The Communist Party Of Yugoslavia And The Soviet Union In WWII (I)

The aim of this article is to shed new light on the question of how the configuration of post-war Central and South-East Europe was shaped during WWII by the USSR through its relations with the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (the CPY). Relationships between the CPY and the Soviet Union in 1941−1945 depended on the concrete military situation in Europe, and on the diplomatic relationships between the Soviet Union and the other members of the anti-fascist Alliance. For that reason, the Soviet Union and the CPY were cooperating in two directions during WWII. The concrete military situation in the battleground of the Soviet Union after the outbreak of the “Barbarossa” in June 1941, and, the Soviet political plans after the end of the war in terms of the reorganization of Europe determined their interconnections.

The complexity of relationships between the Soviet Union and the CPY has to be seen through the diplomatic relations between the USSR and the officially recognized by Moscow of the Yugoslav Government-in-exile located during the war in London. The Soviet policy toward Yugoslavia was divided into two spheres. The first concerned the CPY and the second involved the Yugoslav Government in London. The Soviet-Yugoslav relations depended primarily on Moscow’s relations with London and Washington, particularly in regard to the question of the opening of a second (Western) military front in Europe. During the course of the war, when the opening of the second front in Europe was being debated, the Balkans was mentioned as a likely place, but the arguments in favor were more political than of military nature. For the Soviets, the opening of a second front was to be the prelude to final military operations, during which the strategy for shaping post-war Europe would have to be decided upon. However, for each member of the Alliance, it was clear that any hasty step might have caused new rifts among the allies, especially between London and Moscow. In view of this fact, one can amply understand the complexity of the CPY–Soviet relations during the war years.

The clash of two historiographies

The CPY-USSR relationships were carried out by the Executive Committee of the Comintern. The direct link between the CPY and the Comintern was the secret radio connection between Josip Broz Tito (appointed by J. V. Stalin as the General Secretary of the CPY in 1937), and George Dimitrov, the General Secretary of the Comintern. On the other hand, relations between the USSR and the Yugoslav Government-in-exile were officially conducted by legations.[i]

Relations between the CPY and the Soviet Union during WWII developed gradually. They started with the supply of military and medical materials for the so-called National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (the NLAY), led by the Yugoslav communists, and continued in direct military cooperation in 1944−1945. The main purpose of this Soviet support was to ensure the success of the CPY in taking power and introducing socialism in Yugoslavia. The fundamental aim of Moscow’s Yugoslav policy, i.e. its support of J. B. Tito’s partisans and his CPY, was to bring socialist Yugoslavia into the post-war Central-South-East European community of Pax Sovietica controlled and governed by the USSR. For that reason, although the other members of the Alliance, the USA, and the UK, supported both J. B. Tito’s partisans (communist forces) and Dragoljub Draža Mihailović’s the Yugoslav Army in the Motherland (the YAM) or known as the chetniks (royal forces), the Soviet Union supported only the Yugoslav communists and their Yugoslav People’s Liberation Army, especially during the final stage of the war. Even though a second front was not opened in the Balkans, the final operations could not bypass this part of Europe since the local people, particularly the Serbs from Yugoslavia had been fighting there from May 1941. The Soviet Red Army made use of the Yugoslav partisan movement under the communist leadership and during the last eight months of the war succeeded through military co-operation to put Yugoslavia under its own political protectorate. It should be said that for Moscow, the Yugoslav partisan movement and armed fighting led by Tito (basically only against the D. D. Mihailović’s legal and internationally recognized the YAM) had more political than military significance. In a new guise and in new historical circumstances, Central and South-East Europe once more found itself directly in the sphere of the conflicting interests of the global Great Powers. Throughout the war, the allies clashed in their Central European and Balkan policies and in their attempts to influence the national liberation struggles within this portion of Europe. The members of the Alliance were convinced that they could resolve matters by striking bargains among themselves. The result of this conviction was the division or “tragedy” of Central and South-East Europe designed in Tehran in 1943 and confirmed in Yalta and Potsdam in 1945.[ii]

Relations between the CPY and the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945 are variously explained in the Yugoslav and the Soviet historiography. In the first, the chief conclusion is that J. B. Tito’s partisan movement was independent, in other words, not under the supervision of Moscow. The CPY and its partisans were not a “prolonged hand” of J. V. Stalin and they did not pursue the Soviet policy of spreading the socialist revolution around the world. Besides, the Yugoslav Titoist historiography pointed out that the military help of the USSR given in autumn 1944 to J. B. Tito’s partisans was not the decisive factor which crucially helped the CPY to take political power in whole Yugoslavia (firstly in Serbia in October 1944). The main proponent of this view is Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980) himself, whose war memoirs, published in his Sabrana djela, (All Works, Belgrade 1979), has the main aim of showing J. B. Tito’s independence from J. V. Stalin. The best representatives of such an attitude in the Yugoslav historiography are: Branko Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije 1918−1988, (History of Yugoslavia 1918−1988) second volume, Belgrade 1988; Miodrag Zečević, Jugoslavija 1918−1992. Južnoslovenski državni san i java (Yugoslavia 1918−1992. South-Slavic state dream and reality), Belgrade 1993, and Vladimir Velebit, Sjećanja (Memoirs), Zagreb 1983.

However, as opposed to the Yugoslav historiography, the most common Soviet and more accurate version of those relations hold that the CPY during the whole war strongly depended on Moscow. The actions of the Yugoslav communists were directed by J. V. Stalin in order to carry out his policy of the “world socialist revolution.” According to this historiography, it was only the Soviet military help given to J. B. Tito in October 1944 which enabled him to win political power over all of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, one of the main defects in both of these historiographies is that they minimized the role of the Yugoslav Royal Government-in-exile and of the US’s and the British diplomacy in the relation between J. B. Tito and the Soviet Union during WWII. This defect was only partially overcome in the book: Jugoslovensko-sovjetski odnosi u drugom svetskom ratu (1941−1945), (Yugoslav-Soviet Relations during the Second World War (1941−1945), Belgrade 1988, written by Nikola B. Popović.

Therefore, it is necessary to undertake an analysis to explore relations between the Yugoslav communists and the Soviet Union in the years 1941−1945 setting out three new hypotheses which are based on the Yugoslav and the Soviet historical sources from WWII:

Firstly, the communist uprising in Yugoslavia in July 1941 was ordered by the Comintern and was organized in favor of the Soviet Union. This hypothesis derives from the view that J. B. Tito was sent from Moscow in 1937 to Yugoslavia as a new General Secretary of the CPY with the purpose of preparing the party for taking power in Yugoslavia with the Soviet help. This was to be carried out under the pretext of resisting the occupiers. The actual goal was to carry out J. V. Stalin’s policy of spreading the Soviet influence in Central and South-East Europe under the pretext of “people’s” (socialist) revolution. The final result of J. V. Stalin’s policy was to establish the Pax Sovietica within the eastern portion of Europe.

Secondly, J. B. Tito’s partisan movement was, in fact, independent from Moscow far until 1944 as material and military support is pointed. There were two reasons for this: 1) J. V. Stalin could not give real military support to J. B. Tito before 1944 because of his relations with the UK and the USA and 2) only in 1944 the appropriate transport conditions for the Soviet support delivered to J. B. Tito’s partisans were technically established. However, as it will become evident, J. B. Tito was receiving overwhelming material support from Moscow in 1944 and 1945 in what turned out to be the crucial situation of conquering Belgrade in October 1944 and after that to take political power in all of Yugoslavia.

Thirdly, the main character and aim of J. B. Tito-led partisans’ actions was a socialist revolution but not a fight against the Nazi-fascist occupiers as such. What I am in effect arguing is that this aim under instructions given from the Comintern was not so publicly propagated by J. B. Tito’s partisans in order to avoid upsetting Moscow’s Western allies.

Origin of the Yugoslav uprising and civil war and the Soviet Union

In occupied Yugoslavia (partitioned by Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Italy after twelve days of the April War of 1941) popular resistance to the invading forces took the form of an armed uprising. This uprising started in June 1941 when the local Orthodox Serbs took arms on the territory of the newly established Nazi-fascist Independent State of Croatia (the ISC) to defend themselves from the Croat-Bosniak massacres orchestrated by the Nazi-fascist Ustashi regime in Zagreb. At that time, however, the CPY was keeping silent about the beginning of the Serbian genocide in the ISC and taking no single action to protect unarmed Serbian civilians.

However, the CPY called the Yugoslavs to take arms against the occupiers only after the requirement by the Comintern what happened as a consequence of the German attack on the USSR in late June 1941. Basically, the communist “uprising” in the form of socialist revolution was quickly followed by the Yugoslav civil war which was, in fact, initiated early in July 1941 when the Central Committee of the CPY called upon the peoples of Yugoslavia to take up arms, and in the course of that same year the uprising spread to all parts of Yugoslavia, but in the first instance to the parts of the country settled by the Orthodox Serbs who did not make crucial difference between the patriotic war of liberation from the socialist revolution advocated by the CPY. The proclamation of the uprising of all Yugoslav people was populated by the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPY on July 4th, 1941, the day after J. V. Stalin’s speech to the Soviet people on the radio. According to the politically colored post-war Titoist historiography, this proclamation became an inspiration to transform previous sabotage actions to the partisan war against occupiers.[iii] From that moment the passive conduct of the CPY, influenced by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (August 23rd, 1939) was transformed into a “mobile position”. Considerable territory in West Serbia was liberated by the joint forces of D. D. Mihailović and J. B. Tito who collaborated during the first months of the uprising until the end of September 1941 when the communist detachments started to attack the YAM. Both sides established control over certain liberated territories. The most important partisan-controlled liberated territory was around the city of Užice where they proclaimed the Soviet republic. After the proclamation of the liberated territory of the Soviet Užice Republic, the Supreme Headquarters of the Yugoslav partisans under J. B. Tito’s command established itself there.[iv]

The CPY had direct radio communication with the Comintern which was facilitated by Josip Kopinič, a very close comrade of J. B. Tito. J. Kopinič was sent by the Comintern to Yugoslavia in February 1940 to “carry out a special task”.[v] The headquarters of this radio was located in Zagreb and J. Kopinič was sending his reports to Moscow from there until 1944. J. B. Tito started to use this radio from January 1941 in order to inform Moscow personally.[vi]

This radio was part of a Soviet agency in Yugoslavia which was established in the summer of 1940. The Soviet military attaché in Yugoslavia set apparatus with a secret code to the correspondent of the United Press, Miša Brašić, in June 1941, when the Soviets left Belgrade after the German attack on the USSR.

After the outbreak of J. B. Tito-led partisans’ uprising in July 1941, this radio-apparatus was used by the Supreme Headquarters of the partisan units.[vii] Moreover, in the summer of 1941, the CPY maintained connections with Moscow with three independent radio-apparatuses operated by Josip Kopinič in Zagreb and Mustafa Golubić and Miša Brašić in Belgrade. It is generally acknowledged that due to them, the Comintern collected very important information about the political and military situation in Yugoslavia during the critical period of the German attack on the Soviet Union (June-December 1941).[viii]

The Soviet Union was the only country which broke off diplomatic relations with the Yugoslav Government-in-exile (May 1941). Acting in this way, the USSR recognized de facto the occupation and partition of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia by Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria as well as the existence of the Nazi-fascist Independent State of Croatia. However, in July 1941 the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations with the Yugoslav Royal Government in London. Consequently, it was beneficial for Moscow to have double relations with Yugoslavia: one was public and legal (with the Yugoslav exiled Government in London) and the other one was secret and nonofficial (with the CPY as one of the sections of the Comintern). The Soviet historiography claimed that the Comintern, as an international organization, was independent (did not work under the orders from the Soviet Government of J. V. Stalin). However, the Yugoslav historiography disagrees with this opinion. It stresses the fact that the Comintern was located in the Soviet Union which was dominated by J. V. Stalin and that the Comintern was an “extended hand” of the official Soviet Government. The Yugoslav historians have concluded, like the Western historiography, that the policy of the Comintern was precisely the policy of the Soviet Government.

Moscow interfered and supported any resistance movement in Europe which could weaken the German military pressure on the Eastern Front, and bring advantage to the military situation of the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Balkans, Yugoslavia, and the CPY were seriously taken into consideration by J. V. Stalin, the Comintern, and the Soviet Government. The Soviet Union’s policy in the interwar time (up to 1935), based on J. V. Stalin’s desires, was to destroy the Kingdom of Yugoslavia because of being a member of the Western “Versailles system” Yugoslavia participated in blocking the Soviet influence in Europe. The Soviet policy towards Yugoslavia was carried out through the Comintern, in fact through the CPY as a member of the Comintern.[ix] The Comintern required from the other communist parties to undertake all measures necessary in order to weaken the Nazis’ attacks on the Soviet Union. It was implicitly emphasized immediately after the outbreak of “Barbarosa” on June 22nd, 1941, when the Executive Committee of the Comintern sent a message to the Central Committee of the CPY informing it that the defense of the Soviet Union was the responsibility of the other enslaved nations and their leaders – the communist parties. The Comintern required that during the war, any local contradictions and conflicts should be postponed and replaced with only the fight against fascism.[x] This Comintern demand implied that the CPY should temporarily halt the call for class struggle and unite all forces for the fight against Nazism and fascism.[xi]

It can be argued, on the basis of historical sources, that the uprising in Yugoslavia, organized by the CPY in the summer of 1941, was ordered by the Comintern (the Soviet Government behind it) to reduce Nazi military pressure on the Eastern Front. This was manifested in a telegram of the Comintern sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Croatia at the end of July 1941. This telegram answered J. Kopinič’s reports to Moscow about the situation within the Communist Party of Croatia. The Comintern stated that all members of the CPY were obliged to join the army, to defend the Soviet Union if it would be necessary and to give their lives for “the freedom of the Soviet Union”. Every member of the party was expected to be a soldier of the Red Army.[xii] In the Announcement to the Montenegrin people at the end of June 1941 issued by the Provincial Committee of the CPY for Montenegro, Sandžak, and Boka Kotorska, it was written that “the biggest guarantee for success for national freedom in the fight against the occupiers is the powerful and almighty Red Army and the revolutionary forces of the international proletariat…”.[xiii] The Comintern, during this period of the war, even required from the Yugoslav partisans that they collaborate with D. D. Mihailović’s royal chetnik forces in order to be able to fight the Germans.[xiv] Thus, J. B. Tito attempted to enlist the cooperation of the chetniks under Colonel (later General) Dragoljub Draža Mihailović who was located in a nearby part of Serbia in joint fighting against the enemy. However, after the initial bilateral cooperation, the chetniks supported by the Royal Yugoslav Government-in-exile in London and the UK firstly provoked and later (in November) openly attacked by J. B. Tito’s partisans fought back acting against the partisan detachments during the German offensive against the liberated territory in November and December 1941. In this way, J. B. Tito’s military units started the civil war in Serbia with the final aim to occupy it (what they finally succeeded in October-November 1944 but only with direct military assistance by the Red Army after their crossing the Danube River from Romania).

The British initial strategy concerning the Yugoslav affairs (i.e. the civil war) was to give support to that movement that would ensure the restoration of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after the war. The enigma, which liberation movement official London would support, was resolved in the autumn of 1941 when Great Britain was beginning to send military missions to the Supreme Command of the YAM. Not a single British or Soviet mission at that time was sent to the Supreme Headquarters of the partisan detachments.[xv] Nevertheless, the British attitude about the Yugoslav civil war (i.e. the struggle between the partisans and the chetniks) was changed after the Soviet victory over the Germans in the Stalingrad battle in early 1943. As it became clear for London that after Stalingrad the Red Army would drive further toward Central Europe and the Balkans, the British Government decided to make direct contacts with J. B. Tito in order to increase its own and decrease the Soviet influence among the Yugoslav partisans. The purpose of this revised British policy in Yugoslavia was not to allow Moscow to establish its full domination over post-war Yugoslavia and to use J. B. Tito for the British benefits in the region after the war (what in reality happened since June 1948 onward). Consequently, in April 1943 the first British mission was sent to J. B. Tito’s NLAY, but afterward, they continued to arrive regularly and included even American military officers. The competition over Yugoslavia among the allies continued in early 1944 when the Soviet Union also sent a military mission to J. B. Tito.[xvi]

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] N. Popović, Jugoslovensko-sovjetski odnosi u drugom svetskom ratu (1941−1945), Beograd, 1988; B. Petranović, Srbija u drugom svetskom ratu 1939−1945, Beograd, 1992, 622−632.

[ii] M. Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books, New York, 33−38.

[iii] B. Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije 1918−1988, II, Beograd, 1988, 78−79; V. Dedijer, I. Božić, S.  Ćirković, M. Ekmečić, Istorija Jugoslavije, Beograd, 1973, 478.

[iv] J. B. Tito was fighting on this territory in 1914 and 1915 as the Austro-Hungarian soldier against the army of the Kingdom of Serbia.

[v] J. B. Tito, Sabrana djela, VII, Beograd, 1979, 41; B. Petranović, Srbija u drugom svetskom ratu 1939−1945, Beograd, 1992, 64, 161, 162, 180].

[vi] M. Bosić, Partizanski pokret u Srbiji 1941. godine i emisije radio-stanice “Slobodna Jugoslavija”, NOR i revolucuja u Srbiji 1941− 1945, Beograd, 1972, 167.

[vii] N. Popović, Jugoslovensko-sovjetski odnosi u drugom svetskom ratu (1941−1945), Beograd, 1988, 39−40.

[viii] See, R. Petrauskas, Barbarosa: Antrasis pasaulinis karas Europoje, III, Vilnius, 2018.

[ix] V. Vinaver, “Ugrožavanje Jugoslavije 1919−1932”, Vojnoistorijski glasnik, Beograd, 1968, 150.

[x] B. Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije 1918−1988, II, Beograd, 1988, 78−79.

[xi] R. Bulat, (urednik), Ostrožinski Pravilnik 14. XII 1941., Historijski Arhiv u Karlovcu-Skupština Općine Vrginmost, Zagreb, 1990; V. Dedijer, I. Božić, S.  Ćirković, M. Ekmečić, Istorija Jugoslavije, Beograd, 1973, 474.

[xii] N. Popović, Jugoslovensko-sovjetski odnosi u drugom svetskom ratu (1941−1945), Beograd, 1988, 55.

[xiii] Zbornik dokumenata i podataka o Narodnooslobodilačkom ratu naroda Jugoslavije, III/1, “Borbe u Crnoj Gori 1941. god.”, Vojno-istorijski institut jugoslovenske armije, Beograd, 1950, 14.

[xiv] M. Zečević, Jugoslavija 1918−1992. Južnoslovenski državni san i java, Beograd, 1993, 105.

[xv] E. Kardelj, Sećanja, Beograd, 1980, 25−40.

[xvi] E. Kardelj, Sećanja, Beograd, 1980, 50−54.

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