Lost Worlds of WW2 Yugoslavia

I’ve been watching and, with a break of several months, supporting TimeGhost since 2020. I don’t donate much, but quite enough for my means. There’s a good chance, though, I will soon withdraw my support, for reasons I’ll go into separately. Before then, I’m sharing some info & arguments with the community, with the hope it will come in useful (in case of the info) and/or stimulate constructive conversation (in case of the arguments).

This will take three threads. The first, informational, is this one. The other two, argumentative, I already posted on the Community page on Patreon, but that got shut down, so I’ll be reposting them here. (I got in touch with Patreon support and they told me people weren’t really using the Community/Member Posts pages so they made them obsolete. This is really a shame because there was a lot of interesting stuff there. Luckily I back up what I write.)

So, regarding WW2 in Yugoslavia.

I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by how well TimeGhost covered the war up to the end of 1941. The one significant bit I differed with was Indy boosting Keegan’s appraisal of the 27 March Yugoslav coup as “one of the most unrealistic, if romantic, acts of defiance in modern European history”. This is all well and good from the POV of imperial realpolitik – but totally culturally tonedeaf to the experience of small nations who survived centuries of foreign rule. What this history has taught many of us, for better or worse, is that a “better the grave than a slave” mentality does, on balance, work quite well as a strategy for long term self-preservation, thank you very much. This makes the coup not just an act of defiance, and not at all romantic, but in the view of people who supported it, a fulfillment of civic duty. I’m not saying this to deny it precipitated a disaster, but to offer a perspective to make sense of it.

This is a relatively minor quibble, however, and I’m used to this and other aspects of our cultures just not translating very well. Overall, certainly up to Operation Užice, arguably into early '42 with Operation Trio coverage in WAH, I thought you’d nailed it. Since then, though, the treatment has been patchier, no doubt due to the war growing larger, with US joining and the European and Pacific wars merging into one conflict. So for the record, from my inexpert and incomplete knowledge of WW2 in Yugoslavia, here’s a quick rundown of what you’ve missed, roughly in chronological order.

I’ll split the info itself into multiple posts for readability.


War Against Humanity

  • Leftist errors, Nov 1941–May 1942 (dates differ among sources). Red terror by Yugoslav Partisans against actual or suspected royalist sympathizers in Montenegro and Serb-populated parts of Herzegovina, upwards of 1000 victims. Basically, the Communists decided to prepare for the inevitable power struggle against their perceived class enemies by liquidating a bunch of people in communities with divided loyalties. This included tactics such as blackmailing followers into killing their family members (or else you’re an “opportunist”), murdering people with sledgehammers at night to not alarm the population with gunshots, things like that. Did a lot to sour relations with the Četniks, as you may imagine. There were atrocities of this sort as early as summer '41 but they got going in earnest with the Soviet winter counteroffensive, which many Communists believed would be unstoppable. Among the chief agents of the terror was Milovan Đilas, then a top Communist commander, who later became somewhat of a celebrity due to his dissent against the authoritarian policies of the Party. He of course strenuously denied the accusations.

  • Kozara Offensive, Jun–Aug 1942. In a joint operation, Germans, Ustaše, and Četniks surrounded Kozara Mountain and neighboring areas in NW Bosnia then held by the Partisans, and went on to kill pretty much everyone they found, captured fighters and (predominantly Serb) civilians alike. The estimate of victims murdered outside of combat is well over 20,000. This is IMV the single biggest omission on your part, both because of the scope of the crime, and because of the cultural importance of the battle in popular memory and in official post-war Yugoslav imaginary. It was literally impossible to grow up in Yugoslavia and not know about Kozara. Stories were told, poems were written, movies were filmed. And, fun fact – according to The Loves of Josip Broz, one of the soldiers killed in action on the German side was Hans Spuner, Austrian, a son of Tito’s from a 1913-14 affair with Liza Spuner, a lady from the Viennese high society.

  • A useful WAH comparison could be made between the methods and aims of genocide in Ustaše-run puppet Croatia and German-occupied Serbia. Ustaše ran a few large death camps along with massacres in the countryside, and extended the Holocaust to non-Croats deemed undesirable, notably Serbs. They ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people – the estimates were later both inflated and minimized to suit various political interests. In Serbia, meanwhile, although the camps were smaller, the murders and deportations were systematic enough that the territory was proclaimed “free” of Jews by summer '42. Meanwhile, the genocide against non-Serbs (Bosniaks and other Muslim Slavs, Albanians, Croats) was taken up by semi-independent, supposedly royalist Četniks.

I’m sure there’s more, but those are the major missing pieces in the WAH department I’m aware of. I was, indeed, quite surprised you missed out on Kozara. Yugoslavia barely appeared in your program between Operation Trio and the Prozor massacre in October '42, and while I hadn’t known about what happened in Prozor – I learned about it from TimeGhost, so a big thank you! – Kozara was an order of magnitude larger.


Military and Political Developments

After spring 1942, you did a really good job covering the major Axis offensives against Partisan resistance in winter and spring 1943, Operations (“Cases”) White and Black, as well as the lead-up and immediate follow-up to the Belgrade offensive in the autumn of 1944. There are a bunch of gaps between these events and what came before and after, though. Here are the main ones, to my knowledge – I’m not an expert, these are the developments that I personally find important in making sense of what went on in this period, connecting the dots between the events you covered in the series.

War 1941–42

  • Formation of the Yugoslav Army, Dec 1941. After withdrawing from Užice into Eastern Bosnia, Tito and the Central Committee formed the 1st Proletarian Brigade, the first brigade-sized Partisan military unit, constituted to operate autonomously, not tied to a specific geographic area. Some pains were taken to ensure a multi-ethnic makeup. This was considered the inception of the new Yugoslav military, with predictable glorification in post-war Yugoslav mythology.

  • Operation Southeast Croatia / Igman March, Jan 1942. The Axis went after the Partisans right away, forcing them to leave German-occupied Eastern Bosnia. They got away by crossing the Igman mountain next to Sarajevo – presumably with the idea that noone would think they’d be crazy enough to march right by a major enemy-held urban stronghold. The frigid temperatures did a lot of work that the Axis troops did not. The post-war mythos surrounding The Igman March was truly something, right up there with Washigton crossing the Delaware. The manouver allowed the resistance forces to double back into Eastern Bosnia, this time to the Italian-occupied zone, settling in around Foča until May.

  • “Partisan Long March”, Jun–Aug 1942. After getting kicked out of Eastern Bosnia again in Operation Trio, the Partisans made their way to Western Bosnia, where they’d settle for the winter. There, they connected with units from Dalmatia and consolidated a significant territory, the Bihać Republic, which would be the main target of Case White.

Nation-Building Activities

In the early years of the war these comprised:

  • People’s Committees (page in Serbian). Wherever Partisans took territory, Communists formed what they called People’s Liberation Committees. These provided avenues for local autonomy, political and ideological education / indoctrination, and government. They served as the basis for the revolutionary nation state that the Communists were intent on setting up.

  • Foča regulations (page in Serbian). Composed in February 1942 by Moša Pijade, while the Central Committee was based in Foča, these documents defined the roles and gave instructions for the work of the People’s Committees.

  • First AVNOJ Session, 26–27 November 1942. At the meeting in Bihać, the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) was constituted as the main political body coordinating People’s Committees on lower levels. This helped offload political responsibility from the military leadership and lend legitimacy to the entire project. Pains were taken to ensure at least the appearance of a popular front of all antifascist parties, with the expectation of forming a nation state.

The nation would, of course, be created one year later. The second and more famous AVNOJ session in Jajce in late November '43 proclaimed the new Yugoslavia, which was duly recognized as an Allied power at the concurrent Tehran Conference – as you covered at the appropriate time in the WW2 series.

An interesting bit is that Stalin apparently wasn’t too keen on the Yugoslav revolutionary nation-building project. The direction from the Soviets was, fight the Germans, forget this nonsense about forming committees and the provisional government. So, when taking these steps, Yugoslav Communists had to walk on eggshells to explain their actions in terms that would not upset Moscow too much. But the Soviets could not exert control directly, and were eventually faced with a fait accompli. No doubt quite intentionally.

War 1943–45

  • German–Partisan negotiations, March 1943. During Case White the Partisans negotiatied with the Germans to secure prisoner exchanges, as well as a temporary cease-fire while they dealt with the Četniks. The Partisans also expressed they’d be ready to fight British forces should they land in Yugoslavia without permission – they expected, with some justification, that the British would support the Četniks. In the end this didn’t happen, in good part thanks to the …

  • Maclean Mission, Sep 1943–late 1944. Fitzroy Maclean was crucial in securing Allied support for the Partisans. His mission was airdropped into Partisan-held territory in Bosnia to liaise with Tito’s Supreme Staff. While disagreeing ideologically with the goals of the Communist resistance, Maclean developed respect and admiration for the Partisan fighters and became friends with Tito. His report to Churchill contributed to the recognition in Tehran of the Partisans as the official Yugoslav armed forces. Maclean went on as the British military and political liaison until after the Belgrade operation, and a fair overview of his role would require a separate post. Read his memoirs, they’re really good.

  • Liberation of the Adriatic Coast, Oct–Dec 1944. I wrote about this in the comments to the Dec 9 1944 episode on Patreon, so I won’t repeat it all here. In short, by December 1944, the entire Adriatic coast from Zadar southwards was in Allied hands. Dalmatia was taken by Partisans by mid-November, followed by Montenegro right after (with help of a small British artillery and engineer contingent), ending with the inland areas, notably the rail and road junction of Knin in early December.

  • Syrmian Front, Oct 1944–Apr 1945. In the series timeline, the Partisans are currently switching from guerilla warfare to holding a fortified front, and the pain is showing. There’s likely also a degree of intentional mismanagement going on, drafting perceived class enemies and people who had avoided fighting, and feeding them into trenches as cannon fodder for the Nazis and the Ustaše. The Syrmian Front was mentioned, once, in the day-by-day at Instagram. While it’s in a relatively small area (about 30km wide by 80km deep) and largely stationary, it’s also fully a part of the Allied frontline in Europe, the main action between Drava and the Adriatic, and a German counteroffensive is going on right now. So yes, I’d say it merits a mention, at least in the “notes to end the week”.


Linguistic and Ethnic Diversity

There’s a lot more, of course. One bit I find really interesting are the relations between the center and the Partisan movements in Slovenia and North Macedonia, where the main language isn’t Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian/Montenegrin.

Slovenians got started with the business of organizing resistance quickly, and were among the first to form their own regional antifascist council. Their Partisan movement was at the same time both pro-Yugoslav and quite autonomous, and successfully maintained an antifascist popular front that was led by the Communists, but not dominated by them. The initial liaison sent by the Supreme Staff almost blew it by trying to dictate Communist uniformity and strict central control.

Macedonians eventually had their Partisan resistance, too, but it took a while to get going. First, they needed to be assured that their ethnic identity would be recognized within a Yugoslav movement, as pre-war Yugoslavia treated them as wayward Serbs or crypto-Bulgarians. Second, because most of the area was occupied by Bulgaria, and the Macedonian language indeed is much closer to Bulgarian than to Serbian, arrangments needed to be made with Bulgarian Communist-led resistance on who would organize a movement where.

As for what took place in Albanian-majority areas in Kosovo and Western Macedonia … I have my guesses, but I won’t speculate without reading up on it. This would be really interesting to delve into, as the unresolved status of Kosovo was one of the main points of contention that brought down postwar Yugoslavia – and eventually presented a serious challenge, also still unresolved, to the post-Cold-War global order.



Please don’t trust me. I’m no expert and haven’t studied any of this in sufficient detail even as an amateur. I’m into history for two main reasons – as an anthropologist, to understand social processes; and as someone living in interesting times, to preserve my sanity and integrity as I navigate them. The kind of understanding that meets these aims prioritizes range to depth.

Fitzroy Maclean’s memoir, Eastern Approaches, is an excellent read, and as good of an entry point for the English-language reader as any I’m aware of. For delving deeper, all the Wikipedia articles I’ve linked to have references one can look up. For people who understand Serbian/Croatian, I can also recommend two documentary series: Yugoslavia at War 1941-1945 (Serb-centric slant, balanced by comprehensive research), and Tito – the Last Witnesses of the Testament (pro-Tito slant, balanced by the immediacy and detail of the personal testimony of people who knew him).

The former documentary series is closely based on the work by Branko Petranović, a Serbian historian who published multiple books on the history of Yugoslavia. His History of Yugoslavia, Vol. 2, People’s Liberation War and Revolution (in Serbian), is accessible publicly. For a different focus, Ivo Goldstein, a Croatian Jewish historian, published on what took place specifically in Croatia. His Croatia: A History and Holocaust in Croatia (coauthored with his father Slavko) have been translated into English. The father-son team also wrote a biography of Tito that hasn’t been translated.

Again, don’t trust me. Apart from Eastern Approaches, which I’ve read in full, I’ve barely skimmed these books. They seem a good start because, from the excerpts and reviews I’ve read, and from how much they annoy extremists pushing simplified myths of all stripes, they strike me as sources that put research ahead of their ideological biases – which will always be there.

I’m sure there are excellent books by Western authors too, but I’m less familar with what’s been written about WW2 than, say, the post-Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, and most stuff out there is kind of touch and go. That is, a lot of Western writing I’ve encountered on Yugoslavia, on any topic or period, has significant cultural blind spots, some apparent, others not that obvious to Western readers but so out of touch as to amount to misinformation.

To the point, you’d think that learning about 1930s Yugoslavia would be good background reading for understanding WW2, and you’d be right. Then, English-language readers often pick up a famous travel book by Rebecca West on that very topic. However, I won’t advertise it by sharing the title, as from what I’ve seen, the book cycles through portrayals of peoples of Yugoslavia as these strange and exotic creatures – so frankly, much of it is Anglocentric racist drivel, and my heartfelt advice is to stay faaaar away. My go-to choice in this department is Louis Adamic’s The Native’s Return, which I’ve read in full; Adamic was enough of an insider to understand the people he was writing about, and enough of an outsider to express it in language accessible to US readers.

So anyway, if this is anyone’s interest, by all means delve in, please be cautious what you pick up, seek input from multiple perspectives, and feel free to reach out if you think my 2 cents would be helpful. If I remember or run across any more sources, I’ll post them below.

Over and out, for this thread.


Ok, so here’s the TL;DR.

This thread outlines selected events and topics related to WW2 in Yugoslavia that the TimeGhost series didn’t cover. Some are quite important, others less so, but still interesting, I hope.

The info is split into 5 posts:

  1. General comments on coverage and cultural sensitivity
  2. War Against Humanity
  3. Military and Political Developments
  4. Lingustic and Ethnic Diversity
  5. Sources?

Since I doubt I’ll be continuing the thread, and clicking on it brings up the latest post, let this serve as a guide for the curious reader :smiley:

What to say to wrap it up? Aha, EXCELSIOR!


I’ve been waiting for you to drop the other shoe on this one, but as far as I can see you haven’t yet. I’d be interested in hearing your reasons. I had signed up for an annual subscription which would fall due at the end of this month but I’ve declined to re-up, and am undecided about continuing support on a more periodic basis. This, however, is a separate discussion from the one above so I’m hoping that you do in fact decide to post your reasons.