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Armed resistance Early resistance Forests and mountains

The 1941 June uprising in Herzegovina

In May 1941, the Treaty of Rome was signed between Italy and the Independent State of Croatia. Based on this agreement, the Italian forces that had previously occupied the southern parts of defeated Yugoslavia, withdrew to their bases in annexed Dalmatia. The vacuum was filled by the members of the fascist Ustasha organisation, who immediately sketched out plans for mass liquidation of the Serb population.

 

In the southernmost region of Herzegovina, the Serbs predominantly lived in the highland areas east of the Neretva River. They occupied most of the countryside, where they worked the land and raised cattle. The coming of the Ustasha to power was followed by the first arrests and executions of prominent township Serbs from the last day of May. They were primarily targeted as administrators and tradesmen, whose property was confiscated. Immediately afterwards, the enlarged “hunting units” of the Ustasha raided the countryside and committed mass atrocities. Killings were often conducted by throwing the captured people into karst pits. Thousands would be executed.

 

As the news of killings spread quickly, many in the countryside decided to resist. In the village of Drežanj – south of Nevesinje, an area well known for its 1875 uprising against the Ottoman Empire – the men gathered at the home of Tomo Ivković, the First World War veteran, volunteer of the Serbian Army. “They slaughtered 28 people in Udrežnje… can we let ourselves be killed like that… No… We can’t flee with children and cattle. We have to prepare…” When the Ustasha came on 3 June, the unexpected hail of bullets left them scattered over the open field. They came back with backup, and even two airplanes were raised to attack the village. Eventually, the defenders ran out of ammunition, and withdrew with their families into the mountains.

 

The news of first resistance spread like wildfire, and so did similar acts. Eastern Herzegovina was soon engulfed in a massive uprising, the first of its kind in occupied Europe. Although the local communists, in quite small numbers, were far from leading this spontaneous movement, their effort to impose themselves will eventually yield some results. The first ones were somewhat symbolic: with the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, some among the Herzegovinian rebels flew the first red flags over their free mountains. But they were not Partisans just yet, and many of them will not align with the communist resistance, but, on the contrary, with the nationalist Chetniks.

 

Vladan Vukliš

Sources used
  • Hercegovina u NOB (Beograd: Vojno delo, 1961)
  • Savo Skoko, Pokolji hercegovačkih Srba ‘41 (Beograd: Stručna knjiga, 1991)
  • Zločini na jugoslovenskim prostorima u Prvom i Drugom svetskom ratu: zbornik dokumenata, I (Beograd: Vojnoistorijski institut, 1993)
Further reading
  • Mladen Vukomanović, “Ustanak u gornjoj Hercegovini juna 1941. godine”, in: Prilozi 1 (1965): pp. 199–228.

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