Can you name the one group that’s insulted, disparaged and underestimated the most and complains the least? That’s easy. It’s the very, very young.
During World War II, we Boy Scouts manned our bicycles and served our air raid wardens as “messengers” during blackouts and air raid drills. Our baby brothers were our assistants! And yet today as a nation we’re dumbstruck with amazement and admiration that high school children march and politick in hopes that evil people will quit shooting at them.
Clearly, the time has come to reintroduce the heroes and heroines of the young – almost babies! – of the Yugoslav “Diaper Rebellion” of 1941.
Adolf Hitler believed that if his army “kicked the door open” to the Soviet Union in 1941 the entire edifice would collapse. Nonetheless he lined up all the anti-Communists he could to the east of Germany. Austria was already part of the Third Reich and so was Czechoslovakia. Hitler made quick alliances with Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to his east. A discerning person might ask, “Why not Yugoslavia?”
Brother, have we got an answer for you!
Hitler did, indeed, corral Yugoslavia into the same kind of alliance as his other Eastern European allies. It lasted only a few hours, however. Prince Paul was the regent of Yugoslavia, and Hitler succeeded in roping his relatively new country (Yugoslavia was born after World War I) into the Yugoslav-German Pact of 1941. The ethnic diversity of Yugoslavia made it something like trying to contain four or five tornadoes inside one wet paper bag. The Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Bosnians and their limitless hostility to one another took up a lot of the attention of the Yugoslav media and population, but one group consolidated with a finger-snap the minute the Pact was announced – namely, the youth.
The third-graders of Yugoslavia were 9 years old, which, while admittedly young, was not too young to form an opinion of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. The Diaper Rebellion started in a third-grade classroom in Belgrade. Don’t forget, Hitler was the talk of all Europe and those 9-year-old “babies” easily got the drift of what Hitler and Nazism were all about, and they didn’t like any part of it.
So, when word of the Yugoslav government’s pact with Hitler reached the Yugoslav people, the third-graders got up out of their little seats and took to the streets of Belgrade, chanting: “Bolje rat nego pact. Bolje grob nego rob” – which means “Better war than the pact. Better death than slavery.”
And those third-graders were joined by other third-graders and then by fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, and then by high school and university students, and then by the faculty, and then by the trade unionists and the professionals and, like wildfire with a strong wind, all elements of the Yugoslav population. Prince Paul’s government disappeared like an Alka-Seltzer tablet under Niagara Falls, and by the next morning the successor government repudiated the Hitler Pact and prepared for war.
Hitler was rug-chewing furious at this unexpected loss of the ally that would have made a solid shield for him in the east. “We will destroy you!” threatened Hitler. “Indeed, you most likely will,” replied the dour Yugoslavs. “But we don’t like you, and we’ll go down with our principles.”
Which is exactly what they did. The Yugoslav military, outmoded even by World War I standards, was easily thrust aside and destroyed by the blitzkrieg-ing Germans, and Yugoslavia wound up virtually tied with the Soviet Union in terms of losses during that war.
Realistic historians say the Yugoslav stand-up to Adolf Hitler had zero bearing on the outcome of the war in the east and that Yugoslav resistance was just too feeble to earn those valiant people even a tiny sliver of the credit-pie after victory. Friendlier historians point out the fact that the Germans had to postpone their planned invasion of the Soviet Union because of “those hot-headed Balkans.” So, forget the ineptitude of Yugoslavia’s anti-Hitler resistance, we’re told. Germany was poised to attack Russia in March 1941, not June 21, which was when the attack came. Hitler’s generals implored him to postpone “Operation Barbarossa” – the invasion of the Soviet Union – for a whole year. “Germans do not change plans because of Slavic hostility,” they were told. “We will attack Russia this year as originally planned.”
And bear in mind that, despite that long delay, German forces got close enough to Moscow to see the sun shining atop the Kremlin spires. If Hitler had obeyed his more professional and less prejudiced generals and waited until March of 1942, Hitler might very well have conquered the Soviet Union and either won World War II or prolonged it.
If your credibility muscles have taken a beating, you’re normal. I didn’t believe the story about the Diaper Rebellion for 40 years after I first read about it in a book by Robert St. John. What convinced me it was authentic occurred while I was speaking in Brooklyn, New York, at a meeting of elderly Serbs and Jews remembering the Holocaust together. While I was speaking I remembered the story. The audience was just the right age to remember that period. I told the story and then asked if anyone present had been part of the Diaper Rebellion. A dozen hands went up.
Too many good stories are ruined by over-verification. I’m glad this saga of the young Yugoslav children is not one of them!