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The British in Yugoslavia

In response to:

Relations with Djilas from the September 26, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

The exchange between Vladimir Dedijer and Nora Beloff on the degree of enmity or esteem which has characterized the relations of the former with Milovan Djilas [NYR, September 26] will probably have served only to bemuse most of your readers. Far more important, and requiring elucidation lest two equally blinkered versions of historical reality should gain increased currency, is the substantive question of British attitudes towards Cetnik collaboration with the Axis in Yugoslavia in 1942 and 1943.

Professor Dedijer is wrong to allege that Colonel S.W. Bailey, senior British liaison officer with Mihailović from Christmas 1942, ordered the latter to participate in the Fourth Offensive (Weiss) against the Partisans in March 1943. In the first place, the British in general and Bailey in particular had almost no influence with Mihailović’s at the time. Personal contacts between the two men had been broken off following Mihailović’s anti-British tirade of February 28 and were not restored until mid-April. Bailey spent the period of Weiss in humiliating and impotent isolation. Secondly, Mihailović needed no such instruction. He had been obsessed with the need to eliminate the Partisans ever since the autumn of 1941, and had to that end entered into close relations with the Italians. That the Germans fully intended to destroy his movement once they had finished off the Partisans made it even more vital that he cleave to his Italian allies.

Miss Beloff, on the other hand, is also in error, both in stating that Mihailović did not take part in the Battle of the Neretva on the Axis side and in implying that the British always opposed Cetnik collaboration with the Axis. Of course there was no “British–Nazi collusion against the Partisans,” but that is not exactly what Professor Dedijer claims when he writes that “Draza Mihailović was pushed into collaboration by the British.” They had indeed been moved in 1942 to sanction—if not actually to press for—Cetnik links with the Italians. This happened because the British then endorsed both Mihailović’s strategy of awaiting the proper moment for revolt and his claim to national resistance leadership in the name of his exiled king and government. In no position to supply his forces adequately themselves, and tending to draw an almost racialistic distinction between collaboration with the Italians (permissible) and with the Germans (impermissible), elements in the Special Operations Executive and the Foreign Office went so far as to hope that Mihailović might with Italian help succeed in eliminating the Partisans from what were deemed “the Serblands.” (Croatia and Slovenia were regarded as potentially a different matter.) With the Partisan distraction—or obsession—removed, SOE trusted that Mihailović would prove an effective and obedient leader of Serb resistance at a large stage in the war.

It was this British policy, derived of weakness, lack of serious interest and ignorance of the scope and cohension of the Partisans’ struggle—SOE did not yet receive Ultra intercepts—that came under challenge before, during and after Weiss. Charged by the Chiefs of Staff with “tuning up” guerrilla warfare in the Balkans in preparation for the invasion of Sicily, SOE was compelled to admit that Mihailović could not now be made to fulfill the organization’s new and more demanding brief, more especially as the Partisans had managed simultaneously to survive Weiss and to penetrate areas heretofore regarded as Serb Cetnik preserves. The result was the despatch in April of the first British missions to the Partisans and the beginning of the year-long process of breaking with Mihailović.

However cynical or stupid British policy may appear in retrospect, it needs be remembered that, at the moment when British authorities in Cairo and London were anticipating with satisfaction the liquidation of the Partisans in eastern Yugoslavia, the Partisans were themselves negotiating with the Germans in Zagreb for a cease-fire intended to give them a free hand to extirpate the Cetniks. It was in the course of these talks that Djilas and his comrades pledged to fight the British if they should land on the Adriatic littoral. What is remarkable in this context is not British or Partisan perfidy, but the rapidity with which Churchill’s government and Tito’s revolutionary movement came to appreciate the usefulness of the other. Wars are like that.

Your reviewer and her challenger ought to have been familiar with the story of British policy making outlined above. The scholarly literature on the subject is now substantial and the documentary base—from British Cabinet, Foreign Office, War Office and private papers—on which it rests is sound if far from complete. Readers interested in pursuing either the arguments or the references should consult the several books and articles by Elisabeth Barker, particularly “Fresh Sidelights on British Policy in Yugoslavia, 1942–3” (Slavonic and East European Review, LIV, 4, October 1976), as well as my own book, Britain and the War for Yugoslavia, 1940–1943 (Boulder and New York, 1980). It really is no longer necessary to have to resort to conspiracy theories either to defend or defame any of the participants in Yugoslavia’s wartime drama.

Mark Wheeler

School of Slavonic and East European Studies

University of London

Nora Beloff replies:

It is rubbish to assert that Draza Mihailović took part in the battle of the Neretva on the Axis side. The battle was in Herzegovina and Mihailović was at that time in Montenegro. Nor is there any evidence that he exercised control over the bands of Chetniks who fought on the Axis side.

There were indeed what Mr. Wheeler calls “elements in the Special Operations Executive and the Foreign Office” who, on occasion, hoped that Mihailović, with Italian help, might succeed in eliminating the Partisans from some parts of Yugoslavia. This does not in the least justify Mr. Dedijer’s absurd allegation that Britain, still at that time fighting for survival, would, as a matter of national policy, either for anticommunist or for class-war reasons, have driven Mihailović into collaborating with the enemy.

I did not, either in my review or in my book (shortly to be published in the US), resort to “conspiracy theories” nor wish “to defend or defame any of the participants in Yugoslavia’s wartime drama.” I merely tried to disentangle what really happened. This, alas, has brought me into collision not just with Mr. Wheeler but with all the established Britain historians, who rely on British archival material for their tunnel-vision of the Yugoslav civil war, while ignoring the evidence now available from German, Italian, Partisan, and royalist records. As I point out in my book, Mr. Wheeler himself is a former student and apparently still a disciple of Sir William Deakin, who is the leading British protagonist of the myth that, in wartime Yugoslavia, the Partisans were the only patriotic resisters. As my friends in Belgrade sometimes say, when there is no longer a single Titoist left in Yugoslavia, the Titoist faithfuls will still be holding out in their bunkers in London.

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