Who liberated Belgrade – and who cares who liberated Belgrade?

By Helena Trenkić (@helenakic)

In 1948 Tito’s Yugoslavia was expelled from the alliance of Marxist-Leninist parties known as Cominform. In the aftermath of the Tito-Stalin split, the narrative of who liberated Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War – and in particular who liberated the capital, Belgrade – became hotly-contested history. 

Besides accusations of ‘nationalism’, ‘anti-Soviet views’, and policies ‘incompatible with Marxism-Leninism’, the Cominform also took issue with the Yugoslav Communist Party’s (KPJ) narrative of the Second World War: Yugoslavia liberated from the yoke of Axis forces by the home-grown partisans (partizani) who had led an independent socialist revolution. Yugoslav narratives of self-liberation bolstered claims to autonomy from Soviet directives. Unlike the Eastern Bloc countries, Yugoslavia was not indebted to the USSR for its military intervention. The Soviets thus sought to undermine Yugoslav claims to autonomy by stating that the Red Army’s intervention had been crucial.

A chapter of my undergraduate dissertation analysed how Yugoslav secondary-school history textbooks countered these claims. The partisan narrative was reinforced by incrementally de-emphasising the Red Army’s presence and the USSR’s influence on the timeline of Yugoslav liberation.

Of particular interest is the role of Red Army units in Yugoslavia near the end of the war. Conflicting narratives of the end of the War lay at the heart of this struggle. Yugoslavian textbooks asserted that partisans liberated Yugoslavia. Whilst the Red Army’s presence was neither denied nor obscured, it received less emphasis. Red Army are portrayed as working in conjunction with Yugoslav partisans; numerous textbooks describe the partisan leader, Marshal Tito, visiting Moscow on 21 September 1944, to strike an agreement on joint operations before the troops entered Yugoslav territory. This was not an occupation, but a joint operation that ‘respected the sovereignty of New Yugoslavia’.[1]

The Red Army was involved in the liberation of Belgrade; the graves of Soviet troops scattered across the city testify to this.[2]Indeed, 1960s textbooks acknowledge that ‘the freedom of Belgrade was heavily paid for with the blood of our own and the Soviet fighters’.[3] Yet later, in 1974, revised textbooks shifted the emphasis, but retained the Red Army’s presence: ‘NOV units advanced triumphantly, and, with the help of the Red Army, liberated Belgrade’.[4]

I grew interested in the facts underpinning this narrative. But finding the ‘truth’ from Anglophone literature to hand in my College library was far from straightforward. Certain events, such as Tito’s visit to Moscow and the combined-assault on Belgrade, can be corroborated, but the exact dates of the former two events remain murky.[5] The discrepancy in general overviews is striking: one simply states that the Red Army’s operations were  ‘carried out in conjunction with Marshal Tito’s partians’.[6] Others make bolder claims. Joanna Bourke claims that Tito was installed in Belgrade ‘with the help of Soviet troops’.[7]Conversely, a BBC History page states that ‘partisan forces liberated Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, just a few hours before the Red Army arrived’.[8] Unfortunately, I was unable to contact the author of the piece to ask for his sources.

This little story speaks to political implications of historical narratives, and how these vary through time and space, as well as the difficulty in establishing historical ‘truth’ and the importance of consulting multiple sources. In 21st century Britain these discrepancies may appear inconsequential, but they represent a concerted attempt by the Yugoslav state to pin down a particular narrative of its history. History, in all its vastness, is never neutral.

This post was last updated at 20:02, 11 May 2021.


All translations are the author’s own; image taken by author.

[1] Vrčinac, Julijana, Naša najnovija istorija (1919-1945) (Belgrade: Zavod za izdavanje udžbenika Socijalističke Republike Srbije, 1967), p. 290. Accessed at Gimnazija „Dračke Milovanović”, Aleksinac.

[2] Maclean, Fitzroy, Eastern Approaches [1949] (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 521.

[3] Smiljević, Bogdan, and Knežević, Đorđe, Историја најновијег доба : уџбеник за IV разред гимназије, 2nd edn (Belgrade: Zavod za izdavanje udžbenika Socijalističke Republike Srbije / Prosveta, 1963), p. 165. Accessed at the Narodna biblioteka Srbije, MAG II 132.814. Smiljević, Bogdan, and Knežević, Đorđe, Историја : за III разред гимназије природно-              математичког смера (Belgrade: Zavod za izdavanje udžbenika Socijalističke Republike Srbije / Prosveta, 1966), p. 169. Accessed at Gimnazija „Drakče Milovanović“ in Aleksinac. Knežević, Đorđe, and Smiljević, Bogdan, Историја најновијег доба : за IV разред гимназије, 8th revised edn (Belgrade: Zavod za izdavanje udžbenika Socijalističke Republike Srbije / Beogradski grafički zavod, 1970), p. 215. Accessed at the Narodna biblioteka Srbije, MAG II 178287.

[4] Perić, Ivo, Povijest : udžbenik za IV razred gimnazije, 3rd edn (Zagreb: Školska Knjiga, 1974), p. 289. Accessed at the Narodna biblioteka Srbije, MAG II 212833.

[5] Majstorović, Vojin, ‘The Red Army in Yugoslavia, 1944-1945’, Slavic Review 75:2 (Summer 2016), pp. 396-421, p. 397-8; Wilson, Duncan, Tito’s Yugoslavia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 30, 32; Churchill, Winston, The Second World War: Volume VI: Triumph and Tragedy (London: Cassell, 1954), p. 180; Ramet, Sabrina P., The Three Yugoslavias: State-building and legitimation, 1918-2005 (2006: Indiana University Press), p. 158; Kerner, Robert J. (ed.), Yugoslavia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949), p. 378.

[6] Liddell Hart, B. H., The History of the Second World War (London: Cassell, 1970), p. 586.

[7] Bourke, Joanna, The Second World War: A People’s History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 107. See also Benson, Leslie, Yugoslavia: A Concise History (Wiltshire: Palgrave, 2001), p. 73: ‘The Communist party seized power at the war’s end by force, and thanks to Stalin’s patronage.’

[8] Hart, Stephen A, ‘Partisans: War in the Balkans 1941-1945’, BBC History, online [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/partisan_fighters_01.shtml].

1 thought on “Who liberated Belgrade – and who cares who liberated Belgrade?

  1. Hanscombe G. Biskit May 11, 2021 — 9:15 pm

    So interesting – can’t wait until your next piece!

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