The following is a terrific book review and commentary on George Sava's "The Chetniks" by Carl Savich, who captures the true spirit of what this story conveys.
To all the old Chetniks, the true blue freedom fighters who continue to carry the Chetnik spirit in their hearts and have passed it along to their children and grandchildren who look upon them as real heroes, I extend best wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving 2009. Those of us who came after you, and who have had the privilege to meet you and know you, will be forever grateful that you survived the war to tell us your stories so that we may know and appreciate who General Draza Mihailovich and his people were and why they deserve to be remembered and honored.
Thank you for your service. Thank you for fighting the good fight. And thank you for carrying the torch of the noble cause all these years.
You make me proud to be Serbian.
David Damjanovich, Vice President of
The Movement of Serbian Chetniks Ravne Gore, speaks
to the audience at the Serbian National Defense "Vidovdan"
celebration at New Gracanica Monastery, Third Lake, IL
June 28, 2009
Photo by A. Rebic
Guerrilla Supermen: World War II Novels on Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks
A series of Book Reviews by Carl Savich
The guerrilla movement of Yugoslav resistance leader Draza Mihailovich in German-occupied Yugoslavia created an unprecedented sensation in the United States and Great Britain during World War II. Five major novels were published in 1942 and 1943 on Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas. In November, 1942, "The Chetniks" by George Sava was published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber.
The Chetniks by George Sava. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd. 24 Russell Square, 1942. 260 pages with black and white photographs and a map. Reprint: Regular Publication, London, 1955.
Book Review by Carl Savich
The guerrilla movement of Draza Mihailovich in German-occupied Yugoslavia created an unprecedented sensation in the United States and Great Britain during World War II. Mihailovich was unique in that he led a resistance movement against Adolf Hitler at a time when the rest of Europe had surrendered. He became a lightning rod in the U.S. and the UK and galvanized resistance to Hitler. One reason for this acclaim was that the U.S. needed a stimulus or a spark. After years of neutrality and “isolationism” and indifference, the U.S. was forced reluctantly into World War II by the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941. While U.S. interests were hostile and opposed to those of the Axis, the U.S. public, nevertheless, opposed entry into the war because U.S. interests were not directly involved.
A malaise and apathy had developed in the U.S. where life went on as if nothing had happened when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The U.S. public needed a symbol and an example of a firebrand, of a resistance leader who was defiant, dynamic, and active, a fighter. Draza Mihailovich fit the bill. He was elevated to superhero and comic-book status in the U.S., where he and his exploits assumed mythic and legendary proportions and his guerrillas were likened to invincible supermen. He was featured in magazines, comic books, movies, and novels. Five major novels were published in 1942 and 1943: The Chetniks by George Sava, The Ragged Guard, A Tale of 1941 by Paul Tabori, and The Valley of Fear (republished as The Perilous Country) by John Creasey in Great Britain, Sergeant Nikola: A Novel of the Chetnik Brigades (also published in Argentina in 1943 in a Spanish translation as El Sargento Nicolas: La Novela de los Guerrilleros Yugoslavos) by Istvan Tamas and The Wrath of the Eagles: A Novel of the Chetniks by Frederick Heydenau in the United States.
The cover of the 1955 reprint edition of The Chetniks by George Sava
published as “A Regular Publication” in London.
One of the first major novels written during World War II to appear on Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas was the eponymous "The Chetniks" by George Sava, first published in November, 1942 by Faber and Faber in London, in the United Kingdom. The original edition featured a photograph of “General Mihailovich” on the frontispiece. The book was a continuation of the 1940 book "Donkey Serenade: Travels in Bulgaria". Sava combined a travelogue with an adventure novel. It was reprinted in 1955 in London as a Regular Publication. The reprint cover had the following description: “General Mihailovich, the famous guerrilla leader and the story of the heroic struggle of these guerrillas is told in the pages of this book.”
Draza Mihailovich and his Chetnik guerrilla forces represented the antithesis to the foreign policy pursued by Great Britain in the 1930s termed “appeasement”. British appeasement culminated in the 1938 Munich Agreement which allowed Adolf Hitler to annex the Sudetenland and to eventually occupy all of Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the abandonment of Czechoslovakia on September 30, 1938 as “peace for our time” and he characterized the Munich Agreement as an example of “peace with honour”:
“My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. … And now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.” The first time that Chamberlain referred to was on July 18, 1878, when Benjamin Disraeli characterized the Berlin Conference ending the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which was an escalation of the Serbian insurgency in Bosnia-Hercegovina and the subsequent war between Serbia and Montenegro against Turkey, as “a peace … with honour”: “Lord Salisbury and myself have brought you back peace—but a peace I hope with honour.”
The failure of the Treaty of Berlin resulted in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and World War I.
The cover of the 1942 first edition with the alternate title of
“The Chetniks of Yugoslavia”
George Sava (1903-1996), a British author who was a surgeon and medical doctor by training, had written The Healing Knife: A Surgeon’s Destiny (1938), They Stayed in London (1941), Valley of Forgotten People (1941), A Tale of Ten Cities (1942), School for War (1942), Peace in Nobody’s Time (1943), Russia Triumphant: The Story of the Russian People (1943), Twice the Clock Round: One Day of a Surgeon’s Life (1948), One Russian’s Story (1970), The Years of the Healing Knife: A Surgeon’s Autobiography (1976), and approximately 120 other books. He was born George Alexis Milkomanov or Milkomanovich Milkomane on October 15, 1903 from a Russian and Bulgarian background and died on March 15, 1996. He wrote approximately 120 books under the pseudonyms George Sava, George Bankoff, George Borodin, George Braddon, Peter Conway, and Alec Redwood.
"The Chetniks" was reviewed in The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 146, page 499, in the January 22, 1943 issue by war correspondent Hamilton Fyfe in the Views and Reviews section, in the review “The Chetniks of Yugoslavia”. Fyfe emphasized that Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas understood the tactics and strategy for conducting a guerrilla war better than German commanders: “‘Irregulars’ though they are, these Yugoslavs know more about the sort of warfare that is going on in the region between their country and Montenegro, Albania and Greece, than any of the scientifically-trained German staff officers. Mihailovich had a training of that kind himself.” Mihailovich had given lectures on guerrilla warfare before the war at the Belgrade military academy. Mihailovich advocated guerrilla warfare as the best suited for the terrain, size, and resources of Yugoslavia. Fyfe concluded that Mihailovich was leading “boldly and cleverly” the guerrillas under his command, who were “brave men who are fighting for their country’s independence and freedom”, who “are showing the Germans what the spirit of Yugoslavia is.”
Sava described the structure and the sources for the novel in his preface:
“The names of friends I have re-christened. I have altered dates and changed the names of places. This much is fiction: the rest is fact. The subsequent exploits of the guerrillas, the Chetniks, I have reconstructed from letters and reports. But I have a story to tell and I shall not delay in the telling.”
The frontispiece of the first edition of The Chetniks published
in November, 1942 in London by Faber and Faber contained
a photograph of “General Mihailovich”.
There was a wartime paper shortage in Britain so paper had to be regulated. On January 1, 1942, the voluntary Book Production War Economy Agreement went into effect which stipulated a minimum number of words per page, placed limits on the quality of the materials used in production, and streamlined book design by eliminating chapter and cross headings, wide margins, heavy paper, bindings, and large type. The standards applied to all publications over 64 pages in length, while poetry collections, children’s books, and technical treatises and manuals were excluded. The Chetniks contained the following acknowledgement under a lion logo: “Book Production War Economy Standard. This book is produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards.” This meant that the type was smaller and the paper was of lower grade.
"The Chetniks" was rushed into publication in November, 1942 as a wartime novel. The text contained several typographical errors or errata with several key dates that were transposed: “1839” should be “1389”; “1341” should be “1431”; “Jadodin” should be “Jagodin”. Moreover, Sava confused celnik with Chetnik, describing Radic Postupovic as a Chetnik and referred to Milosh Obilic by the Turkish form of his name, Kobilic. Nevertheless, Sava manages to encapsulate the entire history of Serbia and Montenegro and to highlight the most significant and salient historical events and milestones.
Sava began his account by detailing the trip he made in February, 1939 to Belgrade, “The White City”, traveling by automobile: “The same spirit that took me and a donkey on my travels through Bulgaria seized me to explore parts of Jugoslavia in the early spring of 1939.”
He described Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, in 1939:
“Who calls the Danube blue is an infernal liar. Anyway, the Danube that flows by Belgrade city is not blue. … But Belgrade … Belgrade is white. … Chromium still thrilled the people in 1939. It was sky-scraper conscious. The centre hid its untidy spots in a maze of new buildings, government edifices and hotels. … But Belgrade is really an old city.”
The book consists of two parts. The first part, narrated by George Sava, details his 1939 trip to Yugoslavia where he meets and travels with Kristo. The second part of the book, narrated by Kristo, takes place during the period before the German invasion of Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, the subsequent occupation, and the emergence of the Chetnik guerrilla movement in Serbia. The main character of the novel is Kristo, who emerges as a Chetnik guerrilla leader. Sava tells the story of Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas through him.
A map showing George Sava’s trek across Yugoslavia in 1939.
George Sava spent three months in Yugoslavia in 1939 after his arrival in February. He traveled from Belgrade to Kriva Palanka near the Bulgarian border in Macedonia, then to Skopska Tserna Gora in Skopje, “the Black Mountains of Skoplje”, then to Grachanica in Kosovo and the site where the 1389 battle was fought, “the Plain of Blackbirds”, then to Pec (which he calls Perch) in Metohija, then finally to Montenegro, going to the capital, Cetinje.
What explains the Serbian history of resistance and independence? From what sources did the Chetnik guerrilla movement of Draza Mihailovich spring? Was it sui generis or did it have antecedents and roots? What was its origin, historically, psychologically, and culturally? Why did Serbia resist and defy Adolf Hitler when the rest of Europe surrendered and capitulated? Sava seeks to find the origins for the history and culture of resistance in Serbian history, in Kosovo.
In Part One, Chapter VIII, “The Plain of Blackbirds”, Sava described his visit to Kosovo with Kristo:
“Rarely have I been more conscious of the presence of history than when I and my two companions reached the small white church at Grachanitsa, on the very limit of the Field of Kossovo. Before us stretched an endless plain, hummocked, green with waving grass and a deep blue dome of a sky covering the lowland; cloudless and yet so solemn that for a while even the sun seemed cold.
To Kristo it was holy ground.
‘This is the field of blackbirds, the sad plain of Kossovo, where in 1839 ’—he spoke as if it were yesterday—‘the whole of our civilization collapsed. Here on the very grass you tread, the destiny of the Balkans was decided. Many men lie buried here. This was our Waterloo. This one battle created those conditions from which we suffer even to this day: our disunity, our animosities. Do you wonder when we sing?:
'On the plains of Kossovo, on the fields of Kossovo
They are fighting, they are fighting,
The kings and the princes, on the Kossovo field.
They are fighting, they have fallen
The kings and the princes
On the fields of Kossovo, on the plains of Kossovo.'
I listened with reverence as Kristo sang the ancient melody which every child learns as soon as he can speak. I had heard it often. Never had it sounded so poignant as it did that day, as I stood on the very site of that terrible defeat, when Tsar Lazar and his knights fell before the better armed hordes of the Osmanli Turks. I thought of Europe, of Czechoslovakia, and wondered whether history ever taught its lesson to the sons of men, or whether they would eternally blunder, hoping to compromise, to escape the inevitable slavery which comes to the timorous and the weak.
“‘We at least stood our ground and fought like men,’ said Kristo, breaking into my thoughts. ‘The Czechs would have done no less if the Powers that be had let them. We had our appeasers too, even our quislings in the days of Kossovo, but our eyes had looked too long on freedom. We preferred to die rather than surrender.’”
The first page of Part One, Chapter I, “The White City”.
In Chapter IX, “Dushan the Mighty”, on pages 95-96, Kristo recounts a Kosovo ballad, from the medieval Kosovo Cycle, epic Serbian poetry recounting the battle of Kosovo in 1389.
“’Lazar was praying,’ said Kristo. ‘Lazar was busily praying. His men were about to build a church. Don’t you know our famous ballad?
'There flies a grey bird, a falcon
From Jerusalem the holy,
And in his beak he bears a swallow.
That is no falcon, no grey bird
But it is the Saint Elijah.
He carries no swallow
But a book from the Mother of God.
He comes to the Tsar at Kossovo
He lays the book on the Tsar’s knees,
His book without like told the Tsar:
“Tsar Lazar of honourable stock,
Of what type will you have your kingdom?
Do you want a heavenly kingdom?
Do you want an earthly kingdom?”
If you want an earthly kingdom
Saddle your horses, tighten your horses’ girths
Gird on your swords
Then put an end to the Turkish attacks
And drive out every Turkish soldier.
But if you want a heavenly kingdom
Build you a church on Kossovo.
Build it not with a floor of marble
But lay down silk and scarlet on the ground.
Give the Eucharist and battle orders to your soldiers,
For all your soldiers shall be destroyed
And you, prince, you shall be destroyed with them.”
When the Tsar read the words
The Tsar pondered, and he pondered thus:
“Dear God, where are these things, and how are they!
What kingdom shall I choose?
Shall I choose a heavenly kingdom?
Shall I choose an earthly kingdom?
If I choose an earthly kingdom
An earthly kingdom lasts only a little time
But a heavenly kingdom will last for eternity and its centuries!”
The Tsar chose a heavenly kingdom
And not an earthly kingdom.
He built a church on Kossovo.
He built it not with floor of marble
But laid down silk and scarlet on the ground.
There he summoned the Serbian Patriarch
And twelve great bishops.
Then he gave his soldiers the Eucharist and their battle orders.
In the same hour as the prince gave orders to his soldiers
The Turks attacked Kossovo.'
"'So you see, our Tsar preferred a heavenly crown rather than an earthly one. He chose to go to heaven with his seventy thousand men,’ concluded Kristo."
“Very altruistic of him! I said. But which would you have chosen?”
For 523 years after Lazar’s defeat at Kosovo, Kosovo remained part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1912, however, the Ottoman Turks were defeated by the Serbian army and Kosovo again became part of Serbia. It took over half a millennium for the defeat to be turned into a victory. It was the endurance and faith of a people defeated but unconquered and unvanquished which endured and which led to ultimate national revival and resurgence.
In Chapter X, “Kristo’s Native Land”, Sava and Kristo reach Montenegro where Kristo will marry Dobrussa. Kristo exclaimed upon his arrival in Montenegro: “’The mountains, the mountains. … This is the real Serbia,’ he exclaimed, ‘the Serbia of freedom.’” In Chapter XI, “Freedom’s Acre”, he discussed the history of Montenegro where Serbs were able to successfully resist the incursions of the Ottoman Muslim Turks. Montenegro remained an unconquered territory, “freedom’s acre”, where the most defiant and most independent Serbs fled: “So the Montenegrins are the pure Serbs.” Sava described the Montenegrin capital Centinje near Mt. Lovcen, which he visited. He recounted local customs and traditions such as tales of Vjeshtitzas, witches which suck the blood of their victims, similar to vampires, and vilas, fairly-like creatures which seduce men.
On left, a photograph of the Vracevsnica Monastery built by knez or prince Radic Postupovic in 1431, dedicated to St. George, located on the southern side of the Rudnik Mountains between Gornji Milanovac and Kragujevac in Serbia. According to legend, Postupovic, a Serbian celnik or court dignitary under Djuradj Brankovic and the despot Stefan Lazarevic, began the construction of the monastery in 1428 as an answer to his prayer to St. George for the safe return from the Battle of Kosovo. On right, the “Original Cross” of St. Sava, “patron saint of all the Slavs”.
A view of Cetinje in Montenegro, top. A street in Trebinje,
in Hercegovina, bottom.
Kristo described himself and the history, origins, and objectives of the Chetniks in Part Two, Chapter I, “O, Serbia!”, in a series of letters, as follows:
“I am a leader of Chetniks. We are an old organization. We are outlaws. Yet no government has been able to suppress us. None has dared, nor, I think, has any ever thought it wise to make the attempt. We came into being to fight the Turks. We have our own uniforms and our own code of laws. We have fought in every Balkan war. We are the natural guerrillas of our country, and we work behind the enemy. We harass his lines of communication, his transport, his munition wagons. Our men are all chosen for their bravery, but we make no boast of that. We are proud only because we know that in time of need we are able and ready to serve our country. We are, if you like, a standing army whose numbers no-one knows, not even our chief. We have allied ourselves with every patriot in the field, and we have no aims beyond the liberation of Serbia. We never surrender. We are never taken alive. In the lapels of the coats of each one of us is poison, one draught of which is sufficient. We take it and die.”
British wartime poster, “Leaders of the Allied Nations Whose Headquarters are in Britain”, showing King Peter Karageorgevich II of Yugoslavia at the bottom of the V. Also pictured are Hubert Pierlot of Belgium, Eduard Benes, Charles de Gaulle, George II of Greece, “King of the Hellenes”, and the Grand Duchess Charlotte Aldegonde Elise Marie Wilhelmine of Luxembourg.
In Chapter II, “The Angels of Death”, Sava details the frenzied and chaotic period when the pact with Germany was rejected. Kristo listened to a March 26 radio speech or address to the Yugoslav people on the BBC by “Mr. Amery”, Leopold Amery, a Conservative British MP and Secretary of State for India and Burma, delivered in Serbian, at the time of the crisis over the Tripartite Pact before the German attack. Amery focused his appeal to the Serbs in Yugoslavia. He recounted Serbian valor in World War I as an ally of Great Britain and he queried why the Serbs should now abandon the Greeks and ally themselves with Germany like the Bulgarians and the Rumanians. Amery maintained that the Allies would win the war. He addressed Serbian clergymen and students who he maintained had kept the flames of nationalism and national identity burning when the Balkans were subjugated and annexed by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. He reminded them of the tradition of Kosovo and of King Lazar, who chose a heavenly kingdom over one on earth:
“I appeal to you clergymen and students who, throughout the centuries of oppression, kept the flame of the national spirit alive. I appeal to you on even higher ground than that of old comradeship or the certainty of our victory. Will you let your people become once more a subject race? On the field of Kossovo, Tsar Lazar preferred a heavenly to an earthly crown. Serbia was defeated, but her spirit never dies.”
Kristo hears the German declaration of war on a radio broadcast in Belgrade. The German speaker announced: ‘Der Fuehrer hat seiner Armee zu marschieren befohlen. Wir erklaeren Krieg an Jugoslavien.’ The Fuehrer has commanded that the Army march. ‘We are declaring war on Jugoslavia.’
The bombing of Belgrade on April 6, 1941, Palm Sunday, consisting of a series of air attacks and sorties by the German Luftwaffe, which killed thousands of civilians, is described by Kristo:
“Twenty feet ahead of us a man and a girl had been walking, fearfully and anxiously, yet trying not to run and show panic. A single piece of glass decapitated both of them. No executioner could have done it more neatly or more expeditiously. Their heads fell off like cut flowers, and their bodies, still surprised, still unprepared for death, wavered a little as if uncertain whether to stand or fall down. Then they lurched drunkenly and fell with a nauseating thud, still holding hands.”
“I caught sight of women dashing frantically into the street, their clothes aflame, and their hands tearing helplessly at their burning flesh. For all the world, they looked like ghouls, these fantastic human torches that danced a demented dance before collapsing into the all-encircling flame. A few men tore off their coats and tried to do their best by wrapping the victims in them. But it was of no avail. Helper and helped alike were cremated alive together."
“Belgrade had become a city of hell populated by madmen.”
Kristo recounted how a fire-engine in Belgrade drove over corpses with “the grating of bones and the slushy trail of blood”. Slates from roofs fell off: "One fireman was hit across the face, so that a great, oozing gash was left where his nose had been. … Part of the slate still protruded from his face like some obscene proboscis.”
Kristo witnessed the German bombing of Belgrade ordered by Adolf Hitler as Operation Punishment and described the devastation: “For out of three hundred thousand people in Belgrade, twenty thousand died. It was as if half a million had perished in a city of London’s size.”
He recounted the aftermath of the German invasion:
“The capitulation was never complete. Many of the forces refused to surrender, and the task of the Chetniks was to collect together these scattered fragments so that they might to make a new fighting force in the heart of the country….Whatever may have happened to the land itself, it was clear that the spirit of Jugoslavia lived on as proudly as ever. From all over the country peasants came to the centres of resistance bringing with them old guns and hunting rifles, some of them muzzle loaders complete with ramrod and powder-horn. …And against these weapons, the Germans used all the resources of a modern army. They bombed us with their Junkers and their Heinkels and machine-gunned us with their Messerschmitts. …It must have seemed to the Nazis that for every one Jugoslav they crushed, two more made their appearance."
“But even then we did not despair. The Turks had been in the White Fortress—and where were they now? The Turkish Empire had ceased to be. The Austrians had been there, too; and like the Turkish Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was also no more than a record in the history books.”
Kristo described how English soldiers, fleeing capture after the German invasion of Greece, joined the ranks of the Chetniks. Women also were members of the guerrillas. Kristo explained how though “on paper, our activities look slight”, they were having an impact: “But none the less we were achieving success. Not only were we making things difficult for the German administration and harassing its communications; we were holding down men whom … the Germans were anxious to employ elsewhere. In this way, we felt we were being of service not only to our own tortured country, but also to the wider cause of the Allies.”
Kristo explained how the Chetnik guerrillas were like brothers who were all equal. Kristo and Vuk made expeditions as commanders that they should have delegated to the soldiers: “But that is a rule among the Chetniks. A commander must be able to do anything he asks his men to do, and must prove it from time to time.”
As the number of recruits grew and their ranks swelled, the Chetniks needed more arms, weapons, and supplies: “We were, after all, the only army in Europe fighting the Germans. We made a small front, but nevertheless it was something. We held down and immobilized forces quite disproportionate to our own numbers. We knew that no matter how many gallows might raise their arms to the Serbian sky, no matter how many Chetniks might be slain, we were aiding that greater struggle on which, we now realized, the fate of the world hung. It was no longer simply Serbia. It was the world’s fight for those things which Serbia always cherished: peace to live one’s own life, freedom, independence.”
Kristo’s wife Dobrussa also joined the Chetniks. “’Jugoslavia’, she said, ‘has been occupied, but not vanquished.’”
Kristo, Vuk, and Milan Frankovich, Chetnik guerrillas in Belgrade, launched one of the first guerrilla attacks against German occupation forces in the city. They boarded a German troop and ammunition train in Belgrade and derailed and destroyed it, killing 200 German troops and taking 80 as POWs.
One weapon which the guerrillas devised was a specially-constructed thermometer which would explode at a set temperature. A thermometer was developed that was filled with fulminate of mercury with a device that would explode it with a spark when the temperature reached 65 degrees. The fulminate would in turn ignite a mine. This device was successfully used against German forces.
The Axis occupation forces retaliated against Serbian civilians for Chetnik guerrilla activity. Budva, a coastal village in Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea, was destroyed by Italian naval vessels as retaliation for Chetnik guerrilla attacks.
In Part Two, Chapter III, “The New Leader”, Kristo is introduced to Draza Mihailovich, on page 222: “One day, the chief called us all together. …
“‘My sons, my brothers,’ he said solemnly, ‘I want to introduce to you your commander-in-chief, General Draza Mihailovich.’"
“The name was known to every one of us. Tales of his exploits were familiar to every Chetnik band roaming the hills.”
Kristo described his impressions of Draza Mihailovich as a leader:
“We saw before us a man in the late forties, of medium height, and with striking eyes of a bright mountain-flower blue and fairish curly hair. But his physical details were dominated by his presence. It was that of the born natural leader. Here was a man, one said at once, in whom one could place one’s entire faith, a man to die for. Yet there was nothing aloof about him.”Mihailovich then answered questions from the assembled Chetnik commanders and presented an account of his life and career:
“'In the last war … I was a lieutenant. … Then I became a staff officer. In 1935 I was military attaché in Sofia, and later I held the same appointment in Prague.” One of the commanders asked him a question: “Where were you when we were invaded?” Mihailovich replied: “With the Second Army fighting the Hungarians. But you know what it was like. It was impossible to stand up against their tanks and artillery, though we strangled every son of a dog we could lay hands on. At Losnitza, I found myself left with a few battalions of Chetniks. The order to capitulate came through, but, of course, we ignored it. Things got hotter, so we moved into the mountains, where we were soon joined by your chief here and others willing to carry on the war to the victorious conclusion. More and more men joined us. Serbia still lives. And that, comrades, is my story.'”
Kristo described the effect Mihailovich had on the guerrillas:
“We listened to his simple words and stared at him wonderingly. He was wearing rough peasant clothing, his fair hair covered by a tattered cap, yet even so he seemed set above us in the natural power of his leadership. Where that power came from and how we recognized it at once, I scarcely know, unless it be that he was the incarnation of our own determination. We accepted him at once as one of us, rough and hard, and prepared to live hard amongst us. He did not walk about in beautiful clothes with enormous epaulettes on his shoulders—he had no need to. Nor did he treat us as though we were imbeciles or children. To him we were fellow men in a cause. We were irregular soldiers, but, he added, the best in the world. We cheered that because, without pride, we knew it to be true. And henceforth the only possible warfare in Jugoslavia would be that for which we had trained since childhood. We were the people’s protectors, the guardians of our own soil, because we were the people and sprang from the soil.”
Kristo recounted Draza’s activities which Draza related to him. Draza recalled how he had one time eaten lunch at the same café in Belgrade with German officers and troops in order to gather information from them: “The other day they were cursing me roundly right to my face without knowing it.” Draza always carried bombs and threw them at the German troops in the café when they tried to have him thrown out.
Kristo proposed a plan to Draza for returning the 80 captured German POWs, which was a “mock interment”. They were to be tied and put in coffins with straw in their mouths so they could not speak. Then on their backsides of the “living mummies” in “indelible vegetable dye” the exploits of Mihailovich were written. Holes were drilled in the coffins so they could breathe. Eight ox carts with ten coffins bedecked with flowers on each were then taken to Belgrade and presented to the German headquarters. The effect on the German troops was described: “Fear struck deep into their hearts.” The German occupation forces retaliated: “It gave the Germans a fresh excuse for exercising their favorite weapon—terror. Overnight the gallows shot up like rank toadstools that fed their fetid growth with human lives.”
Kristo then presented an account of the guerrilla war against the Axis forces that they engaged in: “For nine months we fought. During the single month of August we destroyed something like twelve thousand fascist soldiers, including officers, blew up two hundred bridges, set fire to between three and four hundred petrol, ammunition, and store dumps, and wrecked seventeen trains.” The Germans retaliated for these guerrilla attacks: “During the first half of the month, ten thousand Serbs were sent to German concentration camps … In Belgrade alone four hundred Jugoslavs were executed.” For Kristo, the guerrillas had the support of the population: “It showed us … how well we … represented the heart and the soul of the people.”
He described how they heard the news that Mihailovich was made the War Minister by the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile in London “as a symbol of the confidence of the government and as evidence of the strength of their solidarity with the forces fighting for liberty.” The strength and the size of the guerrillas grew with each new successful attack: “Now we had something like eighty thousand men behind us, but no matter how the army grew, Mihailovich was like a personal friend to each man. There was no clicking of heels when he came among us. … But Mihailovich was our true leader, needing neither such supports nor a bodyguard wherever he went among us.”
As their size grew, they needed more weapons, which were scare. They did manage to seize weapons from the German, Italian, and Hungarian troops, however, and to obtain weapons from deserters. Kristo described their successful sabotage activities.
He described the reaction to the broadcast of Alexei Tolstoy’s address made in August, 1944 in Moscow reaffirming the role of Russia as an ally of the occupied countries, as “The Elder Brother”. In his message Tolstoy called for Pan-Slavic unity and a united effort or front to defeat Nazism and fascism:
“'I appeal to all Slavs … The hour will strike when not a hundred Serbs or Poles or guerrilla fighters in the mountains of Macedonia and Montenegro will be shot for every German soldier killed, but when every tortured Serb, Pole, Montenegrin, Slovene, or Macedonian, will be avenged in thousands of fascists. … The charred ruins of Warsaw, Belgrade, Chachak, Jadodin [Jagodin], and Banya are still glowing. … Liberty or death! … Health and vigour to all people and countries fighting fascism!'”
Kristo described the impact of the speech on the Chetnik guerrillas: “‘Liberty or death!’ he had said. It was no new appeal to us. It had ever been the cry of the Chetniks, the cry, in his heart, of every Serb.”
Kristo then joined a guerrilla attack on a village held by German troops. He was a member of a guerrilla detachment, “the bravest of a corps of heroes”, that included his wife Dobrussa and an elderly woman who had fought in World War I. He described Mihailovich during the attack:
“I caught sight of Mihailovich in the thick of the fight. He was directing here and there, ordering the retirement so as to minimize losses and preserve as much of as he could of his men and material. But he had time to smile at me and whisper an explanation."
“‘We shall disappear,’ he said. ‘Our headquarters must be moved into the heart of the mountains. If they care to follow us there, well and good.’ He shrugged. ‘They cannot bring up tanks to where we shall go.'”
The guerrillas attacked the village and were able to kill the German sentries. Kristo and the Chetnik guerrillas were captured, however, when the German commander ordered that everyone in the village assemble in the village square. The Germans then lined everyone up in the square and separated them in groups of men and women. The men were killed by a German officer who stabbed them in the back with a knife and cuts downwards along the torso. The women were lashed with whips. Kristo was able to escape.
Kristo’s wife Dobrussa is taken prisoner by German troops. He also suspects that his son Nicholas may be in the village. Mihailovich tells Kristo that the conflict is larger than any individual, that it is based on a cause and that personal feelings should not intrude. Mihailovich urges balance and equanimity and sangfroid. Killing German troops in retaliation and revenge would be futile and self-defeating and counter-productive.
Kristo then goes on a desperate and reckless search for his wife Dobrussa and his son Nicholas. In his search, he discovered that the Germans had abducted children and were using them for blood transfusions and as blood donors. They were also used as donors for skin grafts for injured German troops. He also discovered that the Germans were using women as surrogate mothers to produce children for the Third Reich. He finds out that Dobrussa died during childbirth. He suspected that she was a surrogate.
After this ordeal, Kristo returns to the Chetnik camp and listens to a speech by Mihailovich to the assembled guerrillas. Mihailovich recounted how German forces had targeted his own wife and children and had presented him with an ultimatum. The choice was simple: He either surrendered or his wife and children would be killed. Mihailovich addressed the men, explaining the German ultimatum to them:
“'You have suffered,’ he said to us all, but I felt he was addressing me personally, ‘and I have kept silent. But you know I have shared your sorrow. To-day I can speak to you as one who has a right to do so. To-day, the ultimatum that the Nazis have sent me expires.’"
“‘Two months ago,’ he went on in the same passionless voice, ‘the Germans seized my wife and four children. With what penalties they threatened them you will all remember. They sought, through them, to break my will. They thought that the cry of my own flesh would drown the cry of the desecrated and torn body of my country. They have now asked me to pass a message on to you. They gave us another five days, which now have expired. If we do not surrender, they say, the relatives of all Chetniks and of all guerrillas will be held as hostages. They say they will take immediate action. I need not tell you what that means.'"
“‘Comrades, our country asks for our lives. It asks also for the lives of our loved ones. I have two boys and two girls. The girls are aged nine and fifteen. They are very young, but the elder is ripe for the Nazi bestiality. They have not had their chance of life. What answer shall I return? …'"
“‘I have made reply in your name. This is what I have said: ‘I intend to go on fighting until my death or until you, the enemy, have been thrown out of my country. Our first units of deliverance are already in the field. Large territories have been freed. Jugoslavia is a State of Free Citizens. I call on all able-bodied Jugoslavs to fight for their country.’”
Kristo described the reaction of the guerrillas:
“We did not cheer. Our hearts were too full. But the very silence was more impressive. Mihailovich had spoken. But it was not Mihailovich. It was the voice of Jugoslavia.”
In a postscript, “L’envoi”, Sava concluded: “This, then, is the story of Kristo, my friend. It is the story also of his brave comrades and their leader, Draza Mihailovich.” Sava is able to grasp the appeal of Kristo and Mihailovich: “For Kristo belongs to the salt of the earth, he is a man who would win honour in any country and in any age.” His appeal is to the “common man”, an appeal that is universal and transcends time and place.
Why did Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas have universal appeal that transcended religion, nationality, race, language, creed, or politics? Underneath language, ethnicity, race, religion, culture, ideology, we are all the same. The differences are skin-deep and superficial. What is heroic and what constitutes a hero is essentially the same for all people. This is the story of a common and simple man or woman who emerges from the people who is defeated but not conquered, who remains unconquered or unvanquished. They then engage in trials or a struggle to free their country from a foreign invader or power, hiding in mountains, hills, the wilderness, the sea, forests, deserts, caves, or underground hideouts. The ideals that motivate them are freedom and equality and justice. To achieve them they will put their own life in peril and will sacrifice their wife and children. They will push themselves to achieve what they never believed was possible or attainable, successes that are described as superhuman or heroic. They become supermen, legendary and mythic figures. Everyone can identify with them and projects their own ideals and aspirations onto them. These projections emerge as novels and fictional or literary accounts. The novels are the projections of our own unconscious, an unconscious that is common to all and is not limited to any time or space. It is the part of our subconscious which we repress or deny. We project this denied or suppressed part of our own subconscious on others. We project it on characters such as Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman, Superman, Luke Skywalker, or real life individuals such as Draza Mihailovich.They have a populist appeal. They are ordinary individuals, emerging from the people, opposed to war, reluctant to fight, thrust on the world stage to confront extraordinary odds and challenges. Like the Minutemen during the American Revolutionary War, members of the colonial militia who were mobile and could be rapidly deployed, they were citizen soldiers who emerged to defend their country and homeland. Like all guerrillas, their source of power was found in the population, in the people. Mihailovich emphasized this when he noted: “My strength is in the people.”
George Sava’s fictional account is most effective and most realistic when he focuses on Draza Mihailovich and the guerrillas. This is the part of the novel that is the most enduring, memorable, meaningful, and timeless. Unlike people, myths and legends have no lifespan and do not die. And they will always be invaluable to us because they tell us about ourselves, about all humanity.
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org