The occupation of Yugoslavia represents one of the most interesting areas for studying Axis policies and strategies during the Second World War. Within this topic, Croatia is perhaps the most interesting case. The "Independent Croatian State", born immediately after the collapse of the Yugoslav Kingdom, represented a microcosm in which, until 8 September 1943, Italians and Germans fought, sometimes independently, sometimes jointly, a bloody counter-guerrilla campaign and tried to assert their hegemony over the territory. A perfect case study to understand not only the methods and goals of the Nazi-Fascist occupations, but also to understand the way the Axis “worked” in an area where, theoretically, the two allies were present on an equal footing. Not only that, but the presence of a minor ally created by the Axis itself, the Croatian state, led by a local-Fascist party, gives us an insight into what the "New European Order" was to be for the Axis satellite countries. In short, it is the Nazi-fascist Europe that is created in Croatia, where every actor has a well-defined role and can fully carry out its activities.
It is not by chance that the war in the Balkans has attracted the attention of international historiography. The Germans, to give just a few examples, have been studied by Klaus Schmider1 and by Ben Sheperd2; the Italians by Davide Rodogno3 and by James Burgwyn4; the Croats by Alexander Korb.5
We are therefore talking about a field of research that many historians have explored in great detail. However, Sanela Schmid's book goes beyond the research carried out so far by choosing a comparative approach that she was able to carry out thanks to her knowledge of the languages of the three protagonists involved and therefore of the literature and direct sources (archives and periodicals of the time), which make this work unique in its kind.
Schmid's book provides a comparative view of the Italian and German policies of occupation, and of the difficult strategy of the Croatian State, on the one hand dependent on the two Axis partners from a military point of view, but on the other hand engaged in a difficult policy aimed at maintaining spaces of autonomy with respect, above all, to Italian hegemonic projects. Theoretically the Italians were magna pars in the area, which was to represent the natural place of expansion of Mussolini's Mediterranean Empire, through a kind of peaceful penetration. Italian strategy clashed with Croatian nationalism, which claimed a large part of the territories annexed by the Italians in Dalmatia in April 1941. The Italian policy also had its limits in the military weakness of the Royal Army, unable to defeat the strong communist and nationalist resistance. It was therefore the Germans who had to intervene with ever more numerous and increasingly violent military units to defend the independent Croatian state and, at times, the proud Latin ally.
There are many original elements in Schmid's book due to this comparative approach. The text analyses the birth and consolidation of the "Independent Croatian State" and its policy of ethnic cleansing, and then moves on to the Italian-German presence on the territory and their difficult relations. Very interesting is the paragraph dedicated to economic policies and the difficulties in supplying the Croatian state, due to the weakness of local production of food, foreign troops that raised inflation, mass killings that depopulated the villages and the black market and endemic corruption of the institutions of the new state. In this extremely difficult context, the two different Italian and German policies came into conflict: the former intended to include entire portions of Croatia in its “living space” and to control the independent state, and the Reich was more interested in incorporating the territory into its economic system.
Two other extremely interesting topics touched on by Schmid are anti-partisan strategies and the relationship with the Jewish minority. These topics are known and studied, but never in the comparative manner chosen by Schmid. The analysis of the Italian-German repressive strategies and practices reveals a picture of generalised violence in which the orders and practices of the two armies did not differ except for their effectiveness. The Italians, according to Schmid, were simply less disciplined and less trained than the Germans, not more “good” or less brutal. In contrast, moreover, to much of the more recent work on the Italians in the Balkans, Schmid also sees the defence of the Jews by soldiers of the Royal Army as the result of policies decided by Rome and humanitarian motives decided by the men in the field. This is a surprising conclusion, but one that is set out in a very convincing manner and above all supported by numerous sources.
In conclusion, Sanela Schmid's book is an important and indispensable text for any future work on the Second World War in the Balkans and of the Axis’s occupation policies.
1 Klaus Schmider, Partisanenkrieg in Jugoslawien 1941–1944, Hamburg 2002.
2 Ben Sheperd, Terror in the Balkans. German Armies and Partisan Warfare, Cambridge 2012.
3 Davide Rodogno, Il nuovo Ordine Mediterraneo. Le politiche di occupazione dell'Italia fascista in Europa (1940–1943), Torino 2003.
4 James Burgwyn, Empire on the Adriatic. Mussolini's Conquest of Yugoslavia 1941–1943, New York 2005.
5 Alexander Korb, Im Schatten des Weltkriegs. Massengewalt der Ustaša gegen Serben, Juden und Roma in Kroatien 1941–1945, Hamburg 2013.