Yugoslavia’s road to the Hotel Belvedere in Vienna
It was crucial for A. Hitler to resolve the issue of Yugoslavia and Greece before attacking the USSR, believing that the United Kingdom that declared war on Germany in September 1939 would not make peace as long as there was a Soviet Union in A. Hitler’s hinterland, regardless of the Moscow-Berlin agreement on August 23rd, 1939 for which London held to be insincere and forced by temporal geopolitical circumstances in Central Europe. However, for Germany, the plan of Barbarossa to be effective, it was needed to have a pacified Balkans, and the only left unreliable states in the Balkans were Yugoslavia with the Serbs as traditional German enemies and Greece that was invaded in the fall of 1940 by Italy but which was not able to win this war. In continental Europe, the British army successfully still fought only in Greece, so that the military and political elimination of Greece and Yugoslavia, as a potential British ally, would have a very destructive effect on London in general. A. Hitler, therefore, transferred to Bulgaria seven of his divisions and asked Prince Paul of Yugoslavia to allow him to transfer six divisions across Yugoslavia to the Greek Front in order to assist Italians.
In Yugoslavia, as a matter of the preparation for the final negotiations with Berlin on the status of the country in the new German World Order, it was signed on August 26th, 1939 the Agreement (Sporazum) of the Yugoslav PM Dragiša Cvetković and Vladimir Vlatko Maček, a leading Croat politician. The essence of the Agreement was to satisfy Croatian territorial pretentions in order to pacify their treachery in the case of the German invasion of Yugoslavia. In other words, Croatia received a privileged status of the state within a state in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia by getting the status of banovina (province) under the name of (Greater) Banovina Hrvatska. It enjoyed total autonomy, with the central Government in Belgrade controlling only foreign affairs, foreign trade, defense, transportation, and communications.[i] However, the newly established province of Croatia included two former provinces of Savska and Primorska, with additions from four other provinces including an enormous number of the Serbs (at least 1/4). In fact, Greater Croatia within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia received the right to have its own Parliament (Sabor) and a Governor (Ban) who will be appointed by the king. The first and only Ban of Croatia was Ivan Šubašić. Nevertheless, the Agreement did not satisfy anyone completely as the Croats wanted more land while the Slovenes and the Serbs required the same kind of autonomy for their nations. In addition, the ethnic Serbs from the new Croatian province required confirmed guarantees of their civil and national-cultural rights. After signing the Agreement, Vladimir Vlatko Maček together with four other Croat followers entered the D. Cvetković’s Government. However, it turned out that the Agreement did not preserve Yugoslavia from the Croat treachery in the coming war with the Tripartite Pact as A. Hitler offered more lands to a Greater Croatia within the New Nazi Order in Europe.
The final “face-to-face” resolution of the situation with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia came on March 1st, 1941 when Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was forced to visit the Führer in person at his favorite Berchtesgarden resort. On this occasion, in an extremely embarrassing conversation with the Prince, he was told that, after the British forces were expelled from Greece, Germany would invade the USSR in the summer of the same year to destroy Bolshevism. What the Yugoslav (both communist and émigré) historiography has been largely silent about until now is A. Hitler’s former offer to Prince Paul that someone from the Serb house of Karađorđevics, after the collapse of Bolshevism in the USSR, has to become a Russian Emperor.[ii] Of course, the German dictator aimed specifically at Prince Paul, whose regent term expired on September 6th, 1941 (because of at that time, King Peter II was to be 18 years old, i.e. he became the adult and full-fledged King of Yugoslavia).
However, in order not to get the wrong impression, it must be noted that this A. Hitler’s “imperial” offer did not crucially affect the decision of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and the Regent’s Government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to finally but unwillingly join the Tripartite Pact on March 25th, 1941 for the matter that this question had already been settled by perfidious Albion. Apart from the fact that the offer itself was more imaginary than realistic, from a person who had not even started the war in the East without first ending the war in the West, sitting on the Russian imperial throne with the Nazi-German patronage would not be a great pleasure and about the moral side of this act is even not to speak out.
Nevertheless, what finally broke Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was called “realpolitik.”[iii] Namely, the Prince as a zealous British client in Yugoslavia first addressed his mentors, i.e. the British diplomatic circles in Belgrade and London, appealing for help and protection. What the British side then offered to Yugoslavia, in fact to the Serbs, can only be written in one word – nothing. In the other words, London did not offer any military assistance, either in mankind or in technology and material (unlike in the Greek case), but strongly demanded from Yugoslavia everything – to maximally engage militarily in the direct war against the Third Reich (from which the UK already lost the war in 1940 and escaped from A. Hitler’s Wehrmacht from Europe – the shameful Dunkirk Evacuation from May 27th to June 4th, 1940 in which the British army had to leave all its heavy equipment behind)[iv] with the formal promise that the Yugoslavs would be adequately rewarded after the eventual victory of perfidious Albion. So, it was necessary to bleed for Albion “until the last drop of Serbian blood” (as the Croats would not fight for sure) and some kind of prize in the clouds would come after a potential victory, unclear at all to be or not adequate for the suffering against the Wehrmacht. However, how the Albion started WWII was already seen well in the Polish example: on the eve of the German attack on Poland, the British military experts were looking at the Polish defense trenches with the question: “Where is your artillery?” The Polish answer was: “That is what we ask you”.
With the recent historical experience from WWI of how the British administration as formal “ally” assisted the Serbia and the Serbian army and having by A. Hitler a concrete offer of the conditions under which the Kingdom of Yugoslavia would join the Tripartite Pact, not to do that on March 25th, 1941 by signing the pact in Vienna in the Belvedere Hotel would mean national and state’s suicide of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Prince Paul himself, on the eve of personal negotiations with A. Hitler, feared that London would arrogantly demand from Yugoslavia a formal public declaration of friendship with Britain, which would surely further irritate the Führer and bring only damage to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In addition, concrete British aid was not even on the horizon and Yugoslavia had a common border with Germany after the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 (with the British and French blessing). For the Yugoslav Government it was clear how the Croats and the communists would “fight” Germany in the case of the invasion of Yugoslavia, with the fear that, both in terms of armaments and equipment, Yugoslavia was absolutely unprepared for the war against even much weaker opponent in comparison to Germany (and other members of the Tripartite Pact), which overran France less than a year ago (May‒June 1940).
So, by pushing Yugoslavia into the war, the British counted exclusively and only on the Serbian soldier who had to endure as long as possible till the death on the front against the German Luftwaffe and the Panzer divisions of Wehrmacht which already paraded through the Chanselize and below the Triumphal Arc in Paris. On January 12th, 1941, Winston Churchill made this clear to Prince Paul through a British ambassador in Belgrade who reported to the Regent that Yugoslav neutrality was no longer sufficient political option for London. The difference between A. Hitler’s and W. Churchill’s demands to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was enormously different: the Austrian Corporal demanded only neutrality and a non-aggression agreement, while the British gentleman demanded (Serbian) blood.
What the chances of Yugoslavia were in the war with Germany and the Tripartite Pact was clearly presented by the new Yugoslav Minister of War, General Pešić (an anti-German oriented whose appointment to the post was welcomed by the British) at a session of the Crown Council (the Government’s Executive Committee) on March 6th, 1941. On this occasion, the General said that in the case of war, the Germans with allies would quickly occupy the entire northern part of the country with Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana, and in that case, the army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia would have to retreat to the Herzegovinian mountains where it could withstand without sufficient weapons, ammunition, and food for up to six weeks before the final capitulation.
According to such geopolitical and military state of affairs, on the following day (March 7th, 1941), Prime Minister Dragiša Cvetković handed over the following demands of Yugoslavia to the German ambassador in Belgrade (believing that the Yugoslav demands went beyond what A. Hitler was prepared to accept at that moment) before signing Yugoslav accession to the Tripartite Pact (the same demands already requested by Prince Paul from the Führer on March 1st, 1941):
- The political sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia will be respected.
- The Kingdom of Yugoslavia will not be required for military assistance or passage or transport of the Tripartite Pact’s troops through the territory of Yugoslavia during the war.
- The interest of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia for free access to the Aegean Sea will be taken into account in the political reorganization of Europe after the war.
What was finally signed by J. von Ribbentrop and D. Cvetković at the Hotel Belvedere in Vienna on March 25th, 1941 can be considered as the maximum of diplomatic success of virtually Serbian diplomacy in the whirlpool of WWII. What the German side signed was exactly what Prince Paul and his PM demanded from Berlin, but hoping that A. Hitler would not accept such requests, so that the negotiation process would continue to be extended in order to gain time:
- “On the occasion of today’s accession of Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact, the German Government reaffirms its decision to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia without any time limit.”
- “The Governments of the Axis Force will not, during this war, require from Yugoslavia to allow the transport of troops above the Yugoslav state or through its territory.”
- “Italy and Germany assure the Government of Yugoslavia that they do not wish to make any request for military assistance regarding the military situation.”
The Germans, however, did not fulfill only one of all Belgrade’s demands: the second item (on transit) had to remain secret, so the Yugoslav regime’s newspapers did not even publish it, but this item was still leaked to the public on a different way. In the other words, Berlin demanded the secrecy of this item for the reason not to infuriate Sofia, Bucharest, and Budapest because Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary did not enjoy such a great privilege as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia did by signing the Tripartite Pact. So, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia joined the Tripartite Pact on March 25th, 1941 as no longer being able alone to resist the fatal pressure of the Nazi German power in the Balkans.[v]
The military coup and the 1941 April War
The only who were not satisfied with such development of the situation in the Balkans were, of course, the British, because they were the only real geopolitical losers. Therefore, according to the already elaborated back-up plans of the perfidious Albion, the realization of the military coup variant in Belgrade began to bring to power the extremely obedient British marionette, much like the Germans did with V. Lenin[vi] in 1917 whom they sent from Switzerland to Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) to seize power and overthrow the subversive Provisional Government of Russia (under which Alexander Kerensky was the second President, July‒November 1917) and who did not want to sign a separate peace with the Second German Reich.[vii]
The adherence of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to the Germany-lead Tripartite Pact prompts pro-British officers of the royal army of the Serb ethnic origin and some Serb politicians to organize and realize a military coup against the chief Regent Prince Paul and his Yugoslav Government lead by one Gypsy (Roma), Dragiša Cvetković and one Croat Vladimir Vlatko Maček. The main British marionette who organized the military coup in Belgrade on the night of March 26/27th, 1941 was the Brigadier General of the Yugoslav Air Force Borivoje Mirković. The March 27th demonstrations were absolutely spontaneous because the people thought it was really a betrayal (given that not all points of the agreement were made public and given that he hoped for the British aid unreasonably). For the next two focal reasons the post-war Yugoslav (Titoist) propaganda failed in claiming that the popular demonstrations have been organized by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (the CPY):
1) The power, influence, and the number of the Yugoslav communists were not sufficient in order to animate a large mass of protesters.
2) J. V. Stalin’s directive to all communist parties in Europe after the 1939 agreement with A. Hitler was quite clear and mandatory without exception: all anti-German activities of any kind are strictly terminated.
Therefore, it is not so difficult to conclude that the act of burning of the German flag on the building of the German Tourist Office in Belgrade during the demonstrations on March 27th, 1941 was a well-thought-out provocation of some B. Mirković’s British-follower in order to give a clear excuse for A. Hitler to invade Yugoslavia. Exactly what the perfidious Albion wanted at the moment. However, what will happen after the attack on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia followed by the defeat of the royal army was well known by all the leading Serbian politicians – the occupation and partition of the country with the creation of a large genocidal Roman Catholic Nazi-fascist Croatian state in which the Serbs are going to be killed in masses like the animals[viii] while the perfidious Albion will continue with sending empty promises with the dirty demands to endure till the last drop of (Serbian) blood.
As a direct consequence of the military coup on March 27th, 1941 in Belgrade, Prince Paul was exiled, and King Peter II was proclaimed as an adult to rule regardless of the very fact that his 18th birthday had to be on September 6th, 1941. General Dušan Simović who was one of the chief leaders of the coup became a new PM. However, many leading Croatian public figures and politicians, including Vlatko Vladimir Maček himself, interpreted the coup as being directed against the Croat-Serb Agreement of August 26th, 1939 and, therefore, their political support for the new Government in Belgrade was quite difficult to win. Nevertheless, although the UK had a crucial role in encouraging the coup, the new Yugoslav Government agrees formally to adhere to the Tripartite Pact for the sake to attempt to appease Berlin and to gain the time hoping to get some concrete support by London before to war against Germany and the Tripartite Pact. However, A. Hitler was not ready to lose his time in the Balkans with the Yugoslavs (in fact, the Serbs).
Despite formal Yugoslav continuation of adherence to the Tripartite Pact, A. Hitler accurately felt that he could not anymore trust the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and, therefore, Germany struck Yugoslavia with heavy air bombardments of her capital Belgrade on the early morning of April 6th, 1941 (the Orthodox Easter Day). The stikes have been followed by the land invasion of Yugoslavia into Slovenia and Croatia and Bulgarian land offensive into Macedonia in order to cut off the road to Thessaloniki for the Yugoslav royal army. Within the first five days of the 1941 April War, the Axis armies move from the territories of Bulgaria, Albania, Italy, Romania, Austria (at that time part of the Third Reich), and Hungary into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia which was absolutely unable to defend itself being left without any support from the outside.
During the invasion of Yugoslavia, on April 10th, 1941 the so-called Independent State of Croatia (the ISC), a notorious Nazi-fascist creation by Germany, Italy, and the Vatican, was officially proclaimed in Zagreb. The state was composed of Croatia proper, part of Dalmatia, Slavonia, Srem and all Bosnia-Herzegovina. A Croatian leading politician, Vladimir Vlatko Maček, issued an official statement calling all Croats to support and cooperate with the new Nazi-fascist (Ustashi) Government composed by a leader Ante Pavelić – a notorious terrorist in the 1930s. Even Croatian Archbishop Alois Stepinac of the Roman Catholic Church in Zagreb gave his personal approval to the new state in the name of the church. Around 1/3 of the inhabitants of the ISC have been the Orthodox Serbs who have been immediately put out of the law. The focal feature of this marionette state was a terrible barbaric genocide on mainly its Serb inhabitants as from April 1941 to May 1945, the Ustashi Nazi-fascist regime of the ISC instituted a bloody policy of extermination of the Serbian Orthodox minority by the practice of expulsion, conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, and mostly by physical liquidations. However, the Gypsies (Roma), Jews, communists and Croatian opponents of the regime have been exterminated as well.
Belgrade – the capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia fell to the Axis troops on April 12th, 1941 that meant de facto the destruction of the Yugoslav state. This event was soon followed by King Peter II and his royal Yugoslav Government to go into exile in Athens on April 14‒16th, 1941 (later to Cairo and finally to London). In the meantime, on April 15th, 1941, the CPY announced that this political party supports the self-determination of the peoples of Yugoslavia and, therefore, indirectly recognized the proclamation of the Nazi-fascist ISC. Finally, the 1941 April War in Yugoslavia was over two days later when the German representative and the Yugoslav non-official representatives signed just an armistice but not a formal capitulation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as it was purposely misinterpreted by both the Germans and the Yugoslav communists. In fact, because all of Yugoslavia’s official political representatives already went into exile, Aleksandar Cincar-Marković (a former Minister of Foreign Affairs) and Radivoje Janković (a deputy Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav royal army), signed in the name of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia an act of invalid armistice which never became recognized as an valid legal act by the Yugoslav Government in exile (in London). Nevertheless, in reality, Yugoslavia was defeated, destroyed and partitioned by the Axis Powers and their Croatian satellites.
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[i] Similar status enjoyed Kosovo in Serbia from 1974 to 1989 but it did not stop Albanian anti-Yugoslav activities, nationalism, and separatism.
[ii] Vladimir Dedijer, Tito Speaks, 130.
[iii] Realpolitik is the German term used in diplomacy, politics and political science for political realism. It is attributed to the German Ludwig von Rochau, who published the book Grundsätze der Realpolitik: Ausgewendet Auf die Staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands, 1853.
[iv] Jan Palmowski, A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century World History, Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 180.
[v] Gregory C. Ference (ed.), Chronology of 20th-Century Eastern European History, Detroit‒Washington, D.C.‒London: Gale Research Inc., 1994, 404.
[vi] About Vladimir Lenin, see in [Robert, Service, Lenin: A Biography, Pan Books, 2002].
[vii] See [Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia (ed.), Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, London: The British Library, 2017].
[viii] Unfortunately, the Western world does not want to know about this terrible genocide committed by the Nazi-fascist administration of the Independent State of Croatia supported by the Roman Catholic Church on the Orthodox Serbs during WWII. See, for instance [Robert Bideleux, Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, Second Edition, London‒New York: Routledge, 2007; Norman M. Naimark, Genocide: A World History, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017].