He, was a sturdy leader whose power once held the country together under the banner of brotherhood and unity. He, became one of the most prominent political figures that wielded his country’s influence beyond its size. He, was seen by some as a strongman who oversaw one of the most prosperous periods this region has ever had. Above all else, He was hailed as the creator of modern Yugoslavia, when hundreds of foreign delegates from both Communist and non-Communist states were bidding his last farewell in the House of Flowers, just inside the National Yugoslav Museum in Belgrade. He was Josip Broz Tito.
I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities. – Josip Broz Tito
Originally constructed in 1975, this House of Flowers, used to be Tito’s winter garden in the vicinity of his official Residence, is now where he peacefully rests. Despite being born in Croatia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he instead opted for being buried in his simplistically beautiful garden with two parallel corridors on each side. On the opposite of the entrance was a snowy terrace with a city view of Belgrade. In accordance with his personal wishes, Tito’s grave, with a grandiose protruding slab of white marble with his name in gold, is long intertwined in the central greenery. Besides him is his wife, Jovanka Broz, joined in 2013. We stood still when we were all inside the mausoleum in serenity, losing in the moment a while longer when paying tribute to this legendary leader.
From the other side of the exposition hall, there lays his work chamber and numerous personal items like his identical uniform, as well as handwritten letters of greetings from delegates within the federation or foreign countries. What promptly caught our heed was the exhibition of over 2200 relay batons in different shapes, as an annual token of celebration to Tito on Youth Day (25th May, also Tito’s birthday). Each year, there was an endless throng of pedestrians gathering along the main route. People were having a glimpse of the batons which would be presented to Tito in the Yugoslav People’s Army stadium in Belgrade, for conveying sincere wishes for long life and good health to their honourable leader. The runners grasped hold of one of them, passed on to the others and it was hence like the Olympic flame, travelled all around the federation and thus, became the symbol of the Yugoslav years.
Such colourful array of gifts illustrates how Tito constructed nation’s image as youthful and sportive, and at the same time helped enhance citizens’ social cohesion to consolidate Yugoslavia under the banner of brotherhood and unity. After the Second World War, Tito declared to promote a new ‘Yugoslav’ identity that would coexist with the constituent republics and ethnicities within six main nations throughout the communist era. At home, during his subsequent 35 years in power, his personality cult, especially images of his enjoyment towards Cuban cigars and whiskey, became the defining propaganda figurehead of the federation. Equally evident was the citizens’ immense respect for his charisma and strong character demonstrated during the liberation of Yugoslavia and the postwar conflict with Stalin.
Externally, although Tito was celebrated as the leader of Europe’s largest guerrilla campaign by 1945 ever, his true ascent as a world statesman soared after the split with Stalin. As the pioneer in a diplomatic policy of Non-Aligned Movement, he was dedicated to mutual prosperity and advocated of a middle course in the midst of the bipolar world order. For one thing, Tito affirmed his will not to succumb to Stalin’s desire in turning Yugoslavia into a Soviet satellite state or taking part in the Warsaw Pact. For another, it enabled Yugoslavia to remain neutral of the East-West divide during the Cold War, and to promote a non-confrontational policy towards the United States which successfully played off one superpower against the other.
As the country distanced itself from the Soviets in 1948, internally, Tito commenced its unique way to socialism under his strong political leadership. Economic reforms expedited with the introduction of workers’ self-management in 1950, and later calling for a market socialism system. By virtue of the government’s implementation of infrastructure development programs, the industrial sector began to thrive with surging exports in heavy machinery and military technology and equipment. Due to the increase of liberalisation and decentralisation, open borders trade improved and foreign investment enhanced, hence, Yugoslavia was steadily endowed by an economic boom, with its average soar of 6% of GDP for two decades.
“It was a time of safety and security; a working father could support a whole family, education and healthcare was free for all. Yugoslavia had a good reputation around the globe.” – Josip Joska Broz, Tito’s grandson
Nevertheless, despite some freedom in economic management, political rights, such as democracy and individual rights to dissent from governmental decisions, were severely repressed. Without permitting free and fair elections, free speech, or freedom of association, strict order was imposed from the top. Whoever Tito perceived as an stumbling block to his ultimate control was persecuted, or arrested and sent to the labour camp, with thousands of citizens being detained for speaking out against the regime, or just blatantly expressing divergent views. For fear of ethnic identity placing above national loyalty, nationalist sentiment within Yugoslavia, though apparent, remained contained largely, sometimes forcibly like in the “Croatian Spring” in the early 1970s.
Perhaps Tito had never thought of his country, once he called for brotherhood and unity built by his firm grab of power, was at last marred by the powerful rise of nationalism and ethnic tensions after his death in 1980, which in turn, triggered the downfall of the federation in 1992. Yet, although some blamed him for the bloody wars that tore the regions apart, his unassailable position that leaded Yugoslavia to flourish economically and internationally, indeed, gained wide credits. How would history comment on this controversial leader – whether he was a charismatic marshal that won public hearts, an authoritarian that repressed political opponents, or a benevolent dictator – still hinges on our interpretation. ♦