Man and myth

This well-researched book deserves attention for those who wish to peer beyond the carefully cultivated image of Josip Broz Tito


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Decades after his death in 1980, Josip Broz Tito still casts a spell as a larger-than-life figure.

The legend portrays him as a famous military leader and anti-fascist guerrilla fighter who fought off the Nazis and defied Stalin. He then went on to be a champion of peace who stood up for various small nations snapping the coils of European overlordship. He was at home on imperial estates or, more often, on his secluded luxury home on the island of Brioni, with Old Masters adorning his walls and kings, emperors and fellow communist strongmen paying homage.

Tito’s Secret Empire by William Klinger and Dennis Kuljiš, (Hurst, £30)

Despite clumsy language and hyperbole in places, as well as some avoidable errors, Tito’s Secret Empire seeks to debunk Tito’s legend and in several key respects it succeeds. The authors William Klinger and Dennis Kuljiš accord some honours to their subject.

He was a unique character well-equipped to surmount various obstacles during his 88-year life. For the British diplomat, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, he was “a fail-proof survivor”. In 1974 he was hailed by Germany’s Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, as “the greatest of the winners of the Second World War”.

A benign image persisted, despite Tito being responsible for more acts of mass cruelty than any other European communist leader with the exception of the Soviets. He was admired as a wheeler-dealer in international affairs, from murky transactions to the most delicate undertakings in statecraft. This well-researched book deserves attention for those who wish to peer beyond the carefully cultivated image.

As a young man, Tito almost emigrated to the United States and he boasted that if he had done so, he would certainly have become a millionaire. Instead, he was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army and captured on the Eastern front in the First World War.

It was as a prisoner in Russia that he joined the Communist Party and by the early 1920s he was a labour agitator in Zagreb. A locksmith by training without formal education, he spurned any absorption with communist theories and became a revolutionary cadre, graduating to being a Comintern agent in the 1930s. His temperament suited him for intelligence work. Self-confident, astute, and secretive, he was a born survivor but also a natural individualist.

Despite stylistic weaknesses, this is a welcome re-appraisal of a cruel, charismatic and opaque figure

It was by organising a formidable resistance to the Axis after Hitler invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, that he became a figure of European importance. The Germans took him seriously and at one stage even negotiated with him.

The authors have little difficulty in showing his ruthless side. While in Moscow in 1936 he was in the thick of denouncing unreliable comrades. He would later purge others such as Milovan Djilas, his close wartime comrade, when their ideas deviated from his. Neither did he lift a finger to rescue the imprisoned intelligentsia and activists of the Croatian communist party before the Ustashi got to them in 1941.

What mattered to Winston Churchill was the mastery of the techniques of special warfare that his partisans acquired. Maclean, his man-on-the-spot, was “fascinated with Tito. He saw him … in combat; he understood his dominant nature, grasped his energy and total self-confidence. He already knows that Tito is not in Stalin’s pocket.” The assumption was that a Yugoslavia welded into a united entity by this protean figure would be a balancing force in a ravaged post-war Europe. It was a naive judgment that few British writers on Tito have properly acknowledged.

Tito had plans not just for his own country but for much of the North Mediterranean littoral. In return for using his fighters against the Germans in the Tyrol, he demanded his own occupation centre in Vienna. In a shameful episode, 4,000 White Russians and 11,000 of their family members were delivered to the communists to disappear without trace. They had never been Soviet citizens and their handover was not even in accordance with the Yalta Agreement. (Part of Operation Keelhaul also involved handing over some 70,000 quisling troops who had surrendered to the Western allies in Austria.)

Tito was pitiless towards groups whose ethnicity did not suit his plans for a Yugoslavia supposedly built on “brotherhood and unity”. The Italian population of Rijeka in 1936 had been nearly 54,000 but, by 1948 only a few thousand were left, the others having been expelled or killed. Of the nearly half a million Germans recorded in the Yugoslav census of 1931, scarcely 55,000 remained in 1948.

It is not far-fetched to claim that Tito set the moral parameters within which Slobodan Milosevic later operated as communist Yugoslavia unravelled amidst a fresh welter of politically-organised killing.

At first, Tito opted for full communism. He was Stalin’s discipline when it came to implementing the blueprint for a People’s Democracy. Elimination of ethnic enemies, collectivization and a centrally-planned economy were the order of the day.

But Stalin was increasingly exasperated with Tito’s freelance operations, plotting breakaway bids in Italy and regime change in Greece. The Soviets preferred the city of Trieste to be an international free port, a buffer zone between Yugoslavia and the West to which Tito would never agree.

The break occurred in 1948 when Tito rejected Moscow’s call for a Bulgarian-Yugoslav union. His excommunication from the communist church would have nothing to do with communist doctrine but was bound up with the strategy for advancing communist power in Europe. Tito dreamed of an East Mediterranean empire, according to the authors, and hated the idea of being in charge of a dependency within a Moscow-run monolith.

Tito will long be remembered as someone who provided an interlude of unity in the congenitally fractious Balkans

His 1954 state visit to then-royalist Greece, a regime which he had spent years trying to topple, was an unmistakable indication that he was placing himself at the head of a hybrid regime. Britain’s foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, had already visited him and urged the United States to prop up Tito financially. The favour was not returned. Evidence is provided that Tito played a major role in encouraging Egypt to nationalise the Suez Canal. He saw President Nasser as a kindred spirit, a populist unencumbered by ideology. Tito even more keenly sought to end French rule in Algeria, arming the rebels and offering diplomatic support.

In September 1961, he welcomed dozens of leaders from the promising new “non-aligned” bloc to a conference in Belgrade. Next year China invaded India and his soul-mate, Nehru, turned to the West for help. Thereafter, the non-aligned movement’s influence waned, as did Tito’s with it.

He increasingly became a pensioner of the Soviet Union. American ardour cooled as it became clear how reliant he was on Soviet arms and industrial licences which enabled this supposed ambassador of peace to export weapons to the Third World.

At home, he had no light-touch Marxist solution to tackling Yugoslavia’s ingrained economic problems. Obscure and ultimately unworkable innovations in the management of party and state owed more to inter-war fascism, or Nasser, than to orthodox socialism.

Tito will long be remembered as someone who provided an interlude of unity in the congenitally fractious Balkans. But his formula was built on illusions that could not long survive his passing. Despite stylistic weaknesses, this is a welcome re-appraisal of a cruel, charismatic and opaque figure who, for a time, bent the rest of the world to his will.

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