Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 20: The traditional regimes and the challenge of Communism: Patriotism vs. opportunism

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 20: The traditional regimes and the challenge of Communism: Patriotism vs. opportunism


We have paid relatively little attention so far to Communism in the Balkans. Balkan Communism was weak and ineffective before World War II. It required the chaos of the war to overturn traditional anti-leftist institutions and open the door for the Communist regimes that were in power from 1945 to 1989.

Communism made little headway in the Balkans before World War II for a variety of reasons. Marxist ideology was not well-suited to Balkan conditions. Discussions of the industrial proletariat were meaningless in countries with so few industries. Nor did Marxist class analysis appeal to people, even revolutionaries, who were still thinking in terms of ethnic national goals.

When Communists in Moscow talked about nationalism in negative terms, it created more problems for local Balkan Communists. The Communist International (the “Comintern”) wanted to create a Balkan federation to replace the existing national states, which were regarded as puppets of the Western imperialist Powers and tools aimed at the Soviet Union. The Comintern denounced the post-World War annexations that subordinated ethnic minorities.

Citing national self-determination, the Comintern demanded the liberation of “oppressed peoples” in Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Transylvania and Bessarabia, and offered specific suggestions for border revisions. In other words, it was plain to people in the Balkan states that the Communists meant to reverse the territorial settlements of World War I and the Balkan Wars. Thanks to such rhetoric, Balkan patriots regarded Communists as traitors. The absurdity of the plan was obvious to anyone on the spot, but the rigid Communist structure forced everyone to parrot back Moscow’s nonsense. If the local parties objected, they lost financial support and in the 1930s were liable to be purged by Stalin.

Communist social doctrine was also out of step with local mores, especially in the area of women’s rights. We’ll return to this topic in Lecture 23 in discussing the postwar changes in Balkan society. Balkan society was still patriarchal in a very literal sense. Progressive rhetoric about the equality of the sexes offended non-Communist and Communist men alike: Tito, the Communist party boss, at one time had to make a formal speech instructing upper level Party leaders not to beat their wives.

All of these factors reduced the potential popular appeal of Communism. At the same time, every traditional vested interest, from the military to landlords to political parties, opposed Communism and worked to stamp it out. In most of the Balkan states, during most of the interwar period, membership in the Communisty Party was illegal. We can get some idea of the difficulties the party faced by looking at two examples: the careers of one party, the Hungarians, and of one man, the Yugoslav leader Tito, perhaps the region’s most successful Communist.


The example of the Hungarian Communist Party illustrates the difficulties faced by all the Balkan Communist parties in the interwar period. Hungary had the region’s largest industrial working class, but Communists were at a severe disadvantage after the defeat of the Bela Kun Soviet Republic in 1919. During the subsequent “White Terror,” thousands of leftists were executed and many others fled to the Soviet Union. The HCP became an illegal organization until 1944. The next Hungarian Party Congress after 1919 did not take place until 1925 and had to be held outside the country, in Vienna, Austria.

About a thousand Communists remained active in Hungary. In the 1920s, they created a new Socialist Workers’ Party as a front organization, conducted propaganda among trade unions and in favor of land reform, and set up a secret network to communicate with the Communist International in Moscow. As Hungarian politics drifted to the Right, conditions got worse. Police raids were so severe that in 1936 more Communists in Hungary were in jail (500) than were free (400). In this period, convicted Communists were sometimes executed, not just imprisoned.

Contacts with Moscow often made matters worse for the Hungarian party. Pragmatic estimates of the situation drawn up by men on the spot were rejected as pessimistic “deviations” by dogmatists in the USSR, and party activists were never allowed the freedom to pursue realistic goals. The mass arrests of the 1930s were interpreted in Moscow as signs of local incompetence, not evidence that direction from the top was faulty. In 1936 Moscow dissolved the existing HCP apparatus and replaced it with a new Central Committee operating from Czechoslovakia. At the same time, the Comintern abandoned the 900 surviving members of the original party, cutting off the stipends that supported the families of jailed activists. Other loyal Hungarian Communists were unlucky enough to be in exile in Russia during the Stalin purges of the late 1930s: many there were imprisoned or executed.

The Moscow party line also made it hard for Hungarian Communists to find or keep allies. In the 1920s, the HCP dutifully denounced the Socialist Party as “social fascists.” In 1935 Moscow shifted to a new “Popular Front” model that called for alliance with moderate socialists, but by that time Hungary’s socialists and trade unionists deeply mistrusted the HCP. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 also complicated Communist recruiting: left-leaning Hungarians were offended when Stalin cut a deal with Hitler, after years of denouncing the Nazis as the ultimate evil. These kinds of unrealistic directives from the top made a difficult task almost impossible.

Life as a Communist: Tito

In Yugoslavia, the Party was illegal after 1921. From a legal membership of 60,000, the number of underground activists fell to 1,000 by the 1930s, and many members went to jail. These losses opened a door for new leaders.

One of these was Josip Broz, who took the nom-de-guerre Tito in 1934. Tito was born in 1892 in Habsburg Croatia: his parents were a Dalmatian Croat and a Slovene. He became a mechanic and locksmith. Serving in the Austrian army in World War I, he was captured and spent from 1915 to 1920 in Russia, first as a prisoner of war and then as a witness to the Russian Revolution. He returned to the new Yugoslavia as a Communist and combined his work as a mechanic with labor organizing, so that he was fired from several jobs. Arrested for subversive activity, he spent the years from 1928 to 1934 in jail; his early arrest may have saved his life, because in the early 1930s the secret police summarily shot many underground Communists. In prison he read Marxist literature and met many of his later closest advisors.

Upon his release, Tito was ordered to Moscow to work in the Comintern offices: he made his way out of the country in disguise and then stayed in Russia off and on until 1940. By keeping to himself and keeping his mouth shut, he stayed alive during the most dangerous years of the Stalin purges, while hundreds of other Yugoslav Communist exiles were executed. In 1937 he became secretary of the Yugoslav Communist Party, which he reorganized around his prison friends.

Tito was back in Zagreb living under an assumed name when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in 1941. A few months later he moved to Belgrade, correctly believing that the Serbs would begin to resist the Germans and hoping to capitalize on any fighting. From there, he directed a Communist-led uprising in Montenegro. Although that revolt was not a great success, Tito left Belgrade in the Fall and joined the armed Partisans there.

Tito’s life indicates some of the habits of the professional Communist of the time, although he went on to bigger things later. He led an isolated, almost monastic existence, in which the Party took first place over family or friends. He did as he was told and kept silent even when he believed the orders of his superiors were mistaken. In turn, he expected discipline and obedience from his subordinates. He was brave and resourceful, but his talents were confined to political problems and staying alive, not science or applied economics. Most noticeable of all, perhaps, he lacked the ethnic nationalist loyalty that animated most traditional political figures outside the Communist left.

The Communist wartime resistance

Communism required powerful new forces before it could come to power. In Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria the impetus was occupation by the Red Army after the war. In Yugoslavia, Albania and very nearly Greece, it was the power of indigenous wartime resistance groups.

Lecture 19 described the defeat and occupation of Yugoslavia and Greece, and some of the problems faced by their royal governments as they decided how to resist the Germans. These countries also had large Communist-controlled resistance movements. These groups were the enemies not only of the Germans, but also of the pre-war regimes that had suppressed them during the interwar period. Aspects of the Cold War are foreshadowed in the story of the wartime Balkan resistance movements.

We should keep two questions in mind as we study the resistance.

  • First, to what extent were the wartime struggles actually civil wars based on pre-war politics, as opposed to wars of liberation against the Nazi occupation?
  • Second, is the story of the Balkan resistance movements one of significant contributions to the Allied war effort, or only of myths and propaganda devices exploited after the war by the Communists?

As we have seen, Yugoslavia and Greece were the only two Balkan states to reject German alliances: for this they experienced harsh Axis occupation. Both states were partitioned, placed under military rule and subjected to a policy of harsh reprisals. Far from ending resistance, those reprisals increased it.

Resistance to German rule occurred all over occupied Europe, but the expression of that resistance varied from place to place, depending on factors such as the degree of outside support (chiefly from the British Special Operations Executive, or SOE), the local strength of the Germans, and the terrain. The Germans were able to control urban areas, but not the countryside: mountainous and wooded areas like the Balkans offered particularly good bases for resistance groups.

Resistance ranged from low-intensity actions like strikes, work slowdowns, spontaneous acts of sabotage, and general disobedience; through cooperation with the Allied forces in gathering intelligence and helping downed flyers; up to armed attacks, including assassination and guerilla warfare. Even low-level acts affected the Axis war effort, forcing the Germans to dilute their forces as garrisons. Balkan geographic and political conditions favored full-scale guerilla warfare.

Conditions were similar in Greece and Yugoslavia. Both countries were of strategic importance. Both were accessible by sea and air from Western bases, opening up opportunities for SOE to gather intelligence and harass the Germans. Thanks to mountainous terrain, both were suitable for widespread partisan warfare: resistance groups could organize secret governments in large areas under their control, and tie down large numbers of German troops. Both states had exile royalist regimes that were recognized as partners by the Allies, including the Russians. In both, the war also created opportunities for Communist parties that had been too weak to play a major role in national politics before the war. As a result, both countries saw fighting between rival royalist and Communist resistance movements.

In each country, one wing of the resistance derived from the pre-war military. These groups had the advantage of military training, some access to equipment saved during the defeats of 1941, and support from outside the country: the exile regimes enjoyed the backing of Great Britain in particular. On the other hand, traditional officers were not always imaginative enough to make the transition to guerilla war. They also lacked political insight and the ability to gauge the impact of immediate actions on later political positions.

The other wing of the resistance was run by the Communist Parties. The Communists lacked formal military training and had to capture or steal weapons as the first step in their campaigns of resistance. The Soviet Union was unable to give them concrete support until very late in the war. On the other hand, Balkan Communists had substantial experience with secret activity, and their whole ideology and training prepared them to make the most of the disordered situation in the occupied Balkans.

EDES vs. ELAS in Greece

In Greece, the resistance forces of Col. Napoleon Zervas, a retired officer, were based on the pre-war army. His forces went by the name EDES (Greek Democratic National League) and began with remnants of Greek units in the mountains of Epirus along the Albanian border. EDES was in contact with the British, but was not on good terms with the royalist exiles, because Zervas was a Venizelist and a republican.

EDES lacked the leadership and resources to build widespread support. EDES had about 7,000 men under arms in 1943, and twice that many at the end of the occupation in late 1944. It never controlled an area larger than about 25 by 35 miles in Epirus, and undertook mostly defensive operations. When Italy surrendered in the fall of 1943, German forces replaced the Italiansand began serious attacks on EDES. There is evidence that Zervas then struck a deal with the German army. The two sides agreed not to attack each other: this truce left the Germans free of sabotage and allowed EDES to suppress local Communist rivals. The EDES-German truce ended in 1944, when the Germans began evacuating Greece.

The larger, Communist-backed resistance army was known as ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army). It dominated the rest of rural mainland Greece. Its military leader was General Stephanos Sarafis, a regular army officer forced to retire in 1935 because of his political views. ELAS had about 12,000 men under arms in 1942, perhaps 50,000 in 1944.

ELAS derived it real power from its connection to the EAM (National Liberation Front) organization, which in turn was run by the Communist Party. EAM ran a variety of auxiliary organizations, not only to support ELAS but to set up local governments, communications, hospitals, and the trappings of a secret state so far as possible. Depending on how one defines EAM membership, between 500,000 and 2 million Greeks (out of 7 million) took some part in EAM activity. EAM’s popularity in part derived from hatred of the occupation, and from wartime hardships that killed 500,000 people. EAM was often the only help for Greeks suffering from German confiscations, fuel and food shortages, cold, starvation and disease.

Beginning in 1940, the British SOE worked with the exile Greek regime and contacted the resistance. Intelligence-gathering soon made it clear that EAM had more influence than the exile regime. The British policy would have preferred to work with groups that backed the exile government, but Churchill also believed that military operational needs had to override political needs during the war. When efforts by British Military Missions failed to mediate between the rivals in 1943, Churchill threw his support to the ELAS groups that were contributing the most to the war effort.

Between 1942 and the end of the German occupation in the fall of 1944, the British inserted 1,073 agents, and sent 5,800 tons of supplies. Of this, only 975 tons were arms; the rest was urgently needed food and clothing, especially boots. In return, EAM mounted important diversionary attacks at two points in the war: during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and during the German evacuation of Greece in fall 1944. In total, Greek saboteurs destroyed 209 railroad locomotives and 1,540 other railroad cars; derailed 117 trains; and destroyed 67 railroad bridges and 5 tunnels. Such acts hampered the transfer of German troops from Greece to other fronts where they were badly needed.

At the same time, Britain retained close ties to the exile regime and made plans to block Communist influence in Greece after liberation. Political tensions between EAM and the British-backed royal government could not be resolved. In 1943, EAM demanded that the king stay out of liberated Greece until a national assembly decided his role in a postwar regime. When the British and the exile regime refused these terms, EAM took steps to eliminate its rivals: in the winter of 1943-44, ELAS troops attacked EDES but failed to destroy it. In April 1944 anti-royalist Greek units in Egypt refused orders from the royal government, mutinied, and had to be disarmed by the British. In June 1944 a Russian mission joined EAM for the first time: at Russian insistence, attacks on EDES stopped and EAM downplayed its revolutionary agenda.

When the Germans evacuated Greece in September 1944, Athens was occupied by both British and ELAS forces. The relationship between the two sides remained unresolved and eventually led to conflict. What happened next relates to the origin of the Cold War as well as World War II and will be covered in Lecture 21, but a short summary is needed now.

Both ELAS and the exile regime wanted to control the reconstituted postwar Greek army. Long negotiations failed to reach a compromise. On December 1, 1944, the British ordered all guerilla forces to disband, a move that would have left the conventional royalist units with a monopoly on armed force. EAM called for a mass demonstration in Athens the next day over the objections of the regime. During the rally, government police fired on the crowd: the police claimed to have been fired on but Western observers reported only police shooting at unarmed civilians. For a month, British troops in Athens fought with ELAS guerillas and gradually took control of the city. The two sides signed an armistice in February 1945, but the stage was set for later trouble. The end of World War II in Europe remained more than two months away.

The Yugoslav Partisans vs. the Chetniks

Yugoslavia also had rival resistance movements. One group was loyal to the exile government, made up of soldiers who refused to surrender in 1941. They were led by Colonel Draza Mihailovic, a Yugoslav Army officer who organized armed forces in Serbia and later was named minister of defence for the exile state. These soldiers were joined by (and took the name of) Chetniks, from the word “Cheta” or “committee” and meaning an armed nationalist band. Serbian “chetniks” fought as guerillas in Macedonia in 1906 and in the Balkan Wars. Between the wars the “Chetnik Association for Freedom and Honor of the Fatherland” was a leading Great Serb nationalist organization. A Chetnik killed the Croatian politician Stjepan Radic in 1928. Most Chetnik units were local: they had few resources and were in sporadic contact with any central authority, even Mihailovic.

From the first days of the German occupation, there was spontaneous resistance in Serbia. This led to reprisals in which the Germans killed 100 Serbs for every German killed and 50 for each one wounded. In a single action late in October 1941 between 5,000 and 10,000 hostages were executed in two Serbian towns. The harsh German occupation left Serbs in a dilemma. Some wanted a temporary armistice with Germany to end the reprisal massacres of Serbs. Some wanted to keep fighting, which was the the course preferred by the British.

Mihailovic feared that the country would be bled white for no reason and preferred to keep his forces intact while waiting for an Allied landing. Mihailovic was in contact with the exiles and the British after the autumn of 1941. Thanks to their help, he had about 12,000 to 15,000 men under arms by 1943. However, as evidence grew that the Chetniks were not pursuing an aggressive campaign, British aid began to shift to the other branch of the Yugoslav resistance, the Communist-led Partisans.

When the country fell apart in 1941, Tito and other leaders of the interwar Party saw an opportunity to seize power. The Communists were already used to secret action. There was little or no Partisan activity between the fall of Yugoslavia in April 1941 and the surprise German attack on the USSR in June 1941. Partisan supporters have blamed this on a lack of supplies, but there is evidence that the Yugoslav Communists merely gathered their strength and organized local Communist cells, until the USSR was placed in danger.

Partisan activity began in northwest Serbia with acts of sabotage against bridges, telephone lines and mines, attacks on convoys or isolated posts, and raids on police stations and banks to obtain arms and money. The Germans treated the Partisans as criminals not legitimate belligerents: they took no prisoners and punished civilian populations suspected of helping Partisans. The Partisans also disregarded the laws of war: they attacked German hospitals and ambulance convoys, stole medical supplies after killing wounded Germans, and rarely took prisoners.

The Partisans and Chetniks were soon on bad terms. As the War Minister of the exile cabinet, Mihailovic claimed the right to give orders to the Partisans and told them to stop fighting so as to halt German reprisals. In October 1941, he and Tito met but failed to resolve the issue of authority. Mihailovic and other Chetniks also made clear their Great Serbian politics and their anti-Communism. Tito rejected obedience to policies and institutions that had opposed and suppressed the Communists before the war.

Mihailovic concluded that Tito was a traitor and a threat to the Serbian-run Yugoslav kingdom, and that his immediate duty was to crush Tito. To do so, he made a deal with the German-controlled Serbian puppet state, offering a truce in return for arms and a free hand versus Tito’s forces. However, local Chetnik and Partisan units were fighting each other even before this decision. The Partisans soon moved out of Serbia, and their main bases were in the high mountains of Bosnia during most of the war. The Chetniks remained in Serbia. During the rest of the occupation, Chetnik units continued to make truces with German, Italian and Croatian Ustashe forces, and sometimes assisted in attacks on the Partisans.

The role played by Mihailovic is very controversial. Many collaborating Chetnik units acted on their own. However, the British finally decided that Mihailovic had been compromised, and in any event his forces had stopped contributing to the war effort. As a result they diverted the bulk of their aid to the Partisans.

When the fighting began, local Partisan leaders often displayed more interest in pursuing a Communist seizure of power than in fighting the Germans. In some parts of Montenegro, Partisan groups instituted a reign of terror to seize control. This approach alienated potential popular support and was criticized by the Comintern in Moscow, for whom defeat of Hitler was now the first priority. In April 1942 Tito’s leadership dropped the “class war” model in favor of a “national liberation” struggle.

In the fall of 1942 the Partisans withdrew into the mountains of western Bosnia. Thanks to the brutality of the Croatian Ustashe, villagers there were willing to join the Partisan army to defend themselves. At Bihac in November 1942, Tito organized the Anti-Fascist Council of People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) as a patriotic organization: its Communist tone was muted for now. By 1943 the Partisans had 50,000 to 60,000 men in the field. When Italy left the war, Tito’s forces seized the weapons of six Italian divisions, and two other divisions went over to the Partisans intact. Partisan armed strength soon rose to 200,000.

The first British mission to Yugoslavia landed in 1941, but the total supplies sent by the middle of 1943 amounted to only 30 tons. Once Churchill decided to back Tito instead of Mihailovic, the British presence increased. A British general was attached to Tito’s headquarters as a liaison. Allied victories in North Africa made it possible to send substantially more supplies to Tito: 2,200 tons during the rest of 1943, and 8,000 tons per quarter during 1944. 400 aircraft brought 47,000 wounded Partisans and refugees to bases in Italy, and carried back 150,000 rifles and machine guns, and clothing for 175,000 men. These supplies let Partisan strength grow to 300,000 by the end of 1944.

Military success also brought Tito closer to political power. In the fall of 1943, AVNOJ proclaimed itself to be the provisional goverment of Yugoslavia. The king was asked not to return, pending a decision about his role in a federal postwar state. The British went along. With the help of Red Army units, the Partisans cleared the country of Germans in 1944. When the Russian troops moved north, the Communist party was left as the only effective force in Yugoslavia.


Were these civil wars or wars of liberation?

It is fair to say that both were taking place. What Tito in particular recognized was that in the civil war between Communist and non-Communist forces, political elements were as crucial as military ones. The Partisans gained important political credibility in the eyes of the mass of Yugoslavs and the British by their prolonged warfare against the Germans. In contrast, EAM-ELAS in Greece devoted more attention to a future seizure of power and less to attacks on the Germans, yet EAM-ELAS had a weaker grip on power at the end of 1944. The war of national liberation proved to be an important factor in the underlying civil war between Communist and non-Communist forces.

Was the resistance merely a myth, or an actual asset for the Allied war effort?

Resistance forces alone never expelled German forces from the Balkans: German withdrawals were always due to wider strategic concerns. The Germans themselves held the resistance in contempt, but they also underestimated its effect. Resistance forces provided useful and unique intelligence, and rescued stranded Allied air crews. More important, resistance forces tied down significant numbers of German and Axis troops. In the Fall of 1943, there were 380,000 Italian troops (31 divisions) and 600,000 Germans in the Balkans (14 divisions plus auxiliary units and police). After Italy left the war, the German commitment rose to 700,000 men (20 divisions).

This was a force comparable in numbers to the German army fighting in Italy, or to the forces lost at Stalingrad or in North Africa. These men were sorely needed elsewhere, but had to remain in the Balkans to guard sources of oil, chrome and bauxite. There is no doubt that the resistance provided a major aid to the Allied cause.

Looking ahead, one has to say as well that the Communist interwar and wartime experience created party organizations in the Balkans that were well-equipped for the resistance struggle, but poorly prepared to exercise real political power after 1945.

Communists who had survived decades of police raids, betrayal by informers, purges by the Party itself and wartime attack from anti-Communists became cautious — even paranoid — in their world view. Persecution instilled in them habits of secrecy and isolation, fierce loyalty to a small group of close colleagues, and a willingness to obey orders without demanding a role in decision-making. In place of practical administrative experience, the Communists became masters of propaganda and the infiltration of other kinds of organizations. They never had to modify old-fashioned beliefs about the world and about politics, beliefs that remained largely unchanged since 1917. The life of the illegal Communist was a poor school for coalition politics, consensus-building, creativity, flexibility and practical economic or administrative experience. Before World War II, no one expected Communists to be running the Balkans states a few years later. When they came to power after 1945, these flaws became obvious.


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 27 November 1996; last modified 17 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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