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Chetniks (Serbian Četnici, Четници) were a Serbian nationalist and royalist organization with origins in the 19th century struggle against the Ottoman Empire. In World War II, Yugoslav Royal Army in the Fatherland aka. Chetniks have been founend on 13th May 1941, on Ravna Gora as a forces loyal to the Yugoslav royal government in exile. After some initial skirmishes with the occupying forces, Chetniks concentrated almost exclusively on fighting the communist partisan resistence, often collaborating with German, Italian and even Ustashe forces. The name is derived from the Serbian word četa which means "military company".



Chetniks originally formed as a result of the Macedonian struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Soon, other ethnic groups in the Balkans created their own chetnik detachments: Serbs, Bulgarians, Greek Andartes and Albanian kacaci. The Ottomans had little problems with them since they were too busy fighting each other. In Herzegovina, they were fighting the Turks, in northern Macedonia against Turks and Albanians who sided with them.

At the start of Balkan wars there was 110 IMRO, 108 Greek, 30 Serbian and 5 Vlach detachments. They fought against the Turks in the First Balkan War, while in WWI they fought against Austria-Hungary.

World War II

Missing image
US postage issue with Draza Mihailovic's portrait,1943

After the surrender of the Yugoslav royal army in April 1941, some of the remaining Yugoslav soldiers organized Yugoslav Royal Army in the Fatherland in the Ravna Gora district of western Serbia under Colonel Dragoljub (Draža) Mihailović to fight the German occupation. They were mostly ethnic Serbs though there were some Slovenes and Croats as well. Mihailović directed his units to arm themselves and await his orders for the final push. He avoided actions which he judged were of low strategic importance. The reason behind his resolve was the fact that he had been a World War I officer.

Between 1941 and 1943, the Chetniks had the support of the Western Allies. TIME Magazine, in 1942, featured an article which boasted the success of Mihailovich's Chetniks, and heralded him as the sole defender of freedom in Nazi-occupied Europe. However, Tito's Partisans fought the Nazis as well during this time. Both Tito and Mihailovich had a bounty of 100,000 Reichsmarks offered by Germans for their heads.

Throughout World War II, the Chetniks were faced with the two main categories of enemies: the German occupiers and the Ustashe troops that murdered or otherwise harassed the ethnic Serbian population on the one side, and the ideologically opposed Communist Partisans on the other.

After the summer uprising during 1941, the guerilla activity of the Chetniks increased, and the forces of Nazi Germany retaliated very harshly against the civilian population. The Germans had introduced exact punitive measures against guerilla activity: 100 Serb civilians were to be executed for every killed soldier of the Wehrmacht and 50 for each wounded. The rival anti-fascist movements, Tito's Partisans and Mihailović's Chetniks, collaborated at first, but later turned against each other, and inside Serbia a bitter civil war ensued.

In late 1941, the Germans started a massive offensive on the areas of Ravna Gora and Užice. Mihailović offered a truce, but it was denied and the bulk of the Chetnik forces had to retreat for eastern Bosnia and Sandžak. There they came in direct conflict with the Ustaše, the fascist regime of Independent State of Croatia.

As the forces of Fascist Italy were latently opposed to the Communists and the Ustaša regime in their southern zone of influence, the Chetniks collaborated with the Italians to be able to engage the Ustaše and Communists. The Allies frowned upon this but kept sending support for the Chetnik forces for some time. Chetniks also cooperated with the Nedić quisling regime in Serbia. Finally, the Chetniks started concentrating on fighting the Partisan forces, even allying themselves with some German forces in Bosnia. General Draža's secondary goal was to preserve as many Serbian lives as possible, even if it meant collaborating with the enemy.

The Western Allies originally supported the Chetniks because they were a better option for them than the potentially pro-Russian Communist Partisans. The Allies had planned an invasion of the Balkans, and so the Yugoslav resistance movements were strategically important, and there was a need to make a decision which of the two factions to support. A number of Special Operations Executive missions were sent to the Balkans to determine the facts on the ground. In the meantime, the Allies stopped planning an invasion of the Balkans and finally reverted their support from the Chetniks due to their collaboration with the Axis powers, and instead supported the Partisans. At the Teheran Conference of 1943 and the Yalta Conference of 1945, Stalin and Churchill decided to split their influence in Yugoslavia in half.

By the end of the war, the Chetniks were still important in numbers. Some retreated north to surrender to Anglo-American forces; Mihailović and his few remaining followers tried to fight their way back to the Ravna Gora, but he was captured by Tito's Partisans. In March 1946 Mihailović was brought to Belgrade, where he was tried and executed on charges of treason in July.

The last remaining Chetnik was captured in the Herzegovina-Montenegro border area in 1957.

Allied pilot rescues and Legion of Merit

Missing image
General Mihajlovich with rescued US pilots at Pranjane

The Chetniks rescued some 500 U.S. airmen who crashed over Yugoslavia in 1944-45.

Due to the efforts of Major Richard L. Felman and his buddies President Harry S. Truman, on the recommendation of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, posthumously awarded Mihailovich the "Legion of Merit", for the rescue of American Airmen by the Chetniks.

For the first time in history, this high award and the story of the rescue was classified secret by the State Department so as not to offend the communist government of Yugoslavia. Such a display of appreciation for the Chetniks would not be welcome as they switched sides to Tito's Partisans during the war.

Chetnik ideology

Chetniks were royalists, and their salute was "За краља и отаџбину" ("Za kralja i otadžbinu") - For King and Fatherland. They held family values and private property in high esteem, and were thus ideologically opposed to Communists who opposed the monarchy.

Many Chetniks started to grow elaborate beards during the war, which is a traditional Orthodox Christian way to express sorrow. In this manner, they marked their sorrow for the occupied fatherland which was ravaged by war.

Almost all Chetniks expressed staunch Serbian nationalism, sometimes even ultra-nationalism. A Chetnik ideologue Stevan Moljević composed a memorandum called "Homogenous Serbia" that outlined a plan to solve Serbian problems by expanding the Serbian territory to all the lands where ethnic Serbs live, and subsequently remove its heterogeneous ethnic composition, revising the idea of Greater Serbia. This goal accordingly was to be achieved with ethnic cleansing of the territories that Greater Serbia was to assume.

Collaboration and war crimes

Chetniks posing with German officers during World War II
Chetniks posing with German officers during World War II

The Chetnik collaboration with Germans and Italians did exist. Chetniks had offered a truce to Germans in 1941, which was accepted. Some groups of Chetniks collaborated with Italians, from whom they received arms to fight Partisans and Ustashe, and also with Germans in Bosnia. Nevertheless, Chetnik advocates argue that these were tactical collaborations on a local level, with the main aim to fight their common enemy - the Partisans. Chetniks viewed their ideological struggle against the Partisans as one more important than the fight against the Germans. However this collaboration continued until the end of WWII, and the allies withdrew support from the Chetniks in 1944.

In the areas of Independent State of Croatia, which included Bosnia and Croatia, a bitter ethnic war was fought. The ruling Ustase regime had proclaimed as its goal to exterminate one third of the Serbs, expel the other third and convert the rest to the Catholic faith. Chetniks fought both the Ustashe and Partisans in these areas, and retaliated for the crimes against Serbs in the villages populated by Bosnian Muslims (who they saw as ones allied with the Ustashe) and Croats. The areas around Višegrad, Zvornik, Foča, Čajniče, Pljevlja were gravely impacted by this kind of ethnic cleansing until Tito's Partisans arrived at the site in large numbers in 1942. There's one report of 2,000 Muslim men killed in Foča and Muslim women mass raped, and another report of 1,200 fighters and 8,000 civilians killed in easternmost Bosnia and Sandžak during this time.

After the victory of Tito's Communists, recognised the atrocities but also did not forget their collaboration with the German and Italian forces. After capture in 1946, Mihailović was summarily executed, which strained the Franco-Yugoslav relations at the time, and Charles de Gaulle refused to visit Yugoslavia or meet Tito.

Postwar treatment of chetnicks

During the Tito era, Chetnik crimes were recognised, and many say that their atrocities were equalized with the crimes of the Ustashe regime. However, Serbs consistently point out that there is a major difference in the scale of the atrocities of the two groups. Even though Chetniks were guerilla fighters with many independent cells which operated semi-independently, they did however have a single ideology and a single commander in Mihajlović. Although the number of victims was less then that of the Ustashe government which carried a well-coordinated and organized genocide of the Serbs and other unacceptable citizens, the Chetniks' force was smaller in size and thus were less "effective" in their intent. During the closing years of World War II, many Chetniks defected from their units in 1944 and early 1945, when there was a general amnesty granted for royalist forces. Many Chetniks took up the offer; this treatment was also received by the Domobran fighters, but it was not extended to Ustashe.

It is also worth noting that Partisans too were involved in numerous war crimes, like the murder of thousands of Ustashe and Domobran fighters in the Bleiburg massacre, as well as many others. This includes unselective execution of large groups of people in the aftermath of the War, including native Germans from Vojvodina, Italian in northern Yugoslavia, ideological and political opponents, as well as people whose collaboration with Germans was only suspected.

Modern times

In modern times, the Chetnik movement is largely rehabilitated in Serbia, notwithstanding the involvement in war crimes by some of the Chetniks. They are highly praised by Serbian nationalists, but all the political factions see them in a very different light from the one common in Tito's time. This is largely due to the impact of Serbian pro-monarchist politician Vuk Draskovic, who was against Serbian ultranationalism and Milosevic rule, while making a great effort to rehabilitate the Chetnik movement.

Many Serbians also support Chetniks due to the Yugoslav wars and a failure of the Communist idea of "brotherhood and unity of southern Slavs". On the other side, Croats and Bosnians still see Chetniks as some kind of a fascist movement, no better than the Croatian Ustaše or the Bosnian SS Handžar Division.

Vojislav Šešelj, a leader of the Serbian Radical Party, held a rank of vojvoda of the Chetniks, given to him in 1989 by Momčilo Đujić, a surviving leader of the WWII Chetniks who fled to the US.

During the Yugoslav wars, several paramilitary formations, including those by Željko Ražnjatović "Arkan", boasted Chetnik insignia and some of them committed crimes against non-Serbs. This has contributed to the negative image of Chetniks in Croatia and Bosnia.

In late 2004, the National Assembly of Serbia passed a new law that equalized the rights of the former Chetnik members with those of the former Partisans, including the right to war pensions. Rights were granted on the basis that both were anti-fascist movements that fought occupiers, and this formulation has entered the law. The vote was 176 for, 24 against and 4 abstained. The socialist party (SPS) of Slobodan Milosevic was the one against the decision. This law has had various reactions to it. Many have praised it as just and long overdue, including the prince Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (son of the last Yugoslav king), and most political parties (with the most notable exception of SPS). Others protested this decision, including the Serbian association of former Partisans, the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, the Croatian Anti-fascist movement, and the President and Prime Minister of Croatia.

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