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The Truth About Yugoslavia

The Yugoslavs

by Dusko Doder
Random House, 256 pp., $10.00

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of my three months-old stay in the United States has been the appearance of this new book about Yugoslavia by Dusko Doder, correspondent for The Washington Post. And this is because since the time of my arrival I have not ceased to be amazed at the lack of understanding here, at times even deliberate silence, concerning what goes on in that small but independent communist country. I think of the articles that have appeared in the American press, such as Eric Bourne’s in The Christian Science Monitor of July 25, 1978, under the heading of “The Yugoslavs: Proud of Their Freedoms”; of the constant repetition of the untruth concerning a “general amnesty” supposedly granted last year; of the perplexed questions put to me (“Can there really be any political prisoners in Yugoslavia?”).

If these provoke no more than mild irritation and a bitter smile, then the activity of the congressional commission for monitoring the Helsinki Accords has completely mystified me, while at the same time it has pointed to the full depth and seriousness of the question of the relation of the democratic world to a country which, though the most liberal, is still a communist country. It seems that the congressional commission regularly publishes collections of documents on violations of rights in all the countries of Europe, including communist ones, with two exceptions; Albania and Yugoslavia. With Albania there is no problem: that country did not sign the Helsinki Accords. The exclusion of Yugoslavia from the group of countries where human rights are violated is, however, at first sight mysterious, even inexplicable.

Yet, in spite of this silence, there is everywhere a great interest in Yugoslavia’s future, and every day I am asked by almost all the Americans I meet, what will happen there after Tito departs from the scene? This mixture of correct apprehension of how important Yugoslavia’s fate is for Europe’s future and for the future of the whole world, and of unwillingness to contemplate the truth of the Yugoslav version of communism—this is what I found so depressing until I read Doder’s book. For this book (though not completely) does fill in the gaps in that rosy picture of “liberalized communism” created by the Western press. And the book has appeared just at the time it is most needed.

I first heard of Doder’s book from Milovan Djilas last spring, when the author sent him a part of the manuscript. And soon the still unpublished work became the subject of conversations among Belgrade intellectuals. And no wonder, for it was a work that did not describe the historic events of bygone years, or the beauties of the Yugoslav landscape, but rather portrayed contemporary, unretouched Yugoslav reality. I recall that we were all amazed at Doder’s story, one which he had somehow come across, that the general secretary of the Yugoslav Communist Party, Stage Dolane (Tito is Party chairman as well as the country’s president), had, in his youth, been a member of the Hitlerjugend during World War II. By itself this fact of course meant very little: Dolane was a Slovene, and Slovenia, from 1941 to 1945, was a part of Hitler’s Reich; and in any case the present Party secretary was then no more than a boy. But we have become so accustomed to constant lies and myths concerning the leaders of the Communist Party and its history that even a grain of truth of little significance in itself can produce the effect of an explosive.

And of such explosive material there is a quite considerable amount in this interesting, readable, and lively book, the first to give us portraits of a whole series of Party bosses, intellectuals, dissidents, and ordinary citizens in the land noted for so-called self-management socialism and for “nonalignment” In foreign policy. The Western reader will first learn of such distinguished leaders of the freedom-loving intelligentsia as the lawyer Jovan Barovle, who boldly and skillfully (though, of course, unsuccessfully) defended hundreds of accused persons in the political trials of the past decade; of the writer and poet Matija Beckovie; of the philosopher Ljuba Tadie.’ I, who have spent my whole life in Yugoslavia and who know almost all the persons described by Doder, can assure the reader that his portraits are extremely faithful, and that nothing has been exaggerated in the picture he gives of contemporary Yugoslav life.

The Yugoslav dictatorship, at first sight so strikingly different from its Soviet counterpart, is described here with wonderful accuracy, depicted as it is in quick strokes and with a mass of anecdotes. From this book the reader will learn of the fear of Yugoslav citizens of establishing contact with Western journalists, of the illegal opening of letters, of the life of the Yugoslav leader which, in its luxury, surpasses even that of the crowned heads of Europe. How much Doder’s brief account tells us when he describes how a highly placed official apologized to him for the fact that a policeman had beaten him up, saying, “You know, he thought you were a Yugoslav.” Or the account of how President Tito, showing off before an English noblewoman, awoke a bear from hibernation in his own private zoo in midwinter.

And, when describing the high standard of living enjoyed by the Yugoslavs, Doder does not forget to point out that the most important reason for this is the million or so Yugoslavs who work in Western Europe and send a part of their wages home, as well as the billions in American aid that Tito received after his break with Moscow in 1948. These things are often overlooked by admirers of the Yugoslav “model.”

A book like this can be written only by a person deeply involved with Yugoslav culture and history, by one who speaks Serbo-Croatian fluently and who thus comprehends everything from a mere word or a mere look. Besides this he must have some experience with life in a communist country. Hence it is no surprise to learn that Doder is in fact a former Yugoslav citizen, one who left the country in 1952. And it is obvious that those Western journalists who still have contacts with their native Eastern Europe make the most critical witnesses and observers of communist lands.

But in spite of all the book’s strong points. Its shortcomings and omissions are in my view no less significant, for they point to the ambivalent attitude of the democratic world to Yugoslav communism. And to emphasize this last is, I believe, the present review’s most important task.

I will say it once more—those important matters of which this book does not speak clearly demonstrate the ideological and spiritual ambivalence of the West, and are in no way the result of any failure or fault of the book’s author. Without question Doder saw much that escaped the eye of the ordinary American newspaperman, but at the same time, in interpreting what he had seen, he has not escaped current clichés or the influence of that “non-ideological ideology” which for decades has been pervasive in the West. Milovan Djilas, like most ex-communists, interprets ideology exclusively as totalfiarian ideology, and considers the lack of an ideological position a merit, and he praises Doder for this. But still a careful listing and analysis of those matters about which Doder does not write, and which the West does not wish so far to admit, clearly show a very definite ideological position, even an ideology as such, though one that is never openly stated.

The basic points of this ideology are the following: communism as such is not terrible, but only Russian communism, thanks to Russia’s centuries’ old tradition of unfreedom, while anti-Soviet communist movements are quite endurable. Only the one-party monopoly of Tito’s party can sustain multinational Yugoslavia as a single state, and the liquidation of that monopoly would bring Yugoslavia’s and as well. The repressions in Yugoslavia may safely be ignored, since they are useful in solidifying a land which threatens the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Tito was an ally during the war, and even today he is at least a half or quarter-ally, and hence to write of his crimes during the period of his coming to power, in 1945, is not useful. And finally: Yugoslavia’s future after Tito depends more on the country’s geographical position and on its historical and national traditions and not at all on any necessity to surmount communism, for the latter is a disease from which many different peoples suffer today.

Such are the basic positions of the West’s “non-ideological ideology” as it is applied to Yugoslavia, and it is just this ideology (I am not afraid to employ that much-compromised term) which is responsible for the fact that the democratic world often carries on its battle not with the disease itself, but with the sick man. The differences in national characteristics prevent us from seeing that the disease is one and the same wherever it strikes. The result is that each year more and more countries yield to the disease of totalitarian dictatorship, and so it will go on until the democratic world acquires a unified, international ideology which will wage war against the disease wherever it breaks nut, in our times, in the period of agonizing formation of a single world society, the politics of mere diplomatic and military alliance among different countries and peoples based on the celebrated balance of power principle of the times of Metternich is short-sighted and disastrous.

These considerations apply precisely to the case of Yugoslavia, and Doder’s book distinctly points out the basic shortcomings of the present spiritual condition of the democratic world.

Doder is silent concerning the spring of 1945, when the partisan forces both shot tens of thousands of their civil war opponents whom they had taken prisoner and compelled others to undertake a senseless and fruitless attack on the German fortified lines in the district of Srem, where the German forces were bogged down.* Doder says not a word about the terrifying concentration camps located on islands in the Adriatic, which flourished from 1948 to 1956. Doder even forgets to mention the student uprisings which occurred in Belgrade in 1968, uprisings which in fact constituted the first open mass resistance movement since the end of the war. He is silent concerning the attempt by a group of young intellectuals to found an independent journal after the purge of the security organs which occurred in 1966.

It seems that Doder, like the entire West, has been prevented by his inherent though not openly formulated ideology from seeing and recalling a great deal in his book on Yugoslavia, for the facts that are passed over in silence would say much and would help to show that there is really no distinction between political dictatorships. The more liberal Yugoslav variant is by no means the outcome of any national traditions or personal qualities of the Party leaders but rather the necessary and only possible outcome for the support of a dictatorship in the conditions which followed the break with Stalin. Incidentally, that break occurred not for ideological reasons, not from any desire for national Independence (In a multinational country the Communist Party was in fact international, and to call Tito the father of “nationalist Communism” makes absolutely no sense), but rather for the sake of power. A beautiful Illustration of this truth is the fact that the wave of enforced collectivization in Yugoslavia began in 1949, a year after the disagreement with Stalin.

Especially significant is the fact that the book mentions the events of 1948 only in passing, though it does emphasize their worldwide importance as the first blow to the unity of Stalin’s empire. If Doder’s theory is to be believed, then a break away from the Soviet empire should have meant the beginning of a freer period in the history of communist Yugoslavia. But no such thing occurred. The years from 1948 to 1953 in Tito’s Yugoslavia may only be compared with the Soviet Thirties. During those years Yugoslavia was overwhelmed not only by the wave of enforced collectivization but by frightening purges and the imprisonment in concentration camps of tens of thousands of so-called “Stalinists.” These were the Yugoslav counterparts of that intraparty opposition arrested and sent off to Stalin’s camps during the time of the Yezhov purges. Real liberalization began only a decade later, and it came not from ideological considerations, or from a desire on the part of the Yugoslav Party leaders, to make experiments: rather it constituted the only possibility for the preservation of a monopoly of power in the new historical conditions which appeared in the world at the beginning of the 1960s.

So it was in the interests of seizing power that the Yugoslav Communists were Stalin’s faithful allies in 1945, and it was in the interests of keeping a monopoly of that power that they turned against him in 1948, and it was in the interests of maintaining that Party monopoly that they began to build “Self-Management Socialism” and opened up the frontiers to Yugoslav workers to seek employment in the capitalist countries. And for the very same reasons. In the interests of maintaining a monopoly of power, the Yugoslav Communist Party can one fine day again become the faithful ally of the Soviet Communists (or, what has already occurred, of the Chinese); the Party could liquidate the relative liberalism in the country and begin some “new experiment.”

This is why it is very wrong to maintain that the Yugoslav Communists are more humane, more liberal, or more pragmatic in their views than the Soviets, as Doder unfortunately does in his book—though this is of course a bit better than the complete allence concerning what goes on in Yugoslavia which is the position of the congressional commission for monitoring the Helsinki Accords. After the death of Mao Tse-tung Yugoslavia and North Korea were the only countries to retain a strong “cult of personality,” one of almost a classical Stalinist type. This of course does not imply that Yugoslavia has so harsh a dictatorship as has North Korea, but the one-party model in both lands is essentially the same. To all the claims that Tito did not physically liquidate his Party rivals as Stalin had done, that the Yugoslav censorship is not so impenetrable as the Soviet censorship, or that the Yugoslav borders are open for almost all the country’s citizens—to all these objections one must reply: when he could do so. Tito did liquidate, and Djllas was saved by world public opinion at a time when Tito could no longer merely wave his hand at that opinion.

So far as internal political information is concerned, the Yugoslav censorship is just as opaque as its Soviet counterpart, and in some respects even more so, since the West still does not tell the whole truth about Yugoslavia. The frontiers are open not because of any love of freedom, but because a huge army of unemployed have appeared in consequence of the introduction of a partial free market economy. This was installed when it became impossible both to maintain control independently of the Soviet bloc and, at the same time, have a centralized planned economy on the Soviet model, such as had existed in Yugoslavia up to the middle of the 1950s. The attentive reader will find confirmation of all these facts in Doder’s book.

When, early last year, Djilas publicly declared that Yugoslavia had a higher percentage of political prisoners than the Soviet Union had, the announcement was a complete surprise to people who were acquainted with Yugoslavia only through the Western press. And yet the fact was very soon forgotten when in November 1977 a few of the bestknown prisoners were released before the end of their terms, and several hundred others had their terms somewhat reduced. And this too is the result of that same ideology thanks to which Doder is able in his book to adhere to the opinion that the only force holding the country together is that of Tito’s party, along with the army. And since a unified and independent Yugoslavia is in the interests of the West, repression can and must be ignored. Democratization is even dangerous, since it might lead to the breakup of the country.

First of all, it is not true that the unity of the country depends on a Party monopoly of power. On the contrary, Tito’s victory in the civil war which went on during the Second World War was the result of the all-Yugoslav political line followed by the Party, for in this multinational, ethnically very diverse land, the unbridled outbreak of separate nationalisms had led to catastrophic and bloody consequences. In spite of the fact that, taken together, the armed forces of the independent nationalist movements were much larger than the forces of Tito’s partisans, still they had no other ideological platform than ethnle nationalism; and since they often fought against one another, they only opened up the road to victory for Tito. Today there is nothing the Party fears so much as the unification of the dissidents of the different nationalities, and it does everything it can to prevent this. Nonetheless there recently have been signs of rapprochement between the Croatian and Serbian dissident movements. Their unification would provide the only means of liquidating the one-party monopoly and democratizing the country.

Second, to adhere to the opinion that lack of democracy strengthens Yugoslavia is just as improper as to believe that Stalin’s purges strengthened the Soviet Union and the Red Army on the eve of the conflict with Hitler. After the purges one might suppose that no fifth column could have survived in the Soviet Union. But in fact considerable numbers became part of a “fifth column,” as the existence of General Ylasov’s army and other evidence testifies. Just so and in the same way Yugoslavia, like the Soviet Union, is “strengthened” by the arrests and trials of the very numerous dissidents. Though Doder’s conclusions on this subject are wrong, his book in fact demonstrates just this.

It is just as untrue to say that in Yugoslavia arrests often take place under pressure from the Soviet Union, as if in an effort to placate the Soviets. When it is a question of those who are pro-Soviet, the Yugoslav government does not try in any way to placate the Kremlin, but deals severely with such individuals or groups. About my own case Doder writes that I was arrested at Moscow’s insistence. This is untrue: I was first arrested in 1965, when I was deprived of my position at the university and prohibited from publishing in the Yugoslav press because of my book entitled A Moscow Summer, a book which in many respects resembles Doder’s. But I then remained in prison only forty days before my trial, and finally received a suspended sentence. My first prison sentence, from 1966 to 1970, and my second, from 1974 to 1977, were in no way connected with any pressure from the Kremlin. The first time I was officially sentenced for my articles on Yugoslavia published in the Western press, but in fact for my attempt to organize an independent Social Democratic journal in 1966. The second time I was sentenced for a series of articles in the Western press on the sharp crackdown following the liquidation of liberal Party leaders in Croatia and Serbia. The Soviet Union was not even mentioned in those articles.

For the same reasons, those of internal Yugoslav politics, Solzhenitsyn ceased to be published just as soon as The Gulag Archipelago appeared. And while criticism of Stalin began as early as 1949, Lenin and the October seizure of power still remain myths that are sacrosanct, ones that also serve ideologically to justify the dictatorship of the Yugoslav Communist Party. But here too ideology prevents Doder and the West from seeing the truth, a fact extremely pleasing to the Yugoslav Communists, since it whitewashes them in the eyes of public opinion. This is why people in the West write so much about the Soviet camps, but not a word about the Yugoslav camps. We must suppose that this situation will go on until some unforeseen “twentieth Party congress” of the Yugoslav Communist Party takes place which would finally put an end to the formation of a “cult.”

In spite of Internecine conflicts in their own ranks, all communist movements have an international and worldwide ideology, and at the moment when Tito departs from power they will all bend their efforts to make sure that the Yugoslav Communist Party not lose its power monopoly, however “revisionist” or “liberal” it may be. The question of Yugoslavia’s future is by no means a question that concerns only Yugoslavia’s individual nations or their mutual tensions. The democratizing of the country and the liquidation of the Party monopoly would mean a completely new and to this day unseen step forward in history which in many ways could determine the fate not only of Europe but of the entire world.

Doder closes his book with the opinion that Yugoslavia’s future will depend on how much freedom Tito’s successors give the population. The question flows from the author’s basic but untrue conception. Ever since the first Communist Party dictatorship appeared in Russia in 1917, not even the smallest freedoms have ever been voluntarily extended to the citizens, but have been given only under compulsion, as a temporary deviation, for the purpose of preserving Communist dictatorial rule. And the author of the present book demonstrates this himself, willy-nilly. The main question is precisely to what extent the Yugoslavs will permit freedom to be taken away from them, even such limited freedom as they now possess, and to what extent the democratic world will support antitotalitarian forces at the time of the future crisis and the possible democratizing of the country.

And if this support is to emerge, it is essential to disregard any obsolete and short-sighted “non-ideological ideology.” Dusko Doder’s book permits a clear view of the “most liberal” communist country—though it suffers from such “non-ideological ideology.” itself.

translated by William Harkins

  1. *

    His information about the Yugoslav civil war is sometimes in need of correction. A new book of documents, edited by David Martin, contains evidence showing how the KGB contrived to distort the information given Churchill about the wartime situation, thus influencing his decision to cut off help to Mihailovich (Patriot or Traitor: The Case of General Mihailovich, published by the Hoover Institute Press at Stanford University).

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