It is not generally known that the first deliberate massacre of Jews and other civilians in the Second World War actually took place in Yugoslavia; before the building of the death-camps in Poland; before even the Einsatzgruppen began their campaign of mass killings in Russia. Furthermore, the Yugoslav holocaust was apparently spontaneous, and started without any definite instructions from the Nazi occupation forces. This essay describes how it came about
In December 1940 the Nazi leadership discussed the war plans for the coming year. Goering, Goebbels and Ribbentrop wanted a renewed anti-British campaign, centred on the Mediterranean, but Hitler ignored them and set in train the planning for “Operation Barbarossa”, the invasion of the Soviet Union; the greatest military campaign the world had ever seen. However, events in the Balkans were to prove an unwonted distraction.
Over the winter of 1940-41, Hungary, Romania and then Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact of Germany, Italy and Japan. Parallel with this, Mussolini, jealous as ever of Hitler grabbing all the headlines, quite unnecessarily declared war on Greece, and launched an invasion which, as with all his military interventions, proved entirely unsuccessful. Hitler was obliged to intervene to save his ally from humiliation.
Yugoslavia was simmering with violent tension. The country had only been created from the ruins of the Austrian Empire at the end of the First World War (see my earlier blog essay), and hostility between Croats, Serbs and other racial groups ran deep. The leader of the Croat People’s Peasant Party had been murdered in the Parliament building in Belgrade in 1928, and King Alexander, of the Serbian royal family, was assassinated by the Croat Ustase faction on a visit to Marseilles in October 1934. Alexander left as his successor an eleven-year-old boy, Peter II, with a cousin, Prince Paul, to act as Regent.
In the late 1930s Yugoslavia became increasingly economically dependent on Germany, and Paul’s government was inclined to follow other Balkan states into the Nazi camp, signing the Tripartite Pact on March 25th 1941. But just two days later a group of military officers staged a coup, deposing Paul and proclaiming Peter to be of age to rule. The clear implication was that the new regime would be less friendly towards the Nazis. The Soviet Union responded by sending Belgrade a goodwill message. Faced with this crisis, Hitler struck immediately, launching massive attacks on Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6th. Croatia immediately proclaimed its independence from Belgrade, and Yugoslavia surrendered before the end of the month. Greece, despite being reinforced by British troops from Egypt, did not last much longer.
Greece was placed under Italian control, but Yugoslavia was partitioned, with Croatia and Bosnia formed into a puppet state under the pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Croat Ustase movement under Pavelic, and Italy was compensated with Montenegro, part of Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast.
If the Nazi victories in the West did not have immediately disastrous consequences for the local Jews, the same cannot be said in the Balkans. There was no immediate action against the 75,000 Greek Jews left under Italian control, which was only initiated by the Germans after the fall of Mussolini and surrender of Italy in 1943; but in Yugoslavia, where there were 70,000 Jews, terrible things began to happen immediately after the German conquest. Unlike the situation in other occupied countries, violence and murder by Nazi troops and S.S. was enthusiastically supported and extended by local anti-Semitic groups. Within a matter of days, the Croat government had passed a whole raft of laws very much on Nazi lines, banning interracial marriage, imposing badges of race and excluding Jews from official positions and from economic life. A concentration camp was established at Dancia, near Zagreb, and another at Kruscia, west of Sarajevo, in May 1941, and the roundup of Jews began. Jasenovac camp, opened a few months later on the banks of the Sava, became known as “the Auschwitz of Croatia”; a centre of torture and murder from which echoed the screams and groans of victims. But even the German occupying forces were shocked by the violence of the Ustase militias. Their regime was a curious mixture of Catholic puritanism and mass slaughter. The German plenipotentiary in Zagreb, Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, reported that they had gone raving mad. Men, women and children alike were gunned down in mass graves, hacked to pieces, thrown off cliffs, or burned alive in their villages. The Narentva and Sava rivers became choked with bodies, and local peasants had to be employed to pull them out in order to prevent flooding. Meanwhile the Germans watched the “blind, bloody fury” going on around them. It was, Glaise thought, the worst revolutionary violence he had seen since 1918. There is no reason to believe that the S.S. specifically planned these massacres, but they could hardly disapprove of them, and they certainly served the extremists’ purpose. Heydrich therefore instructed local Einsatzgruppen leaders to encourage such violence, provided it could not specifically be traced to the Germans. It seems in any case that the Ustase scarcely needed encouragement.
By the end of 1941, the Jews of Bosnia were virtually all murdered or had fled; and the Banat region, north-east of the Danube and Tisa rivers, was officially declared Jew-free in October: most of its three thousand Jews having been shot in the Tasmajdan camp near Belgrade. In some respects, antisemitism was almost peripheral to the actions of the Ustase: some 25,000 Jews were massacred in Croat territory, but so were about as many gypsies, and perhaps as many as 400,000 Serbs. One feels sure that there would have been massacres even if not a single Jew had lived in Croat territory, and the hatreds created remain all too obvious decades later, when the Yugoslav state disintegrated in the 1990s. But of the local Jews, only 7,000 remained to be taken to the death camps in Poland after 1942.
Croatia thus provides the first instance of organised genocide in modern Europe, anticipating Nazi actions by several months. It is even possible that the Nazis learned something from Ustase actions, or were encouraged by them. The Nazis would also have observed the ambivalent stance of the church in this strongly Catholic state. Some church dignitaries deplored the massacres, but many local priests seem to have been enthusiastic participants. Archbishop Stepinac contrived to remain silent on the massacres, though he was able to comment approvingly on the new Croat state’s strong stance on abortion and contraception. This silence of the church was also to have later parallels.
Serbia was placed under direct German military rule. Its leading functionary was Harald Turner, a civil servant who had risen under the patronage of Goering, and was unusual in the S.S. leadership in that he was not a full-blooded German; his father being English. Turner had plans to set up a collaborationist movement amongst the Serbs, which did not win the approval of Heydrich in Berlin; and like many Nazi functionaries, he was always looking over his shoulder at Meyszner the S.S. and Higher Police Leader for Serbia, and at Fuchs the local Einsatzgruppe chief, and needed to prove that he could be every bit as brutal as them. He thoroughly approved of the elimination of the Serbian Jews. Violent attacks began immediately, concentration camps were established, and Turner unsuccessfully applied to have all the Serbian Jews deported to Poland.
By summer 1941, serious partisan activity had broken out in Yugoslavia, and massive reprisals were ordered, involving the shooting of a hundred local hostages for every German killed. Turner found this a golden opportunity to rid himself of local Jews. He reported in mid-October that he had ordered the shooting of two thousand Jews and two hundred gypsies in retaliation for partisan violence: he acknowledged that he should really have had Serbs shot (some of his victims had been Jewish refugees from Austria, who had no links whatsoever with the partisans), but added that “the Jewish question solves itself most easily this way ...... and besides, they have to disappear”. After a meeting with officials of the S.S. and the German foreign office, Turner was authorised to go ahead with the extermination of all Jews and gypsies in Serbia, and a gas van was sent to the camp at Semlin to assist with the task. By summer 1942, the Jewish problem was said to have been “totally solved in Serbia”.
Not all the Yugoslav Jews went quietly to their deaths. At least two thousand joined Tito’s partisans. Many more fled to the Italian-controlled areas, where they were treated with tolerance, to the disgust of German observers. These Jews, and their compatriots in Greece, survived until the Holocaust reached its final stages.
(Sources:- Friedlander, "Nazi Germany and the Jews", and many other books)