A potential court ruling on the Chetnik leader’s trial and execution in 1946 has reopened old, unhealed wounds in Serbia.
|Mihailovic on trial in 1946 | Photo by YouTube PrintScreen|
Serbia’s Higher Court has delayed a ruling on the legality of the execution in 1946 of Draza Mihailovic, the wartime leader of the royalist Chetnik movement.
The issue has provoked an outcry beyond Serbia while inside Serbia it has reignited old ideological divisions between rightist Chetniks and the Communist Partisans who were responsible for the execution after taking control of Yugoslavia at the end of the war.
Even before the ruling is issued, reactions to Mihailovic’s potential rehabilitation have exposed how deeply Serbia is still split between the two ideologies that clashed in the 1940s.
Former Partisans, anti-Fascist organisations and civil society groups view the potential rehabilitation as an embarrassment to Serbia and as a denigration of the fight against the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. Mihailovic was accused of collaborating with the occupation forces.
On the other side, historians, monarchists and modern followers of Chetnik ideology say the Chetniks were the only legitimate resistance force against the German occupation and the trial and execution of Mihailovic were a farce.
An equal place in history?
After democratic changes in 2000, the conservative government of Vojislav Kostunica, and another right-wing politician, Vuk Draskovic, initiated the 2004 Law on the Equalisation of Chetniks and Partisans, followed by another law in 2006 on rehabilitation of former Chetniks.
The 2004 law granted both Partisans and Chetniks an equally honoured place in history and came barely a decade after the end of the wars that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia.
|Protests over Mihailovic's rehabilitation | Photo by Beta|
The new laws spurred a flurry of rehabilitation requests to the courts. Of 2,000 cases, some 1,600 have been granted. But around 400, including that of Mihailovic himself, remain undecided.
Although the laws were supposed to make the two movements equal in the eyes of the law, it did not bring followers of the two ideologies any closer.
Aleksandar Kraus, from the Association of Serbian Anti-Fascists, says Serbian political leaders tacitly support Mihailovic's rehabilitation.
“The laws that they adopted, and their silence, show they support the rehabilitation of Mihailovic, which symbolises nationalistic politics and Fascistic ideas,” Kraus says.
Second World War and Mihailovic
Mihailovic was the first Yugoslav leader of a popular uprising against the German invasion in 1941 and was quickly promoted to the rank of general and minister of war by the royal government in London.
By late 1942, however, Mihailovic was convinced that Communism posed a greater long-term threat to Yugoslavia than the Axis occupation, and he sought to conserve his forces for a showdown with Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans.
The degree to which he effectively controlled Chetnik forces in Bosnia and Croatia, where they committed atrocities, remains open to question.
Some of his top lieutenants in the field, such as “Pop” [Priest] Djujic, openly collaborated with the Italians and the Germans in the name of the preservation of Serbia’s Orthodox faith and the nation. He and others also targeted and killed Bosnian Muslims and Croats as well as Communists.
After Tito’s Communists seized power in Yugoslavia, they hunted down Mihailovic and put him on trial in Belgrade in 1946. He was accused of collaborating with the Axis powers and of negotiating a cease-fire between his forces and those of Germany. He was found guilty and executed.
During the Communist era in Yugoslavia, the Chetniks were banned as a movement. They re-emerged following the dissolution of the country.
Negative reactions have come also from one member of the old Yugoslav Communist government, Jovo Kapicic, who was directly involved in Mihailovic's arrest back in 1946.
He accuses Belgrade of fostering a new climate of nationalism that could drag Serbia back to the years of conflict in the 1990s.
Sonja Biserko, director of the Belgrade office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, says the previous rehabilitation acts highlight the predominantly nationalistic tone of the current political discourse in Serbia.
“Rehabilitation has had one aim, which is to nullify the anti-Fascist struggle of the Partisans,” Biserko told Balkan Insight.
Members of the Ravna Gora Chetnik movement and the Royal Serbia association, which works under Crown Prince Alexandar’s patronage, disagree.
They insist that Mihailovic’s Chetniks were the only legitimate anti-Fascist force in the country as they were only resistance force recognized by, and loyal to, the royal government in exile. They find it offensive to be deemed equal to the Partisans in the eyes of the law or by any other standard.
Srdjan Sreckovic, president of the Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement, says the Chetniks were among the first forces in the Balkans to resist the Nazi occupation in early 1941, while the Partisans only started fighting the Nazis after Germany attacked the Soviet Union.
“American and British history recalls Mihailovic as a leader of a resistance movement and as the legal successor to the Yugoslav Royal army,” he says.
“Mihailovic was honored for his contribution to the anti-Fascist resistance by two presidents, Truman of America and De Gaulle of France,” Sreckovic adds.
The heirs to Serbia’s Karadjordjevic royal family also support Mihailovic’s rehabilitation. Bojan Starcevic, president of the Prince’s Royal Serbia association, says the Chetniks were fighting to preserve the monarchy.
“We had two anti-Fascist movements during World War 2: one, which was legitimate, the Yugoslav Chetniks’ Ravna Gora Movement, and the second, the ideologically Communist Partisan movement, whose aim was to change the political system from monarchy to Communism,” Starcevic told Balkan Insight.
For the monarchists, the recent rehabilitation of Prince Paul, the former Yugoslav Regent deposed in 1941, and of Slobodan Jovanovic, president of the Yugoslav government-in-exile, as well as the announcement of the possible rehabilitation of Mihailovic, are rightful corrections of historic injustices.
Not for the state to judge:
|Vuk Draskovic and his supporters paying homage to Dragoslav Mihailovic | Photo by Beta|
Historians and politicians suggest that one major reason for ongoing ideological dispute is that the Serbian government has never formally said who it believes led the anti-Fascist struggle in the 1940s.
Government officials say it’s not up to the state to decide who led the struggle, and these sensitive questions should be left to historians.
Meanwhile, Slobodan Homen, state secretary in the Ministry of Justice, referring to the outcry, said the court will limit itself to deciding whether Mihailovic had a fair trial, not judge whether he was guilty of war crimes as the Partisans claimed.
Professor Slobodan Markovic, a Belgrade historian, says the dispute between Chetniks and Partisans reflects enduring ideological divides. “The situation was complicated since both Serbia and Yugoslavia were in a civil war,” he recalls.
“The aim of both the movements was to destroy the other and emerge from the war as the undisputed winner but this does not change their basic character. Both were resistance movements against the Nazi occupation,” Markovic says.
However deeply old rifts continue to divide Serbian society, it does not prevent both sides from finding common ground when it comes to European Union integration.
Vuk Draskovic and Jovo Kapicic, the former Communist general, together with a number of civil organisations that condemn Mihailovic’s rehabilitation, are all part of the same political coalition, Preokret, which backs a pro-EU stand for Serbia. On the future, if not on the past, most Serbs stand together.
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