bosnia report
New Series No. 9/10 April - July 1999
Warrior nation or paper tiger?
by Special Bosnia Report feature from a correspondent in Sarajevo

The possibility that NATO may launch a ground war against the Yugoslav Army in Kosova inevitably prompts interest in Serbia's military record against past invasions by more powerful enemies. Since the start of the war in the former Yu goslavia in 1991 a myth of invincibility has surrounded Serbia, one which has not been completely shattered by her military defeat in 1995. Our purpose here is to trace the history of Serbian armed conflict, particularly the Partisan struggle against the Axis powers in 1941-45, to help predict the likely outcome of a ground war in Kosova.

Serbian secession
Serbia won its independence during the nineteenth century in a series of con flicts with the Ottoman Empire, its imperial master. Ironically, the Serbs waged a secessionist struggle reminiscent in a number of ways of the contemporary struggle of the Kosova Albanians. Like the Kosova Liberation Army of nearly two centuries later, the Serbian rebels of 1804-1830 were a disunified guerrilla force representing an impoverished and downtrodden population pitched against the decaying military might of a crumbling but brutal imperial power. Further more, like the Kosovars of two centuries later, the Serbians were incapable of defeating their enemy alone. They depended on foreign support to achieve first autonomy and then independence. In 1813 the First Serbian Uprising, led by Karadjordje Petrovic, was crushed by the Turks after the Russians had abandoned their Serbian allies in order to confront Napoleon. The Second Serbian Uprising of 1815-30 was led by Milos Obrenovic, whose strategy rested upon collaboration as much as upon resistance. Milos refused to support the Greek revolt of the 1820s and would take the Turkish side against the Bosnian Muslim rebellion of the 1830s. Ultimately, it was the Russian military defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1828-29 that forced the Sultan to recognise Serbian autonomy. Serbian inde pendence would be won a half century later only after another war with - and de feat by - the Turks. In 1876 Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on the side of a Christian (principally Serb) peasant rebellion in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia was crushingly defeated, but Russia's entry into the war in 1877 allowed Serbia to emerge from the conflict the following year with some territorial gÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ains and as an independent state. Russia's military aggression against the Ot toman Empire - an internationally recognised sovereign state - brought about the triumph of Serbian secessionism.

As an independent state, Serbia's military record was unexceptional. In 1885 Serbia attacked Bulgaria but was once again soundly defeated and was rescued from Bulgarian invasion only through the intervention of her ally, Austria-Hun gary. Serbia performed much better in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, but always as part of a coalition that enjoyed great numerical superiority. In the First Balkan War Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece, whose forces numbered ap proximately 715,000, defeated the Ottoman Empire with forces of only about 320,000 (it was in this war that modern Serbia occupied Kosova for the first time). In the Second Balkan War, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and the Ot toman Empire defeated Bulgaria in a still more unequal struggle.

Serbia in two World Wars
World War I, which broke out in 1914, saw Serbia win an initial victory over Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Army that attacked Serbia in 1914 numbered 250,000; the Serbian Army - 350,000. This Serbian success was due in part to the fact that Austria-Hungary faced two enemies - Russia as well as Serbia - some thing that seriously dislocated her military preparations. The following year, however, Serbia came under combined attack by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bul garia and was rapidly occupied. The Serbian Army had fought extremely well but, like the Bulgarian Army in 1913, simply could not resist an overwhelmingly stronger military alliance. It was forced to evacuate its home territory and re treat via Albania to the Greek island of Corfu. Serbia was once again saved by the intervention of her allies: in 1918 a French-led Allied force of twenty- eight divisions (of which six Serbian), advancing from Salonika in Greece, de feated Bulgarian, German and Austro-Hungarian forces and brought about the lib eration of Serbia. In the process the Serbian Army reoccupied Kosovo, something it would never have achieved, ironically, without British, French and - indi rectly - American military intervention against its enemies.

World War I was also remarkable for the fact that Serbs fought in large numbers for both sides, a point often missed. The Serbs of Austria-Hungary, like the Croats and Bosnian Muslims, provided some of the Emperor's most loyal troops; the supreme commander of Austro-Hungarian forces on the Italian front from 1915 to 1918 was a Serb, Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna.

The distinction between the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina on the one hand, and those of Serbia on the other, is extremely important for understanding the Serb record in World War II. Yugoslavia in 1941 was a multinational state whose government, army and bureaucracy were dominated by Serbs from Serbia proper. On 6 April the country was attacked by Germany which, with the assist ance of Italy and Hungary, succeeded in occupying the entire country in eleven days at the cost of 151 German dead. The victory was among Hitler's easiest: the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army performed extremely poorly in this campaign in comparison with the Polish Army in 1939 or the Greek Army in 1940-41, or indeed with the Serbian Army in 1914, and largely melted away. This was owing to the political bankruptcy of the Yugoslav state and the defeatism of much of its po litical and military elite - Belgrade was formally allied to Nazi Germany at the time of the invasion.

In the summer of 1941 a full-scale rebellion against the Axis broke out across occupied Yugoslavia, but the resistance movement that subsequently developed was scarcely `Serbian'. It was spear-headed by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ), a truly multinational political body whose centre of gravity was in Croatia, whose secretary was a Croat - Josip Broz Tito - and which was committed to the destruction of Serbian hegemony ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ within the Yugoslav state. In Serbia proper, Serbian army officers and nationalists participated half-heartedly in a rebellion under the leadership of Draza Mihailovic, but by late October had be gun to attack the Communist-led Partisans and to seek collaboration with the Germans. The Germans crushed the rebellion in Serbia to all intents and purposes by the end of 1941, with the active assistance of Serbian officers and police men: both the outright quislings under Milan Nedic, Kosta Pecanac and Dimitrije Ljotic, and the covert collaborators in Mihailovic's Chetnik movement.

Contrary to myth, resistance to the Axis in Serbia was thereafter weaker than in any other part of Yugoslavia with the exceptions of Macedonia and Kosova. By the end of 1942, Serbia was contributing two brigades to the Partisans as against Slovenia's four, Bosnia-Herzegovina's ten and Croatia's eighteen. By the end of 1943 the figures were: Serbia proper - five brigades; Vojvodina - five; Slovenia - at least seventeen; Bosnia-Herzegovina - twenty three; Croatia - thirty üeight (the skeptic may check these figures via the list of Partisan brigades in the Encyclopedia of Yugoslavia under `Brigade u NOR-u'). From the end of 1941 until the arrival of the Soviets in September 1944, all the most famous episodes of the Partisan story occurred outside Serbia, more specifically in Bosnia-Herzegovina: the founding of the Proletarian Brigades, the `long march' to Bihac, the battles of the Neretva and Sutjeska, the founding of the new Yu goslavia at Jajce and the German airborne attack on Tito's headquarters at Drvar all took place on Bosnian soil.

Partisans and Chetniks
In the western half of Yugoslavia it is true that Serbs (Croatian and Bosnian) were initially numerically dominant in the Partisan movement. This was because, as victims of genocide at the hands of the Croat fascists (Ustashe) they had the greatest incentive to resist. Nevertheless, as the resistance movement grew in size, the proportion of non-Serbs also grew. In Croatia by the end of 1942, twelve Partisan brigades had a Serb majority and six had a Croat majority; by the end of 1943, twenty Croatian Partisan brigades had a Croat majority, seven teen had a Serb majority and one had a Czech majority. In Bosnia-Herzegovina a report by the military intelligence of the Croatian quisling state - hardly a source liable to downplay the Serb character of the Partisan enemy - suggests that by late 1943 each of the two Bosnian Partisan corps were about 70% Serb and 30% Croat or Muslim. In the four years of the war in Croatia approximately twice as many Croats as Serbs fought in the Partisans; in Bosnia, by contrast, twice as many Serbs as Croats and Muslims combined did so.

Figures for the ethnic composition of the Partisans obscure the fact that their forces were organised on a territorial, not an ethnic basis, and that Croatian and Bosnian Serbs fought under Croatian and Bosnian leaderships, respectively. Thus Serb Partisans in Croatia fought as part of the `People's Liberation Army of Croatia' under the military command of the `General Staff for Croatia' and the political leadership of the `Communist Party of Croatia'. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serb Partisans fought in what was initially termed the `Peo ple's Liberation Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina' under the political leadership of the KPJ's 'Provincial Committee for Bosnia-Herzegovina'. They fought under the banner of a multinational Bosnia-Herzegovina of Serbs, Croats and Muslims and, ultimately, fought for a Bosnian statehood that was frequently described as sov ereign in Partisan proclamations. Partisans employed Croatian, Serbian and Mus lim flags, depending on locality and circumstance. The Partisan leadership was genuinely multinational: the secretary of the Bosnian Communist organisation was Iso Jovanovic, a Serb; the most renowned Partisan commander in East Bosnia in 1941 was Slavisa Vajner, a Croat; the 1st Bosnian Corps, established in November 1942, hÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ad a Croat commander and Muslim political commissar.

The Partisans made frequent appeals to Bosnian or Croatian patriotism and to the unity of Serbs, Croats and Muslims; much less often, they appealed more narrowly to `Serb unity'. Serb nationalism, however, played no role in the Partisan move ment, being the ideology of the Chetniks, the rival `resistance' movement to the Partisans that in fact collaborated with the Axis from within a few months of the start of the war. Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovic believed that Serbian re sistance to the Germans was pointless unless and until Germany had already been brought to the verge of defeat by the Allies (Britain, the Soviet Union and the USA). In the meantime, his commanders made military pacts wherever possible with German and Italian commanders and even with the Ustashe in order to defeat their main enemy - the Partisans. Indeed, the virulent anti-semitism of the Chetnik movement and its frequent portrayal of the Communist movement as `Jewish' and hence alien to the Serbs made it the natural fellow traveller of the fascist oc cupiers. Fighting for a `Greater Serbia, ethnically clean', the Chetniks' principal `resistance activity' was the massacre of defenceless Muslim and Croat civilians whom they blamed for the Ustasha persecution of the Serbs. In combat, the Chetniks were among the least effective of any of the numerous armies and militias that operated on Yugoslav territory during World War II.

Awareness of the paucity of Chetnik resistance to the Germans compared with the dynamism of Tito's movement led British Prime Minister Winston Churchill - fierce anti-Communist though he was - to shift his support to the Partisans dur ing 1943-44, a decision some apologists for the Chetnik movement attribute to the influence of Communist moles in the British establishment, but which prob ably owed more to British intelligence's ability to decipher the German military code. The British perceived Serbia's pro-royalist population as passive in com parison to the insurgent pro-Partisan population of the territory of quisling Croatia (i.e. Croatia and Bosnia). Serbia was principally liberated from the Nazis in 1944 by intervention from outside: the Soviet and Bulgarian Armies, as sisted by Partisans entering the country from Bosnia, Montenegro and the Sandzak, as well as by a smaller number of native Serbian Partisans. Serbia then made a major contribution in manpower to the liberation of Western Yugoslavia (which was achieved without Soviet assistance), much as Bulgaria and Romania following `liberation' by the Soviets made a significant contribution to the So viet military effort in south-east and central Europe. Prior to these final op erations to liberate Yugoslavia, it should be noted, the actual damage inflicted by the Partisans on the German war effort was much less than claimed at the time, and subsequently, by both Yugoslav and British propaganda. Tito was a po litical rather than a military genius, and the real success of the Partisans lay in their survival of repeated defeats at German hands while preserving the organisational framework of their embryonic state. The Germans maintained their lines of supply and communication in Yugoslavia throughout the war at relatively little cost, and surrendered their last forces in the country two weeks after the fall of Berlin.

Milosevic versus Tito
So far as Serbian territorial ambitions were concerned, World War II represented a crushing defeat. Macedonia and Montenegro officially won independence from Serbia, the Serbo-Croat partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina enacted in 1939 was re versed, and Yugoslavia was organised on a federal basis that sought to preclude any return to the interwar Serbian hegemony. Milosevic's failed attempt in the 1990s to revise the map of Yugoslavia was in large part an attempt to reverse the Serb-nationalist defeat in World War II. In the wars of 1991-95 Serbia's eyes proved much bigger than its stomach: the Serbian-doÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ minated Yugoslav Peo ple's Army (JNA) was fought to a standstill and brought to the verge of collapse by less well armed Croatian forces in 1991, and failed in its attempted blitzkrieg against the virtually undefended Bosnia-Herzegovina the following year. Once again, it appears that outside intervention - in this case the diplo macy of the Western Alliance - rescued Serbia from defeat in Croatia in 1991-92 and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. The Vance Plan of 1992 allowed the crumbling JNA to withdraw from Croatia (into Bosnia) without loss of occupied territory; the US-enforced ceasefire of October 1995 rescued the Army of the Serb Republic, it self an offshoot of the JNA, from certain destruction at the hands of the Croat ian and Bosnian Armies.

Serbia's military performance during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been little better or worse than that of other Balkan states such as Bulgaria, Greece or Turkey. There is no evidence that Serbia's people are any more or less ready to fight fanatically and die for their country than the people of most other European countries. The myth of Serbian invincibility has no basis in fact; it arose as a result of Allied propaganda on behalf of the Serbian Army during World War I and the Partisans during World War II, and also thanks to a widespread confusion of the multinational and principally West Yugoslav Parti sans with `the Serbs' as an undifferentiated mass. Serbian military success, as in 1912-14, depended upon superior numbers and the strong support of foreign al lies. An all-out ground war in Kosova, in which an isolated Serbia would face an onslaught from an enemy overwhelmingly superior in equipment, training, firepow er, airpower and morale, and assisted by the guerrilla army of a hostile popula tion, could in purely military terms only end for NATO in a walkover similar to the campaign in Kuwait in 1991.

Wars are political as well as military conflicts, however, and NATO's possession of the military superiority needed for an easy victory does not itself guarantee that it will achieve such a victory. The leaders of the Western Alliance chose not to defeat the Iraqis in Kurdistan in 1991 or the Serbian forces in Bosnia- Herzegovina in 1995, preferring in each case a precarious balancing act based on political ambiguity and military stalemate. Their hostility to Kosovan independ ence and fear of regional instability resulting from complete Serbian collapse may still allow Milosevic to achieve a draw based on some form of de facto NATO-Yugoslav partition of, or condominium over, Kosova. As so often in the past, whether Serbia will prove to be militarily invincible or bankrupt will de pend on the policies and actions of more powerful states.

April 1999


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