This Day In History: The Nazis Massacre Thousands in Yugoslavia (1941)

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On this day in 1941, Nazi German troops go on a killing spree and massacre thousands of innocent Yugoslavs.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was composed of several nationalities who often did not get along. The Serbs and the Croats in, particular were bitter rivals. The government of Yugoslavia, who governed in the name of Prince Peter  wanted to keep the country, out of the war in 1939. This he managed to do until 1940 but they were eventually forced into the Tripartite “Axis” Pact in March 1941.  This effectively made the country a puppet of the Nazis and this was viewed with horror by ordinary Yugoslavs.

There was a coup by the army and they removed the previous government  and Prince Peter became effectively the puppet of the generals, although he was soon crowned King. One of Peter’s first acts was to repudiate the Treaty that bound his country to Germany.  Hitler who hated the Yugoslavs was probably secretly happy that the young King  had rejected the Treaty.  The German dictator ordered the indiscriminate bombing of Yugoslavia by the Luftwaffe. The bombing was concentrated on Belgrade and in total historians have estimated that some 17,000 people were killed.

The Germans and their allies, specifically the Italians, Bulgarians and the Hungarians attacked Yugoslavia.  The Germans used the Blitzkrieg tactics that they had been used successfully in France and elsewhere. The Yugoslav army collapsed after only nine days of fighting. King Peter fled to London, setting up a government-in-exile.  The Germans decided to partition the country between itself and its allies. They established a puppet regime in Croatia, which was headed by a fascist government in Zagreb. Hungary was given the North-East of Yugoslavia and the Bulgarians were given Macedonia.

However, the Serbs and Communists, in particular, were determined to fight on- even after the collapse of the Yugoslav army. Many decided to become partisans and conduct a guerrilla war against the Nazis and their allies. They attacked isolated German and other units and blew up bridges and railways. This led to a ferocious Nazi response. On this date, in 1941 in response to resistance in Yugoslavia, the Germans began to kill people indiscriminately in order to intimidate people into surrender and to end all resistance to their occupation.

The Germans entered villages and towns and went from house to house killing people they even killed children in school classrooms.  On this date in history, the Germans killed over 2,000 men and boys in Kragujevac. In Kraljevo some 7,000 men, women, and children were killed by German troops. On the same day in the remote region of Macva, the Nazis murdered some 6,000 men, women, and children in cold-blood. Usually, the people were marched out the town or village and shot and buried in mass graves in the countryside.

Balkan, Spähpanzer, bulgarische Soldaten
German and Bulgarian troops guarding Yugoslav prisoners in 1941

This did not stop the resistance and under the leadership of the communist Tito the Yugoslavs fought a bitter and bloody guerrilla war against the Germans and their allies. Tito and his partisans were to virtually expel the Germans from their homeland by 1945.  The Yugoslav Communist partisans were possibly the most successful anti-Nazi resistance movement of the war.

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