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Angels and Demons: Yugoslav Resistance in the American Press 1941-1945

Alexander Mirkovic


     Most world historians are aware of the concept of public diplomacy, the effective communication strategies pursued by various branches of government and special interest groups, practiced in order to influence public opinion on foreign affairs abroad and at home. Public diplomacy often figures in influencing or preparing the ground for formal, official decision-making on subjects ranging from diplomatic initiatives, to international agreements to military interventions. In recent years several studies by world historians have won recognition from specialists in the field of diplomatic history, such as Jon Davidann's, Cultural Diplomacy in U.S.-Japanese Relations, 1919-1941. This work, which traces changes in public opinion in the US and Japan before Pearl Harbor, was praised by of the doyen of Asian diplomatic historians, Akira Iriye, who wrote that, "while there exist numerous studies of 'the origins of Pearl Harbor' and of mutual images across the Pacific, this book makes a new contribution by examining how these images influenced one another."1 Such successes in writing on public diplomacy are often based on the discovery or use of document sets, particularly newspaper collections.

     Recently, Arkansas Tech University received about a dozen of flawlessly organized volumes of press-clippings, all related to the course of the World War II in the Balkans.2 These volumes seem to have been a work of intelligence officers preparing clippings from the American press related to the course of war in the Balkans. Covering the day-to-day news reports of the actions on the resistance movements, this collection presents a unique view of the War of in Balkans from the American perspective. The clippings include newspapers articles from the New York Times and Post, Life and Time magazines, extensive excerpts from the Daily Worker, as well as numerous articles from the local American Press from Pittsburg and Chicago. All kinds of articles figure in collection, including simple reports from the front, in-depth analysis pieces written by experts, gossip columns about the lives of princes and princesses, adventure journalism of Americans and British who ventured to visit the resistance fighters, as well as interviews and biographies of the protagonists. This unique resource lend insight into American views of a part of the world that continues to engage their country's interest—the Balkans—but which rarely appears in world history research agendas and teaching approaches outside of the Great War (1914-1918). The following discussion of American view of the Balkans based on the collection's contents is offered in the hope that it may encourage world historians to utilize this approach when they seek to illuminate how societies shape their view of the wider world and how those efforts reflect social trends—such as gender—within their individual cultures. World History teachers might find such collections useful for their research and for their classes, especially given that, even today, newspapers are primary sources for the way of life of their readership.

     My initial impression of the collection under review was that these press-clippings were not of earth-shattering historical significance, and were generally dominated by the image of homo balkanicus at war, brave Balkan men fighting for their freedom and the Allied cause to a point of fanatical devotion.3 This would be completely in line with the war aims of the United States. To some extent this condescending attitude is present in the sources, although I have not noticed an extensive use of the word Balkans in the pejorative sense. The coverage of the Yugoslav resistance was in general very positive in the American press. However, further and more detailed analysis revealed the existence of two clear political, public relations, or even propaganda, strategies of the belligerent resistance groups. Both resistance movements, the Yugoslav Army in the Fatherland, commonly known as the Chetniks, and the National Liberation Army, known as the Partisans, had a clear strategy of how to present themselves to the Allies. Underscoring this need was the ideological fracture lines and strategies which would come to define the two groups. The Chetnicks were Yugoslav patriots, organized predominantly in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia, politically supporting the Yugoslav Government in Exile and the political order as it existed before World War II. The Partisans, however, were otherwise the reverse mirror-image of the Chetnicks: left-leaning, dedicated to fighting the Nazis, but also planning for the future socialist Yugoslavia, intensely loyal to Moscow, and operating primarily in Croatia and Bosnia, though also Yugoslav in orientation. The Partisans also included among their number a large number of Serbs living in so-called Independent State of Croatia, the population that was subjected to genocide by the Croatian Nazis called "the Ustashe" and eager to join any resistance movement. The relations between these two resistant movements were complex and the mutual accusations abounded. The Chetnicks accused the Partisans of cooperating with the Croatian Nazis, "the Ustashe." The Partisans were accusing the Chetnicks of cooperating with the Italian occupational authorities and the Serbian Quislings. These two movements had their own American spokespersons, the Ambassador Konstantin Fotitch for the Chetniks and the Yugoslav Government in Exile, and Louis Adamic, a Slovenian-American journalist, author and social activist, working for the Partisan movement. One can watch the duel between these two political campaigns being fought on the daily basis on the pages of the collection. In that duel, the American press had to take sides, and it was often split down the middle.

     During the first half of the resistance struggle, between May of 1941 to the middle of 1943, the forces of Chetnick General Mihailovic were praised widely and at length. A legend of Mihailovic was created, and eventually made into a major feature film, called The Chetniks, The Fighting Guerillas (1943). The image of Mihailovic thus created was that of a comic book superhero, resisting the Nazis in the completely occupied Europe, a glimmer of hope and heroism in the darkest hour (figure 1). While based on reality, the image was superficial. The troublesome tactics of Mihailovic's forces on the ground in the middle of occupied Europe, especially the brutal German retributions on the scale 100 of executed civilians for every German soldier killed by his forces, and his troublesome tactics were rarely, if ever mentioned. In the early days of the war and throughout 1942 even the Daily Worker—the communist organ—praised Mihailovic.4 From that point Mihailovic had nowhere to go but down.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Early depictions of the heroism of the Chetniks in Chicago Daily News of January 25, 1942.  

     In the middle of 1943, especially after the Allied landing in Italy, western Yugoslavia of former Habsburg lands and its Adriatic coast, became of a much greater strategic importance than relatively isolated landlocked Serbia, either as a ground for a possible Allied landing in the Adriatic, or as a decoy for possible Allied landings elsewhere. Suddenly, the media reports shifted their attention to the Yugoslav resistance in Croatia and Bosnia. Tito became the central heroic figure of the media narrative. At first a mysterious figure, this leader of resistance in Croatia was not even known by name. Eventually an image emerged. Tito was created as essentially an anti-fascist democrat, admittedly with some communist leanings. He was not made into a super-human hero like Mihailovic, but into a strong-willed but sensitive figure, who often played chess, very much in tune with the dreams and aspirations of modern America, especially the newly liberated American women. In a style that would today be labeled as demeaning and sexist, the Partisan forces were depicted as full of handsome, strong, partisan women, which would make any man wish to join the resistance (figure 2).

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Tantalizing picture of the Tito's female partisans in the New York Sun of August 8, 1944.  

     The liberation of Yugoslavia, however, did not come as a result of the Allied landing on the Adriatic, but as a result of the push by the Red Army though northern Serbia. Once installed in Belgrade with the help of the Red Army, Tito changed his attitudes, and became much more aggressive toward the Allies, even threatening the Allied positions in Northern Italy toward the end of the war. Warning about Tito, which were present from the beginning, now filled the pages of the press. Yet, the prevailing attitude was of silent compliance. There was rarely any regret expressed about the switching of allegiance, and of the betrayal of the ally Mihailovic. That was swept under the rug. The pretense continued that Tito was, in essence, a man that America can do business with, although he was occasionally and often violently anti-Western. The unexpected way out from this unpleasant and for journalists a challenging situation was offered suddenly in 1948, when Stalin criticized and excommunicated Tito. The press could again declare Tito as a friend of America in the Balkans, ignoring any smoldering injustice that the political right saw him imposing on the Yugoslav people.

     Thus a pattern appeared that was to remain true for the American media to the present day: those whom gods wish to destroy, they first make into a celebrity. Mihailovic had that fate. Tito, on the other hand, while generally praised and occasionally virulently criticized, never achieved that superman status. At the height of their popularity, the Chetniks were featured in comic books, such as DC Comics's Captain Marvel (figure 3).5 At the height of Tito's popularity in 1944/45, newspaper articles entitled: "Tito: The Cost of Our Yugoslav Blunder" were still very common.6

Figure 3
  Figure 3 Captain Marvel featuring the Chetnicks. DC Comics: Master Comics, no. 36 (Feb. 1943).  

     The media war waged over the Yugoslav Resistance had many dimensions. Political leaning of both sides were quite obvious. Daily Worker and Picture Magazine were firmly on the side of Tito's Partisans, especially after 1941. Louis Adamic, the American "manager" of the Partisan PR campaign was a long-term contributor of The Nation Magazine and other left-leaning newspapers. Konstantin Fotitch, the Royal Yugoslav Ambassador in Washington, although on the right of the political spectrum, was a close personal friend of Sumner Welles, a staunch supporter of Roosevelt and the undersecretary of state till 1943 when he was forced to resign from the State Department due to a homosexual affair. Although Welles was Fotitch's main contact in the State Department, he was also his life-long friend even after the Ambassador was replaced in 1944. Fotitch naturally had many friends and acquaintance among American politicians, and in general those tended to be from the Republican Party.

     The issue of gender is, however, much more interesting than endless debates about politics. Ambassador Fotitch was in-tune with the American society and several mostly upper-class American women feature prominently in the press-clippings. The image of Yugoslavia in American cultured circles, especially in the early part of the war when Mihailovic was virtually the only Allied only hero, were greatly influenced by the publication of Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, which was published in May of 1941. One can even say that the first description of the Yugoslav Resistance stylistically much resemble the pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. This should not be surprising, since West was considered one of the greatest stylists of the English language and published regularly in the New York Herald Tribune, New Republic, as well as many newspapers in her native London. Rebecca West's popular travelogue, even today one of the 100 most read books of the century, contributed greatly to the Balkan Myth, the image of the Balkans as a place of death, martyrdom, sacrifice. Though she employing such imagery in describing resistance to the Nazis, West personally believed the Allies should "fight for life, not for martyrdoms," and thus sought to present the Chetniks as fighters who rejected the idea of self-suffering, but embraced the resistance to free themselves from the bondage of deadly European masochism of the early part of the war. This was what the anti-Nazi West needed to hear from the front, and the courage of Mihailovic's rebellion, which started on May 17, 1941, immediately gripped American readers. Since there was little good news for the Allies in May of 1941, the news of Yugoslav resistance received via West's writings was extremely popular. Given West's role, it is not surprising that there followed a Chetnik craze in the US, especially among upper-class women. One of the most favorite social activities of the late 1941 and early 1942 was fund-raisers for the Chetniks carried out in colorful Yugoslav folk dresses (figure 3).7

Figure 4
  Figure 4 Fundraising in Yugoslav folk costumes.  

     Presented as "wild and free and fiercely untamed as eagles in their native Sumadia" Chetniks themselves were imbued with the stereotype of a Balkan man, rugged, patriarchal, and patronizingly protective of women. That stereotype did not mean that no women ever appeared in newspaper clips about Chetiniks—the above mentioned fundraisings were highly publicized. Yet, we rarely hear about women as members of the Chetniks, even though they existed, such as the famous Milka Bakovic Radosavljevic, known as Milka Ravnogorka.

     Particularly interesting in this regard is the case of Ruth Mitchell, sister of the controversial American general Billy Mitchell, a World War I hero and one of the creators of the United States Air Force. Ruth Mitchell was stationed in Albania with her husband Stanley Knowles, a British diplomat. After the Italian attack on Albania, she moved to Yugoslavia, and after the German invasion joined the Chetniks. She was captured by the Gestapo, and put on trial, condemned to death, but later reprieved, and sent to jail. Diplomatic wrangling accomplished her release in 1942 and Mitchell returned to the United States, where she devoted her life to supporting the war effort, and in particular the cause of the Serbian Chetniks (figure 4).8

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Ruth Mitchell was often the "spokesperson" of the Chetniks in the American Press.  

     The case of Ruth Mitchell does not weaken, but actually reinforces the male image of the Chetnik forces. Women among the Chetniks were an exception that proved the rule, and Ruth's stories about how Chetnik commanders were extremely reluctant to accept her, only proves that she was able to join after convincing Kosta Pecanac that she as capable as any man. Ruth herself said that she was accepted only because she could "ride just about anything on four legs" and was ready "to die like a man." Other Chetnik women were expected to be at home, mistresses of their houses, taking care of the children, and supporting the war effort from that household position. In the movie, Chetniks, the Fighting Guerillas, Jelica Mihailovic (nee Brankovic), the wife of the Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovic, was presented as a typical middle class American house-wife, who cooks dinner and raises children, while her husband is at work. In the movie, actually Mihailovic "pops in" for dinner almost on the regular basis. Jelica Mihailovic, mistakenly called Ljubica in the movie, actually spent most of her war years in the German concentration camp. No doubt Jelica was a strong woman, but she was not expected to leave the kitchen and go to the front line like—as we shall see—the Partisan women did.

     Gender was defined very differently in the public relations of the Partisan movement. Stana Tomashevich was a famous Partisan fighter and also a model, whose photographs appeared on the pages of many American newspapers.9 According to British liaison to Tito's Partisans, Fitzroy Maclean, the photographs of Tomashevich contributed considerably to the positive opinion about Yugoslav Partisans. Stana Tomashevich was not the only Partisan woman that was photographed, there were others, such as Mira Afric, but their numbers were limited and a few of the carefully staged photographs were widely circulated.10 The impression that was conveyed to the public was that as much as a quarter of Tito's armies consisted of fighting women. In many of her pictures Stana Tomashevich was photographed professionally and with extensive preparation by the war photographer John Talbot. The fact that there were many women in Tito's army was repeatedly emphasized in the press. Those women were not just helping and supporting the men, but fighting. They left the kitchen for the front and there was no domestic life for them until the victory was won. We would say today, they also fought hard. In fact, Mihailovic was often criticized among the Partisans for leaving his wife at home. Throughout the war, the Partisans interpreted her internment in the German concentration camp as "collaboration with the enemy."

Figure 6
  Figure 6: Stana Tomashevich, Tito's Partisans' top "photo model."  

     At home, in Yugoslavia, gender relations among the Partisans were fairly patriarchal and even puritanical. In the traditional patriarchal society, such as Yugoslavia, it would have been a political disaster for a popular movement to advocate openly sexual liberation of women. This strategy was tried by the Communist movement in the 1920s with disastrous political consequences. Under Stalin in the 1930s and 40s, the gender policy of the Communists changed. Consequently, the Partisan movement advocated the gender liberation for women, but under no circumstances it was for sexual liberation. The Partisan movement was not about free love, though this was often hinted in the press, perhaps due to the sensationalist value of the idea, which might boost circulation. Even romantic love was considered inappropriate during the war. It is interesting to note that the marriage of Yogoslavia's King Peter on March 20, 1944, while praised in the American press as ultimate romantic story of the war, was criticized both by the ministers of the Chetnik-backed Royal government and by Tito's Partisans (figure 7). These two bodies, the government in exile and the committee for national liberation could rarely agree on anything, but they agreed that it was inappropriate for the king to get married during the war. Tito, for example, hid his relations with his secretary Davorjanka Zdenka Paunovic very carefully. Even the news of Davornajka's premature death in 1946 and the place of her burial was kept in absolute secrecy, even though by that time Tito and Davorjanka were in a "steady" relationship for several years.

Figure 7
  Figure 7: The story of the royal wedding was somewhat of an obsession for the American press.  

     This, however, was not how Partisan women presented to the world. In the press, the Partisan women not only fought hard, but played hard, one is tempted to say like a typical Bond girl. This comparison with the liberated and sexualized women of the 1960s with Tito's Partisan women of the 1940s is not just a useful comparative device. How these Partisan women were perceived in the West is clearly seen from many newspaper articles which repeatedly talk about men's excitement to be in the army with so many strong and beautiful women. This image of the Partisan women was in many ways the impression of the British liaison commander to the Partisans, Fitzroy Maclean, and the creation of the sophisticated Partisan general Vladimir Velebit, who was the point person of the Partisans in charge of the foreign relations. When Fitzroy Maclean died in 1996, the Daily Telegraph entitled his obituary "Sir Fitzroy, the Original James Bond is Dead." The Telegraph's title just reflects the wide-spread speculation that the British liaison to the Partisans, and a long-time diplomat-adventurer in Stalin's Moscow, was one of the inspirations for Ian Fleming when he created James Bond. Both Fitzroy Maclean and Randolph Churchill express clearly their sexist admiration of the Partisan women.

     During the war, this new type of women, which the Partisans promoted, fitted well with the image of the new woman emerging during the New Deal period. Women were no longer members of the family, where the male was the head, but breadwinners themselves. They joined the workforce, first during the Great Depression, when the man was not able to provide enough, and then during the war, to help the war effort. Therefore, a stark contrast was drawn between the domestic upper-class women, who supported the Chetniks with their fundraising, and the determined and beautiful ordinary women, who joined the Partisans. In short, Vladimir Velebit and Louis Adamic hit the jack pot with the image of Partisan women in the American press. They presented that image at the right time for their cause, because the image of a free warrior woman would be eclipsed in American culture by the post-war image which saw the "Rosie the Riveter" leaving the workforce and returning to the role of demure and domesticated householder.

     Overall, one can say that the battle of Yugoslav resistance groups was not won in the American press and it is more the case that the press was controlled by the government than the other way around. Nonetheless, the image of Yugoslav resistance clearly documented not only American popular opinion of the Balkans, but also attitudes and preferences of the American society during the war. In the Roosevelt era, the image of a strong, independent woman was more popular than the image of a safe or even adventurous upper class woman. The bourgeois sophistication of Ambassador Fotitch, of his friends and associates, was more of a drawback than an asset, because it was out of touch with the new American egalitarian sensibilities developed during the New Deal period. In that sense Tito's partisans were more successful in gauging the spirit of the times. Yet, one can say that both groups, the Yugoslav government in exile and the Partisans, approached the issue of the press presentation with great sophistication.

     Finally, I would like to point out to the world history researchers and instructors that work of this kind is within the realm of the possible and is very suitable for classroom use. One has to bear in mind, however, that newspaper clippings, not matter how young or old, are actually not primary sources for the events they depict. For example, it would be wrong to treat these clipping as primary sources for the resistance struggle in Yugoslavia. For that kind of information one needs to go to the archives. That being said, such newspaper collections—ever more possible via the efforts of Gale and other publishers to offer access to massive digital newspapers collections—represent a valuable primary source for studying the how views of international events and policies are shaped and the (changing) values they reflect. In a multi-polar age when a number of powers intervenes in or tries to influence civil conflicts managed locally by increasingly media-savvy actors in most every corner of the world, it is becoming more and more important to study the relationship between the media and the public, and the way in which foreign actors seek to shape the views of international community.

Dr. Alex Mirkovic teaches courses in European, and World History at Arkansas Tech University. His current research project, entitled "Nationalism: Religion of Modernity" is a theoretical introduction to nationalism from a historical and cultural perspective. He can be reached at


1 Jon Thares, Cultural Diplomacy in U.S.-Japanese Relations, 1919-1941 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

2 This collection is currently being catalogued by the Arkansas Tech University Library. The name of the collection will be The Spektor Balkans Collection. It contains 9 scrapbook volumes with glued clips from various national and local newspapers, chronologically organized for the period between 1941-46 and stamped with the date and the name of the publication. While the collection is being catalogued, scholars could check the press clippings directly from the news source cited.

3 The idea of homo balkanicus, a stereotype about the Balkan men that exists in the West, parallel in some respect to the image of the Oriental or the Mediterranean men, was introduced by Maria Todorova, and further elaborated by Milica Bakic Hayden in a series of books and articles. See, Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 39-42 and Milica Bakic Hayden, "Nesting Orientalisms: The Case of Former Yugoslavia," Slavic Review Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), 917-931.

4 Spektor Balkans Collection, Night and Day Slav Partisans Hit Back, Daily Worker, July 5, 1942.

5 DC Comics: Master Comics, no. 36 (Feb. 1943): "Liberty for the Chetniks" (Captain Marvel Jr.)

6 Spektor Balkans Collection, "Tito: The Cost of Our Yugoslav Blunder," Saturday Evening Post, February 13, 1945.

7 Spektor Balkans Collection, Tribune, June 7, 1942.

8 Spektor Balkans Collection, "Ruth Mitchell, Who Fought with Chetniks, 81, Dies," New York Times, Sunday, October 26, 1969.

9 Spektor Balkans Collection, Time, October 9, 1944.

10 Nebojša Tomašević, Life and death in the Balkans: a family saga in a century of conflict (Columbia University Press, 2008), 394. Also, Dubravka Žarkov, The body of war: media, ethnicity, and gender in the break-up of Yugoslavia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 253.


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