Comic Book Hero: Peter II of Yugoslavia

The German-led invasion, occupation, and dismemberment of Yugoslavia which began on April 6, 1941 was another triumph for the Axis. In the U.S., however, the conquest was seen as a criminal act of aggression against an American ally. The U.S. government refused to recognize the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. Instead, the U.S. threw its support behind the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile led by Peter II which emerged.

Peter II was lauded and showered with encomiums for his defiance and resistance of Adolf Hitler. This euphoria of support culminated in his invitation to the U.S.  in 1942. Another sign of the positive regard in which he was held was his appearance in an American comic book in 1941.

Peter II of Yugoslavia was featured in the American comic book Military Comics: Stories of the Army and Navy, No. 3, in the October, 1941 issue. The story was entitled “School Children Defeat Hitler. A True Story.” It was in the section Secret War News.

The script, pencils, and inks were by Al McWilliams. Military Comics were published by Quality Comic Magazines, Inc., in Buffalo, New York. The General Manager and Founder was Everett M. “Busy” Arnold. The editor was William Erwin “Will” Eisner. The Executive and Editorial Offices were located in the Gurley Building in Stamford, Connecticut. The comic book ran from August, 1941 to October, 1945.

The story recounts the March 27, 1941 coup in Yugoslavia based on U.S. media accounts of the event. The overthrow of the pro-Axis regime in Yugoslavia was particularly significant because it demonstrated resistance to Germany at a time when other European countries were joining the Axis bloc.

The introduction stated that the purpose was to tell “the true story” of the Yugoslav coup by demonstrating the popular opposition to the March 25 pact with Adolf Hitler. “The pro-Nazi Cvetkovitch government willingly sold their country to the invaders.” The lesson was that even though Yugoslavia was defeated, its people had resisted and had continued the conflict as a guerrilla war. It was an example for other countries who sought to confront Axis aggression.”In Berlin Hitler gloated and boasted to Yosuke Matsuoka, Japanese Foreign Minister, that he was invincible.” Yugoslavia showed that resistance and opposition were possible.

In the first panel, Yugoslav children are being taught German in a Belgrade grade school. One student, Milan, however, protests and walks out. The teacher exclaims that he will report them. The student declares: “We don’t want any German lessons!! Long live Yugoslavia and King Peter!!”

An  American reporter notices the student “strike” against the “enslavement of their country” and telephones his bureau chief to have the story relayed to New York immediately via Istanbul. Berlin is alarmed and calls its ambassador in Yugoslavia to stop the strike. It is setting a bad precedent in other countries. The government under Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovich arrests Milan and his friends.

Their act of defiance encourages the “secret revolutionary society” the “komitadji” to spring into action in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia. The komitadji guerrillas, the then name for what would be termed Chetniks, proclaim that the time is right for an uprising. A member says that he will burn their membership cards. They are all regarded as dead. They have given up their lives for freedom by following the guerrilla traditions of the country.

College students march in the streets in Belgrade. They shout: “Down with the Pact!! Long live Yugoslavia and democracy!! Long live King Peter!!” The pro-Nazi government of Cvetkovich is alarmed. They order the arrest of the students. Some are killed while others are arrested by the secret police.

In Berlin, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, hands a list of the names of komitadji members to a subordinate for Cvetkovich and Yugoslav Regent Prince Paul to round up. Komitadji are arrested. The komitadji resist, however, by attacking the German Gestapo agents.

Then on March 27, 1941, General Dusan Simovich, the head of the Yugoslav Air Force and a komitadji member himself, calls a meeting to plan the overthrow of the government. He shouts: “Long live King Peter!!” An image of a red-clad woman drawing a sword from a sheath is shown under the title: Democracy strikes!”

Yugoslav Air Force Colonel Knezivich is shown waking Peter at 2:00AM to inform him of the coup. Peter jumps into action. Colonel Knezivich is a reference to Major Zivan Knezevic, a member of the Yugoslav Royal Guards, who was one of the key plotters of the coup, along with his brother Radoje Knezevic. He states that the “spineless Cvetkovich government” has not only endangered the country, but has “degraded the proud Serbian name.” King Peter “drafts a proclamation that later startles the world.” Yugoslav tanks move into Belgrade during the night. General Simovich goes to see Peter as the coup begins. Cvetkovich and his ministers are arrested and taken into custody as “traitors”.

Prince Paul is taken into custody. General Simovich takes him to the government building in a car. Belgrade residents cheer when they see Peter hurrying to the building. Peter comes face to face with Cvetkovich and Prince Paul. Peter tells them that he has decided to assume the crown and abolish the regency.  He is told: “Why, you’re just a boy!! How can you cope with an international situation!!” Peter responds: “I may be only a boy, but I’m ready to give my life to my country!!” He asks them to both resign. They do so, but Prince Paul promises to “get even”. Peter appoints Simovich as the Premier of the new government. He is asked to form his cabinet.

Peter reads a proclamation over the radio. He has taken over the crown. The regents have resigned. The Army supports him. Simovich is in charge.

In the morning, Belgrade residents are jubilant that the loyal Yugoslav Army is in “complete control” while “the people are filled with renewed hope.” Residents exclaim: “Hurrah for King Peter!!” School children and college students hang effigies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the streets. “Angry Serbians smash the offices of the German and Italian tourist agencies.” “Serbian mountaineers” are shown battling German “tourists”, Gestapo agents and the advance guard of the reichswehr, the Army of the Third Reich.

In the last panel, the Belgrade school children who had started the revolt hold an honor parade on the terazia in Belgrade. They have defeated Adolf Hitler by their defiance and resistance.

This was how Peter and the Belgrade coup were depicted in the U.S. The comic book portrayal in Military Comics reflected the accepted view in the U.S,, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The overthrow of the Cvetkovich government was perceived as a daring act of freedom and democracy. Yugoslavia had defied an aggressor. Peter had risen to the occasion and had assumed leadership in a time of crisis.