Interview 09 May 17

Yugoslav WWII Hero Recalls ‘Victory Day’ in 1945

As Serbia marks Victory Day, one of the few men still alive to have been named a Yugoslav national hero for his role in WWII remembers his first post-war celebration in 1945.

Vanja Djuric BIRN Belgrade
Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov at the first post-WWII victory parade in Moscow in 1945. Photo: Wikimedia.

Seventy-two years ago, after World War II came to an end, a young Serb called Petar Matic ‘Dule’ was in Moscow’s Red Square watching the first Soviet Victory Day celebration - a massive display of 40,000 Red Army troops and almost 2,000 military vehicles, held to mark Nazi Germany’s surrender a month earlier in May 1945.

As a young Communist from the town of Irig in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, Matic was involved in World War II from its outset and was wounded twice.

When the war ended, he was overawed when Josip Broz Tito sent him and 14 other Yugoslavs to Moscow for Stalin’s victory parade.

“That was a historic moment. Something marvellous. We watched the army that won the world war - well organised, well trained… So many people were on Red Square in Moscow, that was such a dramatic scene for me, because I saw the joy and the sadness at the same time in one place,” Matic, now 97, told BIRN in an interview.

Former Communist countries mark Victory Day on May 9, commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II - but for Matic, his time in the Soviet capital was tinged with sorrow.

He recalls being at a railway station in Moscow and seeing people waiting in desperate anticipation for their loved ones to return.

“I saw mothers, children, other relatives who were waiting for their family members, but many of them went back home without their hero. That was such a painful moment, full of grief. Only a few of those fighters came back from the war alive,” he recalled with tears in his eyes.

The Soviets celebrated their victory, but the Yugoslavs were also victorious, he believes.

“Of course we were! Besides Yugoslavia, and other big countries from the West with large armies, only Greece and Albania were fighting for freedom. Sometimes there were 20, 30, 50 enemy divisions against us, we had a respectable army, around 300 thousand fighters were killed, villages were burned all across Yugoslavia, but still we were all fighting against fascism,” he explained.

Before 1944, Matic was a Communist Partisan fighter who spent the war mostly defending Vojvodina and its administrative district of Srem.

“Vojvodina was among the ranks of those that have done the most in the battle for freedom,” he insisted.

“Even if it wasn’t the centre of wartime events, Vojvodina provided numerous and well-equipped units that fought on the territory of Bosnia and participated in the Belgrade Strategic Offensive Operation [1944]. And we were so united, other units couldn’t be compared with us,” he added.

Matic had been active in the Communist Party since 1941, and after the war he was a member of presidency of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.

He was awarded a medal of honour and national hero status in 1951.

“I was honoured and proud, but I’ve never boasted about it. There were many heroes in the war, and I think that some of them also deserved medals,” he said.

Defending a united Yugoslavia

Yugoslav national hero Petar Matic Dule at home in Belgrade. Photo: BIRN.

Matic defended the idea of a united Yugoslavia until the end of his professional career.

He resigned from his position as the head of SUBNOR, the organisation representing former Partisans, in 1988, as Slobodan Milosevic started to exert his influence on politics in the former Yugoslavia.

He recalled that some SUBNOR members from Serbia were already expressing nationalist views at that point.

“I had a discussion with other members of SUBNOR and I realised there was no place for me anymore, because they started to split. Even if I had the support of some Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian members, the group from central Serbia was already prepared to spread their influence, and they succeeded,” he said.

He said that Milosevic marked him as a person “who wasn’t Serb enough”, although they had never met.

“I think he wasn’t the only one who was guilty for all that happened to Yugoslavia. When our society was ready for transformation, democratic ideas started to dominate, but nationalists were also rising in popularity. They decided which direction our society would go in, and they maintained that idea that we [Serbs] should all be in one country, and that we are better than the others,” he explained.

As far as Tito’s legacy is concerned, Matic suggests that today the Communist leader would probably be seen as an autocrat, but in the post-war period, he couldn’t have acted as a democrat because of the difficult circumstances of the times.

“Democracy wasn’t possible. If I think about the discussions he had with the provincial leaders and those from the former Yugoslav republics, you will see that he always tried to hear all of them, to think about problems, to take advice and to make a decision acceptable for everybody. He wasn’t an autocrat, definitely,” he insisted.

Comrade Dule, as the Partisans called him during the war, now spends his days in the quiet Belgrade district of Senjak.

He is still interested in everyday political issues and tries to stay up to date with the latest news from the Balkans and around the world. He usually listens to the news on the radio, and his wife sometimes reads to him from a newspaper.

Matic thinks that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and its leader, prime minister and incoming head of state Aleksandar Vucic, is politically closer to the old ways of Milosevic, in whose government Vucic served during the 1990s.

“No matter what anyone thinks about Vucic and his regime, I think his approach is the product of that old system, and it is closer to that than it is democratic,” he insisted.

Despite all this, the Yugoslav national hero and veteran of the fight against fascism predicted that the democratic spirit will rise again in Serbia.

“An awakening will happen, but it will take so much time,” he said.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus