By Natalia Zaba
The Jewish Community of Belgrade said it would use all legal means to prevent the rehabilitation of Milan Nedic, Serbia’s Nazi-backed WWII-era prime minister, arguing that he participated in the Holocaust.
Haris Deutsch, a member of the Jewish Community of Belgrade, which represents the city’s Jews, told BIRN on Monday that the organisation would call witnesses to testify at the ongoing rehabilitation hearings about Nedic’s active participation in the Holocaust.
“Rehabilitation would represent a devaluation of indisputable historical facts, and an insult to all the victims and survivors of the survivors. Serbia would also suffer moral and political damage,” Deutsch said.
Nedic, who was prime minister from 1941 to 1944, was declared a war criminal by the Yugoslav Communist authorities after the Nazi occupation of the country ended, but his great-grandson and his allies are hoping that the court will posthumously clear his name.
They argue that the Nazi-backed Serbian premier gave refuge to 600,000 Serbs from across the Balkan region who fled to Serbian territory during WWII, thus ensuring their safety.
They also claim that Nedic was actually a victim of persecution and that his suicide in 1946 was murder.
However, under his government’s rule, Belgrade was the first city in Europe to be declared ‘Judenfrei’ – free of Jews. By the end of the war, about 90 per cent of the Jewish population in Serbia had been murdered.
“Nedic and his government were directly involved in the seizure of Jewish real estate, as well as in the identification and arrest of Jews in occupied Serbia, which confirmed his role in the implementation of the Holocaust in Serbia,” Deutsch said.
He added that Nedic’s rehabilitation would be a backward move because Serbia was “among most advanced states in Europe when it comes to solving Jewish property problems” after it adopted a law this year to give seized real estate to which there is no legal heir to the Jewish community.
The Nedic rehabilitation hearings have proved controversial, with supporters and opponents both demonstrating outside the court in Belgrade.
Decades after his death, historians and the Serbian public remain split over his role during the Nazi occupation of the country. Some believe that he took the role of prime minister in a bid to ensure that he was in position to help people and prevent German reprisals in retaliation for an uprising in Serbia.
Others believe however that there is no excuse for a man who collaborated with the Nazi occupation forces in any way and presided over a regime that helped impose repressive rule over the country.
Danilo Sarenac, a historian from Belgrade, argued that Nedic was positive about the Nazi occupation of Serbia and showed willingness to cooperate with the occupiers to secure power.
“He wasn’t only trying to save [the lives of Serbs] at any price, he was actively seeking his own place in the new establishment; a new space for a reborn, right-wing Serbia,” Sarenac said.
“It’s clear to me that he has had similar ideas before the war, but this time [when the Nazis occupied Serbia] he got the opportunity to make his plan come true,” he added.
Sarenac also argued that the political consequences of rehabilitating Nedic would be disastrous.
“[It] would indirectly rehabilitate the whole idea that it is desirable to cooperate with the occupiers,” he said.