Dangerous Liaison

Michael Howard

  • Beacons in the Night: With the OSS and Tito’s Partisans in Wartime Yugoslavia by Franklin Lindsay
    Stanford, 383 pp, £19.95, October 1993, ISBN 0 8047 2123 8

In May 1945 I was serving with a battalion of the British Eighth Army in victorious occupation of Gorizia, some thirty miles north of Trieste. We shared the town with a brigade of Yugoslav Partisans, and the relations between us were not good. Our lords and masters had decreed that the Partisans should be, for the time being, in charge of civil administration, while we confined ourselves to military duties. So while our drill-sergeants were trying to turn us back into proper soldiers on the barrack-square, the Yugoslavs spent the days plastering the town with peremptory orders and warnings, and by night carried out what would now be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’: sending out patrols to arrest the leading members of the Italian community, partly to revenge themselves for the treatment which the Slovene peasantry had suffered during Italian occupation, partly to ensure a favourable ethnic balance in this disputed region if it ever came to a referendum. My own landlord, a gentle Italian doctor, was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night by a Partisan patrol commanded by a pleasant-faced boy even younger than I was, who told me when I protested that the doctor was on the list of notorious war-criminals. For all I know, he was. In any case, when I rang my commanding officer to ask for instructions, that admirable man told me to go straight back to bed unless I wanted to start a Third World War. So I did, and, thankfully, a few weeks later left the region for good. If that was what the peace would be like, I reflected, there was more to be said for war than I had previously realised.

I was of course lucky. I had come into contact with only the outer fringe of the Yugoslav nightmare, which has returned to haunt us and shows no signs of ever going away. But the disintegration of the Yugoslavia Tito reconstructed with such ruthlessness and skill should now be prompting us to re-examine the process by which he put it together. It may do something to explain the present situation, even if it provides no guidance as to what to do.

There is no lack of information, oral and written, about this period, and certainly no lack of controversy. There are still those who maintain that the Allied decision to support Tito’s Partisans rather than Mihailovich’s Chetniks was one of the Great Mistakes of the War, and only came about because of Communist subversion of Special Operations Executive. Certainly, when that decision was taken at the end of 1943, the Allies knew little about either group, and anyway the capacity to support them was minimal. Once the Allies were established in Italy, both knowledge and capacity grew. Mihailovich was, rightly or wrongly, written off. British agents reported that he commanded little support outside Serbia; that the ferocity of German retaliation was deterring him from taking any more initiatives; that his relations with the occupying powers had been suspiciously close; and that he would probably save up any weapons dropped to him to impose a Serb hegemony once the Allies had won the war. Tito, on the other hand, was at least known to be fighting. He was undeterred by German retaliation, which he rightly gauged as being more likely to strengthen his forces than to weaken them. He appeared to enjoy a wide measure of popular support throughout the country. And although Tito did not conceal his intention of conquering Yugoslavia for Communism as fast as it was liberated from the Germans. Churchill decided that the defeat of Hitler should have overriding priority. Find out who is killing the most Germans, he told his emissaries, and help them to kill more. A more squeamish or high-minded generation may today recoil from such brutal triage, but at the time it made a great deal of sense.

Franklin Lindsay was one of the first Americans to be sent into a region where the British had hitherto made most of the running. He arrived in May 1944, when aid was becoming plentiful and the Allies had no objective other than to supply the Partisans with everything they needed to carry on the war. Although these memoirs appear fifty years after the events they describe, they were written shortly after the war and have now been updated by access to both British and American documentary material. Initially Lindsay was dropped on the Austro-Slovene border, to help the Partisans interrupt German rail communications. After nine months in the mountains, while still only a 28-year-old major, he was sent to Belgrade as Head of the American Mission to Tito. He ended the war as political adviser to General John Harding (of whose XIII Corps in Venezia Giulia pars minor fui), trying to stop young idiots like myself from starting a Third World War. Thus although he missed the early, heroic years of the resistance, he was ideally placed to observe, both in the field and at headquarters, the growing self-confidence of the Partisans, the increasing tension between them and their Western allies, and their growing reluctance to take part in any operations that were not specifically intended both to increase their grip on liberated territory and to extend the frontiers of Yugoslavia at the expense of both Austria and Italy.

His story is a tragic one. It began like a war propaganda film, with good guys and bad guys clearly delineated. Our handsome young hero, a Stanford-trained engineer, was dropped into the blackness of the Slovene mountains, to be welcomed, protected and supported by bands of skilful and dedicated freedom-fighters who were inured to hardship and danger and survived thanks to the unquestioning support of the population, among whom they lived and moved like Mao Zedong’s fish in water. Their leaders were certainly dedicated Communists, making revolution with the same dedication as they made war, and concealing neither their suspicion of the capitalist West nor their primary loyalty to the Soviet Union. But whether or not one agreed with their political aims, it was impossible not to admire their heroism; and justifiable admiration of their heroism led some Allied liaison officers into a rather less justifiable support for their politics.

For a few months all was well. There were worse places to spend a summer than the mountains of northern Slovenia and southern Austria, surrounded by a friendly population, engaged in high adventure in a war against an evil adversary that was patently drawing to a triumphant end. But gradually the atmosphere began to sour. As the Germans became easier targets and Allied support increased, relations with the Partisans cooled. Liaison missions were isolated from the groups to which they were accredited; information was hard to come by; and the Partisans, in spite of the plentiful equipment now at their disposal, became clearly reluctant to engage in the joint operations against German supply lines that Allied strategy required. Officers returned from Tito’s headquarters convinced that, now that the war seemed virtually over, the Partisans were more occupied with liquidating the Chetniks than fighting the Germans. With the liberation of Belgrade, largely by Soviet forces, in October 1944, Tito turned decisively to the East. During the ensuing winter, in spite of a now continuous flow of support from the West, the Partisans began to treat their Western liaison officers almost as enemies.

The Western allies continued none the less to support them. Tito had been built up in Western eyes, not undeservedly, as a hero, and the process of supporting him could not easily be reversed. More important, to abandon him would be to leave the field free for the Soviets. In their famous agreement in October 1944, Stalin and Churchill had agreed to share influence in Yugoslavia on a 50-50 basis, and there was now no way in which the West could influence events there if they did not maintain at least a semblance of good relations with Tito. The State Department still stated in lofty terms that ‘our interest is in the establishment of a representative government, upon the liberation of the country, according to the freely expressed desires of the people concerned’; but as Frank Lindsay puts it, ‘those of us who lived with the day-to-day vilification by both sides of the other as traitors, and the increasing tempo of their civil war ... couldn’t see how the people would be able to freely express their desires for a post-war government without a full-scale Allied military occupation, with freedom of the press and pluralist political organisations imposed by the Allies.’ since that was clearly not on, what else could be done, except to build on such good relations as had been forged on the battlefield with the Partisan leadership, and hope they would get better?

There was certainly a heavy price to pay. Allied diplomats in Belgrade, Lindsay among them, had to stand by and watch supporters of pluralist democracy forcibly eliminated from the political process. Chetnik refugees in Allied hands were duped into returning to Yugoslavia, where they suffered the fate that they would certainly have meted out to their opponents if the roles had been reversed. And in Venezia Giulia, British officers had to stand helplessly by and watch the totalitarianism against which they believed they had been fighting resurrecting itself under their noses.

Was it worth it? Lindsay thinks that it was, and I have reluctantly to agree with him. No one in the West appreciated at the time how great was the tension already developing between Moscow and Belgrade; the reluctance of Tito to accept direction, his resentment at the behaviour of Soviet occupying forces, his determination to build a Yugoslavia independent of foreign control, whether from the East or from the West. Now that Soviet documents are available we look forward to learning more about this, but it is clear that the more Tito saw of his Soviet allies the less he liked them, and that the resentment was reciprocal. Under these circumstances it was not unimportant that Tito should know that he had friends in the West. In the last pages of his book Lindsay tells how his old comrade-in arms, Vladimir Velebit, came to Washington in 1949 to negotiate a covert arms-purchase which at least strengthened Tito’s hand, if it did no more, in facing a breach with Moscow; a breach of enormous importance in reducing Stalin’s capacity, and perhaps desire, for a serious confrontation with the West.

As for Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia itself, it is not for outsiders to judge whether its oppressiveness was a price worth paying for forty years of peace in that unhappy country. Certainly no one else had the capacity to provide it. The alternative in 1944 was neither a peaceful return to the former Serb hegemony nor the installation of a Western-style democracy, but a civil war no less bitter than that which we are witnessing today, and one which outside intervention could only have prolonged. The Allied governments may have been short-sighted and ill-informed in their decision to support Tito; but even if they could have foreseen the future it is unlikely that they would – or should – have reached any different conclusion from the one that they did.