Parleying with the Devil
Prisoner Exchange in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945
Andarta Books, Lexington, Kentucky, 2020, 456 pages
Book Review published on: October 7, 2022
As someone who has a passion for studying and examining aspects of individual character, resilience, and leadership through the experiences of prisoners of war (POWs), I was intrigued by this book’s title. Unlike other literary works about the experiences of individual POWs during World War II, Parleying with the Devil: Prisoner Exchange in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945, examines a lesser-known aspect of the war, prisoner exchange between the armed forces of the Third Reich and communist-led partisans in Yugoslavia.
Gaj Trifković, an accomplished historian and associate of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Sarajevo, skillfully balances his skills as an historian and researcher to expose the many layers of this complex subject. Trifković does a superb job of outlining the broader historical and regional context of prisoner exchange in the introduction and seeks to answer two primary questions: First, did the contacts between the partisans and German occupation authorities exhibit elements of collaboration? Second, did prisoner exchange influence policies concerning prisoners on both sides and in some way help reduce the levels of violence for which this theater of war became infamous? Each chapter organized chronologically and alternating between locations (Serbia, the Independent State of Croatia, and the broader territory of Yugoslavia) and events (German-Partisan negotiations, the establishment of a prisoner exchange cartel, and a neutral zone in Pisarovina) enables the reader to switch perspectives with relative ease. Chapters 3 and 4 are particularly intriguing given that members espousing these two incompatible ideologies, Nazism and Communism, established open communication channels and met to negotiate across multiple levels. Several conclusions emerge from Trifković’s analysis. First, the brutal fighting in Yugoslavia ebbed and flowed, manifesting elements of “a war of liberation, civil war, and ideological war.” Second, “pragmatism, rather than ideology or respect for international law,” drove both sides to negotiate to save the lives of their men and ever dwindling resources. Third, at the local level, changes in policy regarding the treatment and exchange of POWs “did mitigate, however marginally, the horrors of war.”
Parleying with the Devil is an extensively researched, well-organized, and easy-to-read book. It contains a useful list of abbreviations, spelling, and pronunciation guide, extensive notes in each chapter, multiple appendices, and an index. My only criticism of the book is the lack of a basic map (territory of Yugoslavia during this time frame) to assist the general reader in understanding where these events took place. I highly recommend this book to researchers and anyone interested in the Second World War in Yugoslavia and aspects of the history of the Western Balkans. This book makes an excellent companion to Trifković’s other book, Sea of Blood: A Military History of the Partisan Movement in Yugoslavia 1941–45.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward D. Jennings, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas