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The Courageous Wartime Story of Lepa Radić

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Defeated Yugoslavian soldiers surrender their weapons

Defeated Yugoslavian soldiers surrender their weapons

Hitler Invades Yugoslavia

In April 1941, Hitler's forces invaded Yugoslavia and set up a puppet government in Croatia, ensnaring 15-year-old Lepa Radić in a Nazi-sympathizing police state. She decided she could not accept that.

Lepa Radić's Early Life

Born in 1925 in what was then Yugoslavia, Lepa Radić's family were dedicated communists. So when the fascist Ustaše movement supported Hitler's invasion of Yugoslavia, families such as Lepa's were in great danger.

Ustaše's ideology was built on Croatian nationalism and Roman Catholicism. The movement followed the racial purity beliefs of Nazism, and during the course of its time in power, it slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma, Serbs, and communists.

Soon, in November 1941, it was the turn of the Radić family to feel the venomous hatred of the Ustaše. The entire family was arrested and jailed; their future prospects looked very bleak.

Just prior to Christmas of 1941, Partisans helped the Radićs escape custody. Lepa and her relatives were quick to join the armed resistance to the German occupiers.

Meeting of the fascists. Ustaše leader of Croatia Ante Pavelić (saluting) with Italy's Duce Benito Mussolini in 1941.

Meeting of the fascists. Ustaše leader of Croatia Ante Pavelić (saluting) with Italy's Duce Benito Mussolini in 1941.

Yugoslavian Partisans

After the capitulation of Yugoslavia, the Axis really only controlled the towns. In the country's mountainous regions, resistance groups formed, the two major ones being the Chetniks and the Partisans.

The Chetniks were Serbian remnants of the Yugoslav army. They were not a cohesive bunch, and their only ideology was to create an ethnically pure Serbia that was devoid of Croats and Muslims. The Chetniks were also supportive of the Germans when it suited them.

The Partisans were better organized under the leadership of Josip Broz (Tito), a zealous communist. The Partisans received support from Joseph Stalin, who was now also facing invasion from Germany. The goal of Tito was to create a unified Yugoslavia of all ethnicities under the Socialist banner, but there was conflict with the Chetniks and their racial purity theories.

The Partisans were generally quite successful in harassing the German occupiers and wresting control of areas away from the invaders. Dr. Stephen A Hart for the BBC writes that "In these liberated areas the Partisans disseminated propaganda, and established schools, cinemas, newspapers, weapons workshops, and railways."

Tito made a cold-hearted calculation of provoking the Nazis into gross retaliations. The standard German reprisal was that for every one of its soldiers that was killed, they would kill 100 Yugoslavs. The attempt at intimidation backfired because the extreme reaction of the Nazis became a powerful recruiting tool for the Partisans, and Lepa Radić answered the call.

Lepa Radić's War

Having escaped from the clutches of the Ustaše, Lepa Radić joined up with Tito's Partisans. Her first assignment was nursing wounded Partisans. Then, she worked on recruiting young people to the cause, "But she also participated in every major operation in the area (around Prijedor), including combat" (historicmysteries.com).

Case White was the code name for a January 1943 offensive by the Nazis and their on-again-off-again allies, the Chetniks, to destroy the Partisans. Lepa was given the job of evacuating wounded Partisans. In February, a group of refugees she was escorting was surrounded 7th SS Prinz Eugen Division.

Was Lepa Radić going to surrender? No, she was not. She emptied her rifle at the German troops until she was out of ammunition. Capture was then inevitable.

Lepa Radić's Final Defiance

For three days, the Nazis tortured Lepa in an attempt to get her to name Partisans. For three days, she refused to give up her comrades. She is reported to have said, "I am not a traitor of my people. Those whom you are asking about will reveal themselves when they have succeeded in wiping out all you evildoers, to the last man."

The German response was a public execution. Lepa was placed on a wooden box and a noose slung over a tree branch. As the preparations were being made for her hanging, she is said to have shouted, "Long live the Communist Party, and partisans! Fight, people, for your freedom! Do not surrender to the evildoers! I will be killed, but there are those who will avenge me!"

On February 8th, 1943, Lepa Radić was hanged. She was 17 years old.

A hero of Hitler's military puts a noose around Lepa Radić's neck

A hero of Hitler's military puts a noose around Lepa Radić's neck

Bonus Factoids

  • Following the war, Tito became president of a unified Yugoslavia, and Lepa Radić was honoured with the Order of the People's Hero.
  • Masha Bruskina was a member of the Belarusian resistance to German occupation. She was captured and hanged in public on October 26th, 1941, and her body was left dangling from the rope for three days. She was 17 years old.
  • Majda Vrhovnik was a Slovenian who became a courier for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Slovenia following the German occupation. She organized communist groups but was betrayed. The Gestapo arrested her, tortured her, and shot her on May 4th, 1945. She was 23 years old.
  • Zinaida Portnova joined the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Belarus and took part in attacks on Germans. In one mission, she worked as a cook feeding Nazi soldiers in a garrison, and she put poison in the food. Many became ill, and a few died. In January 1944, she was captured, tortured, and shot. She was 17 years old.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor