Ukraine vs. 1941 Yugoslavia: Choices & Consequences

by Wayne White

Most historic parallels are far from perfect. Yet regarding what transpired in Ukraine leading up to the current crisis, an episode from World War II does seem instructive about the risks associated with shifting from accommodation to defiance in dangerous neighborhoods. It is not, however, the tiresome Munich analogy already being trotted out by some observers.

During 1939-1941, Yugoslavian Regent Prince Paul did whatever he could to avoid a Yugoslavian confrontation with its increasingly dominant Axis neighbors. But when he thought he had cut a deal buying lots of valuable time for Yugoslavia, he was overthrown by the Yugoslav Army supported by Serbian nationalist and other anti-Axis elements. The result was the swift Axis invasion of Yugoslavia — just the beginning of a ghastly wartime ordeal for that nation.

Ironically, Prince Paul’s sympathies were with the Allies, having close ties to England, but he was realistic. By 1940 Germany, Italy and Axis Hungary adjoined nearly every Yugoslav border. Yugoslavia also harbored German, Italian and Hungarian minorities left over from the carving up of Europe after World War I. Paul feared that with its domestic Serbo-Croatian rivalry (that would later tear the country apart under Axis occupation and again in the 1990s), Yugoslavia might not be able to fight a war against the Axis as a united country. Worse still, there was no possibility of meaningful near-term help from a beleaguered Great Britain or any other outside powers (despite repeated appeals by Paul to England, France — before its defeat — and the United States).

So, under intense pressure from the Axis for greater accommodation and in order to insure Yugoslavia’s survival, Prince Paul signed the Axis Pact on March 27, 1941. He did, however, insist on important reservations. Yugoslavia’s sovereignty was to be observed fully, the Yugoslav military would take no part in the war, and no Axis troops could transit or be based in Yugoslavia. As a result, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Paul thought he had spared his country from catastrophe until the time came when Yugoslavia might be in a position to take a stand.

A furious Winston Churchill, however, encouraged a coup against Paul by anti-Axis elements in the army and among the country’s politicians, replacing him with the youthful King Peter II. Upon hearing of the successful overthrow of Paul, Churchill announced: “Yugoslavia had finally found its soul.”

Catastrophic consequences were not long in coming. An angry Adolf Hitler, perceiving Yugoslavia now as potentially hostile and possibly aligned with England, ordered that it be occupied. A German blitzkrieg was unleashed on April 6, with military assistance from both Italy and Hungary. The hopelessly outclassed Yugoslavian Army surrendered unconditionally less than two weeks later, on April 17.

Yugoslavia was subsequently carved up among the Axis victors, along the creation of a new pro-Axis Croatian state. Between the excesses of Croatia, a civil war between Communist and anti-Communist partisans (won by Josip Broz Tito), Tito’s campaign against Axis occupying forces, and the extension of the Holocaust into Yugoslavia, the country suffered terribly. For example, of its roughly 80,000 Jews (several thousand of whom came to Yugoslavia from countries occupied earlier) nearly 80% perished.

For quite some time history treated Prince Paul, who fled abroad, as a traitorous scoundrel who sold out his country. The British kept him under house arrest in Kenya until 1945. Tito’s Post-war Yugoslavia declared him an enemy of the state. Only much later did Churchill acknowledge that his treatment of Paul had been unfair and overly harsh. It also took decades after Paul’s death in 1976 before was he rehabilitated by Serbia.

This historical backgrounder is not intended to brand, by extension, the deeply flawed Victor Yanukovych as a Prince Paul or Russia’s Vladimir Putin as an Adolf Hitler. Nor is it meant to cast Western leaders today in the mold of the Winston Churchill whose dangerous 1941 gambles in Yugoslavia (and Greece) turned both into Axis-occupied countries in short order.

But all this does show that under certain circumstances, as with the Ukrainian opposition of today, substituting hope and defiance for reality based caution can prove very dangerous. Putin’s aggressive reaction to Yanukovych’s overthrow was unjustified. Nonetheless, there was reason to fear, drawing upon historic scenarios like that of 1941 Yugoslavia, that the anti-Russian tone of the Ukrainian opposition (and the Westward-leaning first statements by the new leadership in Kiev), would likely bring some sort of grief to the Ukraine. And amidst the ongoing crisis, considerable caution is warranted regarding Moscow on the part of the new leadership in Kiev — as well as the West — if Ukraine is to extract itself from its face-off with Russia with a minimum of adverse consequences.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. The last paragraph, did the U.S. neocons consider this or did they just view it as collateral damage, through no fault of their-neocon-own? How long will this go on, allowing the neocons to make foreign policy decisions for the U.S.? So far, the best results seem to be the “cluster”. Perhaps that’s exactly what they want to achieve, blaming “O” for the outcome. Talk about treasonous actions toward their own P.O.T.U.S., what will the history books say about this latest gambit?

  2. If I interpret my history right, only the Serbs and Russians (and maybe a lesser extent the Greeks) resisted the Nazis during WWII. The rest of Europe rolled over like a fat lazy cat and purred.

    I wonder if it would be stretch this analysis back 200 years to the days when Napoleon marched on Moscow.

  3. To understand what is happening right now, you have to understand whats happened in Ukraine (a US backed Putsch), and what is planned for Crimea -another US backed Putsch… The US-EU goal has been to reproduce the “Maidan revolution” in Crimea using identical tactics -using the Minority Muslim, ethnic Tatar population there, to incite riots and make sure they turn violent (will they use the same snipers they used in Kiev?) – then ride the ensuing chaos to power -except the Russians have, so far, headed off that plan by surrounding the government buildings the plotters wanted to blow up..the money and weapons are, or were, already in place via flights from Ankara and Istanbul Turkey with the full cooperation of the Turkish government -remember the Ukrainian NAZI leaders’ call for an “alliance” with fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in Chechnya? (which they later claimed was a hack?) it coincided perfectly with the timeline for the planned overthrow of Crimea by elements of its Minority Tatar community -all this has been more or less corroborated by two leaked, recorded phone conversations of high level US-EU technocrats – Moon of Alabamma has a better description of the plot and links

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