Tito; drawing by David Levine

Sir Lewis Namier told a story of a priest in Galicia who was trying to explain miracles to a peasant. The priest said: “If I jumped from the top of that church tower and landed unhurt, what would you call it?” The peasant answered: “An accident.” “If I did it again?” “Another accident.” “And if I did it a third time?” “A habit.” In the twentieth century defiant independence became a habit with the Yugoslavs, and it was a miracle as well. In 1914 Serbia defied Austria-Hungary and persisted throughout the First World War despite many disasters. In 1941 Yugoslavia defied Hitler and went down seemingly in utter disaster.

This was only the beginning. Tito gave the lead in national resistance. Yugoslavia was the only conquered country where something like open warfare against the Germans went on throughout the war. The Yugoslavs were the only conquered people who could claim, even if with some exaggeration, to have liberated themselves. At any rate, Yugoslavia was one of the few to end the war without an Allied army of occupation. Not content with this, Yugoslavia was the only country to defy Stalin. The defiance succeeded. But Yugoslavia did not go over to the other side. In the age of the cold war, Yugoslavia was perhaps the only genuinely nonaligned country and has remained so to the present day.

The Yugoslavs have no monopoly on courage. Other peoples have gone resolutely into disaster as the Poles did in 1939. The Yugoslavs add a skill which enables them to redeem their disasters. Their policy has been a strange mixture of obstinacy and moderation. The first impression on meeting them is of their cleverness, not of their pride—except of course with the Montenegrins. They are the most assiduous of diplomats. No one attaches more importance to the futilities of the United Nations, and they are prepared to sit out an international conference to the end of time. They let bygones be bygones. They are easily reconciled with former enemies so long as they get their own way. Despite all they suffered from Stalin, they did not demand a recantation before making it up with Khruschev. They appear to be a gentle people until you try to do business with them.

They do not owe their strength and survival to any gifts of nature and history. On the contrary, Yugoslavia, according to all rational calculations, was the country most doomed to disintegrate in the storms of the twentieth century. It has few natural resources: little coal or iron and a territory largely composed of barren mountains. The country of the South Slavs is itself a recent invention, hastily put together at the end of the First World War. Historical traditions, though strong, work against unity, not in its favor. Serbs and Croats were rivals, not allies. The Montenegrins have always been against everybody. The Slovenes are linked historically to Vienna, not to Zagreb, still less Belgrade. The Macedonians and the Bosnians are still surprised that they have come into existence.

Yugoslavia is not only divided into nations. It is divided into two worlds. There have been two Europes ever since Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire to Byzantium. All other nations are on one side or the other. The Russians are Orthodox; the Poles are Roman. This counts far more than the fact that they are both Slavs or both Communists. In Yugoslavia alone the dividing line between East and West Europe runs down the middle. Cyrillic and Latin are both official alphabets. The Orthodox church predominates in one area, the Roman Catholic in another. The traveler in Yugoslavia moves through history from Rome to Constantinople. The various peoples of Yugoslavia seem to have almost nothing in common. Yet they are dedicated to the proposition that the vague ethnic term of Slav can become the foundation for a united nation, a proposition now reinforced by another, that Communism, usually an international creed, can be transformed in Yugoslavia into a bulwark of national independence. As a final paradox, in the age of the masses, Yugoslavia was turned into a reality by a single individual. That man was Marshal Tito.

Phyllis Auty has just written a satisfactory biography of him, detached, sympathetic, and scholarly. He himself is a man of paradox. By origin Tito is a Croat, and the Croats are the Irish of east-central Europe, once against the Turks, then against the Hungarians, and in interwar Yugoslavia against the Serbs. Tito has always been positive, always for people, not against them. His early experiences were in Austria, not in Yugoslavia. His understanding was somehow acquired from outside. He has always been a dedicated Communist, but with tastes of a special kind. In his impoverished days, he earned a fee for translating Stalin’s History of the Bolshevik Party into Serbo-Croat, and spent it on a diamond ring which he still wears. When offered a gift by the British Council, he asked for a first edition (1759) of the great work by Robert Adam on Diocletian’s Palace at Split. No other Communist leader in the world, except possibly Mao Tse-tung, would have made a similar request.


Tito was in Moscow during the great Purge. He survived by keeping quiet. But, as Miss Auty shows, he learned his lesson. Unlike other Communists, he drew his strength from his own country, not from Moscow. When war came in 1941, Tito did not wait for directives from Moscow. He led the war of liberation according to his own ideas and in his own way. The British recognized Tito and the Partisans when Soviet Russia was still supporting the restoration of the monarchy, and the only genuine victory of European Communism after the war was achieved against Soviet policy, not with its backing.

It is tempting to think that Tito always knew where he was going, and that events worked out in logical order. But probably not. Even Tito was slow to grasp the imperialist spirit which dominated Moscow, and his followers were still more in the dark. Vladimir Dedijer, who was himself at the heart of events during the conflict between Soviet Russia and Yugoslavia, has just put together a series of articles about it for the enlightenment of the younger generation. Dedijer incidentally is also unusual for a Communist leader and writer. Association football, which he learned to appreciate in England during the First World War, is his consuming interest, and table tennis his great accomplishment. It is clear from his account that the Yugoslav Communists had little idea in 1947 what lay in store for them. Certainly Soviet Russia conducted economic relations with Yugoslavia, as with all her satellites, on very unequal terms. It seemed a far cry from this to open denunciation and threats of war.

When Stalin’s first letter of complaint burst upon them, the Yugoslavs felt that there must be some mistake. They replied with patient explanation. Only Tito had made up his mind. He refused to attend any Communist meeting outside his own country. He arrested the pro-Soviet agents in Yugoslavia. Stalin’s weapon of the secret police was turned against him. The Yugoslav Communists had their own secret police. It is fascinating to watch in Dedijer’s account how Tito, resolute himself, gradually led his associates on the same line. At the extreme moment, when a Soviet invasion seemed possible, Tito remarked that of course the Yugoslav army would open fire. One of those around him exclaimed, “But that would mean firing on the Red Army!” This was the moment of truth, and the Yugoslavs did not shrink from it. A personal anecdote comes into my mind. When I was in Yugoslavia in 1947 I was struck with their independent spirit and remarked that before long they would quarrel with Soviet Russia. For this I was denounced as a British or even a Fascist agent provocateur. A year or so later, the journalist who denounced me was arrested as a Soviet agent. Such was my experience as a premature Titoist.

The sequel to the Yugoslav dispute with Soviet Russia was remarkable, more so than is often appreciated. The dispute was expected to weaken Yugoslavia, and certainly there was a period of economic hardship. In the long run, the dispute first brought Yugoslavia to life. In the interwar years Yugoslavia was a state, not a nation. The Serbs dominated. The other peoples submitted, complainingly or not. The war of liberation against the Germans was conducted on a Yugoslav basis, but the patriotic spirit was shortlived, as the experience of other countries showed. Gaullism did not endure in France. The Resistance did not remake Italy. In Great Britain the national unity of wartime disappeared. So also in Yugoslavia. By 1948 the Yugoslav Communists were beginning to worry that the glory had departed. Stalin’s onslaught came just in time. His attack was directed against all Yugoslavs indiscriminately and at last provided a definition for them. The Yugoslavs are not merely Southern Slavs. They are not merely Communists. They are the people who defied Stalin and succeeded in their defiance. Yugoslavia has been living on the strength of this definition ever since.

Pride in independence is revived whenever Soviet Russia interferes in a satellite country, whether Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. But in the last resort the definition is a negative one. Soviet hostility is a buttress sustaining Yugoslav independence, just as the threat of Turkish aggression once propped up the Habsburg monarchy. But supposing the buttress were taken away? Suppose Soviet Russia ceased to be hostile and accepted Yugoslavia as a friendly neutral? What then? A nation cannot live on past achievements and past dangers forever. The Serbs lived on their memories of resistance to the Turks for 500 years, but this was because they were groaning under the Turkish yoke. Once the danger is past, it becomes a sentiment almost empty of meaning. Dedijer remarks that the great crisis of 1948 is almost forgotten by the younger generation, much as present-day English youth gives no thought to the Battle of Britain or dismisses it as “just another war.” Yugoslavia is still ruled by the Partisans of 1943 and 1948. But they are getting old. They enjoy the advantages of power. They have even been called “the new class.” They are no longer the new class. They are the old generation.


What will keep Yugoslav unity and independence alive when the memories have faded and the dangers been forgotten? This is the great theme of the future. The eight essays on contemporary Yugoslavia which Wayne S. Vucinich has assembled may provide some of the answers. Even so, it is significant that three out of the eight deal with the past, as though hoping that it will prove adequate in the present. There is a new element in Yugoslavia, at any rate in theory. Tito was a Communist before he became the champion of national independence. Maybe therefore Communism can turn Yugoslavia into a reality.

The practical results are hard to assess. Yugoslavia is a developing country. The standard of life is higher than it used to be. The peasant population is moving into the towns, and the major cities have an air of prosperity much like those in Western Europe. The streets are jammed with automobiles. The shops are bright and well-stocked. The girls wear mini-skirts and now, no doubt, midis. It is very different in Sofia across the Bulgarian border, where you can cross the street without a single automobile in sight. All the same, Yugoslavia is still a poor country compared to Western Europe, and her economic advance is less than that in some of the obedient Soviet satellites. Moreover, despite the vaunted independence, Yugoslavia has received considerable economic aid from the United States, and many of her workers have to find employment abroad in Germany, Switzerland, or even Belgium.

A social system cannot be tested solely by economic results. One must also ask: is it moving toward a juster social order? Does it enable the working people to participate in direction and decision? Here again the answers are not easy. Yugoslav Communism has developed a system of worker-management, but it seems that Communists usually slip into the manager’s chair. The social services are on a high level, though far from adequate for the needs of the country. Economic planning shows considerable flexibility and sometimes veers toward anarchy, as one would expect from old Partisans. The factory workers are reasonably contented, and the peasants, though impoverished, are not threatened with compulsory state farms. On the whole, the Yugoslav people have some say in determining the conditions of their daily lives.

This is less true in political matters. Yugoslavia is still a dictatorship, though freer from terror than most. The League of Communists controls all the political institutions. The Communist chiefs control the League of Communists, and Tito controls the Communist chiefs. He topples even the mightiest from their thrones and on occasion imprisons his close friends. Yet the atmosphere of freedom is there. Yugoslavs discuss political topics without restraint, though usually with self-confident dogmatism. In one way Yugoslavia is distinguished from all other Communist countries. There is an active school of Marxist “revisionists,” who have gone behind Lenin to the young Marx. Their writings are as puzzling as theology to the unbeliever. If I understand them aright, Yugoslav Marxists put less emphasis on the class struggle and more on the general welfare of mankind. I do not think Marx would have approved of this. It is a welcome development all the same.

One comes back to the people. Can their national differences be overcome or brought into cooperation? These national differences still exist as strongly as ever. Virtually the only pure Yugoslavs are the Moslems, who would have to become Orthodox Christians to call themselves Serbs, or Roman Catholics to call themselves Croats. Otherwise everyone is conscious of having two nationalities—one, Yugoslav, official, the other, Serb, Croat, or Macedonian, personal. The same is true, I suppose, of the British, who all really think of themselves as Welsh, Scottish, Irish, or English. Once it was assumed that these distinctions would fade away. Now it begins to look that the United Kingdom is more likely to dissolve. Ironically, revolutionary Yugoslavia must rely on tradition for its survival. Independence has become a habit. Perhaps being a Yugoslav will become a habit also. I hope so. There is no people whom I admire more.

This Issue

February 11, 1971