Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 19: The traditional regimes and the challenge of Nazism: Collaboration vs. resistance

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 19: The traditional regimes and the challenge of Nazism: Collaboration vs. resistance


The Balkan countries faced their most serious challenge during World War II. Governments and individuals had to make hard choices about how to respond to German Nazism and Soviet-style Communism. In many cases there were no good choices available.

World War II brought death, damage and dislocation to more of the Balkans than did World War I. The total nature of the war, and the unprecedented military power brought to bear by Germany, the Allies and the Russians, made it impossible for the Balkan states to follow a course of their own choosing or to act on the basis of their own local needs. National institutions laboriously constructed during the preceding century were destroyed as wartime demands turned local regimes into willing or unwilling satellites of larger powers. Some scholars regard 1938, not 1945, as the year in which the East European countries lost their freedom: these historians regard the transition from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia as less significant than the fundamental loss of national independence that began with Hitler and continued under Stalin.

From 1939 to 1941, the Balkans largely escaped the direct effects of World War II. Greece and Italy fought a war along the Albanian border in the winter of 1940-41 but the fighting was confined to a remote region. In the Spring of 1941, however, Hitler decided to secure all of the Balkans before launching his invasion of Russia. In a matter of weeks, German armies defeated and occupied every Balkan state that declined to join the Axis alliance. The Balkan peoples and their governments were forced to choose between joining the Nazis and resisting them. Neither was an attractive choice.

The wartime Balkan regimes can be divided into

  • states allied with Germany,
  • puppet regimes under German sponsorship, and
  • defeated governments that had to flee the occupation and serve their national interest as best they could in exile.

Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were allies. Croatia (newly carved out of the wreckage of Yugoslavia) was the most important puppet state. The Greek and Royal Yugoslav governments went into exile when those countries fell under German and Italian occupation.

Loss of life and physical destruction were not the only adverse results of the war. Balkan regimes and Balkan royal families lost substantial credibility for a variety of reasons. Some grew isolated from popular concerns. Others were fatally compromised by collaboration with the Nazis. In particular, several Balkan states have been criticized for their role in the anti-Jewish Holocaust, an issue we will examine later in this lecture.

Axis allies: Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania

It is easy to see why Bulgaria and Hungary joined Germany. The three countries had been  allies in defeat in World War I, and all three pursued revisionist interwar foreign policies. Hitler’s success in overturning the Versailles Treaty, followed by his annexation of German national irredenta in Czechoslovakia and Austria, made him an attractive figure. Germany also controlled much of the foreign trade of these states; combined with their geographic isolation from the West, this left Bulgaria and Hungary with few resources for an alternative policy.

As German power increased, both states recovered some of their lost lands. During the partition of Czechoslovakia, Hungary regained some of Slovakia. Recovering Transylvania from Romania was a major goal, and Romania became isolated and vulnerable after the collapse of her interwar allies, Czechoslovakia and France. In June 1940, the Russians forced the return of Bessarabia (taken by Romania at the end of World War I). In August 1940, Hitler forced Romania to return the northern half of Transylvania to Hungary, and to transfer southern Dobrudja to Bulgaria. After the defeat of Yugoslavia and Greece in Spring 1941, Hungary reoccupied the Backa district, and Bulgaria took Macedonia and Thrace.

These transfers satisfied most revisionist claims in Hungary and Bulgaria, but neither state could escape the continuing war. Hitler forced Hungary to send troops into Russia: most were killed in the Stalingrad disaster. With the Russian army approaching in 1944, Hitler stopped treating Hungary as an ally and converted it into a satellite: German forces occupied the country and installed a fascist puppet regime. Hungarians paid a heavy price for their ties to Hitler. Jewish citizens were of course murdered. The Allies bombed Budapest. Hungary emerged from World War II reduced to the borders of 1919, and under Russian occupation.

Bulgaria managed to avoid the worst of the war thanks to its geographic remoteness. Bulgaria never declared war on the Soviet Union and was largely ignored by the Allies. In 1944, with the Russian army on its border, Bulgaria signed an armistice. While Macedonia and Thrace were lost, ethnically Bulgarian southern Dobrudja remained in Bulgarian hands.

Romania became a German ally late and reluctantly. By 1938, Romania was caught between Hitler and Stalin. In 1940, she lost lands in Bessarabia, Transylvania and Dobrudja. This insult brought down King Carol’s regime: a military government under General Ion Antonescu came to power. He set out to prove to Hitler that Romania was more faithful than Hungary, in hopes of recovering some of the land lost in Transylvania. 300,000 Romanian soldiers died fighting in Russia. Romania’s domestic Holocaust has been mentioned and will be described fully later. Anti-German elements including young King Michael kept quiet, but when the Russian army reached the border in August 1944, these elements overthrew Antonescu and switched sides. For the next nine months, Romania fought on the Allied side, losing another 110,000 men. The change in allegiance paid off however: in 1945 Transylvania was returned to Romanian control.

It is hard to say what these Balkan states should or could have done differently: they were caught in an impossible position by reason of geography. Their territorial claims were rooted in traditional politics. Stalin was not a more attractive ally than Hitler. And neutrality was not an option, as the Yugoslav case makes clear.

Exiles and resistors: Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia, like Romania, was surrounded in 1941 by hostile states with a long list of territorial claims. Interwar alliances with France and Czechoslovakia had proved useless. The Regent Prince Paul signed an alliance with Hitler in March 1941, but within a few days was overthrown by the Serbian-run army, which mistrusted Hitler and feared potential concessions to Croatia.

In response the Germans invaded and partitioned Yugoslavia in April 1941: there was little military resistance except by Serbs. Slovenia was divided between Germany and Italy. Croatia became an independent puppet state with a fascist “Ustashe” administration and an Italian monarch who chose to stay in Rome. This “Independent State of Croatia” included Bosnia, but lost the Dalmatian coast to Italy. Serbia itself fell under German military rule. Macedonia was ceded to Bulgaria.

King Peter and the remnants of the royal government went into exile in Palestine (later London), and into political limbo. Army generals left behind had been empowered to sign an armistice to end the fighting, but exceeded their authority and signed an unconditional surrender. That document was rejected by the exile cabinet and was not legally binding: however, the Germans used it to excuse an occupation policy in which all resistance was treated as criminal activity under martial law.

The German authorities pursued policies that were specifically anti-Serbian: for example, Croatian prisoners-of-war were sent home, but not Serbs. Guerilla activity was brutally suppressed: under one formula, 100 hostages were to be executed for each German killed, 50 for each German wounded. This approach backfired: Serbians fled to the hills to begin armed resistance not only out of national pride, but also out of fear that they would be slaughtered in their homes. Ustashe massacres of Serbs in independent Croatia also led to spontaneous acts of resistance.

In the summer of 1941, the exile government heard rumors of armed resistance and in the fall made contact with organized remnants of the royal army under Colonel Draza Mihailovic. Mihailovic was a 48-year old Serb, a decorated veteran of the Balkan Wars and World War I. In the interwar period he served in various posts and was an unremarkable figure: however, he was loyal to Serbian and royalist interests. His so-called “Chetnik” resistance faced a hard choice: whether or not to fight the Germans, at the risk of decimating the Serbian population because of reprisals. In a single reprisal action in October 1941, 5,000 Serbian villagers were murdered. Under these circumstances, both Mihailovic and the exiles decided to stop fighting, preserve their forces (and Serbian civilian lives) and prepare for a later uprising during an Allied invasion. This decision placed the royalists in conflict with the active Communist guerillas, whose actions will be covered in Lecture 20.

Exiles and resistors: Greece

The Greek government faced a similar situation: Greeks had to decide how far they were willing to go to fight the Germans, and at what price. Greeks had been unified in the face of Italian attacks from Albania, and were in a military alliance with the British. However, just as had been the case during World War I, Greeks were divided in their attitude toward the Germans. Some Greeks believed resistance was futile. Others had pro-Fascist sympathies and hoped to make Greece into a German ally. Some Greek generals committed treason during the invasion, surrendering and then helping to set up a quisling regime in Athens that agreed to cede northern parts of the country to Bulgaria and Italian-held Albania. The Greek royal government fled into exile in Egypt with a few evacuated troops. A few other soldiers escaped into the hills to fight as guerillas.

As they had in Yugoslavia, the Germans pursued a ruthless reprisal policy in Greece. During three and a half years of occupation, 20,000 Greeks were shot as hostages. Typically, several hundred men would be shot in a village close to a guerilla attack on German forces. Greeks also suffered from deprivation, because the Germans shared few resources: as a result, 500,000 out of seven million Greeks died from hunger, disease and neglect.

As it had in Yugoslavia, desperation led to armed resistance. Although it remained a combatant state in a legal sense, the Greek government commanded no important forces inside Greece, and could only cooperate with British commandos. When the British made contact with guerillas inside the country, most were found to be controlled by the Communist Party (about whom more will be said in Lecture 20).  

Others, like the EDES of Napoleon Zervas, were Venizelist republicans who rejected the royal government. In the waning days of the war, anti-monarchist elements forced King George to agree to remain abroad until a national assembly voted on the status of the monarchy. Even though the Greek pre-war government opposed the Nazis and had British backing, the stress of war and occupation placed it in jeopardy.

A puppet state: Croatia

Germany created an additional satellite country in the Balkans during the war: the “Independent State of Croatia” set up as a puppet after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Its head was Ante Pavelic, leader of the pre-war fascist Ustashe movement that was responsible for the assassination of King Alexander in 1934.

The Ustashe expressed their Croatian patriotism in terms of anti-Serb and anti-Orthodox activity. Orthodox schools and churches were closed, the Cyrillic script was banned, and Serbs were forced to wear identifying badges. Assisted by priests, Ustashe units carried out mass conversions to Catholicism at gun point in Serb villages. Orthodox priests, Serbian teachers and those who resisted were murdered, often after torture. The Ustashe have been credited with coining the term “cleansing” to describe these ethnic persecutions.

Other Serbs, Jews and Communists went to death camps patterned on the German model, the largest of which was Jasenovac. The number of victims has become a matter of political acrimony as much as scholarly investigation. Croatian apologists state that only 60,000 persons died in these camps. Serbian detractors claim as many as a million. The figure of 600,000 is accepted by many historians.

Oddly, the Ustashe regarded the Bosnian Muslims as fellow Croats of a different faith, and left them alone. Some Muslims joined Ustashe units and participated in massacres of Serbs: Serb Chetniks responded with massacres of Bosnian Muslim villagers. Many German and Italian officers in the area regarded the Croatian fascist state and its activities with distaste: refugees who reached the Italian-occupied coast generally escaped further persecution.

At the end of the war, Ustashe leaders who could do so fled to South America. Those who remained behind were executed by the Communists. Because of the regime’s Catholic connections, punishment of the Ustashe led to post-war persecution of Catholics as well. The Ustashe episode left a legacy of friction between Catholics and Orthodox, Croats and Serbs, Serbs and Muslims, and Croats and the Communist regime, tensions that contributed to a climate of mistrust in the post-1945 Yugoslav state.

The Holocaust in the Balkans

The topic of the Croatian death camps leads to another important issue in any judgement of the Balkan nations’ response to the Nazis during World War II: their role in the Holocaust. Before the Second World War, between 1,400,000 and 1,800,000 Jews lived in the Balkan states. During the wartime period of Nazi German control, between 750,000 and 950,000 of these people were killed. The precise numbers are elusive: census figures can be incomplete or unreliable, and certain categories of people were not uniformly considered to be Jewish. For example, until the Nazis imposed the Nuremberg Law categories, converts to Christianity and the children of mixed marriages often were not regarded as Jewish in the Balkans.

While the murder of Jews was a feature of Nazi occupation policy all over Europe, we will not fully understand how the Holocaust unfolded in southeastern Europe unless we set it into a local context. The fate of the Balkan Jews differed dramatically from place to place, and sometimes from year to year. Some of this variation reflected local differences in the historic situation of Jews; some of it reflected variations in German policy; and some of it reflected decisions by Jews’ fellow citizens of other faiths, and by the Balkan governments. There are some satisfying cases of resistance, and also some discouraging cases of collaboration in the Holocaust.

The Jews during the war

Even when compared to their position in other occupied countries, Balkan Jews were at special risk when World War II brought German domination to the region, due to several factors. The Balkan states were by definition national states, in which the ethnicity of individuals was a public matter. Ethnic minorities like Jews usually were easy to identify, often regarded as outsiders, and frequently treated with suspicion or hostility. This played into the hands of the German architects of the Holocaust.

Raul Hilberg, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, has noted a recurring pattern in which the destruction of Jews in the various European countries followed four stages:

  • First, identification of Jews, often on the basis of racial laws which defined people’s ethnicity by “blood” and descent;
  • Second, expropriation of Jewish property, including the right to hold certain professional jobs, a step that impoverished the Jewish community and left its members without the financial resources needed to escape;
  • Third, physical concentration of these identified Jews in ghettos or camps, a step that increased their vulnerability and isolated them from other citizens who might have helped them or objected to their murder; and
  • Finally, annihilation, either in local facilities or at the specialized death camps in Poland.

In the Balkans, Jews were already a distinct and identifiable minority when the war came. Stage One (identification) was thus an accomplished fact even before German intervention.

Second, anti-Semitic legislation, whether of long-standing or recently passed to satisfy local fascists or Nazi German diplomats, had often inititiated the work of Stage Two (expropriation). Many Jews were already too poor to escape persecution.

Third, historic legal or social pressures often meant that Jews resided together in concentrated groups, especially in urban areas. Something like Stage Three (concentration) was a fact, for example, in Romanian cities.

Fourth, local anti-Semites already had a tradition of killing Jews. For Romanians in the Iron Guard, the step from past crimes to the Nazi policy of mass extermination was not a large one (Stage Four).

The fate of the Balkan Jews varied widely. Some populations were exterminated while others survived nearly intact, as this brief survey will show.

The Holocaust in Hungary

A traditional, conservative, right-wing regime remained in power in Hungary until 1944, almost until the war’s end. As a German ally, Hungary passed discriminatory laws beginning in 1938. The First Anti-Jewish Law of that year reduced the number of Jews in some professions by 20 percent: about 50,000 people lost their jobs. The Second and Third Anti-Jewish Laws (1939 and 1941) further restricted the careers and positions available to Jews, and persons of mixed descent and Jewish converts to Catholicism were now classified as Jewish.

When Hungary entered the war in 1941, many Hungarian Jews were drafted into labor battalions and sent to the Russian Front, where 42,000 of these laborers were killed. Some Jews who lacked Hungarian citizenship were murdered by Nazi execution teams. However, the Kallay regime refused to deport Jews from Hungary proper during its tenure, which lasted until 1944.

In May 1944 the Nazis imposed a change of cabinet and Hungary became a mere satellite instead of an ally. The Jewish population numbered about 825,000. This included 300,000 Jews living in lands like Transylvania, areas restored to Hungarian rule during Hitler’s adjustment of Balkan borders. The Germans now transported 450,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Admiral Horthy (the Regent) suspended deportations from July until October 1944, when he was thrown out of office and a puppet Arrow Cross government was installed. During the period from October 1944 to April 1945 another 85,000 Jews were deported. In all only 255,000 Jews survived out of 825,000.

The Holocaust in Romania

In Romania, Jews lost their citizenship in 1937, and with it certain legal protections. The Germans never thought the fascist Iron Guard was efficient enough to run the country, so the less extreme military-royal dictatorship remained in charge. Events in Romania proceeded along lines consistent with Hilberg’s model: Jews were first identified and then had their property expropriated.

When the war with Russia began in 1941, Romania initiated an extermination program of its own in liberated Bessarabia. Jews from Bessarabia and from Romania proper were assembled there and murdered: the Romanians proceeded with such single-mindedness that some German authorities criticized their activity, because the use of rail cars was interfering with the military effort.

The period of Romanian-sponsored massacres was intense but short: by 1942 Romania’s leaders guessed that Germany would lose the war, and abruptly stopped the killings. As a result about 550,000 Romanian Jews survived the war. 120,000 Romanian Jews were killed in Bessarabia. Another 150,000 from Transylvania died after falling under Hungarian control, then being deported from Hungary in 1944.

The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

In Yugoslavia, the complete collapse of the state after the Nazi invasion of 1941 left Jews exposed to Nazi and Croatian Ustashe plans. The 16,000 Serbian Jews immediately lost their jobs and civil rights. Many Jews were among hostages shot there in the summer of 1941. In October 1941, Serbia’s remaining 5,000 adult male Jews were taken to local concentration camps run by German units and killed. In early 1942, the remaining population of women and children was killed at the Semlin camp, across the Danube from Belgrade. Very few Serbian Jews survived the war.

Fascist Croatia had a population of about 35,000 Jews. This puppet state rapidly issued discriminatory laws based on German models, stripping Jews of their citizenship. Between 1941 and 1944, some 20,000 died in local camps (over half at Jasenovac) and another 8,000 were shipped to death camps like Auschwitz and murdered there. The Zagreb government paid Germany 30 Reichsmarks a head to defray the costs of this “service.” Perhaps 7,000 Croatian Jews survived in zones controlled by the Italians and later by the Partisan resistance.

Another 16,000 Yugoslav Jews survived because they lived in the Italian coastal zone of occupation, or fled there. 8,000 Jews were living in Macedonia when that province was transferred to Bulgarian rule. The Bulgarian government agreed to let the Germans send them to Treblinka in 1943. In all, by the end of the war 80 percent of Yugoslavian Jews were dead.

The Holocaust in Greece

There were some 72,000 Jews in Greece when it fell under Nazi control. Because it was an occupied state, there were no local Greek authorities who could interfere in German plans. Some 6,000 Jews lived in Thrace when it fell under Bulgarian rule: most were sent to death camps. 13,000 Jews lived in areas under Italian occupation and most of them survived. The remaining 53,000 lived in German-administered areas, most of them in Salonika. During a four month period in 1943 the Jewish population of that city was registered, concentrated in ghettos, and then sent to Auschwitz. Virtually none survived.

The Holocaust in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s experience is the most unusual and complex in the Balkans. To comply with the wishes of their German allies, the Bulgarians limited the civil rights of Jews in 1940 (although not without some objections). In 1942 a Commissariat for Jewish Affairs was set up, despite objections from the parliament. Jews were now registered. In 1943 German SS forces arrived to begin a deportation program.

Bulgaria had annexed Macedonia and Thrace as war spoils. The 14,000 Jews in those regions fell under Bulgarian control, but were not considered to have become Bulgarian citizens (unlike Slavs in these areas). These Jews were the first under Bulgarian authority to be sent to death camps, and there was little protest.

However, when the SS next threatened Jewish citizens of pre-war Bulgaria with deportation and death, political leaders and the Orthodox Church objected. Plans to deliver Bulgarian Jews into German hands stalled: instead many Jews were deported to rural areas as forced laborers. While this measure exposed them to harsh conditions, it also shielded the Jews from further German activity. Once these people were scattered across the country, it became impossible for the Nazis to proceed: in the absence of Stage Three (concentration, in Hilberg’s model) it was impossible to move on to Stage Four (extermination).

In 1944 it became clear that Germany was losing the war, and a new Bulgarian regime nullified the anti-Jewish legislation. In August 1944, the arrival of the Red Army ended fascist influence. In this manner, nearly all the Jews of Old Bulgaria survived. On the other hand, the Bulgarian authorities had permitted the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace to be killed by the Germans.

Degrees of guilt

How guilty of the Holocaust were the Balkan nations?

To answer this, we have to distinguish between the Germans, the local Balkan regimes, and local fascists. Hilberg, and also Lucy Dawidowicz, made efforts to explain why some Balkan Jewish populations fared better during the war than others, and came to the following conclusions.

First, the degree of assimilation by a Jewish community had no significant bearing on its fate. The well-integrated Hungarian Jews suffered badly, while the unassimilated Bulgarian Jews nearly all survived.

The presence or absence of local anti-Semitic traditions made little difference. Yugoslav Jews experienced very little pre-war persecution, but nearly all of them died, while half the Romanian Jews survived the war even though Romania had a tradition of violent anti-Jewish prejudice.

The key variable appears to be the degree of direct German control exercised over a territory during the war, and with it the presence or absence of indigenous political authorities, who tended to act as buffers between Nazi leaders and the local populations. This was true even if local regimes were indifferent to Jewish problems. Except in cases when local fascist groups were in power (the Croatian Ustashe, and the short periods when fascist puppet governments were in charge of Romania and Hungary), local Balkan regimes simply failed to pursue the killing of Jews with the same zeal that animated the Germans.

From a moral point of view, many Balkan governments committed sins of omission, but few committed sins of commission. The guilt of the Balkan population cannot be assessed en masse: the activity of their governments is hardly a reliable index, because none of these governments were representative or even responsive to most of their citizens. Some individuals committed heinous crimes,  and others took personal risks to achieve heroic rescues. Many residents of the Balkans were anti-Semitic to one degree or another, but without the Nazi German role, the Holocaust would not have happened.


Facing the challenge on the Right from Nazi Germany, the Balkan countries often had to choose among evils. The dilemmas faced by national governments were not lessened by the challenge on the Left from Communism, as examined in Lecture 20.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created on 5 May 1997; last modified 17 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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