There is a lot of coverage in the UK press of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain that is rightly seen as having changed the course of history and at least checked the advance of Nazi Germany. And in remembering this, we should also remember all the other nationalities that contributed to the fight: including my special favorites, the Polish pilots:
But there is another case a year later of the small country diverting the course of history: the former Yugoslavia.
Fearing an invasion of World War Two Axis Powers, Germany and Italy, Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact on 25 March 1941, pledging cooperation with the Axis. Because of Paul’s decision, massive demonstrations took place in Belgrade.
On 27 March, the regime of Prince Paul was overthrown by a military coup d’etat with British support. The 17-year-old Peter II was declared to be of age and placed in power. General Dusan Simovic became his Prime Minister. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia withdrew its support for the Axis de facto without formally renouncing the Tripartite Pact. Although the new rulers opposed Nazi Germany, they also feared that if German dictator Adolf Hitler attacked Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom was not in any real position to help. The resistance of Yugoslavia enraged Hitler and on 6 April 1941, the German armed forces launched the invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and quickly conquered it in five weeks. The royal family, including Prince Paul, escaped abroad. The Yugoslav resistance was the biggest in occupied Europe and continued to fight until the end of the war.
However the five weeks the Yugoslavs fought against the invading German army changed the course of world history. As a result, the German invasion of the Soviet Union was delayed by five weeks and many military historians think that this delay was decisive in defeating the drive towards Moscow and the onset of the Russian winter.
I was fortunate to be taught in High School by Douglas Riddel, who had I think been a British fighter pilot in World War Two, but also had an eye for the forgotten corners of history. He taught us to hate Stalin, but to thank the Russian people for beating Hitler at enormous cost. He also taught us about the decisive five weeks that the people of what was then Yugoslavia bought the world and its future. The price they paid subsequently was over a million dead in the resulting fighting and retaliatory killing and genocide. And this was not a clean war of partisans against Germans but also a war of ethnic groups against each other and Communists against Non-Communists. But the five weeks is what is important in world history.
Partisan fighter Stjepan ‘Stevo’ Filipovic shouts ‘Death to fascism, freedom to the people’ (the Partisan slogan) as he is hanged by the occupation forces.
So thank you Douglas Riddel and thank you people of the former Yugoslavia who have finally found peace themselves.