Tito’s Complex Legacy

Explore the multifaceted legacy of Josip Broz Tito, the charismatic leader of socialist Yugoslavia, through the lens of historian Jože Pirjevec.

6 mins read
Tito with his granddaughter, Sasa Broz [File Photo]

Following excerpts adapted from the book originally published as Tito in tovariši by Cankarjeva založba, Ljubljana, and the English translation by Jože Pirjevec published by the University of Wisconsin System.

For three decades, Josip Broz Tito, the charismatic communist dictator of Yugoslavia, sailed the world in a majestic yacht, the Galeb (seagull). He entertained a motley crew of international celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Nikita Khrushchev and Indira Gandhi. Never one to kowtow to the expectations of the bipolar Cold War world, Tito made his boat an oasis of nonconformity. Under his rule, socialist Yugoslavia did things its own way.

Today, Tito’s yacht lays abandoned in the port of Rijeka, Croatia. Its hull is rusted, its deck dilapidated. Much like the tangled legacy of Josip Broz Tito, the founding father and lifelong ruler of socialist Yugoslavia, locals have mixed feelings about the abandoned ship. It is a nostalgic vestige of the greatness of Tito’s Yugoslavia, and yet an unforgiving reminder of the state’s wrenching collapse in the 1990s and the undoing of his legacy.

It is not easy to write the history of the founding father of one’s lost country. A prominent historian whose career crisscrossed the Cold War border between Yugoslavia and Italy, Jože Pirjevec is uniquely suited to do so. He studied in Trieste and Vienna, held important academic positions in both Italy and Slovenia, and is familiar with the region’s many archives and the diverse historiographical approaches to Yugoslav history around the world. A prolific author, Pirjevec has written many highly regarded works on diverse subjects of Yugoslav history and has often been the first to lay the foundations of new avenues of research.

In crafting Tito’s story, Pirjevec navigates a complex historiographical landscape. Tito’s predominating story long belonged under the tutelage of the Yugoslav state. Starting in the Second World War, Tito began to actively shape his own legacy, a process he continued for the next few decades. Through interviews and several authorized biographies, he presented himself as a symbol of unity and strength. Under his military leadership, the multiethnic Partisan army drove the Nazis out of Yugoslavia. His political ingenuity led to the subsequent foundation of a formidable socialist state. In 1948, when Stalin and the Cominform broke ties with Yugoslavia, hoping to force the young country to bend to Soviet influence, Tito guided his country through a sequence of turbulent global alliances with grit, vision, and cunning, emerging by the 1960s as the leader of the powerful Non-Aligned Movement.

These were the driving themes of Tito’s story, which formed the centerpiece of predominantly hagiographic biographies in both Serbo-Croatian and English. These studies looked sympathetically upon the socialist experiment and credited Tito with its success, ignoring the dictator’s role in the crimes communists committed under his rule. Tito’s biography became closely entwined with Yugoslavia’s foundational myths and its political legacy. In the aftermath of the Second World War, control of the past was essential to solidifying new regimes and helping societies heal from the traumas of war and genocide. Governments closely monitored historical production, especially the public narrative of the war, and Yugoslav efforts echoed this pan-European process.

As a country created amid Fascist occupation and international and civil war, socialist Yugoslavia’s foundational myths emphasized two central concepts: “anti-Fascism” and “brotherhood and unity.” These tropes highlighted the camaraderie of Yugoslavia’s diverse populations who fought in the Partisan army, papering over the bitter rivalries and civil conflicts that had destabilised the region since the First World War, as well as the nationalist factions that collaborated with the Nazis or fought against the communists. Those who dissented in the early postwar years were branded as Fascists. To promote this singular historical narrative, the regime developed a cult of Partisan heroes through history books, posters, and newspapers; it also held public rallies and parades and built memorial complexes to fallen Partisan soldiers, which quickly became mandatory sites of pilgrimage for Yugoslav youths. In Yugoslavia’s story, Tito was the devoted father, his sons and daughters were the many diverse constituents of Yugoslavia.

Occasional dissident literature, notably works by Tito’s one-time communist comrade Milovan Djilas, complicated Tito’s image by pointing out his more tactical and less benevolent acts. But for the most part, after 1950, the Yugoslav and Western public were sympathetic to Tito. Captivating and gregarious, he was known as the man who beat the Nazis and defied Stalin, who collected exotic animals on an Adriatic island, and who socialised with movie stars and world leaders.

In the aftermath of Tito’s death in 1980, historians began to challenge Yugoslavia’s grand foundational narratives and the story of Tito himself. Within Yugoslavia, scholars documented crimes committed by Partisan soldiers during the Second World War and unearthed stories of communist repression. They also called attention to the falsities of historical production in the socialist era, encouraging critiques of Tito and the Yugoslav socialist project. Even Tito’s official biographer, Vladimir Dedijer, published a controversial volume that acknowledged the communists’ darker past. A renewed focus on human rights in Eastern Europe, inspired by the Helsinki Accords in 1975, placed Tito’s legacy under a more critical international lens as well.

Several prominent historians of Yugoslavia in the United States and the United Kingdom also rigorously reassessed key parts of Tito’s narrative and Yugoslavia’s foundational moment in the Second World War. Among the earliest works were Denison Rusinow and Sabrina Ramet’s influential studies on the socialist Yugoslav state, which introduced readers to Tito’s dilemmas of state-building and provided a nuanced analysis of the socialist political project. Ivo Banac’s seminal work on the Tito-Stalin split clarified the vicious factionalism in Yugoslavia’s Communist Party and the ways that Tito, like other communist dictators, used purges, camps, and repression to solidify control. Stevan K. Pavlowitch’s biography of Tito, published just as the Yugoslav state collapsed, presented a more nuanced account of Tito’s accomplishments and failures, introducing new questions for historians to consider when investigating Tito.

But the majority of Communist Party and secret police archives remained closed to foreign researchers well into the 1990s, leaving historians without the essential tools for answering these questions and providing revisions of the historical record. Many Western historians interested in Tito’s life and career thus relied heavily on Allied documents; their prevailing interest, it seems, was to investigate Yugoslavia’s place in the global history of the Second World War and the Cold War, rather than to understand the country’s leader.

Within the region, the unearthing of repressed histories took on a new character with the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia in 1991 and the subsequent foundation of seven new countries. National leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia revised the stories of the Second World War and socialist Yugoslavia. Constructive historical reevaluations unfortunately served as components in new, uncompromising nationalist frameworks. Whereas Yugoslav histories had emphasised how the Partisans crushed foreign Fascists and their domestic collaborators for the sake of unifying Yugoslavia, nationalists sought to reclaim the Second World War experience as a fight against communism. In these new national histories, Yugoslavia—and by extension, Tito—had foiled their national self-determination and sovereignty through harsh repression.

Politicians actively engaged in the practice of historical rehabilitation. People who had been condemned by the Tito regime as war criminals were recast as popular national heroes. The new states played a central role in this process, with courts overturning socialist courts’ judgements and publicly condemning the process by which Tito’s regime had prosecuted—or persecuted—alleged Fascist collaborators. In post-Yugoslav countries, anti-communism became the new moral high ground, with many politicians and historians seeking to draw moral equivalencies between the crimes of Tito and the crimes of the Fascists. They believed that history had to be rewritten to serve their new national myths, and they employed the same tools as their socialist predecessors—propaganda, mythology, and public shaming—to do so.

In the late 1990s, as the wars ended and the archives opened, we began to see innovative new approaches to thinking about Yugoslavia as a twentieth-century phenomenon. Pirjevec was among the first of a group of prominent international scholars of Yugoslavia who grappled with Yugoslav history in toto. But even more so than survey histories of Yugoslavia, new, rigorously researched monographs have provided critical foundations for the re-examination of Tito’s biography. From detailed studies on politics and policing in interwar Yugoslavia to innovative histories on the complexities of the Second World War and the messy solidification of the socialist state, historians began to articulate a much more dynamic understanding of the context in which Tito came to political maturity, built a movement, and founded a state. Recent works on everyday life in Tito’s Yugoslavia and on Yugoslavia in the international system also shed new light on the connections between Tito the leader and the broader history of socialist Yugoslavia.

In the shifting historiographical landscape of the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, a balanced biography of Tito proved elusive, and attempts tended to swing between hero-worship and vituperation. In part, this may be due to the expansive topic and the number of archives involved in any thorough investigation of a political life that spanned from the Habsburg era to the late Cold War. But more than anything, the absence of critical analysis of Tito’s story speaks to his colossal stature. Consider the profound challenge of revising the history and memory of not merely the founding father of one’s late country, but of a myth, a hero, the closest thing to an embodied state.

Slowly, historians of the region have begun to excavate newly opened archives in an effort to map Tito’s complex biography onto the region’s contested history. The results are mixed: some avoid hyperbole by settling into quasi-encyclopaedic accounts; others situate Tito in the nationalist narratives that have emerged since the fall of Yugoslavia.

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