Heroic struggle and resistance: Anti-fascist spirit in Banat 1941–1945

National liberation struggle, organized resistance and courage: A look at the anti-fascist movement in Banat during the Second World War. An investigation of the geographical, political and social conditions that shaped the struggle against the Nazi occupation, with an emphasis on the role of partisan units, local cooperation and the challenges of the lack of war materials. A depiction of the heroism and sacrifices of young fighters in the fight for freedom and justice.

Anti-fascist spirit in Banat 1941–1945

Heroic struggle and resistance: Anti-fascist spirit in Banat 1941–1945

World War II was the most terrifying and bloodiest period of the twentieth century. This great conflict irreversibly altered the historical currents of Europe and the world, and its echoes are still present today. The rise and aggression of fascism were difficult to stop; however, the greatest evil ever seen in world history was confronted by anti-fascist fighters from all corners of the globe. From America to Australia, defenders rallied against Hitler and his allies under different banners.

Despite coming from different cultures, political systems, and forms of government, they were united by the same anti-fascist ideology and the same task - to save humanity from the onslaught of the Nazis and their collaborators. Therefore, it is very important to reconsider the history of the anti-fascist movement, embodied here in the People's Liberation Partisan Movement, which erupted in 1941 on the soil of war-torn Yugoslavia. Vojvodina is particularly interesting for study due to the geographical nature of the region. With the exception of Fruška Gora, which was suitable for guerrilla warfare at the time, the entire Vojvodina region was unsuitable for partisan warfare, which relied on avoiding frontal confrontation with a far superior enemy and focused on sabotage, disruption, and swift actions against the occupiers. Considering the natural geographical conditions, it is clear that the People's Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (NOVJ), although faced with equally difficult tasks in all parts of the country, could more easily survive in the mountainous regions of Bosnia, Montenegro, and Croatia, while its operations in Vojvodina were almost impossible. The story of the anti-fascist struggle in Banat is heroic but also somewhat sad - a story of youth, blood, wheat, and the wind that brought a great idea of resistance but also took away many lives of steadfast fighters against fascism.
Juraj Špiler, commander of public security of Banat and colonel of the State Guard during the occupationThe People's Liberation Struggle began in 1941 with the penetration of German and other enemy forces into Yugoslav territory. However, it is significant to mention the formation of guerrilla consciousness among the future leaders of the anti-fascist struggle, members of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY). Namely, party members and advocates of leftist ideas were ruthlessly persecuted in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The party was banned in 1920, and many communists were imprisoned across the country. Experience in working underground and operating in clandestine conditions proved to be extremely useful in the years of war. The April War was short and devastating, and the speed of the German troops' advancement surprised even the military leadership of the Third Reich. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia collapsed in an instant, and resistance was only sporadic, with weak organization and in an atmosphere of despair and futility for further struggle. Although there were examples of great heroism, the pre-war state inhabited by Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and other peoples collapsed, and new states were formed on its territory, controlled like puppets by Nazi Germany. Vojvodina was divided between Croatia and Hungary, while Banat, as a point of contention between Hungary and Romania, remained under direct German administration. With the arrival of summer and Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union (USSR), a favorable opportunity arose to start the fight against the occupiers. Yugoslav communists, as already mentioned, were well-organized despite being persecuted and eliminated from official social and political life. Gathering manpower and resources for the fight was crucial at the outset. Yugoslav communists were experienced in organizing logistics and working in scarce, wartime conditions. Many of them were already seasoned in the battle they experienced in the Spanish Civil War. As members of the International Brigades, they fought against the fascists of Francisco Franco and brought their experiences back to Yugoslavia, applying them in the best possible way in the fight on new terrain. It is clear that among the pioneers and ideological bearers of the People's Liberation Struggle were many experienced ideologues, logisticians, warriors, and underground operatives; however, the strongest asset of the partisan movement was the youth, which embarked on an uncompromising defense of the country and the fight for freedom. Sometimes poorly fed and equipped, the young men and women of Yugoslavia joined forces in the fight. Many of them gave their lives and, through their sacrifice, shaped our society today.

Let's see what happened in Banat from 1941 to 1945.

The occupation authorities relied on local Germans (Volksdeutsche), who established the Provincial Leadership, headquartered in Petrovgrad (today Zrenjanin). On the first day of the occupation, the Germans issued the following proclamation in German, Serbian, and Hungarian:

"In the name of the German people, Germans, under the protection of Adolf Hitler and the German armed forces, assume full control of the city of Veliki Bečkerek. We call upon the citizens to adapt to the new circumstances and submit to the authorities appointed by us (...) We call upon all citizens to surrender their weapons and ammunition to the German police by twelve o'clock. Anyone found in possession of weapons or lethal means after 12 o'clock will be immediately shot..."

Dr. Janko Sep, pre-war president of the Volksdeutsche association "Kulturbund", in SS captain's uniform in 1942Similar proclamations were issued in all major towns in Banat, and overnight, Germans took over all significant local functions. The Volksdeutsche cultural association, Kulturbund, had radicalized over the years and served as logistical and military support to the German army in the occupation regime. Dr. Janko Sep led this organization at the onset of the April War. His men were involved in numerous crimes, executions, and abuses. By the end of 1941 and during 1942, Sep recruited individuals for the SS Division Prinz Eugen, of which he eventually became an officer himself. During the first few weeks in Banat, the motorized battalion "Grossdeutschland" was stationed, after which this area was handed over to the administration of the Feldkommandatur 610, or the military district headquartered in Smederevo. The newly formed local military administration was called the Krajskomandatura I/823, headquartered in Petrovgrad. German volunteers - Manšaft - were armed and present in all major towns, numbering around 4000. In addition to them, the presence and decisions of the occupation authorities were diligently enforced by the police. The chief of police was the pre-war lawyer Franz Reith, soon joined by Juraj Špiler, an experienced investigator and prosecutor who, before the start of World War II, dealt with Ustashe and dismantled underground communist cells. Pre-war tasks left him disabled, but with great determination and motivation, he came to Veliki Bečkerek to focus on the fight against the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY). Špiler came prepared, unlike Reith, he was aware of the danger posed by the communist movement, so he compiled and reorganized lists of potential party members and sympathizers of leftist ideas.

Although the crimes of the occupiers began immediately after the start of the occupation, even during the April War (more than a hundred people were executed in Alibunar on April 11, 1941, and on the 19th of the same month, seventeen inhabitants of Petrovgrad were executed, in Banatsko Novo Selo, 15 people from Banatsko Novo Selo were executed, and many others), the first major organized persecution of communists began on the day of the start of Operation Barbarossa (the attack on the USSR), on June 22, 1941. Interrogations began, followed immediately by executions. Communists and other individuals known to the regime, as well as those who seemed suspicious, even those who simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, were gathered from all sides, with the largest number of people brought in from Melenaci and Kuman. Špiler was not satisfied with the information gathered, blaming lower ranks of the police, which he wrote were careless and insufficiently systematic. The commander of the occupation security forces was right because, despite intense persecution, the organization of the CPY was already well prepared for the fight. What the Nazi authorities did not expect was the admission of new, young members, who were unknown to the authorities. In addition, many wanted to avoid involvement in any of the occupation armies recruiting the local population, and there were, of course, those who were willing to fight against the occupiers without being members of the CPY. Among them were a few fighters from the royal army who supported resistance in a broader sense. The following leaflet printed and distributed by the CPY testifies to the desire to recruit a greater number of former royal officers and soldiers: "Soldiers, NCOs, and officers, can you, may you become mercenaries of the bloodthirsty fascist enemy, may you become traitors to your people?"

"No, you must not! You have to rise up in the fight, to fight alongside your people, who are already leading the liberation struggle throughout Yugoslavia!" Young women also massively opted to participate in the organization of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY). For example, in the summer of 1941, there were 61 women involved in the organization in Kuman. To understand the ease with which the movement strengthened in Banat, it should be known that the arrested and interrogated communists were made of stern material and were able to endure multi-day torture if necessary. Moreover, many of those arrested in the action on June 22, 1941, were unaware of a broader rebel organization. Due to such circumstances, activists and propagators of the People's Liberation Struggle and the People's Liberation Movement initially moved around Banat with relative ease. Thanks to agitation and intensive work, the organization quickly strengthened and became massive. The desire to include as many activists from different social strata in the movement is evidenced by the message of Radovan Trnić, secretary of the People's Liberation Committee in Kikinda: "The goal of this committee is the mobilization of the people in the People's Liberation Struggle, and it should include peasants, judges, priests, soldiers, officers, and workers." The People's Liberation Movement was, therefore, truly comprehensive. As we can see, its sole purpose was to show the people, at the moment of a severe defeat and the collapse of the state, that the fight is not over, but, on the contrary, it is just beginning. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia takes on the role of leading the masses to victory over a superior enemy. It does so in a way that is close to the people, through the universal idea of freedom, brotherhood, and unity, which it considers necessary for success in the fight. A clear line is drawn between this leftist, internationalist movement and all others existing in Yugoslavia at this historical moment. It is clearly stated that the struggle will be uncompromising and directed not only against the foreign factor but also against domestic traitors and collaborators with the occupation regime.

On September 19, 1941, the shooting victims were hanged on Žitni trgA new headquarters of the Provincial Committee was established in Petrovgrad, new bases were founded in wooded areas around the Tisa River, new and old courier channels were organized connecting all major towns in Banat with Novi Sad, Fruška Gora, and through it with the Central Committee. The main credit for creating this network goes to Žarko Zrenjanin, who worked on the route Kikinda - Petrovgrad - Vršac - Pančevo - Belgrade and coordinated the activities of larger and smaller cells of the CPY with his lively activity. Svetozar Marković, who was most present in the areas of Melenaci, Kuman, Aleksandrovo, and Petrovgrad. Žarko Turinski was mainly responsible for the bases and courier channels. During May and June, Mihalj Servo, Sonja Marinković, Ivan Vijoglavin, Vladimir Kolarov Koča, Ruža Šulman, Đorđe Zličić, Proka Sredojev, Dejan Brankov, Slavko Munćan, Stevica Jovanović, Nikica Živanović, and many others were extremely active. They circulated around the places in Banat, exchanged information, and prepared for a decisive fight against the fascists. By July, combat groups had already been organized, and fighters were assigned to squads and sabotage units. There was no lack of motivation, but certainly a shortage of war materials and ammunition. According to a reliable census, by the beginning of the uprising, the following were collected throughout the Banat region: four machine guns, about two hundred military and hunting rifles and pistols, a small quantity of bombs, but the biggest problem was the lack of ammunition. Regarding medical supplies, there was a shortage of bandages and medicines, but training, although illegal, was conducted relatively orderly, with the participation of several local doctors and other medical workers. Žarko Zrenjanin Uča, Toza Marković, Žarko Turinski Arsa, and other communists met at Arsa's farm on June 23, 1941. It was decided to launch an uprising and to confront the occupiers with full force."

We previously mentioned that one of the great advantages of the People's Liberation Movement in Banat was its youthful composition, full of capable young men and women who, with their dynamism, ignited the entire region. When the uprising began, the young members of the communist organization, as is often the case, were not inclined to wait. Indeed, the attack on the USSR was greeted with joy among the fighters of the People's Liberation Movement. They assumed that the Soviet Union would easily defend itself, that the Red Army fighters would soon turn the tide of battle and quickly bring Germany to its knees. In line with their belief, they decided to accelerate preparations, engage in combat, and through their military efforts, ease the burden on their comrades on the eastern front. Additionally, they believed that the Russian army could be in neighboring Romania by spring or at the latest by autumn 1942, so it was important to provide it with a welcome and logistical support. The Petrovgrad and Aleksandrovačko-Karađorđevački partisan detachments were founded. The commander of the Petrovgrad detachment was Miloš Jovanović, a railway worker from Stajićevo. Initially, there were seventeen fighters in the detachment, but by July 1941, their number had increased. The commander of the Aleksandrovačko-Karađorđevački detachment was Milivoj Toškov. The commander of the Melenač detachment was Bora Mikin, an old communist, political prisoner, and great fighter. The actions were aimed at disrupting logistical routes, creating chaos on the roads, and burning crops. The first operations were launched with the aim of gathering additional weapons, so initially, two German patrols were intercepted and disarmed, and their members were released. However, it turned out that the Germans took these actions very seriously and had no intention of giving any partisan fighter a similar opportunity, warning them, and letting them go free. The attack on crops and production facilities began on July 21, 1941. The grain stock in Mužlja caught fire, and a well-executed action by diversants destroyed the threshing machine in Petrovgrad. Such activities had a positive impact on the people; there were still no casualties on the side of the occupiers, only material damage, which was good for the local population, as there was no reprisal. However, the police did not waste time; someone informed them of the location of Vladimir Kolarov Koča. On July 23, Koča Kolarov and his fiancée Ruža Šulman were arrested at the farmstead of Andrija and Zoran Nićetin, in a cottage in Vinograd. At the same time, a committee printing press was discovered in Kikinda, and Tiberije Aldan and Stojan Arsenov were caught there. Two days later, partisan detachments set out for battle; thanks to SKOJ's sabotage actions, grain caught fire in Aradac, Melenci, and Kumane. The detachment headed for Dušan Bošnjak's farmstead, where the gathered grain immediately started burning. Unfortunately, inexperience played its role, so although the detachment carried out the action, it did not move far enough from the burning site, allowing a break in the second part of the same field. A battalion of Germans, composed of soldiers from the 704th and 714th divisions, previously transferred from Serbia, set out in pursuit, joined by the police. Upon reaching the farmstead, in the area still engulfed in flames, the prisoners caught on July 23 in Kikinda and Petrovgrad were brought in. It was decided that they would be executed in retaliation for burning the grain. Thus, young communists Vladimir Kolarov Koča, Ruža Šulman, her cousin Samuel (Šandor) Frank, Stojan Arsenov, and the old Spanish fighter Tiberije Aldan became the first victims in a long series of victims whose lives were taken in retaliation.

Although they endured severe torture in prison, they held on bravely, and Koča exclaimed "Death to fascism, freedom to the people!" before being shot. The well-trained German troops set off in pursuit, and during the night, rain began to fall. This was another unfortunate circumstance for the partisans, as the Germans could now move silently through the countryside. They practically stumbled upon the partisan fighters. Gunfire erupted, the Germans began to encircle the partisans, but they managed to break through. Seven German soldiers were killed (the command in Petrovgrad admitted to three), and several members of the partisan squad were killed. Afterward, the fighters broke through to Melenci, and some headed towards Bašaid. Thus began the bloody struggle against the occupiers, which would last until liberation, accompanied by horrifying scenes such as burning grain fields, destroyed machinery, defiant deaths, and rain leaving behind smoke, ruins, and memories that would never fade.

Olga Ubavić, one of the managers of SKOJ. She was brutally tortured during the blockade of Kuman. She was shot in Petrovgrad in 1942 around ChristmasRealizing the widespread nature of the uprising, the occupation authorities reacted brutally. A mass trial against communists was initiated, and everyone who could be linked to the insurgents in any way and who was currently available to the authorities paid with their lives. On the last day of July 1941, one such trial was held, and a total of 89 people were lined up before the firing squad. Such trials were held throughout Vojvodina, sometimes with several hundred individuals brought to the defendant's bench. These were a specific phenomenon carried out by the occupation authorities across Yugoslavia. What stands out is the extensive documentation that, despite the obvious farce these trials represented, was meticulously kept. The renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm interpreted such occurrences as the need for evil to align with the normal course of life. To an observer unaware of the situation, scenes where Špiler's executioners in Zrenjanin and the Ustasha Viktor Tomić in Ruma stamped documents and recited legal jargon, complaining about their workload, might seem entirely normal, almost mundane. The story of the suffering of the population of Vojvodina during that time can be elevated to a broader level, prompting reflection on the nature and normality of evil as a way of functioning for entire state entities.

Sonja Marinković, one of the most prominent communists in Vojvodina and Yugoslavia, was brought before a court on July 31, 1941. Her activities were not directly related to the actions in the vicinity of Zrenjanin. She was arrested at the Pančevo railway station on July 14 while waiting for a train to Belgrade. She was on her way from Petrovgrad to Belgrade, where she was supposed to consult with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Sonja had long been known to the authorities and had quite a dossier. Although she had been operating underground for a long time, her identity was well known to the agents. Thus, she was recognized and arrested in Pančevo. She was brought to Zrenjanin, where she was cruelly tortured for over two weeks. After a sham trial, eighty-nine patriots, including Sonja Marinković, were taken to the old cemetery on Bagljaš and shot. The execution took place away from the public eye, and the only witnesses were Jews, forced laborers, who buried the bodies in a mass grave. As the youngest woman, Sonja was offered to turn her back to the firing squad. She refused and shouted, "Shoot, these are communist breasts!" Two years later, as the Reich began to suffer defeat after defeat on the world's battlefields and as the People's Liberation Movement significantly strengthened, the remains of Sonja Marinković and other victims of fascist terror were exhumed and burned.

Despite the sacrifices endured, the partisans intensified their activities and continued to act as saboteurs, moving more quickly and skillfully from one area to another, setting fire to grain fields throughout Banat. Detachments were regrouped, so the Stajićevski detachment was attached to the Petrovgrad detachment, and the Kumanački, Kikindski, Dragutinovački, Melenački, Padejski, and Dubički partisan detachments were formed. The area around Kikinda also ignited, and on July 31, the railway line between Sanad and Novi Kneževac was blown up. The summer was scorching, and the constant burning of grain further raised the temperature in Banat. From August 1 until the end of 1941, the police registered forty-four insurgent actions in the Banat region. The chief of police, Špiler, left the following record of these events: "These were armed attacks on the army, police, and important facilities, on prominent fascists, secret agents, and collaborators, sabotage actions on railways and other facilities, disruption of Banat's economic exploitation, destruction of threshing machines, burning of warehouses, grain collected for the Germans, straw and chaff, cutting of telephone poles and wires to disrupt and prevent telephone communication." The police report on partisan actions in August looked like this. On August 4, the partisans killed a non-commissioned officer and three German soldiers, as well as an auxiliary policeman; on August 11, they carried out four attacks on harvesting locations and disarmed three guards securing the harvest; there were numerous other cases of weapons and ammunition being confiscated from guards near threshing machines; they captured a Volksdeutsche commissioner for harvesting and held him captive until the police released the father of the commander of the Mokrin partisan detachment from prison; they killed a local traitor on the night between August 23 and 24; they killed three policemen, Volksdeutsche, on August 25. The report also mentions a partisan attack on nineteen policemen and the liberation of a captured partisan on August 26, as well as a successful sabotage operation on the railway and the derailment of a train on the night between August 28 and 29. In order to alleviate pressure on Petrovgrad and its surroundings, it was decided to significantly activate the Vršac partisan detachment. A clash occurred in the village of Vojlovica on July 11, 1941, when the South Banat partisan detachment defeated the Volksdeutsche garrison of the village and inflicted several casualties. A combat group was pushed back and defeated in the countryside, similar to what happened near Petrovgrad, at Bošnjakov's farmstead. After brutal reprisals, especially in Pančevo but also throughout southern Banat, actions became less frequent. This decision, made at the end of August, cost the People's Liberation Movement in Banat dearly. Thus far, we have become acquainted with heroic figures who remained steadfast under severe torture and intense pressure. Unfortunately, there were also those who were less resolute and betrayed their comrades. Ratimir Ranisavljević and his superior, Petar Aldan, were assigned to go to Vršac. What the Provincial Committee was unaware of was that both had been arrested in June and had succumbed during interrogations, beginning to cooperate with the secret German police (Gestapo). Ranisavljević contacted Slavko Munćan, a prominent revolutionary and fighter of the South Banat partisan detachment. Normally cautious and distrustful, Munćan, believing in Ranisavljević

's sincere intentions based on the Provincial Committee's recommendation, began to organize an action. After meeting part of the fighting force in Vršac, the traitor led Munćan into a trap. The plan was to arrest and interrogate him, but the seasoned fighter did not go down without a fight. Seizing a moment of inattention, he escaped the policemen. A chase ensued, and one of the Gestapo agents shot at Munćan, hitting him in the leg. Seeing himself in a hopeless situation, the young partisan pulled out his pistol and shot himself in the head. This led to a disaster for the People's Liberation Movement in Vršac. A partisan base with weapons was uncovered, and almost all fighters were exposed and arrested. Franc Rajt expressed the following about the action in Vršac: "From September 5 to 8, 1941, the Pančevo police, together with the local police, carried out a major operation against communists in Vršac. The success was so immense that it can be argued that the communist movement in Vršac and surrounding areas was liquidated..."

Contrary to these events, the uprising in Kikinda and its surroundings was in full swing. A group of about thirty partisan fighters even dared to embark on a rescue mission to free their captured comrade Bogoljub Dobrosavljev. The enemy, consisting of Volksdeutsche units, was trapped, surrounded, and almost annihilated. It was then that the commander Đura Oličkov was killed, which was quite a high price as he was one of the prominent commanders of the partisan army in Banat. Another significant action was the dismantling of the railway line near Banatski Aranđelovac; a freight train derailed, causing immense damage. Retaliation followed, and on September 7, ten people were shot in Mokrin. Thanks to extensive actions along the line Padej – Kikinda – Mokrin – Melenci – Kumane – Petrovgrad - Stajićevo, a network was created in September that functioned for the first time as a unified entity. Credit for this goes to both the fighters and the couriers. It is especially important to mention the high school student and SKOJ member Neša Demić, who fearlessly moved between different locations in Banat. Thus, at one point in September, the commander of the Regional Partisan Headquarters, Žarko Turinski, was in Petrovgrad, only to attend a meeting at the Mokrin – Kikinda Partisan Detachment headquarters next. Through couriers, a connection was established with Fruška Gora, from where news of a major escape from the Mitrovica prison came. During the summer and early fall, the reprisals of the occupation authorities were almost constant: on August 20, mass arrests were conducted throughout Banat, thirty-four people were arrested in Petrovgrad on September 1 (the largest number of those arrested in that action were shot several days later); on September 19, between ten and twenty people were hanged in Žitni trg in Petrovgrad.

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