The Belgrade Fair before World War II
The site that became the Sajmište concentration camp during World War II had originally been an exhibition centre built by the Belgrade municipality in 1937 in an attempt to attract international commerce to the city. The centre's modernist pavilions featured elaborate displays of industrial progress and design from European countries, including Germany. Its architectural centerpiece was a large tower which was used by Philips to transmit the earliest television broadcasts in Europe. Much of the centre stood empty and unused until the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. The country was dismembered following the invasion, with Serbia being reduced to Serbia proper, the northern part of Kosovo (around Kosovska Mitrovica), and the Banat, which was occupied by the Germans and placed under the administration of a German military government. Milan Nedić, a pre-war politician who was known to have pro-Axis leanings, was then selected by the Germans to lead the collaborationist Government of National Salvation in the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia. The civilian administration in the country was headed by SS-Gruppenführer Harald Turner, who commanded the Einsatzgruppen Serbien. Originally led by SS-Standartenführer Wilhelm Fuchs, and later by SS-Gruppenführer August Meyszner with SS-Standartenführer Emanuel Schäfer as his deputy, the group was responsible for ensuring internal security, fighting opponents of the occupation, and dealing with Jews.
A map showing the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia from 1941–43.
Meanwhile, the extreme Croat nationalist and fascist Ante Pavelić, who had been in exile in Benito Mussolini's Italy, was appointed Poglavnik ("leader") of an Ustaše-led Croatian state – the Independent State of Croatia (often called the NDH, from the Croatian: Nezavisna Država Hrvatska). The NDH combined almost all of modern-day Croatia, all of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of modern-day Serbia into an "Italian-German quasi-protectorate." NDH authorities, led by the Ustaše militia, subsequently implemented genocidal policies against the Serb, Jewish and Romani populations living within the borders of the new state. Zemun, the town where the Sajmište fairgrounds were located, was ceded to the NDH. The occupation of Zemun – during which non-Croats such as Serbs, Jews and Roma were relentlessly persecuted by the Ustaše – would last until late 1944. By this point, more than 25 percent of Zemun's pre-war population of 65,000 had perished.
A large-scale uprising erupted in Serbia following the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Although they took no part in the rebellion, Jews were targeted for retaliatory execution by the Germans. The Germans soon implemented a number of anti-Jewish laws, and by the end of August 1941, all Serbian Jewish males were interned in concentration camps, primarily at Topovske Šupe in Belgrade.