Who's Who

Death of Josip Broz Tito

Josip Broz Tito died on May 4th, 1980. In this article from our 1980 archive, Basil Davidson reassesses the legacy of the Yugoslavian president and soldier.

When Josip Broz-Tito died in Belgrade last May, full of years and well content, there passed from the scene a legendary hero who was also a man with a most practical impact on the politics of our century. Bearing witness to this impact more than to the legend, presidents and prime ministers and princes gathered at his funeral in an array such as no small Power had known before. Dying, as convinced a Communist as ever, the man himself was would have greeted the gesture with the careful smile he reserved for good news. He had survived fearful years and outfaced immense hostilities. No, with his death, spokesmen of the wide world paid homage to his wisdom, even those from governments or regimes of virulent past enmity (whether in West or East), and joined to hail him as a crucial figure of our time.

The ironies of this could well deserve a smile. History will enjoy discussing them, but they are evident even with the earth still fresh upon his garden-grave at Dedinje. When, for our part, the British first took notice of Tito’s name, at some point around the middle of 1942, it was no more than a cipher launched in broadcasts by a station called Free Yugoslavia that was known to British Intelligence as being situated in Russia, and probably in Moscow. And when, in 1943, our liaison teams began dropping to Tito’s men in Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and other regions of that embattled land, the assumption was that Tito, whoever he might really be, was firmly within the arena of Soviet obedience and accompanied by Soviet staffs. Otherwise his isolation and obscurity appeared as complete as his Muscovite alignment.

But then we learned that the truth was far less simple. For one thing, the isolation was much greater than we had thought. No Soviet staffs were found in any place; none in fact would come until long after the British arrival. That Tito and his men were thoroughly committed to Communism, with the Soviet Union as their hero, was immediately clear; and they made it obvious from the start. And yet here too there were puzzling complexities. The style and tone of Tito's movement, as of Tito himself (with whom my own first encounter was during August, 1943 in central Bosnia), had about them an insistent air of independence. Even in those early weeks, when our suspicions of them were as deep as theirs of us, it was hard to think of them as anyone's puppets. The real independence was in fact more profound than we could then know. The reasons for it came out in due course. They have formed the history of Tito's Yugoslavia.

Orthodox opinion in the West long continued to see Tito as little more than Moscow's agent. It was an understandable - or at least unsurprising – misjudgement in those years of Cold War fantasy and panic that followed upon the peace. Here was a man, post-war biographies rapidly explained, who had joined the Bolsheviks in the storms of the October Revolution (having got to Russia as a conscript in the army of Austro-Hungary, an Empire which enclosed his homeland of Croatia), and who, having long served the Comintern during the inter-war years, had become the leader of the Yugoslav Communist Party at a time when Stalin's direct consent was certainly required. 'With his country invaded by the Axis powers in 1941, Tito had begun to organise for insurrection before Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union and would, as the evidence suggests, have launched it even without that invasion. The fact remained that he had launched it, in the event, on instructions from the Comintern. How could the West trust anyone with that kind of record?

The answer proved indigestible, but had to be absorbed in the end. For it came to be seen that the singularity of Tito, however long disbelieved, lay precisely in the fact that he was determined and able to transform a narrow Moscow loyalty into the broad patriotism of a movement of liberation. Later, it came to be seen that the logic of his break with Stalin and the 'Cominform' of 1948 was not a new one, but had been foretold in a wartime break with sectarian politics; and that this wartime break, however partial, formed the central reason why the partisan struggle could be sustained and won. And it is there, in Tito's politics of liberation, that one can find keys to a large puzzle of the second half of our century: the end of monolithic Communism and the beginning of 'polycentric revolutions' of the Marxist Left.

This complex truth was part of a process gradually revealed. Was it only opportunism? It could seem so, for Tito desperately needed military aid which, to our astonishment, the Russians were not providing and which we British, as it turned out, could alone provide. Marching through Bosnia in the autumn of 1943, I found myself called to speak at public meetings whose bannered slogans hailed 'Our allies, England, America and the Soviet Union' – and in that order of precedence. A partisan choir asked me to teach them God Save the King, and they sang it as lustily as their revolutionary anthems. It could be opportunism.

But gradually, as we lived through the extraordinary epic of the partisan war, we came to see that it must, in any case, be more than opportunism. Stalin, as we know now, warned Tito several times against 'frightening the Allies' – but Tito, as we also know, paid small attention to these radio messages from Moscow. His motives for an early and, as yet, quite undefined non-alignment were different – and deeper. They derived from the dynamics of the war itself. For this was a war that had long outgrown the initial phase of insurrection against the invaders and their local puppets or allies. By the time of our arrival, tardy enough as this proved to be, the liberation movement had become an all-Yugoslav uprising fortified by a powerful mobile army, by countless local militias, and by an intensive network of civilian self-administration. It drew strength from all six major and several lesser nationalities of Yugoslavia, the only exception being the local Germans (Volksdeutsche ) who were nearly all Nazis; and, although peasant in its majority, it contained men and women from every community and class.

This kind of war of liberation, as all the abundant evidence of our century has tended to confirm, cannot be sustained and won with any narrow programme or sectarian vision. It needs the strong sense and conviction of social renewal linked to national pride, of revolution coupled with cultural resurgence, of a moral development capable of evoking programmes of political and economic change. Here in wartime Yugoslavia it became evident that the multitudes who joined their life and loyalty to Tito's movement wanted to free their country from a ruthless enemy but also wanted to free themselves from their own past – and these two desires were inseparable. They asked for a different future. They wanted equality and justice as well as national freedom.

It was impossible to live among these people for long without perceiving these truths, and without coming to accept, no matter how ambiguous the evidence might often seem, that these were truths which shaped a central conclusion: the demand for active and responsible participation in every field of public life. These people meant to evict their enemies; they also meant to rule themselves. That an effective response could be found to this dual and difficult demand was the work of Tito and the movement which he led and steered. Yet to make this response the Yugoslav Communists had to grow out of their sectarian infancy. They found this very hard, but broadly they achieved it. They must otherwise have perished.

Their people belonged to a peculiar national history. Yugoslavia had emerged in 1919 as the 'triune kingdom' of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Capped by a monarchy, this new country of the 'South Slavs' had the form of a parliamentary democracy. But the democracy was fragile. Soon these Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Macedonians and other 'forbidden nationalities' of the old empires were subject to a royal supremacy which increasingly became a narrow Serbian dictatorship. This fall into autocracy was scarcely surprising at the time. It was after all the fate of each of the newly- independent countries of central and eastern Europe after 1918, Czechoslovakia only excepted. Ruled by small groups of self-appointed 'beneficiaries', they came increasingly under the influence of external Powers. Not exactly 'neo-colonies' – a convenient label not then available – they were the victims of a situation which bred bad government, corruption and increasing violence. The term 'Balkan' ceased in those inter-war years to be merely geographical. It be- came a badge of misery and abuse.

That is a simplified picture, but its essential truth was amply confirmed by the fearful disasters of 1941. In April of that year the Nazis sent their armies over the Hungarian and Bulgarian frontiers into Yugoslavia, and the armies of their allies – Fascist Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary – across the same or other frontiers. Within a fortnight the country was submerged in ruin, its armed forces were in rout or disbanded, and its king and government in flight abroad. But worse followed. Civil war came hard upon defeat. Organised in a local fascist movement, Croat Catholics set about the wild massacre of Bosnian Muslims and Orthodox Serbs; and one huge work of slaughter led on ferociously to another. More than a million-and-a-half Yugoslavs were killed in 1941-45; but the grimmest truth about this figure is that very many of these, perhaps most, were killed by other Yugoslavs.

These were the circumstances in which people fought for their very lives but also, as the fight continued, for a future that could bury these savage hatreds. That is why Tito's slogan, bratsva i jedinstva (brotherhood and unity), both epitomised the aims of the partisan war of liberation and achieved a power of attraction that nothing else, in the end, could seriously question or has seriously questioned since. Yet brotherhood and unity spelt out participation, and participation meant democracy. And this again is why Tito's party, no matter how great the mental and organisational obstacles, had to evolve or perish.

Its members were ill prepared for the challenge. Long persecution and Communist centralism had fostered habits of autocracy, attitudes of intolerance, suspicions of any who might argue. Now they were called to lead great multitudes of people whose voluntary adherence could be held and encouraged only by very different attitudes. Somehow they had to show that they could lead to peace and reconciliation as well as win battles. Only an inner transformation could encompass that.

History may agree, even if with reservations, that Tito's largest contribution to our century was that he saw this need for inner transformation well before others, and was able to launch it. While the wounds of fratricidal war sharpened hatred and intolerance, Tito set out to ensure that his party and movement were able to clear the ground for reconciliation. Out of this – though not without grim setbacks – there came a process of democratisation that was probably well launched by the middle of 1942, and certainly by the middle of 1943 when we British arrived at last upon the scene. From then onwards this process took increasing shape in networks of village, district and regional assemblies and executives of self-government and these were the roots of the system by which the Yugoslavs govern themselves today. Nothing in history can be taken as inevitable. Yet from then onwards an eventual break with Stalinist conceptions of rigid centralism was already immanent in whatever happened or was attempted.

Much happened, and much was attempted. A few aspects may be singled out. Each is a related aspect of the problems of 'brotherhood and unity'. First, there was the break with Stalin and then with Stalinist conceptions. There was the nature of the alternative system which began to be promoted then. Linked closely, there was Tito's handling of the 'national question' among Yugoslavia's persistently assertive nationalities. Along with these, there was Tito's drive for non-alignment as an international movement as well as a national posture.

The break with Moscow came in 1948 and was doubly painful, for it chafed with years of adulation of the Soviet Union and it raised the question of revolutionary legitimacy. It was also very dangerous, for it left Yugoslavia in terrible isolation and, as it was feared at the time, in grave peril of Soviet invasion. Yet the tradition and success of the independence struggle were such that the risks of this break were taken with a remarkable unanimity and even with enthusiasm. Stalin demanded obedience, not friendship; ready for the second, these Yugoslavs were determined not to yield the first. They had traced their own road during the war; they would continue to trace it now.

Their problem, then, was to secure aid from the West without falling into the Cold War obedience that the West, above all Washington, also wished to exact. Gradually, this problem was also solved, though not without some bitter moments, and then, after 1952, the beginnings of a specific and often very radical process of participation was launched and worked into everyday life. This process is known as samoupravlenje , perhaps best translated as 'self-government'.

Wages, work plans, all forms of material development, increasingly all forms of cultural and social development as well, become subject to discussion and decision which 'begin at the base'. How far this may work must of course depend to some extent on the frailties of human nature, as influential here as anywhere else: but the circumstances for its being able to work are what the new system set out to evolve and guarantee. In many ways sui generis , it is furthermore a system which could not have been conceived in theory, much less embodied in practice, without the background of the partisan movement. In this large sense, samoupravlenje is Tito's direct creation and legacy.

The policy proceeds in a country that is vastly different from the 'triune kingdom' of the inter-war years. That old Yugoslavia might be reasonably described as a semi-colony of ferocious discontents. Tito's Yugoslavia is a country that suffers from a bundle of economic and social ills, such as a gaping balance of payments deficit and the massive emigration of the unemployed to jobs in Germany. But it is also a country in which industrialisation and cultural expansion have marched together with a staunch independence of mind and policy. The fact that this is surrounded by argument and disputation is evidence of that particular truth. Much of the debate concerns everyday discontent with this or that failure, shortage, or bureaucratic blunder which are by no means peculiar to Yugoslavia. But much of it concerns the federal dispensation.

'We have solved the national question', Tito claimed in 1962 – and with reason. The old dictatorships, whether monarchist or Stalinist, became a distant memory. Progressively adapted to larger forms of autonomy, Yugoslavia consists of six republics and two sub-republics, each with great and increasing powers over their own administration, taxation, planning, cultural development, and indeed practically everything except foreign affairs and national security. Nowhere else has the basic concept of the monolithic nation-state received so effective a challenge.

Not everyone has been satisfied. These eight autonomous units within their federal frontiers have had a sometimes bumpy ride since the 1950s. Serbian nationalism has yearned for its past; Croatian nationalism has threatened secession; the Slovenes have attracted envy for their complacent wealth; the poor republics have pressed for a bigger share of the cake; while the process of decentralisation has produced a crop of errors due to inefficiency, exaggeration, or simple human folly. Tito had to rage and storm in tricky moments. Yet the general outcome and perspective still confirm Tito's claim. No matter what disputes may continue over language definitions, economic shares, or inter-republican finagling and sharp practice, the bloody hatreds of the pre-war years and of 1941 seem finally assuaged; and what holds these republics together can repeatedly be seen, as now in the wake of Tito's death, to be far more powerful than whatever may continue to divide them. The strong framework of national armed forces, still commanded by wartime veterans, no doubt guarantees this ultimate unity. The League of Communists, however much transformed from its old sectarianism, is also there to watch and guard. But the conflicts now are family quarrels even if they can still explode in angry words.

This great achievement, and undoubtedly it is one, has long had its reflection in another of Tito's principles of action: non-alignment in foreign policy. Continued loyalty to the concepts of the Soviet state could never have allowed the decentralisation on which the achievement rests; and to this extent it may be said that non-alignment was the only sensible course of action after the break with Stalinist concepts. Yet there is much to suggest that Tito him- self was long convinced of the value of a non-aligned policy. Even as early as November, 1945, with the din of battle barely stilled, he told me in a long- forgotten interview for The Times that,

We mean to make Yugoslavia both democratic and independent; and we shall take good care to cherish this independence. It is important for us and for our national development as peoples of a federated state. But it is also important to the great Powers...

Yugoslavia might have a natural and warm friendship with the Soviet Union, but

there is nothing exclusive about it. That would be against our policy and our wishes, and it might easily be suicidal. Good relations between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia do not mean that Yugoslavia will lose her independence and become a satellite of the Soviet Union...

Just how far an exclusive friendship would be 'suicidal' became clear only three years later. When it did, this line of thought of 1945 – as of the later war- time years – led on to finding a way of escape from the hammer-and-anvil situation in which Yugoslavia then stood, with Moscow full of menace and with Washington by no means friendly.

So it was that Tito began to build a space 'between the blocs' where Yugoslavia need not be alone, but could be joined and therefore fortified by other countries which, for one reason or another, had to fear or face the same hammer-and-anvil posture. A certain reconciliation with Moscow occurred in 1956, with the Khrushchev 'thaw', but without seriously reawakening the West's earlier suspicions. Yet Tito, who put no faith in great-Power favours, persevered with non-alignment. On a programme of co-existence, disarmament, and conciliation through UN agencies, he set out to tour the world, especially the ex-colonial world, wherever hammer- and-anvil situations hurt the most. For this role he was singularly well placed and well prepared. He could speak with the prestige of a small but powerful country whose real independence was unquestioned, and one, moreover, which itself had only lately emerged from a more or less colonial condition. He put forth his personal vigour and conviction to persuade and combine a whole galaxy of leaders such as Gamal-Abdel Nasser, and he had some notable success. By 1968 he had visited more than thirty leaders or governments, and, always strong on organisation, had pressed successfully for systematic ways in which a worldwide movement of non-alignment could acquire form and presence. As early as 1961, for example, he was able to preside over an initial conference of the non-aligned countries to which twenty- three governments sent their leading men. A second such conference, this time in Cairo, attracted as many as forty- seven governments; and the movement has continued to grow.

The policy has served Yugoslavia well, giving its government an influence and weight in world affairs which are now accepted both by East and West. How far the non-aligned movement can develop further, other than in keeping a clear space of co-existence between the blocs, is another matter. With members as widely divergent in their policies and loyalties as Zaire at one end and Cuba at the other, 'non-alignment' has become somewhat of a victim of its own success. Yet Tito could still have argued with conviction that the policy he fathered had proved a valid one, and another contribution to the keeping of the peace.

The man himself had all the charm and charisma of a great commander who never asks of others what he will not do himself, and combines authority with an acute interest in people and an irresistible sense of homour. Did he still believe in any general future for Communism? Almost certainly the answer is affirmative. However, Tito was never a man to embark on the squaring of theoretical circles. The springs of his practical genius derived, rather, from a vivid and profound sense of historical reality. Even with all that had occurred, he persistently saw the needs and possibilities of his time and place – and he could lead his fellow-countrymen into doing what they had not done, or even thought of doing, at any time before.

Men and women followed him through mortal dangers because he had found the way to epitomise, for them, the destiny that had to be found. His authority came from the successes of the partisan struggle, but it also came – and this is another statement of the same thing – from his sheer demands of self-sacrifice and the serving of the common interest. People grow under such demands when these are felt to be intensely right; and people love the leaders who thus make them grow, and gain a new dignity, and a new human worth. That is how it was with Josip Broz-Tito.

Dr Basil Davidson specialises in the history of Africa and eastern Europe and is the author of Special Operations Europe, recently published by Gollancz.

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