by Grey Carter
Posted on June 27, 2013
Sandzak or Rashka?The Sandzak or Rashka region of Serbia and Montenegro is an area of potential instability and conflict. The region is evenly divided by Orthodox Christian Slavs, Serbs, and Montenegrins, and Muslim Slavs. What is the history of the Rashka or Sandzak region? What are the bases for “autonomy” and “secession” and “independence”? What is the history of Sandzak during World War II? What role did Sandzak play during the Holocaust? Sandzak’s Nazi past has been covered up and censored in the West. Why is Sandzak’s Nazi past still forgotten?
When Nazi Germany occupied Sandzak in 1943, the Sandzak achieved “autonomy” under Nazi occupation and administration.
During World War II, up to 120,000 Balkan Muslims from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sandzak were in German military and security formations. Up to 1.5 million Muslims in the USSR were in the Nazi German forces from Chechnya, Crimea, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and the Caucasus. The motto of the newspaper Gazavat (“Jihad”), a political organ of the North-Caucasus National Liberation Movement set up by Nazis in the USSR, was: “Allah above us, And Adolf Hitler beside us.” In the North Caucasus region of the southern USSR, up to 75,000 Muslims were put in the German forces. Chechen Muslims from Chechnya volunteered for the North Caucasus Legion or Nordkaukasische Legion formed in 1942 which existed until 1943. It also was made up of Muslim Dagestanis and Muslim Ingushetians. Nazi Germany was successfully able to recruit and mobilize Balkan and Caucasus Muslims into the German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS formations.
During the medieval period, the Sandzak region was known as Rashka, the center of the Serbian state. The Serbian city of Ras was in the vicinity where the present city of Novi Pazar was settled. The Serbian Orthodox monasteries of Sopocani and Djurdjevi stupovi were in Rashka. In the 15th century, the Ottoman Turkish Empire invaded and occupied the region. The Sandzak region was on a key trade route from Istanbul/Constantinople and Asia Minor to Bosnia, the key Ottoman Turkish base in Europe. Novi Pazar literally means new bazaar, or new marketplace, a key center in the Ottoman trade network in the Balkans. Sandzak was a vital economic supply line for the Ottoman Empire and was vital for the Ottoman economy.
Albanian tribes settled the southern region during the Ottoman occupation. About 20% of the Sandzaklije are descended from Albanian Malesors, or mountain tribes, settlers who came to the Sandak following the Austro-Turkish Wars of 1700-1710.
The Rashka or Sandzak region became a part of Serbia and Montenegro after the 1912 First Balkan War. At that time, many Sanzak Muslims immigrated to Turkey with the Ottoman Turkish Army and Turkish officials. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Treaty of Berlin made the former Sandzak of Novi Pazar under Austro-Hungarian “administration”, while it remained formally a part of Ottoman Turkey. During World War I, Sandzak Muslims were decorated soldiers as part of the elite military forces of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Sandzak was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1915 to 1918 during World War I.
Following the Nazi invasion and dismemberment of Yugoslavia, the Sandzak region was divided between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany who occupied the region. The southern part of Sandzak was incorporated into a Greater Albania. A Sandzak Muslim Legion or Guard was formed at the end of 1941, supplied with captured Yugoslav Army and Italian Army equipment. The fascist Sandzak Militia established Muslim control and occupation over the mixed Orthodox Christian and Muslim region. In February, 1942, the Militia attacked Partisan units and drove them from Sandzak. On February 1, 1942, the Muslim Militia from Sjenica and villages south in the Pester Mountain region attacked Partisan units in Nova Varos. On February 7, 1942, Muslim Militia units from Komarani near Nova Varos, in conjunction with units of the Italian 19th Division “Venezia” from Prijepolje, attacked Partisan units retreating across the Lim River into western Sandzak.
The Holocaust in Sandzak: Still Forgotten
The Jews of Sandzak were rounded up and transported to the Kosovska Mitrovica prison at the end of March, 1942. The Jews of Novi Pazar, Tutin, Sjenica, and Duga Poljana were forced to march on foot for five hours from Novi Pazar to Rashka, 24 kilometers away. From Rashka to Kosovska Mitrovica, they were transported in wagons Near the village of Pridvorica, they were forced to cross the bridge on foot to get on a second transport. The bridge had been destroyed by guerrillas. Mosha Bahar, an elderly Jew from Sandzak, was too weak to cross, so he was executed on the spot. In January, 1942, two males and a female from the Konforti family were executed. They were Jews from the Duga Poljana region between Sjenica and Novi Pazar. Matilda Ruben was killed and five Jews from Duga Poljana near Novi Pazar were executed.
At first, the Sandzak Muslims were under Italian control and sponsorship and collaborated with both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Italy occupied Montenegro and formed an all-Muslim legion from the Sandzak. The MVAC or Milizia Voluntare Anti-Comunista or Anti-Communist Volunteer Police or Militia organized the formation the Legion. By February 28, 1943, there were 780 Sandzak Muslims in this Militia.
Nazi Germany and Sandzak
After Italy surrendered, on September 9, 1943, the German 118th Jaeger Division turned over the occupation of Pljevlja to the Muslim Militia of Sandzak. Generalmajor Josef Kuebler, the commander of the Division, wanted to maintain the Sandzak Milita at 5,000 men. The German occupation forces lacked manpower to combat both the Serbian Chetnik and Communist Partisan guerrillas. They also could not keep the roads and supply lines secure without the help of the Sandzak Militia. Pljevlja was a majority Serbian Orthodox town. The Serbian Chetnik forces planned to attack the Serbian town and to free it from Muslim occupation. Chetnik forces began to mass in the region. But according to captured Waffen SS records and command orders, the Nazi Muslim Militia collaborated with the Partisan 2nd Proletarian Division to prevent the Chetniks from taking the town. On September 20, the Partisan units attacked the Chetnik forces and were able to enter the town with help or collaboration from the Nazi Muslim Militia. This is an example of collaboration between the Partisan’s and Nazi occupation forces in Yugoslavia.
On October 30, 1943, the Sandzak Militia is referred to in the SS records for the first time in an operations order as Moslem Group von Krempler or Muselmanengruppe von Krempler. German occupation forces sought to organize the Sandzak Muslim Legion unit along company and battalion lines. German Waffen SS NCOs were assigned to the Legion to create an SS formation. Oberst der Polizei und Sturmbannfuehrer der Waffen-SS Karl von Krempler was known as the Sandzak Prince. He was the top Islamist specialist in the Waffen SS and had been a member of the Prinz Eugen Division and helped to form the Bosnian Muslim Handzar Division. Born in Serbia, he spoke fluent Serbian, German, and Turkish. On March 1, 1944, he was promoted to the rank of SS-Standartenfuehrer der Reserve. In a photograph from 1944, he is shown with members of the Muslim Militia wearing Waffen SS collar tabs, the Edelweiss patch on his right sleeve, and a badge for destroying a tank. In early October, 1944, he was assigned to Sandzak to form a legion out of the Militia. The German military headquarters in Sandzak were in Sjenica, where the Militia was also headquartered. The 2nd Proletarian Division amassed for an attack on Sjenica on November 10, 1943.
The Militia along with five German battalions attacked the Partisan forces, who withdraw. Operation Kugelblitz or Ball Lightning was planned in the region south of Tuzla in eastern Bosnia. On November 21, 1943, the German 2nd Panzer Army ordered that Group Siegfried secure the Sjenica region. Group Siegfried was made up of “the Muslim Legion von Krempler”, 524th German Grenadier Regiment, the 2nd Regiment “Brandenburg”, consisting of a platoon of tanks and a battery of artillery. This operation was to allow the German 1st Mountain Division to pass through the Sjenica region to deploy to eastern Bosnia for Operation Kugelblitz.
The Military Commander Southeast sent a message to the German 2nd Panzer Army on February 28 regarding the situation in Sandzak. It noted that from Krempler’s force of 4,000 to 5,000 members of the Sandzak Muslim Militia, 2,000 were to be earmarked for the formation of a new Muslim legion. The Sandzak Legion was to be modeled on the Bosnian Muslim Handzar Division, equipped, supplied, and uniformed by German forces and would receive rations like German troops. On March 18 Militia troops from the Priboj area along with German troops and elements of the 4th Regiment Brandenburg from Prijepolje fought against the 4th Krajiski and 2nd Proletarian Brigades that were in the Priboj region.German occupation forces in the Sandzak granted “autonomy” or independence to the Sandzak Muslims. Von Krempler worked to create a Muslim administration in Sjenica that would see a Nazi-controlled autonomous Sandzak, a Nazi Sandzak. On February 21, 1944, the Higher SS and Police Commander in Serbia (HSSPF Serbien), SS Gruppenfuehrer August Meyszner, told the Military Commander Southeast or Militarbefehlshaber Sudost, General der Infanterie Hans Felber that Krempler’s forces in Sandzak consisted of two battalions of Sandzak Muslims consisting of 800 troops.
On March 26, the Military Commander Southeast informed Heinrich Himmler in Berlin that the Sandzak Militia and the elements of the Muslim Legion being formed in the Sandzak should be put under the command of the 2nd Panzer Army headquarters. The headquarters were to be in Nishka Banja outside of Nish in Serbia. The office of the Higher SS and Police Leader for Serbia, HSSPF “Serbien”, was to be responsible for troop services. On March 30, Himmler approved this chain of command for the Sandzak formations. He appointed Karl von Krempler SS Commander in the Sandzak under the title “SS Fuehrer im Gebiet Sandschak”. For the next five months, the Muslims under Krempler were engaged in combat in the Sandzak region.
In July, the Militia attacked near Stitari and established a bridgehead on the west bank of the Lim River. They could not, however, supply the troops. The Partisan forces were also strongly entrenched in the region. This necessitated a withdrawal by the Militia from the region.
On April 28, HSSPF Serbien under SS Gruppenfuehrer und Generalleutnant der Polizei Hermann Behrends in Belgrade reported to Himmler in Berlin that Legion Krempler was nearing completion and noted that Hauptamt Orpo or the Headquarters of the German Order Police in Berlin had been very helpful in this effort. From April 1, 1944 to October, 1944, Behrends was the Higher SS and Police Leader “Serbien, Sandschak, und Montenegro”, with headquarters in Belgrade. He was the representative of the German Reich in Serbia.
In July, 1944, the Sandzak Militia was reorganized and renamed Police Self-Defense Regiment Sandzak or Polizei Selbstschutz Regiment “Sandschak” as part of the SS consisting of 3,000 men. The field post numbers of the Regiment were:
1. Regimental Staff Company—21 095
2. 1st battalion—22 118
3. 2nd Battalion—23 051
4. 3rd Battalion—24 125
5. 4th Battalion—24 983
According to German military records, the Regiment consisted only of a headquarters staff and a single battalion, the 1st Battalion, with four companies that were “in training”. By 1944, German occupation forces could not muster enough troops. There were also not enough uniforms and equipment at this stage of the war.
By September, 1944, the Regiment was redeployed along the Priboj-Prijepolje-Rozaj-Pester Mountains region attached to Kampfgruppe “Bendel”, consisting of two Muslim battalions from the Albanian Army. The Germans were now planning the withdrawal from the Balkans before they were cut-off and destroyed by rapidly advancing Soviet troops. German troops were rushed to the Banat and the Serbian-Bulgarian border to allow Heeresgruppe E time to retreat. The Germans were retreating from Greece through Macedonia and Kosovo. The Regiment was forced to retreat to Sjenica. The Regiment garrisoned Sjenica, which was attacked by Partisan forces on October 14. The Police Self-Defense Regiment Sandschak was driven out of Sjenica and forced to withdraw to Duga Poljana. The German forces were able to reoccupy Sjenica on October 25. The Regiment was, however, effectively destroyed as a result of the engagements. The Muslim collaborationist troops were able to switch sides after the partisans proclaimed an amnesty in September.
Several hundred Muslims were able to flee to Sarajevo by November, 1944 under the leadership of Islamic cleric or hodza Hafiz Sulejman Pacariz and his Chief of Staff, Major Ramiz Sipilovic. In Sarajevo, they were placed under the command of Ustasha General Vjekoslav Maks Luburic who was sent to Sarajevo by Croatian Poglavnik Ante Pavelic to impress Muslims and other troops into Ustasha formations. The reorganized Sandzak Regiment was integrated in the Ustasha forces. Pacariz was given the rank of Ustasha Pukovnik or Ustasha Colonel in the Militia. The Regiment was officially dissolved in early 1945 by the Germans in Graz, Austria. SS Standartenfuehrer der Reserve und Oberst Polizei Karl von Krempler was reassigned.
Autonomy and Secession
The Sandzak region is an area of potential instability and separatism. It is a conflict area that could be manipulated to foment secession in Serbia and Montenegro. The Kosovo model could be applied to the Sandzak to achieve, first, “autonomy, then, “independence”. Indeed, the “international community” is keenly aware of the divisive role the Sandzak can play in destabilizing Serbia and Montenegro. Both the NGO International Crisis Group (ICG) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have devoted attention to the Sandzak. Is Sandzak “still forgotten”? Sandzak remains, like Kosovo, a tool and instrument for the “international community” to pressure, manipulate, and destabilize Serbia and Montenegro. Sandzak is, thus, not “still forgotten” but is available as a potential future instrument of the “international community” to use against Serbia and Montenegro.
Sandzak’s Nazi past and role during the Holocaust are still forgotten. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Heinrich Himmler created “autonomy” for the Sandzak during World War II. Nazi Germany used the Sandzak to maintain the Nazi occupation of Serbia and Montenegro. The Nazi-created “autonomy” for the Sandzak created a political precedent that can be revived and reconstituted by the “international community”. It is a precedent that has the potential for revival. The Nazis understood the importance of the Sandzak in ensuring their control and occupation of the Balkans. The ICG and RFE/RL understand the significance and strategic importance of the Sandzak. How long will the Sandzak be “still forgotten”?
Andrejevich, Milan. “The Sandzak: The Next Balkan Theater of War?” RFE/RL Research Report, 1 (47), November 27, 1992, pp. 26-34.
Munoz, Antonio, ed. The East Came West. NY: Axis Europa Books, 2001.
Schmidt, Fabian. “The Sandzak: Muslims between Serbia and Montenegro.” RFE/RL Research Report, 3 (6), February 11, 1994, pp. 29-35.
Stojanovic, Srdjan. “Serbia’s Sandzak: Still Forgotten.” Europe Report N. 162. International Crisis Group. April 8, 2005.
Author: Carl Savich, Serbianna.com