Thursday, July 11, 2013


One of the biggest shifts in thought I had on this trip involved Marshal Tito, Prime Minister and President of Yugoslavia from 1944 until his death in 1980.  My memories of him are largely negative. I think we Americans are wary of anyone who is power for so long and so completely. He was re-elected each term until 1963, at which point his term was made unlimited. I suppose our members of Congress could easily be in office for 36 years, but all face regular re-election and none are given an unlimited term.

I looked up Tito in my Columbia Encyclopedia, which was published in 1978, two years before Tito's death. The entry is fairly negative, full of words and phrases like "dictator," "secret police," "purged dissident elements," and "repression." However, it does acknowledge Tito's personal magnetism, his work with Nehru of India and Nasser of Egypt, and the fact that he created "the most liberal Communist country in Europe."

Because of my limited knowledge and understanding of Tito's regime, it was surprising to discover how popular he was--and still is--all over the Balkans. I had mentally linked Tito with the likes of Romania's Ceausescu and the Soviet Union's Khrushchev, yet even in Bosnia we heard praise for Tito and his ability to not only reject the amorous advances of the Soviet Union, which wanted to add Yugoslavia to the Soviet harem, but also to unify the disparate ethnic groups of the Balkans.

Our guide took us to "The House of Flowers," a large building near Tito's home that housed a winter garden designed for his rest and relaxation. It was built in 1975, and now, in accordance with Tito's wishes, it is the mausoleum for his body. There is a long marble sidewalk approach to the tomb, which is in the center of the solarium:

Until 1990, this tomb had a formal guard--two armed men in military garb. We visited the site on the day after Tito's official birthday (but not his real birthday--which is May 7th), and it was decorated with beautiful fresh floral arrangements:

Lucky for us, there were lots of explanations in English that clearly show Serbia's respect for their leader:

The signs make a point to show how popular Tito was on the international stage as well, evidenced by the outpouring of support at his funeral:

I learned the Tito's father was from Croatia, and his mother was from Slovenia. His real name was Josip Broz, but he adopted the pseudonym "Tito" in 1933 after being released from prison, where he spent five years for participating in "illegal Communist activities." He was married at least four times and led a rather lavish life (at one time he had 32 separate residences). He had a fascinating personal and military life, and he was certainly a political genius.

One of the most interesting things in The House of Flowers was an exhibit of hundreds of unique batons. Beginning in 1945 and continuing eight years past Tito's death, a relay race began in Tito's hometown of Kumrovec, Croatia, and continued through all the major cities and towns of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia, ending in a nationally-televised extravaganza in a Belgrade stadium on Tito's "official" birthday, May 25th. Here is a clip from 1979, the last year Tito was in attendance:
What an amazing cultural experience for those involved. It's not that much different from the dance festivals I participated in as a youth.

Over the years, the batons used in the relays were presented to Tito as birthday gifts from "all of the youth of Yugoslavia."
There were some real masterpieces:

Marshal Tito with some of the batons on his desk:
There were many photos on display of the actual relays, and I loved seeing the children in their national costumes:
Apparently it was good preparation for Olympic torch running in later years:

This is the birthday party at the end of the relay on Youth Day, a national holiday:

Over the years, Tito hung out with some pretty famous people:
Photo from here
Photo from here
Photo from here
I have to admit that in spite of his substantial flaws, I felt quite a bit of admiration for this man by the time we were done with our trip. It's one thing to read about him in a textbook, and quite another to see him through the eyes of his own people.

The park around The House of Flowers included some interesting art and the Museum of Yugoslav History, both of which added to my positive vibes about Serbia.

For example, I was very moved by this sculpture entitled The Carrying of the Wounded, created in 1947 by Antun Augustincic. It reminded me that we all suffer in war, no matter what country we are from:

Then there was this statue of five women, each in a different costume. I'm not sure what they are holding up, but they have that noble peasant woman look of the nationalistic socialist art we saw in Russia. These are women who are comfortable carrying heavy loads:

Among other things, the Museum of Yugoslav History is full of exquisite national costumes from different regions:


Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina


Serbia on the left, Croatia on the right

I can imagine that during Tito's era there was understandably a lot of pride in the diversity of Yugoslavia, and I have a better grasp of why the secession of one country after another from the union was so devastating.

I know that I have only a very superficial understanding of the reality of the last 75 years in the Balkan region. (Irate comments from a pro-Serbian reader on previous posts have assured me of that.) However, the beginning of understanding is exposure and a willingness to look at both sides of an issue. What I hope I am communicating is that spending even the little bit of time that we did in Serbia has opened up some other possibilities and shot down some of my misconceptions. As my Serbian reader implies, there are two sides, or maybe dozens of sides, that must be considered when trying to understand the history of any country.


  1. Another nice historical post. I can really understand the draw of the larger country. As our guide said, when all together, it was a country to be reckoned with. Split into small countries, none of them are particularly significant on their own.

  2. Interesting history about Tito. You are right how you really can't know a country until you've traveled to it.

    I want a baton. Esp. the one with the scissors!

  3. Lots to think about. I think the lavish lifestyle tends to give the appearance of corruption, especially from afar. Plenty of our own politicians are guilty of the same sort of thing and we think little of it.

    Those national costumes reminded me of the dirndls mom brought us from Germany. I really loved those--what a shame we don't still have them.

    I love the batons--I want some too!