Myth: All Croatians were Fascists during World War II. The Serbian apologist writer Nora Beloff writing in the Washington Post may have been the first to add the astounding claim that "all Serbs were pro- Allied."
Reality: Like virtually every country on the European continent during World War II, both Croatia and Serbia had governments which collaborated with the Axis. All of the nations of Yugoslavia had elements which supported the Axis, and all had elements that were anti-Axis. However, it was the Croatian dominated Partizans, led by the Croatian Josip Broz Tito which formed the only true antiFascist fighting force in Yugoslavia and the most formidable Allied force in occupied Europe during World war II.
Flirting with Fascism
World War II came to Yugoslavia as a direct result of the pro-Axis sentiments of the Serbian controlled Yugoslav government. Under Prince Paul Yugoslavia moved steadily away from France and toward Germany after the death of King Alexander. As early as February of 1936, Hitler promised to support the government of Premier Milan StojadinoviE.
By 1937 Stojadinovic had visited Mussolini, developed his own squad of "Green Shirts" and adopted the Nazi salute. It was perhaps taking the title Vodja (Fuhrer) that finally sent Prince Paul into action, replacing Stojadinovic with Dragisa Cvetkovic who maintained the same pro-Axis foreign policy but with fewer Fascist trappings.
Prince Paul saw the Third Reich as the only power able to maintain the artificial state of Yugoslavia and he began secret negotiations with top Nazi officials in December 1939. He hoped that he could become King under the New Order, denying the young Crown Prince Peter his throne. Yugoslavia joined the Axis on March 24, 1941. The only member of the government who refused to sign the "Pact of Steel" joining the Axis was the Croatian minister, Vladko Macek of the Croatian Peasant Party.
After the signing Cvetkovic assured Hitler that Yugoslavia "...would be ready to cooperate with Germany in every way." In fact, Paul had been cooperating since 1939 with mass arrests of Jews, strict racial laws, and the prohibition of trade unions. By 1940, legislation had been passed limiting the types of businesses which Jews could own, direct, or work in and severely limiting educational access for Jews.
Coup and Invasion
On March 26, 1941, two Serbian generals, Bora Mirkovic and Dusan Simovic, led a British-assisted coup against the Cvetkovic government. The Anglo-American press went wild with stories about the Serbs stand against the Axis. In fact, the coup had its roots in both foreign and domestic policy.
Lost in the mythology is the fact that the generals did not think Germany would invade and wanted to maintain cordial relations with the Axis. On March 30, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister made a formal statement to the German envoy that the new government respected the Axis pact and that Simovic was "devoted to the maintenance of good and friendly relations with its neighbors the German Reich and the Kingdom of Italy." Simovic believed that his close personal friendship with several top Nazis, especially Reichmarschall Goring, would save the day. His error led to a German invasion on April 6.
Before seeing a single German soldier, the Serbian-led army withdrew from Slovenia and Croatia to defend Serbia, leaving the Croatians and Slovenes without supplies or ammunition. Most Croatian soldiers simply went home. The Yugoslav military disintegrated at first sight of the Germans as 100 of 135 generals in the top-heavy Serbian officer corps surrendered during the first week. Belgrade was taken by a single platoon of Waffen-SS shock troops led by a second lieutenant on April 12. As General Simovic and his government fled the country with millions in gold, only the Croatian Peasant Party minister Vladko Macek stayed to share the fate of his people.
Once a sale distance from the fighting, Simovic immediately announced that Yugoslavia had fallen because of the Croatians, all of whom were traitors and Fascists. Ignoring the military abandonment of Croatia and Slovenia, the mass surrender of the Serbian officer corps, and the obvious fact that the entire government had fled, Simovic announced that Serbia had been stabbed in the back. The Yugoslav ambassador to the United States, Konstatin Fotic, worked overtime spreading the tale that Yugoslavia had been defeated only because of Croatian disloyalty, despite the fact that his cousin headed the new pro-Nazi government in Serbia and that another cousin was leader of the Serbian Nazi Party.
The Croatian State
Croatia was occupied by Germany and Italy and divided into German and Italian occupation zones. The Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was established with the consent of Germany and against the expressed wishes of Italy which wanted to make it an Italian Kingdom. Italy went so far as to name a "King of Croatia," who never set foot in his erstwhile kingdom. The Croatian government was led by Ante Pavelic and his Ustase movement.
Pavelic had been an elected Deputy in Parliament and vice-president of the Croatian Bar Association when Alexander declared the dictatorship and dissolved Parliament. Pavelic founded the Ustase in exile with the aim of liberating Croatia by force. When war broke out, underground Ustase throughout Croatia took control of the government well before the Germans arrived. As in the Soviet Union, when the Germans did arrive, they were at first welcomed as liberators.