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by Carl Savich
In the summer of 1941, Serbian guerrillas launched an uprising in central Serbia against the German occupation. The Serbian uprising spread and increased in intensity threatening the German military occupation of Serbia and endangering the German southern flank in Europe. The Serbian uprising came at the time of the German invasion of the USSR. Adolf Hitler immediately perceived the danger that the Serbian insurrection posed to the stability of the Balkans region and for German control. Swift action was taken. Hitler ordered that brutal measures be taken to suppress the Serbian revolt. Hitler ordered that the rebellion be quelled “by the most rigorous methods”. Pursuant to these instructions, Wilhelm Keitel ordered that for every German occupation soldier killed in Serbia, a hundred Serbian civilians would be executed, while fifty Serbian civilians would be killed for every wounded German soldier. This unprecedented order, that 100 Serbs would be shot for every German soldier killed, was given to quell the Serbian insurgency. This order would result in one of the most brutal massacres of civilians during World War II, the Kragujevac Massacre, when an estimated 5,000 Serbian civilians were executed.
Yugoslavian Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic and Foreign Minister Alexander Cincar-Markovic had signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany on March 25, 1941. On March 27, Serbian military officers under Yugoslav Air Force General Dusan Simovic overthrew the regime and established Peter II as the titular ruler of Yugoslavia. The overthrow followed violent Serbian anti-German demonstrations in Belgrade and wide-spread popular antipathy towards a Yugoslav-German agreement. Hitler immediately reacted. Hitler perceived the coup d’etat as an affront and insult to Germany and as an unacceptable act of defiance. While the new Simovic regime requested a dialogue, Hitler immediately decided on the total destruction of Yugoslavia as a country.
Under Directive No. 25, Hitler ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia on March 27, 1941 after the coup d’etat in Belgrade. The invasion of Yugoslavia was known as Operation Punishment (Fall Strafe) while the invasion of Greece was Operation Marita. Hitler ordered that Yugoslavia “must be destroyed as quickly as possible”. Hitler announced his plans for the invasion of Yugoslavia as follows:
It is my intention to break into Yugoslavia in the general direction of Belgrade and southward by a concentric operation from the area of Rijeka-Graz on the one side and from the area around Sofia on the other and to give the Yugoslav forces an annihilating blow. In addition I intend to cut off the extreme southern part of Yugoslavia from the rest of the country and seize it as a base for the continuation of the German-Italian offensive against Greece… As soon as sufficient forces stand ready and the weather situation permits, the ground organization of the Yugoslav Air Force and Belgrade are to be destroyed by continuous day and night attacks of the Luftwaffe.
The Axis attack on Yugoslavia consisted of 24 German divisions and 1,500 aircraft, 23 Italian divisions and 670 aircraft and naval vessels which attacked on the Adriatic, and 5 Hungarian divisions. The total number of Axis divisions was 52 with a total of 2.300 aircraft. The Yugoslav army could muster 30 under strength divisions that were poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and demoralized.
Yugoslavia was to be attacked by Axis troops based in Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Second Army, commanded by Maximilian von Weichs, stationed in Klagenfurt, Austria and Barcs, Hungary was to attack from the north. The second formation was the German 12th Army stationed in Bulgaria under Field Marshal Sigmund Wilhelm List, one element of which was to occupy Macedonia while another was to press on to Belgrade. XLI Panzer Corps under the command of Georg-Hans Reinhardt was stationed in bases in Romania and was to attack Belgrade. Attached to the XLI Panzer Corps, was the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” which had been transferred from southern France. The Das Reich Waffen SS Division was the spearhead of the attack on Belgrade. Das Reich was an elite formation commanded by SS Oberstgruppenfuehrer Paul Haussner, known as “Papa Haussner” because he was regarded as the founder of the Waffen SS or Armed SS, the military wing of the SS.
Serbia was the only area of dismembered Yugoslavia in which an outright German military government was established. Serbia was the only Balkan country that Germany and the Axis countries occupied militarily throughout World War II. Why was this so? The Germans could never control Serbia and the Serbian population. Without direct German military occupation, Serbia could not be militarily and politically subdued. On April 20, 1941, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the Chief of the German Army High Command (OKH), ordered the establishment of a German military government in German-occupied Serbia. The office of the Military Commander in Serbia was the chief of the occupation. He was subordinate to the Quartermaster General of the Army High Command and to the commander of the German 2nd Army which occupied Serbia. The main responsibilities of the Military Commander in Serbia were enunciated as follows in the Dienstanweisung or brief as follows: To safeguard the railroad line between Belgrade and Salonika and the Danube shipping lanes, to execute the economic orders of Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering who was the Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan, and to establish and to maintain law and order.
German Air Force General Helmuth Foerster was the First Military Commander in Serbia. He was replaced in June, 1941 by Antiaircraft Artillery General Ludwig von Schroeder. Air Force General Heinrich Danckelmann replaced him when Schroeder was killed in a plane crash a month after assuming command. In June, 1941, the Germans brought in four under-strength divisions to occupy or garrison Serbia under the command of General of Artillery Paul Bader: the 704th, 714th, 717th, and 718th divisions. The German Second Army was deployed to the Russian Front. On June 9, under Directive No. 31, Hitler unified the command structure by making Wilhelm List the Armed Forces Commander in Southeast Europe who was directly subordinate to Hitler. List was responsible for the security and the defense of Serbia and Greece and General Bader was subordinated to him. List had his headquarters in Salonika.
Two Concepts of Guerrilla Resistance
Two rival guerrilla or resistance movements emerged in Serbia following the German occupation. The Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement was headed by Colonel Dragoljub-Draza Mihailovic which was based in the UK where the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile fled. The guerrillas under Mihailovic engaged in sabotage but opposed direct attacks on German troops because such attacks were futile from a military standpoint and because the goal or objective of the guerrilla movement was to lay the groundwork for the Allied invasion of Yugoslavia which was to occur later in the war. Mihailovic opposed attacks on German troops because he did believe the sacrifice in Serbian lives was worth the cost. Mihailovic maintained that it was not worth sacrificing fifty Serbs for “a single German or a section of railway line.” Mihailovic, a veteran of World War I, also recalled the brutal retaliation the German forces took against Serbian civilians for uprisings in that conflict. The Partisan or Communist guerrillas began uprisings began in Serbia in July, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. On July 3, 1941, Tito convened a meeting of the Politburo of the Communist party of Yugoslavia in a suburb of Belgrade after Joseph Stalin had made a call for Communist resistance in the occupied countries. The following day, Tito issued a proclamation calling for a general uprising in Serbia. The Partisans managed to seize Uzice in western Serbia and to set up a so-called Communist Republic. The Partisans were internationalist in outlook and were not indigenous to Serbia. Josip Broz Tito was a Croat-Slovene Roman Catholic born in Croatia when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spoke with a Croatian accent and did not know the Serbian terrain. He was like a foreigner in Serbia. He had been a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I, had been captured by the Russians in 1915, and joined the Red Army in 1918. He fought in the Red Army from 1918 to 1920 and became a Communist leader who would lead the Yugoslav Communist Party. His wife was the Russian Pelagija Belousova, whom he married in 1919 in Russia. The Partisans wanted to create as much bloodshed and carnage and destruction as possible. This was their raison d’etre. They wanted to destroy the pre-Communist foundations and to create legitimacy for Communist rule by after the war by demonstrating that they had liberated the country from German occupation. Thus the forces under Mihailovic and Tito were fighting under two opposing concepts of guerrilla resistance.
On September 19, Tito and Mihailovic met for the first time at Struganik following Mihailovic’s meeting with Partisan representatives in August. They sought to organize their forces in a common front against German troops. Mihailovic and Tito agreed not to attack each other. No real agreement, however, was reached to cooperate because of conflicting concepts of resistance. A second meeting between Tito and Mihailovic took place on October 27 at Brajici located between Uzice and Ravna Gora. Captain D.T. “Bill” Hudson of the British mission to Draza Mihailovic came along to the Brajici meeting. Mihailovic and Tito were unable to reach an agreement to cooperate against the German forces.
Insurgency in Serbia
Following the German occupation of Yugoslavia and Greece, guerrilla movements launched a massive resistance campaign against German occupation forces. In Serbia, a large insurrection against German occupation began in the summer of 1941. There were attacks and sabotage against communication and transportation lines. German troops were tortured, mutilated, and killed by Serbian resistance forces. The German response to these guerrilla attacks was to attempt to suppress the resistance by mass hangings and mass executions of Serbian civilians and hostages.
In June, 1941, Wilhelm List became the Wehrmacht Commander Southeast, the supreme representative of the German Army in the Balkans and exercised executive authority in Serbia which was occupied by German troops. List had been the Commander-in-Chief of the 12th Army during the German invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece. List was assigned the duty of safeguarding of the unified defense of areas occupied by German troops in Serbia against attacks and unrest. Hermann Foertsch, who had become the Chief of Staff of 12th Army on May 10, remained List’s Chief of Staff in his new position as Wehrmacht Commander Southeast.
In regard to the above the following aspects are to be taken into consideration:
Ruthless and immediate measures against the insurgents, against their accomplices and their families. (Hanging, burning down of villages involved, seizure of more hostages, deportation of relatives, etc., into concentration camps.)
On September 16, Hitler issued a personally signed directive, Directive No. 31a, to List charging him with the suppression of the insurgency in Serbia:
I assign to the Wehrmacht Commander…the task of crushing the insurrectionary movement in the southeastern area. It is important first to secure in the Serbian area the transportation routes and the objects important for the German war economy, and then…to restore order…by the most rigorous methods.”
List then recommended and requested that General Franz Boehme, a pre-war Austrian officer who then commanded the XVIIIth Army Corps in Greece, be commissioned to handle military affairs in Serbia. The entire executive authority for Serbia was subsequently transferred to Boehme. Boehme was made the Plenipotentiary Commanding General. Boehme thus was delegated supreme authority to suppress the insurgency in Serbia although he remained subordinated to List. Boehme took command of all German troops in Serbia and directed all actions against the Serbian insurgents on September 19. Boehme was a veteran of the German Army military campaigns in France and Poland. He would later be transferred to serve with the 20th Gebirgsarmee in Norway as a General der Gebirgstruppen and ended the war in Norway. The 342th Infantry Division was transferred from France and deployed in Serbia to suppress the insurgency. The 100th Tank Brigade was also deployed to Serbia. Danckelmann was relieved of command in Serbia while Boehme took over the command of Serbia. Danckelmann was held responsible for letting the Serbian rebellion get out of control and spread.
Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the supreme command of the German armed forces, pursuant to Hitler’s directive, sent instructions for the suppression of insurgency movements in the occupied territories, which List issued to his subordinate commanders:
Measures taken up to now to counteract this general communist insurgent movement have proven themselves to be inadequate. The Fuehrer now has ordered that severest means are to be employed in order to break down this movement in the shortest time possible. Only in this manner, which has always been applied successfully in the history of the extension of power of great peoples can quiet be restored.
The following directives are to be applied here: (a) Each incident of insurrection against the German Wehrmacht, regardless of individual circumstances, must be assumed to be of communist origin. (b) In order to stop these intrigues at their inception, severest measures are to be applied immediately at the first appearance, in order to demonstrate the authority of the occupying power, and in order to prevent further, progress. One must keep in mind that a human life frequently counts for naught in the affected countries and a deterring effect can only be achieved by unusual severity. In such as case the death penalty for 50 to 100 communists must in general be deemed appropriate as retaliation for the life of a German soldier. The manner of execution must increase the deterrent effect. The reverse procedure to proceed at first with relatively easy punishment and to be satisfied with the threat of measures of increased severity as a deterrent does not correspond with these principles and is not to be applied.
If losses of German soldiers or Volksdeutsche occur, the territorial competent commanders up to the regiment commanders are to decree the shooting of arrestees according to the following quotas: (a) For each killed or murdered German soldier or Volksdeutsche (men, women or children) one hundred prisoners or hostages, (b) For each wounded German soldier or Volksdeutsche 50 prisoners or hostages.
Boehme ordered that: “In all commands in Serbia, all Communists, male residents suspicious as such, all Jews, a certain number of nationalistic and democratically inclined residents are to be arrested as hostages, by means of sudden actions.”
On October 4, List issued to following order to General Paul Bader for treatment of the Serbian population:
The male population of the territories to be mopped up of bandits is to be handled according to the following points of view: Men who take part in combat are to be judged by court martial. Men in the insurgent territories who were not encountered in battle, are to be examined and, If a former participation in combat can be proven of them to be judged by court martial.
If they are only suspected of having taken part in combat, of having offered the bandits support of any sort, or of having acted against the Wehrmacht in any way, to be held in a special collecting camp. They are to serve as hostages in the event that bandits appear, or anything against the Wehrmacht is undertaken in the territory mopped up or in their home localities, and in such cases they are to be shot.
The Kragujevac Massacre, October 20-21, 1941
The central Serbian town of Kragujevac had a pre-war population of 27,249, located in the political, cultural, educational, and industrial center of Serbia known as Shumadija at the Lepenica river, a tributary of the Morava. Kragujevac was first mentioned in the Turkish Tapu Defter as Kragujevdza in 1476 as a village with 32 houses. By 1822, it had 283 houses with a population of 2,000. Kragujevac was the capital of the Serbian Principality when Milos Obrenovic proclaimed it the capital from 1818 to 1839. The first Serbian court was established in Kragujevac in 1820, the first high school in 1833, the first theater in 1835, the first Lycee in 1838, the first cannons in 1853, and the first electric power station in 1884. By 1851, the town had become the industrial center of Serbia. In 1853, the oldest Serbian military plant was established with French assistance to produce cannons. The military technical institute (Vojno Tehnicki Zavod) was established in Kragujevac which oversaw Serbian military armaments and weapons production. In 1929, a railroad line between Kragujevac and Kraljevo was established. The town produced military vehicles. Ford trucks were built in the late 1930s for the Yugoslav army.
An announcement from the local German command office in Kragujevac on October 21, 1941, was as follows:
For every dead German soldier, 100 residents have been executed, and for every wounded German soldier, 50 residents have been executed, and before all others, Communists, bandits, and their assistants were targeted, all totaling 2,300.
On October 29, Felix Benzler, sent this report to his ministry:
In the past week there have been executions of a large number of Serbs, not only in Kraljevo but also in Kragujevac, as reprisals for the killing of members of the Wehrmacht in the proportion of 100 Serbs for one German. In Kraljevo 1,700 male Serbs were executed, in Kragujvac 2,300.”
The town of Rudnik was subsequently razed. In Gornji Milanovac, the town was systematically destroyed with incendiary bombs by the German forces, 72 houses out of 464 were left standing. In Kraljevo, railway and aircraft factory workers were executed and the Germans reportedly shot one member of each family in the town.
In the villages of Meckovac, Grosnica, Milatovac, 427 civilians were executed. In Draginac and Loznica, 2,950 hostages were killed, for guerrilla activity around Kraljevo. In Kraljevo, 1,736 civilians were killed.
“The executions in Kragujevac occurred although there had been no attacks on members of the Wehrmacht in this city, for the reason that not enough hostages could be found elsewhere.”
The executions in Kragujevac were indiscriminate. Serbian civilians were selected merely to fill the quota of 100 hundred Serbs for every German soldier killed. The German military command in Serbia listed the number of executed at Kragujevac at 2,300. The Communist regime manipulated and inflated the figures to 7,000 killed after the war for propaganda purposes. A more accurate and objective number for the total number of Serbian civilians executed in Kragfujevac and in the neighboring villages and towns for the entire period is approximately 5,000.
On October 24, Walter Kuntze was assigned Deputy Wehrmacht Commander Southeast and Commander-in-Chief of the 12th Army. This was a temporary or interim appointment to last until List could return to duty. On October 31, Boehme submitted a report to Kuntze in which he detailed the shootings in Serbia:
Shooting: 405 hostages in Belgrade (total up to now in Belgrade, 4,750). 90 Communists in Camp Sebac. 2,300 hostages in Kragujevac. 1,700 hostages in Kraljevo.”
Executions of Serbian civilians continued. Kuntze in a directive of March 19, 1942:
The more unequivocal and the harder reprisal measures are applied from the beginning the less it will become necessary to apply them at a later date. No false sentimentalities! It is preferable that 50 suspects are liquidated than one German soldier lose his life….If it is not possible to produce the people who have participated in any way in the insurrection or to seize them, reprisal measures of a general kind may be deemed advisable, for instance, the shooting to death of all male inhabitants from the nearest villages, according to a definite ratio (for instance, one German dead---100 Serbs, one German wounded---50 Serbs).
The Kragujevac massacre had a profound effect on Mihailovic. The Kragujevac Massacre convinced Mihailovic that he was correct in avoiding attacks on the German occupation forces that would lead to executions of Serbian civilians. He told British officer Christie Lawrence:
You have heard of the result of my revolution last autumn…? Of the hundreds of villages burned and the terrible reprisals that the Germans inflicted on our innocent people? … When it was over … I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country, unless it could result in our total liberation.
The Communist Partisans, by contrast, were indifferent to the losses of the civilian population in Serbia. The Partisans were motivated by an ideology that prevented them from seeing that German occupation troops in Serbia were not Nazi party members but recruits who had no choice but to serve in the German Army. The senseless murder of German occupation troops would invite reprisals that would lead in the loss of innocent civilian lives. The Partisans, however, were also guided by a political agenda. Their goal was to control territory and set the stage for a Communist takeover of the country. Edvard Kardelj said: “Some comrades…have a fear of reprisals---destruction of villages, executions, and so on….In war we must not be afraid of whole villages being destroyed.” Tito replied to Mihailovic’s assertion that large-scale attacks against the Germans would result in reprisals that would lead to the destruction of those units and the loss of innocent civilian lives: “That’s of no importance. I’m looking further ahead.” The terror will unquestionably lead to armed action…“ Communist leaders reacted to the bewilderment caused by their callousness toward suffering by saying that if the Serbs perished in this war, there were enough Chinese to settle Serbian lands. In other words, the goal was in achieving political power. This was what the partisans wanted. They were not concerned if innocent civilians were killed. The ends justified the means. So long as a Communist dictatorship was created in Serbia and Yugoslavia, the cost in human life was irrelevant.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials and the Kragujevac Massacre
Franz Boehme (1885-1947) was captured on May 9, 1945 in Norway. Boehme
was placed on trial by the U.S. Military Tribunal for war crimes and crimes
against humanity in Serbia for the mass executions of Serbian civilians
in Kragujevac and adjoining towns and villages. This trial was the “Hostages
Trial”, Case No. 47, which was held from July 8, 1947 to February 19, 1948.
He committed suicide prior to his arraignment on May 29, 1947 by jumping
off the fourth floor of the prison building in Nuremberg, Germany. The
defendants in the Hostages Trial were German military commanders who had
ordered reprisal killings against civilians or hostages in order to maintain
order in occupied territories under attack from guerrillas. Franz Boehme,
Wilhelm List, Walter Kundze, Maximilian von Weichs, Hermann Foertsch, Lothar
Rendulic, Helmuth Felmy, Hubert Lanz, Ernst Dehner, Ernst von Leyser, Wilhelm
Speidel, and Kurt von Geitner were charged with committing war crimes and
crimes against humanity in Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, and Norway. They
were charged in a four count indictment that charged them with will unlawfully,
willfully and knowingly committing war crimes and crimes against humanity
under Article II of Control Council Law No. 10 “with being principals in
and accessories to the murder of thousands of persons from the civilian
population of Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway and Albania between September
1939 and May 1945 by the use of troops of the German Armed Forces under
the command of and acting pursuant to orders issued, distributed and executed
by the defendants.” They were further charged in participating in “a deliberate
scheme of terrorism and intimidation wholly unwarranted and unjustified
by military necessity by the murder, ill-treatment and deportation to slave
labour of prisoners of and the civilian populations.”
Under the first count, they were charged with the murder of hundreds of thousands of persons by mass executions of civilians, that they “issued, distributed and executed orders for the execution of 100 ‘hostages’ in retaliation for each German soldier killed and ‘fifty’ hostages in retaliation for each German soldier wounded.” Under count two, they were charged with destroying cities, towns, and villages by burning and leveling them. Under count three, they were charged with the summary execution of POWs and the murder of relatives of those combatants. Under the fourth count, they were charged with the murder, torture, and systematic terrorization and imprisonment in concentration camps of the civilian populations in the occupied territories. These acts were held to violate the 1907 Hague Regulations, international conventions, the laws and customs of war, general principles of criminal law, and the internal penal laws of the occupied countries which were “declared, recognized and defined as crimes” by Article II of Control Council Law No. 10 which was promulgated by the US, USSR, France, and the UK.
The Nuremberg court found Wilhelm List guilty on counts one and three and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Walter Kuntze was found guilty on counts one, three, and four and received a life sentence. Hermann Foertsch was acquitted and released. Maximilian von Weichs was severed from the case due to illness. Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist was extradited by Yugoslavia on August 16, 1946, was tried for war crimes, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Kleist was extradited by the USSR in 1948 where he was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kleist died in the Vladimir POW camp in 1954 in the USSR.
The Nuremberg court found that hostages could not be taken and then executed during a military occupation based on military expediency. “Every available method to secure order” must be used before hostages can be taken. The court found that the Serbian/Yugoslav guerrillas were not entitled to be classed as “lawful belligerents.” The court found that the guerrillas were franc tireurs, from French for “free shooters”. Thus, they were not entitled to POW status. As franc tireurs, upon capture the guerrillas could be “subjected to the death penalty”, that is, summarily shot. The court, however, rejected the defendant’s defense of “superior orders”. The defendants argued that they were not responsible because they were only following orders of those superior to them in rank and power. In following superior orders, the court held that one must show “excusable ignorance of the illegality” of the orders to be excused. If one knows that the order is illegal and follows it, one cannot use the defense. An order is illegal if it “violates International Law and outrages fundamental concepts of justice.” The court held that following “superior orders” is not a defense in the commission of a criminal act. The court found that Wilhelm List and Walter Kuntze were following orders they knew to be illegal and criminal because the orders from Hitler and Keitel violated international law and fundamental concepts of justice. The executions of Serbian civilians at Kragujevac were thus found by the Nuremberg Tribunal to constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.