Friday, December 1, 2023


This December 2023 I want to research the collaborationism of local slavs with the Italians during WW2 in Dalmatia, with a special "look" at the Cetnik group (made of Serb-orthodox population) as written in a book of Lorenzo Salimbeni (that I have translated in english and edited some excerpts at the final section of my essay).

As we all know Mussolini created the "Governorato di Dalmazia" in May 1941, and initially it was welcomed by most of the local slavs in Dalmatia until Germany attacked the Soviet Union and Stalin ordered the beginning of the Tito's partisan guerrilla in Dalmatia & former Yugoslavia.

Photo of Mussolini (to the right) and Pavelic in Rome when signed (May 7, 1941) the defined new borders between Croatia and the Kingdom of Italy's "Governorato di Dalmazia"
In summer 1941 the Italian government started a policy of "Italianization" in all the Governorate of Dalmatia (that had only 5000 Italians, in addition to the 20000 living in the province of Zara already Italian since 1918). New Italian schools were opened in Spalato. Administrative personnel from Italy moved to Spalato and Trau (nearly 6,700 Dalmatian Italians took refuge in Italy after the creation of Yugoslavia in 1919, and many of them were offered work if they returned to settle with their families in the Governorate of Dalmatia). The italian governor Bastianini started needed public works, building hospitals, sewage systems and roads in the area. Even the "Bank of Italy" opened a branch in Spalato.

Furthermore, lacking a systematic hygienic-health organization in Dalmatia, apart from a few hospitals and hygiene offices, the Italian government favored the activation of a very efficient medical and obstetric system in the Governorate. New works were also started to improve the road & railway network, the port facilities of Šebenico and Spalato and the construction of new aqueducts on the smaller islands. All these improvements were received with good opinions by the local slavs, mainly the Serbs. Indeed, some of these Serbs requested officially the union of their territories around Tenin (the "Bucovizza" area) to the kingdom of Italy in May 1941.

Indeed, the Serbian population of Knin, Gospić, Gračac and the other municipalities of the Kninska Krajina and the Lika necessarily supported the annexation of the region to Italy and the Italians, in turn, in full awareness of the importance of controlling that part of the dalmatian hinterland economically linked to the coast, took into consideration the possibility - initially supported by Mussolini himself - of assigning the entire area to Italy. The district civil commissioner of Knin, Carlo De Hoeberth, supported the initiative of two Serbian notables who were his fellow students in the Italian gymnasium of Austrian Zadar – Dr. Niko Novaković, municipal trustee of Knin and former minister, and the lawyer Boško Desnica of Obrovazzo - who delivered to the Italian authorities in Spalato a petition signed by over one hundred thousand Serbs from Bucovizza, a mountain region between Šebenico and Zara, requesting the annexation of the area to Italy (7 May).

The petition also had notable repercussions among the Serbs of Bosnia and a few days later representatives of the communities of Bosanski Grahovo, Dervar (Drvar), Sanski Most, Bosanski Petrovac, Bihać, Bosanska Krupa, Ključ and Donj Lapac showed up at the command of the "Sassari Division", requesting a possible annexation to Italy. Favorable sentiments towards the Italians seem to have also been demonstrated by Muslims and the rest of the population of Herzegovina. However, the news of the petitions reached Mussolini too late, after the talks with Pavelić in Monfalcone on 7 May, when the borders of Dalmatia had already been defined.

Map (that I created for wikipedia) showing the Governorato di Dalmazia (limited by red points), with the Italian area of Croatia limited by blue points. The green points separate the Italian and German areas of influence.

On May 8, 1941 a Croatian delegation went to Rome to offer the crown of Croatia to the House of Savoy.

(The italian King and Emperor) Vittorio Emanuele II designated Aimone of Savoy of Aosta as Duke of Spoleto, the position he would have to take the name of "Tomislav II"; but ultimately he never set foot in his kingdom. That same day Benito Mussolini and Ante Pavelic (leader of the fascist Croatians, called "Ustasha") signed the treaties that guaranteed the Italian & Croatian small linguistic minorities.

And, above all, they defined the boundaries between the two kingdoms: Castua, Sussak, Cabar, part of the district of Delnice, the hinterland of Zara, went to Italy, as well as Sebenico, the Bocca di Cattaro with the islands of Veglia, Aebe, Tirona, Solta, Lissa, Sant'Andrea, Pomo, Curzola and Melada. To the counterpart remained Ragusa, Dalmatia to the south of Spalato (a city that would have enjoyed a special customs regime) and the islands of Lesina and Brazza.

The initial arrangement did not satisfy Mussolini since such a dismembered Dalmatia had no possibility of surviving from an economic point of view and would have been affected the process of assimilation of the natives Slavs to Italy, which the Duce believed it was ongoing; and also left Pavelic with a bad taste in his mouth, as he found himself increasingly cornered by the pro-German section of the ustasha movement led by Kvaternik senior (the Marshal Slavko, commander of the Armed Forces and former Habsburg officer) and son (Evgeny, head of the police) and who brought as a "dowry" no territorial mutilations to what was the presumed "Great Croatia", but rather the highly advantageous agreements signed on 16 May and 1 June which projected the Croatian economy into the Germany's area.

In Zagabria a committee was set up directed by Edo Bulat from Spalato, officially to welcome Croatian refugees coming from the Croatia's coast, in reality to support the Croats who remained in the territories annexed to Italy. The Italian commands soon realized that army and Ustascian forces were feeling some hate towards Italy, following the mutilation of the Dalmatia coast and feared the same fate for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Since 7 April, the day of the armistice, the command of the VI Army Corps had held power in Dalmatia, although supported by the Commander Athos Bartolucci, former Federal Secretary and then Prefetto di Zara, who was promoted to this new role by the Supreme Command: he was not only concerned with guaranteeing the regular functioning of the service, but rather prepared the ground for the annexation which was now in the air. He has received the support of the District Commissioners Ildebrando Tacconi in Spalato and Guseppe Franchi in Zara; in effect, contrary to the customs of the international community, Dalmazia, like the "Autonomous Lubiana Province", was annexed to Italy before the war ended.

Designation of Aimone of Savoy (named Tomislav II) by Italian King Vittorio Emanuele II as "King of Croatia" on 18 May 1941. In front of him, Pavelić stands with the Croatian delegation.
The Governorate of Dalmazia was established on 18 May 1941 and had at the top Giuseppe Bastianini, an early fascist squad member, like his successor Francesco Giunta (Florentine, but leader of the Fascio triestino in the immediate after the post-war period and therefore a leading exponent of the so-called "frontier Fascism", characterized by strong anti-Slavic characteristics) who was in office from February to 9 August 1943, the day on which the authority passed into the hands of the military.

Consistently with the projects circulated in those months in the fascist spheres and which envisaged the return of those who had migrated from Dalmatia to Italy or Yugoslavia at the expense of those who had arrived there from 1919 onwards, Governor Bastianini immediately implemented a program of forced Italianization in the three provinces (Zara, Spalato and Cattaro) with prefects respectively the "fascistissimi" Vezio Orazio, Paolo Valerio Zerbino and Francesco Scassellati Sforzolini: the Croats who arrived in Dalmatia in the last decades faced dismissals, expulsions and limitations of the citizenship law, as well as the forced Italianization of cultural and political life and local social system, onto which the Fascist Party with all its elephantine apparatus was forcefully grafted. However, despite the forced transfers from the italian motherland, the administrative apparatus was weakened due to the removal of Yugoslavian personnel.

From the outset, thge three provinces presented different characteristics: Cattaro was full of Montenegrin supporters, Spalato denounced a conspicuous communist militancy and a significant Serbian activity, whereas in the new acquisitions of Zara the foreign element welcomed the occupiers with detachment. In Knin, however, in the formally Croatian hinterland, but actually under the protection of the Italian Royal Army, the Italian occupiers had always had a protective attitude from the threats of the Catholic Ustasha and this fact had guaranteed the italian army a non-hostile attitude on the part of the countryside. At least at first the annexation to the Kingdom of Italy was seen, in these areas, as the least of the evils.

In Dalmatia -thanks to the Orthodox community present in a compact manner between Obrovazzo and Derns and well rooted in Tenin (there were approximately 20,000 Serbian Orthodox)- the town of Tenin in which Division Sassari placed his command, Spalato and Kistanje (the roman "Burnum") became points of reference for numerous fugitives. So much so that -already after Pavelic's seizure of power and foreshadowing the impending scandals figures- there were some of the most important members of the Serbian communities who would have been found in the territory of the Croatian state: Niko Novakovic (confirmed mayor of Tenin by Bartolucci who added to him the Civil Commissioner Carlo De Hoeberth), his brother Vlade, the pope of Strmica Momcilo Djujic, the rich landowner of Biskupje Pajo Popovic, the official of the Radical Union Stevo Redienovic and other businessman and former Yugoslav army officer.

A delegation of them (who on May 25th the newspaper "Hrvatski Narod" defined as "fugitives from Orthodox troublemakers who, however, would soon be joined by Ustasha justice) made an act of submission and devotion to Italy on behalf of the 100,000 Serbs (partly ex "Morlacchi") from Bucovizza (between Sebenico and Zara). Senator Alessandro Dudàn believed that the same thing could happen by adequately stimulating the 60,000 Serbs residing between Ragusa and Cattaro who were already supporters of the Italian community against the Austrians before WW1.

In short, the Governorate of Dalmatia had become the destination of almost 3,000 Serbs coming mostly from Drvar, Bosanski Grahovo, Donje, Lapac, Udbina and Gracac: new arrivals had therefore appeared added to the original community and Kistanje became the important center not only as a gathering centre, but also and above all politically important due to the relationships that the Serbian elders had there with the Italian authorities.

On the Italian side, it was due to spontaneous motivations of a umanitary nature that the local authorities, in contravention of superior orders that required neutrality and detachment, worked in favor of the civil victims of the massacre like those perpetrated in Gracko, Evesinje, Ljubnje, Stolac, Mostar and Metkovic, done by the Ustasha. The situation became even more complex at the end of May, when -as the Ustasha persecutions increased- the Serbs from Trebinje (behind Ragusa) started to defend themselves with guns and those from Mostar were forced to form armed bands: In July the region of Luka (right next to the Dalmatia) rose up against the Ustasha

Since the first months of the Governorato there were many slav volunteers, who were joining the italian "Anti-Communist Volunteer Militia": at the moment of greatest consistency, they would have included more than 26,500 members; 6,500 of whom were employed by the XVIII Italian Army. Among these, approximately 5,000 would have served in the MV C "Dinara" division composed mainly of Greek Orthodox Serbs from the Knin district.

Perpetually short of men and wary of their Croatian ally, the Italian commands were happy to have at their disposal these mobile units (made of Serb "Cetniks"), expert in the territory and, as they were nationalists and monarchs, that were strongly anti-communist, although hated by the Germans who considered them enemies in the same way as the partisans.

in August 1941 Pietromarchi and Bastianini requested that the coastal strip from Fiume to Montenegro for a depth of at least about fifty kilometers was to be Italian in order to ensure tranquility of the coast. Thus it happened that between August and October that the Second Army took possession of the so-called Second Area (the territories that were located close to the italian border where the Croats could not have military posts) and Third Area (the innermost regions up to the demarcation line with a district garrisoned by Germans), also assuming political adminstrative powers in contact with the fictitious figure of a Croatian administrative Commissary united to the Italian military command.

In early summer 1941 "governor forces" of local slavs were established in the provinces of Zara and Spalato, which received rifles & ammunitions from the Army Corps warehouses and they were framed as the "Anti-Communist Volunteer Corps of Italian Dalmatia". The enlistment applications were filled out on a special form form and presented to the command of the Royal Carabinieri, who, once having authenticated the photos and extended a judgment on the volunteer, they would then have them forwarded to the Military Cabinet, which requested elements of absolute reliability and suitable from a physical, moral and political point of view.

The first Serbian Orthodox volunteer groups began to operate in August 1941; they were recruited in the Dalmatian territory based on critera that were ethnic (there were also Croatian Catholic ones) and geographical (usually remained to act in the area of origin), and had to undergo a special oath of fidelity to Italy.

The Slav volunteers were in two groups: the regular "Armed Bands" and the "Armed Villagers". The "Armed Bands" acted under the orders of local leaders and were divided into "Squads", while the "Armed Villagers" were civilians residing in the villages who occasionally provided support and aid to the italian "Carabinieri". From a propaganda point of view, the three-weekly bilingual (Italian and Serbo-Croatian) "La Voce dei Volontari Anti-communists di Dalmazia" was well accepted by the Slavs, while the experiment of the Armed Villagers turned out to be a failure, who, due to their occasional use, soon became an easy target for the partisans.

Furthermore, the volunteers from the annexed Dalmatia (mainly in the italian province of Zara) were included in the "Anti-Communist Zara Bands": they had their baptism of fire on July 27th, 1941 in the fighting at Monte Sopalj and in August they came under the authority of the Zara Troop Command; so, as part of the establishment of the 158th Infantry Division Zara, from September 1st 1941 they appeared as an Auxiliary Corp.

Momčilo Đujić, commander of the Dinara Division (left), with an Italian officer in 1942
Additionally, he division "Dinara" was formed by Serbs in early January 1942: Ilija Trifunović-Birčanin played a central role in organizing the units of Chetnik leaders in western Bosnia, Lika, and northern Dalmatia into the Dinara Division and dispatched former Royal Yugoslav Army officers to help. This Division -ruled by Momcilo Dujic- was successful in fighting the Tito's guerrilla in collaboration with the Italians, but was reduced to only 3000 men in February 1943.

Finally, it is noteworthy to pinpoint that the Serbian component of these volunteer groups, headed by the charismatic Trifunovic, had given -during the second half of 1941, all 1942 and until summer 1943- undisputed proof of anti-communism and always showed friendly links with the Italians.