Is Josip Broz Tito underestimated?

Between the fronts of the Cold War

On the biography of Tito by Jože Pirjevec

From Martin Meier

Discussed books / references

May 24, 1944. In the Unartal, nature is in full bloom, a sunny spring day is drawing to a close. In a cave near the Bosnian town of Drvar, partisan leaders gather around the Croatian Josip Broz, known as Tito, for a daily briefing. Routine. Tito goes to sleep. Short, strong thunderstorms interrupt his sleep. In the early hours of the morning he thinks he can hear the rumbling thunder again. He slowly realizes that it is engine noises from approaching planes. Bombs fall. SS paratroopers jump off near Drvar. The XV. Mountain Corps of the Wehrmacht opens the "Rösselsprung" company. Tito's partisans are surrounded. Vlado, a close confidante of the partisan leader, goes to the cave entrance to get an idea of ​​the situation. Hit in the temple, he collapses seriously injured. Blood and brain splash on the stone wall. Tito orders a comrade to "give Vlado the coup de grace". After a moment's hesitation, this instruction is complied with. Meanwhile, the ring around Tito's headquarters continues to close. Around 10:30 a.m., a reporter went to Tito on stealth, but found him not in the cave, but outside in a barrack. He stands there in marshal's uniform, evidently about to surrender to the Germans. The messenger Žujovic grabs his revolver, points it at Tito and shouts: “What does that mean? You put on the parade uniform, but know that you will not fall into their hands alive. Go out, old coward. ”Žujovic forces Tito at gunpoint to hit the barracks floor and rappel down into a river bed. He manages to escape. Completely exhausted, he reaches his comrades.

The life of the Yugoslav communist leader, who was born in Kumrovec, Croatia, in 1892 holds a multitude of adventurous events in store. Tracing the biography of the man who owes his first military experience to the Austro-Hungarian army is the aim of a work by Jože Pirjevec that was published in Slovenia in 2012. The fact that it is now also available in German is thanks to Antje Kunstmann Verlag and the successful translation by Klaus Detlef Olof. Pirjevec not only describes the company “Rösselsprung”, but also Tito's involvement in the Spanish civil war, the power struggles within the International or Cominform, and the struggle for Yugoslavia's own socialist path so vividly that the reader is reluctant to return to the book after reading it will lay hands on. Pirjevec maintains a healthy balance between anecdotal portrayal of life and scientifically meticulously researched underpinning of his work.

He does not hide the legends that have grown up around Tito. Josip Broz was captured by Russia in 1915. In 1917 he fled the prison camp, went to St. Petersburg, where he joined the Bolsheviks and worked as a mechanic for the Red Guard. The strong bond he developed here with the Soviet Union stayed with him until the 1950s. Despite massive tensions with Stalin, he rebuked a general who made derogatory comments about the first socialist state. Every wolf has its pack. He, too, will never forget his own. Tito's language gave rise to rumors throughout his life that Josip Broz, who was captured by Russia in 1915, died in captivity and that his identity was assumed by a Ukrainian. Tito spoke Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian and German with an accent, so that it was never clear which was actually his mother tongue. Pirjevec goes into this in his book without being able to refute that legend.

Tito experienced the phase of Stalinist terror of the 1930s first hand in Moscow. He later described to his comrades in arms the screams of the families in the corridors of the hotel when they were picked up. However, this probably did not prevent him from becoming active in the intelligence service himself. Tito was very likely to be supporting an NKVD department operating from France, whose mission was to track down Trotskyist dissenters in the ranks of the International Brigades in Spain and to physically "eliminate" them.

After the occupation of Yugoslavia by German troops and the creation of the Croatian satellite state by the occupying power, various resistance groups emerged. The Serbian Chetniks under Draža Mihailović and the communist partisans under Tito were important. In addition to the fascist Ustaša associations and German troops, the British and Soviet secret services also acted as actors. The British viewed Yugoslavia as a strategically important gateway into the German hegemonic area. With the growth of the Tito movement, they increasingly encountered the Soviet attempt to exert influence, which was also shown by the presence of Soviet military advisers on site. Tito made a clear decision in favor of the Soviet Union relatively late. Accordingly, in 1944 relations with the Western Allies deteriorated noticeably. The political conflict escalated in June 1945. Churchill, who had given up Yugoslavia in 1944, made every effort to weaken the communist movement in Italy. When Tito called for Trieste to be annexed to Yugoslavia in 1945 and gathered troops, there was a threat of a serious military conflict with the Western Allies in Europe just one month after the end of the war. Since, in the event of a renewed war, the intervention of Soviet troops seemed inevitable from Moscow's point of view, Stalin forced Tito to refrain from his plans. The way in which he did this cooled the relationship between the Yugoslav and Soviet communist leaders. The numerous rapes by Soviet troops against the Yugoslav civilian population also contributed to this. When a wife of a close colleague was affected, Tito found it difficult to counter anti-Soviet aversions.

Stalin underestimated the Yugoslav side. Pirjevec illustrates the difference between the KPJ (from 1952 the Union of Communists of Yugoslavia, BdKJ) and all other Eastern European brother parties. While these would not have come to power without Soviet support, Tito had formed an enormously powerful resistance movement in Yugoslavia on his own, which was supported by large parts of the population. After the end of the war, Tito was able to further strengthen his already significant domestic political weight. Contributing to this was that he did not intend to transfer the Soviet pattern one-to-one to Yugoslavia. He declared the collectivization of agriculture and the formation of kolkhozes to be incompatible with the local agricultural economy, which operates on small areas. The expansion of power was also accelerated by brutally combating political opponents in the first years after the war.

In terms of foreign policy, an attempt was made to establish a close alliance with Bulgaria, which resulted in a common federation. Tito's idea of ​​a large Balkan alliance including Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania met with deep distrust in Moscow. When Yugoslavia finally began to involve Albania in these plans, and on the pretext of wanting to help the Greek Communists transfer troops to that country, there was a final break with Stalin.

Stalin had the unpopular opponent Tito expelled from the Cominform in 1948 and expressed the presumptuous view that if Tito was first ostracized, he would be overthrown in the shortest possible time. He held the Yugoslav communists for the most part loyal to Moscow and once again misjudged the situation that was completely different from Eastern Europe.

In 1949 the dispute escalated. As in the case of a declaration of war, on August 20, 1949, the Soviet ambassador delivered an extremely harsh diplomatic note. With her, Moscow protested against the imprisonment of the so-called "white Russians". These were Russian emigrants who had fled Russia in the course of the October Revolution. Many had cooperated with the Germans during the war. Those who were not shot because of this were granted citizenship by the Soviet authorities without asking the Yugoslavs. This act of protection was by no means selfless, but rather speculated on the creation of a "fifth column" within Yugoslavia. After the break with the Soviet Union, Tito had the “White Russians” imprisoned.

Since the hoped-for overthrow did not occur, Stalin seriously considered the invasion of Soviet troops and had plans for the military occupation of Yugoslavia drawn up, incidentally with the involvement of East German troops. The reviewer takes the liberty of remarking that the Soviet zone of occupation did not have any operational units at that time. The SBZ border police would certainly not have been capable of extensive operations. Stalin had operational plans drawn up and, according to the Soviet Defense Minister Nikolai Alexandrovich Bulganin, only put them aside on the urgent advice of his own generals. When the Korean War began in 1950, the gap widened. Yugoslavia abstained from voting in the Security Council when the UN operation against the KDVR was voted on. This offended not only the Soviets, but also the Americans, since Tito had previously spoken out sharply against the aggressive policy of the Soviet Union and now he was not acting in the interests of the Americans.

In 1951, Stalin resumed plans to attack Yugoslavia. When China intervened in the Korean War, Tito had no doubt that his country could flourish like South Korea. For his part, he made intensive preparations that resulted in a blitzkrieg against Albania and Bulgaria. Since a numerical inferiority of one to three was expected in the event of a military conflict, these plans implied the demolition of a dam, the defense of strategically important stretches of land and even the complete withdrawal of Yugoslav troops into NATO territory. For its part, the USA attempted to bind Yugoslavia to its own sphere of influence and to support it militarily and economically. American military advisers and modern warplanes were imported. Nevertheless, Tito tried to preserve the autonomy of his own politics. The Italians disagreed with being part of NATO. Here the dispute over the Trieste question escalated in 1954. Both sides, Italy and Yugoslavia, pulled together military units and a clash seemed almost inevitable. In this situation the Western powers decided to assign Zone A of the free Trieste area occupied by them to Italy, and Zone B occupied by Tito's units to the Yugoslavs. An agreement signed after tough negotiations was ratified in October 1954.

Nevertheless, Tito set on a course of constant official neutrality. In alliance with India, Yugoslavia developed into the driving force of a movement of non-aligned states. At the end of the 1950s, the Federal Republic managed to relax relations with the Soviet Union. The recognition of the GDR contributed to this. The United States subsequently scaled back its military aid - a fact that was well received in Moscow. The relationship was clouded by the sharp position of the Albanian President Enver Hoxha, who consistently opposed "Titoism".

Despite the temporary rapprochement with the West in foreign policy, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia retained the goal of building a socialist state. At the beginning of the 1950s a policy of liberalization began: trips abroad were simplified and criticism of political conditions was permitted to a limited extent. Writers and artists could work relatively freely. Handicraft businesses nationalized in the 1940s were privatized again. Economically, Yugoslav socialism differed enormously from that of the Soviet Union. Tito's close confidante Milovan Ðilas developed the model of self-administration. Following the ideas of Karl Marx and the French utopians, the management of the factories was placed in the hands of workers' collectives who ran autonomously. Pirjevecs clarifies the advantages of this system, but also works out the sharp contrast between claim and reality. Self-management presupposes a type of worker who is able to think capitalistically in order to lead his company to success. Relatively few workers were able or interested in doing so.

On July 13, 1953, Yugoslavia received a new constitution, essentially drawn up by Edvard Kardelj, which replaced the Stalinist one of 1946. From the point of view of its creator, it served to further democratize conditions.

An economic boom paired with democratic achievements solidified the power base of the communists and enabled a significant improvement in the living conditions of broader viewpoints of the people. Nevertheless, apart from Albania, Yugoslavia remained at the bottom of the economic list among all European countries. In the early 1970s, nationalist conflicts broke out again. Croatia in particular demanded a degree of autonomy that ultimately aimed at complete sovereignty. So the republic raised the demand to independently conclude foreign policy treaties and to build up its own army.

When Tito died in May 1980, he left a deeply divided country. The political and economic contrasts foreshadowed the violent eruption of the 1990s.

Pirjevec's study contributes significantly to the understanding of this conflict without even mentioning it. Although a single personality is at the center of his work, he traces the history of Yugoslavia. It broadens the view of those readers who strive to reduce the history of the 20th century to dual opposites in the concert of international powers. Tito embodied a third way. Standing between the camps, asserting himself with skill and force, he strived for the unity of the South Slav peoples and a socialism beyond the Moscow route.

Some minor weaknesses of the book can be neglected, for example when Pirjevec declares that the largest contingent of communist Spanish fighters came from Yugoslavia. It seems more regrettable that Tito's motivation for opting for the Bolsheviks in 1917 is not worked out. This is certainly due to the weak source situation and in no way diminishes the enjoyment of reading.