Exposing Tito: Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945

By Carl Savich

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In 1973, American diplomat and historian Walter R. Roberts published his analysis of the roles Draza Mihailovich and Josip Broz Tito played during the World War II conflict in Yugoslavia. The book was entitled Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945, published by Rutgers University Press, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The book contained a revelation that threatened to expose the carefully crafted and manufactured image of Tito in both the West and the East, but especially in the West, particularly in the U.S. The bombshell was that Tito and his Communist guerrillas, the Partisans, had collaborated with the Nazis, with German occupation troops in the former Yugoslavia. Roberts was able to document this history of Partisan-German collaboration. The evidence of the Communist Partisan collaboration with the Nazis had been long-covered up and suppressed by the Yugoslav Communist dictatorship which the Soviet Red Army had installed in Belgrade in October, 1944.

The Communist regime in Belgrade was furious and up in arms. Tito’s henchmen attacked the book and the author. Roberts was perceived by the Communist regime as exposing Tito and his Partisan movement. It had to be confronted and attacked.

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Walter R. Roberts had been the Counselor of the American Embassy in Yugoslavia from 1960-1966 and the Associate Director of the United States Information Agency or USIA. The Tito regime knew that he could not be dismissed lightly or discredited easily. Roberts was hardly a “Serbian propagandist” or Chetnik sympathizer. As far as the Communist Yugoslav government was concerned, he could not be allowed to define the World War II history of Yugoslavia.

Roberts documented the collaboration by chronicling the meeting between the Partisans and German occupation officials as follows:

“Within the framework of negotiating … prisoner exchanges, a meeting was arranged … between the commanding general of the German 717th Infantry Division, Lieutenant General Benignus Dippold, and three high-ranking representatives of the Yugoslav Army of National Liberation: Milos Markovic, Vladimir Petrovic and Koca Popovic. Only Popovic, an army commander, used his real name. Markovic was in reality Milovan Djilas, a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPY, and Petrovic was an alias for Vladimir Velebit, in whose house in Zagreb the radio transmitter was hidden through which the CPY and the Comintern had exchanged messages in 1941.

“A German memorandum states that the German-Partisan conversation took place in Gornji Vakuf (west of Sarajevo) on March 11, 1943, from 9:30 to 11 A.M. . . . During the March discussions, the Partisan delegation stressed that the Partisans saw no reason for fighting the German Army – they added that they fought against German troops only in self-defense – but wished solely to fight the Chetniks; that they were oriented toward the propaganda of the Soviet Union only because they rejected any connection with the British; that they would fight the British should the latter land in Yugoslavia; that they did not intend to capitulate, but inasmuch as they wanted to concentrate on fighting the Chetniks, they wished to suggest respective territories of interest.

“The content of this German memorandum of conversation is confirmed by a document which the Partisan delegation left behind and which bears the signatures of the three Partisan emissaries. In it Djilas, Velebit and Popovic proposed not only further prisoner exchanges and German recognition of the right of the Partisans as combatants but, what was more important, the cessation of hostilities between German forces and the Partisans. The three delegates confirmed in writing that the Partisans ‘regard the Chetniks as their main enemy.’

“. . . . A few days later, on March 17, the German [Foreign] Minister in Zagreb, [SA Obergruppenfuehrer Siegfried von] Kasche, sent a telegram to Berlin in which, clearly referring to the German-Partisan talks, he reported the possibility ‘that Tito and supporters will cease to fight against Germany, Italy and Croatia and retire to the Sandzak in order to settle matters with Mihailovic’s Chetniks.’

“Meanwhile in the wake of the discussions between the three high Partisan representatives and Lieutenant General Dippold, further talks were arranged at Zagreb. . . . Velebit and Djilas passed again through the German lines and were brought by a German military plane from Sarajevo to Zagreb on March 25, 1943. There they had talks with Glaise von Horstenau and his staff.”

Milovan Djilas and Vladimir Velebit met with German General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau in Zagreb. Horstenau was the German Plenipotentiary to the Independent State of Croatia, Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska (NDH).

“Not having received a reply from Ribbentrop to his message of March 17, Kasche sent another telegram to his Foreign Minister on March 26, 1943, in which he reported that two duly authorized representatives of Tito had arrived in Zagreb for the purpose of discussions with German, Italian and Croatian military representatives. One of them, Kasche said, was Dr. Petrovic, a Croat, and the other a Montenegrin by the name of Markovic. These people, he added, again offered to stop fighting if they could be left in peace in the Sandzak . . . .

“On March 29, Ribbentrop sent Kasche a telegram in which he prohibited all contact with the Partisans and asked on what Kasche based his optimism. . . .

“The discussions between the Partisan representatives and the Germans in Zagreb regarding a possible cessation of hostilities got nowhere, not only because the Partisan proposals were unacceptable to the Germans but, above all, because Berlin utterly opposed any accommodation with the Partisans. When apprised of the Zagreb contacts, Hitler reportedly said: ‘One does not negotiate with rebels – rebels must be shot.’

“. . . . The fact remains, however, that the Partisans, who labeled Mihailovic and the Chetniks traitors for their accommodation with the enemy, sent two high-ranking officers to the German general in Zagreb with the purpose of arranging a cease-fire, after having declared in writing that their main enemies were the Chetniks and not the occupying Axis forces.

”No wonder that there is great sensitivity in Yugoslav Communist circles about that chapter in history. None of the official Yugoslav documents mentions the Velebit-Djilas trip to Zagreb, while every possible Chetnik Axis meeting is duly recorded.”

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March 30, 1943 telegram by SA Obergruppenfuehrer Siegfried Kasche, the German ambassador to the NDH, to Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, in which he states: “The reliability of Tito’s promises has been proven in all previous instances.”

Roberts’ primary sources for these meetings and discussions between the Partisans and German forces concerning collaboration were based on the Nuremberg Armed Forces High Command document series which was assembled by prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trials by the U.S. The document that disclosed the meeting was NOKW 1088, Record Group 238. The Communist dictatorship that Tito established after the war covered-up and suppressed this evidence of Communist Partisan collaboration with Nazi forces

One method of attack against the expose made by Roberts was to author a counter “narrative”, to publish a new book that would discredit or minimize the revelations in Roberts’ account. Yet another Yugoslav government sponsored diatribe against Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks would not do. First of all, it would lack any credibility because readers and scholars would note that it was government propaganda, manufactured on command by the Yugoslav Communist regime. Bias and self-interest would stand out like sore thumbs. As a Communist published book, it would also be dismissed as unreliable. More importantly, it would not be fully accepted in the West, particularly in the U.S. It had to be seen as a non-interested, non-foreign, non-government, non-Communist book. It would also have to be in English. Second, it would have to appear superficially to be neutral and unbiased, an objective, scholarly and academic account by a non-Communist, non-Yugoslav government author.

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The book that Josip Broz Tito and the Yugoslav Communist regime eventually came to back and to support as the rebuttal or counterargument to the Walter Roberts book was the one by Croatian-born American economist and historian Jozo Tomasevich. His book was entitled The Chetniks: War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945 published in 1975 by Stanford University Press, at Stanford, California. This was the book Tito relied on to “correct” the mistakes in the Roberts book and to present the historically and politically correct version, that is, the version that the Communist government of Yugoslavia and Tito could support. This was the book that had to be ideologically correct. And it was.

Tito and his Communist subordinates worked closely with Tomasevich in creating the book. Tito gladly provided interviews and assisted Tomasevich in any manner desired. He relied on Tito’s own accounts and recollections, the 1946 Communist regime show trial published as The Trial of Dragoljub-Draza Mihailovic by that same government in English as by the Union of the Journalists’ Association of the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatian Communist Yugoslav military historian Colonel Vojmir Klajkovic, the Assistant Director of the Military History Institute in Belgrade, a former Partisan commander since 1943 whose area of expertise was the Yugoslav Communist Movement and Josip Broz Tito, and Jovan Marjanovic, another Communist Yugoslav government sanctioned or court historian. And, of course, it was no surprise that Tito’s view and narrative matched Tomasevich’s exactly.

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Croatian-born American economist and historian Jozo Tomasevich in 1986.

What was so objectionable about Roberts’ book? The book was generally favorably reviewed and received in the U.S. and the West. Foreign Affairs magazine characterized it as “the best comprehensive book to date on the subject”. In Yugoslavia, however, it was “initially negatively received by Yugoslav official circles.” It was so badly received in Yugoslavia that the Yugoslavian government lodged a formal and official protest with the U.S. government. This was unprecedented and singular. This book caused such a stir and outrage that one government had protested to another. In 1973 the Yugoslav government filed an official protest with the U.S. State Department and with the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade castigating the book. Why and how could a book on history cause such indignation and ire?

The Yugoslav government protested the alleged attempt by Roberts to equate the two Yugoslav resistance movements in World War II, the Communist Partisans and the royalist Chetniks. On the original cover, both Tito and Mihailovich appear side by side. For the Yugoslav government and regime of Tito, only the Partisans were legitimate and a genuine liberation movement. The Chetniks were collaborationist and traitorous according to them. In other words, Roberts was not following the orthodox, post-war narrative or script. He was, in fact, challenging and undermining that carefully constructed narrative, which took decades to manufacture. He was toppling the propaganda edifice that the Communists and their Western enablers and backers had worked so hard to create and construct.

Roberts explained why the book was so objectionable to Tito in 2013: “Tito. Mihailovic and the Allies. 1941-1945 … which, I understand, had aroused Tito’s ire because it revealed that during World War II Tito’s Partisans had had a secret meeting in 1943 with representatives of the German High Command. Throughout the years, Tito and his associates had accused General Mihailovic of having ‘negotiated’ with the Germans and indeed had executed Mihailovic in 1946 as a traitor. Every effort was made to conceal the Partisan-German meeting and my revelation led to my book being banned in Yugoslavia and my name stricken from the Yugoslav embassy’s guest list. … [I]ts original edition was banned in Yugoslavia.”

The most glaring affront or error in Roberts’ account was to document and to chronicle the Partisan and German collaboration which occurred in March, 1943 in Zagreb. This revelation was central. It challenged the main argument of the Partisan claim to legitimacy and to power. It threatened to bring down the house of cards. The main contention of the Partisan regime was that Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks collaborated with the Germans and the Axis occupation troops. This was how they differentiated themselves from their rivals. This was what made them unique and special. This was their raison d’etre. But Roberts had shown that they too had collaborated with the Nazis, with German and Axis occupation troops. This proof pulled the rug from under their claim to legitimacy and to their right to rule.

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Another bombshell in Roberts’ book was the revelation of the identity of the main Partisan negotiator with the Germans in 1943. It was Montenegrin Serb Milovan Djilas, one of Tito’s main lieutenants and one of the key leaders of the Partisans. This was a startling revelation that discredited and undermined the Partisan movement because it documented collaboration by the highest echelons of the Partisan movement, by the leadership itself. This was damaging and a major body blow to the Partisan image. The Partisans were themselves guilty of what they accused their rivals, the Chetniks.

This factual and documented revelation, however true and accurate, was unacceptable to Tito and the Communist intelligentsia or elites in Yugoslavia. It was a stubborn fact that had to be attacked and confronted. Suppression was unthinkable in the U.S. and in the West. Tito could not merely make it illegal to publish the book. He could not arrest Walter R. Roberts, an American citizen. More subtle methods were needed. A different approach was required.

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Collaboration: Communist Partisans of the Ljubic Partisan Detachment with German Wehrmacht soldier August Heller, bottom, center, near Cacak, 1941.

This is where Jozo Tomasevich came in. Although a Croat born in Kosarni Do on the southern Dalmatian coast of Croatia, he had lived for decades in the U.S. and had developed his academic credentials at San Francisco State University in California. He was seen as a moderate who had worked for the monarchist Yugoslav government in the 1930s. He had also worked for government and international agencies as well. He had lived in the U.S. since 1938 and could write in the English or American vernacular. He had the academic credentials and the contacts. He was in the perfect position to write the definitive, orthodox view of Draza Mihailovic and the Chetniks that would justify and rationalize the post-war narrative. His account explained why Mihailovich was abandoned. His account sanctioned and legitimized American and British foreign policy during and after World War II. It suited everyone well. For this reason, it became the accepted and mainstream account in the U.S. and in Communist Yugoslavia where it was translated and published during Tito’s lifetime in 1979. In other words, Tito and the Communist regime endorsed the book and gave it the government stamp of approval. It was, in essence, their account.

In his account of the Partisan collaboration, Tomasevich gives his own spin that invariably jibes with the Communist narrative. He minimizes the episode and seeks to negate the consequences and implications. It is an isolated incident that has no bearing on his account. He is, in effect, an advocate for the Partisan position, presenting an apologia and a rationalization. In short, he is an apologist for the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito.

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Soviet Lieutenant General Nikolai Vasilievich Korneyev, left, with Tito at his headquarters in Drvar, Bosnia-Hercegovina, February, 1944. Korneyev was the head of the Soviet military mission to Tito and the Partisans. Tito is holding a Soviet-made PPSh-41 or Shpagin submachine gun.

Tomasevich conveniently suppresses the fact that this was not the only time that the Partisans collaborated with the Axis. The Communist Partisans collaborated with the Nazis from the time of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact from August 23, 1939 up to July 4, 1941. When Hitler attacked Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, the Communist Partisans did not resist the invasion. They welcomed and assisted and abetted the destruction of Yugoslavia and the fall of the government. This is treason. It was only when the Soviet Union was attacked on June 22, 1941, that the Partisans changed this collaborationist policy. The decision to begin an armed struggle against the Nazi occupation forces was not made until a July 4, 1941 meeting held in Belgrade. The Communists celebrate the Day of Uprising on July 7, when a Communist murdered two Serbian government officials. The Partisan resistance began with the murder of two Serbs, not with any resistance against Nazi or German troops. This was because they shared the Axis goal to destroy the monarchist Yugoslav government. According to Djilas, in 1945 Communist Partisan leaders decided that July 7 should be the anniversary for the beginning of resistance, when shots were fired “at gendarmes and not at the Germans.”

From April 6, 1941 to July 7, 1941, the Partisans collaborated with the Nazi occupation forces. Only when the Soviet Union was attacked were they reluctantly forced to begin a resistance. Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik forces, by contrast, had launched a resistance movement from the start of the German invasion of Yugoslavia.

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1979 Communist Yugoslavia edition of The Chetniks: War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945 published in Zagreb under the Josip Broz Tito regime by SN Liber or Sveucilisna Naklada Liber as Cetnici u drugom svjetskom ratu 1941-1945 by Jozo Tomasevich. Translated into Serbo-Croatian by Croatian poet and writer Nikica Petrak. The Preface was by Croatian historian and Communist Partisan Colonel Vojmir Kljakovic.

The revelations made in Roberts’ book were subsequently shown to be accurate and true. The Partisans had collaborated with the Nazis. Both Tito and Milovan Djilas admitted the fact themselves.

In Wartime, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1977 in New York, Djilas admitted that he was the top Partisan leader who collaborated with the Nazis in 1943. He conceded that “my pseudonym remained unidentified until the publication of Roberts’ book.” Djilas also acknowledged that Roberts’ revelations were true and accurate and that they had already been exposed in 1973 in the book: “I would not make public the essence of the negotiations with the Germans, if they had not already been made widely known abroad —in greatest detail in Roberts, Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, pp. 106-112.”

Djilas rationalized and justified the Partisan collaboration with the Nazis as expedient: “Neither I nor the other Central Committee members had any pangs of conscience … The negotiations were held in great secrecy. There were no differences among the top leaders, except that [Aleksandar] Rankovic and I were more dubious of the outcome than Tito. As for a more permanent truce and broader agreement, no one really believed in that.”

The Partisans had proposed that the Communist guerrillas under Tito would agree to collaborate with the Nazis if they were allowed by the Germans to focus their efforts against the Chetnik guerrilla forces. Djilas and Vladimir Velebit had been flown in a German airplane from Sarajevo to Zagreb for the meeting. The Partisans expected an American and British landing on the Yugoslav Adriatic Coast that would have allowed them to link up with Chetnik forces and effectively make the Chetniks the winners in the civil war.

In a speech made on November 12, 1978 in Jablanica, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Tito admitted that the revelations about the Partisan negotiations about collaboration with the Nazis in 1943 were true and accurate.

The revelations about Partisan collaboration with the Nazis were not new. It was known publicly at least since 1949. British, Austrian, German, and Yugoslav authors had discussed the collaboration in their books. British author Stephen Clissold had mentioned the negotiations in Whirlwind: An Account of Marshal Tito’s Rise to Power published in 1949 in London by The Cresset Press. Austrian historian Wilhelm Hoettl had documented the Partisan collaboration in 1950 in Die Geheime Front, Organisation, Personen und Aktionen des deutschen Geheimdienstes, or The Secret Front, the Organisation, People and Activities of the German Secret Service which was reprinted in 1954 in English by Enigma Books. The book was reprinted in London and in New York. German historian Rudolf Kiszling noted it in 1956 in Die Kroaten. Der Schickalsweg eines Suedslawenvolkes, or The Croats: The Fateful Path of the South Slav People. In 1965, Yugoslav historian Ilija Jukic presented it relying on German Ministry of Foreign Affairs documents in Pogledi na proslost, sadasnjost i buducnost hrvatskog narodna or Views on the Past, Present and Future of the Croatian Nation published by Hrvatska Politicka Knjiznica in London. In 1969, Yugoslav born historian Ivan Avakumovic documented the collaboration in Mihailovic prema nemackim dokumentima, or Mihailovic Based on German Documents, which was published by Savez “Oslobodjenje”. Avakumovic taught and lived in Canada.

Why did Roberts’ book cause such an uproar and outrage in Yugoslavia? Why attack a fact known for decades? Walter Roberts was an American author whose book was in English. His was not a peripheral account but threatened to become the definitive account. He had academic credibility. Roberts had also worked at the American Embassy in Belgrade for six years, in which time he had met with Tito and other high ranking Yugoslav government officials. Moreover, the book would have a much wider readership and would become mainstream. The earlier accounts could be easily dismissed and the damage contained. The earlier books had mentioned the Partisan negotiations with German occupation forces without elaboration or analysis. They, in effect, could be ignored or marginalized. But Roberts’ book could not so peremptorily be ignored. He presented the event in the context of the Partisan propaganda claim that only they fought against Axis occupation forces and only they never collaborated. Roberts had disproved the major premise of their legitimacy. It threatened to undermine and challenge the official post-war narrative. This is why the Yugoslav government attacked the book. This also explains why the Jozo Tomasevich book was sponsored and backed by the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. First, it was by an American author written in English. Second, it reinstated the postwar orthodox narrative which had been accepted in the West but was challenged by Roberts.

Jozo Tomasevich’s book maintains the Communist perception and analysis of Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik Movement. He dismissed out-of-hand any other perspectives and paradigms of analysis. The most egregious defect is his refusal to analyze American accounts and evidence. His excuse was that American witnesses and accounts were ignorant of what was actually going on in Yugoslavia during World War II. These accounts were, on the whole, highly supportive of and exonerated Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas. He relies instead on Yugoslav Communist sources that are subjective, prejudicial, and conclusory. Only the Communist Partisan narrative was legitimate or accurate for Tomasevich. As a result, the book merely regurgitates and rehashes the arguments and allegations that were shown to be untrue or misleading. The major flaw of the book is that it is one-sided, biased, and skewed to reflect the post-war account that is self-serving and incomplete, and, thus, ultimately presents an erroneous and an inaccurate picture.