Friday, March 27, 2009

Milan Deroc and the rules of war

In The importance of international law - a note I pointed to the importance of international law in constraining blind national self interest as well as human savagery.

Some years ago I was given a fascinating insight into this topic through conversations with Milan Deroc. Milan and I were both working on our PhD theses at the University of New England and shared a room for a period.

Milan's thesis, The Serbian uprisings of 1941 and the British response / (1985), covered a particular episode during the Second World War. This was real cloak and dagger stuff set within a context of Balkan politics and the evolving relationship between the Allies and the Soviet Union.

Milan himself was a fascinating bloke.

I am not sure when he was born, I guess around 1918, because he entered the Royal Yugoslav army in the last officer intake before the start of the Second World War. He became a POW,then (much later I think) came to Australia from Yugoslavia.

Milan's story emerged in snippets as we chatted. Individual points emerged - I think an Uncle had been PM of Serbia at one point prior to the First World War; the links between Belgrade and Paris; visits to pre-war Paris as a young man; sipping drinks in Paris watching the world go by.

At the time we shared a room, Tito had only recently died. Yugoslavia, literally South Slavia or Land of South Slavs, still existed.

The politics of the Balkans are incredibly confusing to an outsider. Their interpretation is also much affected by ethnic, national and political positions, and not just within the Balkans themselves.

I know of no easy way of summarising Balkan history. There are, however, two key points to remember.

The first is that the area has been a zone of competition between rival interests for a very long period; between the Roman later Byzantium Empire and invading peoples; between Byzantium and the emerging Ottoman Empire; between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman later Austro-Hungarian Empire; and between Austro-Hungary and the Russian Empire.

The second point is that this history created an ethnic and religious patchwork quilt. Within this, forces of ethic nationalism and irredentism warred with each other and with the ruling power. The Austro- Hungarian Empire in particular faced the problem of maintaining unity in the face of religious division and ethnic unrest. World War One was one outcome.

At the time Milan was born, his country had only just been formed as an outcome of the peace settlements. It was then known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, combining the Kingdom of Serbia with other parts of the the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The new Kingdom was an uneasy combination of the pan nationalism of the south slavs with more specific ethnic nationalisms and especially Serbian nationalism. It was also still marked by religious divisions - Muslim vs Orthodox vs Catholic. There was also resentment within the new country at the dominance of the Serbian ruling classes.

Milan would have been at primary school when the Kingdom changed its name to Yugoslavia. He was both Serbian and Yugoslavian at the time he entered the Military Academy.

The country he returned to after release from POW camp in the USSR was very different. In The importance of international law - a note I said of the First World War:

The use of propaganda and dirty tricks on all sides during the war intended to damage the enemy while maintaining home morale created a climate that both prevented peace moves during the war and then poisoned the aftermath. Attempts to destabilise Governments in other countries exported revolution and later civil strife in ways none foresaw.

The Second World War was no different. During the War the Allies had shifted support from the Royal Yugoslav Government in exile to the Communist partisans. For their part, the Germans played to Croatian nationalism through the creation of a Croatian puppet state.

Milan returned to a communist Yugoslavia. He also returned to one in which ethnic and religious divisions had been further inflamed by the War.

Like my own thesis, Milan's work was in some ways an exploration of his own past. Again like mine although much more so, he faced a difficult task because he was writing outside - indeed challenging - commonly accepted views.

Milan was multi-lingual. Prior to the War he spoke Serbo Croat, French and some German. During the war he learned Russian. He needed all these languages to pursue his investigations through German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British and US archives.

The work was painstaking and sometimes difficult. Painstaking, because he needed to check precise dates and orders of events, cross-tabulating between different accounts. Difficult, because he needed access to very specific records of still sensitive war time operations.

Take, as an example, the question of a radio. As I remember, this was carried into Yugoslavia by a British operative. The official story was that he had been killed by the Chetniks. While the Chetniks denied this, it was used as one of the ostensible justifications for the switch in British support to the Partisans.

By careful checking of records in four national archives, checking that went down to the log-books of a British submarine as well as unit records within the German Army, he traced the radio's journey. The final clue came from USSR archives. Here he was able to establish that the radio in question was being used in communications between Moscow and the partisans at a time when it was alleged to be in Chetnik possession.

Milan's work focused in part on the laws of war and the way they were observed. This included questions such as the legal position of a defeated army where their Government had surrendered.  

In all this, two examples stand out in my mind.

The first is a unit level example.

The Germans announced that for each German soldier killed, so many Yugoslavs were to be executed. In the case of one attack, the German unit records say something like this. So many German soldiers killed minus the number of attackers killed = the number to be used in calculating the number to be executed in reprisal.This is a very precise and legalistic way of doing things.

The second is a little more complicated.

As I remember it, under the rules of war, a defeated army must lay down its arms. Units that keep fighting have no legal protection. Once the Royal Yugoslav Government was established in exile and recognised by the British, then its fighters were recognised as soldiers. By contrast, the Partisans were treated as what we would call today terrorists. They had no protection.

Now the odd thing here is that when the British Government switched its recognition to the Partisans, the Germans also changed their position. Now the Partisans were soldiers, those on the other side including especially the Chetniks would be classified as terrorists if they fought the Germans.

I am not sure that I have all this right. It's a long time ago. However, it does illustrate my starting point, the importance of international law (and conventions) in constraining blind self-interest and savagery.    

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