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The Precarious Country

British Policy Towards Wartime Resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece

edited by Phyllis Auty, edited by Richard Clogg
Barnes and Noble/Harper & Row, 308 pp., $23.50

British Policy in South-East Europe in the Second World War

by Elisabeth Barker
Barnes and Noble/Harper & Row, 320 pp., $27.50


by Milovan Djilas
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 470 pp., $14.95

The Yugoslav Experiment 1948-1974

by Dennison Rusinow
University of California Press, 410 pp., $16.50

R.W. Seton-Watson and the Yugoslavs, Correspondence 1906-1941

British Academy and University of Zagreb, 468, vol 2 pp., £10 the set

Nations in Arms: The Theory and Practice of Territorial Defense

by Adam Roberts
Praeger, 288 pp., $18.50


The Belgrade-Bar railway took one hundred years to plan and build. It now joins Serbia to the Adriatic, and clings to the mountains of Montenegro like a tendril. On the night train up from Bar, I was awakened early in the morning by a hand shaking my shoulder; when I opened my eyes I saw, three inches away, a revolver pointed straight between them. Behind it, standing over me, was a man with a sharp face and a long suede overcoat. “Vi Engliez?” “Yes.” He waved the gun at me, then laughed at his friend on the top bunk, stood up, slipped the gun into his waistband, and began to comb his hair.

Montenegrin humor. But it is hard not to feel a certain precariousness about Yugoslavia in general. JAT flights from the West are searched for bombs more carefully than most other flights, and still one has been exploded by right-wing exile terrorists. Yugoslav missions in Western Europe and the United States are frequent targets; émigrés of all persuasions are themselves constantly being gunned down or blown up.

In Belgrade the writers argue so fiercely that they have to have two writers’ clubs to keep the factions apart; each is very convivial. Gigantic trucks on the narrow Belgrade-Zagreb highway pay little attention to cars. One month after the controllers of Zagreb’s airport caused the world’s worst mid-air collision and sent 176 bodies splashing and burning into the cornfields last year, two more planes narrowly missed each other high over Croatia. Train accidents are frequent and often the drivers are found to be drunk as well as dead. In Montenegro a truck in front of my car drove off a bridge and disappeared under the brine sixty feet below. A few days later, in an incident reminiscent of Lawrence Durrell’s own tales of diplomatic niceties in Belgrade, the Austrian ambassador shot dead the French ambassador during a hunt organized by the Yugoslav foreign minister.

Yugoslavia has been a cause for concern ever since the question “After Tito, what?” was first asked in 1943. Last year Henry Kissinger’s adviser Helmut Sonnenfeldt jarred the Yugoslavs by asserting in his so-called “doctrine” that Yugoslav independence of Moscow could upset Europe’s stability, and the country’s defense obtruded briefly into the presidential election. Tito’s hepatitis caused a flutter and Brezhnev’s November visit kept dozens of pundits busy. Above St. James Park a member of the British establishment confided that he was informed that World War III, like I, would begin in the Balkans; recently a Yugoslav general said that his country might need nuclear weapons to stop such a war.

Now eighty-five, Tito has been taking his own steps to ensure that the coalition of twenty-two million Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Turks, Slovenes, Albanians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Hungarians survives him. An eight-man collective presidency, representing each of the republics and autonomous areas, has been picked to succeed him. Executive authority is being decentralized from Belgrade to the nationalities. Greater ideological uniformity is being imposed and the Party is being emphasized as “one ring to bind them all.” The police have become much more active in restricting certain freedoms. Hundreds of so-called “nationalists,” “Stalinists,” and other dissenters have been arrested. A defense system has been installed in which resistance is compulsory and surrender illegal.

Some of these measures are obviously grim and they have aroused the fury of the former US ambassador to Belgrade, Laurence Silberman, who has now denounced the State Department for being soft on a country he sees as both paranoid and anti-American.1 Mr. Silberman’s polemic could hardly make him more unpopular in Belgrade. Last year he became the first ambassador to be publicly denounced by Tito since he attacked the Soviet ambassador in 1948. Silberman’s main offense was to campaign openly rather than discreetly for the release of an American, Laszlo Toth, who had been jailed on obviously trumped-up spying charges. Silberman succeeded but some of his colleagues considered, perhaps wrongly, that he would have done so more quickly by being less abrasive. They wondered if he was joking when he tiptoed around rooms, one finger on his lips, the other pointing at the chandelier. He probably was not.

Silberman’s irritation about Yugoslav “paranoia” may be understandable, but he fails to take account of the origins of that mistrust. These have to be sought in the experience of World War II; many Yugoslavs, particularly of Tito’s generation, will always think of their former allies in Britain, the US, and the USSR in the light of what happened thirty-five years ago.

In Britain one recent attempt has been made to show how a decisive part of the establishment finally decided that their alliance with Draza Mihailovic was a failure and then turned to Tito in the war against the Axis. Typically, for Britain, that attempt was made not by outside inquiry but by a cluster of those privy to the secrets. Their recollections, edited by Phyllis Auty and Richard Clogg, are nonetheless fascinating. They show how bureaucratic schism, particularly between the Foreign Office and Special Operations Executive (SOE), almost lost Tito.2

Churchill institutionalized subversion during the war, and arguably for all time, by creating SOE after the fall of France in 1940. Its mission was “to set Europe ablaze.” In 1941 the Joint Planning Staff ranked subversion with bombing and blockade in importance: “We should be able overnight to produce the anarchy of Ireland in 1920 or Palestine in 1936.” The difference was that Britain now sought to fire as well as to fuel the revolt. “Such rebellions can occur only once,” a Joint Planning Staff paper argued. “They must not happen until the stage is set.” In fact, of course, as one of the participants to this discussion suggests, combustion tends to be internal, a lesson still unlearned.3

Yugoslavia was the test case. In March 1941 a pro-Allied coup d’état in Belgrade led to invasion, dismemberment, and occupation by the Axis. The exact history of the resistance that followed is much disputed but the books by Auty and Clogg, Roberts, and Barker, as well as Public Records Office documents, generally agree on the pattern of events. First, royalist Serbian officers took to the hills; then, after Hitler’s attack on the USSR, communists followed them. The communists began to fight first but in late summer London picked up signals from the royalists, or Chetniks, led by Colonel Draza Mihailovic. They had to be aided, if only to encourage similar resistance elsewhere, but, Churchill said, they were simply to “embarrass” and tie down Axis troops. “They should now do all they can to prepare a widespread underground organization ready to strike hard later on, when we give the signal.”4

This was ideal for Mihailovic. A withdrawn, melancholy man, he was obsessed with the sufferings of Serbia during World War I, when almost a third of its six million people were slaughtered. His tactics now apparently derived from the long history of Turkish occupation, when, through the winter months when the snows were thick and bright and the trees devoid of cover, the Serb guerrillas would come down to the villages, drink coffee and play trictrac with their Turkish enemies. When the spring thaw returned, they would wave goodbye, climb back into the hills, and fight until the first snow fell again. The Turkish occupation lasted 550 years.

Tito’s ideas of resistance were rather more robust, and the Partisans and Chetniks began to clash at once. In September the first of SOE’s British liaison officers, Captain Hudson, arrived in Yugoslavia; he met both Tito and Mihailovic and thought Tito the more effective of the two. But his intention was to create a united front under Mihailovic and he stayed with him even when talks between the two leaders broke down in November. Mihailovic, however, considered Hudson a communist agent and told him nothing. This made little difference since Hudson had no working radio (SOE had thoughtfully provided him with a plug-in set) and since the Allies, occupied with Singapore and Stalingrad during much of 1942, had little time for the Balkans.

It was during 1942 that Tito created and developed the concept of a mobile army in the form of the Proletarian Brigades. In dealing with his allies, it was a disillusioning year for him. He discovered that the Russians were more concerned with protecting their relationship with the Allies and the royalist government in exile than with aiding Balkan revolution. At the same time, the Allies seemed to ignore Mihailovic’s increasing collaboration with the Axis troops and, worse still, Chetnik attacks upon the Partisans. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff reported to Churchill in June 1942: “Although the activity of these wilder elements [the Partisans] in the country will always necessitate considerable Axis garrisons, the policy of Mihailovic is to curb their activities in order to conserve his potential forces…for civil war and wait until the time is right.”5 That the Partisans would “hold down” more Germans later became a crucial argument for their support.

Approximately 1.9 million of the 16 million Yugoslavs were killed during the war. But over half of these were killed in civil war;6 at least two hundred thousand Serbs were massacred by the Croatian fascist regime set up by the Italians, and many thousands more were killed in fighting between Chetniks and Partisans. Nonetheless, the reality of civil war is still not a part of the Yugoslav myth of liberation. And since Mihailovic was later executed for collaboration, for which there is ample evidence, little mention is made of the Partisans’ own far less significant attempts to deal with the Germans. But in his superbly documented book Walter Roberts shows that in March 1943, discouraged by British and Soviet attitudes, a Partisan delegation which included Milovan Djilas met with the Germans. According to both German and Partisan documents they negotiated a prisoner exchange; but the Partisans also said that the Chetniks not the Germans were their first enemy and they proposed a truce. This was the mirror image of what Mihailovic himself had told the Germans. In any event, Ribbentrop in Berlin rejected the Partisans’ offer.7

In his book Conversations with Stalin (1962), Djilas dealt sparingly with the incident and left out his own role altogether. Walter Roberts revealed his participation and the account has apparently encouraged Djilas. In his new volume of memoirs, Wartime, Djilas writes of the affair dramatically and at length, admitting that silence today would serve only “to preserve the idealized image of the Yugoslav revolution, as if it weren’t sufficient for them to have carried out the original revolution.” He says that none of the Partisan leaders worried that negotiating with the Germans betrayed the USSR, internationalism, or their own aims. “Military necessity compelled us. The history of Bolshevism—even without the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the Hitler-Stalin Pact—offered us an abundance of precedents.” Nonetheless, he writes, the talks infuriated Moscow; this was the first open quarrel between Tito and Stalin.

  1. 1

    Yugoslavia’s ‘Old’ Communism: Europe’s Fiddler on the Roof,” Foreign Policy, Spring, 1977.

  2. 2

    Auty and Clogg, passim.

  3. 3

    F.W.D. Deakin, the first British liaison officer to Tito, 1943.

  4. 4

    Churchill to Hugh Dalton, August 1941. Quoted by Deakin in Auty and Clogg, pp. 100-101.

  5. 5

    Auty and Clogg, p. 101.

  6. 6

    Denitch, p. 39, quoting George W. Hoffman and Fred Warner Neal, Yugoslavia and the New Communism (20th Century Fund, New York, 1962). Rusinow quotes a figure of 1.7 million.

  7. 7

    Walter Roberts, pp. 106-112.

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