X-Post: Gramith on Prusin, 'Serbia under the Swastika: A World War II Occupation'

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Alexander Victor Prusin
Luke Gramith

Gramith on Prusin, 'Serbia under the Swastika: A World War II Occupation'

Alexander Victor Prusin. Serbia under the Swastika: A World War II Occupation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 232 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04106-8.

Reviewed by Luke Gramith (University of West Virginia) Published on H-War (June, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52012

Alexander Prusin provides readers with a concise study of the social, military, and political history of occupied Serbia during the Second World War. With this geographically focused but thematically broad approach, Serbia under the Swastika stands out from existing scholarly works, which have focused either on the wider Yugoslav occupation experience or on more narrow questions of guerrilla and antiguerrilla warfare.[1] It parallels recent regional studies of the occupation years in other parts of the dismembered Yugoslavia.[2]

In Serbia under the Swastika, Prusin makes several well-supported arguments using a range of archival, newspaper, and memoir sources. Most should not surprise readers familiar with the existing literature on German-occupied Europe. First, Prusin convincingly shows that the German occupation regime was riven with internal contradictions and rivalries, which in turn hindered the realization of German goals. Second, the occupation unleashed a Serbian civil war that was political-ideological in nature, distinct from the ethnoreligious conflicts in other parts of occupied Yugoslavia such as the Independent State of Croatia. Third, all active participants in this civil war, from the communist guerrillas to the collaborationist figurehead Milan Nedić, sought to use the context of war and occupation to transform Serbia into something new. Finally, even amid civil war and occupation, most Serbians neither actively resisted nor actively collaborated; rather, they spent the war years attempting to survive, accommodating those who made demands of them at gunpoint.

Prusin makes these arguments in a concise text, organized into an introduction, nine short chapters, and a conclusion. Apart from the first chapter, which provides background information on interwar Yugoslavia, each chapter treats a single theme for the years 1941-44, and only a loose narrative thread runs between them. Following the conclusion, readers can view a section of endnotes (pared down to the bare minimum), a bibliography consisting mostly of English-, Serbo-Croatian-, and German-language works, and a short index limited to key organizations and persons.

Chapters 2-5 define the book’s key actors. After detailing the rapid collapse of Yugoslavia in April 1941, chapter 2 sketches the earliest German approaches to occupied Serbia. A comprehensive racial reordering was not the goal, but rather material exploitation and the creation of a pacified hinterland for easy transportation and communication in the Balkans. The Wehrmacht created the office of the Military Commander-in-Serbia to accomplish these goals, but from the first days of its existence it faced challenges from other German agencies.

Chapter 3 explores the Germans’ efforts to construct a collaborationist regime capable of realizing their goals. Prusin shows how these efforts failed due to intra-German power struggles and a refusal to grant any real autonomy to the collaborationist Council of Commissars or its successor, the Government of National Salvation. The tight leash on Serbian collaborators stands in striking contrast to the free rein received by Ante Pavelić’s Ustasha regime in the Independent State of Croatia. It resulted in the Serbian collaborators lacking both the legitimacy and the muscle necessary to pacify the territory. Here Prusin displays an objectivity in his treatment of Serbia’s collaborators, particularly in his recognition of the lives saved by the Government of National Salvation’s rapid response to the refugee crisis unleashed in 1941 as hundreds of thousands of Serbs flooded Serbia from other areas of occupied Yugoslavia. In this and subsequent chapters, he keeps the scale of active collaboration in perspective, diverging from polemical and even anti-Serbian works on the topic, most notably Philip Cohen's Serbia's Secret War (1996).

The sketch of institutions is followed in chapter 4 by a closer examination of the range of Serbian collaborators, from Dimitrije Ljotić’s fascist Zbor movement to the archconservative General Milan Nedić, head of the Government of National Salvation. In one of the book’s most enlightening sections, Prusin explicates Nedić’s archconservative vision for a Serbian “zadruga-state,” modeled after the medieval Serbian socioeconomic unit in which an authoritarian family chief—a domaćin—ruled over the property and persons of an extended kin group (p. 62). In the early years of occupation, when German victory seemed certain, Nedić formulated a vision in which he would rule as domaćin over a purified Serbian nation, with Serbia existing as a German puppet state. Communists, liberals, and Jews had no place in this future society and thus, far from merely “shielding” the population, Nedić used the modest police power at his disposal to wage war against these enemies. As Prusin later writes, Nedić was “both an ideological soldier with his own agenda and a willing tool in the hands of the occupying power” (p. 159).

Chapter 5 concludes the introduction of actors, detailing the emergence and initial cooperation of the well-known resistance movements—the fractured Chetniks loyal to the royal government-in-exile, and Tito’s communist-led Partisans, who were committed to overthrowing the old order and creating a communist Yugoslavia. Prusin shows that already by late 1941, when the Partisans created a short-lived liberation government called the Užice Republic, many Chetniks had begun to see the Partisans as more threatening to the royal government-in-exile than the Germans, prompting their drift toward collaboration.

For the most part, the remaining chapters detail certain “experiential” themes. Chapter 6 explores the emergence of the Germans’ ruthless reprisal policy. Though the Germans initially had no plans for the systematic brutalization of the Serbians, just weeks into the occupation a Wehrmacht officer ordered that one hundred Serbians be killed for each German killed by Serbian guerrillas and fifty killed for each German wounded. This policy led to hundreds of reprisal actions, chief among them the Kragujevac Massacre of October 1941, in which Wehrmacht units and Serbian collaborators murdered well over two thousand civilians. Particularly insightful is Prusin’s demonstration that the Holocaust in Serbia unfolded as part of these antiguerrilla reprisals, Nedić volunteering Serbia’s Jews as the first hostages for execution. Serbia under the Swastika not only shines light on this lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust, but also joins a litany of works that debunk the claim that the Wehrmacht was an honorable fighting force free of complicity in Nazi crimes.

Chapter 7 turns to the “quiet” Serbia of 1942-44. In these years, with the Užice Republic dismembered, the bulk of Partisan resistance activity shifted westward into Croatia and Bosnia. The Partisans in Serbia slowly regrouped and carried out sabotage actions as their comrades outside Serbia prepared for a push toward Belgrade. The Chetniks, shaken by German reprisals and seeing the Partisans growing in strength, largely ceased outright resistance and drifted toward collaboration. The primary Chetnik leader, Draža Mihailović, formed a last-ditch alliance with Serbia’s collaborationist forces in 1944 with the aim of forestalling a communist seizure of power, but Tito was in Belgrade by October. Throughout this and previous chapters, Prusin’s treatment of Mihailović is evenhanded, recognizing the latter’s increasingly impossible position without minimizing the fact that his actions often served the interests of the Germans.

The eighth chapter addresses the relationship between Serbians and Jews both before and during the occupation. Prusin finds that it was not just Ljotić and the fascist Zbor militants who participated in the murder of most of Serbia's fifteen thousand Jews, but also Nedić and his conservative allies. Prusin details a systematic attempt by the German occupation forces and their chief collaborators to inculcate antisemitic ideas in the native population, but suggests, in contrast to Philip Cohen, that virulent antisemitism remained a fringe phenomenon. He provides anecdotal evidence of Serbian “rescuers,” but lacks quantitative evidence that might definitively resolve the debate.

The final chapter examines how the war was experienced by the majority of Serbians—those who simply sought to get by. Prusin details how the occupation crippled the Serbian economy and imposed tremendous hardship, including forced labor and widespread food shortages as the occupation forces diverted scarce resources to Germany. Most significantly, he describes how the Serbian population in the villages tried to navigate the civil war when pressed for aid and cooperation by multiple sides. Many simply refused to take sides, organizing into self-defense leagues to protect themselves from outsiders’ demands on their service and resources. It is worth remembering, as Prusin does, that the unwilling participants were the majority in this civil war.

A notable feature of Prusin’s work is its organization into thematic chapters rather than a more strictly chronological narrative. This organization is beneficial for those studying discrete aspects of the occupation, but for others it will be problematic. At times, individuals or events are introduced in one chapter, but their significance is not known until later. For example, in chapter 3, Prusin introduces Belgrade mayor Dragi Jovanović and mentions that he became a pawn in intra-German power struggles, but this comes well before readers learn that Jovanović carried substantial weight as head of the collaborationist regime’s political police (pp. 45, 58-60). Prusin provides brief biographical notes on key personalities before the book’s introduction, but this does not fully solve the problems of the chosen organization. There are often large chronological jumps back and forth between chapters and more could have been done to situate events in Serbia within the contexts of the unfolding Second World War. The book is therefore best suited for readers already familiar with the basic time line of the war and the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia.

More significantly, the book’s organization limits its explanatory potential. One of the defining features of this period was the dynamic interrelation between the forces of occupation, collaboration, and resistance, not to mention the way that changing conditions of everyday life shaped popular responses to these forces. By treating each of these themes in isolation without a strong chronological narrative thread, the book loses some (but not all) of this dynamism. That Prusin relegates his discussion of Serbians’ “everyday” experiences of occupation to the final chapter is particularly unfortunate, given that these experiences served as the context in which Serbians decided to collaborate, resist, or whatever else.

Ultimately, Serbia under the Swastika does not radically revise our understanding of German-occupied Europe. Excepting Prusin’s analysis of Nedić’s worldview and of the unusually weak position in which the Germans kept Nedić’s Government of National Liberation, the key arguments of Serbia under the Swastika have been made before in different national contexts. The self-imposed chaos of the German occupation regime was not unique to Serbia, nor was the predominance of accommodation and survivalism over active resistance and collaboration. Finally, as the Italian case shows, it was not uncommon for fractures or realignments to occur within resistance coalitions as liberation drew nearer and factions attempted to position themselves to secure postwar power.

What the book provides is a concise and well-supported examination of how these phenomena played out within a specifically Serbian context. It draws important contrasts with Croatia to break down the idea of a single “Yugoslav” occupation, but it is primarily concerned with Serbia. Readers versed in the literature of German-occupied Europe will find much to compare, but Prusin leaves this task to them. For those with research or teaching interests in Balkan history, the Second World War, or twentieth-century Europe, Serbia under the Swastika is worth a careful read.


[1]. The two key studies focused on wider Yugoslavia are Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001); and Stevan Pavlowitch, Hitler’s New Disorder: The Second World War in Yugoslavia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). For a study of the guerrilla war, see Ben Shepherd, Terror in the Balkans: German Armies and Partisan Warfare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).  

[2]. For example, Gregor Kranjc, To Walk with the Devil: Slovene Collaboration and Axis Occupation, 1941-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

Citation: Luke Gramith. Review of Prusin, Alexander Victor, Serbia under the Swastika: A World War II Occupation. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52012

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.