Chetnik collaboration and acts of genocide in the former Yugoslavia: an interview with Balkans scholar, Stevan Bozanich

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CN: this article contains discussion of genocide


Stevan Bozanich is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University (British Columbia). His research focuses on, among other things, paramilitary violence and far-right nationalism in the former Yugoslavia. Bozanich’s wide range of published works range from the sculpture of nationalism in fin-de-siècle Balkans, to debunking Kaplan and the “ancient hatreds” trope used to dismiss the 1990s Yugoslav Wars as a local issue, to analysing the creation of Tito’s state security following the Partisans’ victory in the Second World War. Bozanich’s pending dissertation, with the working title of ‘Towards Collaboration and Genocide: Serbian Chetnik Ideology, 1903-1946’, uses the Serbian nationalist Chetnik organisation that operated in 1941-1945 as its case study. The dissertation ‘seeks to understand the ways in which paramilitaries arrive at decisions to perpetrate genocide against civilians and to collaborate and/or resist occupational authorities’, a study that seems all the more pertinent given today’s continued genocide denial in former Yugoslav states. Politika News (virtually) sat down to speak with Stevan on his dissertation and what light its scope of study can shed on contemporary Balkan realities.

Your dissertation studies both the Serbian Chetnik movement of the interwar period and the Chetnik detachment units that came about after the fall of the Yugoslav Army in the Second World War. One can sometimes be mistaken in thinking of the ‘Chetniks’ as a continuous phenomenon within Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. Could you explain how these two movements were distinct from one another? 

Serbia’s Chetnik experiences have precedence in the struggles against the Ottoman Empire from at least the nineteenth-century. When Serbs rebelled against the Ottoman Empire in 1804, they were joined by figures who called themselves hajduks. The word hajduk variably gets translated into English as bandit, brigand or revolutionary; sometimes even all three at once.

The hajduci were essentially organised into units, called čete, and were led by vojvode. They operated as guerrillas rather than as a professional army, and many fought for the Habsburg Empire in the Freikorps. This led to a rather fluid movement across borders and across styles of warfare: the more organised military structure of the Freikorps and the less organised, but still effective hajduci. When not participating in war and conflict, many hajduci resorted to robbing, pillaging and plunder, hence the blurred distinction between brigand and revolutionary. 

1903 marks the start of these guerrilla bands being called četnici, the members of the unit (čete) referring to themselves as četnici or Chetniks. The Kingdom of Serbia was hemmed in by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so could not expand westwards in Bosnia-Hercegovina or the Vojvodina. Therefore it focused instead on expanding south into Kosovo, Metohija and Macedonia.

The state used the guerrilla units which were often already operating in these territories to undermine the Ottoman Empire, but also Greek and Bulgarian claims to these territories (especially Macedonia), and to stoke ethnic identification towards Serbian in hopes to gain these territories for the Kingdom of Serbia. This led to the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 in which četnici fought.

One veteran of the Balkan Wars and the First World War, and who operated as a četnik vojvoda in Kosovo, Metohija and Macedonia was Kosta Milovanović-Pećanac. Pećanac would go on to lead the veteran movement in the interwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia), to petition the new state for veterans’ rights in healthcare, but also to commemorate the suffering of comrades.

However, just like in the 1903-1919 period, Yugoslavia used the veterans’ groups, now calling themselves Chetniks, to target and harass ethnic Albanians, Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks/Bošnjaci) and Croats. Often, the groups would do so without state support, though the state would do little to intervene. Eventually, the Chetniks recruited new members who were too young to have experienced the 1903-1919 period. At the core of the interwar Chetnik ideology was the idea that ethnic Serbs were being undermined by the state at the expense of Croats, Muslims, Albanians, Jews, and other ethno-religious groups. The new recruits believed this to be true and enlisted with the Chetnik associations to combat what they saw as the encroaching loss of Serbian identity and culture. Pećanac would go on to collaborate with the Nazi puppet regime installed in Serbia in 1941 effectively discrediting any nationalist credibility he or his group had. 

A major shift in the concept of “Chetnik” occurs in 1941. The Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941 and divided it amongst Germany, Italy and Bulgaria while carving out a large section for the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna država hrvatska, NDH). The Yugoslav Army was quickly defeated in a matter of a few weeks. A small group of army officers refused to surrender, and they moved to the mountains on the border of Serbia and Bosnia, specifically around Ravna Gora. Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović emerged as the leader of this movement and tried to consolidate all the resistance elements into the Ravna Gora Movement. The Movement creates “Chetnik detachments” to operate clandestinely behind enemy lines and to conduct espionage, sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

At its core, though, the Ravna Gora Movement aimed to be a professional army and strived for this throughout the Second World War. The guerrilla emphasis was one based on necessity and really intended to only be temporary until an Allied liberation of Yugoslavia could be achieved. So, while the Pećanac Chetniks remained the only Chetnik group from the interwar and prior period, Mihailović’s Chetniks emerged as the stronger and more popular group. That’s why today, when we think of Chetniks one tends to think of Mihailović and those associated with him and his movement rather than Pećanac who is often relegated to a footnote or minor mention, except in overly specialist or specific studies.

Stevan Bozanich is a PhD candidate in History at Simon Fraser University (British Columbia)

Was there a common ideology of the Chetniks of the Second World War, aside from ultranationalism? 

In many ways, this is difficult to answer and really depends on which time period we’re talking about. We have to remember the fluidity of the situation: men were moving from the Communist-led movement, the Partisans, then to Pećanac’s Chetniks and back to Mihailović’s Ravna Gora. The initial Ravna Gora Movement was led by Royal Yugoslav Army officers, some of whom lacked a political ideology or who towed the royal government line of integral Yugoslavism. This even led to a marriage of convenience, as it were, with the Communists in the summer of 1941 before devolving into a civil war of its own. But we can pinpoint several milestones that led to the development of a coherent ideology over time, even if it isn’t necessarily articulated as a program.

The first such document of importance emerges in 1941 and is called “Homogenous Serbia” (Homogena srbija). In it, Stevan Moljević articulated an idea of “Greater Serbia” and the “cleansing” of non-Serb peoples: Croats, Muslims, Albanians, Jews, and others. By “cleansing” these territories of non-Serbs, the Serbian territory could be expanded to the outskirts of Zagreb, in Croatia, and ethnic Serbs would be free to populate the cleared territories of Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Hercegovina and others. The document also calls for the expansion of Yugoslavia’s borders to include areas where Southern Slavs existed, namely parts of Romania, Albania, Trieste, Hungary and Bulgaria. Moljević didn’t join the Ravna Gora Movement until 1942, but he was still voted to be on the Central Committee, the ideological wing of the Ravna Gora Movement. This document, more than any other document, laid the ideological foundation for the Ravna Gora Movement.

This becomes clear in December 1941 in an order from Mihailović to the Montenegrin Chetniks on how to organise, how to operate, and what their goals should be. One section of interest in this order is called “The Instructions.” This section calls for a Greater Yugoslavia at the expense of its neighbours, and within it a Greater Serbia (Point 2). Point 4 of “The Instructions” order the Montenegrin Chetniks to “cleanse” the territories of all national minorities, namely Croats and Muslims, as well as “non-national persons,” meaning Albanians, Jews and anyone else who is not a South Slav. I also interpret “non-national persons” to mean any group or person who does not identify as a Chetnik or as a Chetnik-sympathiser, such as communists. Point 5 orders the joining of Montenegro and Serbia into one contiguous territory. For that to occur, a “cleansing” of Muslims from the Sandžak and Bosnia-Hercegovina would be necessary. In effect, then, “The Instructions” are a direct articulation of Moljević’s “Homogenous Serbia.”

In January and February 1943, the Montenegrin Chetniks embarked on fulfilling the orders. The leader of the Lim-Sandžak Detachment, Pavle Đurišić, reported on February 13, for example, that “cleansing actions” took place in Foča, Čajniče and Bijelo Polje. This resulted in 12,000 fighters being killed along with 8,000 women, children and elderly, and the requisition of grain, livestock and other supplies. Đurišić reports, “During the operations, the complete destruction of the Muslim population was started, regardless of sex or age.”

What all this means, then, is that short of any written ideological program of which there wasn’t much, we need to look to Chetnik actions to understand their ideology. Besides the operational ideology of a professional army with guerrilla elements, the Chetniks were for supporting the Yugoslav monarchy, for expanding Yugoslavia’s borders, and within that for expanding Serbia’s borders, and for eliminating non-Serb Slavic groups like Croats and Muslims, and groups that were seen as non-national like Communists and Albanians.

One of the Chetnik detachment leaders you discuss in your dissertation is Momčilo Đujić, a Dalmatian-Serb and former Serbian Orthodox priest. How big a role did the Orthodox Church play in supporting or participating in the actions of the ultranationalist Chetniks?

To be sure, there were priests who did not join the Chetniks, but the majority of the Orthodox clergy were for them or even for more extreme nationalist or fascist elements like Dimitrije Ljotić’s Zbor Movement. Momčilo Đujić is bit of a unique case because he was a priest during the interwar period but also attempted to create Chetnik groups in Dalmatia as early as 1934. Most rank-and-file clergy supported the Chetniks in various ways. Some openly took up arms while others chose to show support from the pulpit.

It’s well known, for example, that priests took part in the celebrations of the Chetniks, like Mihailović’s slava, his family saint day, or for celebrating the feast of St. George, the patron saint of Serbian warriors. At a higher level, there is still some debate over the support of the Serbian Orthodox Church for the Chetniks. Some outspoken bishops, such as Nikolaj Velimirović, has been accused of antisemitism and even for supporting the killing of Jews. There has been some historical scholarship on figures like Velimirović and the larger Serbian Orthodox Church’s role in both the Holocaust and the more local context in Yugoslavia, but I think it’s still an area that needs exploring. Certainly the lack of a focus on religion is a weakness in my own work.

In a colloquium you recently led, you argue that Genocide Studies scholars should find a new term for the actions that are referred to by perpetrators as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Can you explain why you feel this term should be replaced?

The term “ethnic cleansing” has some heuristic importance, for sure. Genocide Studies scholars typically use it to mean the destruction of an ethnic or racial group that does not necessarily include killing, but also the removal of an ethnic people from a territory, along with their cultural artifacts like religious buildings. However, the word “genocide” also contains this meaning in both its definition by the UN Convention from 1948 and in Raphael Lemkin’s own definition of genocide. 

Furthermore, the term “ethnic cleansing” puts too much emphasis on ethnicity. As we saw in the Đurišić example, it wasn’t just ethnicity that the Chetniks were targeting but religion, ideology, and other categories that didn’t fit within the Chetnik narrative for a postwar Yugoslavia. Many victims of “ethnic cleansing” didn’t even identify as any given ethnicity until they were painfully made aware of the differences. This isn’t to say that they didn’t know about or recognise difference between peoples or groups, but rather that ethnicity wasn’t the main or only marker by which they identified these differences. “Ethnic cleansing,” however, places ethnicity at the centre of the cause of violence.

Related to this is the origins of the term “ethnic cleansing.” The term “ethnic cleansing” is a perpetrator-created term and places the emphasis on the perpetrators rather than the victims. As far as I can tell, “ethnic cleansing” dates to at least the nineteenth century in the Balkans, though this may be different for other regions. Yet, even in that context it was the ethno-nationalists who used the term.

In contrast, Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1943 as a result of his own experiences of losing family members as an Eastern European Jew. For me, the study of Genocide and mass violence should be centered on the victims. Though I study the perpetrators, it is to better understand why and how someone could do something so horrific. It’s an attempt to understand, and hopefully prevent, the reasons for creating more victims. To use “ethnic cleansing” is to continually remind the survivors and victims of their trauma and places the emphasis on the often-wrong categories. So, while the term has its value for scholars, it’s a term that has entered the cultural and social consciousness of wider society and insidiously maintains the perpetrator at its core.

The Chetniks of the Second World War were known to have collaborated particularly closely with the Italians in the Italian-occupied regions of the former Yugoslavia. John Gooch, one of the world’s leading writers on Italy and the two world wars, says in his latest book, Mussolini’s War, that at times the Italian occupying forces appeared unable to control the violence committed by the Serbian Chetniks and the Croatian Ustaša. What factors do you think led to such intense violence by these nationalist groups?

Answering this can become quite complex, so I’ll do my best to be both succinct and clear while attempting as full an answer as possible. I see the answer through the lens of regionalism. In Montenegro, for example, the Chetniks there were contending less with Communist and Partisan influences and more with the context of Albanian and Muslim violence.

In some ways, their violence was in retaliation for acts perpetrated by Muslim and Albanian groups, but more often this was used as a rhetorical device to drum up support and extremism. In Montenegro, the intensity of violence was mostly due to the ethnic nationalist zealotry of its leadership, Pavle Đurišić. He had built around him a type of cult of personality based on charisma. Montenegro also had the context of tribal identities and kinship ties, though the tribe to which Đurišić belonged fractured along nationalist and communist lines. However, I still think it’s an area worth exploring. 

In Dalmatia, on the other hand, the intensity of violence began first as reprisals, and this is beyond the use of mere rhetoric like in Montenegro. The Dalmatian Serbs were contending with survival against a genocide against their own by the NDH and the Ustasha, so much of the killing by the Dalmatian Chetniks, the Dinara Chetnik Division (DCD), began in response to this.

However, as the NDH pulled back on the mass killing, the DCD continued to target ethnic Croats and Muslims, even into Bosnia and Hercegovina. This was still rooted within the context of the NDH genocide in that the DCD saw it as “proof” that Serbs and Croats could no longer be neighbours. They also harnessed this within their rhetoric to argue that since the genocide happened once before, it has the risk of happening again unless the two communities could be separated or one of them eliminated once and for all. 

It should be remembered, however, that Italian and German troops participated in many acts of violence alongside the Ustasha and Chetniks, too. Often, the Germans or Italians would function more as a professionally-organised army, while the Chetniks would take on the role of guerrilla paramilitaries and “mop up” after more traditional military actions. “Mopping up” often entailed targeting non-Serb groups. The Italian and German troops would also take part in the killing, as well as the pillage and plunder. So, while in some contexts the Italians may have felt powerless, such as during the events of January and February 1943, they also had a hand in the violence, too.

When we are thinking about ‘collaboration’ and ‘genocide’ more broadly, still within the context of occupied former Yugoslavia, which parts of society provided a perceived legitimacy for the genocidal acts of the Ustaša and the Chetniks? Did these movements have support from their community’s elites?

Again, this should be looked at regionally and on a case-by-case basis: in some localities, yes while in others no. In the areas in which “elites” did support the Chetniks, they were often part of the Chetnik structure. In Dalmatia, the Chetnik leader Momčilo Đujić was the local elite. In the interwar period, he built and repaired churches, petitioned the government to improve the conditions of Dalmatian Serbs, and worked on the cultural conditions of Dalmatia’s Serbian community. When the war came to Dalmatia in 1941, it was a natural progression for someone like Đujić to take on a leadership role in the Chetnik insurgency. 

Community “elites” should also be looked at in relative terms, too. The people who made up the Chetnik Central Committee, for example, were prominent members of nationalist organisations such as the Sokol Movement, the Serbian Cultural Club and other groups. These groups, as some of the names suggest, attracted people of limited scope. Very rarely would a Muslim or Croat, for example, become a member of the Serbian Cultural Club. However, there were some Muslims who considered themselves Serbs and who became prominent in the Ravna Gora Movement. Mustafa Mulalić comes to mind, as does Dr. Ismet Popovac and Mustafa Pašić.

In all of these interwar groups the main ideological glue was a Serbian nationalist identity. Mulalić, Popovac and Pašić could all belong to the Ravna Gora Movement because they still shared a common Serbian identity with the movement. Regardless, these figures were rare and relatively marginal. Their only importance exists in the one unique identifying factor and that’s their religion, Islam, which the Ravna Gora Movement attempted to use to its advantage later in the war, around 1944 and 1945. Without this important signifier, these men would have remained obscure figures in a defeated movement.

Finally, what can we learn today from understanding the genocidal acts committed by the Chetniks and Ustaša in the Second World War?

From the perspective of someone who looks at the perpetrators, I try to understand their motivations, desires, and goals of committing genocide, in other words, the how and the why. My goal in looking at it from this angle is to work towards preventing, or at least minimising, acts of genocide. The struggle for me is looking at it from the perpetrators’ perspective while still ensuring that the victims’ voices are heard, that their stories are told, and that the perpetrators don’t become lionised.

Besides that, I think looking to the Second World War, particularly in the Yugoslav context, has important repercussions for the wars in the 1990s and other genocidal conflicts in general. When the wars in the ‘90s broke out, a lot of the paramilitaries grew out their beards, wore the Chetnik insignias, and fought alongside those of the Yugoslav National Army which displayed the communist red star to create a strange hybrid of Chetnik-Partisan traditions.

I think this has evolved into the 21st-century to the point that groups calling themselves Chetniks are currently fighting in Ukraine on the side of Russia; there’s a movement in Serbia to have the Chetniks identified as an anti-fascist resistance movement alongside the Partisans despite the obvious collaboration with the Axis; and, it helps us better understand what’s going on and why in our present circumstances.

We can look to this time period and to this part of the world and draw certain conclusions that are applicable to other contexts. The Srebrenica genocide wouldn’t have occurred in 1995 without similar, repeated occurrences, happening in the 1940s in the same way that the “cleansing” of Serbs from the Krajina couldn’t have happened without the context of the NDH and the Dinara Chetnik Division. To study this time period, these groups, and this part of the world is to know the past, to try to understand the present, and to try and have some control over the future. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Politika News would like to thank Stevan for his time. Bozanich’s published works can be accessed here.

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Article Image Source: Store norski leksikon

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