Black Propaganda, Yugoslavia, 1941-1943

Propaganda has always been a part of war. During World War I, the British government established a propaganda agency at Wellington House under Charles Masterman. It was initially focused on the U.S., its activities geared to drawing the U.S. into the war on the side of Great Britain. The British government also created two other propaganda agencies, the Neutral Press Committee under George Herbert Mair, which supplied news and information to neutral nations concerning the war, and the Foreign Office News Department, which issued official pronouncements on British foreign policy. In addition, there was the War Propaganda Bureau which produced publications for use in allied and neutral countries. The other propaganda outlets were the War Office Directorate of Military Operations, department MI7, and the Admiralty, which circulated reports and propaganda to the press in military zones. These departments and agencies overlapped, lacking any centralized control or supervision. In 1916, the propaganda agencies were centralized under the Foreign Office. These agencies and departments were united in February, 1917 into the Department of Information, which became the Ministry of Information in March, 1918.

Propaganda was perceived as “the fourth arm” of the war effort. Propaganda was regarded as “political warfare”. The aim of all propaganda is to weaken or destroy the morale of the enemy, to diminish or to destroy the will of the enemy to wage war. Conversely, the goal of propaganda targeted at allies is to increase and strengthen the morale of allied or friendly nations or forces and to strengthen their will to wage war and to maintain their resistance. Propaganda relies essentially on deception.

In the U.S., the government propaganda department was The Committee on Public Information, also known as the CPI or the Creel Committee. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) through Executive Order 2594 on April 13, 1917. The committee was made up of the chairman, journalist George Creel, Robert Lansing, Josephus Daniels, and Newton D. Baker. The committee set up bureaus and departments and offices in foreign countries to disseminate propaganda. It functioned until August 21, 1919.

With the emergence of World War II, the Ministry of Information (MOI) was the propaganda arm of the British government. There was, however, no centralized authority. There were overlapping and competing department s and bureaus handling propaganda for the British government. After September, 1941, several agencies were merged into and controlled by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE). The PWE was put in control of “black propaganda”, known as covert or secret propaganda, where the source was not revealed. Black propaganda relied on deception and deceit, using all means necessary to achieve its aims. White propaganda, also known as overt or open propaganda, by contrast, sought to avoid contradictory claims and presented straightforward facts. The MOI controlled white propaganda for the domestic front and to allied and neutral countries. The PWE controlled both black and white propaganda to enemy and enemy-occupied states. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) set up stations in Jerusalem to broadcast black propaganda to the German-occupied countries in the Balkans, Yugoslavia and Greece, as well as to countries allied with Germany, such as Bulgaria and Romania.

In “The Fourth Arm”, History Today, September, 2012, Vol. 62, Issue 9, and in Substitute for Power: British Propaganda to the Balkans, 1939-1944, Ashgate, 2012, Ioannis D. Stefanidis analyzed the British black propaganda broadcasts to Yugoslavia during World War II “to undermine Nazi domination of the Balkans via the airwaves.”

The British government set up a series of clandestine radio stations known as Research Units or RUs. These stations were set up in Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire, in May, 1940, north of London, consisting of 48 radio stations. Research Units also were set up in Jerusalem by the SOE. Three distinct types of RUs emerged. There were the “freedom stations” or “opposition stations” which were anti-Nazi stations aimed at allied and friendly nations. The second type was set up in occupied countries where they were meant to represent opposition or resistance groups in that country. A third type was a “counterfeit” or phony radio station. They impersonated and mimicked the Nazi regime and their collaborators in the occupied countries. Their goals were to destroy enemy morale in the occupied countries, raise allied morale, and encourage resistance and opposition to the enemy. Unlike white propaganda, black propaganda knew no bounds or limitations. All was permitted to these stations. They could distort, manipulate, deceive, and lie. The BBC, by contrast, was more restricted and limited. The RUs were not.  Whatever it took was accepted. They used short-wave radio broadcasts which were more difficult to track down but which limited their audience. In 1942, Aspidistra, or medium-range radios were used.

After the U.S. entry in the war following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, the PWE and SOE coordinated their black propaganda efforts with the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), the U.S. propaganda agency, and the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services.

For German-occupied Yugoslavia, “freedom” or “opposition stations” were created near the Woburn Abbey, fifty miles outside of London. These were the Serbian Y.2 or Sumadija station, the Croatian Y.1 or Zrinski station, the Slovenian Y.3 or Triglav station, and Y.4 or the “For Old Justice” station. These were all based in Woburn in the UK. The stations were moderate, centrist, and nationalist in their positions. They encouraged opposition and resistance to the Nazis but sought to discourage “premature uprisings”.  Ultimately, their objectives were to achieve “strategic deception”. They were supposed to represent “native opinion” and were to advance the self-interests of the occupied nations, while, in reality, they emanated from Britain and advanced British foreign policy goals and objectives.

The Karageorge Research Unit was set up in Jerusalem to support the resistance movement led by General Draza Mihailovich. The station broadcast in 1942 and 1943 in open support of Mihailovich and his resistance movement.

The Sumadija RU based in Woburn was set up three and a half months after the Axis invasion, occupation, and dismemberment of Yugoslavia which began on April 6, 1941. The origin of the station as a British propaganda outlet was hidden as was the fact that it was created to advance British national interests. The station was under the auspices of British historian Robert Seton-Watson under SO1. The station was subsequently put under the jurisdiction of the PWE under Francis W. Neate. The broadcasts at the station were conducted by a Serbian student who was part of the Yugoslavian government-in-exile based in London. The Sumadija RU was targeted to an audience of “young and progressive Serbs” and to “informed and reasonable political opinion” which supported Draza Mihailovich and the Yugoslav government-in-exile. The propaganda line of the Sumadija RU mirrored the MOI position on Yugoslavia relying on overt or white propaganda. The goals were to encourage resistance and opposition in German-occupied Serbia, to strengthen morale and will, to emphasize the excesses and depredations of the German occupation, and to condemn collaboration with the enemy.

Most significantly, the Sumadija RU was ambivalent and ambiguous about the Karageorgevich monarchy. Would it be restored? What would happen to the monarchy? Based on broadcasts of the station, it voiced the view that the role of the monarchy would decrease “in proportion to the Russian success”. This meant that the future existence and maintenance of the Karageorgevich monarchy would depend on whether the Soviet Union occupied Yugoslavia or not. The station espoused the post-war policy that “a free and united Serbia” would emerge as part of a unified, democratic, and centralized Yugoslavia. The station also maintained the policy of South Slav unity by emphasizing in broadcasts that the genocidal Ustasha regime in Croatia and Bosnia did not represent the majority of the Croatian people. The NDH regime was a puppet government established by Germany and Italy. The broadcasts emphasized that there was no popular support for the Ustasha in Croatia.

The station encouraged the members of the General Milan Nedic regime to join “the free Serbs” under General Draza Mihailovich. Sumadija had a restrained view of Milan Nedic. He was described in broadcasts as “a man of standing” who had “allowed himself to become the tool of the enemies of his people”. The station distinguished him from Ustasha Poglavnik Ante Pavelic, an acknowledged and fanatical, hardcore fascist who it referred to as “a criminal and regicide”. Ante Pavelic was one of the staunchest supporters of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. During the war, Pavelic organized the genocide in the NDH against Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Pavelic ran his own concentration and death camp system and it was he himself who conducted the genocide in the NDH. By contrast, Nedic was anti-fast and anti-Nazi. He assumed his role in German-occupied Serbia in order to assuage and counter the occupation policies in the country. Because of its attacks against Nedic, however, there were Serbian members of the Yugoslav-government-in-exile who wanted the station suspended.

The Sumadija RU cautioned against reckless attacks against the Axis occupation forces in order to prevent mass execution of civilian hostages and punitive reprisals against Serbian civilians. This was the position of the Yugoslav government-in-exile and of resistance leader Draza Mihailovich. The station emphasized “passive resistance” instead, such as measures to disrupt the economy and civil administration such as hoarding and black marketeering and acts of civil disobedience. The station was to promote and support the Mihailovich movement. Mihailovich, however, was not to have a say in how and what the station broadcast. The station espoused two objectives: 1) to maintain opposition and resistance to the German occupation by tying down and disrupting German troop movements; and 2) to keep the loss of civilian deaths to a minimum.

In 1942, a Soviet radio station, “Radio Free Yugoslavia”, attacked Mihailovich as a “collaborator”. Sumadija dismissed these Soviet allegations as “the fruit of enemy propaganda”. The station espoused unity under the command of Draza Mihailovich. Sumadija clearly paralleled the official overt propaganda line at that time.

Once British support for Mihailovich waned, however, and he was dropped in favor of the Communist Partisan movement led by Josip Broz Tito, the station switched its policy and called for a “united fighting front”. As British government support for Mihailovich decreased, the station was “held in reserve”, reflecting the government position. Increasingly, the station began distancing itself from Mihailovich and the Yugoslav government-in-exile. The stance became far more neutral and ambiguous by early 1943. Like the BBC, the Sumadija RU was no longer supporting Draza Mihailovich. It no longer represented the Yugoslav-government-in-exile. Both Mihailovich and the Yugoslav exile government attacked the station as being non-supportive, hostile, and antagonistic. Once the British government abandoned support for Draza Mihailovich in late 1943, the Sumadija RU was suspended and ceased to function.

How effective was black propaganda in Yugoslavia? What results did the Sumadija RU achieve? British black propaganda in Yugoslavia mirrored the vagaries, vicissitudes, and exigencies of the wartime policies of the British government. Both Draza Mihailovich and the Yugoslav government-in-exile ultimately rejected and renounced it. The result was that the legal and legitimate government of Yugoslavia was usurped by a Communist and Stalinist guerrilla movement that seized power by means of force and established a dictatorship regime. The Partisan Communist guerrillas were put in power in Belgrade only after the Soviet Red Army took the city on October 20, 1944. The end result was a usurpation of the legitimate government by force of arms. Moreover, by abandoning the guerrilla resistance movement led by Draza Mihailovich, allowed for the emergence of a Communist and Soviet-backed regime in Yugoslavia. The results were ultimately self-defeating and counter-productive.


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