Most of the territory of today’s Serbia was occupied by Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945, but the country had no shortage of collaborators, historians say.
Belgrade’s higher court is deliberating on the possible posthumous rehabilitation of Milan Nedic, leader of Serbia’s Nazi-backed regime between August 1941 and October 1944. According to the US State Department’s 2016 international religious freedom report, Nedic’s government was responsible for killing 90 per cent of Serbia’s Jewish population during the Holocaust. The Nazis installed Nedic as leader of the so-called Government of National Salvation. He fled to Austria after the war and Yugoslav Communist authorities declared him a war criminal before his death in 1946.
The process for his rehabilitation, initiated by Nedic’s descendants, has divided opinion in Serbia, which is in negotiations to join the European Union. Outside court hearings, anti-fascist protesters have faced off with supporters dressed in black who claim he gave refuge to 600,000 Serbs from across the Balkan region.
“To rehabilitate a Nazi regime, one would have to be a Nazi – and Nedic was not one of them,” said Aleksandar Nedic, great-nephew of the wartime leader and a self-styled Serb nationalist. Sitting on a bench outside a Socialist-era apartment in Belgrade’s Banovo Brdo quarter, he said that whatever the court decides, the hearings provide a counter-narrative to communist-era history that he calls false. “It’s like losing weight,” he said. “For all the years you add kilos, that’s how many it takes to get rid of them. It’s the same with historical rehabilitation. For as many years as lies were told, now the truth must be spoken.”
But historian Milan Radanovci, author of Punishment and Crime – Forces of Collaboration in Serbia and a strong opponent of rehabilitation for Nedic, said only a minority favoured exculpating the wartime leader. “It’s never happened that a European country has legally rehabilitated their quislings,” he said. “He was well aware of tens of thousands of Jews, Roma and Serb civilians taken to concentration camps and then executed.”
In 2015, a Belgrade court annulled the communist-era conviction of Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovic, a Chetnik leader executed in 1946 for high treason and collaborating with the Nazis. During World War II, royalist resistance fighters known as Chetniks openly collaborated with Axis powers as they targeted Bosnian Muslims and Croats along with Communists. In May, the Higher Court in the western town of Valjevo rehabilitated Nikola Kalabic, commander of the notorious Chetnik Mountain Guard Corps accused by post-war Yugoslav authorities of Nazi collaboration and other crimes.