Lepa Radić was just a 17-year-old Yugoslavian girl when she was hanged by the Nazis for being a Partisan in 1943. This extraordinarily brave girl had joined the Yugoslav Partisans in the fight against their Nazi oppressors in World War II, and taken on the most dangerous assignments. What turn of events lead to her transformation, capture and ultimate execution?
World War II spread rapidly across Europe in 1940 as Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany had conquered Poland, then France, then most of the continent. Local resistance movements quickly popped up in nearly every occupied nation. These groups did everything from publishing anti-Nazi pamphlets, to helping downed Allied pilots, to conducting guerilla raids and acts of sabotage. Most were ordinary citizens, some of them, even teenage girls.
Yugoslavia had been created in the treaties following World War I. The multi-ethnic nation of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Slovenians began as a democracy, but fell into dictatorship in 1929. As the Nazis took control of Europe, Yugoslavia attempted to remain neutral. But in early 1941, the nations leaders yielded to the advancing Nazi threat and joined the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. Just two days later, Yugoslavian military leaders conducted a coup, installing 17-year-old King Peter II as the head of a new nationalist government.
The spring of 1941 was key to Adolf Hitler.
He intended to invade the Soviet Union with his Operation Barbarossa. However, the emergence of this new nationalist Yugoslavia forced him to delay that plan. He had to secure his Balkan flank against Josef Stalin before invading Russia. Hitler issued Directive 25, classifying Yugoslavia as hostile and ordered it invaded. The Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia began in April, and the small Yugoslav military surrendered after only 11 days. However, that attack delayed Hitler’s invasion of Russia by 4 critical weeks. That one less summer month to invade the Soviet Union, eventually contributed to Hitler’s failure in Russia.
The Ustaše regime ruled Yugoslavia as a Nazi puppet, that brutally oppressed Jews and Serbs. While the Nazis and Ustaše government controlled major cities, the German invasion failed to reach its remote and rugged mountains. The Nazi victory wasn’t decisive at all. This allowed two Serbian resistance groups to emerge there, the Chetniks and the Partisans.
The Chetniks were Yugoslavian ex-military and loyal to the government of Peter II, now in exile. While some Chetniks opposed the Nazis, some factions collaborated with their occupiers. As for the Partisans, Yugoslavia banned Communism in 1921, forcing its Communist Party underground. After the Nazi invasion, the Yugoslav Socialists became the Partisans. As their group held socialist beliefs, the Partisans were opposed by the royalist Chetniks. Their leader was Josip “Tito” Broz, the head of the underground Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The Partisans’ goal was drive out the Nazis and establish an independent socialist nation.
Where does young Lepa Radić figure into all of this chaos?
Lepa was born in 1925 to Serbian parents, in the Bosnian village of Gašnica. During her school years, she was recognized as a serious and studious student. She came from a hard-working family with communist roots. Her uncle, Vladeta Radić, was actively involved in the underground labor movement and Lepa read many books banned by the government. As a teenager, she too became active in the League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia. She joined the Yugoslavian Communist Party in early 1941 at only 15. Then came the Nazi invasion in the spring.
Her father Svetor, and two uncles, all joined the Partisan movement that same summer. But by November, their activities attracted the unwanted attention of the puppet Ustaše government. Secret Police arrested the entire Radić family, including Lepa and her siblings, and held them at the Stara Gradiška prison in Croatia. Two weeks later, undercover Partisans managed to help Lepa and her sister Dara escape. Her father and uncles however, were quickly executed. After their rescue, the sisters vowed to avenge their father by joining the Partisans the very next month. Though risking her own life, Lepa Radić courageously joined the 7th Partisan company of the 2nd Krajiski Detachment. She was just 15 years old.
Lepa volunteered for one of the most dangerous assignments. She would be serving as a nurse on the front lines, transporting the wounded off the battlefields and helping vulnerable families flee the Axis powers. She participated in every major combat operation in her area. Her youth and ability to connect with other young people quickly proved to be useful for the Partisans.
She became a field activist next, and later promoted to partisan leader, traveling to villages to recruit new Partisans amongst the young. On one mission, she led a group of young people to harvest fields of grain close to Nazi positions in order to feed the Partisans. For two years, she fought Nazi oppression until her brave actions caught up with her.
In January 1943, the Nazis and their Chetnik allies, launched Operation Case White.
This was a major offensive against the Yugoslav Partisans. This operation would devastate and nearly destroy the Partisan front. At the Battle of Neretva, Lepa was charged with evacuating the wounded to a field hospital near Grmeč. Saving the wounded was one of the Partisans’ pillar strategies. They had vowed to never leave the wounded behind, because the Nazis routinely executed them.
In February 1943, Lepa Radić was organizing a rescue of some 150 women and children seeking refuge from the Nazis. Units from the 7th SS Division caught up with them, flanking Lepa and the refugees. She refused to surrender without a fight. Lepa attempted to give them time to escape by firing at the attacking Nazi SS forces with a barrage of rifle fire. She fired all the ammunition she had left at the advancing Nazis and never ran herself. Once her weapon was exhausted, the Germans stormed forward and captured her.
She was taken to the village of Bosanska Krupa. First, the Germans kept her in isolation, torturing her relentlessly in an attempt to extract information about the Partisans. But she refused to offer anything but her own name. When after three days of giving them nothing, they sentenced Radić to death by hanging for firing upon a Nazi Division. She continued to refuse to divulge any information about her comrades all the way up to her execution.
On February 8, 1943, Lepa Radić was brought outside to a hastily constructed gallows. It was nothing more than a rope swung over a large tree branch in the town square, in full view of the public. Rather than appearing frightened, she looked resolute instead. As they placed the rope noose around her neck, she passionately cried out to the crowd of Yugoslavs and German soldiers:
“Long live the Communists and the Partisans! Fight, people, for your freedom! Do not surrender to the evildoers! I will be killed, but there are those who will avenge me!”
The Nazi commander in charge scowled at the girl and offered Lepa one last chance to spare her life by giving them the names and location of her Partisan allies. Instead, she shouted a second time:
“I am not a traitor of my people. Those whom you are asking about will reveal themselves, when they have succeeded in wiping out all you evildoers, to the last man!”
And with that, the angry officer kicked the chair out from under her and she was hanged by the neck until dead. Lepa was just 17. The Nazi officer later reported on her execution: “The bandit girl, hanging in Bosanska Krupa, has shown unprecedented defiance.” In truth, she had intimidated her enemy by showing them a 17 year old Partisan girl having no fear of death.
The execution was captured by the Nazis in a series of haunting photographs meant to intimidate and frighten the population. Instead, it had the opposite effect. She inspired them. The legacy of Lepa Radić lived on. No matter if she made the ultimate sacrifice, her death would be avenged, leading to ultimate victory against the Nazis two years later.
After World War II ended, the Yugoslavian Communists under Tito became the country’s ruling party. As a result, they recognized the Yugoslavian Partisans as one of the most effective guerilla armies in the entire war. In 1951, Lepa Radić posthumously received the National Order of the People’s Hero award, the nation’s second-highest military honor. She was the youngest person ever to receive the award.
The courage and bravery of this amazing 17-year-old girl continues to inspire those who stand up to the forces of tyranny and fascism around the world. Her heroism is still remembered and admired throughout the Balkans and eastern Europe to this very day.