During WWII, Kosovo Albanians formed a volunteer Nazi army called Skenderbeg whose gunmen and officials engaged in large-scale arrests, deportations, rapes, looting and murders of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Albanians. This historical study originally appeared on Serbianna October 23, 2000.
by Carl Savich
The historical and political precedent for the creation of a Greater Albania was set during World War II when the Kosovo-Metohija region, along with territory in southwest Montenegro and western Macedonia (then Southern Serbia, now part of Macedonia, but a part of Stara Srbija in the medieval period), were annexed to Albania by the Axis powers, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany under a plan by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to dismember Yugoslavia.
The Kosovska Mitrovica region was retained under German occupation because of the Trepca mines. The districts of Vucitrn, Lab, and Dezevo or Novi Pazar were made part of the Kosovo Department. The Tetovo, Debar, Struga, Gostivar regions of western Macedonia were ceded to a Greater Albania under Italian administration. The Gnjilane, Vitin, and Kacanik districts were ceded by Germany to Bulgaria to administer.
In the initial stages of the occupation of Kosovo-Metohija, Germany organized a police force of approximately 1,000 Kosovar Albanians and Albanian paramilitary forces of the same number known as Vulnetara. During the Italian administration from 1941-1943, Kosovo Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Albanians were arrested, interned, deported, or murdered. Serbian houses were burned and Serbian inhabitants were driven out of Kosovo. Dozens of Serbian Orthodox churches were demolished and looted. Over 10,000 Kosovo Serb and Montenegrin families were driven out of Kosovo by Albanians who were put in charge of Kosovo-Metohija by the Italian and German forces.
Kosovo Serbs and Montenegrins were deported to forced labor camps in Pristina and in Mitrovica to work the Trepca mines and to Albania to work on construction projects as forced or slave labor. The Italian regime encouraged the Kosovo Committee and the Balli Kombetar (BK, National Union) to create an ethnically pure Albanian Kosovo as part of a Greater Albania. The government and police were made up of Albanians while the Albanian language and the Albanian flag were permitted in Kosovo-Metohija. Germany assumed direct control and re-occupied Kosovo when Italy surrendered in 1943.
On April 17,1944, pursuant to instructions by Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, an Albanian Waffen SS Division, the 21st Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS ‘Skanderbeg’ or ‘Skenderbeg’ (Albanische Nr.1), was formed, which occupied and ethnically cleansed Kosovo-Metohija of Orthodox Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Albanians. Himmler envisioned the formation of two Albanian SS Divisions, but the war ended before the second could be formed. Approximately 300 Albanian troops in the Bosnian Muslim 13th Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS ‘Handzar’ or ‘Handschar’ were transferred to the newly forming SS division. The Skanderbeg Division was made up of 6,491 ethnic Albanians, two-thirds of whom were from Kosovo-Metohija, ‘Kosovars’. To this Albanian core were added German troops, Reichdeutsche from Austria and Volkdeutsche officers, NCOs and enlisted men transferred from the 7th SS Mountain Division ‘Prinz Eugen’ or ‘Princ Eugen’, then stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
The Skanderbeg Division was made up of Albanian Muslims of the Bektashi and Sunni sects of Islam and several hundred Albanian Roman Catholics, followers of Jon Marko Joni. The total strength of the Skanderbeg Division was 8,500-9,000 men of all ranks.
The first commander of the Skanderbeg Division was SS Brigadefuehrer and Generalmajor of the Waffen SS Josef Fitzhum, from April to June, 1944. In June,1944, SS Standartenfuehrer August Schmidhuber, formerly an officer in the Prinz Eugen 7th SS Division, was appointed division commander until August 1944, when SS Obersturmbannfuehrer Alfred Graf (or Graaf) assumed command of the remanants of the division until May 1945.
The Skanderbeg Division engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Serbian Orthodox Christian and Jewish populations of Kosovo-Metohija and the Stara Srbija region. In Kosovo-Metohija, the Skanderbeg Division massacred unarmed Serbian civilians with impunity and indiscriminately in a systematic plan of genocide. The Skanderbeg Division sought to create an ethnically pure Kosovo-Metohija, ‘Kosova’ or ‘Kosove’, cleansed of Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, the untermenschen (subhumans) rayah targeted for extermination. The Skanderbeg Dision played a role in the Holocaust or Final Solution when, during its occupation of Kosovo-Metohija, it rounded up scores of Kosovo Jews and Orthodox Serbs, persons deemed enemies of the Third Reich, who were subsequently deported to concentration camps.
With the surrender of Italy in 1943, Germany re-occupied Kosovo-Metohija and German occupation forces sought to strengthen Albanian nationalist groups and to recruit Albanians into German forces. On September 16, 1943, Dzafer Deva, a member of the Balli Kombetar, organized the Second League of Prizren ”in cooperation with the German occupation authorities’ which intensified its efforts to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of Serbs and Jews and other non-Albanians. Attacks against Kosovo Serbs increased and intensified. Over 10,000 Kosovo Serbian families were driven out of Kosovo. The Balli Kombetar and the Second League of Prizren were instrumental in the creation of the 21st Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS ‘Skanderbeg’, which was envisioned as advancing the cause of Greater Albania by making Kosovo ethnically pure, cleansed of Serbs and Jews.
When Germany re-occupied Kosovo and Albania following the collapse of Italy in 1943, the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS sought to integrate the manpower into the German forces. Himmler wanted to use the Albanian manpower to form two Waffen SS Divisions. Moreover, ‘anthropological studies’ by the Italians during 1939-1943 purported to show that the Ghegs of northern Albania and Kosovo-Metohija were Aryans, herrenvolk, the master race, who had preserved their racial purity for over two millennia. Thus, from a practical and theoretical standpoint, Himmler was determined to form two Albanian SS Dvisions.
Bedri Pejani, the president of the Second League of Prizen, wrote Himmler a letter of March 19, 1944, asking that Himmler organize Albanian military formations as part of the armed forces of the Third Reich:
Excellency, the central committee of the Second Albanian League of Prizren has authorized me to inform you that only your excellency is united with the Second Albanian League, that you should form this army, which will be able to safeguard the borders of Kosovo and liberate the surrounding regions… Bedri Pejani
Hans Lammers sent Pejani’s letter to Himmler, who wrote Lammers about the planned formation of the two Kosovar Albanian SS Divisions:
Most respected party friend Lammers! I received your letter of April 29 together with the letter of the president of the central committee of the Second Albanian League of Prizren. At this time one Albanian division is being formed. As things now stand, I plan to form a second division, and afterwards an Albanian corps will be formed…
Yours very faithfully,
The 21st SS Division Skanderbeg was formed and trained in Kosovo and was made up primarily of Muslim Albanians from Kosovo, over two-thirds of the personnel were from Kosovo.
Eyewitness to Genocide
On July 28, 1944 in the village of Velika in the Lim region of Montenegro, Skanderbeg massacred 428 Serbs of which 120 were children and burned around 300 houses during Operation Draufgegner, in a joint attack with the 7th Prinz Eugen Division. Milunka Vucetic was an eyewitness, whose account of the massacre follows:
I approached the house of Milovan Vucetic. Around afternoon an army from Ivanpolje came into the area.We decided to take them bread, salt, which we had.
When the army approached, I saw how in the olive grove Tomislav, the son of Milovan Vucetic, played. Two soldiers took him, a third ran over… one took out a knife and began to skin the child alive from his eyes downwards. I could not watch what occurred. I began screaming and his mother Leposava-Lepa ran over to protect him. She was killed.
Radoje Knezevic, who survived the massacre, recalled:
I was only 11 years old when Hitler’s Division ‘Skanderbeg’ and ‘Prinz Eugen’ burned down the village of Velika and killed about 428 persons. Our family paid a heavy price that day.
On that day my mother Stojanka was killed and then her body burned. The same fate befell my two brothers Nedeljko (5 years old) and Ratko ( 11 months old). My sister Raba ( 18 years old) was killed as she was trying to protect her mother and young brothers. And she too was burned.
Draguna Knezevic gave the following account:
In the house of Andra Knezevic were killed Mona Stamatovic…and Toma Savic with her daughter… In the house of Leka Knezevic, Stojanka Knezevic (aged 42), her daughter Rabija (18 years old) and sons Nedjelko (6 years old) and Ratko (1 year old).
In the house of Ljuba Stamatovic Miroslava Stamatovic (50) was killed.
In the house of Janka Simonovic, his two daughters, Kosa (18), and Milojka (19) were killed. Milojka was thrown alive into a fire. In the house of Radote Simonovic, his daughter Milena (20) was killed… In the house of Nikola Tomovic, his wife Rabija and his daughter Milica, who was five years old were killed. Milica was killed outside and thrown in a fire, in the house.
Divna Vucetic, a resident of Velika, gave the following account of events during the massacre:
… I heard news of massacres in the surrounding villages so I became concerned for the safety of my children, the two eldest of whom I sent in the woods… I held in my lap my one year old son, Boza. On the threshold my daughter Persida approached, who was only three years old, and after her my two nieces, four year old Kata and three year old Nata, and daughters Cvete and Dusana Vucetic.
… A soldier approached with a gun… I told him that I wanted to bring him bread, as I was ordered to. He replied to that: ‘Germany has bread!’ He spoke our language perfectly. He then shot at me, killing my son Boza in my lap, and wounding me in the right hand.
The Kosovar Albanian Skanderbeg SS Division drove out or ethnically cleansed approximately 10,000 Kosovo Serbian families, most of whom fled as refugees to Serbia while Albanian colonists from Albania entered Kosovo and took over their lands, homes, and possessions. In Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo, Miranda Vickers described the ethnic cleansing of the Skanderbeg SS Division as follows:
Until the first months of 1944 there were continued waves of migration from Kosovo of Serbs and Montenegrins, forced to flee following intimidation… The 21st SS ‘Skanderbeg Division’ (consisting, as already mentioned, of two battalions) formed out of Albanian volunteers in the spring of 1944, indiscriminately killed Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo. This led to the emigration of an estimated 10,000 Slav families, most of whom went to Serbia… replaced by new colonists from the poorer regions of northern Albania.
The Skanderbeg Division engaged in acts or war crimes against the Kosovo Serbian population that constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Skenderbeg SS Division and the Holocaust
The 21st SS Division Skanderbeg played a role in the Holocaust or Shoah, the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem,the extermination of European Jewry. The first operation of Skanderbeg in Kosovo-Metohija was the raid on Kosovo Jews in Pristina which occurred on May 14,1944. The Albanian Kosovar SS troops raided apartments and homes where Kosovo Jews lived, looted their possessions, and rounded them up for deportation to the death camps. Kosovo Jews were subsequently placed in makeshift jails. The 21st SS Division Skanderbeg apprehended 281 Kosovo Jews, which included men, women, and children. From May to June 1944, Skanderbeg apprehended a total of 519 Kosovo Serbs and Jews.
During the initial German occupation of Pristina in 1941 before it was turned over to Italian administration, the property of Kosovo Jews was seized and they were conscripted for forced labor like Kosovo Serbs. In Kosovska Mitrovica, Jewish shops and stores were closed down and Kosovo Jews were ordered to wear a yellow band to identify themselves as Jews. The seizure of Jewish property was organized and conducted by the Gestapo and members of the Albanian Committee.
On May 20, 1941, Dzafer Deva, the leader of the Mitrovica district, ordered the seizure of Jewish property. Jewish businesses were supervised by members of the Albanian Committee. The seizure of Jewish businesses and property was conducted by Mamut Perijuc, Ramiz Mulic and Osman Ibrahimovic, who worked in conjuction with the German Gestapo. Ibrahimovic was the head of the commission overseeing Jewish property. He ordered the demolition of the Jewish synagogue and the destruction of papers and documents in the Jewish archive. In Pristina, the seizure of Jewish property and anti-Jewish measures were undertaken by the Kosovar Albanian regime placed in control and members of the Albanian Kosovo Committee, Maljus Kosova, president of the Committee, Dzemal beg Ismail Kanli, head of the police, Rasid Memedali, and Rifat Sukri Ramadan.
Yugoslav Jewish survivors blame the Kosovar Albanian Committee for inciting the first and second internments of Kosovo Jews. In the Jewish historical archives of Yugoslavia, the role of the 21st SS Division in the Holocaust and in the genocide of Kosovo Jews and Serbs is described as follows: ”From May 25 to July 2, 1944 the Division ‘Skanderbeg’ apprehended 510 Jews, Serbs… They were put in jails, while 249 were sent as forced laborers to the Reich.”
The Skanderbeg Division played a hitherto unacknowledged role in the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jewry.
In Kosovo: A Short History, Noel Malcolm noted that in the Djakovica region of Kosovo-Metohija, the Skanderbeg Division engaged in ”the round-up and deportation of 281 Jews” to the concentration-extermination camps in May 1944. According to Malcolm, ”they took part in the most shameful episode in Kosovo’s wartime history.” Malcolm, for the most part, ignored the actions or war crimes of the Skanderbeg Division against the Kosovo Serbian population during the same period. Of these 281 Kosovo Jews which the Kosovars deported, more than 200 were killed by the Germans at the Nazi death camp of Belsen. By 1945, 210 of the 551 Kosovo Jews known to reside in Kosovo had been killed.The division sought to create an ethnically pure, homogenous Kosovo, supported by Italy and Germany, a Kosovo ethnically cleansed of Orthodox Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Albanians, the untermenschen rayah, not part of ”enlightened Latin Christendom”, not part of the so-called West, not Aryans, but Slavs, who were targeted for extermination.
During the occupation of Kosovo-Metohija by Nazi Germany during World War II, an Albanian Waffen SS Division, Skanderbeg, was formed which committed war crimes against the Serbian Orthodox and Jewish populations which constituted genocide and crimes against humanity. The Skanderbeg Division engaged in a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovo Serbian and Jewish populations. This genocide contributed to the Albanian goal and policy to create an ethnically pure and homogenous Kosovo.
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Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. NY: New York University Press, 1998.
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