German occupation troops committed horrific atrocities and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia during World War II. The country was dismembered and ceased to exist in 1941. In Serbia, the Pancevo and Kragujevac mass executions of civilians were the most brutal and shocking atrocities and war crimes. German occupation forces resorted to reprisals and punitive measures against the civilian population due to the guerrilla movements which were causing casualties for German occupation forces. The magnitude and scope of the Yugoslav resistance was unprecedented and came as a surprise to German forces. The German occupation forces had the law on their side as the victors. Under international law, the guerrillas had virtually little if any legal protections and could be summarily shot. They were technically not “legal combatants” under international laws and customs of war. They were what could be termed “terrorists”. The Germans took full advantage of their rights as occupiers. German forces were brutal against the resistance movements.
One of the most brutal actions was the execution of two 20-year-old Slovenian guerrillas who were killed on a farm in the Slovenian village of Idrijske Krnice west of Idrija in Slovenia on June 11, 1944. These executions are notable because German forces photographed the killings. The way the prisoners were killed was also noteworthy. The German troops used an axe to behead them.
Were the executions war crimes and murders of POWs? As guerrillas, it could be argued that they were not “legal combatants” but were what was then called “free shooters” who could be summarily killed. As such, they would not be afforded the customary rights of POWs. The issue would revolve around whether they were civilians or combatants and whether they shot at or endangered the lives of the German occupation troops. In the photos, the two guerrillas are wearing civilian clothes. One is wearing a white shirt. There are no signs of a military uniform of any kind.
The two captured prisoners were beheaded by members of the SS Volunteer Karstwehr Battalion during the anti-guerrilla operation codenamed Annemarie in the summer of 1944. The soldiers in the photos are Waffen SS troops. The insignia on the sleeve of one soldier is a Waffen-SS chevron designating the rank of SS-Rottenführer. The insignia is a double silver-aluminum sleeve chevron on a black wool base. Their uniforms are those of mountain troops of the Waffen SS.
Slovenia ceased to exist as a country after the German invasion of Yugoslavia which began on April 6, 1941. The Axis allies divided up the spoils. Germany annexed the north region. Hungary annexed the eastern section. The southern section was annexed by Italy. The newly formed Independent State of Croatia occupied some towns as well. The Slovenian town of Idrija was occupied by Italian troops from 1941 to 1943. It is in the Slovenian Littoral region. German troops occupied the region after Italy surrendered in 1943.
The German goal was to resettle the northern section of Slovenia with ethnic Germans and to expel the Slovenian Slavic population to Serbia, Croatia, and Germany. Italy formed the Province of Ljubljana in its zone.
The troops who committed the executions were members of the SS Volunteer Karstwehr Battalion which was made up primarily of ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsche from the Balkans and the South Tyrol region of Italy. It was engaged in several anti-guerrilla operations: Zypresse, Märzveilchen, Maulwurf, Hellblau, Osterglocke, Liane, and Annemarie. It was eventually downsized to a brigade as the Waffen Mountain Karstjaeger Brigade of the SS in December, 1944. The brigade retreated into Austria between Villach and Klagenfurt where it surrendered to the British 6th Armored Division on May 9, 1945.
The formation was initially organized in 1942 as an anti-guerrilla unit as a company based in the Karst region of the former Yugoslavia, Italy, and Austria. The Karst area was a limestone region that was barren and mountainous. The company was established at the Dachau SS training base on July 10, 1942. The core of the men were taken from the supply services training and replacement battalion of the Bosnian Muslim 23rd Waffen Mountain Division of the SS “Kama” , officially designated as the 2nd Croatian division. On July 18, 1944, the Battalion was upgraded to the 24. Waffen-Gebirgs-(Karstjaeger-) Division der SS on the orders of Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler. SS Standartenfuehrer Hans Brand was the first commander in 1942 until June, 1944 when he was replaced by SS Sturmbannfuehrer Josef Berschneider.
In February, 1944, the battalion conducted Operation Ratte, Rat, against guerrilla forces in the area during which it burned down the villages of Komen and Rihenberg and resettled the population in camps. In one operation in Cividale del Friuli, in northern Italy, 15 members of the battalion were captured, tortured, and killed. Their bodies were found with their decapitated heads placed on bayonets.
In Slovenia, the guerrillas were part of the Chetnik guerrilla movement, the Yugoslav Army of the Homeland, led by Draza Mihailovich, and the Communist National Liberation Front, a Partisan movement. The two guerrillas in the photos are believed to be Slovenian Communist Partisans.
The two guerrillas had been tortured before they were beheaded. They were beaten with logs, kicked, and dragged by the hair. Reportedly one SS member had a knife with which he cut out their eyes. They were taunted: “Do you see now the Allies?” They were laughed at and mocked.
They were then taken to a chopping block. A large group of members from the battalion gathered around the execution site and watched. Two SS members held the victims by the arms. Another member with rolled up sleeves then beheaded them with an axe. Some of the SS troops smoked cigarettes. Some are wearing tropical uniforms. Their uniforms are clearly and unmistakably those of Waffen SS mountain troops. Some are wearing Waffen SS mountain caps and camouflage jackets and belts and buckles.
The German troops put the two decapitated heads on a table with a note next to it. It was written in Slovenian: “Warm greetings from SS KWB – the men in green jackets!” The “SS KWB” abbreviation stood for “SS Karst-Wehr-Bataillon”, “SS karst defense battalion”. The objective was to terrorize the local population and to deter them from supporting or aiding the resistance movement.
In one of the series of photographs of the execution, two SS troops hold the prisoner down with his neck on a chopping block which appears to be a tree stump. A third SS soldier is shown bringing the axe to the neck of the prisoner. The SS troops are shown watching in the background smoking cigarettes.
In a second photograph, an SS soldier with rolled up sleeves brings the axe down on the neck of the prisoner. The executioner has a satisfied grin on his face. A second SS soldier is holding the prisoner. His Waffen SS uniform is clearly visible with SS collar tabs and rank insignia on the left arm. On the left, one SS soldier is wearing shorts as part of the Waffen SS tropical uniform.
In the third photograph, an SS soldier who is shirtless has swung the axe and beheaded the prisoner. A second SS soldier, who held the prisoner down, grimaces and steps back.
In the fourth photograph, the decapitated head of the prisoner is shown dangling from the body on the stump. The SS soldier who held the prisoner is shown smiling broadly. His Waffen SS uniform and SS runes collar tab can be seen and the rank insignia on his left arm.
In the firth photograph, the two decapitated heads are shown. The one on the right is mutilated and shows signs of torture.
No one was brought to trial or prosecuted for the executions. SS Standartenfueher Hans Brand who initially created the formation and commanded it, died in 1959. Josef Berschneider, a commander of the SS Volunteer Karstwehr Battalion at that time, was the military officer in charge at the time. Karl Weiland, a former SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer in the formation, was questioned but denied any involvement. One of the SS soldiers wielding the axe was identified as the former SS-Oberscharfuehrer Walter W. from Pforzheim in Germany. He had died, however, in 1989.
The executions remain as shocking images of World War II in the Balkans. They are merely the norm in war. What made them special in this instance was that there was a photographer present who preserved the images.