Kragujevac, Serbia, Yugoslavia · October 21, 1941

From Europe, to Africa, and to the Far East, regular Axis troops and spe­cial­ized killing squads (Ein­satz­gruppen) mur­dered mil­lions of un­armed civil­ians. These mass mur­ders often tar­geted eth­nic or poli­ti­cal groups. Some­times they were com­mitted in retal­i­ation for acts of resis­tance, whether or not the vic­tims were actu­ally in­volved. Some­times they simply defied expla­na­tion and beg­gared the imagi­na­tion, as in the case of Japa­nese atroc­i­ties (looting, tor­ture, rape, and murder) against 300,000 civil­ians in Nan­king (Nan­jing), China, in 1937.

On this date, October 21, 1941, in Kragujevac, Yu­go­sla­via (today Cen­tral Serbia), Germans mur­dered about 3,000 Ser­bian men and teen­age boys in repri­sal for par­ti­san attacks on German troops. In Italy 2½ years later German sol­diers of the SS (Schutz­staffel), assisted by Fascist col­labo­ra­tionist sol­diers, took 335 Ital­ian civil­ians—ten for each German police­man whom Ital­ian par­ti­sans had recently killed with a bomb—to the Ar­dea­tine Caves out­side Rome and shot them, then sealed the cave with ex­plo­sives to hide the evi­dence. On June 9, 1944, in the French in­dus­trial town of Tulle in Central France a German Waffen‑SS com­pany (“Das Reich”) and mem­bers of the Sicher­heits­dienst (the intel­li­gence agency of the SS) first tor­tured, then mur­dered 99 ran­domly selected men aged between 17 and 42, hanging the victims’ bodies from trees, bal­co­nies, and lamp posts all over town. The repri­sal mas­sa­cre followed the killing and maim­ing of some 40 German sol­diers in Tulle the day before by mem­bers of the French Maquis resis­tance move­ment. Fifteen miles north of Tulle, in the vil­lage of Oradour-sur-Glane, the same Waffen‑SS unit mas­sacred 642 in­ha­bi­tants, including women and children, the next day, June 10.

The year before in the Mos­cow Decla­ra­tion of Octo­ber 30, 1943, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill, and Soviet dicta­tor Joseph Stalin put the Axis powers on notice that the people respon­si­ble for such atroc­i­ties would even­tually stand in courts of law in the very coun­tries they were oppress­ing and answer for their crimes. As for those people whose crimi­nal offen­ses had no par­tic­u­lar geo­graphi­cal locali­za­tion, they would be punished by joint deci­sions of the Allied govern­ments, thus pre­saging two post­war inter­na­tional tri­bunals, one in Nuremberg, Germany, the other in Tokyo, Japan.

Nazi Reprisals Cost Millions of Innocents’ Lives: Three Examples

Kragujevac roundup of innocents, October 1941Kragujevac massacre of innocents, October 20–21, 1941

Left: Germans and their Serbian allies escort men and boys from Kragujevac and its sur­roundings to their execu­tion place. Around 10,000 male civilians, aged 16 to 60, were arrested by Ger­man troops and colla­bo­ra­tionist militia mem­bers, and the nearly 3,000 victims, in­cluding a high school full of stu­dents, were selected from among them. The mas­sacre on Octo­ber 20–21, 1941, was in direct repri­sal for Ger­man losses in battling Com­mu­nist parti­sans and Serbian nationalists (Chetniks) in the area.

Right: Serbian civilians on the point of execu­tion. People were shot in groups of 400. A Ger­man report stated: “The execu­tions in Kragujevac occurred although there had been no attacks on mem­bers of the Wehr­macht [German armed forces] in this city, for the reason that not enough hostages could be found elsewhere.”

Rome roundup of innocents-1, March 23, 1944Rome roundup of innocents-2, March 23, 1944

Left: Twenty-eight members of an SS police regiment of ethnic Germans from Northern Italy, which had been orga­nized by the Ger­mans to intimi­date and sup­press Ital­ian parti­sans, were killed in a bomb attack on March 23, 1944, while marching and singing in Rome’s narrow Via Rasella. More police­men died over the next few days. The 16 parti­sans who had am­bushed the regi­ment escaped. A body lies in the street during the round­up of civil­ians by Ital­ian collab­o­ra­tionist soldiers and German troops after the bombing.

Right: The Germans needed reprisal victims and set about rounding up inno­cent civil­ians in front of the Palazzo Bar­berini, Rome, as shown here in this photo­graph, to add to the num­ber of pri­soners and Jews already in cus­tody. Adolf Hitler autho­rized the repri­sal, stipu­lating that it be carried out within 24 hours. Led by SS officers, 335 vic­tims (five more than neces­sary) were trans­ported on March 24, 1944, to the Ardea­tine Caves (Fosse Ardea­tine) south of Rome in truck­loads and then, in groups of five, put to death by pis­tol in­side. Ger­man mili­tary engi­neers set explosives to seal the caves and hide the atro­city. The scale and even the occur­rence of this retali­ation were unprecedented on Italian soil.

Oradour-sur-Glane ChurchOradour-sur-Glane ruin

Left: The church in Oradour-sur-Glane in which 245 women villagers or visitors and 205 chil­dren were burnt to death or shot as they attempted to escape on June 10, 1944. Their hus­bands, sons, and brothers were marched to near­by barns, lined up, and shot. One woman and six men sur­vived the mas­sacre. After the war a new village was built on a near­by site. On the orders of French presi­dent Charles de Gaulle the origi­nal village has been main­tained as a museum and perma­nent memo­rial to the cruelty of the Nazi occupation. Photo taken June 11, 2004.

Right: Wrecked hardware (bicycles, sewing machine, etc.) six decades later, left as a reminder of the bar­barity of the Ger­man reprisal in Ora­dour-sur-Glane. In January 1953 a mili­tary tribu­nal in Bor­deaux, France, heard the case against the sur­viving 65 of the approx­i­mately 200 Ger­man sol­diers who had been involved in the reprisal. Only 21 defen­dants were in court. On Febru­ary 11, 1953, with one exception, all were convicted of war crimes.

1941 Kragujevac Massacre: Testimony and Reconstruction (Serbian with English subtitles)