Hidden Belgrade (36): ‘German Bridge’ and its Hero

Belgrade’s relationship with this iconic green-arched bridge, the city’s shortest and oldest continuously standing, started off in the worst possible way during the darkest days of World War II.

After Nazi Germany attacked the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941, the Royal Yugoslav Army blew up all of Belgrade’s bridges on the Sava and the Danube in order to slow down the enemy advance. Given that the army surrendered to the occupying force just eleven days , the move was less than successful.

The Nazi occupiers decided in 1942 to construct this iron bridge over the Sava instead of the Tisza, a river in Northern Serbia, as was originally planned. The idea was to ease transport between central Serbia and central Europe, and the construction started as soon as its prefabricated parts were transported from Germany.

The new bridge was named after Prince Eugene of Savoy, an Austrian general who took Belgrade from the Ottomans in the 18th century. The name was in line with a Nazi plan to turn occupied Belgrade into a fortress called Prinz-Eugen-Stadt and settle the region around the Danube with ethnic Germans.

Given that the Ustasa-run Independent State of Croatia occupied Srem, including territories across the Sava in present day New Belgrade, the bridge had a border post in the middle. It was used in turns by pedestrians, cars and even trains. Besides transporting military personnel and supplies, it also eased the transport of Belgraders, especially Jewish and Roma citizens, to the infamous Sajmiste concentration camp that stood on the other side of the river, an art-deco fairground built in 1937 .

Despite its dark beginnings, the bridge became a symbol of personal courage and resistance against the Nazi occupation.

In 1944, Miladin Zaric, a teacher and veteran of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and World War I, lived closed to the bridge in Karadjordjeva street. On his daily commute he noticed that Nazi troops had placed explosives on the bridge in preparation for the retreat from the advancing Red Army and Yugoslav Partisan forces.

miladin_misa_zaric
Milan Zaric. Source: 011info

The Nazi plan was to blow up the bridge, so their soldiers would have enough time to escape Belgrade. In the morning of October 20, as the Nazi forces were leaving the city, Zaric risked his life by running to the bridge and used his war-time knowledge to cut the cables linking the explosives to the detonator, thereby saving the bridge. This meant that it was one of the few bridges in Europe which survived Nazi withdrawal.

When the Nazi soldiers realised their plan was thwarted, they tried to bombard the bridge but were overpowered by Soviet forces. After the war, Zaric was awarded medals for his bravery and given a high position in the city government, from which he resigned due to his opposition to the new government’s plans to nationalise private property.

 

In the following decades, the bridge, which was briefly known as ‘the German bridge’, underwent several minor repairs and has since 1984 been the only tram link between New Belgrade and the city centre. It came into prominence in 2013, because one Belgrader, after a night of revelry managed to climb to the top of its arch and fall asleep there, only to be woken up by the firefighters.

 

In 2014 there was a petition to name the bridge after Miladin Zaric but an official decision is unlikely to be made soon because of its uncertain future: in 2017, Belgrade City Hall began planning to construct a larger, sturdier bridge. The new project unveiled in 2018 and was recieved with disapproval from many Belgraders, despite promising to double the traffic capacity and paying homage to the recognisable arched shape of the current bridge. According to the city authorities, the current bridge would be repurposed as a pedestrian bridge and moved to connect Ada Ciganlija and New Belgrade in 2019.

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