Armed conflicts, History, Human Rights, Politics

The Death of Tito and of Yugoslavia

Jun 8 2020

By Fernando Ayala*

Forty years ago, Marshal Josip Broz Tito died in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to be buried in Belgrade in the largest state funeral in history with the attendance of representatives from 128 countries: 4 kings, 31 presidents, 6 princes, 22 prime ministers and 47 chancellors[1].

And 29 years ago, in 1991, the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia disappeared from the map of Europe after a bloody civil war and foreign intervention, ending the period of peace that Europe had seen since the end of the Second World War.

Tito was a Croatian born into a peasant family, under the Austro-Hungarian empire. He specialized as a locksmith, emigrated to Vienna, was recruited by the imperial army, and sent to the front in the First World War. He was taken prisoner and sent to Siberia from where he escaped to then witness the Russian Revolution. Back in Zagreb, he joined the Communist Party and was imprisoned for six years before leaving once again for Moscow where he saw Stalin’s purges and the annihilation of many of his companions.

Upon his return to the country, he went into hiding from where he became the leader who restructured the communist party which reached 12,000 militants at the beginning of the armed resistance against the German invasion, in 1941. [2]  Tito left for the mountains to join the Partisan Army of Liberation against the Italian and German invaders.

Those were years of hardship, of death, of war against the occupiers and their Yugoslav allies: the Croatian Ustashas and the Serbian Chetniks, both cruel in their atavistic hatreds. Germany imposed a puppet state in Croatia (1941-1945) with the complicity of the Ustashas, the clergy and Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, who as archbishop blessed the German troops when they entered Zagreb. The Ustashas created Jasenovac, one of the worst death camps during WWII, where at least 100,000 Serbs, Communists, Jews, and patriots were killed. For their part, the Chetniks, extreme Serbian nationalists, monarchists, anti-communists, allies of the Italians, fought against Tito’s forces and against the Croatian Ustashas, committing atrocities against the prisoners.

Tito, at the head of the Communist Party and the patriotic forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, liberated and cleaned the country of Ustashas and Chetniks. During the War, Yugoslavia was invaded by five foreign armies from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, which together with the new Croatian State were part of Hitler’s “puppet” allies.

In Yugoslavia, it was not the Soviets that defeated Germany and its allies, as was the case in Eastern Europe. Tito liberated his country without the participation of the Red Army, except for the support that it provided for the liberation of Belgrade. This gave him the legitimacy to start his own search for a path to socialism. When Stalin tried to align Tito to his orders, in 1948, came the rupture, the expulsion of the Yugoslav communists from the Kominform. It was not easy to oppose Moscow and the Soviet propaganda machine. Stalin attempted to murder Tito. The latter answered: “Stalin: Stop sending people to kill me! We’ve already captured five of them, one with a bomb and another with a rifle… If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send another.”[3] 

In Yugoslavia, there was a persecution of communists accused of being pro-Soviets, together with executions and political prisoners. Tito and a small group of communists started a new path based on self-managing socialism. Open borders that allowed free emigration, limited market economy, private ownership of small businesses that made a substantial difference with the other socialist countries. It was a dictatorship, there was no political or press freedom, only one party, with the cult of personality around Tito well-developed.

In the middle of the Cold War, in 1961, Tito, together with Nasser and Nerhu, promoted the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, which had more than 100 member countries at the time of Tito’s death. They declared themselves as not following the policies of Moscow or Washington. The 1960s and 1970s awarded Yugoslavia prestige and respect for its efforts to secure peace. It was a strong State, with a powerful army, a country that counted in the international scenario, respected.

Tito’s death, the lack of a leader, the fall of the Berlin wall, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, were part of the elements that led to the start of the civil war and the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, a country born at the end of the First World War, in 1918. Yugoslavia had been a creation of the victorious powers that brought together Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and around twenty ethnic minorities.

In 1998, Germany was the main supporter of the country’s division and dismemberment. Berlin, all by itself, without the support of the then European Community or the United States, was the first to recognize the independence of Slovenia, and this was the step to unleash the civil war. Lackluster leaders in Croatia and Serbia, imbued with primitive nationalism, gave birth to six new countries and to one still seeking international recognition. Two of these Balkan states, Slovenia and Croatia, managed to enter the European Union, while the others wait in line.

Ethnic cleansing and the civil war left more than 120,000 dead, many thousands wounded, women raped, cities destroyed. NATO bombed Belgrade leaving 5,000 victims. The question is still floating in the air: where was the European Union, where the UN? t

None of the new countries that emerged have much weight on the international scene, and neither has the respect that Tito’s Yugoslavia enjoyed.

3 Ibid and Simon Sebag, quoted in La Vanguardia.  https://www.lavanguardia.com/historiayvida/20191026/471180048646/cartas-historia-sebag-montefiore.html

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* Former Ambassador, is a graduate economist at the University of Zagreb and holds a master’s degree in Political Science from the Catholic University of Chile. He is currently consultant in Rome for FAO on South-South cooperation, academic and parliamentary issues. For 36 years he worked for the Chilean Foreign Service, since 2004 in the rank of Ambassador. He quit the diplomatic career on March 10, 2018. He was Chile’s Ambassador to Vietnam, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago, Italy and to the UN agencies based in Rome. Article sent to Other News by the author, June 7, 2020


[1] Goldstein, Ivo i Slavko. Tito. Profil, Zagreb, 2015, p.796.

[2] Ibid, p.177.

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