In the early morning of April 6, 1941, Axis armies began their Balkans campaign. Originally aimed only at Greece, the operation was officially expanded a week earlier to include the kingdom of Yugoslavia. By the end of April, all of the Balkans was in Axis hands.
Hitler’s official excuse was that the British had landed in Greece, seeking to repeat the Great War scenario on the Salonika front. Back then, the British, French, Greek, and surviving Serbian forces joined in a great push in September 1918 to roll up the Central Powers’ weak southern flank and knock Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary out of the war. Obsessed with the British and nursing a grudge against the Serbs — whom he blamed for causing the Great War — Hitler decided to invade.
Another consideration was shoring up Mussolini, whose forces had suffered a string of defeats. The Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940 had failed, with the Greeks counterattacking deep into Italy’s staging area in southern Albania. In Africa, an entire Italian army had surrendered by January 1941, leaving the British in control of Cyrenaica. Germany responded by dispatching to Africa an expeditionary force under General Rommel, and making plans for the invasion of Greece, codenamed "Marita."
A Kingdom Divided
Complicating the plans to attack Greece was Yugoslavia — a neutral kingdom sitting on top of key Balkans transportation routes, railways, and rivers. Created in 1918, as southern Slavic-inhabited regions of the collapsing Austria-Hungary joined the liberated Kingdom of Serbia, it was renamed "Yugoslavia" in 1929, by King Aleksandar I.
Nation-building ambitions failed to take into account the sheer devastation wrought on Serbia by two major wars in a decade. His father’s kingdom had never had a chance to recover from a major conflict with the Ottoman Turks (1912) or the follow-up war with Bulgaria (1913) before it was attacked by Austria in 1914. The Great War completely devastated the Serbian economy and caused enormous loss of life (over 16% of the overall population of Serbia). Neither the German nor the Italian unification had significant internal opposition. They also took decades — time which Yugoslavia ended up not having.
Stjepan Radić, leader of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) rejected unification and remained one of its most outspoken opponents. Tensions between Croats and Slovenes (Catholics and former Austro-Hungarian subjects) and the (largely Orthodox Christian) Serbs grew worse by the day. In June 1928 one Serb parliamentarian responded to a Croat’s insult with gunfire. One bullet critically injured Radić, who died several weeks later. The king responded by dissolving the parliament, banning all political parties and proclaiming autocracy, on January 6, 1929. This royal dictatorship lasted till 1934, when Aleksandar was assassinated during a state visit to France.
One of the measures the king enacted was to abolish the previous regional sub-divisions, and reorganize the country into nine regions (banovina). In 1939, Serb politicians gave in to demands of the re-established HSS, and created the Croatian banovina, thus recognizing the failure of Yugoslav nation-building project.
The Pact and the War
Yugoslavia had been a founding member of the "Little Entente," an alliance with Czechoslovakia and Romania established in 1921 to counter the Habsburg restoration. It began to unravel under aggressive German diplomacy following King Aleksandar’s assassination. Hitler had dismantled Czechoslovakia by the spring of 1939. France had surrendered in June 1940. Romania turned to Hitler for protection when portions of its territory were seized by the USSR in August — as secretly arranged by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. At German insistence, Romania ceded territory to German allies Hungary and Bulgaria, and in November 1940 officially joined the Tripartite Pact.
This left Yugoslavia and Greece isolated in the Balkans — and indeed, in Europe — and Greece was already at war with Italy. The Yugoslav government knuckled under and signed the pact on March 25, in Vienna.
A strategy of appeasing Germany made sense for a government aware of its hopeless strategic position. Memories of the Great War were still fresh with the people, however. On March 27, Serb crowds took to the streets, denouncing the pact and the government. A cabal of generals overthrew the regency of Prince Pavle and installed Aleksandar’s 16-year-old son Petar II as the new king. Yet the new government did not renege on the pact, hoping still to avoid a war.
Hitler would have none of it. Infuriated by the coup, which he saw as an insult to the German Reich and himself personally, he ordered the army to amend the Greek operation with a Yugoslavian sideshow (Unternehmen Straftgericht).
The conquest of Greece and Yugoslavia was quick. Axis forces quickly crushed the Yugoslav royal army, singling out Serb officers and enlisted men for captivity while releasing others. Yugoslavia was dismembered, parts of it annexed to or occupied by Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. On April 10, Croatian Ustasha terrorists declared the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). Italians administered a pre-1912 Montenegro, while Germans set up a collaborator government in Serbia that was reduced to its pre-1878 borders. Today’s Kosovo was largely annexed to the Italian-allied regime in Albania. By April 30, Greece had fallen as well.
After the initial shock of the invasion had worn off, Greeks and Serbs began to resist. In Greece, organized resistance first began in Bulgarian-occupied areas, spreading later to the rest of the country. In the shattered Yugoslavia, the royalist resistance began coalescing in May, led by Col. Dragoljub "Draga" Mihailović. Communists set up their own resistance movements in July 1941, following the German invasion of the USSR.
Four years of horrific bloodshed followed. The NDH engaged in a systematic genocide of Jews and Serbs. Germans, Hungarians, and Bulgarians also persecuted the Jews, though some managed to find refuge in Italian-controlled territories. In German-occupied Serbia, the resistance was crushed with utmost brutality, with Germans executing up to 100 civilian hostages for each of their soldiers killed, and up to 50 for each soldier injured. Ideological differences and Communist disregard for civilian suffering quickly caused a rift between them and the royalists; they fought against each other till end of the war, when Soviet armies helped the Communists prevail.
The What Ifs
The Italian invasion made Greece’s eventual confrontation with Hitler inevitable. Its postwar fate was decided by a deal British PM Winston Churchill proposed to Stalin during an October 1944 meeting in Moscow, giving the British and the US overwhelming influence in Greece. As part of the deal, the Soviets would also get 90% of influence in Romania, 75% in Bulgaria, and 50% in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Stalin later denied it, and secured 100% influence in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Greece became a member of NATO.
The British had already thrown Mihailović and the royalists under the bus by 1943, and their fate was sealed when Soviet forces crossed over from Romania in 1944, in pursuit of the retreating Germans. But the Communists broke with Stalin in 1948, and the Yugoslavia re-established on their terms remained neutral throughout the Cold War.
Seven decades after the March coup and the April war, two decades after the Communist Yugoslavia drowned in another bloodbath, a question haunts modern Serbia: was it possible to avoid the war in 1941? Historians and politicians who argue that it was tend to be motivated by hindsight, claiming that anything should have been done to prevent the horrors of war, genocide and the eventual Communist takeover (none of which anyone at the time could have foreseen). They point the accusing finger at the British, whose intelligence operatives encouraged the coup. Had the Serbs not provoked him, they say, Hitler would have honored the treaty.
The Right Thing To Do
Yet Hitler had never honored a single treaty he’d signed. Addressing the troops on April 6, Hitler claimed that German consular staff was "daily being subjected to the most humiliating attacks" and that "innumerable German nationals were kidnapped and attacked by Yugoslavs and some even were killed." He alleged that Yugoslavia was planning a general mobilization "in great secrecy." These are obviously fabricated excuses, on the same order as the "Polish attack" at Gleiwitz. Furthermore, Hitler described the events in Belgrade using the language of 1914:
"When British divisions were landed in Greece, just as in World War days, the Serbs thought the time was ripe for taking advantage of the situation for new assassinations against Germany and her allies."
In the May 4 address to the Reichstag, Hitler condemned the coup in Belgrade as a personal insult, a "provocation emanating from the State that once before had set the whole of Europe on fire and had been guilty of the indescribable sufferings that befell Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria in consequence."
Knowing how much his grudges about that war motivated Hitler to seek power in the first place, how likely was he to embrace the people he saw as the "element of tension" as allies? Given that the logistics of the Greece invasion simply demanded transit of at least supplies through Yugoslavia, why else would Hitler have wanted Belgrade to join the Pact? For the sake of international friendship and peaceful, prosperous development? Please.
From a purely practical perspective, defying Hitler in March 1941 was indeed suicidal. So, for that matter, was defying Austria in June 1914 — or the Ottomans in 1804, or 1389. But for a people who built their very identity on dignity and freedom, it was the only right choice.
Any similarities to present circumstances are definitely not accidental.