- Terror in the Balkans: German Armies and Partisan Warfare by Ben Shepherd
The Axis occupation of the Balkans during the period 1941–1944 resulted in approximately 1.75 million casualties, or nearly 11 percent of the entire population of the occupied territory. Understanding the motivations and decisions of officers responsible for this exceptionally brutal occupation without resorting to broad generalizations is a difficult task, but Ben Shepherd provides a revealing account of the inner workings of the Wehrmacht’s impossible mission in the Balkans. Building on his previous work, War in the Wild East, which examined the Wehrmacht’s occupation experience in the Soviet Union, Shepherd’s excellent study of the Wehrmacht’s counterinsurgency in Yugoslavia focuses on the military divisions responsible for bringing order to a region historically defined by its confounding mixture of ethnic, religious, and political cleavages. Undermanned, poorly equipped, and ill-prepared for both the physical and cultural geography of the region, the divisions attempted to negotiate their surroundings with a combination of draconian occupation policies, harsh reprisals, occasional accommodation, and alliances of convenience with unreliable elements. Shepherd reveals that division commanders adhered to standing orders to brutalize the Slavic population—some of the orders emanating from Hitler personally—with varying degrees of intensity. Ultimately, Shepherd concludes, each division was nothing more than an “island in a sea of resistance,” incapable of preventing the disintegration of the Wehrmacht’s overall military situation in the East or of the collaborationist regimes whose actions galvanized the forces of resistance in the Balkans (p. 118).
Shepherd succinctly describes Germany’s failed attempt to pacify the region as “the imposition of a Carthaginian peace on Yugoslavian Serb populations which it lacked the strength to enforce” (p. 77). Germany never prepared for a scenario in which it would have to invade Yugoslavia, but a coup in March 1941 turned the friendly state into an unreliable flank endangering Operation Barbarossa. Infuriated by the sudden loss of an ally, Hitler delayed the invasion of the Soviet Union and crushed the [End Page 532] treacherous state of Yugoslavia without eradicating the actual resistance. Relying on allies such as Italy and fascist movements such as the Ustasha in Croatia, Hitler invested a minimum of resources in the occupation so that Barbarossa could proceed at full strength. He also encouraged brutality in the implementation of occupation policy singling out in particular the Serbs, who, he claimed, had shown their true colors during the First World War. Shepherd begins his narrative with an order issued by the Wehrmacht’s plenipotentiary commanding general in Serbia, Lieutenant General Franz Böhme, in which that officer urged soldiers to avenge the “stream of German blood” spilled in the Balkans a generation earlier (p. 2). Shepherd asserts that while the officers commanding the divisions in Yugoslavia—most of whom were Austrian and nurtured resentments dating to the Hapsburg era—were motivated by various factors including National Socialist ideology, antisemitism, and anti-Slavic sentiment, punishing Serbia for its historic crimes was particularly important for them.
In Terror in the Balkans, Shepherd examines the operational files, quartermaster records, and intelligence files of six Wehrmacht divisions assigned to Yugoslavia. The result is an illuminating study of the pressures and unique circumstances facing the divisions: incompetent or distant superiors and civilian counterparts, useless allies, SS and Waffen-SS units’ tendency to supersede their authority and missions; and a resilient and increasingly effective resistance gathering strength from an alienated population. Shepherd’s research methods help explain why some divisions performed more effectively than others, or why certain commanders encouraged greater brutality than others, but he is less convincing when he claims that commanders’ Austrian background or First World War experience determined their behavior and decisions. Division records reveal a great deal, but Shepherd’s inferences concerning motivation are particularly weak compared to his more substantial findings relating to individual divisions. Shepherd echoes the “barbarization thesis” that Omer Bartov applied to Wehrmacht divisions in the Soviet Union. Bartov, who also utilized division records, demonstrated how harsh conditions...