. By the end of the year, the Partisan army numbered some 80,000 troops. They faced 18 divisions of German, Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian troops as well as five divisions of Croatian Ustashe.

Within Serbia, acts of sabotage became widespread. In September 1941, Hitler ordered three German divisions to attack the Partisans. Field Marshal von Keitel ordered that in a reprisal for the life of one German soldier, the general rule should be capital punishment of 50-100 communists. The manner of execution must have a frightening effect'. Following a Partisan attack near the town of Kragujevac which left 10 German soldiers dead, German troops rounded up the entire male population, including school children. On 21 October, they were taken out in batches of 100 and shot. All day the massacre continued. At least 5,000 died. Today, Kragujevac has become one of NATO's named bombing targets.

The class struggle against the Cetniks

The Partisans faced not just occupation forces from four countries together with their quisling allies, they also had to fight a movement which was to receive the political and military support of the Allies the Cetniks. Their nucleus was a group of Serb officers who fled into the mountains after Yugoslavia's defeat. Led by Draza Mihailovic, fiercely pro-Serb and anti-Croat, they opened negotiations with the exiled royalist government through a radio link established in the summer of 1941. Mihailovic was appointed war minister. At the same time, however, he also established links with the quisling regime in Serbia under General Nedic. Cetnik policy was dictated by its class base amongst the rural bourgeoisie with Greater Serbian ambitions. Given the ruthlessness of the occupation forces, the Cetniks knew that any war of liberation would mean dreadful material loss, completely unacceptable to its bourgeois base.

This was exposed when the Partisans attempted to negotiate a united movement, proposing in September a joint command, joint administration of liberated areas, and joint action against quisling forces. But talks between Tito and Mihailovic reached no conclusion, and on 2 November, Cetniks launched co-ordinated attacks on Partisan-held areas. Mihailovic sent radio messages to London demanding aid and denouncing Tito. On 11-12 November, he met with the Germans to solicit their support, handing over 365 Partisans who were forthwith shot. By the end of 1941, Cetnik forces were receiving money and arms from both Germans and Italians to fight the Partisans whilst also receiving Allied assistance.

People's Liberation Committees

Once the Partisans liberated areas of the country, they established broad-based People's Liberation Committees which were generally led by Communists, and which dealt with all aspects of civilian life health, education, food distribution. Women and young people played a vital role in the functioning of the committees. Feeding and housing were particularly important, but so, with the huge number of refugees, were health and hygiene. Consideration for the population was basic to winning their support. There was a moratorium on debts, but taxes had to be levied and collected, wages and prices fixed, transport and communications repaired, and local industry and agriculture put into some kind of working order' (Phyllis Auty: Tito a biography p240). Basic land reform was implemented, a move which alienated the ruling class even further.

Such a revolutionary policy, however, created new allies for the liberation struggle amongst the poor peasantry, and forced the likes of Mihailovic to reveal his reactionary aims the preservation of the old system. It was the class position of the forces he led that pushed Mihailovic into more and more open forms of collaboration with the occupying forces. The Partisans would not allow the local bourgeoisie to sit on the fence. And, when presented with the choice to side with the fascist occupation or with the forces of liberation they chose the former. As a result, not only did Mihailovic lose popular support and influence, but so did the monarchy in exile, and its supporters the western imperialist Allies.

Tito himself placed special stress on the importance of the Liberation Committees: It is essential to build up close relations between army and civilians so that the people feel itself one with the military...The correct functioning of even the smallest organs of government is the very basis for success in the war of liberation; without this, the greatest victories in the field are built on sand'. A further area of work for the Committees was education, both technical reading and writing classes were set up for young and old alike and political, to win conscious political support for the Partisans and the CPY. The first elections to the Committees took place in 1942, with women enfranchised for the first time. By the end of 1942, with large areas of Bosnia and Croatia liberated, there were thousands of Liberation Committees along the full length of the country; it was truly a pan-Yugoslav force.

The Proletarian Brigades

If the formation of National Liberation Committees was a crucial step in securing popular support for the Partisans, the decision to form a regular, revolutionary army through the creation of Proletarian Brigades was to be no less important. What was at issue was whether the Partisans had the military means to support their political independence, or whether they would be mere auxiliary forces to the armies of the imperialist powers to the West or the Soviet Union to the East. In short, such an army would be a crucial factor in determining the character of any post-war settlement; in particular, whether the western imperialist Allies would be able to re-impose the monarchy.

The first Proletarian Brigade was established on 22 December 1941, made up of 1,200 volunteers from Serbian and Montenegrin units; a further four were established over the next six months. Each had its own political structures led by political commissars attached to the commander, and were made up overwhelmingly of Communists. They were the shock troops of the Partisans, used up and down the country against the Germans and the Italians. By the end of the war, the Partisans had 800,000 under arms, a staggering achievement. That Tito and the CPY were preparing in 1941 for the assumption of political power, when the western imperialist powers and the Soviet Union were reeling under the fascist onslaught, is testament to their political foresight.

The Partisans in the international arena

Throughout 1942, the western imperialist powers continued to supply the Cetniks with military equipment and political support, despite the fact that they were aware of the leading role of the Partisans in the fight against fascism, and the collaborative actions of Mihailovic. The exiled monarchy continued to broadcast appeals to the Yugoslav people to support the Cetniks, and denounced the Partisans. However, the major political battle the CPY had to face was with the Soviet Union. Throughout the war Tito submitted regular reports to Georgi Dimitrov, Secretary to the Communist International, even after it had been dissolved in May 1943. The Communist International was completely opposed to the strategy of the CPY, in particular the decision to form national Liberation Committees and to set up the Proletarian Brigades. In response to one report from Tito, Dimitrov asked:

"Why...did you need to form a special Proletarian Brigade? Surely at the moment, the basic, immediate task is to unite all anti-Nazi currents, smash the invaders and achieve national liberation...Are there really no other Yugoslavian patriots, apart from the Communists and Communist sympathisers, with whom you could join in common struggle against the invaders?...We honestly request you to give your tactics serious thought, and your actions as well."

The point of course was that there were no other "patriots": they had compromised already with the fascist occupation. The CPY was also alone amongst other liberation movements. Neither the Italian nor the French Communist Parties sought to organise guerrilla movements independently of local bourgeois forces, let alone attempt to create an independent revolutionary army. In Greece, the armed struggle against the German occupation was also limited by the Greek Communist Party to what was acceptable to the local bourgeoisie. Its refusal to create an independent revolutionary army left it incapable of opposing the British army which invaded Greece in December 1944 to restore the old order, and on 6 February 1945 it capitulated to a force it vastly outnumbered.

The military struggle

In mid-1942, Tito evacuated positions in southeast Bosnia to move into liberated territory in northern Croatia, where at Bihac he held the first meeting of the Anti-Fascist Council of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) on 26/27 November 1942. Dimitrov had radioed Tito urging him not to look upon the committee as a kind of government, but as the political arm of the national liberation struggle. At this stage do not raise the question of the abolition of the monarchy. Do not put forward any republican slogans'. Yet as Tito concluded in his assessment of the conference, the whole body of people present condemned the Yugoslav government as traitors. Although we do not look on this committee as a kind of government it will nevertheless have to look after all state business and occupy itself with the war, in which it will have the support of the People's Liberation Committees...'

The Germans organised seven major offensives against the Partisans, the fourth of which was in April 1943 and was aimed at encircling Bihac. 18,000 Cetniks still being supplied with arms by the British were mobilised for the campaign alongside the occupation forces. The Cetniks were destroyed as the Partisans broke through their lines to the south and moved into Montenegro. Tito nearly lost his life during the fifth offensive as the Partisan leadership was forced out of Montenegro into eastern Bosnia during May. Although the British took a step towards recognising the Partisans during the summer, they also withheld advance warning of the Italian surrender in September 1943. This was to prevent the Partisans seizing weapons from surrendering Italian forces in Montenegro and Dalmatia. The ruse failed: Tito ordered the Partisans to break off all actions and head to the ports of Split and Sibenik and disarm 10 Italian divisions ahead of the Germans.

Second meeting of AVNOJ

The second meeting of AVNOJ, which took place in Jajce in November 1943, marked a decisive step in the political struggle. Delegates came from all over the country, some travelling for several weeks through connecting strips of liberated country. The meeting deposed the royalist government-in-exile, condemning the royal family to permanent exile. It agreed to the establishment of a federal state, and elected a provisional government. With 300,000 under arms, the Partisans were now in a position to make this a reality, despite having to fight over 50 enemy divisions some 600,000 German, Bulgarian and quisling troops. A measure of their confidence was that Jajce was in the middle of the "Independent State of Croatia", yet Tito was able to spend two months there preparing the AVNOJ conference.

The Partisans consolidated their position during the first part of 1944 as the Soviet armies advanced from the East. The pace of the political struggle accelerated as the western imperialist Allies attempted to manoeuvre Tito into accepting a deal with the government in exile. In June 1944, Ivan Subasic, a pre-war governor of Croatia met with Tito at his headquarters on the island of Vis. Subasic's attempt to have the Partisans recognise King Peter as commander-in-chief failed: as one leader said, "You have neither people, nor army, nor territory". Subasic had to acknowledge AVNOJ as the sole authority in the country. In turn, Tito agreed to leave the issue of the monarchy until the end of the war because "we knew we had the vast majority of the people with us...what was more, we had a strong army, the size of which our rivals could not begin to imagine."

The political pressure continues

Allied pressure continued: first in a meeting with Churchill, and later with Stalin in August 1944, who urged Tito to compromise with King Peter: "You need not restore him forever...Take him back temporarily. Then you can slip a knife in his back at a suitable moment." In response to Stalin's question as to how the Partisans would react if the British landed in Yugoslavia, Tito responded that they "would resist with every possible means." Stalin conceded that the Red Army would only enter Yugoslavia to engage in such campaigns as were necessary to its advance through Europe. In particular, this meant a joint campaign for the capture of Belgrade, secured on 20 October 1944. Within a month, the Red Army had withdrawn and the Partisans had liberated Montenegro and Macedonia.

At the beginning of February 1945, Allied leaders met in Yalta to decide on the future shape of Europe. Churchill and Stalin had already agreed to a division of influence in Greece (90% British, 10% Soviet) and Yugoslavia (50:50). Under this accord, British troops had landed in Greece in December 1944 and attacked the ELAS/EAM liberation movement to secure a return of the old order. On 12 February 1945, the Communist Party of Greece, the effective leadership of the ELAS/ EAM alliance, capitulated to a British force far weaker than the German army of occupation they had confronted over the previous years. At root was the subordination of their struggle to the military and political requirements of the Allies, and their failure to form a revolutionary army, despite the constant urgings of the CPY.

The surrender at Varkiza coincided with an ultimatum from the Allies that Tito should immediately form a new government with Subasic which would admit members of the pre-war Yugoslav assembly who were in no way compromised as collaborators, and that this government should ratify all AVNOJ decisions. Yet all Yugoslav bourgeois politicians had been collaborators in one way or another: the pre-war assembly had sought accommodation with the German-Italian Axis. The government in exile had supported the collaborator Mihailovic, and now elements of it (including social democrats) were urging British military intervention.

Tito temporised: he understood that the issue would be decided by troops on the ground. In a series of huge offensives, the four army groups of the Partisan army liberated the rest of the country, completing the task on 15 May 1945. The cost had been appalling: 1,700,000 Yugoslav people had died one in nine of the population. The western Allies were powerless to intervene: there was no army they could assemble to defeat the Partisans. On 27 November, general elections confirmed the popular mandate of the CPY as they gained 96% of the votes cast. Subasic resigned. On 29 November, the parliament abolished the monarchy, nationalised industry and the banks without compensation, and set in motion widescale reform of land ownership. Imperialism had been defeated: it was to scheme and manoeuvre for the next 40 years to destroy what the people of Yugoslavia had achieved.

Decisive to the success of the Partisans had been their refusal to compromise with imperialism, or subordinate their struggle in any way to the requirements of the imperialist powers. They had based their struggle on the equality of all nationalities within the federation, and turned the struggle into a genuine war of liberation. Above everything else, they had established a regular revolutionary army based on the people, and thereby ensured that they had the force to back up their political standpoint. For this, imperialism and its defenders were never to forgive Tito or the CPY.

Robert Clough


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