As Serbia continues on its path to joining the European Union and breaking from its Yugoslav Communist past, it is also embarking on one final and controversial process in that transformation.

In Belgrade, the government has appointed a Commission for the Rehabilitation of Gen. Draza Mihailovich, the World War II Serbian guerrilla leader who was executed by the Communists in 1946 for treason and collaboration with the enemy.

For more than 60 years, the Tito-led Yugoslav Communist regime wrote its own version of Yugoslavia’s complex WII past which cast Mihailovich and his Chetnik guerrillas as little more than Nazi collaborators who murdered their own people.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

What the regime Communists and their numerous supporters throughout all the new republics in former Yugoslavia and around the world fail to mention in their narrative of that terrible war is the following version, much of which was carefully edited and concealed from the people of Yugoslavia by the Communist Party.

In March 1941 when the Yugoslavia’s then-Regent Prince Paul agreed to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany, the Serbian people expressed their outrage by protesting in the thousands on the streets of Belgrade shouting, “Better a grave than a slave.” “Better war than the pact.”

They were soon to get their wish.

Two days later, Serbian staff officers mounted a bloodless coup and replaced Regent Prince Paul with the young King Peter and immediately renounced the pact.

Germany and its Axis allies invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, and within two weeks had quickly overwhelmed the thin Yugoslav defenses.

During those early days of Yugoslavia’s fall, a few staff officers with the army refused to accept and recognize the capitulation and regrouped in the hills of Ravna Gora, 80 km. southwest of Belgrade, and raised the first banner of large-scale resistance in all of Europe. Their leader was then-Staff Col. Dragoljub (Draza) Mihailovich, a career officer who embarked on his ultimately tragic mission to protect and defend his people.

In those early days of May 1941, Tito’s Communist partisans were still not active, only organizing months later after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Mihailovich’s Chetniks soon began small-scale attacks against German forces in Serbia that quickly increased in scope and scale. British and American liaison officers who were parachuted into enemy territory to work with and support Mihailovich’s Chetniks sent back thousands of radio transmissions, many now declassified after more than 60 years of secrecy, which document the scale of the Serb guerrilla campaign.

Hitler ordered Mihailovich’s capture and posters offering 100,000 Reichsmarks for Mihailovich, dead or alive, were posted across Serbia. Those same posters showed pictures of both Mihailovich and the Communist leader Tito. But following the Communist victory, only the Tito portion of that poster was ever reproduced for the Yugoslav history books.

By 1944 the British, who had influence over the Balkans, made the decision to stop all support to Mihailovich and to support Tito’s partisans on the premise that he was “killing more Germans.”

Despite losing British military aid, Mihailovich’s actions continued to serve the Allied cause in Europe, organizing rescues of downed American and British air crew who had been shot down over Yugoslavia during bombing runs over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.

By 1944, the Serbian Chetniks were harboring hundreds of downed pilots all over Serbia, providing shelter and succour under incredibly difficult conditions.

American officers working with the OSS, the precursor to today’s CIA, organized with Mihailovich’s support Operation Halyard, which today stands as the largest rescue in United States Air Force history of downed airmen from behind enemy lines. In the summer of 1944, from a makeshift airfield in Pranjane, Serbia, Mihailovich’s Chetniks helped almost 500 airmen return back to safety so that they could fight another day.

Convicted in a Communist trial, Mihailovich was executed by firing squad on July 17, 1946. Unlike the Communist Serbs in Belgrade who tried to erase his legacy and dishonored his name, the free world never forgot just who Mihailovich was after he was condemned.

Today, Mihailovich’s picture hangs in the British Special Forces Club in London alongside France’s great patriot, Gen. Charles DeGaulle, who was one of Mihailovich’s great supporters.

In 1948, president Harry Truman awarded Mihailovich the Legion of Merit Medal. The citation states, “General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies, and fighting under extreme hardships, contributed materially to the Allied cause and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory.”

President Ronald Reagan was evocative in his admiration of Mihailovich, writing in 1979 that “the tragedy of Draza Mihailovich cannot erase the memory of his heroic and often lonely struggle against the twin tyrannies that afflicted his people, Nazism and Communism.”

On the 66th anniversary of his death this year, it’s time the Serbian people complete their break from their Communist Yugoslav past and rehabilitate Mihailovich to his proper and rightful place in history as a man who gave his life for the Allied cause against tyranny in Europe during WWII.

The writer is a mining industry executive in Toronto and past president of the Canadian Serbian Council.

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