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John G. Wright

The Civil War in Yugoslavia

(April 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.4, April 1943, pp.111-115.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Civil war has issued out of the resistance to the Axis armies in Yugoslavia. We take sides in that civil war. Let us explain why.

The corruption, treachery and bankruptcy of the native ruling class had plunged the country into chaos in the period prior to the German occupation. The dominant section of Yugoslav landlords and capitalists pressed for a capitulation to Hitler. But the mass of the population was anti-Fascist and seething with revolt. Reports of peasant uprisings in Central Serbia, Montenegro and elsewhere came almost simultaneously with the signing on March 25, 1941 of a protocol of adherence to the Tripartite pact of the Axis.

It is as yet impossible to establish to what extent these uprisings were spontaneous and to what extent they were engineered by those elements in the army and in the population under the sway of Anglo-American or Stalinist diplomacy and their agencies. The likelihood is that the maneuvers at the top were supplemented by spontaneous action from below. In any case, the then reigning Cvetkovich cabinet and Regent were overthrown two days after they had joined the Axis. General Dusan Simovich was installed as Premier and Peter II, a boy of 17, proclaimed as ruler. This new government was immediately recognized by London and Washington. The Kremlin—with Molotov as Premier—signed a “non-aggression pact” with Simovich on April 5, 1941, that is, on the very eve of Hitler’s formal declaration of war against Yugoslavia. This recognition was hardly given than it was withdrawn—with Stalin as Premier—on May 9, 1941. Shortly after the USSR was invaded Stalin reaffirmed the recognition he had withdrawn. Since that time this position has again been reversed de facto.

The newly-formed Simovich government proved impotent to organize effective resistance to the German armies. The army had scarcely been equipped to fight by the previous regime. Now, in addition, resistance was sabotaged and betrayed by Yugoslavia’s own army tops, her landlords, capitalists and their agents. With this help, Hitler overran the country in a few days and was able to consolidate his Balkan base for the attack on the USSR, which came within two months. This fact proves the guerrilla resistance during this time in Yugoslavia was poorly organized, sporadic and on a scale too restricted to interfere seriously with the plans of the German High Command. Hitler’s occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941 was an indispensable part of the German plan—which materialized in June—to invade the USSR.

A glance at the map suffices to show the strategic importance of this country which borders upon Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania, let alone Italy and Germany (Austria). Without establishing control of Yugoslavia it is impossible to assure control of the Balkans. Hitler needed this control both for offensive and defensive reasons, as would any other power or combination of powers seeking to attack the Soviet Union. Without the Balkan base such an attack cannot be launched with any hope of success. Lacking this base, the attacking armies, especially those of Germany, would find their own flank exposed.

Conversely, many of the key problems of Soviet defense also hinge on the Balkans, Yugoslavia in particular, for whoever dominates this territory disposes of a powerful base flanking the USSR.

What supplied the impetus for the guerrilla movement in Yugoslavia? According to inspired dispatches from London, the credit belongs to Drazha Mikhailovich and his “Chetniks.” The Kremlin in its domestic publications as well as in its agencies abroad, especially the Daily Worker in this country, helped build up this legend of Mikhailovich which they are now working so hard to dispel. For example, as late as June 2, 1942, the Daily Worker featured Mikhailovich’s picture on its front page alongside of a report of a broadcast from “Free Yugoslavia,” the short wave radio station of the Partisan High Command. Even after this station had made public the news of major military clashes between the Partisans and Mikhailovich, the Daily Worker—on orders from Moscow—continued its line of building up Mikhailovich for almost two more months after June 2, 1942.

The artificial portrayal of Mikhailovich, “Chief of the Chetniks,” as organizer of real resistance to the fascist invaders, is part of an elaborate hoax. Whatever else may be obscure about the inter-relations between Mikhailovich and the Partisans, it is now admitted even by London that Mikhailovich’s role has been to restrain resistance in Yugoslavia rather than to promote it.

It is equally undeniable that a close connection exists between the resistance in Yugoslavia and the heroic resistance of the Red Army and the Soviet masses. The struggle and successes of the Red Army have acted from the beginning as a spur to the growing resistance in Yugoslavia and elsewhere in Hitler’s rear. The force of this resistance has fed upon and runs parallel to the course of the struggle of the USSR.

The Scope of the Partisan Movement

It was only after Hitler launched the assault upon the USSR that his serious trouble in Yugoslavia began. What amounts to an official Stalinist account of the development of guerrilla struggle is now available. It is given in the October 25, 1942, issue of Ogonek, a weekly published in Moscow:

“By autumn of 1941, the Partisan army, which then consisted of isolated detachments still functioning separately, already numbered from 80,000 to 100,000 fighters ... By the end of the year they had cleared of occupationist troops two-thirds of the territory of Serbia, more than half of Montenegro, a large section of Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina; and the organization of Partisan forces was begun. In Croatia, Slovenia and Slavonia.”

The winter successes of the Red Army in 1941 were accompanied, not only by the spread of resistance in Yugoslavia, but also by its coordination and centralization:

“The leadership of the Partisan movement widely utilized the winter months for reorganizing and replenishing the ranks of the people’s armed forces. Detachments were transformed into Partisan shock brigades and battalions. The High Command of the Partisan and Volunteer Armies was created; connections were established with the Partisan detachments operating in Albania and Greece.”

By the summer of 1942, the report continues, “the Partisans were operating with comparatively large military formations (shock brigades, battalions) equipped with artillery ... By this time, the Partisans also disposed of planes.”

There is ample evidence that the Red Army provided the impetus from outside and that the Kremlin actively intervened in organizing, supplying and seizing control of the Partisan movement in Yugoslavia.

If the impetus from without was provided by the Red Army, what, however, has invested the resistance within Yugoslavia with its undeniable power, whatever we may think of the details of the claims in the Stalinist press?

The nationalist element, “the rising of patriots against the invader,” has been the propaganda keynote coming not only from London but also from Moscow. Nationalism has doubtless played and will continue to play an important part in the development of Yugoslavia’s struggle. Unquestionably considerable sections of Yugoslavia’s 16 millions were initially impelled by their desire and need to throw off the invader’s yoke. It is no less obvious that the subjugated conditions of the country aided powerfully in a resurgence of nationalism. But this hardly touches the main problem. Under the existing conditions what were the actual channels into which the struggle against the invader could flow and through which it could unfold?

Generally speaking, all movements in society and all the key problems including those of “national liberation” are governed by and solved through the mechanism of classes and the dynamics of the class struggle. In occupied Europe the national question is fused intimately with the social. In the case of Yugoslavia the struggle against the occupying armies could not unfold without entering immediately into a head-on collision with the Axis collaborationists headed by the native landlords and capitalists and their central and local bureaucracy.

The Stalinists inside and outside the USSR have sought to hide the inspiring fact that, while ostensibly operating within the framework of “national liberation,” the guerrilla movement no sooner acquired a mass character than it inexorably proceeded to assume class struggle forms. This incontestable fact can be established from details in the reports in the capitalist and Stalinist press. For example, a Stockholm dispatch characteristic of the earliest stages of the struggle tells that: “approximately 40 Serbian guerrillas attacked an estate in western Croatia near Lokve Lika killing the landlord and the German soldiers there” (Daily Worker, September 7, 1941). In the course of such raids, the guerrillas burned all the grain and other supplies that they were unable to carry away or distribute among the population.

The same report also states that “coal mines in Lesljanah were systematically attacked by big detachments numbering up to 400 guerrillas who possessed field guns. The Croatian authorities were compelled to send out regular troops.” The genuine voice of the ruling class is heard in the very wording of the dispatch: The Croatian authorities, that is, the representatives of the native landowners, coal mine owners, etc., “were compelled” to defend their interests and even their lives by armed force.

That this was not an isolated incident is borne out by the official Moscow press:

“Partisan detachments attacked the occupationist garrisons, annihilated them, destroyed bridges, “blew up important industrial enterprises, burned the grain requisitioned from the population whenever the occasion did not permit its distribution among the starving peasants.” (Ogonek, October 25, 1942.)

The Partisans vs. the “Democracies”

The prerequisites for avoiding such clashes and checking the spread of class warfare is a rigid restriction of guerrilla activity, a policy of passivity. Such a policy of rejecting mass resistance is precisely the one followed by Mikhailovich, and supported by the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile. As C.L. Sulzberger cabled from London: “This accords with British theories of political and military warfare” (NY Times, January 31, 1943). Needless to say, Washington subscribes to the same theory. Their common aim is to defeat Hitler only on the basis of preserving capitalist property forms and relations. Whoever violates the latter in any shape or manner becomes the main enemy in place of Hitler.

Washington, London and their Yugoslavian satellites all oppose expanded guerrilla activity in Yugoslavia because it is necessarily accompanied by the extension and intensification of class warfare. Expanded guerrilla activity, which the Kremlin does require, has meant the continuation of the policy of confiscating food supplies which, when not destroyed, are distributed among the local population:

“Food from army stores captured by the guerrillas ... was distributed to the needy population.” (Daily Worker, July 26, 1942.)

“Flour ... was distributed to starving population.” (Idem)

On October 7, 1942, the Daily Worker reported that the guerrillas in Croatia had seized supplies of “requisitioned wheat” and had distributed “several carloads” among the peasants. “500 carloads of wheat ... were distributed among the population” (Daily Worker, November 21, 1942). This distribution of food, the largest yet reported, came on the eve of the creation of the central government of the Partisans in Bihac—The Anti-Fascist Soviet (Vece) of People’s Liberation in Yugoslavia.

Peasants in the localities controlled by the guerrillas have received “timber for building and for personal use without charge” (Daily Worker, July 26, 1942). Similar reports can be adduced to any number.

Naturally, the Yugoslav landlords and merchants who own these food supplies and timber lands are opposed to such measures. The formation of “White Guards” to combat the guerrillas was reported in the summer of 1941. Moscow has since then contended that Mikhailovich himself has organized these special “White Guard” detachments. Such a development is indicated by the logic of the situation itself.

The opposition of the capitalists is all the more bitter because the policy of the guerrillas even under Stalinist domination has gone far beyond partial seizures.

“In Slovenia the ‘Liberation Front’ has recently confiscated the property of Italian spies and traitors to the people and has distributed it among the peasant victims of the fascist terror ...” (Daily Worker, July 28, 1942).

It should be borne in mind that this policy of confiscation hits not only all Yugoslav landlords and capitalists who directly collaborate with the Axis, but also those who may support Mikhailovich and the Government-in-Exile. They too fall in the category of “traitors to the people.”

The wording of the Stalinist dispatch is a euphemistic way of describing agrarian revolution. The Yugoslav peasantry, land hungry for centuries, have seized the opportunity to divide the landlord’s estates. This irrepressible class conflict is fed by the survivals of feudal conditions in the country, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina where reforms “abolishing” serfdom were introduced only in 1929. It is a fact that the Stalinist-controlled leadership of the Partisans has tried, if not to foster, then at least to supply a legal cover, for some of these land seizures.

No less drastic measures have been applied in other spheres of the country’s economic life. Expanded guerrilla activity has necessarily involved, as was stated, the destruction of bridges, railways and systems of communications; of plants and mines and, in some cases, the removal of machinery and equipment to the rear. It has entailed the confiscation of plants by the guerrillas. According to an eye-witness report, by the end of August 1941:

“Uzice was in our hands and here we [i.e., the guerrillas] had factories in which we ourselves produced different kinds of goods” (Slobodna Rech, March 2, 1943.)

Velimir Vlakhovich, whose various roles include that of accredited foreign correspondent of the Partisans in Moscow, has been permitted to cable from there that the Partisans have confiscated “banks and their funds in liberated towns.” He says:

“In Uzice [the first capital of the central government set up by the Partisans], they confiscated more than 10 million dinars. In large towns such as Chachack and Kralyevo, similar large sums were taken over. Large sums were also obtained by attacking Axis military and passenger trains.” (Daily Worker, February 2, 1943.)

The banks of course are owned by Yugoslav bankers, financiers and industrialists, who likewise must be the owners of the “large sums” seized on passenger trains.

Why the Kremlin Backs the Partisans

It is hardly necessary to dwell on the military necessity that drives the Kremlin to expand to the maximum guerrilla activity in Hitler’s rear, all the more so in the strategic Balkans. Immediate military needs are reinforced by long-term strategic requirements of Soviet defense. The Kremlin must secure the southern Balkan flank not only against Hitler but against its present allies just as, in the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, it was driven to protect the northern flank in Finland against its then “ally.”

Just as Leon Trotsky used the Polish experience of 1939 as the key to the Finnish events that followed, so can we use the Finnish experience as the key to the current situation in Yugoslavia. During its adventure of 1939-40 the Kremlin sought to promote a civil war within Finland in preparation for its sovietization. It set up the “Workers’ and Peasants’ Government” of Kuusinen. But the Finnish Communist Party had little or no following among the masses. The civil war could not develop under Mannerheim’s bayonets. It was nipped in the bud. Leon Trotsky explained at the time:

“The military victory of Stalin over Finland would unquestionably have made possible an overthrow of property relations with more or less assistance from the Finnish workers and small farmers. Why then didn’t Stalin carry out this plan? Because a colossal mobilization of bourgeois public opinion began against the USSR. Because England and France seriously posed the question of military intervention. Finally—last but not least in importance—because Hitler could wait no longer. The appearance of English and French troops in Finland would have meant a direct threat to Hitler’s Scandinavian plans which were based on conspiracy and surprise. Caught in the vise of a two-fold danger—on one side from the Allies and from the other Hitler—Stalin renounced sovietizing Finland, limiting himself to the seizure of isolated strategical positions.” (In Defense of Marxism, pp.174-175.)

The conditions confronting Stalin in Yugoslavia are quite different and far more favorable than those which confronted him in Finland. The Kremlin is seeking to exploit the civil war in Yugoslavia—where the Communist Party still retains a mass following — through the establishment of a central government with a program which virtually duplicates that of Kuusinen’s puppet government.

While the Kuusinen Government was set up from on top and remained a paper creation of the Kremlin, the Partisan regime established in Yugoslavia has a mass base and represents a real power. The essence of the state consists in its apparatus of coercion. The shattering of the old state apparatus by the Yugoslav partisans signifies the attempt through civil warfare to install a new state. This process is delineated as follows in an official document of the Yugoslav partisans:

“In order to rally all of the population to carry on this difficult struggle against the occupationists, it is necessary to create such public organs which would best answer the demands of the situation, which will be nearest to the people/and which would take upon themselves all of the responsibility in the name of the people.

“The former gendarme, police and county apparatus cannot and do not answer the needs, because this apparatus is infested with elements of the enemy, because this apparatus up to now has been in the service of the occupationists, and the enemy still has influence on this apparatus through its agents. Aside from this, this apparatus does not enjoy the confidence of the people and is not suitable for the present critical days. We consider that the national liberation committees, which the people themselves are establishing, are at the present time the most suitable organs on which we can rely. (The Truth About Yugoslavia. A Documentary Record. Published in January 1943 in Pittsburgh, Pa., under the auspices of Louis Adamic, Zarko Bunich and other “Americans of Yugoslav Birth.” p.5.)

Under the Partisans the former authorities have been replaced by local committees, elected under a democratic procedure unprecedented in the Balkans. Based on these committees, the first central government was set up in August 1941 with its capital at Uzice, from which it was driven out by the combined forces of the occupationists and native fascists. A second existed for a short time in Kocevje, Slovenia. The third was established last November in Bihac, Bosnia, from which, according to the Daily Worker of February 16, it was driven out by “more than 100,000 German, Italian, Croatian fascists and Mikhailovich’s chetniks.”

This government, whose figurehead is one Dr. Ivan Ribar, still functions, arrogating to itself in the territories controlled by the Partisans all executive, legislative, juridical, police and military powers.

Mikhailovich and the pro-Allied Yugoslav clique in exile are of course irreconcilably opposed to this government. So are London and Washington. Stalin, while still recognizing de jure the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile, supports de facto the Ribar government. The class conflict in Yugoslavia, economic in its essence, thus asserts itself also in the international diplomatic and political spheres.

Every success of the Red Army adds new explosive power to the irrepressible conflict in Yugoslavia and spreads it beyond the boundaries. C.L. Sulzberger has just been permitted by the London censors to cable:

“Already beneath the conqueror’s rule explosions are creeping to the surface all over Eastern Europe. In Yugoslavia Left-Wing Partisan is combating Right-Wing Chetnik with the same savagery each has displayed against the Axis, and vice versa. In Poland much the same phenomenon goes on.” (New York Times Magazine, March 21, p.6.)

This is the first open confirmation of a civil war in Poland which is proceeding under the same Stalinist auspices as the one in Yugoslavia.

It requires a clear conception of the class nature of the Soviet Union and the parasitic role of the Stalinist bureaucracy to analyze correctly this seemingly unprecedented situation. The contradictory position of the Kremlin in Soviet society compels it today under the given conditions as yesterday in Poland, the Baltic countries and Bessarabia, to sponsor and support such revolutionary measures as the creation of a new state power in Yugoslavia; the confiscation of stocks of food, timber, landlords’ estates; the removal of machinery to the rear, the confiscation of factories, banks, etc.

In the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Kremlin sovietized Eastern Poland, Bessarabia and the Baltic states. The Stalinist bureaucracy was compelled in the interests of self-preservation to extend the base of the first workers’ state. Thereby, as Leon Trotsky pointed out, the October revolution, whose remaining basic conquests are today being defended so heroically by the Soviet soldiers, workers, peasants and the youth, served notice to the world that it still lives.

Conditions in the present period of Stalin’s alliance with “democratic” imperialism differ from those in the days of the Stalin-Hitler pact. But the same fundamental forces arising out of the irreconcilable clash between Soviet economy and world imperialism are driving the bureaucratic caste to measures which are revolutionary in their objective consequences. The Stalinist bureaucracy depends for its own existence upon the maintenance of the workers’ state created by the October revolution. In desperation and as a last resort this bureaucracy has proved itself capable of so acting in self-defense as to stimulate revolutionary developments.

Why We Support the Partisans

How must revolutionary internationalists conduct themselves under these conditions? In accordance with the directives given by Trotsky to the Bolsheviks in eastern Poland:

“Together with the workers and peasants, and in the forefront, you must conduct a struggle against the landlords and capitalists; do not tear yourself away from the masses, despite all their illusions, just as the Russian revolutionists did not tear themselves away from the masses who had not yet freed themselves from their hopes in the Czar (Bloody Sunday, January 22, 1905); educate the masses in the course of the struggle, warn them against naive hopes in Moscow, but do not tear yourself away from them, fight in their camp, try to extend and deepen their struggle, and to give it the greatest possible independence.” (In Defense of Marxism, p.88.)

The record of Stalinism warns that the Kremlin clique at a later stage will try to restrain within its bureaucratic strait-jacket and to suppress the self-action of the revolutionary workers and peasants. With a new abrupt turn of events in the war and a radical shift in the relation of forces, Stalin is easily capable of making his peace with the Mikhailoviches just as he tried to do in the summer and autumn of 1941.

But given continued successes of the Red Army and a favorable relationship of forces vis-à-vis London and Washington, the sovietization of Yugoslavia along with sections of Poland and Eastern Europe is, even under Stalin, by no means excluded.

Preparatory steps in this direction have already been taken. In Moscow on August 11 and 12, 1941, there was organized “The All-Slav Rally.” This organization is far more elaborate than Kuusinen’s puppet regime intended for the sovietization of Finland. Its auxiliaries, “The Women’s Anti-Fascist Congress” and “The Anti-Fascist Youth Congress,” which were organized almost simultaneously, already have a considerable mass base not only in Eastern Europe and other occupied areas but among Slavic emigrants throughout the world.

The “democratic” chancellories are alarmed. A vast behind-the-scenes diplomatic struggle has been taking place since last autumn when, to combat Stalin’s new “Slav International,” London and Washington tried to set up a Catholic Slav bloc. Forty per cent of Yugoslavia’s population is Catholic. About the same proportion prevails in the Balkans while in Poland Catholics predominate. The Washington-London-Vatican plan is to establish this bloc in the Balkans through the reconstitution of the Habsburg monarchy. That is the meaning of the envisaged plans to invade Europe through the “soft under belly” of the Balkans. That is the meaning of the negotiations with the Vatican, the trip of Archbishop Spellman, the formation of the Habsburg Brigade in the United States, etc.

The revolutionary ferment which has manifested itself in Yugoslavia since the midsummer of 1941 is only in its initial stages. It has already brought to the fore all the fundamental problems of the European revolution. In its further development this workers’ and peasants’ movement can sweep over the heads not only of the Mikhailoviches and their allies but also of the Kremlin clique. The resistance of the guerrillas is reinforced by the struggle of the Red Army and, in turn reinforces the latter. With the growth of self-confidence among the Soviet and European masses, with the terrible suffering and accelerated pace of the war, with the growing realization of the blind alley of imperialist policies, the masses are being impelled toward the socialist solution of the world crisis.

It is becoming more and more clear to the people of Eastern Europe, as it will become on the morrow to western European peoples including Germany, that their sole salvation lies in making common cause with the masses of the USSR for the establishment of the Socialist United States of Europe.

Last updated: 28.12.2005