Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Betrayal of Yugoslavia

More than one Balkan monarchy was treated with great injustice during World War II. However, the betrayal of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia stands out because of the extent to which the Allied powers were involved in both the start of the expansion of the war into that country and then its abandonment to the forces of revolutionary communism. The story that most people have heard about Yugoslavia in World War II is that Germany invaded the country so that Hitler could rush to the aid of his partner Mussolini whose rash invasion of Greece had ended in disaster. This is what most people have been told. Mussolini ordered an invasion of Greece, for no better reason than to keep pace with Hitler’s conquests, the Italians were beaten and, in danger of collapse, Hitler had to invade Yugoslavia in order to rush to the aid of Mussolini, crushing Greece and so securing his southern flank in preparation for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. That is the story but it is almost entirely untrue. There was no urgent need for German involvement in Greece but, rather, British actions in Yugoslavia prompted the Axis invasion of that country.

Prince Paul with Adolf Hitler
Hitler had absolutely no interest in intervening in the Balkans until British agents arranged the overthrow of the Prince-Regent Paul, replacing him with the young King Peter II who would take Yugoslavia into the Allied camp. It was the removal of Prince Paul that prompted Germany (and Italy and Hungary) to invade Yugoslavia. Prior to this, every other power in the Balkans was either aligned with the Axis or at least desired to stay out of the war. That was all Hitler cared about; that they would not join with his enemies or endanger his expansion to the east. Prince Paul of Yugoslavia had taken his country into the Axis camp and when he was overthrown by a group of pro-Allied officers, supported by Britain, and replaced by King Peter II the German dictator took immediate action. Because of this, no Yugoslav royal has suffered such undue criticism as Prince Paul. That is a gross injustice that should be addressed at the outset. Despite how he was later portrayed by the Allies, Prince Paul was not some sort of Nazi sympathizer. His actions in joining the Axis camp have to be seen in context. He did it to specifically avoid conflict for his country and not because of any ideological admiration.

Prince Paul was actually much more pro-democracy than the previous monarch, King Alexander I, had been. When World War II broke out, he declared Yugoslavia to be firmly neutral and he took Yugoslavia into the Axis but he did so on three specific conditions, all aimed to keep Yugoslavia from actually playing any part in the war. When seen in context, these conditions and his actions in joining the Axis all make perfect sense. It must be remembered that there were numerous neighboring countries who had designs on Yugoslav territory (an unavoidable consequence of the way it was cobbled together after World War I). In the south were lands Bulgaria thought should belong to them, the same for Hungary in the northeast. Historically Italian areas in the west were also a potential cause of trouble. Prior to the conflict, the Italian military had most expected the next war Italy fought would be against Yugoslavia and Mussolini had given support to the Catholic Croatians who wanted to declare independence from Yugoslavia.

Prince Paul of Yugoslavia
To block the Hungarians from trying to reclaim lost territory and prevent a restoration of the Hapsburgs, Yugoslavia had formed the “Little Entente” alongside Romania and Czechoslovakia, backed up by the French Republic. However, by the outbreak of World War II, Czechoslovakia was gone and France was soon defeated as well and thus in no position to provide any assistance to these Balkan countries. As such, the only option Prince Paul had was to come to terms with Germany so as to prevent Hungary or Italy from taking any action against Yugoslavia. So, Prince Paul agreed to join the Axis on three conditions which reveal exactly what his priorities were. Those three conditions were that the Axis guarantee to respect the current Yugoslavian borders, that Yugoslavia not be called on to render any military assistance to the other Axis countries and that no Axis military forces could be transported across Yugoslavian soil. Obviously, this was an agreement to “join” the Axis that would effectively guarantee that Yugoslavia stayed out of the Axis war effort entirely while preserving their territory and independence. What is more, Prince Paul was obviously more pro-Allied than he was pro-Axis. He continued to be supportive of the French (as long as they lasted) and when Italy invaded Greece he actually sent aid to the Greeks.

Nothing could be more obvious than that Prince Paul was no Nazi or Fascist sympathizer. He wanted to stay out of the war and preserve his country the way it was. However, not all of the Serbian military agreed and the British were quick to encourage them. They did not want Yugoslavia to sit out the war but to join it on the Allied side. This was really quite a despicable thing for the British government to do since there was no realistic way they could support Yugoslavia in the war. Nazi Germany blocked any assistance from coming across the continent and, after the Italian occupation of Albania, Mussolini controlled the entrance to the Adriatic and so could block any help from the sea. The military may have pulled off the coup in any event but what the British were thinking in encouraging and supporting it is hard to fathom. It was the same sort of thinking that led to the humiliating fall of the Kingdom of Norway as but one example. Nonetheless, it happened on March 27, 1941 when a group of air force officers led by General Dusan Simovic forced Prince Paul to resign and go into exile in Greece. There was jubilation in some quarters and Churchill was certainly pleased but this was the start of a long period of suffering for all of the peoples of Yugoslavia and, effectively, the end of the Serbian monarchy.

King Peter II of Yugoslavia
At the time of the coup, the slogan that war was preferable to the Axis pact was not uncommon. Preferable or not, war is what Yugoslavia would have and an infuriated Hitler immediately ordered his military to take action. Belgrade was bombed and young King Peter II left the city and prepared to leave the country. No one with any grasp at all of military matters thought Yugoslavia could survive. German troops poured in from almost every neighboring country, two Italian armies committed forces to the operation, driving down the coast and, after a week, the Third Hungarian Army moved in to re-take the lands that had been part of Hungary before World War I. Britain tried to assist but it was a hopeless cause and as soon as the invasion began, ethnic uprisings began to break out, particularly in Croatian areas which had never been happy about being included in Yugoslavia in the first place. In short, the Royal Yugoslav military was beset from all sides, front and rear with almost no help and no means of retreat. It was a complete and utter disaster. Hundreds of thousands were taken prisoner by the Germans, almost the entire navy was capture by the Italians and on April 14 the Yugoslav high command realized the game was up. On April 17 the unconditional surrender was signed. Yugoslavia had been conquered in eleven days. The suffering would go on for much longer.

The unfortunate Prince Paul was taken into custody by the British and held in house arrest in British East Africa (Kenya) for the remainder of the war. King Peter II went eventually to London (via Greece, Palestine and Egypt) where he finished his studies and joined the British Royal Air Force as well as serving as titular head of the Yugoslavian government-in-exile. At home, Yugoslavia was divided among the Axis forces. Macedonia went to Bulgaria, formerly Hungarian lands were annexed by that country, coastal areas were occupied by Italy, Serbia was occupied by Germany and the Independent State of Croatia was proclaimed by Ante Pavelic. Some supported the Axis forces and others carried on armed resistance. The two primary resistance groups were the royalist Chetniks who continued to fight for King Peter II and the communist partisans led by Tito. In addition to fighting the occupying forces these two groups carried on a bitter civil war within the World War against each other. This is something which has attracted some criticism (invariably aimed at the Chetniks and never the communists) but it was, from a purely Yugoslavian point of view, the conflict that should have had priority. After all, no matter how successful they were, they were not going to win the war against the Axis powers all by themselves. That was up to the Allies. However, the outcome of the civil war would determine if Yugoslavia would survive, whether the former kingdom would continue or whether a Marxist dictatorship were established.

Chetniks flag
The guerilla war between the occupation forces and the resistance as well as the civil war between the communists and royalists was intensely vicious. It was a brutal, confused, bloody situation with numerous factions and numerous agendas at work. However, ultimately, the Allies decided to sell-out the royalist Chetniks of Yugoslavia in favor of the communists. Prime Minister Churchill and U.S. President Roosevelt agreed that Eastern Europe would be the domain of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Of course, there were promises that national sovereignty would be maintained and democracy would be assured but it would all be done under the supervision of the Soviet Red Army so there should not have been any doubts about what the future of these countries would be and that included Yugoslavia. Young King Peter II was effectively abandoned by his own allies and was himself, in turn, forced to abandon the hard-fighting royalist Chetniks who had been carrying on the war, fighting in his name, against the occupation forces. The Soviets, of course, had been supporting the communist partisans all along but after this agreement the Anglo-Americans shifted their support to the reds as well, giving them every advantage over their royalist adversaries. (Feel free to read past articles about the Chetniks and their commander)

This also coincided with a new strategic plan for the Allies. Consideration had been given to a more massive Allied invasion of southern Europe but Stalin objected to the plan. He wanted it all left to his forces and preferred for the British and Americans to invade Western Europe, opening a new front there to draw German forces away from his advancing Red Army. The Allies abandoned Yugoslavia, along with the other Balkan countries (save Greece which Britain had an interest in) and Eastern Europe as a whole to the monstrous Soviet regime. They abandoned the Chetniks who they had originally supported and who had fought for years, including launching very successful raids against Axis forces on their behalf. It is little wonder, given the situation, that some Chetniks (though not all) decided to join with the Germans and Italians who would at least help them resist the communist partisans. Their reputation has never recovered from this, and it is unfortunate but it should be remembered that it was the decision of the Allies which made the Axis powers the only option left for the Chetniks.

King Peter II in the RAF
King Peter II himself was forced to sell-out his most ardent supporters and give rank to Tito and his communists, though naturally they declared him deposed as soon as the war was over to create their socialist republic in Yugoslavia. It is no wonder that King Peter II had such a sorrow-filled life. Forced into the war by pro-Allied officers, Yugoslavia was swiftly conquered, occupied and dismembered by the Axis powers only to have the loyal, royalist troops still carrying on the struggle betrayed by the Allies who effectively handed over the country to the communists. As it turned out, they were communists who refused to be subservient to Stalin but their regime was no different from any other Bolshevik tyranny in its horror and ineptitude. King Peter II, understandably extremely bitter about how the Allies had treated his country -particularly the other monarchies of the Allied nations- later moved to the United States and tried to drown his sorrows. He died of liver problems in Denver, Colorado in 1970. The first royal victim of betrayal, Prince Paul, suffered as well. The communists declared him an enemy of the state, confiscated all his property and wanted to put him on trial as a “war criminal” (really absurd considering he played no part in the war and was overthrown because he wanted to stay out of the war). He avoided that fate but spent the rest of his life in exile, unjustly maligned and unfairly portrayed as some sort of Nazi-sympathizer until he died in Paris in 1976.

Looking back, it is easy to be critical of what the Allies did. We are not in the middle of a world war. However, some criticism is justified. Britain and France, as it turns out, entered into a war with Nazi Germany that they could not win on their own. That was their choice. To involve Stalin in the war as a member of the Allied nations, however, was not their choice. That choice was made by one Adolf Hitler when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. From that point on, Stalin was going to have some part to play in Eastern Europe whether his other Allies liked it or not, providing the Axis forces were defeated of course (which they were). Even so, what happened to Yugoslavia was a betrayal. Some have tended to exaggerate the role of Britain in the coup that brought down Prince Paul. It was an entirely Yugoslavian affair, however, Britain supported it and perhaps the YRAF officers would not have been so keen on the idea if Britain had not been or had been more realistic about what tangible assistance they could offer when German, Italian and Hungarian troops came surging across their borders. Even so, what happened to Yugoslavia was a betrayal. Finally, the agreement that consigned Eastern Europe to Stalin was not supposed to include the establishment of puppet dictators in every country. Even so, Churchill and FDR should have known better than to think that Stalin would allow other peoples privileges he refused to his own.

A King betrayed
Unlike other countries in the region, the Allies supported Yugoslavian royalists getting into the war, supported them actively during the war only to withdraw that support in the midst of the conflict, transfer it to their enemies and then consigned them to the communist sphere of influence when it was over. None of these things had to happen. If there had been no coup, Yugoslavia might have remained a nominal member of the Axis but effectively neutral and untouched for the duration of the conflict. There likely would have been some problems but it is at least possible. The Allies could have also taken a tougher stance on Soviet involvement in the region. They had a powerful bargaining chip in the form of the vast amount of (mostly American) supplies, weapons and equipment going to the USSR to sustain the Russian war effort. They could have easily told Stalin that if he had such surplus material to send aid to the communist partisans, he must not need so much from Britain and the United States and by that means curtailed the help going to the reds and ensured that only the royalist resistance fighters were supported. Of course, there are always circumstances and problems. War is ugly business and everyone understands that but the fact remains that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the hard fighting royalists of that country who were carrying on the fight were betrayed by the Allies, by their allies, and that fact, as well as the fate that befell the tragic King Peter II, is something everyone should recognize as shameful.

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