World War II: Yugoslavia--Kosovo

World War II Kosovo
Figure 1.--These German soldiers are burning a Serb village iclose to Kosovska Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. The photograph was probably taken in 1941.

Albania was the only majority Muslim country in Europe. Muslims also lived in Yugo slavia (mostly Kosovo and Bosnia). Italy occupied Albania an experienced little opposition (1939). The NAZIs and their Axis allies invaded Yugoslavia (April 6). The invasion began with the terror bombing of Belgrade. Within 12 days the country was in NAZI hands. The NAZIs carved up Yugoslavia, parceling out portions to their Axis allies, especially the Italians. The Italians had earlier invaded Albania (1939). A large area of southern Yugoslavia were anned to Albania, then in Italian hands. This included Kosovo and Metohija which at the time were part of Serbia. Included was territory southwest of Lake Scutari which was part of Montenegro. Finally the western region of Macedonia, which was then southern Serbia (Juzna Srbija) was included in the territory given to Albania. Thus with the Italian occupation the Kosovo and Albanian World War II experience essentilly become merged. Italy and the Albanians attempted to drive ethnic Serbs out of Kosovar and neigboyting regions. After the Italian surrender, the Germans were increasingly streached to control the Balkns. They formed the 21st Waffen SS Division Skanderbeg, mostly of Kosovar Muslim recrits, to aid in security operations.

Medieval History

Serbian tribes migrated into what is now Kosovo (7th century). The area was not fully incorporated into the medieval Serbian kingdom until much later (early 13th century).

Ottomon Empire

The Ottomans defeatedca Christian Serbian army at the Battle of Kosovo Polje (1389). Kosovo was thus for several centuries was part of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the population converted to Islam. In addition, Turks and Albanians moved into Kosovo. The population of Kosovo thus included both ethnic Albanians (largely Muslim) and Serbs (Orthodox Christians). It is not entirely clear what the etnic composition of Kosovo was before World war I. Some sources suggesed that it was mostly Albanian and Muslim. One sourcecsuggests that by the end of the 19th century, Albanians (Muslims) had replaced the Serbs )Orthodox Christians) as the dominant ethnic/religious group in Kosovo. Serb sources challenge this and describe a more mixed population. We are thus unsure at this time as regards the ethnic composition. Serbia in the First Balkan War just before World War I seized Kosovo from the Ottomans (1912).

World War I (1914-18)

Austria-Hungary after the assasination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist prepared to attck Serbia. German backing for Austria-Hungary led to World War I. ThecSerbs wre able to blunt the Austro-Hungarian offensive (1914). This changed the next year when the Serbian Army collapsed in the face of a combined Austrian, German, and Bulgarian offensive. The Serbian Army escaped into Albania and the Central Powers occupied Serbia, including Kosovo (1915). An Allied offensive broke the Bulgarian Army and Austria-Hungary asked for an armistice. In the peace treaty following the War, Kosovo was returned to Serbia and Albania independence was recognized..

Royal Yugoslavia (1918-41)

Serbia including Kosovo after World War I merged with Montenegro--a small principaloty populated primarily with etnc Serbs. The Serbs than united with the Slovenes, Croats to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The new kingdom included Macedonia. The Kingdom was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia--meaning the kingdom of the southern Slavs. Ethnic tensions developed in Yugoslavia because of the complex ethnic and religiousc compsition of the new state. The most intense rivalry was that between the Serbs and Croats, but there were other tensions as well.

Italian Invasion of Albania (1939)

Italy had designs on the Balkans even before World War I. The Allies offered Italy Austro-Hungarian territory in the Balkans to get Italy to enter World War I on the Allied side. Italy did not get all that territory in the post-War peace settllement, causing considerable bitterness in naionlist circles. Mussolini's policies after setting up a Fascist state was to expand Italian influence in the Balkans. A primary objective was Albania where investments and trade arrangements expanded Italian influence. The Italians invaded Albania, even before the onset of World War II (April 7, 1939). They encountered very little resistance. Mussolini forced King Zog I, Ahmed Bey Zogu, from power and into exile in Greece. Mussolini then made Albania a part of the Italian Kingdom. A military government was established under an Italian Viceroy. Mussolini began a program to colonize the country with thousands of Italian settlers. The Italians organized a Albanian Fascist Party with Albanian Blackshirts basedÝ on the Italian model. The Italians organized an Albanian army made up of three infantry brigades of 12,000 men. It was plced under Italian command and control.

Italian Invasion of Greece (October 1940)

Italy invaded Greece from Albania with 10 Italian divisions and the small Albanian contingent (October 28, 1940). Mussolini launched the attack without informing Hitler who was furious in learningv about it. The timing was inept, launcjing an army into mountaneous territory in the Fall. The much smaller Greek Army not only stopped the Italians, but drive them back into Albania.

Operation Alpine Violet

Greece was a quasi-Fascist country, loosely tied to Britain. It had hoped to stay out of the War, by not cooperating with Britain. The Italian invasion changed that dynamuic, which is why Hitler was so upset with Mussolini. Hitler agreed to aid his Axis ally as Italian militar defeat was not good press copy for the Axis. Hitler considered Operation Alpine Violet, a plan to move three German mountain divisions to Albania. Finally Hitler ordered powerful German forces into Bulgaria, a Balkan nation reluctantly coeresed into the Axis. The German Twelfth Army was deployed along the northwest Greek border. Itwas originally intended to invade Greece, but assigned targets un Yugoslavia after the coup in Belgrade that removed Prince Paul who had just signed an agreement with Hitler.

Italian Designs on Yugoslavia

German Policies

NAZI Invasion (April 1941)

German Führer Adolf Hitler thought he had the Balkans sorted out to provide a secure southern front. He forced the Yugoslav governent to adhere to the Axis. A popular revolt occured in Belgrade against joining the NAZI-dominated Axis. The revolt led by Belgrade students overthrew the regency under Prince Paul. They installed the youthful King Michael and rejected the treaty that Prince Paul had signed with the NAZIs. Hitler was enraged with the coup. He decided to punish and cow the Serbs by desrtoying Belgrade in a Luftwaffe terror bombing. The NAZIs and their Axis allies invaded Yugoslavia (April 6). The invasion began with the terroir bombing of Belgrade. Wehrmact and Luftwaffe military units had already been positioned in the Reich and and allied states (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) for such an intervention, although the target was believed to be Greece. Hitler called the invasion, occupation and dismemberment of Yugoslavia “Operation Punishment” or “Operation 25.” Within 12 days the country was in NAZI hands. Yugoslavia surrendered (April 17).


The NAZIs who had done most of the fighting, carved up Yugoslavia, parceling out portions to their Axis allies, especially the Italians. Italy seized a large area of southern Yugoslavia, much of which was annexed to Albania, then in Italian hands. This included Kosovo and Metohija. Included was a small piece of Montenegro southwest of Lake Scutari . Finally the western region of Macedonia, a strip bordering Albania, which the Sebs considered to be part of Serbia (Juzna Srbija) was included in the territory given to Albania (Italy). This became Greater Albania or Greater Shqiperia. Serbian authors maintain that Mussolini and Hitler personally decided on the boundaries to weaken Serbia, which was the major source of opposition to the Axis in Yugoslavia. Hitler also detached an additional chunk of Serbia, the so called Banat, from Serbia and assigned to ethnic Germans. We are not sure just when and where the partitioning of Yugoslavia was decided. It had to be sometime after the riots against Prince Paul began (March 28), because Hitler had agreed to not only maintain the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, but had promised him Salomnika in Greece. We are not sure if this was done persinally by Hitler and Mussolini and if so when and where. We do know that the Germans ibntervened when the Italians and Bulgarians quarled over the division of Macedonia. German Foreign Minister, Joachim Ribbentrop and Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, met in Vienna (April 20-21) to discuss Macedonia. Ribbentrop was particulsarly interested in the mineral resources and mines located in Kosovo-Metohija and Macedonia. The German and Italian supreme commands managed to reach an agreement on the final demarcation line in Macedonia. Hitler approved the agreement (April 25). The agreement was, however, only tentative. Italy and Bulgaria continued to differ on the demarcation line dividibg their occupation zones. The two countries finally reached agreement later in 1941.

Italian Policies in Kosovo (1941-43)

The Italians referred to the Yugoslav areas annexed to Albania as "New Albaniaî" which became part og Greater Albania. The Italians sought to integrate Kosovo into Albania, not only politically but culturally as well. The Italians designated Albanian as the national language. Schools were set up with instruction in the Albanian language. The Italians recruited an Albanian police force. The Albanian Lek became the official currency. Albanian newspapers and radio stations were opened.

Ethnic Cleansing Campaign in Kosovo

Serbian sources charge that the Italians launched an ethnic cleansing program to drive ethnic Serbs, who they considered disloyal, out of Kosovo and other former Yugoslav territory annexed to Albania. The Serb historian writes, "To create an ethnically pure Albanian Kosovo, which the Albanians called ìKosovaî, theÝ Albanians (Shqiptari) launched a widescale campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Ethnic Serbs in the Kosovo-Metohija regions were massacred, and their homes were burned, and the survivors were brutally driven out and expelled in a policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide." [Savich] Serb businesses and homes were destroyed, and cemeteries desecrated. There are reports of massacres. We are unsure just how extensive this campaign was and just what Italian commander and agency coorinated it. Some sources suggest that the Italians were a restraining factor. We are also unsure to what extent the Kosovars/Albanians participated. One reason we question how intensive the Italian campaign was is that we note another ethnic leansing campaign when the Germans seized control of Kosovo (1943). The Italians apparently used the Balli Kombetar/National Union (BK), an Albanian nationalist party led by Midhat Frasheri and Ali Klissura. Their goal was also to incorporate Kosovo-Metohija into a Greater Albania populated by ethnic Albanians/Kosovars. This meant the ethnic cleansing of Orthodox Serbs living in Kosovo and the other Yugoslav regions of "New Albania". Some reports suggest that during the Italian-German occupation that 0.1 million Albanians moved into Kosovo (1941-44). We can not yet confirm this claim.

Albanian Committee of Kosovo

Another Albanian group involved in the ethnic cleansing campign was the Albanian Committee of Kosovo. I am not sure about their connection with the Italians. The Committe leader was Bedri Pejani, a Muslim. He openly called for the extermination of Orthodox Serbian Christianity in Kosovo-Metohija. He also advocated a union of a with Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Rashka (Sandzak) region of Serbia both which had Muslim populations. His goal was a Greater Islamic State. Pejani forwarded his plan to the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin el Husseini, in Berlin who blessed it as being in the interest of Islam. His German patrons,however, rejected the plan. Kosovo and Albania under Mussolini was one thing, but the NAZIs hardly wanted a substantial Muslim state in the Balkans. Pejani's Albanian Committee conducted ethnic cleansing campaigns. A Serbian source describes what occurred, "Armed with material supplied by the Italians, the Albanians hurled themselves against the helpless settlers in their homes and villages. Accoring to the most reliables sources the Albanians burned many Serbian settlements, killing some of the people and driving out others who escaped to the mountains. At present other Serbian settlements are being attacked and the property of indviduals and of communities is either being confiscated or destroyed. It is not possible to ascertain at the present the exact number of victims of those atrocities, but it may be estimated that at least between 30,000 and 50,000 perished." [Savich]


Serbs in southern Serbia organized Chetnik units to revist the Kosvars/Albanian/Italian ethnic cleansing canpaign.

The Holocaust

The pre-World War II Jewish population of Kosovo is not known with any certainty, but it was very small. Records suggest it may has been as high as 3,000 people. It appears to have declined substantially, although we are not sure why. Yugoslav records suggest a population in Koso of about 400-600 Jews. After the Axis invasion (april 1941) and the Italian seizure of Kosovo, the primary target of the Italian ethnic cleaning effort in Kosovo were the ethnic Serbs. Mussolini and the Italian Fascists were not lke the NAZIS virulently anti-Semetic. The NAZIs pushed the Fascists to enact anti-Semetic laws before the War and in Yugoslavia pressured the Italians to round-up Jews inntheir occupation zones and turn them over. Here the Italians temporized. Some Serbian Jews were able to elude the NAZI round-ups and fled ito Italian-controlled Kosovo. The Italian authorities set up an internment camp using an abandoned school in Priština, the Kosovo city where much of the small Jewish population iived. The Italians held the Jewish refugees there for 10 months. Eventually the Italians moved them to the Pristina prison. Here the Italians permitted the Jews to remain in family groups. They were kept separate from the other prisoners. They were not kept locked in cells all the tome, but allowed out into the courtyard during the day. These Jews complained about the poor conditions in the prison. Germans reportedly retaliated by shooting half of the Jews in the prison. We do not understand this because Pristina was within the Italian zone of control and had been annexed to Albania. Just why the Germans carried out this action we are unsure. The Germans apparently demanded that the other Jews in the Pristina Prison be dealt with. The Italians loaded most of the Jews at the Prison on trucks and tranported them out of Kosovo to Kavaja in Albania proper. The Italians did turn 51 Jews from the Prison over to the NAZIs who eventually killed them. The Italian police arrested more Jews (July 1942). One report indicated five families who were also transported to Kavaja. We are not sure how the Jews in Kavaja were treated. One report indicates that they had to report to the police daily. After the Italian surrender to the Allies (September 1943), the Germans seized control of the Italian occupation zone of Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. The Germans like the Italians sought to exploit Albanian nationalism against the Serbs and Partisans who were organizing an increasingly effective resuistance movement. (Yugoslabia is along with the Soviets the on;y two countries to develop a militarily effective resiantance movement.) The NAZIs organized the 21st Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Skanderbeg,” (April 1944). The Division was primarily composed of ethnic Albanians (including Kosovars). The NAZIs ordered Albanian fascists (we are not sure precisly who)to round up the Jews still left in Pristna. Onecreport suggests that they interned 1,500 Jews. Such a number must have included many refugee Serb Jews. Their property was plundered and most of the individuals rounded up were transported to Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. One report suggests that some survived because a misrouted train was intercepted by advancng Red Army troops.

Italian Surrender (September 1943)

Marshal Bradolio who replaced Mussolini assured Hitler that he would keep Italy in the War. In fact he secretly negotiated with the Allies. Hitler suspected as much and preopared tobseize control of Italy. Italy surrendered to the Allies (September 3, 1943). Thus Italy became the first Axis country to sucumb to the Allies. The Allies invaded southern Italy from Sicily. Hitler did not trust the Italians and prepared German troops to seize control of Italy and the Italian occupation zone of Yugoslavia. The strongest German force was sent south into Italy to oppse the Allied invasion.

German Occupation (September 1943-October? 1944)

The problem for the Whermacht was by late 1943 they had suffered terrible losses on the Eastern Front and in North Africa, the latest being Tunisia (May 1943) and Kursk (July 1943). The Wehrmact was a weakened, but still not defeated force. Germany did not have the reserves needed to both seize control of Italy and occupy all of Italian occupation zone of Yugoslavia in force. And the Italian surrender serriosly weakened the German situation in Yugoslavia. Some Italian forces went over to the Resistance or turned arms over to them. The German units in the Balkans had been streached thin before the Italian surrender, afterwards the German position was seriously compromised. They did not at first face an opposing army, but a steadily growing guerrila insurgency--an insurgency that they had fueld with their brutal occupation. The units sent into Albania/Kosovo were the 100th Jaeger Division (moved north from Greece), the 297th Infantry Division (moved south from Serbia), and the German 1st Mountain Division. This German force was grouped into the XXI Mountain Corps and was commanded by General Paul Bader.

Second Albanian League of Prizren (1943)

Bedri Pejani whi=o had headed the Albanian Committee forKosovo organized the Second Albanian League of Prizren (1943). Pejani was attempting to reserect the First League of Prizren whichb had sought to unite the territories where Albanians lived into a unified Greater Albania (1878). Pejani souhjt to make common cause with the NAZIs. Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler showed considerable interest in Islam. Anthropologists seeking to curry favor with Himmler came up with findings that the Ghegs were Aryans. One result of Pejani's overtures to Himmler was the 21st Waffen SS Division Skanderbeg.

21st Waffen SS Division Skanderbeg (April 1944)

Germany after the Italian surrender re-occupied Albania and Kosovo (September 1943). They were, however, badly streached. As the situation in the Balkans deteriorated They decided to form new units from local populations that could be relied on. This mean essentially Yugoslavs hostile to either the Serbs oir Partisans, preferably both. The NAZIs decided to form an Albanian SS mountain division. The NAZIs formed an Albanian NAZI Party. Here SS Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner who headed the police and security forces played a role. The Albanian NAZI Partyoversaw the formation of the Division. In essence this meant Waffen SS Josef Fitzhum, who headed the Higher SS and Police Command in Albania. Himmler ordered the formation of the a division of 10,000 men (April 17,1944). Recruitment began immediately. Himmler hoped to form two divisions. The Higher SS and Police Command in Albania working with the Albanian National Committee, came up with 11,398 possible recruits. I am not entirely sure how this list was produced. About two-thirds were Kosovars rather than Albanians. The Kosovars were Albanian (Shqiptar) Ghegs from Kosovo-Metohija in Yugoslavia. The actual Albanians were ethnic Shqiptar Tosks primarily from southern Albania. At the time much of the Albanian gendarmes, special police, and para-military units were composed of Kosovars. They were commanded by the Albanian Interior Minister, Xhafer Deva. The Skanderbeg Division with a largely Kosovar Muslim composituon was formed and trained in Kosovo. It was deployed primarily in Kosovo and southern Serbia.

Liberation (late 1944)

Soviet advances on the Eastern Front and the Allied liberation of France forced the Germans to withdraw from the Balkans. This allowed the Tuto's Partisans to liberate Kosovo (late 1944). The NAZIs finally surrendered (May 1945). Tito established the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Kosovo was reorganized as an autonomous province within the republic of Serbia. Some reports suggest that Kosovo Muslims that had fought with the NAZIS continued to resist the Yugoslav Government for several years after the war in the Drenica region led by Šaban Poluž. The Šaban Poluža rebellion was finally put down (1948). There was, however, some scattered vilence for a few more years.


Savich, Carl. "Kosovo During World War II, 1941-1945 and Genocide in Kosovo: The Skenderbeg SS Division," Serbiana May 3, 2007.


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II Yugoslav Regional page]
[Return to Main World War II and Muslims page]
[Return to Main World War II European campaign page]
[About Us]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: 4:38 AM 10/15/2005
Last updated: 1:23 AM 4/24/2010