German troops captured Zagreb on Thursday, April 10, 1941. The population of the city welcomed and celebrated the arrival of the Nazi forces. The Wehrmacht soldiers were seen as liberators and Adolf Hitler was idolized and emulated. The German troops that captured the city encountered massive crowds of jubilant and cheering throngs as German occupation forces entered the city. The euphoria and adulation expressed for Adolf Hitler, Germany, and the New Order in Europe were clearly evident.
This reception that German occupation troops received in Zagreb was in marked contrast to Belgrade where the reaction was hostile and antagonistic. The reason for this difference was that Adolf Hitler established an independent Croatian state after Yugoslavia was dismembered. Hitler had accepted and guaranteed the borders of Yugoslavia created at Versailles. After the rejection of the pact with the Axis and the subsequent March 27 coup in Belgrade, however, Yugoslavia was invaded, occupied, and wiped off the map. Croatia was the beneficiary because the new Ustasha leaders which Germany and Italy installed in Zagreb were staunch allies of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
Two Croatians stand guard at a framed and decorated portrait of der Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, in Zagreb on April 10, 1941.
German soldiers of the 14th Panzer Division enter Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, on April 10, 1941. In the background can be seen the Ban Josip Jelacic statue in downtown Zagreb. ullstein bild/Grainger Collection.
Offensive against Zagreb
The German plan of attack against Yugoslavia was that the First Panzer Group was to advance from the southeast. One motorized column was to be diverted to the southwest with the objective of taking Zagreb. The two German infantry divisions from the LI Infantry Corps deployed farther west were to attack Zagreb on April 10.
The German invasion of Yugoslavia targeted Zagreb because it was the capital of Croatia and was the second largest city in Yugoslavia representing the second largest ethnic population. Historically and traditionally, the Roman Catholic Croats had been part of the German and Hungarian political, military, and cultural traditions. Croatia had been a part of Austria-Hungary and was a dedicated and loyal ally during World War I. Hitler sought to revive this traditional affinity. Moreover, the leader of the Ustasha Movement in Croatia, Ante Pavelic, had been a supporter of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler before the German invasion of Yugoslavia. They, in turn, supported him and his movement.
German troops advanced from the north from bases in Austria and Hungary. Croatian troops in the Yugoslav Armed forces tasked to defend Yugoslavia’s borders offered tepid resistance. On April 10, Croat troops in the Yugoslav Fourth and Seventh armies deployed in the northern sector of the front mutinied. By the end of the day, both armies had collapsed and dispersed. In some regions, there were skirmishes between Croat and Serbian units. This allowed the German forces an unimpeded advance on Zagreb.
The 14th Panzer Division of the XLVI Panzer Corps spearheaded the assault on Zagreb. By April 10, the division had reached the Drava River. German troops forded the river using inflated rubber boats. From the Drava bridgehead it advanced southwestward in in the direction of Zagreb. The division had bifurcated into two armored formations. The Zagreb attack was secondary to the main German thrust against the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, by XLVI Corps and was meant as a diversionary move.
The advance on Zagreb was rapid. German aircraft had bombed the roads leading to the city. There were large Yugoslav formations that the division had to confront. Yugoslav troops offered stiff resistance at the outset. German tanks were able to break through. Yugoslav forces retreated to the west. The division moved swiftly, traversing 100 miles, and reaching Zagreb from the northeast in the afternoon.
“The Nazis Welcomed to Croat Capital”, April 15, 1941, Wide World Radiophoto. “Zagreb, Yugoslavia. The populace turns out to welcome the Germans arriving in Zagreb in the drive from the north of the wrecked kingdom.”
On the afternoon of April 10, troops of the German Second Army entered Zagreb where they were greeted as liberators by both political and military leaders as well as by the population of the city. A description of the reaction: “When the 14th Panzer Division entered Zagreb from the northeast it was welcomed by a wildly cheering pro-German populace.” The Germans took 15,000 Yugoslav prisoners of war in the offensive. The same day, the Independent State of Croatia was declared in Zagreb by Doglavnik Slavko Kvaternik. On the following day, units of the German LI Corps entered Zagreb. On that day, the new Ustasha regime ordered that Croats in the Yugoslav armed forces cease resistance and withdraw from all Yugoslav formations.
A column of German Panzer III auf H tanks on a Zagreb street, April, 1941.
In a German newsreel of the entry, Zagreb residents on trolley cars can be seen cheering German motorcycle units as well as spectators on the streets. In one scene, a small child jumps to touch one of the motorcycles. In another scene, Croatian women are seen throwing gifts to German troops. Two Croats were shown standing guard at a framed and decorated portrait of der Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler. The Croatian flag was showing being raised. Other Croats were shown tearing down a Yugoslav government emblem from a building and then stomping on it with their feet. In the final scene, Croatian civilians are shown being issued rifles. A special German High Command Communique issued on April 11 announced that German troops had entered Zagreb “amid the jubilation of the population.”
In the 2013 memoir 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning, Slavko Goldstein described the welcome that Croatians bestowed on the German Wehrmacht troops: “Children were waving small paper flags, while from the ranks of people a jubilant refrain sounded: ‘No war and we have a state!’”
Anti-Serbian and anti-Jewish laws and regulations were immediately promulgated that sought to create an ethnically pure Croatian state.
At the Adolf Eichmann Trial, State Attorney Bar-Or called Alexander Arnon, a former resident of Zagreb, as a witness to describe events in Zagreb after the German troops entered the city.
State Attorney Bar-Or. What happened during the first days in Zagreb? Please tell the Court about the establishment of the independent state of Croatia, to the extent that the matter is connected with the persecution of the Jews there.
Alexander Arnon. On 10 April 1941, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the German troops entered Zagreb. At 5 o’clock Marshall Kvaternik proclaimed the Independent State of Croatia. On 11 April, at 11 o’clock in the morning, the first Gestapo man arrived at the Jewish Community offices where I worked. It was the eve of Passover, and we were distributing mazot (unleavened bread) and charity. …
Q. Immediately after this strong measures began to be taken against the Jews in Croatia?
A. Not in actual fact. The papers began to incite against the Jews the very same evening. On shops one could see notices “Jews – Entrance Forbidden!” and similar things.
Q. Who were the active elements in the population in connection with anti-Jewish acts in Croatia?
A. They were the Ustashi, the so-called Croatian Fascists, who had remained in the country, had not emigrated, and had prepared the revolution inside the country. …
Q. Was anti-Jewish legislation promulgated in Zagreb in April 1941, and then in June?
A. Before the promulgation of the first laws concerning Croatian citizenship, that is a week or two after the entry of the German troops, all Jewish lawyers in Zagreb had been arrested and taken to a camp in Kerestinetz near Zagreb. On 30 April the first law about Croatian citizenship was published. Shortly afterwards there appeared the laws about the protection of the Aryan race and of Croatian honour.
Q. Can you see this document, No. 1438?
A. Yes, of course.
Q. What is it?
A. These are the regulations about the so-called solution of the Jewish Question.
Q. What is their main contents?
A. This is the regulation which, first of all, blocked all bank accounts, confiscated all safes, and sequestered all storage depots, while prohibiting the handing over of anything to the Jews.
Q. What is the date of this legislation?
A. 26 June 1941. …
A Jewish resident of Zagreb, Agram in German, with the newly introduced yellow patch with the Jewish star of David and the initial of the Croatian word for “Jew”, “Z”, for “Zidov”, 1941. ullstein bild/Grainger Collection.
Witness Arnon: … The regulation about the wearing of the Jewish Star appeared on 11 May.
State Attorney Bar-Or: You can see here a yellow patch, and on it a Star of David. What is under the Star of David?
Witness Arnon: “Z” Zidov – Jew. All Jews had to wear this sign, including second and third generation baptized Jews; it had to be worn on the left breast and on the right shoulder.
Presiding Judge: Do you wish to submit this, or would you rather keep it?
State Attorney Bar-Or: Perhaps the Court would be satisfied with looking at it.
Presiding Judge: You could perhaps photograph it, if you wish. I understand that he wants to keep it.
State Attorney Bar-Or: We shall photograph it and submit the picture.
Witness Arnon: I may have another one at home. I am quite ready to hand it in. In actual fact it must be said that all Jews, even babies in prams, had to wear this sign. We had several cases in Zagreb where officers of the German army were indignant and tore the sign off the children.
According to Arnon’s testimony, “There was latent anti-Semitism actually only in the Croatian part of Yugoslavia.”
In the memoir 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning, Slavko Goldstein described the welcome that Croatians bestowed on the German Wehrmacht troops: “Children were waving small paper flags, while from the ranks of people a jubilant refrain sounded: ‘No war and we have a state!’ ”
What followed was legislation which resulted in the incarceration of Serbs, Jews, and Roma in the Independent State of Croatia, which included Bosnia-Hercegovina, in concentration camps which were set up by the Croat regime itself. The largest camp was Jasenovac. Approximately 32,000 Jews were killed in the NDH during World War II, three quarters of the total prewar population. An estimated 40,000 Roma and 350,000 Serbs were also killed.