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Himmler's Bosnian Division: The Waffen-SS Handschar Division 1943-1945 Hardcover – September 1, 1997
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This is the story of the Handschar, a Muslim combat formation created by the Germans to restore order in Bosnia. What actually transpired was quite different.
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The first divisions of the Waffen-SS were essentially purely German in manpower, but starting with the 5th SS Panzer Division "Wiking," the Germans began to draw on foreign volunteers from occupied countries. Initially, only Nordic volunteers were accepted, but as the war progressed, and manpower shortages became more acute, the Germans began to broaden their definition of "acceptable races" to encompass just about every race except Africans and Jews.
The Head of the SS, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, was, in fact, fascinated by the fighting capabilities of certain non-German peoples, and this included the "Islamic faith, which he believed fostered fearless soldiers". He envisioned the creation of a Bosnian SS division constituted solely of Bosnian Muslims in a manner similar to the Bosnian divisions of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hitler, however, does not appear to have been so enthusiastic about such an undertaking, and it took some time before he finally permitted the division to be created.
The approval came in February 1943. By mid-April, approximately 8,000 men had volunteered for service with Handschar and three months later the number had only risen to 15,000. As this was still far short of the number required for a full division, recruiting of ethnic Albanians was begun, and finally the incorporation of Croatians--approximately 3,000--was permitted.
Training continued until mid-February 1944. Handschar was then returned to Bosnia where it was assigned the task of securing the northeastern region of Bosnia bordered by the Sava, Bosna, Spreca and Dvina Rivers. Anti-partisan operations commenced almost immediately, and these were carried out successfully. One of the largest was Maibaum, which was conducted in late-April against the Partisan III Bosnia Corp. After several days of fighting, one German report claimed that close to 1,000 partisans had been killed.
As was always the case, however, the setbacks that the partisans faced was not permanent. While successful, Maibaum did not fully rid the northeastern section of Bosnia from partisan activity in general, and by early June the partisans had regrouped and were on the offensive again. Heavy fighting took place at Lopare on June 8, 1944 and units from Handschar positioned there were overrun. In total, the division sustained just over 200 dead and a further 600 injured--the most serious losses to date.
For the rest of the summer, Handschar conducted further anti-partisan operations and by the end of the summer it was worn down and the morale among the men beginning to decline. During this time there were plans to form another Bosnian SS division (23rd Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS "Kama"), and officers and men were transferred from Handschar to facilitate this.
At about this same time, Handschar began to experience organizational and morale problems that were instigated by rumours that the unit would soon be leaving Bosnia. During the autumn of 1944, therefore, Handschar was plagued by desertions, and so Himmler decided that it and the still-forming Kama would be reorganized into two "small" divisions of 10,000 men each. However, on October 17, shortly after Handschar had been transferred to Zagreb (which resulted in more desertions), the men of Kama mutinied and shortly afterward it was disbanded.
It was now becoming quite evident that to the Germans that their Bosnian volunteers were becoming unreliable and as a result many were disarmed. To compensate for the loss of manpower, local Croatians were pressed into service, but this did little to enhance the fighting capabilities of Handschar, which, in mid-November, finally left Bosnia for Hungary, where it fought against the advancing Soviets.
For the rest of the winter, Handschar occupied three defensive positions--Margarethestellung, Dorotheastellung, and the Reichsschutzstellung--and were successful at slowing the Soviet advance in mid-April. It was all, of course, for no purpose as the war ended several weeks later.
Lepre relied almost entirely on primary sources in order to write Himmler's Bosnian Division and, as he explains in the preface, even these were scarce, and those that were available are "notoriously inaccurate". One has to wonder what information is not available and the implications that this has for our understanding of the true conduct of Handschar in its prosecution of its anti-partisan operations. But in terms of the book being a "chronicle of the birth, life, and ultimate death" of Handschar, the author has done an excellent job, and one hopes that it will lead to a better understanding of the paradoxical "volunteer" aspect of the Waffen-SS and the nature of the war in the Balkan Theater.
As a combat formation, the Handschar was less than proficient, although the later German supplied commanders did their best to make something of the men they commanded. It should be noted that the fighting ability of the division improved when most of the Bosnian elements were disbanded and Germans were used to replace them.
The division did commit war crimes against Serbs, although in the context of past events and the status of the former Yugoslavia, they may have felt justified in their acts. This is one part which Lepre does not mention, but at least it makes the book as less lurid and well thought out.
Some food for thought. Lepre mentions that the Bosnians wanted to become part of the Reich and enjoy German protection. Perhaps the Bosnians were better off when they were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and they did look upon the Germans with favor. Today Bosnia and Kosovo are NATO protectorates with German peacekeepers serving. The US tried to form a multiethnic Bosnian army (shades of the Handschar?) and the KLA and NATO co-exist albeit uneasily. Lepre's book is a good background and shows that history does repeat itself.
These are conflicts beyond American understanding. During WWII and the Korean War, I served in the Navy with Catholic, Jews, Protestants, and others without observing religious differences as being a factor. Mr. Lepre's work illuminates an entirely different attitude in the Balkans that should be understood by those who would keep American bodies between these factions. The most serious disputes (between sects) in my naval service were heard in protest of meatless chow on Fridays.