When Marshal Tito, president of Yugoslavia, died on May 4, 1980, the representatives of 122 states, including an impressive array of world leaders, attended his funeral. He was almost universally hailed as the last great World War II leader, the first communist to successfully challenge Stalin, and the founder of "national communism." Above all else, Tito was praised as the creator of modern Yugoslavia, the leader whose wisdom and statesmanship had united Yugoslavia's historically antagonistic national groups in a stable federation.

In his excellent book, Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia, Richard West provides us with a biography, travelogue, and popular history of Yugoslavia and an analysis of the personalities and events that brought about the country's disintegration and civil war. West loves Yugoslavia and has a native's feel for local color and anecdotes. He writes so admirably that one enjoys his book even when its conclusions are questionable. This is certainly one of the most readable books ever written about Yugoslavia.

Tito as unifier of Yugoslavia is one of the author's main themes. The Communist Party came to power in Yugoslavia at the end of World War II after its Partisan army fought not only German, Italian, and other occupiers but also fellow Yugoslavs in rival, often quisling, military units. The Partisans were a multinational group (although Serbs predominated in the first half of the war), as was the Communist Party. They advocated national equality and a federal Yugoslavia in their propaganda. This helped them win the civil war since their opponents were mostly nationalists who had followings only inside their own national groups and whose extremism alienated large segments of the population.

After the war and throughout the Cold War, a triumphant Communist Party, with Tito at its helm, claimed that it had once and for all solved the nationalities problem. Because Yugoslavia collapsed after Tito's death, many--including West--believe that it was his genius that kept it together. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Josip Broz "Tito" (the last name being an alias he adopted in the 1930s for illegal party work) was born in 1892 in Croatia, then a part of Austria-Hungary. His father was Croatian and his mother Slovene, and they were among the better-off peasants in their village. At the age of 15, Tito left home and, frequently switching jobs, wandered from one industrial city of central Europe to another.

As a young locksmith's assistant, Tito had some sympathy for the social democratic movement, but was not politically active. Nor did he get involved with the young revolutionary Croats and Serbs of Austria-Hungary who wanted the dissolution of the Hapsburg monarchy and the unification of its South Slav lands with Serbia and Montenegro to form a new state, Yugoslavia (meaning "the land of South Slavs"). When Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia in 1914, Tito was sent as a sergeant to the Serbian front. Today's Serbian nationalists interpret this as a sign of his early anti-Serbian attitude, but many other Hapsburg Croats and Serbs fought loyally for the monarchy on all its World War I fronts.

Transferred to the Russian front, Tito was wounded and captured. After recovering, he escaped in 1917 to Petrograd (the Russified name for St. Petersburg), but did not participate in the October Revolution. He thought of emigrating to the United States, but the vicissitudes of fate brought him to Omsk, Siberia, where the Bolsheviks were in power. He became a member of the party in 1919.

When Tito returned home in 1920, Austria-Hungary was no more, and Croatia had become a part of the newly founded Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (the name "Yugoslavia" was officially adopted in 1929). However, the state ideology of Yugoslav unity was soon challenged by national conflicts, in particular between the Serbs, who favored centralism and predominated in the government and the military, and Croats, who favored federalism or the creation of a separate Croatian state. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia, created in 1919, initially attracted a considerable following, but was more revolutionary in rhetoric than in action. Even so, it was outlawed in 1921.

The party had not prepared its cadres for an underground struggle, and most of its activities ceased. Nor was Tito a fervent militant at the time. But he eventually became one and in 1927 was appointed secretary of the important Zagreb party committee. As a communist leader Tito blossomed, showing initiative and resourcefulness. He opposed factional struggles within the party and was proud and defiant during his police interrogations, trial, and more than five years of imprisonment for party activity.


In the 1920s and early 1930s, the main quarrel inside the Communist Party of Yugoslavia was between moderates (who were mostly in power) and radicals (mostly in opposition). The former were usually middle-class, middle-aged intellectuals who preferred legal action and engaged in endless intellectually stimulating but politically unproductive polemics. They kept the party, in the name of "pure class struggle," away from nationalistic quarrels. The latter were mostly younger intellectuals and workers who favored underground work, though usually not terrorism, and the energetic recruitment of the young. Following Lenin, who during the Russian Revolution sought the support of non-Russian nations dissatisfied with tsarism and Russification, they wanted the party to side with non-Serbian nations against "Serbian hegemony." Neither the moderates nor the radicals, however, were nationalists.

The government's persecution of communists indirectly favored the radicals; the Communist Party had no choice but to concentrate on illegal work. The "dictatorship of King Alexander" had the same effect. In 1929 the king suspended parliamentary rule, established his personal regime, and increased Serbian centralism. National dissatisfaction, especially among the Croats, soared, and it became obvious that the Communist Party could not remain detached.

The Comintern--the organization founded in 1919 to give Russian communists control of communist movements throughout the world--was almost from its start hostile to Yugoslavia, since the country was allied with anti-Bolshevik "imperialists" Britain and France. Oblivious to the many ethnic, linguistic, and cultural similarities among the South Slavs and their powerful nineteenth-century aspirations toward a common state, the international communist leadership saw Yugoslavia as a kind of Serbian mini-empire based on military conquest. The Comintern, therefore, demanded the immediate dissolution of the "prison of the peoples" and showed more sympathy for Yugoslav radicals than for moderates.

The demand to split Yugoslavia into smaller states went further than even most radicals wanted, but, obedient to the Comintern, Yugoslav communists included it in their program. In the mid-1930s, however, the Comintern began to perceive Yugoslavia differently, as a barrier to fascism and Nazism (both Mussolini and Hitler wanted to destroy the country). Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia felt increasingly uncomfortable advocating separatism, since the separatist parties were mostly right-wing, clerical, pro-fascist, and aggressively anticommunist.

At that time, a new generation of communist activists, young but with much experience in illegal work and in enduring police interrogation and imprisonment, had come into party leadership positions vacated by Alexander's persecution and Stalin's purges. They wholeheartedly embraced the Comintern's new policy, which tried to unite all "progressive forces" in an antifascist Popular Front, and in that spirit they fashioned a new policy toward the national question in Yugoslavia. "Serbian hegemony" was still the enemy and national equality the main goal, but separatist movements were also condemned for their right-wing and pro-fascist affinities. The preservation of a reorganized, communist Yugoslavia was advocated. Within the zealously "internationalist" Communist Party of Yugoslavia, loyal to the Soviet Union and worshipful of Stalin, Yugoslav patriotism began to grow.

The Comintern appointed Tito secretary-general of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, probably in 1937. From 1944-45, when the communists came to power in Yugoslavia, until his death, Tito was for much of the time simultaneously head of the party, marshal of Yugoslavia, head of government, commander in chief, and president of the country. He was a seasoned politician who had survived the purges (and according to some accounts participated in them), and much older than most of his closest collaborators, who called him "Stari"--the old man. While definitely not a Croatian nationalist, as many Serbs now portray him, he did not share the young communists' strong feeling of being Yugoslav. For Tito, Yugoslavia remained primarily a political idea, a tactic for the revolutionary conquest of power. During World War II, and especially during the conflict with Stalin that broke out in 1948, Tito's patriotism and concern for Yugoslavia's unity would increase, but would always remain subordinate to political expediency and personal power.


West portrays Tito as a moderate and mild dictator. In comparison to some twentieth-century dictators, this is undoubtedly true. West also sees Tito as a reluctant autocrat who opposed democracy and attempts at liberalization primarily because they would unleash nationalist passions and endanger the unity of the country. But if the conflict between Croats and Serbs had somehow miraculously disappeared, there is no evidence that Tito--who, as West himself notices, "was always inclined to resist reform or any weakening of the central power"--would have allowed, let alone encouraged, democratization. Tito was a dogmatic autocrat who never considered abandoning either the basic tenets of Marxist-Leninist ideology or the one-party system of government based on it.

On the larger issue of Yugoslav unity, West thinks that Tito was indispensable: "Supporters of Tito felt that [Yugoslavia] needed many more years of his strong and paternal rule to heal the wounds of the war. Such people valued the concept of Yugoslavia more than abstract -isms and -ocracies." But Tito ruled for over three and a half decades. No one can say that he did not have enough time to strengthen Yugoslavia's unity.

Yet the country ultimately disintegrated in a bloody civil war. And this breakup was not as much of a surprise as is often suggested. During the 1980s, Western statesmen and diplomats expressed continuing faith in Yugoslavia's future and unity. They were not naive. They simply thought it prudent to hide their fears, since an open discussion of Yugoslavia's slow disintegration might have sped it up. By then, many in the West began noticing the powerful separatist tendencies among the Croats and the Albanian minority, as well as the weakness of the central government in Belgrade, where the state and the party were headed by collective presidencies. The presidencies, moreover, were mere collections of the delegates of the six republics (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) and two autonomous provinces (Vojvodina and Kosovo, both inside Serbia). Indeed, it was no secret that the erosion of federal authority was such that politicians from the republics and provinces avoided long stretches in office in Belgrade, since it removed them from true political power.

Far from being the great unifier, Tito pursued many policies that eroded unity. In a simplistic, Marxist-Leninist manner, Tito saw nationalism as "bourgeois ideology" and national conflicts as caused by "capitalism." So after the war, with the "bourgeoisie" defeated, he did little to combat nationalism and forge unity. While a common Yugoslav school program was created, cultural exchanges among Yugoslavia's six republics were not intense and with time became rare. No university for all nationalities was created, nor was there a policy of encouraging students to study outside their republics. It was rare for a Croatian professor to teach in Belgrade or a Serbian one in Zagreb. When the media did advocate all-Yugoslav ideas, it was an exception to the rule. This cultural and intellectual autarky of republics helped preserve the traditional nationalisms of various groups.

Tito was among the more conservative Yugoslav communists when it came to tolerance of free expression of ideas and artistic creativity. Yet he was interested in attracting famous intellectuals and artists who would support the communist regime and exalt him personally. If they obliged, and in most cases they did, their prewar views and activities, which were often nationalistic, were erased from official memory, and thereafter no one was permitted to criticize them publicly. They became esteemed members of the establishment and adopted a veneer of Marxism-Leninism, but beneath it they continued to propagate nationalism. This was particularly true of historians, linguists, writers, and artists, whose work teemed with national pride, self-pity, and negative stereotypes. And new generations of intellectuals followed their teachers and elders.

As time went on, the official concept of Yugoslav unity became more and more emptied of the ethnic, linguistic, and historical traditions common to all Yugoslavia's national groups. By the late 1960s, it was almost completely vacuous. Titoist ideology was dispensed as a substitute, and schoolchildren, students, and soldiers had to learn about workers' self-management and Yugoslavia's foreign policy of nonalignment as values that held the country together. Tito's personality cult was a corollary.

Reforms in 1965 dealt centralized planning a decisive blow and stimulated economic development. But because they began to threaten the party's control over the economy they were drastically slowed down, mostly on Tito's initiative. So instead of a modern, integrated Yugoslav market economy, with the movement of capital, goods, and workers from one republic to another, regional interests increasingly asserted themselves. Republics and autonomous provinces began developing their own autarkic economies, duplicating each other's industrial enterprises, and inefficiently employing large foreign credits and loans. Since Tito's main concern was always to prevent any kind of all-Yugoslav opposition to his rule--and modern Yugoslav management and work forces might have become that--he welcomed the disastrous fragmentation.

In the early 1970s, Tito removed both the Croatian party leadership, which was nationalist but also liberal-reformist, and the Serbian party leadership, which was antinationalist and liberal-reformist. He had difficulty getting a majority of Serbian communists to support him and, true to form, responded in dictatorial fashion: "I wish to say here that when a party's line, results, and weaknesses are being discussed, then the number of speakers for or against a certain view is not the decisive factor in revolutionary choice and assessment of which path to take and what is to be done."

After the purges, Tito advocated reintroduction of party centralism and reinvoked Lenin. Yugoslavia's economic, social, and political life was not sufficiently advanced to resist the dictator, and reforms were discontinued. Still, the society was too Westernized, the communist party too tired and ideologically uncertain, and the ordinary people too sophisticated for the country to be pushed back into the party centralism of the immediate post--World War II years, as some inside the party desired and many outside it feared.

Tito's antidemocratic and anti-modernizing measures engendered further fragmentation. The adoption of the 1974 constitution--perhaps the world's longest, and definitely the most complex, cumbersome, and difficult to read--almost turned Yugoslavia into a confederation. From that time until the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1990, the eight locally based communist oligarchies resisted any form of reintegration. This anti-Yugoslavism (including firm opposition to anyone declaring himself to be Yugoslav, rather than Croat, Serb, etc.) became a central tenet of their ideology.

After the purges of the early 1970s, Tito surpassed himself in "negative selection."> Docility and sycophancy were almost the only criteria he used for filling state and party leadership positions. In Serbia, for example, he stocked the party leadership with such weak, colorless, and insignificant individuals that it is not surprising Slobodan Milošević met so little opposition to his rise to power in the second half of the 1980s.

Tito's Yugoslavia was undoubtedly not a totalitarian state of mass terror, but merely a moderately authoritarian, semi-efficient, corrupt, and somewhat farcical state, similar to many others in the world. The main guarantors of Yugoslavia's unity were the communist police and army. No force in the country could challenge them, and Tito always had complete control of both. So he did not need great political skills to neutralize any opposition, including nationalists and separatists. After all, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, the other two multinational countries in Eastern Europe, also were never threatened with disintegration so long as communists and their repressive police and army ruled them.

To resolve its national conflicts and overcome its sorrowful history, Yugoslavia would have had to be exceptional. It needed a dynamic economy and modern political institutions. Tito's political "genius" consisted of hindering and eliminating creative and reformist leaders, either within the communist party or outside it. What the West called "Titoism" turned out to be nothing more than Tito's skill in muddling through and avoiding the moment of truth. His talent was for nonsolutions that partly worked, provided he was at the center of the polycentric Yugoslav federation and the West provided huge credits. Tito, therefore, left nothing enduring. Neither workers' self-management, nor a foreign policy of nonalignment, nor Yugoslavia itself survived.

On May 4, 1995, the 15th anniversary of Tito's death, there were no official commemorations in any part of the former Yugoslavia. The media made few comments, almost all of which were negative and sarcastic. Up to 1990, around 14 million people had visited Tito's mausoleum. But for the anniversary only family members, representatives of the small and politically marginal League of Communists, and a few others came to his grave, which is no longer protected by the presidential guard of honor. The myth of Tito had vanished.

Alan Bullock ended his Hitler: A Study in Tyranny with the conclusion that Hitler had completely succeeded in his deepest purpose, which was to destroy "the liberal bourgeois order" and "the old Europe." He wrote, "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice," which translates as, "If you seek his monument, look around." Tito was no Hitler, nor was it ever his goal to destroy Yugoslavia. But since his dictatorial misrule enormously contributed to Yugoslavia's bloody disintegration, its ruins are a monument he deserves.

Note: More than 900 books have been published in Yugoslavia on Tito and his life, and there are over 350 books and major articles in English. The overwhelming majority are uncritical and propagandistic. A reader tempted to study Tito's life in more detail could begin with: Stephen Clissold, Whirlwind: An Account of Marshal Tito's Rise to Power, London: Cresset Press, 1949; Milovan Djilas, Tito: The Story from Inside, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981; Stevan K. Pavlowitch, Tito: Yugoslavia's Great Dictator--A Reassessment, London: C. Hurst & Company, 1992.

Pero Simić, Kad, kako i zašto je Tito postavljen za sekretara CK KPJ, Belgrad: Akvarijus, 1989.

This was said on October 16, 1972. Quoted in Dennison Rusinow, The Yugoslav Experiment, 1948-1974, London: C. Hurst & Company, 1977.

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  • Aleksa Djilas is the author of The Contested Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution, 1919-1953. From 1987 to 1994 he was a Fellow at the Russian Research Center, Harvard University.
  • More By Aleksa Djilas