Published Date

September 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 43: The Balkans—Many Peoples, Many Problems (1944)


Mussolini’s Misstep

In June 1940 the Germans had conquered the Low Countries, were overrunning France, and were preparing to finish off England—so they thought. Mussolini was sure that Hitler would win and he wanted to make a contribution—the less costly the better—toward Axis victory. So, at the last moment before France fell, he administered the infamous “stab in the back,” hoping thereby to earn Hitler’s gratitude and a chance at the division of territorial spoils.

The Italian attack on defeated and helpless France did not show up any better from the military point of view than it did from the ethical. And the Italian air force could not give the Nazi Luftwaffe much help in the war over England. As the autumn of 1940 came on, Mussolini felt the need of striking out for himself and conquering a region that Italy might keep for her own.

The year before, on Good Friday, he had occupied Albania, across the narrow straits from the heel of Italy. Mussolini had long been engaged in a campaign of economic penetration of Albania. He gave large loans, some of which are said to have gone into Zog’s pocket, and got the country deeply in Italy’s debt. Then in 1939, when the world was still groggy from the effects of Hitler’s occupation of Prague, he sent his army across the Adriatic and took over Albania.

This was by no means the Duce’s final goal. Albania, a primitive and undeveloped country, was to be only a steppingstone toward the complete occupation of the western Balkans. So in October 1940 he invaded Greece, using Albania as a base. Some people have doubted that his German allies knew that Mussolini was going to attack the Greeks just then. At any rate, they must have been as surprised as he when the Greek army threw the Italians out of Greece and fought them halfway back across Albania. Here in the mountains the Italians stuck, and the front remained stable over the winter 1940–41.

Hitler Heads East

By the early spring of 1941, Hitler had apparently given up hope of conquering Britain at once. He had other and urgent plans on the continent aimed at Soviet Russia. He had made a pact with the Russians in August 1939 in order to keep his hands free for the attack on Poland and the war in the west; but no doubt he had intended all along to attack Russia as soon as this western war was over, and before she could prepare her armies. Now that Britain was weakened, and all his other western enemies destroyed, Hitler presumably felt confident in turning east to smash the USSR.

He had known that the attack would have to be launched from Poland and also from Romania. For years before the war he had softened up the Romanians for just such an occasion. After Poland fell in 1939, it was plain to the Romanians that Britain and France, who had guaranteed Romania too, could not actually send any help. Germany was exercising severe economic pressure to get Romanian oil for the German war machine, and Hitler was sponsoring the native Romanian fascist group, the Iron Guard.

Pressure from Berlin

German influence became predominant, and Romania formally joined the Axis in November 1940. Moreover, during the period of the Russo-German pact, Hitler insisted that Romania hand over to Russia her easternmost provinces, Bessarabia and northern Bucovina. The Romanians were anxious to recover them and in 1941 joined Hitler in the attack on Russia.

To secure his flank against a possible attack by British troops from the south, Hitler also put the squeeze on Bulgaria. In its own mind at any rate, Bulgaria had been the “have-not” state of the Balkans since the first World War. Hitler’s permission to the Bulgarian government to occupy the coveted Macedonian provinces of Yugoslavia and Greece must have been tempting bait. At any rate, King Boris came meekly into camp on March 1, 1941. Romania and Bulgaria have been Axis satellites ever since.

This left Yugoslavia still outside the fold. And there was also the problem of Hitler’s embarrassing ally, Mussolini, bogged down in Albania fighting the Greeks. With German troops in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, Yugoslavia was on the spot. The pro-Axis regime actually signed on the dotted line, but some of the long-silent Yugoslav people revolted and overthrew it. Prince Paul was exiled and the young King Peter took over—though because of his youth he was more a symbol than a real ruler.

Although even the new government made every attempt to appease the Germans and avoid war, Hitler invaded Yugoslavia. He also invaded Greece in order to rescue Mussolini and to drive out British troops which had been diverted from North Africa at a critical moment in fulfillment of England’s promise to help the Greeks.

Not “According to Schedule”

It was just about this time that Hitler had planned to attack the Russians. In a few weeks he smashed through Yugoslavia and Greece, saved the day for Mussolini, and drove the British out. Then he conquered Crete from the air in a spectacular operation with gliders and air-borne troops. His flank was now at last secure for the attack on Russia.

But large bodies of his forces, and large numbers of planes had been pulled out of position. He could not invade Russia until June 22, 1941, and in the meantime England and the United States found out his plans and told the Russians—who doubtless were under no illusions on that score themselves. The three-month delay in the Balkans gave the Russians valuable time for preparations to absorb the shock.

When Hitler failed to take Moscow he lost the first great battle of Russia—which meant that he had lost the war. His eventual defeat was partly made possible by the Yugoslavs and Greeks, who upset his timetable. They have paid dearly for it and so have his satellites.

Of course, the Axis forces in the Balkans have behaved better toward their satellites than toward the countries which resisted them.

Romania: A Favored Pawn

Except for the prewar population of some 800,000 Jews, many of whom have been hounded to death by the Nazis and the Iron Guard, the Romanians have fared pretty well. The German war effort depends to a considerable extent upon Romanian oil. The Romanians eat better than most people in Europe because of their large resources of wheat. The Romanian government itself is a ruthless dictatorship, which uses Nazi methods, but the people are accustomed to rough treatment for political activities and they have generally been apathetic. They avoid trouble by not starting anything.

Even so, they have suffered. Most Romanians would have been perfectly willing to stop fighting the Russians once they had got back Bessarabia and northern Bucovina—the two provinces which Hitler had forced them to give the Russians. But their Conducator, or Führer, Marshal Antonescu, sent his armies across the Dniester River into the heart of Soviet Russia. This proved disastrous. At Stalingrad, they, like the Germans, took a terrific beating. A quarter of a million Romanians have died in Russia.

Then too, when they entered the war they thought they were betting on a sure thing, and they committed atrocities in the parts of Russia they occupied. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and they have to face Russian revenge.

Worst of all for the Romanians has been the loss of part of Transylvania. All this territory, where both Hungarians and Romanians live, was given to the Romanians after the last war. But the Hungarians always wanted it back. In August 1940, Hitler divided it up between Hungary and Romania, in order to keep these two satellites of his from fighting each other. But the Romanians still want it all and would like to fight Hungary for the piece she got.

So, even for the Romanians the Axis occupation has been tough. Ex-King Carol, a refugee in Mexico City with the notorious Magda Lupescu, would apparently like to return to power after the war, replacing his son, the present King Michael. But what the Romanian people may want after the war no one can yet say.

Bulgaria: The Unhappy Satellite

Like the Romanians, the Bulgarian people were really drawn into the war by their desire to obtain more territory. Their aspirations were directed to the west and south at the expense of Yugoslavia and Greece. King Boris was a shrewd diplomat, who, because of his ambitions, turned his country over to the Nazis. He died in the summer of 1943, perhaps of a heart attack brought on by a stormy interview with Hitler.

For the most part the Bulgarians have had a comparatively easy time in the war. But when the Allies established air bases in Italy, the Balkans were brought into easy bomber range. First to suffer was Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, which has taken a heavy pasting. The Bulgarians have not lost any troops on the battle fronts, however, and have hoped to stay out of the “shooting war.” Their people, instead of hating and fearing Russia as the Romanians do, strongly admire it, so that even the Germans have not been able to make them join the war against Russia. Although the Bulgarians have declared war on the United States and are at war with the British, the USSR still has diplomats in Sofia, and so has Bulgaria in Moscow. The old Slavic bond is strong.

In the 1870’s the Russians helped the Bulgarians gain their independence. At the time, Britain and Austria, afraid of Russian influence, kept Bulgaria small instead of permitting the creation of the Greater Bulgaria planned by Russia. The Bulgars have always remembered this. They joined the German side in the last war and this one too, because they hoped to build out of conquered territories this Greater Bulgaria of their dreams.

Now they have again occupied large strips of southern Yugoslavia and of northern Greece. This area—including Macedonia and western Thrace—has long made one of the most disputed Balkan problems.

What Is Macedonia?

Macedonia has never in modern times formed a political unit, nor is it a clearly defined geographical unit. But if you take the port of Salonika as a center, and draw on the map a rough semicircle with a radius of somewhat less than one hundred miles, the area within the circle will include the territory loosely called Macedonia. The strategic importance of the Vardar Valley has made this area a constant bone of contention.

Approximately equal to the state of Maine in size, Macedonia comprises about 32,000 square miles. After the Balkan Wars and World War I, this region was divided three ways. Yugoslavia took the northwestern portion with an area of some 15,000 square miles. Greece got a long southern strip including the entire Aegean coastline with an area of roughly 13,500 square miles. Bulgaria, which had fought on the German side and been defeated, was given a little of the northeastern corner. Greece also acquired Western Thrace, an area of about 3,350 square miles lying between the Nestos and the Maritza rivers and therefore outside Macedonia. From 1916 to 1918 it had been occupied by Bulgaria.

Before the division, southern Macedonia was inhabited by a mixed population of many different races. The largest single element was made up of Greeks who lived mainly in the southern districts and in the coastal towns. Next in numerical order came the Turks who owned a great deal of the farming land. The Slavic element came third, comprising some who spoke a dialect close to Serbian and more whose speech was akin to Bulgarian and who were also adherents of the Bulgarian branch of the Orthodox church, called the Exarchate.

Other less important elements in the population were the Vlachs, for the most part nomads, whose tongue is closely related to Romanian, a good many Albanians, and a compact colony of Jews in Salonika. These last still used the old Spanish language their ancestors brought with them from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century.

Before 1912, while Macedonia still belonged to Turkey, it was a hotbed of intensive propaganda and intrigue. Each of the neighboring countries, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, sought in various ways to promote its own interests, strengthen its own nationals already established there, and bolster up its claims to as large a part of the area as possible.

The Turks were contented to see the non-Turkish elements fighting with one another and made only half-hearted efforts to stop the disturbances. Bloody raids and even pitched battles often developed; carried out by organized bands of guerrillas called “Comitadjis.” The small farmers who had their homes in that part of the world and who had to make their living from the land, had a very rough time of it, being constantly exposed to violence and plunder from all directions.

Swapping Populations

Whatever its flaws, the territorial settlement after World War I at least brought a considerable measure of peace. Greece and Yugoslavia accepted the division of Macedonia and Thrace as final and permanent. They established order under a reasonably good government in their respective areas. Greece, with an eye to the future as well as to the past, made important treaties with Turkey and Bulgaria providing for exchanges of population.

In accordance with the Greco-Turkish agreement, all Moslem Turks from Macedonia, numbering almost 400,000, were transported to Turkey for resettlement there. At the same time, all Greeks who lived in Anatolian Turkey were brought to Greece, where some 500,000 were settled in Macedonia on lands vacated by the Turks.

A similar treaty between Greece and Bulgaria resulted in the transfer to Bulgaria from Macedonia of nearly 100,000 people who chose Bulgarian citizenship, while 50,000 former residents of Bulgaria who chose Greek citizenship were relocated in Macedonia.

These great population movements demanded untold sacrifice and suffering of the individuals and families affected. But after some fifteen years, before World War II broke out to disrupt all calculations, observers believed the results of this far-seeing policy were beginning to show themselves worth the cost in suffering and sacrifice. By 1930 when the work of resettlement under a committee appointed by the League of Nations had been practically completed, the population of Greek Macedonia had become almost homogeneous, that is, 90 per cent of the total of 1,500,000 were Greek by language, religion, and national sentiment. For the first time in history, political boundaries in this region bore a direct and close relation to the linguistic, religious, and national preferences of the inhabitants.

In Yugoslavian Macedonia no formal exchange of populations was undertaken. The official Yugoslav view was that all the Slavic-speaking elements in the provinces were more akin to the Serbs than to the Bulgarians. The total population in this region was estimated in 1931 at 1,200,000. The maximum Bulgarian claim (which some neutral observers thought probably much exaggerated) held that about 600,000 or one-half of these were really Bulgarian-speaking or at least were members of the Bulgarian Orthodox church recognizing the authority of the Exarch in Sofia.

Wrong Again

Bulgaria was thoroughly dissatisfied with the territorial division after World War I. Although obliged to sign the Treaty of Neuilly in 1919, it refused to regard the settlement as final and permanent. Since that time, one of the main desires of almost all the successive Bulgarian governments, fully shared by the great majority of the people of Bulgaria, has been to obtain a revision of the boundaries. They have wanted the annexation to Bulgaria of a substantial portion of Yugoslavian Macedonia as well as a broad section of Greek Macedonia and Thrace, with a port on the Aegean Sea.

Public opinion in Bulgaria has been constantly stirred up by propaganda asserting that Bulgaria was cheated in the territorial divisions of 1913 and 1919 and that her claims for a revision are just. From time to time, also, the most extreme political faction in Bulgaria, usually without official government sanction, has sponsored acts of violence and terrorism in the Macedonian provinces of Greece and Yugoslavia.

It was in the hope of obtaining the territory she coveted that Bulgaria joined Germany in 1915 against the Allies in World War I. It was with the same desire that she allied herself with the Axis in 1941, joining in the war on the United Nations and even declaring war on the United States.

Taking advantage of the collapse of Yugoslavia and Greece when they were overpowered by the Nazi attack of 1941, and with permission granted by Germany, Bulgaria proceeded to occupy moat of Yugoslavian Macedonia as well as Greek Macedonia and Thrace. Since then it has formally annexed these provinces.

Circumstantial reports say that the Bulgarian occupying authorities have evicted and expelled or even killed thousands upon thousands of the Greek and Serbian inhabitants and replaced them with Bulgarian colonists, apparently in a deliberate and systematic attempt to strengthen Bulgarian claims to these lands after the war.

But the Bulgarians now know that Germany is sure to lose and that they will probably have to give all this territory back. They have bet on the wrong horse again.

Yugoslavia: The Victim Divided

The Germans and Italians entered Yugoslavia as enemies, and have done their best to increase Serb-Croat disunity. They broke Yugoslavia up into bits and pieces, annexing part of Slovenia to Germany and giving Italy the rest. The Italians also seized the Croat-inhabited Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic, which they had long coveted. Hungarian and Bulgarian troops took over areas adjacent to their frontiers, and have governed with great brutality. Albania too got a piece of Yugoslavia as a present from the Italians.

The Axis has set up Croatia and Serbia as puppet states. In order to increase the normal distrust between them, the Serbs are treated as a defeated enemy, while the Croats are treated as an independent ally.

Puppet Croatia has its own army and ministry of foreign affairs, has its diplomats in other Axis countries, and is a member of the Axis. When it was created it was given the old provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a territory inhabited largely by Serbs. It is ruled by a native fascist party called the “Ustashi” (rebels), who, according to many observers, are little better than gangsters and do not represent Croat public opinion at all. Their leader is that same Pavelich who has been charged with responsibility for the assassination of King Alexander. By the grace of Hitler he bears the title of poglavnik or Führer of Croatia.

The Ustashi have committed terrible atrocities against the Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, women and children as well as men. Many Serbs blame the whole Croatian people for this, and have come to hate them all. Of course this helps the Germans. In fact, the Germans are to blame for putting the Ustashi into power, and for their massacres. On the other hand some observers believe that most of the Croatian people hate the Ustashi, deplore the massacres of Serbs, and would like to get rid of the whole fascist crew.

Serbs and Chetniks

Puppet Serbia has not been treated as an independent country. German political and military officers have run affairs, with a native government to help them. Its quisling, General Nedich, was a former officer in the Yugoslav army. Another officer, Colonel (now General) Drazha Mihailovich, soon after the invasion became the chief of all organized resistance to the Nazis in Yugoslavia. At first he carried on a brave and bitter struggle against the Germans and Italians. His forces are called “Chetniks,” from the name of an old Serb secret society. The word really means “member of a guerrilla band.”

When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, the young King Peter and his government plus a considerable number of politicians escaped, going first to Jerusalem, then London, and finally Cairo. Over the months there were several reshufflings of the cabinet membership, but until the summer of 1944 the Yugoslav government-in-exile failed to shake off the taint of close association with the past undemocratic regimes. A number of its members were believed to look forward not to a new Yugoslavia but to a new and greater Serbia. Their idea was to include in it much of the prewar Yugoslavia, with perhaps a small area left for a Croatia, independent in name but dependent in fact upon the good will of the Serbs.

In January 1942, in recognition of his Chetnik resistance to the Germans, General Mihailovich was made minister of war in this government. Since then, it is reported, he has done little if anything to oppose the Nazis on the principle that he should not attack until the Allies land in Yugoslavia and help put on a large-scale military operation.

Tito’s Partisans

Because of Mihailovich’s close identification with the “Great Serbs” in the exiled government, and because he assertedly stopped fighting the enemy, a new guerrilla movement sprang up. This group is called the “Partisans.” It has continued with ups and downs for over two years. At first, the Partisans say, they tried to collaborate with General Mihailovich, but found that he objected to their existence because he regarded himself as the only legitimate leader of Yugoslav resistance. He lays the same charge against them.

Many Americans and Englishmen who have been in Yugoslavia on missions to the Partisans report that the Partisans are an extraordinary phenomenon. Many of their leaders are Communists, who have close ties with Moscow, and have had long careers as agitators. Such a man is their mysterious leader, Joseph Broz or Tito, a former Croat metalworker, who is now “Marshal of Yugoslavia.”

But the majority of the Partisans are said not to be Communists. They may have worn red stars on their hats and given the clenched-fist salute. They certainly admire Soviet Russia for her victories over the Germans, and, as Slavs, they share with the Bulgarians a strong affection for the Russians. But they are mostly Yugoslav farmers, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, who would like to see Yugoslavia re-created and governed democratically, continuing the old agrarian opposition to the dictatorship of King Alexander.

The Partisans came to be bitterly opposed to the government-in-exile and its minister of war. They said that Mihailovich, for his part, fought the Partisans whenever he fought anybody—and there have certainly been many clashes between the two Yugoslav resistance groups. It is charged that Mihailovich, to arm himself against the Partisans, accepted arms from the Italian occupying forces and also frequently dealt with the Germans and with the quisling Nedich. Mihailovich’s supporters, of course, deny these charges of double-dealing. However, many of his men have gone over to Tito. The authentic story of Partisan-Chetnik rivalry is yet to be told.

Although most maps show the Germans occupying all Yugoslavia, the Partisans have been in control of large areas. The people who live in these areas must be fed and clothed and given some sort of economic and political order. They need a government, and Tito, with his political advisers, set up a Partisan provisional government to fill the need. It had Serb, Croat, and Slovene members, and all religious groups were represented.

Hope for Yugoslavia

In 1944 Allied observers were sent into the country to learn at first hand what the situation was. They reported that most of the fighting against the Germans was being done by the Partisans under Tito. The Allied governments therefore decided to back Tito much more vigorously than before with munitions and supplies of all kinds.

In June 1944 the largely pro-Serbian government-in-exile resigned. King Peter then called on a Croatian, Ivan Subasich, to form a new government, whose purpose was to unite all factions among the Yugoslavs in a united effort to liberate Yugoslavia from the German yoke. In July 1944 six cabinet ministers were ap­pointed, two Serbs, two Croats, and two Slovenes. The new prime minister had a conference with Tito and there were hopes that negotiations for a united front might meet with success.

In the meantime the Yugoslavs have kept and are still keeping large numbers of German troops tied down in the Balkans at a time when the Germans need all their manpower to fight the Russians in the east and the Anglo-American invasion from the west.

Greece: The Land of Hunger

The Greeks have probably suffered more from the German occu­pation than any of the other Balkan peoples.

Greece is a poor country agriculturally and depends for its existence on shipping. The Italians and Germans destroyed many Greek ships and took others for military operations. And of course no United Nations ships can enter Greek waters. The result is that since the spring of 1941 the Greek population has been nearly starving, especially on the islands. Relief has been arranged by a number of nations through the International Red Cross, and Canadian wheat has been reaching the Greek people in Swedish ships, but not nearly enough.

The Germans have set up a puppet regime in Greece, too. But they have had to change the quisling premier three times in a vain attempt to find someone who could command popular support.

When the British and Greek troops were evacuated, they took with them King George II of Greece and his government. The king was not popular in Greece. When he was called back to the throne in 1935 he had promised to be a constitutional monarch. But the next year, faced by a political crisis, he allowed his prime minister, Metaxas, to set up a dictatorship. Metaxas governed with all the usual fascist methods. Constitutional processes were abolished, freedom of speech and the press was suppressed, and a secret police terrorized those Greeks it thought were enemies of the regime.

So the guerrillas and the Greek people as a whole are now determined that after their country is liberated they will tolerate no more dictatorships. They insist they will vote on the question of whether the king shall return to Greece or not before he actually does come back. George II and his government-in-exile in Cairo have several times almost promised that the Greek people will get this chance, and the cabinet of Mr. Papandreou in June 1944 unanimously endorsed the proposal.

Meanwhile, though hungry and ill equipped, guerrillas have organized in Greece as in Yugoslavia. They have cut communications by road and rail, and have harrassed German troops moving through the rugged mountainous country. Like the Yugoslavs, they have kept German troops pinned down, and also like the Yugoslavs they have been split by political differences among themselves.

But the issue between the two groups of Greek guerrillas is not nearly so well understood. The larger group, the EAM, has some Communist leaders, like the Partisans. The smaller group, the EDES, is more conservative, but still favors postwar social reform. Fighting between the EAM and the EDES has almost always been on a very small scale and the two groups have from time to time been temporarily reconciled.

In June 1944 a conference was held in Lebanon at which were represented all principal Greek political parties and all the resistance groups still carrying on the fight against the Germans inside Greece. In a spirit of conciliation, the conference drew up and signed an agreement for a united front under a coalition government. The purpose was to concentrate the whole strength of the nation in an all-out effort alongside the United Nations to see the war through to a victorious end and to drive the Germans out of Greece. Before the agreement could be put into effect, however, difficulties and misunderstandings arose between the conservative elements in Cairo and the EAM leaders in Greece.

Albania: Everybody’s Protectorate

The Germans did not move into Italy’s Albanian protectorate until after the collapse of Mussolini. When Allied troops invaded southern Italy, Albania became of great strategic importance and the Germans thought they had to occupy it. But by this time they felt the need of being generous to subject peoples, because the military picture looked bad for them. Also, the Albanians hated the Italians, so the Germans got a chance to play the role of liberator and protector.

They have done this with great skill, and have set up a puppet government which is unlike all the others we have mentioned. It is partly made up of the most respectable Albanian politicians and has only a few out-and-out pro-Nazis. But even in Albania the population has not been deceived, and the resistance movements, which started under Italian occupation, have continued. Many bands of Albanian guerrillas roam the wild mountain country and make it as difficult as they can for the Germans. In Albania too, as in Yugoslavia and Greece, the guerrillas are split into groups hostile to each other, and one group is reported collaborating with the Germans against its rivals.

Enough is known of popular sentiment in Albania to permit us to say that the people want a German defeat. But they are worried over their future. Greece and Yugoslavia are members of the United Nations and Albania is not. Greece claims the territory which forms the southern part of Albania, an area which the Greeks call “Northern Epirus.” Yugoslavia wants back the Kossovo region which the Italians annexed to Albania and which is inhabited mostly by Albanians but which has great historic significance for the Yugoslavs. And some Yugoslavs are anxious to get even more of northern Albania.

So some Albanians are afraid of the results of an Allied victory. Mr. Eden, Mr. Molotov, and Mr. Hull have reassured them, however, and most of them probably feel confident that the United Nations will protect their independence.

Next section: Looking to the Future