Swastika over the Balkans

The conquest of Greece and Yugoslavia by hitlerite Germany and its fascist allies in April 1941 (operations Marita and 25) had diametrically changed the political, military and strategic situation on the Balkan peninsula. Germany and Italy started the conquests and subordinating of other countries yet before the outbreak of the 2nd World War. In effect of nearly bloodless Italian aggression Albania lost its independence already on 7 April 1939 and was incorporated (12 April) into Italian empire. The king Ahmet bej Zogu ( Zog I) got deposed by the collaborationist Constituent Assembly and made for exile to Turkey. The Assembly addressed the king of Italy Victor Emmanuel III «with a request to accept the Albanian crown». The collaborationist government with a former prime minister Shefqet bej Vërlaci had been brought into being. But actually in Albania ruled the Italian governor Gen. Francesco Jacomoni di San Sarino. About a month after the Italian invasion on Albania, on 6 May 1939, 200 Albanian tribal chieftains signed the «pact of friendship» with Italy. On 13 July a not too big in numbers Albanian army had been merged with Italian forces. There had been created the Albanian Fascist Party (Partia Fashiste Shqiptare), which together with invaders used to terrorize the population protesting against new order. Intensified the exploitation of Albania’s natural resources (among others chromium and copper ores, brown coal, and oil), as well as the works concerning preparation of that tiny country to form a bridgehead for further conquests in the Balkans (development of communication network, roads, airfields etc.)

The fourth Balkan country – Bulgaria was ruled by Czar Boris III from German principal dynasty of Koburg-Gotha. Since 1 March 1941 it belonged to the Tripartite Pact (the appropriate document had been signed in Vienna by the prime-minister Bogdan Filov and the minister of foreign affairs Ivan Popov). Due to Bulgaria’s access to the pact on 2 March 1941 the troops of Field-Marshal Wilhelm List’s 12th Army marched in Bulgaria, from which they struck against Greece and Yugoslavia on 6 April. These events considerably subordinated Bulgaria to hitlerite Germany. Since 13 December 1941 it was formally in state of war with Great Britain and the United States.

After the conquest of Greece and Yugoslavia and Bulgaria’s access to the Tripartite Pact the Balkan peninsula (south to Drava river and Danube’s downstream, but Turkey), found itself in domination zone of Germany and Italy. In nearest plans of III Reich the peninsula had to constitute a southern bridgehead to the aggression on the Soviet Union. To strengthen the occupation in this region, the Germans and the Italians had perpetrated a new territorial division. Particularly it concerned Yugoslavia. Several days before the aggression on Greece and Yugoslavia, on 3 April 1941 Hitler signed the Directive No.25 of the Supreme Command of Wehrmacht and issued the directions concerning dismemberment of Yugoslavia. Beside German and Italian interests the division took into account the claims of III Reich’s attendants – Bulgaria and Hungary, which had accessed the Tripartite Pact on 20 November 1940 and took part in aggression on Yugoslavia, as well as the separatist tendencies of Yugoslavia’s internal nationalist forces. The Yugoslav territory was divided by a demarcation line into two parts: the German and the Italian one. The northern parts of Slovenia, subordinated to German administration, were incorporated to German Reich; other parts – as the «Province of Lubiana» were incorporated to Italy. The part of Voivodina – Bachka (a region between Danube and Tisa) and Baranya (Between Danube and Drava), where lived a Hungarian minority, as well as Medimurie and Prekomurie, the regions on Mura river, had been handed over to Hungary. In effect of negotiations carried out on 19 April 1941 between czar Boris and Hitler Bulgarian troops occupied Serbia’s Pirot district and essential part of Yugoslav Macedonia. Bulgarian troops also entered northern Greece to carry out occupation tasks as well. In general czarist Bulgaria had deployed on territories of Yugoslavia and Greece 12 infantry divisions and 2 cavalry brigades. Thus Germans could withdraw some forces from Greece and use them against the USSR, during the operation Barbaroßa. The Rome included part of Kosovo and Metohia, as well as some Macedonian districts, into subordinated Albania while Dalmatia and Boka Kotorska were incorporated directly to metropolitan Italy.

From among the puppet administrative creatures brought into being by Germany and Italy on Yugoslav territories the most important was Independent State of Croatia, proclaimed on 10 April 1941. It enveloped a part of Croatia (but lands occupied by Italy and Hungary), Sanjak, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In authority there were fascists – ustaši with their poglavnik (chief) Ante Paveliæ as a leader of the «government». The relations of this state with invaders were defined by the Roman Treaty of 18 May 1941. It anticipated the election of a member of Italian house, Duke of Spoleto, a king of Croatia. The Rome also undertook the attempts to restitute the Kingdom of Montenegro, joint in personal union with Italy. The partisan uprising of 13 July 1941 shattered those plans. In effect in Montenegro ruled an Italian governor. The rest of Yugoslav territory, namely Serbian lands, with country’s capital Belgrade, part of Kosovo and Metohia, as well as Banat, passed under the special rights to German military administration. It created there a commissioner government of Milan Acimoviæ.

The invaders in the Balkans in general, and in Yugoslavia particularly, adopted the ancient Roman principle «divide and conquer», exploiting the existing national and religious contradictions of multinational state. During the meeting with Paveliæ Hitler advised him to «apply in next fifty years the policy of the national intolerance», authorizing thus a mass liquidation of Serbian inhabitants. They became outlawed, and several hundred thousand people died murdered by ustaši in a death camp in Jasenovac. The ustaši – a Croatian nationalist terrorist organization, was created in the thirties by Croatian emigrants in Italy and Hungary. Ante Paveliæ was its leader. It used to commit outrages, among others in 1934 in Marseilles on king Alexander I. The particular role in organization of the terror and extermination committed by ustaši played the closest companion of Paveliæ, his right hand and chum, a lawyer Andrija Artukoviæ acting «ministry of interior» of so-called Independent State of Croatia. He controlled the action of building the concentration camps, and the number of his victims is estimated as big as 700 thousand. [Tudjman] He also acknowledged the Moslems of Bosnia and Herzegovina, distinctly different from the Croats, for «the most unadulterated Croats». The Bulgarians, Hungarians and Albanians had also undertaken the denationalization action on wide scale. A sharp terror had been established on Serbian soil. Too «gentle» chief of the commissioner government Acimoviæ had been replaced on 28 August 1941 by the former Chief of Staff of the Royal Yugoslav Army, Gen. Milan Nediæ. His «government» maintained its own gendarmerie and military troops.

Nazi Germany dominated on the Balkan peninsula. Everything was under control of Field-Marshal List, appointed by Hitler to the supreme commander of German forces in the Balkans on 9 June 1941. He controlled the administration and co-ordinated activities of occupation forces of Italy and Bulgaria. Puppet governments on occupied Yugoslav territories – Croatian of Paveliæ and Serbian of Gen. Nediæ, on Greek territories – of Gen. Geórgios Tsolákoglou, and in Albania – of Shefqet bej Vërlaci served – wittingly or not – as a cover for the conquest and enslavement of their countries by Germany or Italy. The basic form of subordinating the conquered nations was terror. Simultaneously the national discords, usually determined in mass domestic fights caused, that for a while hitlerites, the main culprits of such a state of matters, screened the reality and shifted the odium upon others. Only with time the genocidal and inspirational visage of fascism had appeared in full in this part of Europe. Tens of thousands of Yugoslav, Greek and Albanian citizebrins became arrested, taken away to concentration camps or shot on the spot. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to forced labour to Germany.

They did not reconcile with introduced by the Germans occupation «order», exploitation of natural resources and labour forces. The national liberation and anti-fascist struggle in Balkans constituted an important link of the resistance movement of European countries. Over four years, and in case of Albania about six years, it engaged considerable strengths of the German and Italian armies (the latter until their capitulation in summer 1943). Over fifty divisions, half a million of soldiers, were engaged in fights against partisans – the soldiers of national liberation armies of Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia. These divisions were eliminated from the military activities on regular fronts. Partisans were disorganizing the occupation system in Balkans, impeding the economical exploitation, removal of resources and labour forces. The nature of the national liberation struggle and its tactics in individual countries of the Balkan peninsula were different. In Albania, Greece and Bulgaria prevailed diversion, sabotage and intelligence, while in Yugoslavia dominated vast operations and battles, waged by huge forces against prevailing enemy forces, to amount of tens of divisions and over hundred thousand of soldiers, lasting at times a month and longer.

In all the Balkan countries the communist resistance movement, although it was supported financially and technically by the British,  tried to prepare for taking over the administration after the end of the war. This led to attacking smaller and bigger non-communist resistance groups, but the common enemy. Thus the communist-led guerilla, were engaged in a struggle for a power in their countries long before the common enemy (Nazi) were defeated.

Shortly after the war Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria had found themselves under a communist domination while Greece escaped this fate with the help of British and later American forces and within five post-war years remained a ground of a fratricidal war. Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria remained communist for next 45 years.