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The cult of Tito

How the leader's’ legacy was destroyed and then revived.

Every year on May 25th large “Yugo-nostalgic” gatherings come to celebrate the memory of a long dead leader and a country that no longer exists. Twenty-five years since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito still casts a long shadow over the region. A recent study has shown that in most of the six former components of Yugoslavia, the majority of people regret the demise of the federal state. A fact that may seem surprising when remembering the ferocity of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Prior to Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia experienced a golden age under a relatively benign form of communism. Ten years after Tito had died Yugoslavia was on the verge of collapse, with its economy in ruins and its international standing greatly diminished. Having been attacked by all sides during this period, Tito’s memory was revived during the conflict; to this day the cult of Tito remains and even continues to gain followers. Outside the region Tito the leader has been largely forgotten, despite being a highly visible and popular international statesman during the Cold War. Of all the many Communist dictators of the twentieth century Tito is one whose reputation remains largely positive. This being the hundred and twentieth anniversary of his birth it is an appropriate time to remember the life of one of the lesser known Communist leaders.

Thirty years ago 1987 was a critical year which marked the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia. It was the year which broke many of the taboos of Titoism, including public criticism of the regime, the former leader and the political system he had left behind. It became a year of scandals, strikes and protests. It was also a year of realisations, mainly that the carefully constructed myth of Tito was over without anyone explicitly stating it. Tito was dead and his legacy was crumbling. For the first time reality was being acknowledged, Yugoslavia’s’ ‘golden age’ was over, Cold War non-alignment now meant practically nothing and the special relationship between East and West’ was no longer relevant. The Partisan struggle and the break with Stalin were distant memories. Yugoslavia was a poor, economically depressed, ethnically and politically divided country facing an uncertain future.

In life Josip Broz was a maverick Communist leader. He had witnessed the Russian revolution during his time as a POW having served in the Austro-Hungarian army. Returning to his home in Croatia (now in the new Yugoslav state) as a committed Communist revolutionary, he had been imprisoned before escaping to Moscow via Vienna. Naturally astute he survived Stalin’s purges when being a foreign Communist exile in the Soviet Union was highly dangerous. He returned to Yugoslavia as a recruiting agent for volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Another civil war would engulf his own land when Yugoslavia was occupied and partitioned by the Axis powers in 1941. Aged almost 50, Tito would lead the Yugoslav partisans. Having gained allied support this multi-ethnic, Communist movement, achieved liberation without Soviet assistance, becoming the second revolutionary Communist regime to take power by itself.

Tito expertly exploited his new found prestige in victory. A long-time supporter of the Soviet Union, he famously broke with Stalin in 1948 to keep Yugoslavia out of the Eastern Bloc. This despite Tito’s restructuring of the country as a federation based exactly on the Soviet model. Yugoslavia was converted by East and West and greatly benefited from influx of foreign capital and free movement of people. Yugoslav tourism and industry boomed from the 1960s; for a brief period economic growth was second only to that of Japan. Yugoslavia was the only socialist country whose regime appeared glamorous. Tito relished his role as international statesman, becoming the only man who could be seen with pariahs like Fidel Castro and Col. Gaddafi and then socialise with the international ‘jet set’ of the time. Photo archives document Tito’s extensive foreign trips and the entertaining on his yacht with the Kennedys, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and the Shah of Iran. At home his regime built a vast personality cult around him, Tito was Yugoslavia and the world was his friend. When the country became too small for his ambitions, he co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement to use as his larger international stage. His life-style was luxurious and excessive, with yachts, expensive clothes, palaces, foreign travel, Cuban cigars and a passion for women. In his regal manner he extensively toured the country and played host to an endless ensemble of state visits. His official birthday was celebrated as the national ‘Day of Youth’ consisting of a nationwide relay which culminated in mass performances that mixed Communist propaganda and the power of the Yugoslav military. A popular tradition celebrated every year from 1945 to 1988.

Tito presented with the baton at the annual Youth Relay in 1977

In his final years however, he had become much like other long ruling dictators Leonid Brezhnev and his former adversary Francisco Franco of Spain — a living dead leader. On his death in 1980, his funeral was one of the last great international gatherings of heads of state before the end of the Cold War. Tito and those who had served with him had a claim to popular legitimacy; the younger generation that took over after him did not. There was also a younger generation of Yugoslavs who had no memory of the WWII struggles of the Yugoslav partisans. After forty years, this narrative was becoming tired. It was a familiar story of corruption and sleaze by top officials that would bring down the system and it all began with a financial scandal.

The Bosnian based Agrokomerc was one of the country’s biggest agro conglomerates. When authorities began to investigate the company and its somewhat notorious chief director Fikret Abdic, they uncovered what became the biggest financial and political scandal of communist Yugoslavia and what made the situation worse was the timing. With the economy in a deep crisis with mounting debts, inflation and unemployment, the fallout of Agrokomerc did even more damage with inflation reaching 152 per cent by the end of the year. Politically the hard-line Bosnian communists had not had the liberalising tendencies of the other republics in the early 1970s. For Tito it was a model republic and its leadership was held up as example to others. The scandal and the continuing economic crisis effectively destroyed the legitimacy of the communist party in Bosnia and would do so at the federal level as well. With the exception of the Serbian party which re-styled itself as populist and anti-establishment under Milosević, all other communist parties would be resoundingly defeated at the first multi-party elections two years later.

Agrokomerc was to be only the beginning of the crisis for Yugoslavia. At the same time in Slovenia, dissidents published a memorandum calling for democratic reforms, an end to militarism and Slovene independence. This was in reaction to the infamous memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, which for the first time made public the Serbian grievances against Titoism. Against this backdrop Milosević made his stand in Kosovo amidst a simmering conflict between Serbs and Albanians. In doing so, he transformed himself from the typical Titoist-communist politician, to the man who would be the leader of a resurgent Serbian force in the country.

The scandals reached the federal Prime Minister Branko Mikulić, a Bosnian and committed Titoist, who had also become tainted by Agrokomerc. Mikulić was denounced in the Slovene media and later suffered being publically criticised by striking Slovenian workers, who refused even to serve him at a skiing event in the republic. Further strike action followed and there were even mass demonstrations against the government outside the federal presidency. The first time such public displays of opposition against the communist government had taken place since WWII. Under attack for his handling of the economy from Slovenia and Croatia, Mikulić was eventually forced from office as the first communist prime minister of Yugoslavia to resign and returned to Sarajevo the following year. The country was in over 20 billion U.S dollars in debt when he left office.

Rejected poster design
Youth Day official poster 1987

Despite all of this, the party remained firmly committed to the cult of Tito. The celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of Tito becoming party secretary went ahead against the backdrop of the anti-government protests. These events were to be mired in more controversy. During the preparations for the annual Youth Relay and Dan Mladosti (Youth Day) celebrations, the Belgrade police realised that a committee of army generals had unwittingly approved an altered Nazi propaganda poster by the Slovenian art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst. The collective claimed to have submitted it as an ironic protest against Tito’s personality cult. Unimpressed, the authorities scrapped the design and banned publications of it. Even the design of the relay baton became a fiasco when the selected model was deemed impractical and had to be re-designed from scratch. The new baton was hurriedly made from plastic rather than the usual metal and had eight red drops symbolising the eight federal subjects. It was later observed that they more closely resembled drops of blood.

The relay got off to a bad start in Slovenia, where the launch coincided by the anti-Mikulić strike and poster controversy, which made the spirit of the tradition largely meaningless. At the rally on May 25, there was a mass dance performed to a song titled “Old band” which was ironically self-indicating for the collectively presidency, party and army representative who were in attendance. The debacle of the 1987 Dan Mladosti, along with the financial problems and growing crisis in Yugoslavia was enough for the government to discontinue the event (a final rally without the relay was held the following year). The annual event had been the greatest spectacle and popular tradition of communist Yugoslavia, its demise was a symbolic end to an era. Over forty years of Titoism and “Tito after Tito” was coming to a close.

The nascent liberalisation of Yugoslav society of the early 1970s only remerged in Slovenia years after Tito had clamped down on it. For the other republics the immediate future would be non-Communist and post-Titoist, but it was not to be democratic or liberal. Tito’s portraits and busts were removed from public buildings while cities and places that had been named in his honour reverted back to their originals. Even in Uzice, the centre of the first Partisan uprising that Tito had led in occupied Serbia, the authorities removed his statue from the town’s main square in 1991. The only common ground the new nationalist parties had with each other was the desire to strip away all vestiges of Titoism. This was largely consistent with popular opinion, which had turned against the deceased president. Now Tito was blamed for all Yugoslavia’s problems. Those who had not begrudged his luxurious lifestyle in more prosperous times certainly resented it now as the economy collapsed and living standards fell back twenty years. There was more lurid fascination over his private life, his infidelity, his illegitimate children and the unexplained disappearance of his widow from public life rather than his WWII heroism and leadership on the world stage.

On the tenth anniversary of his death, the Serbian daily Politika declared that the cult of Tito was “officially dead”. Tito’s inadequate heirs had no ideas or vision for the future. Instead they had maintained Tito’s personal dictatorship without him; the country remained a dictatorship but without a dictator. The world that Tito had thrived in had ended with the collapse of communism. The Non-Aligned Movement that Tito had founded was now little more than an irrelevant club of third world countries. Yugoslavia was left with a burden of massive foreign debt and a dysfunctional, economically unbalanced federal system that gave rise to rival nationalisms. The only ways to preserve the country were either with force by the army or political reform. It would have taken real leadership at federal level to solve Yugoslavia’s problems, but that moment had long passed. In the militarised society Tito had created war seemed a natural solution, but not to preserve the country. The real tragedy for Yugoslavia was that the political class and military that Tito had created found it easier to destroy the country rather than reform it. On the eve of the civil war in Bosnia the cult of Tito made a last stand in Sarajevo when crowds of peace protestors carried Tito’s portrait and waved the symbols of communist Yugoslavia. Sarajevo had remained a stronghold of support for Titoist Yugoslavia to the end. The end of the state and of communism had coincided on the very centenary of Tito’s birth.

Sarajevo peace rally March 1992

The wars of the 1990s and the subsequent hardships, corruption and criminality helped revive the Titoist legacy to some extent. This happened fairly quickly after the cult of Tito had crumbled, though; this was arguably intertwined with the phenomenon of Yugo-nostalgia rather than a revival in support of Titoist socialism. Small museums have been opened selling Titoist memorabilia. Unofficial youth relays, Dan Mladosti celebrations and Young Pioneer groups have been revived by private Titoist organisations. Supporters and curious tourists still make pilgrimages to Tito’s birth and resting places. Supporters include those who remember Tito’s rule and young people not even old enough to remember Yugoslavia. Despite the nostalgia for better times — both real and imagined, Josip Broz Tito belongs to the past as one of the twentieth century’s great figures.

Tito’s legacy is ultimately tied with the destruction of Yugoslavia. He is often remembered with the banal assumption as the man who held a divided country together, though it was arguably his Soviet style re-organisation that was part of the cause of many of Yugoslavia’s problems and dysfunction which became especially apparent after his death. Nor has Tito left much of an impact on the ideology of communism. Those leaders who attempted to follow a Titoist path in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were swiftly removed by the Soviets and Tito inspired few others elsewhere. Supporters of communism today still prefer the radical figures of Lenin, Castro, Guevara and even Mao to Tito. The world that Tito thrived in has changed so dramatically that his example is no longer relevant. Titoism was never really much of a Socialist ideology, but an independent course that served at the right moment; and it was only to be a brief moment. The anti-Tito successors of Yugoslavia attempted to build new states by maintaining the authoritarianism of Tito’s rule, as leaders they became crude imitations in his image. Internationally the Titoist influence on the monomania of the former regimes of Ceausescu, Gaddafi and the present one in North Korea can certainly be felt. Despite this, Tito was not a typical totalitarian. Prison camps, show trials and mass murder were not features of his rule, except in a limited scale during the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. There were no famines or violent collectivisation. Nor was Tito an exporter of international revolution. In his own country and outside of it Tito was simply a figure of stability and a symbol of prosperity. He was a grand a charismatic leader, his style of rule was like that of an absolute Monarch and an enlightened despot. A living legend by the end of his life, his memory has become a myth that still lingers in the former Yugoslavia. A region still haunted by the violent destruction that followed a decade after the leader’s death.




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