Friendship Pact: The 1941 Treaty Between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union

By Carl Savich

A Treaty of Friendship and Non-Aggression was signed between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union on April 5, 1941 at the time of the German attack and invasion of Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had signed the treaty in Moscow. Yugoslav Ambassador to the USSR, Milan Gavrilovic, had negotiated the treaty with Vyacheslav Molotov and had signed it in the presence of Joseph Stalin. The King Peter II regime, thus, was allied with the Soviet Union. The Romanian and Bulgarian monarchies were pro-Axis and allies of Germany while King Peter II was an ally of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had recognized the new Dusan Simovic regime that emerged after the March 27 coup as the legal government of Yugoslavia in a meeting between Andrey Y. Vyshinsky, the Soviet Vice-Deputy of Foreign Affairs, and Milan Gavrilovic, the Yugoslav Ambassador to the USSR and a Cabinet member in the Simovic government. This event was reported by the United Press (UP) in a news story with a dateline of April 3. Thus, there was de jure recognition of the anti-Axis Yugoslav regime by the USSR.

Yugoslav Ambassador to the Soviet Union Milan Gavrilovic, left, in Moscow with British Ambassador to the USSR Stafford Cripps, right.

The Soviet Union had opposed the pro-German Prince Paul regime and thus supported putting Peter II in power. British and U.S. intelligence likewise supported the March 27 coup. British intelligence played a dominant role. Soviet intelligence was also involved in the coup in Belgrade that deposed the Prince Regent Paul regime. The Soviet Government had sent an intelligence team to Belgrade on March 11, 1941 consisting of Vasily Zarubin, Major-General Solomon Milshtein, and A.M. Alakhverdov. After the March 27 coup, demonstrators could be observed with pro-Soviet and anti-German signs in the streets of Belgrade: “Down with Hitler”, “Power to the Soviets”, “Alliance with the USSR”, and “Three Cheers for Stalin and Molotov”.

Gavrilovic had strongly opposed the pact with Germany signed on March 25 in Vienna by Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic and Foreign Minister Alexander Cincar-Markovic. When it was announced, he tendered his resignation. He also convinced three other cabinet ministers from his party to quit.

Yugoslavia and the USSR had established diplomatic relations on June 24, 1940. Milan Gabrilovic became the first Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow. Yugoslavia had maintained an anti-Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. White emigres had settled in Yugoslavia after the 1917 Russian Revolution. The USSR was established in 1922 following the civil war. Yugoslavia continued to recognize the pre-Revolution Czarist Romanov monarchist government until 1939. This ended with the recognition of the USSR in 1940. One of the motivations for the switch to a pro-Soviet policy was to have a counterweight to Germany. Germany was applying pressure on Yugoslavia to join the Axis. The USSR was the only country that could provide assistance and support against Germany. A Yugoslav-Soviet alliance could, thus, provide diplomatic leverage against Germany.

Yugoslav Ambassador to the Soviet Union Milan Gavrilovic, first on left, front, at a railroad station in Belgrade with his daughter before his departure for Moscow, July, 1940.

By 1940, Yugoslavia was under increasing pressure to join the Axis block of nations. Germany had swiftly overrun the Benelux countries and France. Great Britain was reeling. They were the next German target. Yugoslavia was isolated. The Soviet Union was the only place to turn as a counterweight and buttress. The Royalist Yugoslav government had recognized the Soviet Union that year and had established diplomatic relations. Milan Gavrilovic, a jurist and the leader of the Agrarian Party from 1939 to 1941, was appointed the Yugoslav Envoy or Ambassador to the USSR. He had been photographed in July, 1940 at the Belgrade railroad terminal leaving for Moscow. He was shown with his daughter at the station. He negotiated the Soviet-Yugoslav Treaty on behalf of King Peter II with Dragutin Savic and Bozin Simic of the new Yugoslav regime under Peter II formed after the March 27 coup.

Gavrilovich had talked by telephone from Moscow to Belgrade to obtain authorization for the terms of the pact. He had been in the Kremlin meeting from 1:30 AM to 7:00 AM on April 6. These conversations were intercepted by German officials at Budapest, Hungary and transcripts were published.

Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Vyshinsky had proposed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav diplomats “received the impression that this was possibly the first step to a military alliance” with the USSR. Vyshinsky had asked on several occasions about the military supplies that Yugoslavia needed which the USSR could provide. At the third meeting, Vyshinsky stated that the Soviet Union sought to negotiate a deal on providing weapons and “eventually on some kind of an agreement such as they had proposed.” Gavrilovic, however, sought a military alliance between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Vyshinsky had to walk a fine diplomatic line. He could not risk antagonizing Germany. There were negotiations over the wording of Article II. In case one of the signatories was attacked, the other country would retain its “friendship” with that country. This was changed to “neutrality”. The Soviets did not want to give the Germans the impression that they were siding with Yugoslavia against Germany. The final decision was made to retain “friendship”.

Joseph Stalin was at the signing ceremony with Vyacheslav Molotov and Milan Gavrilovich. Photographs of all three at the Yugoslav-Soviet Pact signing ceremony in Moscow appeared in Pravda and in Izvestiya. “The pictures showed Stalin, Molotoff and Andrei Y. Vishinsky, vice-commissar of foreign affairs, beaming at Milan Gavrilovic, the Yugoslav minister” as reported in The Winnipeg Tribune on April 7, 1941, “Soviet, Slavs Sign Friendship Treaty”, page 3.

 

Yugoslav Colonel Dragutin P. Savic met with Joseph Stalin in Moscow in April, 1941 to negotiate the Soviet-Yugoslav Treaty as part of the negotiating team which sought to obtain Russian or Soviet aid for the Karadjordjevic monarchist government as reported in The Chicago Tribune, on March 31, 1943, page 10. The Yugoslav Envoy to the USSR, Milan Gavrilovic, and Bozin Simic, were the other two Royalist Yugoslav diplomats who negotiated the deal. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed on behalf of the USSR. The Treaty was reported officially to have been signed on April 5, 1941 in Moscow. The treaty was, in fact, signed on April 6, 1941 but was backdated to April 5 not to offend Germany by supporting a German belligerent. Germany attacked Yugoslavia during the treaty signing ceremony.

The new Yugoslavian government sought a military alliance with the USSR. Stalin told Gavrilovic to rely on Yugoslav forces themselves: “I hope that your army can stop the Germans for a long time. You have mountains and forests, where tanks are ineffective.” He encouraged resistance and the organization of guerrilla warfare. Molotov reiterated, however, that military assistance was not planned: Molotov told Gavrilovic that he was the “victim of a misunderstanding, since it had never been intended to conclude a military alliance with Yugoslavia, or support Yugoslavia militarily.” The Red Army did place its troops along the western border, however, on combat alert four days after Germany invaded Yugoslavia. This action had the result of aiding Yugoslavia because it forced Germany to take defensive measures and by switching the focus to a second potential front.

The text of the Soviet-Yugoslav Friendship or Amity Treaty was published in U.S. and other Western newspapers. The treaty was to last for five years. If either country was attacked, it committed each party to maintain “friendly relations” with the other but stopped short of military assistance. The treaty read as follows as published by United Press (UP):

“Moscow, Sunday, April 6 (UP) – Tass News Agency gave out today the text of the treaty between the Soviets and Yugoslavia, as follows.

A treaty of friendship and non-aggression between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet U. S. S R and His Majesty the King of Yugoslavia, inspired by friendship existing between the two countries and convinced that preservation of peace forms their common interest, decided to conclude a treaty of friendship and non-aggression and appointed for this purpose their representatives.

Presidium of the Supreme Soviet U. S. S. R. Vyacheslaff M. Molotoff, chairman of the Council of Peoples Commissars and Peoples Commissar of Foreign Affairs; His Majesty the King of Yugoslavia ” Milan Gavnlovitch, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of Yugoslavia, Bozhin Simich and Colonel Dragutin Savich, which representatives, after exchanging their credentials found in proper form and due order, agreed on the following:

Article I

The two contracting parties mutually undertake to desist from any aggression against each other and to respect the independence, sovereign rights and territorial integrity of the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia.

Article II

In the event of aggression against one of the contracting parties on the part of a third power, the other contracting party undertakes to observe a policy of friendly relations towards that party.

Article III

The present treaty is concluded for a term of five years If none of the contracting parties finds it necessary to denounce the present treaty one year before expiration of the above terms, the treaty automatically will remain valid for the following five years.

Article IV

The present treaty comes into force from the moment of its signing The treaty is subject to ratification as soon as possible The exchange of ratification instruments shall take place in Belgrade.

Article V

Treaty is drawn up in two originals in Russian and the Serbo-Croat languages, both texts being equally valid.

Moscow, April 5 On behalf of the Supreme Soviet of Soviet Russia.

V.M. Molotoff.

On behalf of His Majesty King Peter M. Gavrilovitch. B. Simich Colonel Savich.”

U.S. newspapers reported the Soviet view that the pact was intended to preserve peace: “Russia. Red press sees pact as effort to keep peace. Moscow. (UP). The soviet Russian press declared Sunday that the people of Jugoslavia did not want war and hailed the Soviet’s new pact of non-aggression and friendship with Jugoslavia as an ‘outstanding milestone’”, as reported in the Nebraska State Journal, on Monday, April 7, 1941.

Immediately after the March 27 coup, Yugoslav leaders had sent Stalin and Molotov a request for Soviet Red Army troops and that a military alliance be signed between the two countries. On March 30, 1941, the Soviet charge d’affaires in Belgrade informed Molotov that the new Yugoslav Government sought to establish full military and political relations.

Adolf Hitler was fully aware of the diplomatic developments and maneuvering between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Germany had its own objections to Soviet actions. Hitler perceived the USSR as posing an imminent existential threat to Germany. The Soviet Union had engaged in territorial expansion in Finland, the Baltics, and in the Balkans, particularly with regard to Rumania. From the German perspective, it was the USSR which was perceived as expansionist.

Hitler also took notice of the Yugoslav-Soviet pact. On April 25, Hitler telephoned German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Vienna to meet at his special command and control headquarters aboard the Amerika train stationed in Mönichkirchen, Austria, from where Hitler commanded the Spring Storm invasions of Greece and Yugoslavia.

This is how Hitler described the Soviet-Yugoslav pact to Ribbentrop: “Moscow’s pact with the Serbian putschist government was a downright provocation to Germany and a clear departure from the German-Russian treaty of friendship.” At this meeting, Hitler told him that he had decided finally to attack Russia. Ribbentrop wrote that Hitler informed him: “He said that all the military intelligence reaching him confirmed that the Soviet Union was preparing in a big way along the entire front from the Baltic to the Black Sea. … He was not willing to be taken by surprise once he had recognized a danger. In this conversation I recommended that he listen first to our [Moscow] ambassador, Count [Werner von der] Schulenburg. … I wanted to try a diplomatic settlement with Moscow first. But Hitler refused any such attempt and forbade me to discuss the matter with anybody; no amount of diplomacy could change the Russian attitude, as he now recognized it, but it might cheat him of the important tactical element of surprise when he attacked. He requested me to put on a show of complete support for his view, and explained that one day the West would understand why he had rejected the Soviet demands and attacked the East.”

The Yugoslav-Soviet pact can, thus, be regarded as one of the precipitating factors in Hitler’s ultimate decision to invade the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. The Soviet-Yugoslav treaty was one of the reasons that Hitler gave for making up his mind to attack the Soviet Union in a pre-emptive or preventive strike.

What were the reasons for the unprecedented treaty between a monarchy and Communist state?

The pact was motivated by national security and self-defense issues primarily. The ideological component was minor to non-existent. This was true for both parties to the agreement. The new Yugoslav Government sought to preserve its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom of action. It sought a military alliance with the Soviet Union as a bulwark against Germany and the other Axis countries. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, wanted to protect its interests in the Balkans and to prevent a German takeover of southeastern Europe. The pact benefited both parties at a time of crisis and potential military conflict.

Robert F. Kelley, the First Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, spoke with Gavrilovic at the Yugoslav Embassy there about his conversations with Joseph Stalin in Moscow. He wrote a memorandum of the talks on June 16, 1941. Gavrilovic was asked why the Soviet Union had displayed an anti-German foreign policy stance by signing a treaty with Yugoslavia. He replied that this new policy shift was caused by the anti-Soviet policies which Germany had pursued secretly over a long in Finland, the Baltic States, and in the Ukraine. Moreover, German plans to take over the Balkans by alliances with Bulgaria, Rumania, and then Yugoslavia, had aroused alarm in the Soviet Union. German hegemony in the Balkans had forced the USSR “to come out of its shell”. Soviet policy focused on deterring further German expansion in the Balkans. This is what motivated the Soviet Union to sign the pact with Yugoslavia.

From conversations with Stalin, Gavrilovic concluded that the Soviet Union was pursuing this course of action in order to secure more time to prepare for what was perceived in Moscow as an inevitable military conflict with Germany.

The Soviet Government sought to restrain German movements in the Balkans by its foreign policy initiatives in 1941. These included the assurance to Turkey that there were no territorial demands. On March 24, 1941, the USSR and Turkey released communiques that stated that each country would be neutral if either was attacked by another power. The Soviet Government also issued statements on Hungary and Bulgaria, both of which had joined the Axis. The signing of the Friendship and Non-Aggression Pact with Yugoslavia was part of this program to deter further German incursions in the Balkans.

The Yugoslav Pact was noncommittal by its terms. It had an element of bluff. No military alliance was agreed to. Only friendship was pledged. It was significant, however, in that for the first time the USSR was sending a signal or message that it opposed the new German foreign policy moves in the Balkans and that it was willing to take diplomatic action to counteract them.

Adolf Hitler brought up the pact with the German Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Count Schulenburg, whom he met at the Chancellery in Berlin on April 28, 1941. Schulenburg wrote that Hitler asked him what devil had possessed the Russians that they had signed that pact with the anti-German putschist regime in Belgrade—was it an attempt to frighten Germany? Schulenberg responded “that the Russians were just openly staking their claim on the Balkans; they were very uneasy about the rumors of a coming German attack as well.” Hitler blamed the Soviet Union for the “mobilization race”. To which Schulenburg answered that it was Soviet over-reaction to German actions. He reassured Hitler that the USSR would not ally with Britain now when that country was weak. If the Soviet Union sought to unite with the UK, it would have done so in 1939 or earlier. Schulenburg regarded the Soviet-Yugoslav pact as “a significant change in the course of Soviet foreign policy.” Why would Stalin conclude a pact with a country that faced imminent destruction and dismemberment?

The German Government got the message. Hitler got the message. Soviet leaders had anticipated that dogged and stubborn Yugoslav resistance in mountainous and wooded terrain would tie down the Wehrmacht in a quagmire for at least three months, which would preclude a German offensive against the USSR. The Yugoslav Campaign would buy the USSR time for an additional year of military preparation. Gavrilovic maintained that if the Wehrmacht was bogged down in Yugoslavia, the USSR would have “come out further from their shell”. Soviet opposition to German policy in the Balkans would have been more forceful and open, but not to the point of providing military aid to Yugoslav forces.

The swift Yugoslav and Greek collapse, however, forced the Soviet Union to do an about-face and shift its foreign policy stance. With the Yugoslav and Greek Governments no longer in existence, Soviet policy was to revoke all previous agreements and to distance themselves as much as possible from the exile governments. Assurances were made to Germany that the USSR would abide fully with the agreements they had made and that there were no objections to German foreign policy moves. The other moves taken were to sign a Non-Aggression Pact with Japan, a member of the Axis, to replace Molotov as Prime Minister, and to expel the Yugoslav Embassy from Moscow. Gavrilovic was forced to go to Ankara. He concluded that the Soviet Government was pursuing a policy of “appeasement” with Germany. The USSR was willing to make major concessions in order to prevent a war with Germany. In fact, the USSR was so accommodating that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Abwehr, or German military intelligence,  recalled that General Alfred Jodl had told him that if such an accommodating stance continued, there may be a need to manufacture an incident to justify a German attack.

Stalin had explained to Gavrilovic that the 1939 Soviet-German Treaty was necessitated by self-defense. No country wanted to confront Germany or ally with the USSR to counter German moves. Allied negotiators sent to the USSR before the 1939 pact were subordinate officials who were not authorized with full powers. Poland had denied Soviet troops passage over Polish territory and air space to Soviet aircraft. France planned to maintain a defensive posture and did not contemplate any offensive action against Germany, instead, relying on the dubious security that the Maginot Line provided. The British foreign policy was termed “appeasement”. The Munich Agreement of 1938 was the end result. The U.S. followed a policy of “neutrality” and “isolationism”, staying out of European affairs. The result would be that the USSR would have to do the bulk of the combat, if not all, in a war with Germany and face the full brunt of the Wehrmacht alone at a time when the Soviet Union was not prepared for such a conflict.

Like the 1939 Soviet-German treaty, the 1941 Soviet-Yugoslav treaty was motivated by national security and self-defense. That explains why governments that were ideologically at opposite points on the spectrum could sign non-aggression treaties.

Gavrilovic maintained that despite the 1939 treaty, there was strong anti-German and anti-Nazi sentiment in the Soviet Army, the Communist Party, and among the population, which Soviet Government sought to promote. He also reported that Soviet leaders were keen on the entry of the United States in the war.

When the Non-Aggression Pact between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union was signed, Gavrilovic asked if the Soviet leaders were opposed to the signing of the pact by two Army officers for Yugoslavia. The Soviet Government did not object and welcomed the suggestion. There was German annoyance at this because they saw this as Soviet military support for Yugoslavia. German officials were surprised and caught off guard by the signing of the pact. They filed a vigorous protest with the Soviet Government. It was clear, however, that no Soviet military help was going to be given, unless the situation changed dramatically on the ground. And this did not happen.

Gavrilovic stated that Adolf Hitler had personally told Yugoslav Regent Prince Paul at their meeting at the Berghof on March 4, 1941 that Germany planned to invade the Soviet Union in late June or early July of 1941. Hitler had revealed to Paul that Germany was securing the Balkans in anticipation of the eventual invasion of the Soviet Union. Once the Balkans were secured, Germany was prepared to invade the USSR. Gavrilovic had disclosed this conversation to Molotov, who replied: “We are ready”. This was what Milan Gavrilovich stated. There is no corroboration, however, of this statement. The minutes of the Hitler-Paul meeting do not contain any information of any invasion plans. Gavrilovich reportedly told Joseph Stalin about this German plan to invade the USSR. Soviet intelligence knew at least by December, 1940 that a German invasion of the USSR was planned. Winston Churchill had also informed the Soviet government that a German invasion was imminent based on British intelligence. British intelligence assessed that a German attack on the USSR would occur after June 19. They were two days off. This scenario is similar to the Pearl Harbor attack. The Stalin government knew Germany was going to attack, they did not know when. FDR knew Japan was going to attack the U.S., but he did not know when and where. The assumption was that U.S. bases in the Philippines would be attacked. Soviet leaders likewise knew a German attack was imminent and inevitable.

Soviet troops stand in front of a Royal Yugoslav Air Force Savoia-Marchetti bomber which escaped to the Soviet Union after the German invasion. May, 1941.

Following the German bombardment and invasion of Yugoslavia, eight Yugoslav Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 79 bomber aircraft of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force escaped by flying to the USSR. Four were successful in landing on Soviet territory. One of the Yugoslav aircraft were later used in the Soviet 69th Fighter Aviation Regiment or IAP as a transport during the Battle of Odessa in the fall of 1941. It crashed in October, 1941 due to engine failure during the evacuation from Crimea.

On May 8, 1941, the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia, Belgium, and Norway. Vyshinsky invited Gavrilovic to the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs or Narkomindel to personally inform him of the decision. On June 3, Milan Gabrilovic and his diplomatic staff went to Ankara, Turkey, by train. The Royalist Yugoslav mission to the USSR consisted of eight members. The expulsions were due to German pressure and Soviet efforts not to provoke Hitler. Moreover, Joseph Stalin had become the Premier on May 6, 1941, replacing Vyacheslav Molotov, indicating a shift to a more pliant and accommodating policy.

On June 22, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The long-awaited attack had occurred. The Soviet Union now sought to establish and re-establish alliances in this conflict. Yugoslavia was one of the countries that the Soviet Union turned to, although the country had ceased to exist by that time.

Soviet Ambassador to the Royalist Yugoslav Government in Exile from 1941 to 1943, Alexander E. Bogomolov.

On July 20, 1941, the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia, that is, with the Exile Government based in London. Milan Gabrilovic returned to Moscow. Alexander Efremovich Bogomolov became the Soviet Ambassador to the Royalist Yugoslavian Government in Exile in London in 1941. From 1941 to 1943 he would serve as the Soviet Ambassador to the Allied governments in exile in London, consisting of Norway, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia.

Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Maxim Litvinov, left, greets Peter II at Blair House across from the White House, as Yugoslav Ambassador to the U.S. Constantin Fotich looks on, Washington, DC, June, 1942.

The Yugoslav Government in Exile would remain allied with the Soviet Union until the end of the war. It was a wartime alliance that began with the 1941 treaty.

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