A Massacre at Pancevo


An enduring myth about the Second World War is the canard that the Germany Army, the fabled Wehrmacht was an apolitical organization largely innocent of Nazi crimes. In his definitive The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, Wolfram Wette dismissed this view: while the Wehrmacht treated prisoners of war on the Western front honorably, on the Eastern front, its campaigns were barbaric.

This was a view that the Germans themselves were uncomfortable with, until very recently. When an exhibition “The War of Annihilation. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944” opened in Hamburg in 1995 and toured 33 German and Austrian cities in the following two years, it was greeted with protests, denunciations, and even violence in Munich and Bavaria.

At the center of controversy were photos taken by Gerhard Gronefeld, showing an execution in the Yugoslavian town of Pancevo on 22nd April 1941. They showed an ugly, uncomfortable truth: that the ordinary soldiers were just as lethal as the SS in exterminating Jews and civilians. In the photos, executed civilians lie next to a cemetery wall as a Wehrmacht officer pointed his gun at the dying, as a SS-officer looked on. Thirty-six civilians were executed — 18 men were shot, and 17 men and one woman were hanged. The “most terrible scene which I photographed ever,” Gronefeld recalled, and he did not submit the photographs to the army magazine for which he was working. He secreted the photos until 1963, when they were published.


Controversial though it was, the 1995 Exhibition was a landmark moment. As it toured across Germany and Austria, many veterans, ex-servicemen, and their families donated letters and photos and came forward to recall how the army had been deployed as state executioner. Gronefeld’s photo ran on the cover of Der Spiegel on 19th March 1997. Christian Social Union, the natural party of government in Bavaria, denounced it as an insult to the Wehrmacht, as neo-Nazis marched through Munich to protest the exhibition. An academic at Germany Army’s Bundeswehr University came out defending Pancevo as an act of defense, allowable under the international law*. As for Pancevo, it was once again in the news in the 1990s as the Balkans spiraled once more into a fratricidal war.

* See: Franz Seidler, Crimes Against the Wehrmacht (1997). p.18-19.


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9 thoughts on “A Massacre at Pancevo

  1. Even worse reprisals were done by the regular German army in Yugoslavia during WWII. Over 2500 students and teachers were killed in retribution to Yugoslav partisans in Kragujevac.

    Going back to the Pancevo massacre, they were all civilians who were rounded up and executed. However, the story goes that the retreating Yugoslav army had killed 11 German soldiers. The German citizens in Pancevo wanted revenge and urged the Germany army to round up certain citizens. Initially they refused but a staged assault on German soldiers occurred and with no proof, the German command decided to round up 36 civilians to be executed. They purposely rounded up different age groups and different social status level from the affluent to the poor to make a point.

    The bodies were desecrated even after the executions and all of them were innocent of any crimes. Pure evil and murders committed at the against all international war and Geneva conventions The German cameraman was still haunted until his death of the innocent eyes of the victims.

    The German government and people are again responsible for the break up of Yugoslavia resulting in further wars and deaths’ in the 1990’s. You will answer for your crimes at the behest of your elected German government officials.

  2. How can one defend this act as an act of Defense while the army is just standing there watching???!!! Glad this image is still around to remind us of the brutality of war.

    1. In that time Yugoslavia was under martial law. These people were ‘partisans’ who attacked as armed civilians the regular army from every possible points, that is why they were captured and executed.

      1. Those people shown in the photographs were NOT partisans, they were normal civilians rounded up and killed as reprisals for partisan attacks on German soldiers.,

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