April 6, 1941. The day was Palm Sunday and that morning Yugoslavia was still at peace. In Belgrade, the country's capital, the church bells tolled, calling the people to prayer.
It was a warm and lovely spring day. Yet if' you had looked closely at the faces of the people you would have seen behind the smiles and the calm a shadow of impending catastrophe. They went about their duties, they acted as if all was normal because they were a proud people.
But all was not normal. Only a few days before, young officers of the Yugoslav army had engineered a coup which threw out of the government the pro-Hitler crowd. A nation which had been prepared to collaborate with the hated Nazis, suddenly set its face against them, proclaimed its independence, its freedom and its sympathy with the then beleaguered England.
But it was a nation unprepared for war. Though the people were proud and happy at the stand their nation had taken, they knew well enough what faced them. Yugoslavia was a small country, with less than 14,000,000 population. Although the army held some of the best fighting men in Europe, its weapons were out of date. It had only a handful of anti-tank guns, almost no tanks, little artillery, almost no motor vehicles and a small, obsolete air force.
In addition, the leadership of the army — the older and high-ranking officers — were twenty years behind in their military thinking. Axis propaganda had divided the country; the Quislings and fifth columnists were already preparing to betray their nation.
So on that Sunday morning the people of Belgrade knew that they faced disaster. For all of that, they were filled with a curious sense of power and pride. In the churches, their voices rang louder and more manfully than in many years before.
And then a few hours later, what they had been expecting happened, and it came as it had come to Madrid, to Rotterdam, to London and to Leningrad. It came in the form of wave after wave of Stukas, savagely and murderously smashing Yugoslavia's most beautiful and largest city to pieces. It came against an unprotected people, against women and children, who died in the streets that Palm Sunday.
The people fought practically with their bare hands as the Panzers raced through their green valleys, they fought them with rifle and pistol and pitchfork.
Nothing stopped the German advance. No mine fields had been laid. The few anti-tank guns would not work. Artillery ammunition was defective. The fifth column had done its work thoroughly and effectively and the German armies cut through the country like a knife through cheese.
In ten days it was over. In ten days over 100 generals of the Yugoslav army had surrendered. In ten days, the chief of staff and the minister of war signed an order of capitulation. The members of the government left for London in planes, but the people wept and cursed and fought on.
Organized resistance was over for the time being. Peasants came back to their farms, dug holes, wrapped their rifles in oil-soaked rags and hid them. Divisions that had been cut to pieces formed into small bands and retreated into the woods. For the moment Yugoslavia was conquered. And to the world yet another country stunned, broken and bleeding, had surrendered to Hitler.
Then, where the fire had been so thoroughly extinguished, a small flame flickered up. Two weeks after the country had surrendered, in the capital at Belgrade, a poster appeared, plastered on the wall in the central square, and it read:
WE GIVE YOU SOLEMN WARNING. LEAVE YUGOSLAVIA.
DEATH TO ALL FASCISTS!
LIBERTY TO THE PEOPLE!
That was the poster — proud, defiant, almost pathetic. Yet within an hour, every Yugoslav in the city knew about it. They whispered the slogan to one another in the streets, in the stores, in the shops, in the factories. They shouted it in their homes. It gave them courage just to hear it, just to repeat it.
And so in the summer of the year that Yugoslavia was raped, the guerrilla war had started. That was fateful summer Hitler invaded Russia.
Peasants who had fled into the forests, soldiers from the old Yugoslav army who had refused to recognize the meaning of the word defeat, Communists fired with a new cause, students who had given up their studies, and intellectuals who abandoned their professions — these began gathering in small groups, here, there, and everywhere, ready for unity and action.
For the first time in their long, bloody history, men who had regarded each other as enemies, at last had one enemy who was more ferocious, brutal, detestable than anything they had ever imagined possible, an enemy who united Yugoslavia for the first time in its history.
The same day that the historic poster appeared in Belgrade, a messenger went into the mountains, contacted the first of the little bands of soldiers who had escaped after the surrender, and said:
"I bring you greetings from the People's Liberation Front and from our commander, Tito."
Tito! The name had a romantic and mysterious ring to it. It was the sort of name Yugoslavs liked. It was unafraid. It almost gave a man strength just to say the name —Tito!