News 14 May 15

Serbia Rehabilitates WWII Chetnik Leader Mihailovic

A Belgrade court rehabilitated Chetnik leader Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovic, who was executed for high treason and Nazi collaboration in 1946, after hearings that highlighted longstanding divisions in Serbia.

Marija Ristic, Sven Milekic
Belgrade, Zagreb
Dragoljub Mihailovic.

The Belgrade Higher Court on Thursday rehabilitated Mihailovic, annulling the Communist-era verdict from 1946 that sentenced him to death.

The court ruled that the post-WWII trial of Mihailovic was “political and ideological” and made serious legal errors.

It also said that the trial was not fair because he didn’t have proper contact with his defence lawyers nor the right to appeal, and questioned the authenticity of the evidence presented.

In a sign of how the case has reflected continuing divisions within society between Mihailovic’s admirers and opponents, police were deployed outside the court to prevent any incidents between Chetnik supporters and anti-nationalist protesters who had gathered for the ruling.

Oliver Antic, an advisor to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and one of those who proposed the rehabilitation, said it was a reason for celebration.

“Serbia should celebrate, but there are reasons to celebrate in Croatia and elsewhere in the region,” Antic said.

Serbia’s crown prince Aleksandar Karadjorjevic, the current pretender to the defunct throne, also said it was a positive day for the country.

“This was not just an injustice towards one patriotic man, but it was an injustice towards our country and our people. This verdict is crucial for national reconciliation,” Karadjordjevic told media.

But the Alliance of Associations of the National Liberation War Veterans of Serbia, SUBNOR, said that the ruling was “rewriting the history of WWII” and undermining the legacy of Serbia’s contribution to the fight against fascism.

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 exile in London.

By late 1942, however, Mihailovic became 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 Partisan forces.

During WWII his forces, also known as Chetniks, were accused of committing war crimes and other atrocities. Some of his top lieutenants in the field openly collaborated with the Italians and Nazi Germans in the name of the preservation of Serbia’s Orthodox faith and the nation. The Chetniks 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 ceasefire between his forces and those of Germany.

He was found guilty and shot two days later; his body was never found.

The Chetniks were banned during the Communist era, but gained more popularity in Serbia in the 1990s.

In 2004, the Serbian government brought in a law that granted both Partisans and Chetniks an equally honoured place in history, followed by another law in 2006 on rehabilitation of former Chetniks.

The new laws sparked over 2,000 rehabilitation requests to the courts. Mihailovic’s grandson Vojislav filed a request in 2006.

But Hrvoje Klasic, a history professor in Zagreb, told BIRN that the rehabilitation would be “one of many court verdicts in the region that will be taken out of context”.

“With this judgment, Draza Mihailovic is declared unconvicted but not necessarily innocent,” Klasic said.

“Not a single statement on the issue of his guilt was questioned by the court in Belgrade, nor did it state that Draza Mihailovic did not commit the deeds that are attributed to him,” he added.

The rehabilitation ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

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