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Authors: Ben Shepherd

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Terror in the Balkans

BOOK: Terror in the Balkans
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German Armies and Partisan Warfare


Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts • London, England


Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Shepherd, Ben.

Terror in the Balkans : German armies and partisan warfare / Ben Shepherd.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-674-04891-1 (alk. paper)

1. World War, 1939–1945—Yugoslavia. 2. World War, 1939–1945—

Underground movements—Yugoslavia. 3. Yugoslavia—History—Axis occupation,

1941–1945. 4. Germany. Heer—History—World War, 1939–1945. I. Title.

D766.6.S44 2012

940.53'497—dc23 2011048292




1. Before the Great War:

Changes in the Offi cer Corps


2. Forging a Wartime Mentality:

The Impact of World War I


3. Bridging Two Hells: The 1920s and 1930s


4. Invasion and Occupation: Yugoslavia, 1941


5. Islands in an Insurgent Sea: The 704th

Infantry Division in Serbia


6. Settling Accounts in Blood: The 342d

Infantry Division in Serbia


7. Standing Divided: The Independent State

of Croatia, 1942


8. Glimmers of Sanity: The 718th

Infantry Division in Bosnia



9. The Morass: Attitudes Harden in the

718th Infantry Division


10. The Devil’s Division: The 369th

Infantry Division in Bosnia, 1943




Appendix A: Source References for

Featured Offi cers


Appendix B: Note on the Primary Sources












In spring 1941 the German Wehrmacht, replete with victory over

successive opponents across Europe, fell upon the Balkan kingdom

of Yugoslavia.1 The Yugoslav army was overwhelmed within ten days,

and an improvised occupation regime swiftly established. But there

then erupted a national uprising that later developed into an insur-

gency as violent and obdurate as any in World War II.2 It lasted almost

the entire duration of the war. It was marked not just by a fearsome

campaign against the Axis occupier and ferocious Axis countermea-

sures, but also by fratricidal slaughter between Yugoslavia’s mutually

belligerent ethnic groups. It was almost the entire cause of the 1.75 mil-

lion dead—11 percent of the population—Yugoslavia suffered during

World War II.3

Hitler and the Wehrmacht retaliated against the uprising with a

campaign of hostage-taking and reprisals that was exceptional, even by

Nazi standards, in the scale of indiscriminate butchery that it infl icted.

There is no better expression of the campaign’s intent, and of the his-

torically founded hatred that helped to forge it, than an order issued

at its outset by Lieutenant General Franz Boehme,4 the Wehrmacht’s

Plenipotentiary Commanding General in Serbia:


terror in the balk ans

Your objective is to be achieved in a land where, in 1914, streams of

German blood fl owed because of the treachery of the Serbs, men and

women. You are the avengers of those dead. A deterring example

must be established for all of Serbia, one that will have the heaviest

impact on the entire population. Anyone who carries out his duty

in a lenient manner will be called to account, regardless of rank or

position, and tried by a military court.5

Though the rising posed a considerable danger to the Axis occupation,

the response Boehme was urging went beyond all normal constraints

of legality and morality.6 And Boehme belonged not to the organization

with which the worst outrages of Nazi occupation are most often associ-

ated—the SS—but to the Wehrmacht. It was this same Wehrmacht that

was popularly viewed for decades after World War II as having been a

bastion of moral decency, sometimes active resistance, against the Nazi

regime’s depravities. But Boehme’s order is only one example of the vast

array of evidence, unearthed over the past four-and-a-half decades, that

has demolished the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht.

The myth retained remarkable durability after 1945. Over the course

of World War II, the organs of the Nazi regime infl icted destruction and

misery upon the swathe of occupied Europe from the Atlantic to the

Urals. The occupied peoples were increasingly deprived of their food-

stuffs, economic resources, and human labor, all in the cause of feed-

ing Germany’s increasingly voracious war economy. The further east

one went, the more harrowing the picture got; here, the Nazis’ pirati-

cal rampage was exacerbated by their belief that the “racially inferior”

Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe were natural slaves, to be decimated

and exploited with impunity. None of this is to mention the campaign of

terror, and ultimately genocide, waged against those groups Nazi ideol-

ogy regarded as an existential threat to the German race itself—Commu-

nists, Sinti and Roma, and, above all, Jews. Finally, across the continent,

the Nazis countered mounting resistance to their economic and ideo-

logical dictates with a security campaign ever more indiscriminate in the

bloodshed and destruction it infl icted. Indeed, particularly in the Nazi

empire’s eastern regions, “security needs” were often used as convenient

cover for implementing those same dictates even further.7


Yet the Wehrmacht, its postwar advocates asserted, was untainted

by any involvement in such terror and exploitation.8 Only during the

late 1960s, as West German students took to the streets to challenge an

establishment they saw as criminally compromised by its earlier asso-

ciations with Nazism, did historians begin dismantling the myth of the

“clean” Wehrmacht. Now, seventy years after World War II, it can be

confi dently stated that the Wehrmacht, or its higher command levels at

any rate, was complicit, sometimes instrumental, in the barbarities the

Third Reich perpetrated across occupied Europe. Yet even though the

navy (Kriegsmarine), and certainly the air force (Luftwaffe) were tainted

by involvement in Nazi crimes, it was the army (Heer), by far the Weh-

rmacht’s numerically largest branch, whose involvement in such crimes

was most extensive. And it was the army that, consequently, has been

the focus of the vast majority of studies that have collectively revealed the

Wehrmacht’s damning record. A picture has emerged of a senior army

offi cer corps that was complicit in the Nazi regime’s crimes primarily

because complicity suited both its professional ambitions and its ideo-

logical convictions.9

It is in relation to those ideological convictions that Boehme’s order

is signifi cant for a second reason. For it is a particularly telling reminder

that the origins of those convictions lie further back in history. Many

of the reasons why the German army came to support the Nazi regime

stemmed from the situation in which the German military found itself

after the Great War of 1914 to 1918. During this aftermath, the defeated

German army of the old imperial regime, the Kaiserheer, was reduced

from a millions-strong body to a defense force one hundred thousand

strong, the Reichswehr. The Nazis’ pledge, in the years that followed,

to tear up the treaty and commit Germany to full-scale rearmament was

a pledge Reichswehr offi cers would fi nd increasingly enticing. It pro-

vided them, after all, with an opportunity to pursue their professional

ambitions, something which the weak democratic regime governing

Germany between 1918 and 1933 clearly could not provide. But there

were additional reasons, rooted further back in history, why the army

was ready to behave so pitilessly in implementing the Nazi agenda. Gen-

eral Boehme’s order alludes to one such reason. The decades-old hatred

of the Serbs that it invoked was one of the historic enmities whose toxic

terror in the balk ans

effect upon the German army’s conduct during World War II is a major

concern of this study.

Just how brutally the German army behaved during World War II, and

why, are vast, labyrinthine questions. But the counterinsurgency cam-

paign in Yugoslavia, the particular focus of this study, provides revealing

insights into those enmities and how they affected soldiers’ behavior.

As a force that reacted with excessive harshness when confronted with

irregular armed resistance, the German army fi nds ample company

throughout history. Occupation troops have often been inadequately

trained and equipped, and have often lacked the numbers needed to

administer occupied territory effectively. They can thus easily become

brutalized by the fear and frustration they feel at being stationed deep

within an unfamiliar country, facing an unseen and often highly mobile

enemy ready to employ ruthless and underhand methods against them,

encountering a civilian population of at best suspect reliability, and often

living and fi ghting amid the kind of impenetrable terrain that is a haven for

irregular fi ghters and a topographical nightmare for the forces facing them.

In fact, the Communist Partisans who would prove the Germans’

most implacable adversary in occupied Yugoslavia often fought in the

manner of a conventional army. This mode of fi ghting found growing

favor with the Partisan movement as the war progressed, as its burgeon-

ing size and strength increasingly emboldened it, and required it, to

fi ght in the open.10 Even so, the Partisans and other insurgent groups

in wartime Yugoslavia employed irregular methods for much of the

time. The irregular combatants the Germans faced in Yugoslavia during

World War II frequently fl outed two of the criteria of lawful combat-

ant status laid down in the 1907 Hague Convention: they were often not

readily identifi able, and often did not carry arms openly. The Yugoslav

Partisans also regularly fl outed a third criterion: their maltreatment and

murder of German prisoners, and particularly of native collaborators,

frequently defi ed all notions of internationally acceptable conduct.11

By the outbreak of World War II, international law made allowances

for occupying forces facing irregular opponents. Article 50 of the Hague

Convention had no issue with seizing hostages to ensure an occupied


population’s good behavior. Such hostage-taking was widespread prac-

tice during the interwar years. The convention approved reprisals as

long as they were against civilians who had actually resisted in some way.

But it was silent on whether reprisals should take lethal form, or whether

they should restrict themselves to measures such as fi nancial penalties or

confi scation of property. In any case, the German generals convicted in

the “Hostage Trial” at Nuremberg after World War II were not impris-

oned for killing civilians per se—something in which servicemen on both

sides had of course been copiously active, particularly in the air war.

Rather, the generals were imprisoned specifi cally for conducting repri-

sals on occupied territory so indiscriminately and disproportionately.12

The German army’s counterinsurgency campaign in Yugoslavia—a

campaign waged under commanders from both air force and army—was

as brutal as it was not just because of the conditions it faced. This, after

all, was an army whose leadership, due to its ideological sympathies and

careerist calculation, had hitched its wagon to the Nazi star. It sought to

instill within its troops’ minds and actions a set of beliefs and attitudes

BOOK: Terror in the Balkans
6.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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