Liberators

2014 October 20
- Nebojša Malić

Soviet troops deserve the lion's share of credit for liberating Belgrade from the Germans in 1944. The same cannot be said for those who hijacked that victory for their own ends -- or their clueless critics.

On October 20, 1944, Belgrade was liberated from Nazi German occupation, following a six-day strategic offensive by the Red Army's 3rd Ukrainian Front. Commanding the army group was the newly promoted Marshal of the Soviet Union, Fyodor Ivanovich Tolbuhkin.

Though the Bulgarian units taking part in the operation [1] were directly subordinated to Tolbukhin, officially there was an arrangement for independent but coordinated efforts between the Soviets and the »National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia« (NOVJ) -- commanded by general Peko Dapčević.

In all likelihood that was merely a politically correct fiction, but one that enabled the NOVJ leader Josip Broz »Tito« to claim his »Partisans« had liberated Yugoslavia single-handed, with just a little bit of help from the brotherly Soviet peoples. The Bulgarians went unmentioned in postwar Yugoslav histories; the magical transformation from occupiers to liberators within a day was too much even for Tito's court historians.

Following the liberation of Belgrade, Tolbukhin's units moved north towards Hungary, where they would get involved in the three-month battle for Budapest. Not until April 1945 did they have tanks and artillery to spare for bailing out Tito, whose army was bogged down in bloody frontal assaults on German fortifications in Syrmia and Slavonia.

Few had bothered to ask why the NOVJ hadn't simply used its guerrilla skills to go around the Germans, through the mountains of Bosnia they had roamed so freely in 1942-43. Doing so would not only have saved some ten thousand lives from the Syrmian abattoir, but also the countless lives of Serbs and Jews that the Nazi Croatians continued to murder until April 1945. Furthermore, the bulk of the casualties in Syrmia were fresh conscripts from areas that had been royalist strongholds -- Belgrade, modern-day Serbia and Macedonia. Given the Yugoslav Communists' obsession with »Greaterserbian bourgeois oppressors« [2], the theory that Tito was deliberately sacrificing Serb lives -- in Syrmia, Bosnia and Croatia -- while stopping to consolidate authority in »Serbia« through executions, sounds more like common sense than controversy or conspiracy.

Seventy years later, many Serbs rightfully objecting to Tito's transgressions are making a category error by refusing to celebrate the liberation of Belgrade by the Soviets, seeing it instead as a »beginning of Communist occupation«. Yet just like Tito's followers, they gloss over important but inconvenient facts:

- that it wasn't Stalin, but Churchill, that installed Tito in power.

- that, unlike any other European country it liberated, the Red Army left Yugoslavia -- under an agreement with both Tito and his Western sponsors; [3]

- that in June 1948, Tito initiated a break with the Soviet bloc and began working openly with the West.


No use. Time and again, royalist historians have blasted »Broz's Bolshevism«, and blamed Stalin and the Soviets for the sorrows of Serbia. This misplaced Cold War rhetoric has led many Serbs in the diaspora to join the West's assault on the Serbian people during the 1990s, because in their eyes Serbian president Slobodan Milošević was a »Communist«. Even though this objectively put them on the same side as the Serbs' enemies (and Hitler's heirs), with disastrous effects: from the Western media's demonization of Serbs and the falsified charges of »aggression« and »genocide«, to the October 2000 coup and the subsequent occupation of Serbia itself.

Along the way, few if any have stopped to think why their efforts -- such as they were -- against Tito have never amounted to much. Could it be because they were barking up the wrong tree? Even today, twenty-five years since Communism began to crumble, they see »Reds« everywhere and blame the past 70 years of Serbian suffering on Communist conspiracies. They look for Communist »moles« in British intelligence who falsely attributed the deeds of Mihailović's men to Tito -- but ignore the fact that Churchill's own son was sent as envoy to Tito, and that the British PM knew perfectly well what was going on because he wanted it that way.

They object to Belgrade streets bearing the names of Soviet liberators -- not just Tolbukhin, but also his heroic subordinates, Vladimir Ivanovich Zhdanov and Sergey Semyonovich Biryuzov, who died in a mysterious plane crash en route to the anniversary celebration in 1964 -- but don't insist on erecting monuments to victims of NATO's 1999 aggression. Or even talking about it that much, lest their »democratic friends, partners and allies« (who aren't any of those things) get offended.

Which leads to such incongruities that the politicians who built their careers by pretending to be royalists and patriots are now the puppets of the same Western governments that backed Tito, and praise Tito's men at the parade of what little of Serbia's military survived 15 years of »democratic reforms« -- while almost apologizing for Vladimir Putin's presence in the stands. Yet Putin had earned every right to be there, by not rejecting the heroic deeds of Soviet soldiers even as he leads a nation that has rejected Communism.

There is a lesson for Serbs there, if they are willing to learn it.


[1] Bulgaria had joined the Axis by signing the Tripartite Pact on March 1, 1941, and took part in the invasion of Yugoslavia in April that year. Following the invasion, Bulgaria annexed most of present-day Macedonia and southeastern Serbia. It did not, however, take part in the Axis invasion of the USSR (though its Navy battled the Soviets in the Black Sea). As the Soviet armies advanced, Bulgaria switched sides on September 8, 1944; thus the Bulgarian soldiers that until a few days earlier were executing Serbian peasants for insurrection became their »liberators«, in one of the many ironies of the war.
[2] See here how the Communist newspaper »Proleter« wrote about Yugoslavia in 1929, for example.
[3] As a Czech reader points out, both the US and Soviet armies left Czechoslovakia after liberating it in 1945, but the Soviets came back in 1968.

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