Neretva & Sutjeska in Horror and Magic of Individual Remembrances – research notes and late-night thoughts

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

    Yugoslav historiography counted seven major Axis military operations undertaken against the Yugoslav partisan forces during the Second World War. Each of the offensives had as its goal elimination of the partisan resistance and the pacification of the Yugoslav countries. By surviving and continuing to fight, the partisan forces won in each one. And by surviving, they had no other choice than to continue to fight. Part of the reason was the ideological irreconcilability of enemy groups. From the partisan perspective, all military activity was supplemented by cultural and educational activities organized by the partisans in their military units as well as by the representatives of communist institutions in the liberated territories. These activities colored the idea of postwar future into utopian tones of communism. “Their” as well as “our” dead paid the toll towards the realization of that ideal. Corresponding resolve of the enemy forces was the other part. The sources often mark the German Wehrmacht’s efficiency and ruthlessness as particularly formidable in the partisans’ eyes. Behind them, it seems, nothing but ruin remained. 

     And in order to survive and to continue to fight, a little magic was needed too. Magic, noun denoting the power of influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces, I am well aware, is a completely unwieldy concept. At this point of my research, however, it serves the purpose of sheltering a set of different occurrences which helped some of the participants of the Yugoslav partisan struggle to make it through one more day, and sometimes even made a difference between surviving and resisting. Such magic, prime quality emergency handmade hodgepodge, could come in the form of hope, empathy, love, or laughter. For many of these episodes, if they did not happen in such extreme circumstances, one would easily say that it was simply having fun. Whatever it was, it influenced moods, minds, and dispositions. Personal accounts about the war in Yugoslavia abound in randomly scattered moments of such commiseration and comfort, even in the most desperate of situations. In addition, because of the way some of the participants remembered the war, to a reader like me sometimes seems that it really was magic in the literal sense of the word.

     It seems pointless in the Sarajevo prison when, after returning from yet another all-night interrogation-cum-beating, Radojka Lakić’s friend and comrade combed blood and dirt out of her hair, braided it, pulled it up into a bun and secured it with hairpins. At the same time, other prisoners joined her in quiet singing of revolutionary songs, the only ones that Lakić sang (Beoković 1967, 158). It seems girlish and unencumbered when Drvar peasant girls, instead of elaborating the work strategy of the local branch of the women’s organization (on which the partisan army often depended), assigned priority to embroidering flowers on the skirts of their Party representatives, because, they fancied, it was not acceptable for young women to wear black. Carried away by cheerfulness, the girls started to sing, and some even started a circle dance (Beoković 1967, 420). It seems mystical when the actor Vjekoslav Afrić recited verses about sixteenth-century peasant rebel Matija Gubec into the ear of a partisan with whom he happened to be sharing a campfire between two long marches (1958, 486-487). It seems completely ridiculous and incredible when one vet refused to continue to walk and had himself tied on a mule as a piece of equipment, and even more so when, in the meal break in which everyone got to eat except for him (as a joke), he got so upset and shouted so much that he also upset the mule, which disappeared into some shrubbery amid the clatter of hooves and equipment and laughter of all present (Božović 1958, 411-412). 

     The war distorted things. The experiences it made possible were extreme, physically and emotionally strenuous and draining. Consequently, it made small things look and feel big, important, lifesaving. That is why the narrative of World War 2 in Yugoslavia, individual destinies as well as the biggest of battles, is entwined with stories of magic. Sometimes those were hairpins, quite often those were partisan variety shows, singing, and dancing, and over time partisan leader Josip Broz Tito became imbued in magic as well. In the context of my research so far, the battles of Neretva and Sutjeska have brought to the fore some of the most exquisite examples. 

     In January 1943, the battle of Neretva (locally also known as the Battle for the Wounded or the Fourth Enemy Offensive, January/March 1943) began. Its goal was to destroy the central command of the partisan movement and the units around it as well as the Central Committee of the Communist Party. To be as effective as possible, German and Italian deployed commanders did not punish soldiers’ excessive brutality. Participating Chetniks and Ustasha soldiers did not deal with such trivialities anyway. In March 1943, still in the midst of enemy encirclement and without a set plan of extraction, the members of the Cultural and Artistic Team of the Fourth Operative Zone (for Dalmatia) gave a theatrical performance – songs with accordion accompaniment, recitations, and two comic plays – for the members of (for the most part) Fourth and Fifth Montenegrin Brigades who had just arrived from fighting positions as well as the wounded and civilians who were present. The performance culminated in a familiar manner, with a circle dance. Reportedly, it was interrupted just before dawn when the soldiers had to return to the battle positions (Borozan 1983, 45; Rutić 1952, 331-332).

     Despite heavy losses, more than half of partisans within the encirclement killed and captured, and a clear tactical victory for the Axis, the partisan army managed to secure their command and the central hospital, retreat, and resume activity. Taking advantage of the partisan exhaustion, however, the Axis forces immediately set about executing another large-scale operation, the battle of Sutjeska (also known as the Fifth Enemy Offensive, May/June 1943). The goals of this offensive remained the same, as well as the methods employed by the Axis soldiers. Unlike the previous offensive, though, partisan leader Josip Broz Tito was wounded in this battle. In all-embracing carnage – this time around, most of the central hospital, particularly the immobile wounded, could not be transferred across Sutjeska as they were transferred across Neretva; along with some medical personnel, mostly partisan nurses, as well as local civilian population, they were killed in the clean-up operation that followed the closing of the encirclement – a number of personal memories reflect particularly on Tito’s wounding (ad es. Božović 1958, 395-396). His mortality astounded and frightened many. According to one exceptional testimony, after the news of the wounding, Tito’s safe exit from the closing enemy encirclement offered a glimpse of magic of almost biblical proportions. Exhausted groups who dropped to the ground only a few hundred meters from the place where the battle was still being fought and showed no intention of moving forward, upon seeing Tito passing by them just rose to their feet and continued their journey in silence (Skrigin 1968, 198). In academic language, using the conceptualization of Ernst Kantorowicz’s king’s two bodies, it can be said that with his natural body Tito already then stood for the body politic of (the future of) Yugoslavia (Brkljačić 2003). Following more on the emotion emanating from the sources, maybe such an occurrence should not come as a surprise. Maybe it is quite reasonable that people who were drawn into a war that all but guaranteed their destruction and exceeded the limits of what they thought possible on a daily basis, had to believe in a higher power, even if it was another man. They could be the heroes and heroines as long as he was willing to be their savior. Together, they survived on.


Afrić, Vjekoslav. 1958. “Pokret, vatra… i smrt” [“Advance, Fire… and Death”]. In Đurović, Milinko, ed. Sutjeska, zbornik radova 1 [Sutjeska, Collection of Works 1], pp. 483-494. Belgrade: Vojnoizdavački zavod JNA “Vojno delo.”

Beoković, Mila. 1967. Žene heroji [Heroines]. Sarajevo: Svjetlost.

Borozan, Braslav. 1983. “Avangardno i inovacije u kazalištu NOB-a” [“Avant-garde and Innovations in the NOB Theatre”]. Dani Hvarskoga kazališta: Građa i rasprave o hrvatskoj književnosti i kazalištu 10, no. 1, 41-52.

Božović, Saša. 1958. “U sanitetu Druge proleterske” [“In Second Proletarian’s Medical Corps”]. In Đurović, Milinko, ed. Sutjeska, zbornik radova 1[Sutjeska, Collection of Works 1], pp. 392-412. Belgrade: Vojnoizdavački zavod JNA “Vojno delo.”

Brkljačić, Maja. 2003. “Tito’s Bodies in Word and Image.” Narodna umjetnost 40, 99-128.

Rutić, Joža. 1952. “Sjećanje na Kazalište narodnog oslobođenja Jugoslavije” [“Remembering the Theatre of the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia”]. Kulturni radnik 7-8, 327-332.

Skrigin, Žorž. 1968. Rat i pozornica [War and Stage]. Belgrade: Turistička štampa.

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