Terror In The Balkans –
German Armies and Partisan Warfare
By Ben Shepherd
Harvard University Press – £29.95
From a purely historical perspective, the Balkan theatre of war during World War II is more often than not overlooked. Given its calamitous and almost unrelenting barbarity, this is both surprising and shameful. Surprising, not so much because of the region itself, which, given its geographical location has endured a bitter, internecine hatred for many hundreds of years, but because hatred and history ought to have surely taught the region something.
Upon which it could so easily have acted upon.
What took place throughout Poland and Western Russia during the Second World War was as equally, if not far more harrowing than what happened in the former Yugoslavia. Although when Communism crumbled during the early nineties, rekindled hatreds didn’t necessarily infest the borders of Germany, Poland, The Ukraine and Russia. But as is well known, history does unfortunately repeat itself. With the exception of the ever on-going Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Balkans; where, following Tito’s death in 1980, rekindled hatred and regional savagery took hold to such an acute, horrifying extent, that Europe was once again plunged unto an ideology of the concentration camp.
For this reason alone, it is horribly shameful that so very little is known about the German occupation of the Balkans during the 1940s. This accounts for why Terror in the Balkans – German Armies and Partisan Warfare by Ben Shepherd, is such an imperative read. It’s clear. It’s concise. And apart from lending a great deal of authoritative background on the subject, the book sheds particular light on why some of those in charge of the occupation (Austrians especially), behaved so bestially: ‘’Many German officers, front-liners in particular, found defeat in 1919 and the humiliation heaped upon army and nation in its wake almost impossible to endure. Consequently, such men regarded the ‘’guilty’’ parties – democrats, Bolsheviks, and the Jews whom they synonymized with both – with an especially noxious loathing. Captain von Selchow, visiting Berlin days after the Armistice, wrote that ‘’we passed all sorts of people, the dregs of the city. Jews and deserters – gutter scum, in the vilest sense of the word – now rule Germany. But as far as the Jews are concerned, their day will come, and then woe to them.’’
Such ludicrously far-fetched and indoctrinated madness is what directly accounts for ALL Balkan Jews during the Second World War, being murdered. Nazi propaganda (‘’In the popular press and right-wing circles, Jews were scapegoated for the collapse of Austrian power, as well as for the inflation that subsequently crippled the post-war Austrian economy’’) may go some way in explaining the annihilation of the country’s Jewish population. Yet such counter-insurgency measures as killing one hundred Chetniks or Partisans (or civilians, it eventually mattered not) for every one German soldier killed, ultimately does not.
It surely defies every modicum of morality within warfare.
Regardless of the everyday brutalities of war itself, and the very difficult terrain within which the occupational forces were asked to live, fight, kill and be killed; it still doesn’t exonerate a kill ratio of 100:1. As Shepherd writes in the book’s Introduction, Hitler and his Generals defied all reasoning: ‘’Hitler and the Wehrmacht retaliated against the uprising with a campaign of hostage-taking and reprisals that was exceptional, even by Nazi standards, in the scale of indiscriminate butchery that it inflicted. There is no better expression of the campaign’s intent, and of the historically founded hatred that helped to forge it, than an order issued at its outset by Lieutenant General Franz Boehme, the Wehrmacht’s Plenipotentiary Commanding General in Serbia:
Your objective is to be achieved in a land where, in 1914, streams of German blood flowed because of the treachery of the Serbs, men and women. You are the avengers of those dead. A deterring example must be established for all of Serbia, one that will leave the heaviest impact on the entire population. Anyone who carries out his duty in a lenient manner will be called to account, regardless of rank or position, and tried by a military court.’’
By analyzing the historical and ethnic make-up of those in charge, which again, were comprised of many Austrians, Shepherd goes some way in deciphering a deplorable mode of behaviour, which by today’s standards would warrant institutionalizing. He also captures the mood of a splintered Yugoslavia, which in and of itself, really didn’t help matters.
At times brazen and barren, Terror In The Balkans is as resolute as it is readable.