Yugoslavia: post World War II

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


In Yugoslavia, World War II included several armed conflicts between a wide range of actors: foreign aggressors (Germany, Italy and Hungary); Communist revolutionaries (Partisans); Axis-aligned local regimes (Ustaše in Croatia and the Nedić regime in Serbia, which was occupied by the Germans); and various other resistance groups (whether aligned with one of the above groups or not, like Chetniks, Serbian royalists). The logic of violence was likewise varied: resistance, class warfare, ethnic violence, criminal networks and personal agendas at the local level. It is important to note that between the groups, allegiances and opposition were often tactical and fleeting, not ideological. As might be imagined given the diversity of forces and goals, the death toll was enormous: an estimated total of 867,000 – 1.2 million people killed, of whom 581,000 were civilians.[1]

Even as the foreign forces departed, marking the official end of the war, the killing in Yugoslavia continued. As across Europe, the brutal conduct of World War II fed post-war violence, however, two factors differentiate the patterns of killing in the immediate aftermath of WWII from most other European post-war experiences: 1) The belief (or fear, depending on perspective) held by many local actors that the Allied forces would eventually support non-Communist armed groups as the end of WWII merged into the Cold War.[2] This belief encouraged the collaborationist forces (particularly the Croatian Ustaše but also Slovene Home Guards) and other forces (ex: Chetniks) who were fighting against the Communist partisan forces to continue combat slightly longer than elsewhere. Further, this belief struck fear in the Communist forces, who remained independent from the Soviet Union, that they would have to definitively defeat their domestic opponents in order to protect their new regime. 2) Therefore, the new government was directly involved in the killing, unlike many other countries where reprisal actions were not state-sponsored.

Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader, sought to consolidate power as quickly as he could and wartime settling of scores began even as the war was in its final throes. The Yugoslav State Commission for the Determination of Crimes of the Occupiers and their Collaborators formed by Partisans in November 1943, and by September 1947 had identified 64,969 individual war criminals.[3] Thousands probably were correctly identified, but the vehicle also served to eliminate competitors for power.

If we firmly train our eyes on the post-war violence, two distinct policies become apparent, both of which included significant civilian killing. First, was the goal of total defeat and dismantling of the capacity of the anti-Partisan local forces, including primarily the Croatian Ustaše and Slovene fascists, but also Serb Chetnik (royalist) forces. Second, was the policy of forced expulsion of the non-Slavic population from the ethnic German and Hungarian communities. The total of these two patterns of killing, described separately below, are estimated to have caused 120,000 – 140,000 deaths between 1945 and 1948.


Part One: Croatian and Slovene Collaborators

In April of 1945, as World War II was ending, German forces began retreating from Yugoslavia. The war ended on May 7, 1945, when Germany surrendered–although skirmishes continued for at least another week in Yugoslavia. Even before Zagreb, the capital of the Ustaše regime, fell to Partisans, the regime’s leadership, armed forces, and some civilians, along with reportedly some Chetniks and Slovene fascists, began to make their way north towards Austria, hoping to surrender to British forces. During their trek north, fighting continued.

Some portion of this column crossed into Austria at Bleiberg on 15 May 1945. The British refused their surrender—the terms of the war’s end was that all forces had to surrender on the soil of where they had fought—and disarmed them.[4] They were then handed over to the Partisan units at which point many were killed. There is some historical debate about whether or not a massacre occurred at Bleiberg, but overwhelming evidence suggests that the vast majority of killing occurred after the Ustaše and Slovene forces (who had surrendered at Viktring) had been handed to the Partisans just over the border in Yugoslavia.[5]

Over the subsequent weeks, large numbers of the combined group of POWs and civilians were killed: in massacres, during marches to Maribor and to other camps further afield, and after arriving at camps. There are stories of large-scale massacres high in mountains passes, with bodies thrown into ravines. Pits have also been discovered, cemented over, with the remains of those killed during the marches. Given neither food nor water, stripped of their valuables and forced on long marches, stragglers were shot. Testimony of survivors described extrajudicial executions of those who tried to escape, step out of the column (even to go to the bathroom) or became too tired to keep up. Some were killed at random.[6] Partisans additionally sought to weed out Ustaše leadership and specifically target them for death. Once they arrived at Maribor, the group was separated into sub-categories of civilians, rank and file soldiers, and leadership. The “least guilty” were forced onwards to prison camps across the country. The most guilty were systematically shot and buried in anti-tank trenches, shell holes, bomb craters and specially dug mass graves.[7] Similar actions occurred in other locations targeting other Ustaše groups, Slovene Home Guard, and some Montenegrin Chetniks and Serbian Volunteer Corps regiments.[8]

Mozjes argues that Tito explicitly ordered his forces not to kill the Ustaše, but to take them to camps to find most guilty war criminals and bring legal proceedings against them. Nonetheless, killings continued.[9] Most Domobrans [Croatian regular army] were released by May 28, authorities having decided that none amongst them were war criminals. Others, however, were dispersed to camps across the country where they were beaten, tortured and many killed.

Part Two: Ethnic Germans and Hungarians

Another group that suffered mass killing at the end of WWII were ethnic Germans and Hungarians. At the beginning of WWII, an estimated 540,000 ethnic Germans lived in Balkan countries, the largest community of which resided in Slovenia.[12] Concentrated in the northeastern and north-central parts of Yugoslavia, they often lived in concentrated communities, entire towns or sections of towns, like Novi Sad Osijek. There is no question that these communities as a whole exhibited support for the Nazi goal of bringing ethnic German populations under one nation, although their degree of complicity with the occupiers during the war varied. Some 80,000 joined the German army.

Following the end of the war, 215,000 – 245,000 Germans were evacuated, some small number had been killed in fighting during the war, others were taken as POWs; leaving some 200,000 – 250,000 civilians in the country following the end of the war.[13] In this case, unlike when dealing with the pro-fascist local populations–Slovenes, Croats, Muslims and Serbs –the policy was expulsion. On November 21, 1944, the Anti-Fascist Council of the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ, the Communist leadership) announced the confiscation of property of all Germans except those who had: 1) joined the Partisans, 2) married with one of the Slav nationalities; and 3) assimilated. The Communist leadership made clear their intention to expel Germans, who were seen as traitorous in whole.

Mozjes argues that while this decision was taken by central leadership, the enactment of the policy was less organized. He describes it as vengeance by poorly organized Partisan forces. In 1944, in northwestern parts of Yugoslavia, Partisan attacked and killed 2,000 intellectuals and leaders of the German community. Some 10,000 were killed in the “bloody fall” of 1944, including some 12,000 people deported to Soviet labor camps where 2,000 died. [14] Perpetrators included vigilante groups; individuals, local people who spontaneously joined in anti-German actions; various post-war official offices, like Liberation Committees and Partisan military courts; the secret service [OZNA] (led by Rankovic), special mobile commando units. Mozjes argues that these actions constituted genocide between October 1944 – 1948.[15]

Of the remainder of the population in Yugoslavia after the war, many were sent to camps, where an estimated 51,000 children, women and men died between 1945-1948, under conditions “calculated to cause the death of as many as possible.”[16] Even in 1948 – 1950, ethnic Germans were not permitted to return to their former villages, but only to go to cities, then encouraged to emigrate. Following the Yugoslav break with USSR in 1948, Yugoslav leaders sought to improve their relations with the West, and in the case of Germany, this meant release of the ethnic German population from camps.[17] Over subsequent years, there was a 99% decrease from the pre-WWII population of Volksdeutsch (been in the area ~200 years):

Pre-war          530,000

1951               41,769

1961               20,015

1970               12,785

1981               8,712,

1991               5,387

A somewhat similar logic, but smaller numbers, governed Yugoslav policies over Hungarians. Levene, citing Pertti Ahonen’s 2003 study of post-war demographic challenges, writes that between 15,000 and 20,000 ethnic Hungarians were killed in the Vojvodina area of Serbia that borders Hungary.[18] However, Mozjes references that a widely claimed number of 10,000 ethnic Hungarians killed, was put forward by staunchly anti-Communist Hungarian sources and increases tenfold in various sources without reference to data.[19] Italian communities, which existed throughout history along the coast, were also expelled, often brutally. However, Italian communists were invited to stay.[20]

Croat and Slovene Fatalities

While Croatian nationalist historians have argued for implausibly high numbers of over 100,000 to over 200,000.[10] The best estimate suggests that 50,000 – 70,000 people were killed. Serbian demographer Vladimir Zerjavić argues that the estimate is 50,000 – 60,000 Croatians were killed between Bleiberg and Maribor. However, when one adds in Serbs and Slovenes, the number rises to a total of about 70,000.[11] 

Ethnic German and Hungarian Fatalities
The best estimates for ethnic Germans and Hungarians intentionally killed in the post-WWII context is 50,000 – 70,000.


The height of the post-war killings is 1945 – 1948. The decline occurs initially as opposing armed and political groups, and civilians associated with them, were identified and deemed under control, and the new government consolidated its position both internally and internationally. The crucial change came in 1948, when the burst of killing following the war definitively ended as Tito’s regime consolidated power and split with Stalin, thereby establishing its position in relation to larger powers from both the east and west.

While political oppression occurred under Tito’s government, the pattern tended not to be killing, but “re-education”—hard labor camps. According to Milovan Djilas, between 1940 and 1950, approximately 15,000 people passed through Tito’s re-education (hard labor) camps.[21] These included political opponents, whether tarred as Stalinist, purged from his inner circle or otherwise representing a political threat to Tito. Tito continued to pursue Stalinist policies of collectivization and centralization for some time thereafter, only attempting to innovate starting slowly in the 1950s. A major shift came in 1966, when Tito embarked on policies of decentralization of political and economic reform, toleration of limited dissent and accommodation of regional concerns, removal of Aleksander Ranković, considered to be hardliner in terms of centralizing power. Later, from the 1960s to the early 1980s, mainly nationalist political leaders were sent to the camps


We code this ending as occurring ‘as planned’ by the perpetrators, through a process of normalization. We also note that there multiple victim groups targeted for violence.

Works Cited

Biondich, Mark. 2011. The Balkans: Revolution, War, and Political Violence since 1878 Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bringa, Tone. 2004. The Peaceful Death of Tito and the Violent Destruction of Yugoslavia, in Death of the Father: An Anthropology of the End in Political Authority, John Borneman (ed.). London: Berghahn Books, 148-201.

Levene, Mark. 2013. The Crisis of Genocide: Annihilation: The European Rimlands 1939 – 1953. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lowe, Keith. 2012. Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Mozjes, Paul. 2011. Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the Twentieth Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Tomasevich, Jovo. 2001. War and Revolution in Yugoslavia 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration. Stanford University Press.

Žerjavić, Vladimir. 1980. “Gubitci stanovnista Jugoslavije u drugom svjetskom ratu” [Population losses of Yugoslavia in the Second World War]. Zagreb: Jugoslavensko viktimolosko društvo.


[1] Zerjavić 1980.

[2] Tomasevich 2001, 762.

[3] Biondich 2011, 181.

[4] Mozjes 2011, 126.

[5] Lowe 2012, 254.

[6] Lowe 2012, 254.

[7] Lowe provides the most detailed description of the forced marches and conditions at Maribor. He cites several survivor witnesses that have been corroborated as well as some German eyewitness accounts (Lowe 2012, 257 – 258).

[8] Lowe 2012, 260.

[9] Mozjes 2011, 127

[10] Mozjes 2011, 126 -7.

[11] Tomasevich 2001, 765, citing Zerjavić.

[12] Mozjes 2011, 110.

[13] Mozjes 2011, 111.

[14] Mozjes 2011, 113.

[15] Mozjes 2011, 121.

[16] Mozjes2011, 114.

[17] Mozjes 2011, 119.

[18] Levene 2013, 374.

[19] Mozjes 2011, 121 – 122.

[20] Mozjes 2011, 124.

[21] Bringa 2004, 151.

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