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Yugoslavia & the British

In response to:

The Yugoslav Partisans from the July 17, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

While Vladimir Dedijer’s “tribute” [NYR, July 17] to my 1980 book, Britain and the War for Yugoslavia, 1940–1943, is gratifying, his reservation that I failed to make use of the Archive of the Military History Institute in Belgrade is mystifying. A glance at the front matter, notes, or bibliography would have shown otherwise. Admittedly my access was at that time (1973) restricted to the papers of the Yugoslav exile government, but these did contain most of General Mihailović’s outgoing messages. I was informed then that the main collection of documents relating to Mihailović was under the control of the Interior Ministry and closed to researchers—or at least to foreign ones. I hope Profesor Dedijer is right that this restriction no longer obtains.

As regards the latest exchange between Professor Dedijer and Nora Beloff, I can only express a certain envy of their opposing certainties that British policy toward Yugoslav resistance was either entirely discreditable or totally blameless in the crucial early months of 1943. Professor Dedijer, in maintaining his view that there was what amounted to an unholy conspiracy between the Allied and Axis powers against the Partisan movement, is forced both to exaggerate wildly the latter’s importance and to ignore the wider war. Miss Beloff, on the other hand, finds herself compelled to disregard or dismiss the evidence of connivance by some British agencies and individuals in Cetnik collaboration with the Axis and their expressed desire that Tito’s forces might soon be eliminated in the so-called Serb lands. Insofar as it is possible to sort all this out, I made a stab at it in Chapter 6 of my book, quoting in conclusion the verdict of the original object of this correspondence, Milovan Djilas: “In war only the victorious gain a right to hope.”

M.C. Wheeler

University of London,

London, England

Nora Beloff replies:

In trying to present himself as a detached scholar, Dr. Wheeler has distorted my views: far from defending as “totally blameless” British policy toward Yugoslavia in the early months of 1943, I do not believe that, in that region, at that time, Britain had any coherent policy at all. Within the wide span of intelligence staff, there were certainly fervent anti-communists as well as procommunists, but British policy could only be formulated by the War Cabinet and as Dr. Wheeler recounts in his book, as early as January 3, 1943, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was on record dismissing the pro-Cetnik views of some of his subordinates and eager to get Soviet help in setting up links with the Partisans.

Further, far from finding myself compelled “to disregard or dismiss evidence of connivance by some British agencies or individuals in Cetnik collaboration with the Axis,” I take care to note that the Cetniks as well as the Titoists—with whom we also “connived”—made tactical deals with the Axis. Thanks to Professor Dedijer we now have the text of Tito’s own instruction to his commanders in March 1943 telling that their “principal enemies” were not the occupying forces but Mihailović’s Cetniks.

The moral certitudes, of which Dr. Wheeler accuses me, are spattered over his own book, which constantly denounces the Cetniks and makes excuses for the Partisans. Nothing that, soon after the Partisan effort to negotiate with Hitler, they were assuring a visiting Western mission of their trust in Britain’s friendship, Wheeler comments: “The friendly activity of the British was a similarly unseemly succession to their hopes, in March 1943, that the main body of Partisans would be destroyed.” Unseemly or not, these hopes were not those of the British government but of one particular official—and there were plenty of other officials arguing exactly the opposite.

In citing Djilas’s truism that “in war, only the victorious gain a right to hope,” Dr. Wheeler should also accept Djilas’s repeated reminders that the war was a long time ago and what is needed now is an objective approach. As I recalled in my initial review, during last year’s trial of the six Belgrade intellectuals, in which the stiffest sentence was against a historian for his unorthodox views on the civil war, Djilas declared himself “a hundred times, a thousand times more guilty than those in the dock”: as a leading Partisan he had contributed to installing the present regime, in which a man can be imprisoned for his opinions about what happened forty-three years ago.

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