September 24, 2021

Chetniks, trust and more

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I spent the summer of 1943 on a farm owned by my parents in Parkville, Mich. Mother loved movies, so on many a Friday afternoon mom, my sister Vera and I would trek over to highway M60 and wait to wave down the Detroit to Chicago Greyhound bus. It took us to Three Rivers, Mich., which had a movie theater. As soon as the movie ended, we’d walk to a restaurant where the Chicago to Detroit Greyhound passengers were enjoying a rest stop. The driver agreed to take us to the road which led to Parkville, Mich. Mom always found a way to watch a movie.

One of the movies we saw that summer was “Chetniks! The Fighting Guerillas” starring Philip Dorn and the glamorous Ukrainian-born actress Anna Sten as his wife. The movie was about Gen. Draja Mihailovich and his guerrilla army fighting Germans who had invaded Yugoslavia.

Who was Anna Sten you ask? Anna was born Anna Petrovna Fesak in Kyiv in 1906. Her father was of Kozak ancestry, her mother Swedish. She began acting in stage plays and films in the Soviet Union. Anna also traveled to Germany, starred in several films and was noticed by Samuel Goldwyn who brought her to the U.S. where her acting career took off.

But was she really Ukrainian? An article in The Ukrainian Weekly in 1937 mentioned an interview Anna had with Mrs. John Orlyk during which she mentioned that her first language was Ukrainian. “I am Ukrainian,” she said clearly.

I have a copy of a portrait of Anna in Ukrainian embroidery by noted artist Nicholas Bervinchak who sent Anna the original. According to The Ukrainian Weekly, he was sorely disappointed that Anna never acknowledged receipt.

“Chetniks” made a tremendous impact on me at the time. I was 10 years old and recall spending the rest of the summer pretending to be a Chetnik finding “Nazis” in the barn, in trees, behind the chicken coop, even under the corn crib.

At the time, Gen. Mihailovich was very popular among the Allies. He made the cover of Time magazine on May 25, 1942. The cover story was laudatory. “Ever since Adolf Hitler vaingloriously announced a year ago that he had conquered Yugo­slavia,” the story said, “Draja Mihailovich and his 150,000 guerrillas in the mountains … have flung the lie in Hitler’s teeth. It has been probably the greatest guerrilla operation in history.”

“Last fall Mihailovich kept as many as seven Nazi divisions chasing him through his Sumadija mountains.”

“Mihailovich’s annihilation of Axis detachments, bombing of roads and a bridge, breaking off communications and stealing of ammunition have been so widespread that the Nazis had to declare a new state of war in their ‘conquered’ territory.”

“Last October, the Nazis even asked for peace,” the story said.

“When Mihailovich refused, they priced his head at $1 million.”

Years later I learned that Gen. Mihai­lovich had been captured by Tito’s Communist partisans, tried as a Nazi collaborator and shot by a firing squad. Say what? How did that happen?

The answer is found in Sean McMeekin’s epic revisionist treatise, “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II.” Put simply, Gen. Mihailovich was betrayed by those he trusted.

A major factor leading to the demise of Gen. Mihailovich was Soviet agitprop. Stalin was determined to smear the Serb patriot as a German collaborator and he eventually succeeded. Chetnik victories were attributed to Tito’s Communist partisans, Mihai­lovich was a traitor to the Allied cause and so on, ad nauseam. The Allies were soon taken in, especially Winston Churchill who threw the Serb under the bus hoping Stalin would return the favor. Fat chance.

“What Stalin understood better than Churchill in 1943,” writes Prof. McMeekin, “was that Mihailovich and Tito were fighting for different versions of Yugoslavia’s future, a struggle in which propaganda was hugely important. … Mihailovic was fighting on behalf of the royal government in exile. Tito wanted to impose Soviet Communism on the country.”

Winston Churchill sent a high-ranking diplomat, Fitzroy Maclean, to meet with Tito, bypassing two other British attaches working directly with Mihailovich. Tito mesmerized the British diplomat who became, in essence, an unwitting mouthpiece for Stalin’s man.

The Maclean Report was a whitewash of Tito and a downplay of the Chetniks, exactly what Churchill wanted, Maclean had come to believe.

“Churchill decided to throw in his lot with the Communists in Yugoslavia,” writes Prof. McMeekin. The Chetniks were told to stand down.

How did this happen? Churchill was a conservative, a lifelong anti-Communist, a man who despised Stalin as a mass murderer. And yet there it was. Mihailovich was dumped by the British and eventually by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A similar fate befell Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, a Chinese nationalist leader fighting the Communists of Mao Zedong. Stalin preferred Mao. So, Chiang was shown the door once Soviet agitprop came into play. As I wrote in a previous column, Stalin mostly got what he wanted.

Years later, the United States was once again in a position to help nations struggling to become free, this time from Soviet domination. The Polish uprising and Hungarian revolution of 1946 left the United States flatfooted. We did little to help.

Our retreat from Vietnam and, more recently from Afghanistan, did little to bolster Allied trust in our ability to stand by them. Will we walk away from Taiwan next?

America needs allies who can trust us. Ukraine trusts us. Is that trust misplaced?

 

Myron Kuropas’s e-mail address is kuropas@comcast.net.