Document Analyst's Report

In October I worked through the second half of the records of the German war in Yugoslavia, covering the years 1943-44. This amounted to 214 documents analyzed, with 1256 pages of material. The basic story remained the same as for the early war-the capture and killing of hostages as a deterrent and punishment for guerrilla attacks, hence the name The Hostage Case-but some interesting strategic and tactical shifts occurred.

In mid-1943 the focus of the war in southeastern Europe shifted from Serbia to the west coast of Yugoslavia, especially following the collapse of the fascist regime in Italy. The German military expected an Anglo-American invasion of Croatia and an effort to drive from there northward into Austria and Germany. The English had been active enough in the area, sending agents and supplies to help the partisans, to make the scenario plausible. The German response was as severe as it had been in Serbia, aggravated by a growing sense of desperation.

Basic orders: As an SS Division operated in Croatia, its orders included "the immediate arrest of hostages. The slightest resistance is to be broken with ruthless terror." In February 1944 General Kuebler, citing the Germans' numerical disadvantage against the partisans, was even more emphatic: "Terror against terror. An eye for an eye, A tooth for a tooth!"

Revised orders: Early in the war partisan fighters were considered criminals rather than soldiers, so captured partisans were shot rather than treated as POWs. In July 1943 Hitler revised the policy and captured partisans were kept alive and shipped to Germany for labor, particularly in the coal mines. Germany was running desperately short of labor at that point, which probably had more to do with the changed policy than respect for the laws of war. By the end of the war in the region, in 1944, the German army did show some respect for their adversaries, ironically because of the assistance the partisans were then receiving from the Allies (Anglo-American and Soviet), which included uniforms as well as weapons. Since the partisans now acted like an army and looked like an army, the German military recognized them as such-including the application of international laws regarding the treatment of POWs.

The ethnic problem(s): With the German army drained to the Russian front, the army in the southeast relied partly on other forces, including groups of anti-Soviet Russians (referred to as Cossacks in some records) and Bulgarians. The Russian units were sometimes investigated by the German commanders for being overly literal about the "ruthless terror" strategy against civilians. The use of Bulgarian troops in Serbia, a German officer noted, raised the problem that most Serbs scorned Bulgarians as inferior, while the Bulgarians had "an unbridgeable hate against everything of Serbian blood."

Matt Seccombe, November 2015