Legacies: Victims, Morality & Culture

A Forgotten Crime? Communist Repression in Serbia 1944-1945

Rastko Lompar, Research assistant at the Institute for Balkan Studies SASA, 20. October 2023

In recent decades, there has been a growing awareness of communist repression in Serbia. Despite this, many in the general public remain uninformed about the events, victims, and perpetrators of the repression that occurred in 1944–1945.

On the 13 of May 1964, the National Theatre in Belgrade was packed. The attendees were there to celebrate a “holy” event – one of the most important occasions in post-war Yugoslav history – the commemoration of the two decades of the infamous state security service. Created in 1944, the Odeljenje za zaštitu naroda (Department for People's Protection) or Ozna, quickly became a symbol of terror and fear. Even though the department was renamed and reorganized in 1946, and divided into a civilian and a military intelligence agency, the name Ozna lingered in the collective memory of the Yugoslavs.

Josip Broz Tito and Aleksandar Ranković, August 1942. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

The 1964 celebration was carefully prepared. All eyes were on Aleksandar Ranković, the security service tsar since its inception. Only two years later, he would be publicly denounced and stripped of his powers. For this occasion, however, he was a star. A theatre play was prepared in his honor. The text was written by a leftist poet Oskar Davičo, and featured an iconic verse: Ozna? Finds everything out. Hush. The leaves have ears, which soon became an unofficial moto of the service.

Not all participants in the play were as enthusiastic as him about it, though. The scenographer was harassed and beaten by the police as a known homosexual. Furthermore, his assistant and composer had been previously imprisoned for political reasons, the former for being a pro-Soviet communist and the latter as a member of the Serbian royalist resistance. However, in order to understand how the Ozna got such an (in)famous reputation, one has to return to the beginning. To 1944.

One who cannot murder an enemy can never be a communist!

The German war machine was in clear decline, and the Red Army was getting closer to the borders of Yugoslavia. The communist resistance movement (most commonly known as the partisans) gained the upper hand against its main competitor, the royalists, and secured Allied (both Soviet and British/US) recognition and support. Having largely been driven out of Serbia 1941, it gained a significant foothold in the Nazi-created Independent State of Croatia, where it successfully mobilized mostly Serbs who were faced with the ustaša genocide. Its leader, Josip Broz, more famous by his nickname Tito, was convinced that the time for a complete takeover of Yugoslavia was near.

The political enemies had to be ruthlessly eliminated. Even though the partisans had experience in political terror during the war, most notably in Užice in 1941 and Montenegro in 1942, it had to be institutionalized and more systematic. Therefore, Ozna was created on the 13 of May, 1944, in accordance with the Soviet model. It was tasked with intelligence gathering and counterintelligence, as well as the destruction of the “fifth column” and the “people`s enemies”. It was centralized and headed by the already mentioned Ranković. His deputy for the territory of Serbia was Slobodan Penezić Krcun. In the autumn of 1944, the Red Army reached the borders of Serbia, and the partisans were advancing from Bosnia and Montenegro. Together, they would capture Belgrade in October 1944, driving the retreating Germans and Serbian collaborationists out of the Yugoslav capital.

The newly organized Ozna was ready to carry out its tasks. The lists for executions and capture were already prepared, and the security service wasted no time in acting according to them. The strictness and the reach of their actions sent shockwaves through the Serbian society. The most notable collaborationists were well aware what awaited them from the „liberators“, and therefore fled Belgrade.

However, most mid-ranking civil servants and people with miniscule roles within the occupational apparatus stayed in the country. Many supporters of the royalist resistance, pre-war politicians, industrialists, judges and clergymen did too. They all thought that there would be no or very little punishment for their imagined or real crimes. However, they were very wrong.

Thousands were arrested and summarily executed without trial. Shots rang out in Belgrade`s nights. Informants were at every corner. One had to be very careful in whom they confided. Leftists and communist sympathizers were all too keen to send their enemies to the gallows. Most notably, the surrealist poet Marko Ristić would give lists of political enemies for execution to the Ozna officers. For his contribution to the revolutionary struggle, he was given the post of the first post-war ambassador to France.

The documents of the Ozna serve as the best testimony to the scale and aims of the repression after the takeover of Serbia. One instruction in November 1944 was quite clear: “The main task today is the destruction of the internal reactionaries – traitors – which have to be exterminated and the power has to be given to the people.” How little value was placed on the lives of the enemies is evident from another document from late October 1944: “Every Saturday send a list of those who were executed that week in your county with a clear explanation why they were shot. State their guilt in detail, provide evidence if there is any, if there is none write why was the person executed (witness accounts, etc.).

Those that are arrested should be interrogated as soon as possible, and the decision whether they should be executed or let go has to be made quickly. Only if there is insufficient evidence for either of the two outcomes, keep the prisoner in custody.... They will remain in prison until concentration camps for them are established. In the meantime, they should be sent to forced labor.”

The extermination of the “people’s enemies” had to be done covertly and rapidly. They would be abducted at night, shot without trial and buried in an undisclosed location. The family would not be notified, nor would they be given the body of their loved ones. Sometimes, weeks after the fact, newspapers would print a list of those that were allegedly sentenced to death by military courts, even though there were no trials.

Public burials and Christian rites for the executed were not allowed. Often, the authorities would lie to the family members that the executed were sent to labor camps. The whole process was envisioned as being completely secretive, confusing and arbitrary. This served a terrifying yet efficient purpose. On one hand, it instilled fear into the relatives of the “people’s enemies”, who would also be faced with daily discrimination and abuse. On the other hand, the executions served another purpose, equally sinister in nature. They served as tests for the ideological commitment of young oznaši – members of the Ozna.

In the words of the party leader in the Serbian town of Velika Plana: “Executions are carried out by threes and fives, yet they do not know who they execute. We test people at these executions, because it is one of the best ways of determining a person`s character. Communist dedication, revolutionary and uncompromising spirit, hatred towards the enemy – is best exemplified there. One who cannot murder an enemy can never be a communist.” This period lasted only for around a year, but it was brutally efficient. It not only cost around 60 000 people their lives, but also instilled fear of the all-powerful Ozna into the hearts and minds of the people.

Communists celebrating the victory in Belgrade, October 1944. The graffiti on the floor reads: "King Peter should be hanged!" Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Damnatio memoriae

It should not come as a surprise that the fate of those who perished during this phase of revolutionary terror was shrouded in mystery. Victims were largely forgotten by the general public, and their names were struck out of collective remembrance.

Soon, another wave of repression swept Yugoslavia. This time, the enemies of the state were quite ideologically different. Following the Yugoslav-Soviet split in 1948, thousands of ardent communists who would not denounce the Soviet Union and its leader would find themselves in concentration camps and prisons.

Even though it did not take as many lives, the campaign against alleged Stalinists was almost as brutal in its nature as in 1944/1945. Its perpetrators were the same – members of the secret service. One of the notorious Ozna chiefs for Belgrade, Jovo Kapičić, became the director of the largest concentration camp at the Goli Otok Island. Ironically, the brutal purge of the Stalinists largely improved the image of the Yugoslav state in the West.

Almost overnight, the country adopted a new pro-western course, which was accompanied by performative attempts at liberalization. Yugoslavia gained reputation as being a “liberal” communist country, different from the Eastern Bloc. However, even though Western rock music and jeans were permitted, the country remained a totalitarian communist dictatorship until its demise in 1990.

Given these developments, there was little opportunity for remembering the victims of the revolutionary terror of 1944-1945. They were to be forgotten and banished from the public sphere. However, some references to the dark legacy of the communist takeover started appearing in “Yugoslav Black Wave” films during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Most notably, the 1969 film Zaseda (Ambush), which follows a young oznaš who is sent in 1945 to the Serbian countryside to quell dissent. Seeing firsthand the brutality of the post-war order, as well as corruption and other ills, he soon becomes disillusioned. The film was critically acclaimed when it premiered, but the communist party could not tolerate the not-so-subtle criticism of the events of 1944–1945. It was de facto banned, and was not publicly shown until 1989.

Only after the fall of communism could there be room for an open and honest debate about the victims and perpetrators of communist repression. During the ‘90s, several memoirs were published, mostly by political prisoners and survivors giving first-hand accounts of repression. Perhaps even more important were the testimonials of perpetrators, most notably Ozna officers Milan Trešnjić and Simo Dubajić. Both men spoke quite freely about thousands of executed “people’s enemies” in 1944–1945, without fear of persecution.

Their candor might seem surprising at first glance, however less so given the fact that the (renamed) communist party remained in power in Serbia until 2000, and that there were no attempts at prosecuting those  responsible for the revolutionary terror. In Serbia, much more than in Croatia or Slovenia for example, there was (and is to this day) hesitance to come to terms with communist violence. Given such a treacherous political climate, historians were also less eager to write about this controversial topic.

The monument commemorating the victims of revolutionary terror in Belgrade today. Photo: private collections.

However, after the year 2000, works on communist repression in Serbia slowly started appearing. Most  notable were the works of researchers at the Belgrade based Institute for Contemporary History, but also some local historians. The only attempt at systematically researching the revolutionary terror was the 2009 creation of the „State commission for the discovery of secret graves of victims murdered after September 12 1944“.

It was headed by historians and given insight into some documents previously unavailable for researchers. Even though it faced obstructions by many state bodies, it managed to determine the number of those that perished in revolutionary terror at around 60 000.

There have been many criticisms of “historical revisionism” levied at the commission of, but its data seems to have stood the test of time. Many of its members were behind the project U ime naroda (“In the name of the people”), which aims to raise awareness of the communist crimes by organizing exhibitions, giving talks and creating monuments for those that perished. In conclusion, even though there are some initiatives that shed light on communist repression of 1944–1945, these events, their victims, and their perpetrators are largely forgotten by the general Serbian public.

Rastko Lompar works as a research assistant at the Institute for Balkan Studies SASA. His research primarily focuses on the history of fascism, specifically within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as well as the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Yugoslav-German relations, and anti-communism. In 2022, he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation titled "Anti-Communism in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia 1934-1941".