By Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov
Ed Note: The 120th year of the Serb National Federation takes place in 2021. As we plan the future of the SNF through financial and membership growth, we take a moment to reflect on our origin, our commitments, and our accomplishments. In her highly researched account written for the centennial book “Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001,” Dr, Krinka Vidakovic Petrov produced a work as interesting and valuable today as the day it was written. It is being presented it in installments. Earlier installments are available on the American Srbobran research site, www.snfpaper.org.
After the assassination of King Alexander Karadjordjevic in France, Prince Pavle took over as regent because Peter ii was too young to replace his father as king of Yugoslavia. Prince Pavle made a large concession to the Croatians in 1939 in order to secure their “loyalty” to Yugoslavia. In 1941 he had no choice but to negotiate with Germany, which exerted a strong pressure on Yugoslavia with is overwhelming military power.
During negotiations of the Yugoslav government with the Germans, conducted at a time when part of Europe was already occupied by the latter, the Executive Board of the Serb National Federation sent a telegram to Prince Pavle Karadjordjevic and Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic on behalf of this “largest Serbian organization in America and Canada,” calling on Yugoslavia to defend its territory and prevent the Axis Powers from destroying “our holy homeland, which harbors millions of graves, speechless witnesses, of those who knew how to die in defense of their freedom.”
When the Yugoslav government signed the Pace, popular demonstrations against it and a coup carried out by a group of Yugoslav Army officers rendered it void. Belgrade was punished by an unannounced Nazi air raid on April 6, 1941, which left behind many victims and a lot of destruction.
Only three days after the Nazi attack on Yugoslavia, the SNF Executive Board convened a meeting and issued an appeal to all Serbs in America and Canada to begin collecting relief for the victims of the bombing. Another appeal, addressed to all Yugoslav organizations in America, called on them “to work together and represent our common cause to the Americans, so they realize we stand united in these fateful days for our people and our old homeland” It was an appeal to American Croats and Slovenes to collect humanitarian relief. At that same meeting, the SNF decided to contribute $10,000 towards the relief drive.
The second day after the bombing of Belgrade, a delegation from the SNF visited the Croatian Fraternal Union in an attempt to involve this organization in a common pro-Yugoslav effort. Furthermore, the SNF was instrumental in establishing the Main Yugoslav National Committee at a meeting held in Cleveland on April 26, 1941. However, it soon became obvious that “with the exception of the Serbs, no one else took this effort with due sincerity and seriousness,” a fact clearly reflected in the results of the drive for collecting humanitarian relief.
The SNF also held a meeting on May 3, 1941, with representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church Diocese and the Serb Fraternal Federation Jedinstvo, establishing with them the American-Serbian Relief Committee (approved by the U.S. authorities). By June of 1942 the 60 branch organizations of this Committee had collected $53,551. It was used to send – through the American Red Cross – aid for Serbian prisoners of war held in German camps. The American Srbobran wrote about his humanitarian project in two articles.
In June of 1941 Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, and the American government encouraged public opinion to support Soviet resistance. Serbian Americans participated in this campaign and raised $12,000 in aid for Soviet Russia.
Soon after that came the news of a resistance movement in Yugoslavia, led by Draza Mihailovic, which was received with enthusiasm by the whole Serbian American community as well as American official and public opinion. Interestingly enough, at the beginning, “even American communists welcome the rise of Mihailovic and were actively engaged in propaganda supporting him.”
The American Srbobran in the Forefront
The American Srbobran played a crucial role in the wartime political battle for the defense of Serbs and their interests. From the first day of the war in Yugoslavia, the April 6 bombing of Belgrade, the newspaper reported on all significant events taking place in the war-torn Balkans and Europe. However, it played a special role in unveiling to the whole world the shocking news of Ustasha massacres, which began as soon as the Independent State of Croatia was established (on April 10, 1941) and continued until its collapse (in 1945).
The Ustasha ideology was a combination of fascist, nationalistic, and religious elements. Documents such as the Principles of the Ustasha Movement (1934) and The Croatian Question (1936), authored by Ante Pavelic and submitted in 1936 to the German government, identify four main enemies of the Croatian nation: “the Serbian state authorities, the internationalist Free Masons, the Jews, and the Communists.”
In his Declaration of the Croatian people (1940) Pavelic stressed that “the biggest and most obvious injustice legalized by England and France through decisions taken at Versailles was the establishment of the unnatural and monstrous state, which international Jewry and also official participants later called Yugoslavia, which in fact was Greater Serbia.” The Serbs, Jews, and Romanies were considered to have “collective guilt.” A typical expression of Ustasha ideology was the speech given by Foreign Minister Lorkovic in May of 1941:
We say to everyone that it is the duty of the Croatian government to see to it that Croatia becomes a state of the Croatians, so that the ideal – Croatia for the Croatians – is achieved finally and forever…And we will carry this out to the end, regardless of appeals for humanity and compassion coming from the other side of the Sava and Drina. [Vidakovic Petrov: 1998, 40]
And there were the speeches of other wartime Croatian officials such as Aleksandar Seitz:
Do not fear: the Serbs and the Jews will never return and those who have served them will never return. There cannot be any Serbs or Jews [here]; there will not be any, because this is guaranteed by the Croatian Army and the Croatian Ustashas. [Vidakovic Petrov: 1998, 40]
The massacres began immediately. The earliest reports of the tragedy of the Serbs were published by the American Srbobran in October of 1941 and on that day the SNF voiced a protest, on behalf of all its members, against the massacre of Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia (which included Bosnia, Herzegovina, and parts of Serbia). Several days later the newspaper published a speech of Yugoslav Foreign Minister Nincic – “Children slaughtered in front of their parents’ eyes, parents slaughtered in front of screaming children” – which had been broadcast in London [Petrov: 49-50].
A memorandum on the massacres, prepared by the Serbian Orthodox Church, was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as to the Yugoslav government exiled in London. The latter did not publish it in an attempt to avoid “offending” Croat members of the Government, but it did send it to the Yugoslav ambassador in the U.S. (Konstantin Fotich), who handed it over to the American Srbobran which published the scope of the massacres in their November 4, 1941, issue. The large article “Massacres of Serbs in Independent Croatia” appeared on the front page, framed in black. The report was preceded by a statement of the newspaper’s determination “to serve the interest of freedom, democratic America and the Serbian people as a whole.” The commentary included an appeal for prayer:
American Serbs, light the icon lamps in front of the icons in your homes, wrap them in black, light the candles in your churches. The graves over there are deserted, there is no one left to light candles for the dead men, women and children, so that they would rest in peace…
Next Installment: Jovan Ducic in America
About the author: Award winning Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov was a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Literature and Arts in Belgrade, has been affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, is a renowned scholar and diplomat, and has authored several books and numerous articles in literature and history. She is a Belgrade native and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Zagreb. In addition to her books Serbian Americans: History. Culture. Press, From the Balkans to the Pacific: Serbian American Culture and Literature, The Great War 1914-1918: The Kingdom of Serbia, the United States of America and the Serbian American Diaspora, and Essays in Comparative Folklore, she has co-authored several language textbooks, and published in professional journals in at least six countries including the United States and the former Yugoslavia. She is a past editor of the English section of the American Srbobran. Dr. Petrov researched, compiled and served as managing editor of the Serb National Federation centennial book Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001, in which this article "The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America" was originally published in its entirety.