German Occupation of Serbia and the Kragujevac Massacre
by Carl K. Savich
October 18, 2003


In March 1941, the Yugoslav government signed a cooperation treaty with Nazi Germany, under threat of invasion. Two days later, it was toppled in a coup. Outraged, Hitler swore to "wipe Yugoslavia off the map," and delayed the planned invasion of the USSR for a stopover in the Balkans.

By all military criteria, "Operation Punishment" was a cakewalk, wiping out resistance in seven days. Many willing collaborators eagerly helped the Nazis dismember the dysfunctional state. But within two months, not one but two resistance movements had sprung up, challenging the occupation, albeit in different ways.

Nazi response was harsh. In addition to launching military operations against the guerrillas, they conducted massive reprisal massacres of civilians in central Serbia. One of the most notorious such massacres took place in Kragujevac, in October 1941.

Along with a brief background of German invasion and occupation, historian Carl K. Savich analyzes the German policy of terror in Kragujevac, its impact on the rival resistance forces, and the decision in Nuremberg that recognized these massacres as crimes against humanity.

This dark chapter in Balkans history, on its anniversary, offers several lessons that can be ignored only at great peril. For example, that an easy conquest does not mean an easy occupation, even with local help. Or that the harshest reprisals can have the effect of silencing resistance movements that care about loss of life, but only generate martyrs for movements that don't. It highlights differences between the trials at Nuremberg and the "trials" at The Hague. And it reminds us that however much we would like to think otherwise, some things have not changed since 1941.

– Nebojsa Malic, October 14, 2003

Serbia was a hotbed of opposition and resistance to the Nazi New Order in Europe. By the summer of 1941, the first major popular uprising against German occupation in Europe was launched under the leadership of Serbian Colonel Draza Mihailovic at Ravna Gora. The uprising threatened the southern flank of Adolf Hitler's European empire just as German divisions were invading the USSR.

Hitler was appalled at this unprecedented act of defiance to the New Order. Immediately perceiving the danger the Serbian insurrection posed to German control and the stability of the Balkans, he ordered the rebellion quelled "by the most rigorous methods".

Pursuant to these instructions, Chief of the German General Staff Wilhelm Keitel ordered that for every German occupation soldier killed in Serbia, a hundred Serbian civilians would be executed, while fifty Serbian civilians would be killed for every wounded German soldier. This unprecedented order would result in one of the most brutal massacres of civilians during World War II, the Kragujevac Massacre, when an estimated 5,000 Serbian civilians were executed.

Kragujevac became one of the most notorious and tragic events of World War II. Like the massacres at Lidice, Babi Yar, Oradour, and Nanking, Kragujevac epitomized the the horrors of war, and the cost of resistance to military occupation.

Background: Operation Punishment

In the spring of 1941, Yugoslavia did its best to avoid a war with Nazi Germany. Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic and Foreign Minister Alexander Cincar-Markovic had even signed the Tripartite Pact with Berlin on March 25, 1941. But on March 27, a group of military officers led by Air Force General Dusan Simovic overthrew the regency of Prince Paul and established the underage King Peter II as the titular ruler of Yugoslavia. The overthrow was preceded by violent anti-German demonstrations in Belgrade and wide-spread popular antipathy towards a Yugoslav-German agreement.

Hitler perceived the coup d'etat as an affront to Germany, and an unacceptable act of defiance. Even though the new Simovic government requested a dialogue, Hitler immediately decided on the total destruction of Yugoslavia as a country.

Under Directive No. 25, Hitler ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia on March 27, 1941. The invasion of Yugoslavia was known as Operation Punishment (Fall Strafe), while the planned invasion of Greece was dubbed Operation Marita. Hitler ordered that Yugoslavia "must be destroyed as quickly as possible," and announced his plans for the invasion as follows:

It is my intention to break into Yugoslavia in the general direction of Belgrade and southward by a concentric operation from the area of Rijeka-Graz on the one side and from the area around Sofia on the other and to give the Yugoslav forces an annihilating blow. In addition I intend to cut off the extreme southern part of Yugoslavia from the rest of the country and seize it as a base for the continuation of the German-Italian offensive against Greece… As soon as sufficient forces stand ready and the weather situation permits, the ground organization of the Yugoslav Air Force and Belgrade are to be destroyed by continuous day and night attacks of the Luftwaffe.

Hitler also emphasized in this directive the plan to exploit the pro-German Croats, who had been subjects of Austria-Hungary until World War One, and use them as a Fifth Column to destroy Yugoslavia. He stated that "the domestic political tensions in Yugoslavia will be sharpened by political assurances to the Croats."

The Axis forces arrayed against Yugoslavia consisted of 24 German divisions and 1,500 aircraft, 23 Italian divisions, 670 aircraft and naval vessels which attacked along the Adriatic, and 5 Hungarian divisions. The total number of Axis divisions was 52, with a total of 2.300 aircraft. The Yugoslav army could muster 30 under-strength divisions that were poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and demoralized.

Yugoslavia was to be attacked by Axis troops based in Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Second Army, commanded by Maximilian von Weichs, stationed in Klagenfurt, Austria and Barcs, Hungary was to attack from the north. The German 12th Army, stationed in Bulgaria under Field Marshal Sigmund Wilhelm List, was to send one element into Macedonia while another was to press on to Belgrade. The XLI Panzer Corps, under Georg-Hans Reinhardt, was stationed in Romania and was to attack Belgrade. Attached to the XLI Panzer Corps was the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division "Das Reich," which had been transferred from southern France to spearhead the attack on Belgrade. "Das Reich" was an elite formation commanded by SS Oberstgruppenfuehrer Paul Haussner, known as "Papa Haussner" because he was regarded as the founder of the Waffen SS (the military branch of the SS).

An Easy Conquest

Belgrade was declared an open city, which meant that it was not defended. Yet the Luftwaffe bombed the city non-stop for three days, destroying much of the city center and killing some 17,000 Serbian civilians – men, women, and children.

There were hardly any Yugoslav troops in Belgrade, making it possible for the SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Fritz Klingenberg, of the 2nd Company, SS Motorcycle Reconnaissance Battalion of "Das Reich" to "capture" Belgrade with one platoon leader, two sergeants, and five privates. They crossed the Danube on a requisitioned motor boat, and rode their motorcycles through the streets of Belgrade – unopposed – to the Yugoslav War Ministry, which they found abandoned. They raised a Nazi flag over the ministry building, then proceeded to the German Embassy, where another flag was raised. The mayor of Belgrade then agreed to turn over the city to prevent further bombing and loss of life.(1)

Belgrade was occupied by the 1st Panzer Army under Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist. Kleist was photographed in front of the Yugoslav Parliament (Shupshtina) in Belgrade saluting a German tank commander on April 14.

Germans casualties in the invasion of Yugoslavia were 151 killed, 392 wounded, and 15 missing. They captured 337,684 Yugoslav soldiers and 6,028 officers. However, some 300,000 mostly Serb troops escaped into the mountains and the country-side. They would continue the conflict as guerrillas.

German Occupation

Upon surrender, Yugoslavia was promptly dismembered. Serbia was the only part where an outright German military government was established. In fact, Serbia was the only Balkan country that Germany and the Axis occupied militarily throughout World War II. Why was this so? The Germans could never control Serbia and the Serbian population by proxy. Without direct military occupation, Serbia could not be militarily and politically subdued.

On April 20, 1941, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the Chief of the German Army High Command (OKH), ordered the establishment of a military government in German-occupied Serbia. The office of Military Commander in Serbia was established as the highest authority. He was subordinate to the Quartermaster General of the OKH, and to the commander of the German 2nd Army, which occupied Serbia. The main responsibilities of the Military Commander in Serbia were laid out in the Dienstanweisung (brief) as follows:

To safeguard the railroad line between Belgrade and Salonika and the Danube shipping lanes, to execute the economic orders of Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering who was the Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan, and to establish and to maintain law and order.

The first Military Commander in Serbia was Air Force General Helmuth Foerster. He was replaced in June, 1941 by Antiaircraft Artillery General Ludwig von Schroeder, who was died in a plane crash a month later, and was succeeded by Air Force General Heinrich Danckelmann.

In June 1941, the Germans brought in four under-strength divisions to garrison Serbia under the command of Artillery General Paul Bader: the 704th, 714th, 717th, and 718th , while the Second Army was deployed to the Russian front.

On June 9, under Directive No. 31, Hitler unified the command structure by making Wilhelm List the Armed Forces Commander in Southeast Europe, directly subordinate to the Fuehrer. List was responsible for the security and the defense of Serbia and Greece, and General Bader was subordinated to him. List's headquarters was in Thessalonica.

Two Concepts of Resistance

Following the German occupation, not one but two guerrilla resistance movements emerged in Serbia. The Ravna Gora Chetnik movement was led by Colonel Dragoljub-Draza Mihailovic, loyal to the Yugoslav government-in-exile in the UK. Mihailovic's guerrillas (known as Chetniks) engaged in sabotage, but opposed direct attacks on German troops. They considered such attacks futile from a military standpoint, and not in line with their objective of laying the groundwork for an Allied invasion of Yugoslavia that was to occur later in the war. Mihailovic also opposed attacks on German troops because he did not believe it was worth the cost in Serbian civilian lives, maintaining it was not worth sacrificing fifty Serbs for "a single German or a section of railway line." A veteran of World War I, he also recalled the brutal German reprisals against Serbian civilians for uprisings in 1915-18.

The Communist Partisans (partizani) were organized in July, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). On 3 July 1941, after Joseph Stalin had made a call for Communist resistance in the occupied countries, Yugoslav Communist leader Josip Broz Tito convened a meeting of the party Politburo in a suburb of Belgrade. The following day, Tito issued a proclamation calling for a general uprising in Serbia.

The Partisans were not indigenous to Serbia. Tito was a Croat-Slovene Roman Catholic born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spoke with a Croatian accent, and did not know Serbia well. He had served in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, when he was captured by the Russians in 1915. In 1918, he joined the Red Army and fought in its ranks until 1920. By 1937, he became the head of the Yugoslav Communist Party (KPJ).

Unlike Mihailovic's Chetniks, the Partisans wanted to create as much bloodshed and carnage and destruction as possible. Tito saw the war as an opportunity not only to fight the enemies of the USSR, but to destroy the antebellum Yugoslavia and arrange a Communist takeover. He would win the sympathy of the general populace by demonstrating that the Partisans had liberated the country from German occupation. This approach was put to practice in July of 1941, as the Partisans seized the western Serbian town of Uzice, and immediately set up a so-called "Uzice republic."

Thus the forces under Mihailovic and Tito were fighting under two opposing concepts of guerrilla resistance.

Insurgency in Serbia

The Serbian population was, nevertheless, anxious to drive out the German occupiers. The insurgency had overwhelming popular support in Serbia. Both the forces under Mihailovic and Tito were involved in the rebellion, even cooperating against the Germans and engaging in joint actions. Because German combat troops had been redeployed to the Russian front, Serbia was occupied by under-strength garrison troops; the three infantry divisions and the German police were unable to suppress the Serbian insurgency. The occupation of Serbia was severely threatened. On September 4, the 125th Infantry Regiment was sent to Serbia from Greece.

Following Mihailovic's meeting with Partisan representatives in August, Tito met with Mihailovic for the first time on September 19. They agreed not to attack each other, but no real agreement was reached on cooperation, because of their conflicting concepts of resistance. Another meeting between Tito and Mihailovic took place on October 27, at Brajici near Uzice. Captain D.T. "Bill" Hudson of the British mission to Draza Mihailovic was present at the Brajici meeting. Again, Mihailovic and Tito were unable to reach an agreement to cooperate against the German forces.

Meanwhile, guerrillas attacked and sabotaged communication and transportation lines. German troops were tortured, mutilated, and killed. The German response was to attempt to suppress the resistance by mass hangings and shootings of Serbian civilian hostages.

General List, who in June became the Wehrmacht Commander Southeast, in charge of Serbia and Greece, issued an order on the suppression of the revolt on September 5:

In regard to the above the following aspects are to be taken into consideration:

Ruthless and immediate measures against the insurgents, against their accomplices and their families. (Hanging, burning down of villages involved, seizure of more hostages, deportation of relatives, etc., into concentration camps.)

On September 16, Hitler issued a personally signed directive, Directive No. 31a, to List charging him with the suppression of the insurgency in Serbia:

I assign to the Wehrmacht Commander…the task of crushing the insurrectionary movement in the southeastern area. It is important first to secure in the Serbian area the transportation routes and the objects important for the German war economy, and then… to restore order…by the most rigorous methods.

General Danckelmann was held responsible for letting the Serbian rebellion get out of control, and was relieved. List then recommended and requested that General Franz Boehme, a pre-war Austrian officer who then commanded the XVIII Army Corps in Greece, be commissioned to handle military affairs in Serbia. A veteran of German military campaigns in France and Poland, Boehme later served with the 20th Gebirgsarmee in Norway. The entire executive authority for Serbia was transferred to Boehme, who was made the Plenipotentiary Commanding General. He remained subordinated to List, though.

Boehme took command of all German troops in Serbia on September 19, and directed all subsequent actions against the Serbian insurgents. The 342nd Infantry Division was transferred from France, and along with the 100th Panzer brigade, deployed in Serbia to suppress the insurgency.

Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the supreme command of the German armed forces, pursuant to Hitler's directive, sent instructions for the suppression of insurgency movements in the occupied territories, which List issued to his subordinate commanders:

Measures taken up to now to counteract this general communist insurgent movement have proven themselves to be inadequate. The Fuehrer now has ordered that severest means are to be employed in order to break down this movement in the shortest time possible. Only in this manner, which has always been applied successfully in the history of the extension of power of great peoples, can quiet be restored.

The following directives are to be applied here:

(a) Each incident of insurrection against the German Wehrmacht, regardless of individual circumstances, must be assumed to be of communist origin.

(b) In order to stop these intrigues at their inception, severest measures are to be applied immediately at the first appearance, in order to demonstrate the authority of the occupying power, and in order to prevent further progress. One must keep in mind that a human life frequently counts for naught in the affected countries and a deterring effect can only be achieved by unusual severity. In such a case the death penalty for 50 to 100 communists must in general be deemed appropriate as retaliation for the life of a German soldier. The manner of execution must increase the deterrent effect. The reverse procedure to proceed at first with relatively easy punishment and to be satisfied with the threat of measures of increased severity as a deterrent does not correspond with these principles and is not to be applied.

It is important to note that the Austrian-born Boehme harbored ill will towards the Serbian people in general, because of their role in the defeat of his homeland in World War I. The war itself was precipitated by a Bosnian Serb's assassination of the Austrian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in June 1914. In the subsequent invasion of Serbia, Austro-Hungarian armies suffered two humiliating defeats and considerable casualties. Not only did Boehme see the mass executions of Serbian civilians as a way to suppress the rebellion, but also as retribution for Austrian deaths during the Great War. His goal was no less than collective punishment of the entire Serbian civilian population.

On September 25 and October 10, 1941, Boehme issued orders to units under his command that "the whole population" of Serbia was to be hit severely. Where Keitel had made a vague reference to "the death penalty for 50 to 100 communists", Boehme's strict and rigid interpretation of the directive resulted in the order that for every German soldier or ethnic German outside of the Reich, a Volksdeutsche (ethnic German living in Serbia), killed, a hundred Serbs would be executed:

If losses of German soldiers or Volksdeutsche occur, the territorial competent commanders up to the regiment commanders are to decree the shooting of arrestees according to the following quotas:

(a) For each killed or murdered German soldier or Volksdeutsche (men, women or children) one hundred prisoners or hostages,

(b) For each wounded German soldier or Volksdeutsche 50 prisoners or hostages.

Boehme also ordered that:

In all commands in Serbia, all Communists, male residents suspicious as such, all Jews, a certain number of nationalistic and democratically inclined residents are to be arrested as hostages, by means of sudden actions.

On October 4, List issued to following order to General Paul Bader for treatment of the Serbian population:

The male population of the territories to be mopped up of bandits is to be handled according to the following points of view: Men who take part in combat are to be judged by court martial. Men in the insurgent territories who were not encountered in battle, are to be examined and, if a former participation in combat can be proven of them to be judged by court martial.

If they are only suspected of having taken part in combat, of having offered the bandits support of any sort, or of having acted against the Wehrmacht in any way, to be held in a special collecting camp. They are to serve as hostages in the event that bandits appear, or anything against the Wehrmacht is undertaken in the territory mopped up or in their home localities, and in such cases they are to be shot.

The German punitive expedition focused on the Macva valley, between the Sava and Drina rivers, centered around Sabac. Following List's order, the executions of Serbian civilians and hostages increased and reprisals against the Serbian population were conducted based on the ratio of "a hundred to one."

General Boehme ordered on October 4 and October 9 that Serbian civilians be shot in the town of Topola.. Boehme sent List a report:

Executions by shooting of about 2,000 Communists and Jews in reprisal for 22 murdered of the Second Battalion of the 421st Army Signal Communication Regiment in progress.

The Topola mass shooting was mentioned in the War Crimes Judgment at Nuremberg.

However, List believed that the way to deal with the insurgency in Serbia was to bring more troops to the area. Hitler and Keitel argued that terrorism and intimidation of the population would suppress the resistance movement without significant additional troops. List was thus not in agreement with many of the pacification programs and policies of the German High Command. On October 15, he was relieved for medical reasons.

The Kragujevac Massacre, October 20-21, 1941

Kragujevac is located at the political, cultural, educational, and industrial center of Serbia known as Shumadija, on the Lepenica river, a tributary of the Morava. In 1941, it had a population of 27, 249.

It was first mentioned in the Turkish Tapu Defter as Kragujevdza in 1476, as a village with 32 houses. By 1822, it had 283 houses with a population of 2,000. Prince Milos Obrenovic made it the capital of the Principality of Serbia between 1818 and 1839. The first Serbian court was established in Kragujevac in 1820, the first high school in 1833, the first theater in 1835, the first Lycee in 1838, and the first electric power station in 1884.

In 1853, it was the birthplace of Serbian military industry, as a cannon foundry was established with French assistance. Eventually, the military-technical institute (Vojno Tehnicki Zavod) was established to coordinate Serbian military production. The town's factories also produced military vehicles, including licensed Ford trucks for the Yugoslav army in the 1930s.

On October 15, Mihailovic's forces captured a German platoon. The next day, the commander of the 920th German regiment in Kragujevac sent his third battalion to free the platoon. The relief force was ambushed by both Mihailovic's and Tito's forces. Ten German soldiers were killed and 26 wounded. The Germans then began reprisal of Serbian civilians.

On October 19, 300 civilians were executed in three surrounding villages. All roads leading out of Kragujevac were blocked. All houses were searched. All males between 16 and 60 were taken to district military headquarters for identification, then to cabins overlooking the town. Civil servants were rounded up from offices, and 300 students over 16 were taken from the high school, along with 18 teachers. The roundup continued into the afternoon, with a total of 10,000 assembled.

100 men were shot early on October 20. According to the official report by Gen. Boehme, 2,300 were executed altogether.(2)

Among them was Laza Pantelic, headmaster of the First Boys High School (Prva muska gimnazija). When he saw 35 of his students being led away, he asked the German soldier:

"Where are they being taken?"

"To be shot" answered the soldier.

"I'm their headmaster. Let them go, and take me instead."

"That's impossible", replied the German soldier.

"My place is not here – it's with my boys."

He joined the students. They embraced and faced the firing squad together.

"Shoot, I am still in class."

Students from the Kragujevac high school were reported to have said: "We are Serbian children. Shoot."

Throughout October 20 and 21, German firing squads executed Serbian civilians from Kragujevac. German troopers faced exhaustion, and some soldiers were reported to have broken down from the mental and emotional strain of mass murder. The Germans reportedly spared a few hundred townsmen so that the horror could be spread to terrorize the population. Approximately 600 were kept at the execution site in Shumarica, where they buried the dead for the next 4 days. The bodies were buried in shallow graves, which allowed dogs to dig up the bodies and eat the remains. The graves were later marked by Serbian Orthodox crosses, which were removed after the war by the Communist regime.

The German command office in Kragujevac announced on October 21, 1941:

For every dead German soldier, 100 residents have been executed, and for every wounded German soldier, 50 residents have been executed, and before all others, Communists, bandits, and their assistants were targeted, all totaling 2,300.

On October 29, Felix Benzler, sent this report to his ministry:

In the past week there have been executions of a large number of Serbs, not only in Kraljevo but also in Kragujevac, as reprisals for the killing of members of the Wehrmacht in the proportion of 100 Serbs for one German. In Kraljevo 1,700 male Serbs were executed, in Kragujevac 2,300.

Kragujevac was not alone in its tragedy. The town of Rudnik was subsequently razed. In Gornji Milanovac, the town was systematically destroyed with incendiary bombs by the German forces. Only 72 houses out of 464 were left standing. In Kraljevo, railway and aircraft factory workers were executed and the Germans reportedly shot one member of each family in the town.

In the villages of Meckovac, Grosnica and Milatovac, 427 civilians were executed. In Draginac and Loznica, 2,950 hostages were killed. In Kraljevo, 1,736 civilians were killed. These were reprisals for guerrilla activity near Kraljevo.

A telegram to the Plenipotentiary of the German Foreign Ministry from the military commander in Serbia explained why civilians from Kragujevac were chosen for execution:

"The executions in Kragujevac occurred although there had been no attacks on members of the Wehrmacht in this city, for the reason that not enough hostages could be found elsewhere."

The executions in Kragujevac were indiscriminate. Serbian civilians were selected merely to fill the quota of one hundred Serbs for every German soldier killed.

With General List on medical leave, General Walter Kuntze was assigned Deputy Wehrmacht Commander Southeast and Commander-in-Chief of the 12th Army on October 24. This was a temporary appointment, until List could return to duty. On October 31, Boehme submitted a report to Kuntze in which he detailed the shootings in Serbia:

Shooting: 405 hostages in Belgrade (total up to now in Belgrade, 4,750). 90 Communists in Camp Sebac. 2,300 hostages in Kragujevac. 1,700 hostages in Kraljevo.

Executions of Serbian civilians continued well into the following year. Kuntze in a directive of March 19, 1942:

The more unequivocal and the harder reprisal measures are applied from the beginning the less it will become necessary to apply them at a later date. No false sentimentalities! It is preferable that 50 suspects are liquidated than one German soldier lose his life…If it is not possible to produce the people who have participated in any way in the insurrection or to seize them, reprisal measures of a general kind may be deemed advisable, for instance, the shooting to death of all male inhabitants from the nearest villages, according to a definite ratio (for instance, one German dead 100 Serbs, one German wounded 50 Serbs).

Effects on Resistance

The Kragujevac massacre had a profound effect on the guerrilla resistance in Serbia. On one hand, it reinforced Mihailovic's conviction to avoid direct attacks against the German occupation forces. He told British officer Christie Lawrence:

You have heard of the result of my revolution last autumn…? Of the hundreds of villages burned and the terrible reprisals that the Germans inflicted on our innocent people? … When it was over … I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country, unless it could result in our total liberation.

The Partisans, by contrast, were indifferent to civilian casualties. Their ideology prevented them from seeing that German soldiers occupying Serbia were not all Nazi party members, but conscripts who had no choice but to serve in the Wehrmacht. They knew that violence against the occupiers would invite reprisals that would result in massive loss of innocent civilian lives. But the Partisans were also guided by a political agenda. Their goal was to control territory, and set the stage for a Communist takeover of the country.

Tito's close associate Edvard Kardelj said: "Some comrades…have a fear of reprisals –destruction of villages, executions, and so on….In war we must not be afraid of whole villages being destroyed." Tito himself replied to Mihailovic's complaint that large-scale attacks against the Germans would result in reprisals and the loss of innocent civilian lives: "That's of no importance. I'm looking further ahead. The terror will unquestionably lead to armed action…"

Communist leaders replied to criticism of their callousness toward civilian suffering by saying that if the Serbs perished in this war, there were enough Chinese to settle Serbian lands.

In short, the Partisans wanted to seize power. They were not concerned if innocent civilians were killed. The end justified the means. So long as a Communist dictatorship was created in Serbia and Yugoslavia, the cost in human life was irrelevant. This very indifference towards civilian casualties gave the Partisans an important edge over Mihailovic's Chetniks in the struggle for post-war power.

Kragujevac and the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials

General Franz Boehme was captured on May 9, 1945 in Norway, and put on trial at Nuremberg for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Serbia – specifically, for the mass executions of Serbian civilians in Kragujevac and adjoining towns and villages. He committed suicide prior to his arraignment on May 29, 1947, by jumping off the fourth floor of the prison.

The process, known as the "Hostages Trial" (Case No. 47), was held from July 8, 1947 to February 19, 1948. The defendants were German military commanders who had ordered reprisal killings against civilians (or hostages) in order to maintain order in occupied territories under attack from guerrillas. Besides Boehme, Wilhelm List, Walter Kuntze, Maximilian von Weichs, Hermann Foertsch, Lothar Rendulic, Helmuth Felmy, Hubert Lanz, Ernst Dehner, Ernst von Leyser, Wilhelm Speidel, and Kurt von Geitner were charged with committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, and Norway.

They were charged in a four-count indictment with unlawfully, willfully and knowingly committing war crimes and crimes against humanity under Article II of Control Council Law No. 10: "with being principals in and accessories to the murder of thousands of persons from the civilian population of Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway and Albania between September 1939 and May 1945 by the use of troops of the German Armed Forces under the command of and acting pursuant to orders issued, distributed and executed by the defendants." They were further charged in participating in "a deliberate scheme of terrorism and intimidation wholly unwarranted and unjustified by military necessity by the murder, ill-treatment and deportation to slave labour of prisoners of and the civilian populations."

  1. Murder of hundreds of thousands of persons by mass executions of civilians; that the defendants "issued, distributed and executed orders for the execution of 100 'hostages' in retaliation for each German soldier killed and fifty 'hostages' in retaliation for each German soldier wounded."

  2. Destroying cities, towns, and villages by burning and leveling them

  3. Summary execution of POWs and the murder of relatives of those combatants

  4. Murder, torture, and systematic terrorization and imprisonment in concentration camps of the civilian populations in the occupied territories.

These acts were held to violate the 1907 Hague Regulations, international conventions, the laws and customs of war, general principles of criminal law, and the internal penal laws of the occupied countries which were "declared, recognized and defined as crimes" by Article II of Control Council Law No. 10 which was promulgated by the US, USSR, France, and the UK.

The Nuremberg court found Wilhelm List guilty on counts one and three and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Walter Kuntze was found guilty on counts one, three, and four, and received a life sentence. Hermann Foertsch was acquitted and released. Maximilian von Weichs was severed from the case due to illness. Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist was extradited by Yugoslavia on August 16, 1946, tried for war crimes, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. He was extradited to the USSR in 1948, where he was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kleist died in the Vladimir POW camp in 1954.

The Nuremberg court found that hostages could not be taken and then executed during a military occupation based on military expediency. "Every available method to secure order" must be used before hostages can be taken.

But the court also found that the Serbian guerrillas were not entitled to the status of "lawful belligerents," terming them instead franc-tireurs (from French for "free shooters"). Thus, they were not entitled to POW status. As franc-tireurs, upon capture the guerrillas could be "subjected to the death penalty" – that is, summarily shot.

The court, however, rejected the defendants' argument of "superior orders". The defendants argued that they were not responsible, because they had only been following orders of those superior to them in rank and power. In following superior orders, the court held that one must show "excusable ignorance of the illegality" of the orders to be excused. If one knows that the order is illegal and follows it, one cannot use the defense. An order is illegal if it "violates International Law and outrages fundamental concepts of justice."

The court found that Wilhelm List and Walter Kuntze were following orders they knew to be illegal and criminal, because the orders from Hitler and Keitel violated international law and fundamental concepts of justice.

The executions of Serbian civilians at Kragujevac were thus found by the Nuremberg Tribunal to constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.


1. As the "man who captured Belgrade," Klingenberg received a Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross from Hitler, and became a celebrity in Nazi Germany. He would be killed in 1945, when Russian and US troops occupied Germany.

2. The German military command in Serbia listed the number of executed at Kragujevac at 2,300. After the war, the Communist regime inflated the figure to 7000, for propaganda purposes. A more accurate estimate for the total number of Serbian civilians executed in Kragujevac and the nearby villages and towns is about 5000.

(a version of this article first appeared on

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