Who were Partisans? Who were Chetniks?

propaganda poster

In case you’ve ever done any research on Yugoslavia, there’s a chance you’ve stumbled across several unknown terms. Some of them are specific for Yugoslavia and its history only. You’ve perhaps wondered – who were Chetniks? Also, when we’re at it, who were Partisans? This article will answer your burning questions and introduce you to a very important part of Yugoslav past!

In every country affected, World War II was a turbulent and difficult period of time. However, resistance movements and organizations were something that inspired people to continue fighting towards freedom. In the former Yugoslavia, similar movements existed and, eventually, helped liberate Yugoslavia from occupation.

The two most significant movements of that sort were the Partisans and the Chetniks.

On paper, both were formed with the goal of freeing Yugoslavia from the opponent – Axis forces. But, as always, not everything is as it seems. When the war hit Yugoslavia in April of 1941, the extreme conditions led to many unforeseen circumstances and consequences.

who were partisans? who were chetniks?

From left to right: Croatian Ustasha, Slovenian Domobran, Serbian Chetnik, SS gunner, Tito’s Partisan

The Basics

The two organizations were also opponents themselves, with different ideologies and goals along the way.

The Chetniks were a nationalist, monarchy-oriented guerrilla organization. On the other hand, the Partisans were led by the Communist Party. As you can assume, this was the main contrast and source of conflict among them. It would actually prove to be impossible to overcome in the end, even for the greater good.

The term Chetnik dates back to the 19th century. It originates from the Serbian word četa, which means band. However, when you say Chetniks, everyone will assume you’re talking about the World War II-era movement under Dragoljub Draža Mihailović. What’s interesting is that even though this was sort of a strict military organization, they endearingly referred to their leader as Uncle Draža.

The movement mostly consisted of Serbian soldiers loyal to the king. Their mission was to welcome the exiled king back to Yugoslavia and, in the meantime, restore his reputation among Serbian people. Ideally, their “perfect” war ending was an Allied invasion that would revive the damaged monarchy and set Yugoslavia free.

Now, imagine a complete opposite to this movement. Those were the Yugoslav Partisans. Led by the Communist Party, they were absolutely pro-republic and anti-king, different in every way from the royalist Chetniks. And their leader was no other than the most famous Yugoslav politician himself – Josip Broz Tito.

Something that might come as a surprise is that Partisans are actually considered to be the most effective anti-Axis movement in all of Europe. Just like many Communist Party activities, such as the Youth work actions, this also attracted people who were genuinely happy to help make things better.

Nedic's fueled propaganda against the partisans

Nedic’s fueled propaganda against the partisans
***Milan Nedic was part of the puppet government under the Axis occupation of Serbia


In a nutshell, this is the difference in strategy between Chetniks and Partisans:

Chetniks chose to pick their battles, wait things out if possible and, therefore, attack their enemies when they’re at their weakest. They would patiently wait for an opportunity to destroy the Axis forces.

However, Partisans had a completely different logic. They thought that absolutely no time should be wasted in such extreme conditions. Therefore, they fought everyone possible, whenever they had the chance to do it. You can decide for yourself which option you think was better, since it’s still a topic of discussion.


It’s important to know that Chetniks weren’t exactly a homogeneous movement. In fact, there were at least three separate sections inside the movement. Therefore, some differences in opinion surely existed.

One of them is displayed in the opinion on the Chetnik – Partisan relationship.

During the war, some of Draža Mihailović’s troops actually started thinking far ahead. This is where things got tricky. They were mainly concerned about who would rule the country once all the fighting is finished. Even though they literally had fire and blood to deal with, they decided to worry about the aftermath first.

This thought process led them to a series of betrayals and schemes, most of which they would later end up regretting.

A number of Chetniks thought that it was actually more important to defeat the Partisans that to get rid of the occupators. Moreover, they even went so far they started cooperating with some of the German, Italian and Croatian units, just to undermine the Partisans.

At the beginning, they were discreet about it and just accepted some financial help. That later evolved to full-blown support and loyalty to the occupators in some cases.

After the mess created by this, the leaders, Draža and Tito, tried to heal their already bad relationship and overcome the past difficulties. Meeting after meeting made almost no difference. Sadly, all solutions were temporary and impossible to maintain. Furthermore, the rift between the movements was so big there was just no point in even trying.

Partisan Goals

The Partisans had a bigger support among people, mainly because their results were more visible to regular people. To them, it was significant to see someone engage in battle, since that gave them a sense of security and hope. Due to these successes, this was the time during which Tito’s popularity skyrocketed and hit an all time high at the time.

However, they also used their victories as a way of promoting a Socialist revolution. The revolution went hand in hand with liberation for the Partisans. Their main goal was a new, transformed post-war Yugoslavia.

The Partisans promoted their ideology in many ways. For example, they would make sort of a micro-state out of every liberated region. Try to imagine it: out of every place, they would create a village or city rich in Communist propaganda and promotion. To illustrate this, a perfect example is that the town Užice was known as the Republic of Užice after Partisan liberation.


Towards the end of World War II, the advance of the Soviet Union against Germany also meant the advance of Partisan forces. Firstly, because they were directly supportive of Partisans and also because they distracted the German forces in Yugoslavia towards another front.

This helped the Partisans make major progress, such as liberating Belgrade on October 20th. Step by step, after the war, Communists in general were in control of many parts of the Yugoslav territory.

Then, what was inevitable happened. Tito and his secret police OZNA located Chetnik leader Mihailovic, accused him of being a war criminal and killed him. The rest of the members mainly escaped to other countries. In the end, the Chetniks were banned from the newly formed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The influence of these two movements on what Yugoslavia was and what it became in the end is immeasurable. A series of circumstances and well-planned events helped create the most famous socialist country and leader in this part of Europe.

Many people believe that the majority of information on these movements and the war period in general is still unknown to the public. Some favor the Partisans, some the Chetniks. But there’s no denying that both played a part in the liberation of Yugoslavia. That’s why they have a well-deserved place in all Yugoslav history books.

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