Yugoslavia Betrayed in World War Two

Churchill and the Betrayal of Yugoslavia

Serbia gave enormously important support to the Allied cause in World War II but the Serbs and the prospect of a democratic Yugoslavia were betrayed by Winston Churchill, as E. Courtney explains.

Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic slate formed on the basis of Serbian military power and political determination. But for Serbia the sentiment in favour of a South Slav state would probably never have led to the formation of an actual South Slav stale.

Given the role of Serbia in the formation of the stale, it was never on the cards that the Serbs would allow themselves to become oppressed minorities in the states formed by the break-up of Yugoslavia. In the interests of harmony the genocidal activity of the Catholic Croat state during World War II was not given great prominence by the post-1945 Yugoslav slate, but being of such recent occurrence it was, of course, well known to the people concerned.

The UN and the EC, in great contrast to their attitude towards Lebanon and Cambodia, rushed to recognise the disappearance of Yugoslavia as a functional state and registered what had been internal divisions of Yugoslavia as sacrosanct international boundaries. This was a thoroughly irresponsible approach. If the multi-national state of Yugoslavia was not viable, the new stale formed by the ethnic passion of the Croats, which  included a large Serbian minority, was certainly not viable. And still less so was Bosnia-Herzegovina in which there was no ethnic majority at all, and in which the majority for independence was the result of an incongruous and unstable alliance of Croats and Muslims.

The procedures for secession laid down in the Yugoslav constitution were not met by the Bosnian exercise. But no heed was taken of that fact by international comment because of a widespread feeling that the Yugoslav slate was inherently unworthy. Margaret Thatcher sees the remnant of Yugoslavia as the last Communist regime in Europe. Ann Clywd sees it as the last Fascist regime. The American Republican Party as Communistico-Fascist.

For my part, I have never been in sympathy with the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and I have written much on the treatment of Poland during and after the war. I wrote against these regimes during many years while leading members of the Labour Party were addressing the various Friendship Societies. But what Russia did in Eastern Europe is only half of the matter. The other half is that Britain, having gone to war over Poland, sold it out in the latter part of the war. Churchill connived at the destruction of the Polish Home Army, which had maintained an extensive resistance all through the war, and he helped to break the spirit of the Polish Government in exile.

In 1939 Britain started a war which by the summer of 1940 it had lost the power to finish, or even to continue with any significant force. Even its own survival became problematical until the war between Germany and Russia began in June 1941. This was in effect a new war. The war declared by Britain in 1939 was lost and the war of 1941-45 was about something entirely different from the principles enunciated by Britain when declaring war. Churchill in his war memoirs acknowledged that, “Hitler’s invasion of Russia altered the values and relationships of the war” (The Grand Alliance, Penguin edn. p.337). But he did not spell out the change. Indeed his role was to camouflage the change with grandiloquent phrases, and to spread deception about the ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe in 1944-5. And it would seem that he deceived himself as thoroughly as he deceived anyone else. Then, having participated in a comprehensive betrayal of the democracies of Eastern Europe, he lost power in the 1945 election and began to blame others for the facts which he himself had accomplished. Compared with the honesty of his memoirs of the 1914-18 war, his 1939-45 memoirs are mere apologetics.

I can appreciate the practical difficulties inhibiting British action on Poland; nevertheless I think that Churchill’s compliance with Stalin’s will went far beyond what was necessary. The case of Yugoslavia however seems to be quite different Britain began to erode the Yugoslav democracy long before the Red Army made its appearance. The Communist regime of which Margaret Thatcher now complains was given priority over the Home Army of the Yugoslav democracy by her beloved Churchill.

The account of how Churchill subverted the forces of democracy in wartime Yugoslavia is taken from Pax Britannica by F.A. Voigt, published by Constable in 1949.

In the late thirties

“there was an ever-growing German economic penetration of the Balkans. In Croatia, ideas akin to Fascism and National Socialism gained ground. There was a Yugoslav organisation known as the ORJUNA, with members wearing black shirts and top- boots, and used chiefly for breaking strikes and dispersing assemblies of industrial workmen. The VELIKI CHELNIK (Grand Leader) of the Orjuna was Ljuba Leontitch, a Croat, who became Marshal Tito’s Ambassador in London after the Second World War.

“Matchek, by far the most popular and powerful man in Croatia…was the leader of the Croat Peasant Party…as well as of the co-operatives. A parallel organisation, the SELJACHKA SLOG A, resembling the German Reichnahrstand, was created. He organised a terrorist organisation, the SELJACHKA ZASHTITA, which resembled the German SS… Long before the outbreak of war Matchek was the real master of Croatia. The authority of Belgrade was limited even in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and in the country it existed not at all… During the war, the SELJACHKA SLOGA was the chief Croatian organisation for supplying the Germans with food.

“The system established in Croatia might be described as a kind of agrarian Fascism. Whereas the Serbs were wholeheartedly on the side of France and Great Britain, the Croats were divided. They had no great love for the Germans, but partly under duress and partly through animosity against the Serbs, they moved towards close association with Germany, thereby accelerating the Yugoslav catastrophe. When that catastrophe came, they hoped, with German help, to emerge, not triumphant, perhaps, but intact as a nation…

“In March 1941 the Germans began to increase their pressure in Yugoslavia to make her fit into their plans for the conquest of Greece and for the attack on Egypt… On the 24 th of March the Athenian wireless broadcast a message that ‘the Greek people’ were ‘convinced that the brave Serbian people…will never let their glorious history be blackened by a deed which they would regard as the stab in the back of an ally’.

“On the following day, it was announced that Yugoslavia had joined the Three Power Pact, generally known as the Anti- Comintern Pact, which had been signed by Germany, Italy and Japan on the 27th of September 1940. The conditions were that she was to allow the free passage of German war-material on her main railways, running from north to south; that she was to suppress, within her own borders, all actions directed against the German coalition, and bring her economic system into conformity with the German. She was, in other words, to become part of the German Neuordnung. In return, she was to receive territory on the Aegean, with Salonica as her own port. The Berliner Boersenzeitung stated, on the 26th of March, that ‘Yugoslavia has been unaffected by English bluff and that England had suffered a ‘diplomatic Dunkirk’.

‘But on that day the Serbs broke out into popular revolt against the pro-German policy of their Government. The Government itself had been divided. On the 21st of March three of the Serbian Ministers had resigned, rather than accept the German terms. But Matchek and the other Croatian Ministers were for acceptance. On the 22nd three officers of the Yugoslav General Staff left for Greece, knowing that, whatever happened in Yugoslavia, the Greeks would fight. On the 23rd, the Orthodox Patriarch addressed a letter to Prince Paul, the Regent of Yugoslavia, urging him not to sigh the Three Power Pact. On 24th the Prime Minister received protests from all patriotic leagues and societies in Serbia…

“Nevertheless, on that same day, Prince Paul sent a message to Hitler with ‘good wishes for the further prosperity of the great German nation. Thereupon Dr Gaurilovitch, the Yugoslav Minister in Moscow and leader of the Serbian Peasant Party, resigned. Fifty officers of the Yugoslav Army issued a manifesto at Skopje, calling upon the nation to revolt.

“The revolt came on the 27 th of March 1941… At 2.20 in the morning, the Regent. Prince Paul, was deposed, the Government was overthrown, King Peter, who was only seventeen, was placed on the throne…On the same day, Mr Churchill declared in the House of Commons that ‘the Yugoslav Nation has found its soul’.

“…Yugoslavia was deeply divided. But Serbia was not: she was united by the revolution which she alone made… Her strategic situation was hopeless… But the Serbs, like the Poles, had a towfold belief that transcended the immediate future: belief in themselves and in England…

“Matchek had joined the new Government as Vice-Premier. It was believed that if he were excluded, Croatia would secede. Home Rule was granted to Croatia on the 1st of April. But the rupture was not averted, and on the 10 th of April, a new Dictator appeared in Zagreb. This was the POGLAVNIK (Leader) Ante Pavelitch, who commanded the terrorist USTASHI. He seized power and, on the 16th of April, declared that Croatia was independent and ‘not part of another State’.

“I he Yugoslav Revolution had taken two opposite directions. In Serbia it was democratic and for Great Britain. In Croatia it was anti-democratic and for the German-Italian coalition.

On the 15th of May Croatia was declared a Kingdom, and on the 18 th the Duke of Spoleto was proclaimed future King. Pavelitch, supported by the invading Italian forces, remained Dictator under the new Monarchy. When the first German tanks passed through the streets of Zagreb, they were cheered by the crowds.

“The new Yugoslav Government showed considerable weakness. The order for mobilisation was delayed, chiefly by differences of opinion between Matchek and the Serb ministers. The army could offer no organised resistance against the rapidly advancing enemy…the Croats deserted en masse…

“Croatia, despite her services to the Italian cause, had to cede part of her coastal area to Italy. But she received compensation from the Germans. Under the agreement signed at Zagreb on 13th May 1941 she was allowed to annex the whole of Bosnia and Hercegovina and a part of Dalmatia. She called herself Greater Croatia and declared war against Great Britain and the United States on ]4th of December 1941.

“The Slovenes remained loyal to Yugoslavia, with the result that Slovenia was partitioned between Germany (who took the largest share), Italy and Hungary” (pp 220-226).

The German attack on Yugoslavia began on April 6th. Yugoslavia capitulated on April 17th. But the conquest of Yugoslavia delayed the German attack on Russia by about five weeks. And since the onset of winter was a major factor in ensuring the survival of Russia the consequences of the March Revolution in Serbia go far beyond local events in the Balkans. This is admitted by Churchill.

Following the capitulation, remnants of the Yugoslav Army were organised by Drazha Mihailovitch for guerrilla resistance. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that Mihailovitch was:

“head of the royalist Yugoslav underground army (Chetniks)…, whose occasional collaboration with the German occupying forces finally led to the Allies’ withdrawal of support from the Chetniks and the consequent backing of…the Communist Tito. ..King Peter abandoned Mihailovich in May 1944, and after the liberation of Yugoslavia in 1944-5 the Chetnik leader went into hiding. Captured by the victorious partisans on March 13,1946, he was sentenced to death for treason in Belgrade”.

This entry might be described as Leninist propaganda inserted by a mole but for the fact that it is Churchillian propaganda. In 1943 Churchill withdrew British backing from the democratic resistance movement, the movement supporting the Government established by the March Revolution which was now in exile, and began to supply the Communist movement – which of course had not offered any resistance to the Nazi occupation until after the invasion of Russia. And in May 1944 Churchill forced King Peter to disown Mihailovich – who was both the leader of resistance and Prime Minister – and to name as his new Prime Minister Ivan Subasic, who had been governor of Croatia in 1939-1941 and who, to put it mildly, had taken no part in the resistance. Subasic’s function was to be friendly with Tito and be a flimsy camouflage in the establishment of Leninist state power in post-war Yugoslavia.

Voigt does his best to excuse Churchill from actual responsibility for the subversion of the democratic government of Yugoslavia, though he clearly knows in his bones that it won’t wash. He says:

“Effective responsibility was Mr Churchill’s. He never strove to be a dictator. But his conduct of foreign affairs was extremely personal. He was, in effect, his own Foreign Secretary. ..It is said, with some truth, that he abandoned Yugoslavia to Russia. But there is no evidence that he knowingly did so” (page 314).

But a couple of pages later he feels obliged to say:

“Mr Churchill left the pro-patriot Mihailovich and many gallant and devoted officers and men to the firing- squad and the hangman, and did grievous harm to his own country” (page 318).

In excuse of Churchill, he writes:

“Mr Churchill tried to save Polish independence and to limit the power of the Lublin Committee, but was completely outmanoeuvred… He seems to have made no such attempt on behalf of Yugoslavia because he did not realise that Yugoslav independence was in danger.”

But then he says a few lines later:

“The Soviet Union has, directly or indirectly, placed all the territories occupied by her armed forces under her permanent control. Only a little knowledge of Russian history was needed to foresee that would be so” (page 314).

Churchill switched British support from Mihailovich to Tito in 1943 long before there was a Russian military presence in the region. On Feb 22nd 1944 he said in the Commons:

“In Marshall Tito the Partisans found an outstanding leader, glorious in the fight for freedom…Marshall Tito has largely sunk his Communist aspect in his character as a Yugoslav leader.”

Voight asks:

“Did he expect Tito, a lifelong, hardened, indoctrinated Communist, to betray the Communist cause, to miss the opportunity, offered by unimaginable good fortune, to establish a Communist dictatorship in the Balkans? Propagandists call Mihailovich a traitor even today. Was Tito a traitor? Whether he was so in a legal sense is not certain, for it is uncertain whether he was a Yugoslav subject owing his allegiance to the Yugoslav Crown. But his allegiance by personal conviction and life-long service was to the Comintern. And to that allegiance he remained faithful. Mr Churchill did Tito even more dishonour than he did Mihailovich” (page 306).

“Captain Julian Amery, who was serving in Albania, was told by a chieftain named Islam: ‘There are three parties in Albania: the agents of Germany, the agents of Russia and the agents of England… What none of us can understand is why the agents of Russia are paid in English gold”’ (page 332)

The reason given for this state of affairs in Yugoslavia was that Mihailovich was not fighting the Germans, and collaborating with them was even collaborating with them, while Tito engaged in all-out war against the Germans. Voigt makes out a very convincing case that this was utter nonsense.

Voigt describes Mihatlov.ch s policy thus:

“Knowing that the war could only be won by the great campaigns of the Allied Powers as a whole, he was convinced that Yugoslavia could contribute to the common cause by harassing the enemy wherever it was possible to do so without excessive loss, while organising the nation against him and economising in men, ammunition and supplies against the day when a national rising…should synchronise with the invasion of Europe by the main Allied armies and with national risings in other occupied countries” (page 238).

The Germans laid down and implemented a scale of reprisals of 300 to one for casualties suffered from guerrilla action. And

“On the 24th of December 1942, 2500 persons suspected of supporting Mihailovich were executed by the Germans outside Belgrade” (p. 240).


“Mihailovich made a rule to order no attack that did not serve a serious military purpose. It was chiefly this restraint that drew upon himself the charge that he was ‘not fighting’” (page 258). It seems to me a very sensible rule that the military purpose had to be worth the reprisals.

The Home Army was the army of the Government-in-exile, the Government of the March Revolution which had committed Yugoslavia to the Allied cause. It was therefore connected with the various institutions of Yugoslav (chiefly Serbian) society, which continued to exist even though Yugoslavia was an occupied country. Tito’s movement, on the other hand, was unconnected with institutions which supported the March Revolution Therefore:

“The anarchy, destitution, and despair caused by German reprisals immensely damaging to the were national movement, which depended upon the trade unions, the cooperatives, the civil administration as well as upon the Home Army. They were wholly advantageous to the Partisans, indeed essential to their ultimate triumph. The Partisans were not injured at all, which increased the disintegration of the existing order, an order which the Communists themselves wished to destroy, so that they might replace it with another. The reprisals also enlarged the multitude of the uprooted, destitute, and desperate, a multitude from which the Partisans drew so many of their recruits” (pp. 300-301).

The reckless activity of Tito’s partisans caught Churchill’s attention (even though Churchill was anything but reckless in the use he made of British forces) and caused him to sell out the democratic movement in Yugoslavia. And Voigt maintains that this Partisan activity was without serious military effect on the Germans. German communications with Greece were never seriously interrupted, and the German retreat was not hampered by guerrilla activity.

If this is true – and I think it is – it means that Churchill was the greatest political bungler of the century.

Voigt tries to puzzle out what caused this bungling. One fact was that

“the Croats in London had an influence far greater than that of the Serbs. They were particularly successful in the Serbo-Croat section of Broadcasting House, where they and British sympathisers with Tito’s cause played into one another’s hands. The Croats had the additional advantage of being Roman Catholic, familiar with western ways, and extremely persuasive, whereas the Serbs are Greek Orthodox and inclined to be inarticulate, with the result that their influence in London became almost negligible” (page 255).

And another factor:

“De Tocqueville and Lord Acton have shown how a governing class in decline is eager to propagate those ideas that will ensure its own destruction, how violent revolutions are not initially risings of the people, but an abdication of authority…England is not, however, a suitable field for revolution. In England the classes of society merge into one another, so that the abdicating class is replaced by the rising class without upsetting the balance. But the moral crisis which prepares the coming of revolution was present in England during the War. It was possible to experience all the pleasures of revolution without suffering the consequences… The amateur revolutionary finds no following in England… But when he found himself in a Government Department, or holding a commissioned rank, when he was engaged in propaganda and various sorts of Intelligence, he could, when certain countries, especially Balkan countries, came within his range, realise his most cherished aspirations” (pp. 247-8).

“What came to be known as political warfare is but revolution applied to other countries. Political warfare maybe a useful adjunct to military operations in the hands of experienced practitioners, like the present rulers of Russia… But it is exceedingly dangerous in the hands of dilettanti such as England produced so abundantly” (page 268).

Churchill was an imperialist in the grand style who had a prominent part in the two great wars by which the British Empire undermined itself. His supreme ambition was to be a great man, though his idea of greatness was largely histrionic. He reached the summit of power at a moment when the state ceased to be a world power. For five years he played the part of the leader of a world power even though he was not, and he created the illusion of conducting a great war during the year between the Battle of France and the invasion of Russia when Britain had become incapable of conducting war on the requisite scale and was waiting for something to turn up. It is hardly surprising therefore that, being preoccupied with sustaining an illusion, his activity in the real world often lacked rationality.

Voigt says:

“A few members of the British War Cabinet, like Mr Morrison, had grave doubts as to the soundness of British policy in Yugoslavia. They suspected that the interests of Communism and not the interests of Yugoslavia and Great Britain were being served… But they were not well enough informed effectively to oppose Mr Churchill, who was more than sufficiently misinformed. his policy prevailed without a serious conflict within the War Cabinet” (page 290).

In the pathetic and self-contradictory final chapter of his war memoirs Churchill blames everything on the British electorate which failed to do its duty by him in 1945. ‘7 intended, if I were returned by the electorate, as was generally expected, to come to grips with the Soviet Government”, and “to have a show-down” (Triumph and Tragedy, page 582). He admits to having kept the Labour members of the Coalition in the dark about this pretended intention, and he did not brief the incoming Government about it. He was so fed up with the British electors that “I did not wish even for an hour to remain responsible for their affairs” (page 583). But everything was well beyond recall by then. It was all accomplished fact, and Churchill had helped to accomplish it.


This article appeared in September 1992, in Issue 31 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.