Western attitude toward Bosnia has been shaped by myth THE WARS IN THE BALKANS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PARIS -- The West's deep reluctance to send sizable military forces to Bosnia is heavily influenced by memories of the guerrilla conflict there during World War II.

From the start, Western officials have feared that large-scale intervention would condemn their troops to the same unhappy fate thought to have been suffered by German occupying forces during 1941-1945 at the hands of dauntless Serbian guerrilla fighters.

When the Bosnian civil war erupted in 1992, NATO military commanders warned their political chiefs that putting down the Serbs' rebellion would require a major military effort -- up to 100,000 allied troops. Even then, they said, success couldn't be assured.

NATO officers cautioned that the rugged Serbs, taking full advantage of the mountainous terrain and their own warrior traditions, might easily fight an allied army to a standstill -- as they had done to the Nazi invaders under their wartime guerrilla leader Josif Broz, better known as Marshal Tito.

Then, the supposedly relentless struggle waged by Tito's 350,000 Yugoslav Partisans tied down 26 German divisions, killing and wounding 500,000 German soldiers in four years.

According to the myth, the guerrilla forces struck repeatedly at German strongholds throughout Yugoslavia, launching offensive after offensive and putting the Germans on the defensive everywhere in the country they had overrun in just eight days in April 1941. Tito's soldiers were said to be in control of all but a handful of Yugoslav cities.

So deeply implanted was the myth -- cleverly embellished by Titoist propaganda after the war -- that it managed to withstand decades of close historical re-examination.

But now most historians agree that the tale of the heroic and hugely successful struggle waged by Tito's Partisans is largely untrue.

In a recent book, French military historian Philippe Masson noted that Tito's forces never exceeded 100,000 and during most of the war were considered little more than a nuisance by the Germans.

"The German authorities left it to their Italian allies to deal with [Tito's troops] until Italy surrendered in September 1943," he says.

"At no time did the Partisans tie down a substantial number of Germans, let alone 26 divisions. Far from attacking at will throughout Yugoslavia, the Partisans were effectively confined to small slice of Bosnian territory with occasional incursions elsewhere."

Milovan Djilas, a senior Partisan leader who broke with Tito after the war, revealed in his memoirs published in the 1960s that the guerrillas' vaunted "offensives" were fiction.

The reality, he said, was that the Partisans never attempted to stage a major attack on the German army and were invariably trounced when the Germans attacked them.

As late as May 1944, a German attack so devastated Tito's forces that he had to flee to an island in the Adriatic Sea under the protection of the British navy.

"Most of the military achievements claimed for Tito's Partisans can be placed in the category of pure fantasy," according to French World War II expert Marc Ferro.

"But it is remarkable how they've persisted and continue to influence political and military judgments in the current crisis."

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