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The Yugoslav Partisans

In response to:

The British in Yugoslavia from the December 5, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

With reference to Professor Mark Wheeler’s letter [NYR, December 5, 1985] I should like to pay my tribute to his book Britain and the War for Yugoslavia, 1940–1943. The only objection I might have is that Professor Wheeler did not make a research into the Archives of the Military Institute of the Second World War in Belgrade, where the archives and all personal documents of General Draza Mihailović are kept. These archives are open for all Yugoslav and foreign historians. I know that several of my English friends looked through valuable documents there.

Professor Wheeler states in his letter that “the British in general and Bailey in particular had almost no influence with Mihailović 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.”

Yet five days after the conflict between General Mihailović and Colonel Bailey, according to the document VK-Y-710 Colonel Bailey visited General Mihailović and handed him a special message from Colonel Zervas from Greece, which reads as follows:

Please be so kind to convey to General Mihailović the fraternal greetings in my name and the name of free Greece and wish all the best to him and the heroic Serbdom. I wish to establish with him the contact as soon as possible so that we could make plans for a joint action in cooperation with the English.

There are some other documents in existence which prove that Colonel Bailey and General Mihailović discussed joint actions against the partisans in Yugoslavia.

The break of personal relations between Mihailović and Bailey on February 28 ended on March 15 after a talk which lasted for two hours. General Mihailović had to hurry to the front on the Neretva where main partisan forces were surrounded by the Germans, Italians, General Mihailović’s troops and ustashas.

Colonel Bailey inspected the shock troops of chetniks under the command of Pavle Djurisić, which were rushed to the Neretva front because the partisans had made a breakthrough in the part of the front held by the chetniks.

During his trial, on June 12, 1946, General Mihailović spoke at length about his relations with Colonel Bailey. The President of the Tribunal put the following question:

Did Colonel Bailey know that you were going to the Neretva and why?”

General Mihailović:

He knew it.”

President of the Tribunal:

Did he advise against going?”

General Mihailović:

No.”

I could quote from a whole list of other documents supporting my thesis but the space and time preclude me from doing so. Moreover, I have documents which prove that somebody in London knew about the collaboration between General Mihailović and the Germans, Italians and ustashas in the big battle on the Neretva. I took part in that battle and was one of the commanders taking care of four thousand wounded partisans whom we succeeded in taking out and rescuing from the cauldron of the Neretva. I also kept a diary regularly. On March 1, 1943, I recorded: “We have captured an order of the day of the chetnik headquarters from Mostar…. This is one of the most important documents which we have captured up to now and it is also the most infamous. The end of this document reads: “Last night London approved cooperation 33.” In this document one could note a cypher of numbers: “11—Germans, 22—Italians, 33—ustashas, 44—domobrans, 55—Moslem militia.”

In my diary I quoted my feelings:

We had already been aware what the ‘Yugoslav government’ in London meant, but this thirst for blood hurts particularly at this moment. It approves openly the cooperation with Germans and ustashas to have our wounded slaughtered.”

After the war I have been trying to find all the texts which in the BBC transmissions to Yugoslavia were read before the News Bulletin. In May 1957 the late Nye Bevan tried to help me. We had a luncheon with high-brass BBC. Before the luncheon began I expressed my wish to get these messages. It was promised to me that I would get them very quickly. After the coffee a rather confused-looking clerk from the BBC Archives came in and said:

Unfortunately, Sirs, a German V-II hit the part of Archives where these messages were kept.”

Vladimir Dedijer

Serbian Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Istra, Yugoslavia

Nora Beloff replies:

The argument that, in March 1943, the crucial year of the world war, the British collaborated with the Nazis and Chetniks to route the Yugoslav partisans, which I have already dismissed, is particularly ridiculous when raised in connection with the autobiography of Milovan Djilas (which I reviewed in the New York Review of April 11, 1985). For Djilas has confirmed evidence already in the German war archives showing that, during that very month, it was the Partisans who had sent a delegation to the German High Command at Zagreb offering to collaborate by suspending all operations against the German forces in return for being allowed freedom of action to eliminate the Chetniks.

Indeed, it is thanks to Professor Dedijer himself that we now have available the documents cited in my own book, Tito’s Flawed Legacy (page 82), showing that, during the interim, while this offer was being transmitted to Hitler (who rejected it), Tito was sending precise orders to his commanders instructing them to lay off the Germans and concentrate on their “principal enemies,” the Chetniks.

The professor offers four reasons for believing this canard:

  1. Evidence at the trial given by General Draza Mihailović. But the general’s evidence was so confused and contradictory that no conclusions are possible: At one point, asked whether the local Chetniks were under his personal control, he replied, “They told me what they wanted to.” If the Partisans had solid evidence of his participation in the battle of Neretva they would certainly have made it available during the show trial, which became internationally notorious for excluding all witnesses for the defense.

  2. The professor refers to “some other documents in existence which prove that Colonel Bailey and General Mihailović discussed joint action against the Partisans.” Once again, if so, why was the material not used by the prosecution during the Mihailović trial?

  3. The message from Colonel Zervas sending goodwill greetings to Mihailović demonstrates only that the two men hoped that they could expect British help in their struggle against the occupation.

  4. Most absurd of all, the professor refers to British propaganda as evidence of Chetnik collaboration. We now know that, being at war with a ruthless totalitarian regime, the British used propaganda as part of psychological warfare. And, just as before 1943, as reported indignantly by British liaison officers with the Partisans, all resistance operations were attributed to Mihailović’s Chetniks, so, after that year, British and American officers assigned to the Chetniks were enraged to hear BBC broadcasts attributing to Tito’s Partisans actions by the Chetniks which they themselves had witnessed. A retrospective article written by Richard Crossman in The New Statesman (December 15, 1956) exposes London’s total indifference to what the Yugoslavs were really up to:

I remember the awkward moment when the Government dropped Draza Mihailovich and backed Tito. In future, our directive ran, Mihailovich’s forces will be described not as “patriots” but as “terrorist gangs”; in future, we shall also drop the phrase “red bandits” as applied to the Partisans and substitute “freedom fighters.”… I assumed that the men far above who made the policy-decisions, were as cynical about the distinction between bandit and Partisans as we were. Only later did it dawn on me that British Cabinet ministers, archbishops and newspaper editors actually believed our propaganda and took this moral double-talk seriously.

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