Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, and the power of a single revolutionary idea

In 1941 the situation facing the workers and peasants of Yugoslavia could hardly have seemed more bleak.

At the western extremity of the Ottoman empire at the opening of the twentieth century, the national aspirations of the peoples of the Balkan peninsula had long been frustrated. The Balkan wars of 1912-13 had pitted the small Balkan nations against each other by Britain, France, and Russia as the big powers jostled to take advantage of the disintegration of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

01 Jan 1912 --- Balkan Wars. Albanians join in attack on Serbia. Ca. 1912. --- Image by © adoc-photos/Corbis

Albanian fighters, first Balkan War 1912.  Photo: adoc-photos/Corbis

The destruction of those empires in the Great War of 1914-18 had only worsened the situation for the Balkan peoples. As the Second Congress of the Communist International declared in 1920: “The program of liberating the small nations, posed during the war, led to the total destruction and enslavement of the Balkan peoples, victors and vanquished alike, and to the Balkanisation of a large part of Europe. Imperialist interests pushed the victors to create small separate national states from the territories of the great powers that they destroyed. There is not even the semblance here of the so-called national principle…The new bourgeois small states are merely by-products of imperialism. It rules them through banks, railroads, and coal monopolies and condemns them to unbearable economic and national hardships, endless conflicts, and bloody collisions.” 1

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1919, the “Versailles Yugoslavia,” was one such ‘by-product of imperialism,’ in this case a creature of France, which used the Serbian monarchy to extend its rule over all the peoples of the region. The entire Balkan region remained backward and industrially underdeveloped; semi-feudal social relations prevailed in the countryside.

German Army executions of 36 Serbian civilians in Pancevo on April 21-22, 1941 Photo: Gerhard Gronefeld

German Army executions of 36 Serbian civilians in Pancevo on April 21-22, 1941 Photo: Gerhard Gronefeld

The inter-imperialist rivalries, unresolved in 1918, exploded into war again in 1939, and once again the Balkans were a pivotal theatre of war. The difficulties facing the Balkan peoples mounted still further. In April 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded and occupied by German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Italian troops. The capital Belgrade was bombed to ruins. The Axis occupation forces, headquartered in the Croatian region of Yugoslavia, rested on a quisling regime and an indigenous fascist movement, the Ustashe, which rivalled the German Nazi regime in its persecutions of Jews, Gypsies, and Serbs.

Belgrade after bombing April 1941

Belgrade after bombing April 1941

Opposition to this regime was limited initially to guerrilla forces known as the Chetniks, set up by the ousted Serbian monarchists and aided by Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Ustashe recruitment poster, combining Nazi and Croatian symbolism

Ustashe recruitment poster, combining Nazi and Croatian symbolism

Chetnik leader Stevan Moljevic called for expulsion of non-Serbian peoples from the regions they claimed for Serbia. In their brutality towards Croats and Bosnian Muslims, the Chetniks rivalled the Ustashe.

Partisan 4th Montenegrin Proletarian Brigade, 1942.

Partisan 4th Montenegrin Proletarian Brigade, 1942.

The occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941 was part of German imperialism’s preparation for its invasion of the Soviet Union, launched in July of that year. At that moment, a new opposition guerrilla movement was proclaimed: the Partisans, led by the Yugoslav Communist Party.

The Partisans faced a daunting task: defeating the German army – at its height, an occupation force of 500,000 well-equipped troops (not counting the Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian forces, nor its local collaborators in the Ustashe.) The Partisans began with no weapons other than those they wrested from their enemies in battle. The Yugoslav Communist Party was no revolutionary leadership, but a Stalinist party whose leadership in exile in Moscow had been beheaded in the great frame-ups of the 1930s. Moscow demanded that it support the Chetniks, (which they attempted to do until it proved totally impossible) and that it restrict its operations to sabotage and harassment of the German occupation. Promises of material aid from Moscow went unfulfilled.

Nonetheless, their call for struggle against the fascist occupiers proved immensely popular, and within months 70,000 fighters were organised in the Partisan forces.

Against those overwhelming odds, the Partisans possessed one great advantage in contrast to the ethnically-based Ustashe and Chetniks, a single, profoundly revolutionary idea: the Partisans called for equality and mutual respect for all nationalities, and opposed chauvinism and the domination of one nationality over another. 2

Partisan poster

Partisan poster: “To arms, everyone!”

The war was bitter and bloody. Some two million Yugoslavs were killed, about 10% of the entire population.3 There were a large number of ethnically-based reprisal killings of civilians, or to use a more recent term, ethnic cleansing. For example, Ustashe forces occupied the town of Foča in Bosnia in May 1941 and killed all residents of Serbian origin who had not fled. Six months later, a Partisan unit, made up of toilers of both Serbian and Croatian nationality, took the town. They tried and executed Ustashe members who were guilty of these crimes, but did not take action against anyone on the basis of their nationality. Later, the Chetniks pushed back the Partisans and took the town. The Chetniks then killed everyone of Croatian descent they could find, as well as over two thousand Bosnian Muslims.

Chetniks pose with German troops, Serbia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije http://digitalassets.ushmm.org/photoarchives/detail.aspx?id=1140003 [Photograph #46712]

Chetniks pose with German troops, Serbia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije http://digitalassets.ushmm.org/photoarchives/detail.aspx?id=1140003 [Photograph #46712]

Further massacres of the Bosnian Muslims took place in Foča during the advance of Chetnik forces under Pavle Đurišić in February 1943. Đurišić reported to his superiors that his Chetniks had killed about 1,200 Muslim combatants and about 8,000 elderly people, women, and children. “All Muslim villages in the three above mentioned districts are entirely burnt, so that not one of the houses remained undamaged. All property has been destroyed except cattle, corn and hay. …During operations complete annihilation of the Muslim population was undertaken, regardless of sex and age.”4

Cankarjeva women's brigade, Slovenia, May 1943

Cankarjeva women’s brigade, Slovenia, May 1943

Despite the horrific reprisals, fighters continued to pour into the ranks of the Partisans, the only opposition force that could appeal to all the national groups in Yugoslavia. Clear political lines of struggle are a major factor in war. The Partisan policy of equality and respect for all nationalities corresponded to the multi-national character of the working class, and opened the door for that class to enter the struggle and determine its course. The working class is also both male and female; women fighters were incorporated into the ranks of the Partisans. Above all, the Partisans demonstrated that in the age of imperialism, the road to national liberation leads through the most consistent internationalism.

By late 1942 the Partisans already numbered 150,000. A year later they had grown to 300,000, and by the end of the war, to 800,000 – a full-sized army. The struggle began to develop into a social movement to overturn capitalist social relations. In November 1944 the Partisans issued a decree confiscating the property of the German occupiers and their Yugoslav collaborators. This encompassed most banks, industrial and commercial businesses. A deep-going land reform was initiated.

In December 1943 London switched its support to the Partisans from the Chetniks (who had long been collaborating with the German occupation forces against the Partisans), in order to make demands for the restoration of the Serbian monarchy in the event of victory. From 1944 the Soviet Union finally began supplying aid – for exactly the same reason.

The mobilisation of the Yugoslav workers and peasants proved powerful enough to defeat all such political manoeuvres and machinations. By the Spring of 1945 the last German troops were in full retreat from Partisan forces. By the end of that year, little over four years after the Partisan struggle had been launched in such difficult conditions, all the bourgeois military and political forces, led by both Axis and Allied powers, had been overcome, and the working class had taken political power in Yugoslavia. Together with a similar overturn in neighbouring Albania, this began the world’s second socialist revolution.5 It was one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in history.


At the eastern extremity of the Ottoman empire, the struggles of the oppressed nations were no less fraught than in the Balkans. In the region of eastern Turkey and southern Caucasus, the lands bordering the Ottoman, Russian and Persian empires, lived Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Azeris, Jews and others, with varying degrees of autonomy. National struggles grew among the Kurds. Persecutions and pogroms against Armenians by the Ottomans culminated in the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which an entire people was driven to their deaths in the Syrian desert. Kurds, another oppressed people who also lived in this region, were encouraged to attack the deportation caravans of Armenians, and some did, (although others refused, and in some cases rescued Armenians from certain death). Similar, albeit smaller, atrocities were inflicted on the Kurds themselves, including the forced deportation of 700,000 Kurds in 1916 to 1918.

Beginning of Armenian death march, 1915. By anonymous German traveler (Project SAVE) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beginning of Armenian death march, 1915. By anonymous German traveler (Project SAVE) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The re-division of Mesopotamia and the Middle East coming out of the Great War and the destruction of the Ottoman empire left the Kurds without a homeland of their own, divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. With the exception of a brief period after World War 2 when an independent Kurdistan was formed in the north of Iran, that remained the case for the next century. The Kurds are today the largest nationality in the world which is still denied its own territory. Their struggle for nationhood burst onto the scene anew in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1990.

Over three thousand Armenian refugees sought refuge with the Protestant church in Bakhche (Cilicia) - See more at: http://www.genocide-museum.am/eng/adana.php#sthash.Wm9R4RyY.dpuf

Over three thousand Armenian refugees sought refuge with the Protestant church in Bakhche (Cilicia) – See more at: http://www.genocide-museum.am/eng/adana.php#sthash.Wm9R4RyY.dpuf

Comparisons with the Partisan struggle in Yugoslavia should be kept in proportion. There are important differences. The Middle East today is not yet the seething cauldron of class struggle that the Balkans were in the 1940s. The Russian revolution, which was such a powerful influence on the Yugoslav masses, is no more. The disorienting influence of Stalinism is also qualitatively weaker.

Yet in some key ways the comparison is worth noting.

In the first place, as in the Balkans in the early twentieth century, the crisis and impasse of bourgeois nationalism is a striking feature of the Middle East today. Despite all the billions in aid and years of training, the new bourgeois army in Iraq drops its weapons and runs in the face of a much smaller and technically weaker Islamic State force. Fatally weakened by its sectarian Shiite character, the Iraqi army has nothing to fight for. The bourgeois-led opposition forces in Syria are gripped by a similar, blood-soaked paralysis. Elsewhere in the region, both major factions of the Palestinian leadership, both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have proved incapable of finding a road forward for the Palestinian people, another nationality denied a homeland.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recognises this crisis of bourgeois nationalism. He writes, “Nationalism no longer mobilizes popular passion or provides a convincing historical narrative.”

Islamic State, which fills the vacuum, is the negation of nationalism (while sharing its tendency to sectarianism, and targeting Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis for persecution.) Brooks points out, “ISIS consistently tries to destroy the borders between nation-states. It undermines, confuses or smashes national identities. It eliminates national and pre-caliphate memories…Meanwhile, it offers a confident vision of the future: a unified caliphate. It fills the vacuum left by decaying nationalist ideologies.” Brooks throws up his hands in despair.

But not all national identities are undermined and weakened. The Kurdish struggle is advancing. Kurdish fighters successfully defended the city of Kobane against a larger, better equipped IS forces in April. Kurdish forces have emerged as the only military forces capable of seriously challenging and pushing back IS on the ground; they continue to push back IS in Syria. Meanwhile, the response to the recent assaults on Kurdish communities by the Turkish regime has been a resistance that approaches the proportions of local insurrections.

And one key to the growing self-confidence and strength of the Kurdish resistance is the same, deeply revolutionary idea that propelled the Yugoslav Partisans to victory: their strict and consistent respect for the equality of all nationalities, and opposition to chauvinism and the domination of one nationality over another. This has been not just proclaimed but demonstrated in action on many occasions recently.

A Yazidi man and his children, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State, ride a donkey towards the Syrian border (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)

A Yazidi man and his children, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State, ride a donkey towards the Syrian border (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)

This practice was demonstrated in action during the August 2014 siege of Sinjar Mountain in the north of Iraq by Islamic State, which took the town of Sinjar and trapped tens of thousands of Yazidis on the parched mountain top. Yazidis are a people closely related to Kurds, who adhere to a distinct, largely pre-Christian religious belief. IS had declared its intention to annihilate or enslave them as ‘devil-worshippers’, and began to carry out its pledge. Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria cleared a safe corridor, enabling the Yazidis to evacuate. Others remained behind to form Yazidi militias to defend their land and villages, with Kurdish military training. A BBC reporter who visited Kurdish military training camps in Turkey reports that “Since last year’s attack on Sinjar Mountain, hundreds of young Yazidis have joined the PKK [the Kurdish fighters in Turkey].”

Consistent with this stance, Kurdish leaders recognised and repudiated the Armenian genocide and Kurdish participation in it.

Osman Baydemir, former mayor of the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir, said last year, “Since I was three, I remember that Kurds have been exposed by the Turkish administration to ‘insults’ such as ‘You are children of Armenians’, … That means that to the Turkish governments, everybody demanding Kurdish rights is an Armenian and [in their minds, that has] a bad meaning. In the eyes of the [Turkish] state, there is no difference between a Kurd and an Armenian.”

Kurdish women fighters enter Tel Abyad June 2015

Kurdish women fighters enter Tel Abyad June 2015

Even more significant was the Kurdish-led attack on Girê Spî (Tel-Abyad) a Syrian town on the Turkish border which had been central to the supply pipeline for both materials and volunteers supporting IS. Tel-Abyad is not a Kurdish town, but one which had a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Armenians and others (until IS took control of the town in June 2014 and ordered all Kurds to leave). The effort to re-capture the town a year later was a joint operation between the Kurds and a faction of the Free Syrian Army. Five of the seven commanders of the Kurdish forces who defeated the brutally misogynist IS were women.

ANF News reported June 22, only days after Kurdish-FSA forces had taken the town: “More than 20 Arab tribe leaders from Mebruqa, Siluk, Girê Spî and Eyn-El İs visited the YPG Headquarters in Girê Spî [Tel-Abyad ] today. YPG-YPJ fighters and other forces of freedom listened to the details of ISIS cruelty before the town’s liberation, and the tribe leaders thanked the fighters for their operation. Tribe leaders emphasized the importance of Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen peoples’ will to coexist, and said that nobody would be able to pit peoples against one another.”

On taking the town, Kurdish forces came under political attack by groups seeking to exploit any ethnic tensions. “YPG forces … have implemented a new sectarian and ethnic cleansing campaign against Sunni Arabs and Turkmen under the cover of coalition airstrikes which have contributed bombardment, terrorizing civilians and forcing them to flee their villages,” read a statement issued by fifteen Syrian groups, including the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Turkish President Erdogan framed a similar accusation in ‘anti-West’ terms: “On our border, in Tal Abyad, the West, which is conducting aerial bombings against Arabs and Turkmen, is unfortunately positioning terrorist members of the PYD and PKK in their place.”

No evidence was ever produced to support these claims, and reporters who visited the town quickly refuted them. Verda Ozer reported in Al-Monitor July 20, “A local parliament has been formed for the first time there, and I attended the first gathering, on July 16. Its members are not only Kurdish, but Arab, Turkmen and Armenian as well, representing the diversity of the local population.” An Arab resident explained how, as the Kurdish forces advanced on the town, he was faced with the decision whether to flee or stay. “Since I had not committed any crimes under [the IS occupation], I knew I would be safe,” he said. Such confidence in the Kurdish policy is spreading.

Ultimately, the ability of workers and peasants of Kurdistan and the wider region to resolve the crisis that confronts them will depend, as it does everywhere in the world, on their ability to build a revolutionary working class leadership. This is not given. Despite the titanic achievements of the workers and peasants of Yugoslavia, their leadership remained mired in the politics of Stalinism; the revolution eventually decayed and eventually collapsed in the fratricidal war of the 1990s.

Has such a revolutionary leadership emerged in Kurdistan? Across the barriers of geography and language, this writer could not possibly judge. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is the leading organisation among Kurds in Turkey and Syria, (but is not the only political current among Kurds.) The PKK has a long history of self-sacrificing and disciplined struggle, albeit with some sectarian and cult-like characteristics, and with some costly setbacks along the way.

However, the very repression in the eastern provinces of Turkey that has dealt heavy blows to the military struggle of the PKK over the last twenty years has also scattered Kurds across Turkey and the world, where they have increasingly integrated into the world working class, from Istanbul to Berlin to Auckland. Tribal and patriarchal constraints are weaker than ever. This can be seen in the prominent role of women, both in the military struggle in Rojava and in the civic protests in and around Diyarbakir. Around 40% of PKK fighters are female.

Bringing the weight of the proletariat to bear in the struggle will be key to the process of building a revolutionary leadership. That is what has been opened in Kurdistan today, just as in Yugoslavia in 1941, and the consequences are likely to be equally  far-reaching and dramatic.


  1. Manifesto of the Second Congress of the Communist International. In Riddell, John, ed, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! – Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1991, p809.
  2. The Partisan army did not accomplish this stance in one instant. During the initial period of collaboration with the Chetniks, some mostly Serbian Partisan units in Bosnia-Herzegovina refused to accept Bosnian Muslims into their ranks. This changed later, and by the end of the war, Muslims comprised 23% of Partisan forces in Bosnia.
  3. Fyson, Malapanis and Silberman,The Truth About Yugoslavia, Pathfinder, New York, 1993, p35.
  4. In a terrible historical parallel, more than 20,000 Bosnian Muslims were driven out of Foča in a campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass rape by Serbian rightists in 1992.
  5. Soon after concluding these titanic accomplishments, the limitations of the leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party became clearer. Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, but not with Stalinist politics. In the economic reconstruction of Yugoslavia, the government increasingly relied on capitalist market mechanisms – and with that inevitably came capitalist social and regional differentiation, and the growth of a reactionary state bureaucracy. In the early 1990s, the last vestiges of the Partisan achievements of the 1940s were destroyed in a vicious fratricidal war.

3 responses to “Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, and the power of a single revolutionary idea

  1. Interesting article on the Partisans. My grandfather’s younger brother was a local partisan leader on the Dalmatian coast but he fell out with Tito after the war due to doctrinal differences (he felt Tito had betrayed the principles) and was jailed for a while. He remained a communist all his life and there’s a plaque, which I’ve seen, on the remains of his bomb damaged house that acknowledges his efforts.

    • Interesting family connection to the struggle, Allan – one of the great revolutions of the twentieth century. It would be interesting to know more about the nature of your grandfather’s brother’s disagreements with Tito in the later period.

  2. Pingback: Cultural appropriation, race-baiting, and the power of fiction: in defence of Lionel Shriver | A communist at large·

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