Croatian history is full of controversial figures, but none is more controversial than Marshal Tito, a Croat who was the leader of antifascist struggle during the Second World War and later President of Yugoslavia until his death. His legacy is something which is still being fiercely debated in Croatia, even almost 40 years after his death. Whatever one may think of him, it is undisputable that Josip Broz Tito is by far the most prominent politician ever to be born in Croatia.
Josip Broz was born in May 1892 in Kumrovec in the Hrvatsko Zagorje region of Croatia. It is not completely certain when exactly, but 25 May was the date of his official birthday which was during the communist times in Yugoslavia celebrated as a national holiday (Day of Youth). After finishing four years of elementary school in Kumrovec, he went to Sisak, where he soon decided to become a metal worker. He later went to Zagreb where he worked in a metal shop and became a member of the Alliance of Metal Workers and a member of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia and Slavonia.
In May 1911, he participated in his first industrial action, a strike of metal workers in Zagreb, which lasted for six weeks. He later worked in Slovenia, Germany, and Austria. In 1913, he entered military service, first in Vienna and then in Zagreb. He spent the First World War in the Austro-Hungarian army, occasionally being wounded and imprisoned, including in Russia, where he joined a Bolshevik group. He finally returned to Zagreb in 1920.
He found a job as a mechanic and immediately entered the Communist Party, which was soon outlawed by the royalist government. However, Tito decided to continue to operate politically underground. He moved around the country, alternatively working, getting fired and spending some time in prison. In 1927, he was named secretary of the regional committee of the Federation of Metalworkers of Croatia, which was his first official party function. He quickly rose through the ranks and next year he was elected general secretary of the Communist Party in Zagreb.
Broz was soon again arrested on suspicion of planning a bomb attack and spent the next several years in prison. He was released in 1934, and that is when he became a professional revolutionary and started using the alias Tito. By the end of the year, he was already a member of the party Politburo. He travelled regularly between Yugoslavia, Russia, Austria, France. In 1937, he became secretary general of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia.
In April 1941, Germany attacked Yugoslavia. On 22 June, Croatian communists established the Sisak Partisan Detachment, which is considered to be the beginning of the antifascist struggle and is today an official holiday in Croatia – the Day of Antifascist Struggle. In the Second World War, Tito was the undisputed leader of the partisan resistance movement and the main organizer of the strategy and tactics of partisan warfare. He made all the major political decisions that will shape the future of Yugoslavia and prevent the renewal of monarchist Yugoslavia. The most important political decisions were made in November 1943, at a session of AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) in the Bosnian town of Jajce. It banned the return of King Peter II Karađorđević to Yugoslavia and established the interim government. Tito was declared a marshal and president of the National Committee of Liberation of Yugoslavia, and he outlined the future of Yugoslavia as a state made up of federal republics. Tito skilfully pulled in representatives of other political options to his movement and won the trust of the British and the Americans, as well as the respect of the Soviet Union. He also drew the borders of the future republics in Yugoslavia which would later become international borders after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
As the war ended, Josip Broz Tito was an internationally respected statesman and the leader of the antifascist struggle. Regarding Croatia, he was responsible for return of parts of Dalmatia, Istria, Rijeka and the Kvarner islands to Croatia. On the other hand, after the war, partisans committed crimes against defeated forces. Tito became president of the provisional government of Yugoslavia, the supreme commander of the Yugoslav Army, the defence minister, and general secretary of the Communist Party. He ruled Yugoslavia for 35 years trying to find a balance among competing societal elements, occasionally allowing more freedoms, especially in periods of greater liberalization of the regime.
In the early years, Tito's rule was characterized by doctrinal rigidity, radicalism and removal of the remnants of civil society which was considered a barrier to achieving complete authority. In 1948, Tito broke with the Soviet Union. He demonstrated remarkable courage and determination, insisting on the independence as a principle for relations between sovereign states. The breakup was followed by mass expulsions of real and imaginary supporters of the Soviet Union.
In terms of domestic policy, in 1950 Tito began the introduction of the so-called workers' self-management principle in companies, in an attempt to prevent further bureaucratisation of the one party system. Later, in the 1960s, he introduced a series of economic and political reforms in order to strengthened the rights of republics against federal centralism, and he introduced some elements of a market economy. During that period, Yugoslavia began to receive military and economic assistance from the West, in an attempt to convince the regime to continue with impeding further expansion of the Soviet influence.
The most significant shift occurred in foreign policy: driven by relationships with leaders of newly-liberated countries such as India and Egypt, Tito became one of the founders and most influential statesmen of the Non-Aligned Movement, which included countries which were not part of neither eastern nor western block. With his foreign policy of peace, anti-colonialism and international cooperation, he gained world-wide reputation and was among the key figures of world politics, which was demonstrated by his numerous visits to other countries and by the list of foreign dignitaries who would come to visit him in Yugoslavia.
Further democratization of the Yugoslav society in the mid-1960s was accompanied by the dismissal of some of the leading dogmatic communists. In 1970, he began a reform of the federation in order to transfer federal powers to individual republics, which was furthered with the new constitution in 1974. However, at the height of the conflict between proponents and opponents of democratic reforms in 1971, he took the side of party conservatives and encouraged a crackdown on national-reform movements, particularly in Croatia. After Croatia, he also dismissed more liberal politicians in Serbia, Slovenia and Macedonia.
In the last years of his life, he tried to strike a balance between individual republics and prevent a power struggle which he correctly presumed was about to erupt after his death. He died in May 1980, aged 88. His funeral in Belgrade was attended by high-ranking delegations from virtually all the countries which existed at the time. Soon after his death, internal tensions within Yugoslavia, which were muted during his life, erupted. It all ended in the wars in the 1990s, and with the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991/1992.
Tito’s legacy is highly complex. He is seen in different ways in various parts of former Yugoslavia, and Croatia is no exception. He was undoubtedly the leading political figure for almost half the century, and there is hardly anything for which he is not held responsible, either positively or negatively. Even today, almost 40 years after his death, his legacy influences much of what is happening.
Undoubtedly, Tito was a person of incredible energy who, while accepting the communist worldview and a life of a professional revolutionary, found a way to escape the party monotony. He had an incredible personality, which he used to win over the majority of world leaders in the post-war period, both on the East and the West. He was a respected statesman, celebrated for his leadership during the Second World War, his break with Stalin, and his establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement, which had a positive influence on the Cold War relations.
Regarding Croatia, of special importance is his promotion of federalism in later stages of his life, particularly with the new constitution adopted in 1974, which was in the early 1990s used as a legal basis for Croatia’s independence. Although Tito never emphasized the fact that he was a Croat, it is clear that at the end of his life he did promote policies which prevented Serbia, which was the largest of Yugoslav republics, to dominate the rest of the country.
With his victory in the war, Tito returned to Croatia a large part of its coast and some other regions, some of which were never before part of the Croatian territory. This is a fact which is often “forgotten” by those who claim that Tito worked against Croats and who celebrate the Independent State of Croatia, whose leader Pavelić had surrendered some of the territories to Italy, in order to gain support for his regime during the Second World War.
On the other hand, Tito was a communist autocratic ruler who stayed in power for 35 years and who imprisoned and, particularly immediately after the war and in early years of his rule, killed his political opponents. The events which took place in spring and summer of 1945 were part of a hidden history which only came to light after the fall of communist regime in the 1990s. When Tito’s legacy is debated in Croatia today, his opponents often point to the mass killings after the Second World War, especially at Bleiburg and during the so-called Way of the Cross, when victorious partisans committed atrocities against members of defeated forces and killed a large number of Croats, including civilians. Although the exact number of killed is not known, it is estimated that the figure is in tens of thousands. In later years, persecution continued, with imprisonment and occasional assassination of political opponents continuing even after his death, well into the 1980s.
Perhaps the best example of ambiguous relation to Tito can be seen in positions about a symbolic issue of renaming the Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb. After the fall of communism, many streets and squares we renamed, but interestingly not the most well-known of them all, one of the most beautiful squares in the centre of Zagreb. In the last 27 years, there were occasional initiatives to rename it, but the city authorities never did it, even during periods when the city administration was dominated by rightwing “anticommunist” parties. The latest such initiative appeared just a few months ago, but again everything has been delayed until the referendum, which will probably never take place.
The debates will undoubtedly continue, and Tito will remain the focal point of political discussions, used by both sides to motivate their supporters and try to win over a few more votes at the next elections. Objective historians might reach a more balanced assessment of Tito’s legacy, but there are hardly any such historians anyway. Most of them have their own political agendas, which they try to hide behind the veil of superficial objectivity. Like so many other historical issues in Croatia, each side has its own set of “facts” which they do not allow to be questioned.