AUTHOR: PhD Milan Koljanin
Srem extends over the southern part of the Pannonian Plain between the lower reaches of the Sava and Danube rivers. Historical Srem covered the area from Zemun in the east to Vukovar, Vinkovci and Županja in the west. Fruška gora stretches over the northern part of Srem towards the bank of the Danube in the length of 78 kilometers with the highest peak Crveni čot (539 meters above sea level). Except for Fruška gora and its southern slopes, for the most part Srem is a rolling plain and lowland that stretches towards the left bank of the Sava.
Srem was named after the Roman name of today’s Sremska Mitrovica, Sirmium, which became one of the four capitals of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century. In the early seventh century, Slavs settled in the area of Srem. In the centuries that followed, Srem was part of various states and finally medieval Hungary. Srem County was formed in the eastern part of the area, and Vuka County in the rest of the area. The collapse of the Hungarian state at the beginning of the sixteenth century marked the beginning of almost two-century long Ottoman rule. Turkish rule ended in the Great Turkish War in the late seventeenth century, and Srem became part of the Austrian Empire. After the renewal of the Hungarian administrative system, Srem County was renewed within the borders we today consider to be the historical borders of Srem. A large part of Srem was covered by the Military Border and until the last decades of the nineteenth century, it was subordinated to the central military authorities in Vienna. With the reorganization of the Habsburg monarchy in 1867, Srem was found in the Hungary part of the Dual Monarchy. At the end of World War I, after the collapse of the Austria-Hungary monarchy, Srem united with the Kingdom of Serbia and became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
Large population movements in Srem over the centuries, primarily due to the wars, have resulted in the ethnic diversity of the area. Due to the dominant Serbian population, Srem has been a part of the Serbian ethnic area since the Middle Ages. Srem played a significant role in Serbian history, especially in the period after the fall of Serbian states in the hands of the Ottomans in the second half of the 15th century. At that time, Srem gained an important political role and was ruled by Serbian despots as vassals of the Hungarian king. At the same time, Srem became one of the most important spiritual centers of Serbs. The monasteries of Fruška Gora became the hearthstone not only of Serbian Orthodox spirituality but also of nurturing the historical consciousness of the Serbian people and the persistence of the idea of a new Serbian state. In this rested the historical role of the entire organization of the Serbian Orthodox Church, united by the renewed Patriarchate of Peja.
The important role of the Serbian church in Srem was fully shown after the Great Turkish War in the late seventeenth century and the Great Migration of the Serbs. Sremski Karlovci, as the seat of the Serbian archbishop and patriarch and the place where church and people’s assemblies were held, became the spiritual and political center of the Serbian people in the Habsburg monarchy. Although the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the political life of Serbs weakened over time with the development of civil society in the Monarchy, Srem still played a significant role in Serbian history. This was shown both during the Serbian uprisings and the renewal of the Serbian state in the first decades of the 19th century and during the revolutionary 1848/1849 period. At that time, Srem was the center of the Serbian people’s movement in the Monarchy, whose program was to unite the Serbs and gain their autonomy. However, the main goal of Serbian politics in both Serbia and the Monarchy was to gather Serbian people in one independent state. Both church dignitaries and civic politicians from Srem played a significant role in such actions, and spiritual and cultural unity laid the foundation for political unification.
As a border area between great empires, Srem has been the scene of significant historical events over the centuries. At the same time, it was the scene of great population suffering, destruction of material and cultural goods. The inhabitants of Srem, primarily Serbs, were victimized both on their hearths and as soldiers of the Habsburg monarchy on battlefields throughout Europe. New great sufferings of Serbs were brought by World War I, both in their independent states, Serbia and Montenegro, and in the Habsburg monarchy. Serbs from Srem were exposed to mass repression, displacement, killing and internment in camps. At the same time, World War I enabled realizing the idea of Serbian unification into one state.
The idea and policy of establishing a single Serbian state were transformed into a new national and state program at the beginning of World War I. Serbia pointed out as its war goal the unification of not only Serbs but also Croats and Slovenes into one large South Slavic state. The victory of the Entente and Serbia in the war, as well as the collapse of the Austria-Hungary monarchy, paved the way to establishing the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on December 1, 1918. Differences in understanding the state system, as well as the motives for the creation of the state, differed greatly among the national political elites, primarily the Serbian and Croatian ones. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes / The Kingdom of Yugoslavia failed to gather mostly already formed nations around the new national idea.
In the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Yugoslavia, Srem was first administratively seen as a district, then a region, and since 1929 it had been part of two banovinas. The most reliable data on the population of Srem are contained in the census of March 31, 1931. This census reflects the population structure with which Srem entered World War II. In the census, the area of historical Srem was administratively divided between Danube Banovina (counties Ilok, Irig, Ruma, Sremska Mitrovica city and county, Stara Pazova, Šid, Sremski Karlovci, Zemun), Sava Banovina (Vinkovci county and city, Vukovar county and city, and Županja county) and the Administration of the City of Belgrade (Zemun city). A total of 446,591 inhabitants lived in the area. Of this number, there were 216,350 (48.44%) Orthodox, i.e. Serbs, 182,224 (40.8%) Roman Catholics (Germans, Croats, Shokacs, Hungarians), 35,345 (7.91%) Evangelicals (Slovaks, Germans) and 12,782 (2.86%) residents of other religions or without any denomination (Ruthenians, Jews). The Orthodox had an absolute or relative majority in the following districts: Irig, Ruma, Stara Pazova, Zemun, Sremska Mitrovica, Sremski Karlovci, Vukovar, Ilok and Šid, Roman Catholics had a majority in the western Srem districts of Vinkovci and Županja, as well as in the cities of Zemun, Vukovar and Vinkovci, while the city of Sremska Mitrovica was populated by approximately equal numbers of Orthodox and Roman Catholic inhabitants. Evangelicals lived in large numbers in the districts of Stara Pazova, Zemun, Ilok, Vinkovci and Vukovar and in the city of Zemun.
The Cvetković-Maček Agreement settled on August 26, 1939, which established the Banovina of Croatia, was a key event in the internal political life of the country. It marked the beginning of the Yugoslavia reorganization on national grounds and the abandonment of the unitary state system concept. Neither side was satisfied with the compromise. The Croatian side considered it only the first step towards the final territorial and state formation, counting on the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as on the whole of Srem, Baranja and part of Bačka. From the territory of historical Srem, from the Sava Banovina, three west Srem districts (Vukovar, Vinkovci and Županja), and from the Danube Banovina, the districts of Ilok and Šid, became part of in the Banovina of Croatia. Broad competencies, and especially the creation of paramilitary formations of the Croatian Peasant Defence and the Croatian Civil Defence, increasingly marked the Banovina of Croatia as a corpus separatum.
In the short-lived April War (from April 6 to 18, 1941), the military superiority of the attackers, primarily the German armed forces, became fully evident. The rapid collapse of Yugoslavia was a consequence not only of military inferiority but also of the state body weakness. Under the auspices of German troops, on April 10, 1941, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was proclaimed in Zagreb. Contrary to international law, after the capitulation on April 18, 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was broken up as a state, some parts of it being annexed by neighbors or placed under military occupation. From the central part of the country, the satellite NDH was created, which was supposed to be the main axis support on the territory of divided Yugoslavia. The country division primarily satisfied the interests (territorial, strategic and economic) of the Third Reich and its Axis partner Italy, but also the national aspirations of the neighboring revisionist states of Hungary, Bulgaria and Albania (the Italian protectorate). Serbia was reduced to a territory of before the Balkan wars and was under direct German military rule. Due to its economic significance, strong German national minority and Hungary-Romania antagonisms, Banat was annexed to the German military occupation area in Serbia. While the northern part of Slovenia was annexed to the Third Reich, its southern part and most of the Adriatic coast with the hinterland were annexed by Italy. Hungary got Bačka, Baranja, Međumurje and Prekomurje, Bulgaria got southeastern Serbia and most of Macedonia, while the Italian protectorate of Albania was joined western Macedonia, Metohija and most of Kosovo. Italian civil occupation administration was introduced in Montenegro.
The Ustasha movement headed by leader Ante Pavelić adopted the great Croatian aspirations formulated in the 1960s. The Axis countries aggression enabled the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which went far beyond Croatian regions both ethnically and historically. The Ustasha ideology was a Croatian variant of fascism, with strong clerical influences, racism, anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism directed primarily against the Serbian people. Jews and Roma, as well as political opponents, primarily communists, were under attack. The relatively fast and successful organization of the NDH authorities can be explained by the fact that the state infrastructure of the Banovina of Croatia (administration, judiciary, police) was fully made available to it. Its paramilitary formations, the Croatian Civil Defense and the Croatian Peasant Defense, were the first armed formations of the new state. In taking over and organizing the power, the support and active cooperation of almost the entire Catholic clergy, which in the predominantly agrarian structure of Croatia had a traditionally strong influence, was extremely important.
The Independent State of Croatia included Croatia, Slavonia with Srem, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croatian Littoral, central and southern Dalmatia with Dubrovnik. In administrative terms, by the Legal Decree on the Administrative and Territorial Division of the Independent State of Croatia of June 10, 1941, the state was divided into 22 large counties. On a historical and quasi-historical basis, with the aim of Croatian unitarization, the previous historical names of the provinces, Slavonia, Dalmatia, Srem, and perhaps most importantly the name of Bosnia and Herzegovina, were removed. The Serbian name was also deleted from the toponyms. With the same goal, the borders of the historical parishes from the time of the Austria-Hungary monarchy were redrawn. The largest part of Srem (districts of Sremska / Hrvatska Mitrovica, Sremski / Hrvatski Karlovci, Ilok, Irig, Ruma Stara Pazova, Šid, Vinkovci, Vukovar and Zemun) was part of the Great Parish of Vuka seated in Vukovar. The district of Županja from Srem was within the Great Parish of Posavje seated in Slavonski Brod (Brod na Savi).
For the first time in their history, the Serbs were found in a state that declared their destruction as its first-class national goal. As the Serbs made up almost a third of the NDH population, this goal was achieved by various means: physical destruction in villages and cities, as well as in the system of concentration and death camps, forced conversion to the Roman Catholic religion, i.e. forced Croatization, and expulsion. All of this was accompanied by systematic looting and destruction of material goods. At the same time, the organization of the Serbian Orthodox Church was destroyed, its hierarchs and priests were killed, interned and expelled, Orthodox churches were systematically destroyed or converted to Roman Catholic churches, and cultural property was looted or destroyed. With the very extensive and diverse Croatian fascist legislation, state terror was covered by a pseudo-legal veil. In that respect, the characteristic and, probably, the most significant was the Stipulation on Defense of Croatian People’s Honor from April 17, 1941, which introduced a permanent state of emergency. With a resilient and generalized formulation, practically anyone could be retroactively accused of the high treason offense and thus sentenced to death.
All this contributed to the NDH being one of the phenomena of World War II, as well as to the fact that the genocide against Serbs committed in it stands out historically as a special type of genocide. At the same time, genocide was committed against Jews, mostly in the camps of the Ustasha state itself. This is the specificity of the Holocaust in the NDH which can only be compared to that in Nazi Germany. At the same time, genocide against Roma was committed, with the exception of Muslim Roma due to the policy of the Ustasha state towards Muslims.
The uprising of the Serbian people and the organization of two resistance movements, the partisan (Communist) and the royalist (Chetnik), mostly averted the realization of the Ustasha policy of destroying the Serbs. The growing expansion of the partisan People’s Liberation Movement threatened German strategic and economic interests, which is why there were contradictions between Ustasha and Nazi policies. The Ustasha policy of destroying Serbs constantly generated and strengthened the partisan movement, which was why the German representatives in the NDH tried to modify that policy. However, the policy of destroying Serbs was never substantially changed until the end of the Ustasha state. The partisan movement gained in strength, which led to the increasing military engagement of the NDH and Germany forces in suffocating the partisan movement. Military operations and police actions used brutal force against the civilian population. This led to mass suffering, primarily of the Serb population, as Serbs were by far the most numerous in partisan units. Except in the areas of military operations and police actions, the population and captured insurgents were killed in Ustasha and German camps on the territory of Yugoslavia, Germany and other occupied countries. All the above-mentioned characteristics of the events in the Ustasha state came to the fore on the territory of Srem.
The area of Srem had a special place in the realization of German interests in the Independent State of Croatia. Although the whole of Srem was supposed to belong to the Ustasha state, the area of eastern Srem, east of the Slankamen (on the Danube)-Boljevci (on the Sava) line with Zemun and Stara Pazova was until October 10, 1941 “an economic area of interest of the German Military Commander in Serbia”. Until the end of 1942, the seat of the powerful Plenipotentiary for Economy in Serbia, Franz Neuhausen, was in Zemun. Due to its economic potentials and strategic communications, Srem was extremely important for both the Independent State of Croatia and Nazi Germany. A 1942 source of Ustasha provenance also emphasizes the following: “Srem covers only 6.5% of the area of Croatia and 7.5% of the total population, and yet produces more than a quarter of wheat and almost a quarter of corn grown in Croatia. Considering that Croatia can feed its entire population with its grain without having exported surplus, it means that Srem, a region with 452,000 inhabitants, produces so much grain that it can feed one and a half million people. Without Srem, Croatia would be a passive country in terms of grain production, as there would be a deficit that would have to be covered by imports.”
Among other factors, the situation in Srem was greatly influenced by the ethnic composition of the population. Approximately half of the entire Srem population were Serbs, one quarter were Croats (mostly in western Srem), while the local Germans (Volksdeutsche) made up approximately one-seventh of the population. Despite the Ustasha state’s intentions to “cleanse” Srem, along with other border areas (eastern Herzegovina and eastern Bosnia), of Serbs, this plan encountered difficulties. Serbs in Srem, as well as in other parts of the NDH, were exposed to various forms of terror since state proclamation, but, at least for the first time, not to the most horrific – mass killings. The entire area of Srem (without the county district) was included in the Great Parish of Vuka seated in Vukovar. It was one of the largest great parishes in the Independent State of Croatia, and certainly one of the most economically and geopolitically important. In it, the power was practically divided between Croats and the German national minority (Volksdeutsche). The great prefect was the German Dr. Jakob Elicker, and the deputy prefect was Croatian Luka Aždajić. Croats and Germans were also in lower administrative positions (in counties/districts, cities and municipalities), along with some representatives of other national minorities (Hungarians, Slovaks and Ruthenians). The Extraordinary Ustasha Commissioner for Eastern Slavonia (that is, Srem), the former HSS champion from Sremska Mitrovica, Marko Lamešić, played a significant role in organizing the government. While the Croatian and German paramilitary formations jointly unarmed the Yugoslav Army during the takeover, solemnly welcoming the German invasion troops, the divergences were soon manifested in the takeover of municipal and district administrations, gendarmerie / armed stations, and the division of Serbian and Jewish property.
Shortly after the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia, various measures of discrimination and humiliation of Serbs and Jews began. Mass dismissals from public services were followed by looting of property, appointment of commissioners, arrests and blackmail. As early as the end of April 1941, Serb colonists and volunteers from World War I and all “non-natives” from before 1918 were forcibly evicted from eastern Srem. Organized by the State Directorate for Reconstruction, eviction of the same category of Serbs from western Srem via the camp in Slavonska Požega happened during July and August of the same year. There was a conflict between the Croatian authorities and the Volksdeutsche over the occupation of the expelled Serbs property and their settlement, leading to a special agreement. The estates of Serbs in western Srem were inhabited by Croats from Hrvatsko Zagorje, and later by Ustasha families from western Herzegovina. For the most part, they remained there even after the collapse of the Independent State of Croatia and the liberation of Yugoslavia.
Srem was one of the spiritual centers of the Serbian people, with significant numerous national institutions in Sremski Karlovci and monasteries on Fruška gora. As in the entire NDH, priests were killed or expelled, churches and monasteries were destroyed and looted. The Ustasha state did everything to destroy the Serbian Orthodox civilization, its material monuments and organization, as well as the believers themselves, either physically or spiritually. Commissioners responsible for the Independent State of Croatia were appointed managers of monasteries and monastic estates. Here, too, there was a conflict of interest between the Croatian state and the Volksdeutsche. With the full cooperation of the Roman Catholic Church, the Croatian authorities put special efforts into the violent conversion of Serbs to Catholicism in Srem. In various ways, from open coercion to blackmail, Serbs were forced to convert to the Roman Catholic faith. The action of conversion to Catholicism in Srem was led by Deputy Prefect Luka Aždajić, with the great help of the Diocese of Đakovo and Bishop Antun Akšamović. Despite great efforts made, the conversion to Catholicism was not very successful, except to some extent in western Srem.
Arrests and abuses of Serbs began in the first days after the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia. Political leaders, prominent national workers and patriots were first arrested, as well as richer people, often just for blackmail. Prisons in Sremska Mitrovica, Vinkovci, Ruma, and Vukovar (Parish Police District Prison) were notorious. The deportation of prominent Serbs to Ustasha camps soon began. After the attack of Germany and its allies on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, which was joined by the Ustasha state, the fight against communism became a new reason for the arrest and torture of Serbs. They were often arrested as hostages, usually for no reason. The killings soon began: at night, on June 26/27, 16 Serbs were killed and thrown near the Danube in Borovo; in Vukovar, according to estimates in the Memorandum of the Serbian Orthodox Church in August 1941, about 180 Serbs were killed; on the night of June 30/ July 1 1941, ten Serbs were shot dead by the Ustashas near Tovarnik, which killing was followed by new crimes.
Srem was not the seat of any of the special courts (people’s and court-martial), but drumhead court-martials judged in it as needed. In late July 1941, in Sviloš, two brothers killed two gendarmes in self-defense. Dozens of Serbs from this and neighboring villages were soon randomly arrested and taken to the infamous prison in Ilok. After being tortured, 43 of them were brought before a drumhead court-martial, which sentenced them to death. On the night of July 30, the court in Ilok passed a verdict, and after only four hours, the victims were shot. The arrest of 9 (according to great prefect Elicker 11) prominent Serbs in Šid on the night between August 7 and 8 had a special impact. After terrible tortures, they were shot and, like many others, thrown into the Danube near Ilok.
During the German punitive expedition against the insurgents in Mačva, which began at the end of September 1941, thousands of detainees from Šabac and the surrounding area were transferred to Srem and interned in the temporary camp in Jarak. At the request of local Germans and Croats, the German army shot a group of 28 detainees. At the end of September and the beginning of October, the Croatian gendarmerie killed a large number of fugitives from the Jarak camp, and handed over eight of them to the German military commander in Ruma. Since July 1941, a drumhead court-martial operated in Vukovar under the presidency of infamous judge Ivan Vidnjević. At the end of July 1941, the court sentenced 15 innocent Serbs from Bobota to be shot, and 32 of them were deported to the camp. Thirty-three men were sentenced to death and shot at the execution site in Dudik for transferring weapons and ammunition from Petrovaradin to the partisans on October 18, 1941. On charges of advocating for communism, on January 14, 1942, 22 men, mostly from Negoslavci, were sentenced to death and shot in Dudik. In the following months, the drumhead court continued with the death sentences, causing several dozen people to be shot. Simultaneously with the killings, Serbs from Srem were taken to Ustasha concentration camps and death camps: at the end of May 1941, 15 Serbs and one Jew from Sremska Mitrovica were deported to the Danica camp near Koprivnica, and from there to the first Ustasha death camp in Gospić (Jadovno). At the end of September, 35 Serbs from Krčedin were deported to the newly established concentration camp and death camp Jasenovac.
Jews in Srem, about 2,800 of them, as well as in other parts of the Independent State of Croatia, faced looting and terror since the very establishment of this state. The killings took place mainly in the camps in Gospić, and then in Jasenovac. Most of the Jews from Srem were arrested in the second half of August 1942. They were soon deported to the Jasenovac camp, partly to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of these 2,800, 2,537 lost their lives (90.61%), which is one of the highest percentages of Jews killed in the Holocaust in Europe. During May and June 1942, almost all Roma from Srem were abducted and deported to the Jasenovac camp. According to the data of the Provincial Commission of Inquiry for the Confirmation of the Crimes of the Occupier and His Helpers in Vojvodina, about 8,000 Roma from Srem were deported and killed.
Due to the extraordinary geostrategic position and economic importance, riots among the Serbs in Srem were not to the advantage of the Germans. It was clear that the killing of Serbs would certainly provoke their reaction, and thus endanger German interests. On August 21, 1941, great prefect Elicker himself assessed the situation in Srem as follows: “Due to the constant persecution of Serbs, many Serbs left their estates, which now stand uncultivated, and some Serbian villages could not go out on the streets for several days for fear of the Ustashas, and at night they slept dressed, ready to flee at any moment…. According to the reports received by the police stations, a raid by Serbs is sometimes staged just to have a cause for treating Serbs violently (…) Similar cases happen all the time, so I am afraid that Serbs, if they continue to be treated like this, will one day take up arms and retreat to the cornfields. I do not have to emphasize what damage will then be done to our entire economy.”
The German assessment that the NDH terror against the Serbs was the direct cause of the uprising and the effort to limit it came to the fore during the negotiations on handing over Eastern Srem to the Ustasha authorities on October 10, 1941. Croatian representatives had to undertake not to cause or encourage emigration of Serbs, either directly or indirectly. However, with the spread of the partisan movement, crimes against the population of the whole of Srem became more and more numerous and massive. Military and police actions of German and Ustasha forces against the partisans were led by using mass repression against the civilian population. As the Serbs in Srem were by far the most numerous members of the partisan movement, the actions against the partisans led to mass suffering, primarily of the Serbian rural and urban population.
After minor actions in April 1942, during the following month, the Srem partisans carried out several attacks on municipalities, gendarmerie stations, local Ustasha guards and patrols. Due to the constant interruption of German telephone and telegraph communications in the area of Fruška gora, at the beginning of June, German forces undertook a wider military action. North of the village of Grgurevci, three German soldiers were killed in a conflict with the Fruška gora partisan detachment on June 6. The entire male population of this Serbian village aged 15 to 75 was arrested and 280 of them were shot in revenge. This most massive crime in Srem seen until then caused panic in the surrounding Serbian villages and a mass joining partisans.
Based on the open order of NDH Ustasha leader Pavelić from August 9, 1942, the Higher Police Commission (Police Commissariat) for the Great Parish of Vuka was established, seated in Vukovar, and headed by Higher Police Commissioner Viktor Tomić. Immediately after the arrival of Tomić and his group, on August 11, the Drumhead Court-Martial began operating in Vukovar, and imposed the first death sentences against 16 members of the partisan movement from Stejanovac and Ruma already the next day. During August, there were mass arrests, and the drumhead court-martial was in session almost every day pronouncing death sentences, which were executed after two hours at the execution site in Dudik near Vukovar. Along with the shooting of court convicts, there was a mass killing of hostages. The mass killings were accompanied by horrific torture of detainees, and posters with the names of those shot were constantly placed. The German representatives were acquainted in detail with the course of the action and reported on it regularly. On August 26, the headquarters of the Commission and the Drumhead Court-Martial was moved from Vukovar to Sremska Mitrovica, after which terror spread on most of Srem.
From August 26 to 31, 1942, strong German and Croatian forces, with the help of the Hungarian river flotilla, cruised through Fruška Gora, inflicting heavy blows on the partisan forces. This operation was remembered by the partisans as the “Great Offensive”. The greatest losses were suffered by the Serb civilian population who fled before the police action of V. Tomić.
From the end of August to the middle of September 1942, now with its headquarters in the Sremska Mitrovica Penitentiary, the mass crime of Tomić’s commission and the drumhead court-martial continued. Thousands of Serbs from Sremska Mitrovica and other cities, as well as from several Srem villages, were shot at the Sremska Mitrovica Orthodox cemetery after horrific torture. In “Viktor Tomić’s Action”, according to the findings of the State Commission for War Crimes, about 6,000 people were killed and disappeared, about 10,000 were arrested and abused. Among those killed was famous painter Sava Šumanović from Šid. The German representatives estimated that the police action far exceeded the originally imagined goals and that it turned into a systematic killing of primarily wealthier and more prominent Serbs. At that time, according to their rough estimate, 2,000-3,000 Serbs were killed. Due to the protest from several sides, at the request of the member of the Third Reich in Zagreb, Siegfried Kasche, on September 11, 1942, Commissioner Tomić was removed, and the action was stopped. At the end of the same month, German reports pointed out that state and economic bodies were almost inactive in large parts of Croatia (NDH). “Ustasha terror and massacres in Srem caused a wave of unrest and hatred, which called into question all attempts to calm down. (…) It is clear that this complicated situation has affected the increase in the number of partisans, which endangers the state.”
Due to the great superiority of the Independent State of Croatia and the German forces, as well as due to unfavorable geographic conditions, it was difficult for larger partisan units to maintain and operate in Srem. Therefore, they connected with partisan units in eastern Bosnia, eventually forming a single partisan operational area. Since then, partisan units from Srem had also operated in eastern Bosnia, and partisan units in eastern Bosnia were constantly filled with fighters from Srem. The fact that from November 1942 to the end of 1943, a total of 13,000 fighters were sent from Srem to eastern Bosnia testifies to the extent of Srem’s engagement. Srem’s material assistance to the partisans and the population of eastern Bosnia was also extremely important. In addition, during the offensive against partisan forces, the endangered Srem population found salvation in eastern Bosnia. Srem partisans fought and died not only in Srem and eastern Bosnia but also in other parts of Yugoslavia during World War II. Partisan cemeteries in Šekovići near the Lovnica monastery and in Donja Trnova testify to the great sacrifices of Srem partisans.
The intensified partisan activities in the area of Srem during 1943 caused new minor or major military and police actions of the Ustasha and German forces and new great sufferings of the population. After the partisan actions on the main railway in Srem, hanged peasants from the surrounding villages could often be seen on the posts along the railway. During the frequent blockades of villages, German and/or Ustasha military or police units killed some of the detainees. Others were deported en masse to Ustasha or German camps in the country or abroad, where most lost their lives. Apart from the Ustasha camps Jasenovac and Vinkovci, a large number of Srem population was interned in the German camp at Beogradsko sajmište, in the Mauthausen concentration camp and other camps.
During the great offensive on the partisan forces in Srem in September and October 1943, the villages in lower Srem and on the slopes of Fruška gora were severely damaged. Mass killings, looting and abuse of the population were common methods of fighting partisans. As this offensive also affected western Srem, in addition to Serb villages, some Croatian villages were also destroyed. The new great suffering of the villagers in southwestern Srem happened in March 1944 during the offensive of the German 13th SS Division “Khanjar”, composed of Bosnian Muslims and Albanians from Kosovo and Metohija. At that time, 370 people were killed in Sremska Rača, 212 in Bosut, 100 in Morovic, 50 in Jamena and dozens more in Kuzmin, Batrovci, Bačinci, Berkasovo, Sremske Laze and Višnjićevo. The victims were mostly women, children and the elderly, and the killings were preceded by horrific torture, looting and the complete destruction of entire villages.
Residents of several villages in southeastern Srem were killed in new offensives by German and Ustasha forces in mid-May 1944, then from mid-June to early August 1944, when villages on the slopes of Fruška gora were again damaged. During September and October 1944, partisan units took control of almost all of Srem. Withdrawing from Srem, the police and military units of the Independent State of Croatia and the Germans committed numerous crimes against the civilian population in the villages of Surduk, Jakovo, Laćarak, Bešenovo, Ležimir, Deč, Sremske Laze, Neštin, and killed all prisoners in the penitentiary in Sremska Mitrovica.
As part of two Vojvodina divisions, the people of Srem took part in the liberation of Belgrade, and then in the final liberation of most of Srem until the beginning of November 1944. On the village of Mohovo, east of Tovarnik, Ilinci, Batrovci and the left bank of Bosut line, the Srem Front was established on which heavy fighting was waged with many victims during the winter of 1944/1945. With the breakthrough of the Srem Front on April 11/12, 1945, and the penetration of Yugoslav Army units into western Srem and Slavonia, the final operations for the liberation of the country began which ended on May 15, 1945.
With the liberation of the country, the years of mass suffering of the Srem population ended. The most numerous, the Serb population, was first exposed to killing, robbery and denationalization. The Jewish and Roma populations were almost completely destroyed, mostly in Ustasha camps. Following the decisions of the great allies from the anti-Hitler coalition, the partisan movement had been collecting data on the crimes of the occupiers and their helpers since as early as 1942. At the second session of the supreme partisan body (the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) in Jajce, on November 30, 1943, the State Commission of Inquiry for the Confirmation of the Crimes of the Occupier and His Helpers was formed. The commission started working by adopting a rulebook on May 8, 1944, which was followed by the formation of regional commissions for war crimes. The Provincial Commission of Inquiry for the Confirmation of the Crimes of the Occupier and His Helpers in Vojvodina was formed immediately after the liberation of the largest part of Srem, on November 21, 1944. This was followed by the establishment of a series of war crimes commissions in certain places or parts of Vojvodina. Considering that at that time Vojvodina included the entire historical Srem and Baranja, data on crimes in these areas were also collected.
A special inquiry commission was formed to determine the crimes in Srem, which collected a very rich and diverse material on crimes and the destruction of material goods, cultural and religious monuments. Unfortunately, the end of the war did not mark the end of the devastation of sacral buildings, primarily the Fruška gora monasteries. Comparing the results of certain regional commissions for war crimes, it can be argued that the Provincial Commission of Vojvodina was one of the best or even the best.
The state commission and the lower rank commissions for war crimes collected a huge amount of material and listed a large number of victims during the war. Unfortunately, on November 1, 1947, the work of the regional commissions and the Provincial Commission was suspended, and on May 14, 1948, the State Commission was abolished. The work of the commissions for crimes of various levels has collected a huge amount of material on crimes and victims of crimes. However, the work on data collection was certainly not completed, which had various negative effects. Yugoslavia did not follow the practice of some other countries that suffered huge losses in World War II. In Poland, a similar commission existed until 1984, i.e. until 1999.
In 1946, the Provincial Commission for War Crimes in Vojvodina published part of its results in two publications related to the crimes in Bačka and Baranja and the crimes in Srem. Although publications on crimes in Banat and another book on crimes in Srem were announced, they were not published. In the last ten years, a series of studies by the Provincial Commission on crimes have been published, which are stored in the Museum of Vojvodina, and these publications have been provided with numerous valuable contributions. During this year, books on crimes in Bačka and Baranja, as well as on crimes in Srem, were republished.
Due to large differences in data and estimates of the number of casualties during World War II in Vojvodina, the Assembly of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina in 2000 formed an Inquiry Commission to determine the truth about the events from 1941 to 1945 in Vojvodina and to identify all the victims of Vojvodina in that period. By the beginning of 2008, over 96,000 casualties had been registered, not considering those killed in military units and those who were not residents of Vojvodina. The commission stated that this number is about 80% of the actual victims and that the lists have not been completely cleared, which is why some names are duplicated or even multiplied. In the meantime, the time frame of the research has been expanded, so it was decided to also list those residents of Vojvodina who died in the first three post-war years. The plan was to publish two books with the names of the victims in Vojvodina from 1941 to 1948 and a collection of analytical texts based on those directories. The publication of the Inquiry Commission published in 2008 presented the research results with statistical indicators and analyzes.
Despite the importance of new research, it has proven necessary to make new efforts to determine the most complete and exhaustive lists of victims of World War II, in the territory of Srem among others. That was the reason for establishing the project called Victims of World War II on the territory of Srem from 1941 to 1945. We intend to list all the victims from Srem during that period, both civilian and military, as this gives a much more complete picture of the events in the period and provides material for important analyzes and conclusions. The project relies on the results of the mentioned Inquiry Commission of the Assembly of Vojvodina, but also on extensive and diverse new research. We believe that such a list is extremely important not only for establishing the most reliable and complete historical facts, but also for cultivating a culture of memory. To that end, the research also includes the monumental heritage related to World War II in Srem, which will make the picture of events during the period and the attitude towards them in the post-war period much more complete. The project also includes the collection and systematization of visual material, primarily photographs related to the suffering in Srem, given the importance of photography as an extremely significant and specific historical source.