This is the fourth and presumably last volume of the autobiography of Milovan Djilas, the only man in the communist world who, having reached the highest circles of Party power and privilege, felt morally obliged to repudiate the entire system that he helped to install. As a consequence he was stripped of office, spent nine years in prison, and has remained until today forcibly isolated from his compatriots and shunned by the official representatives of all foreign countries.
Living in the heart of Belgrade and writing for foreign publishers (at home all his works are taboo, even his translation of Paradise Lost) Djilas has survived through the power of his writings and the reputation they have given him. In 1954, after Djilas’s downfall, President Tito told foreign journalists that he was “politically dead: the most terrifying death of all.” Today when Tito and virtually all his other wartime associates are literally dead, Djilas is not only alive, but so strong a presence that three scholars have just been sentenced to prison principally for the crime of attending a discussion group in a private apartment where Djilas addressed them. The group had been meeting for seven years, and its members were arrested only when the seventy-three-year-old Djilas took part for the first time.
Generations of Yugoslavs have been brought up to believe that Djilas is treachery incarnate. Yet last year, at the thirtieth anniversary of his downfall, the Belgrade Student Center produced a skit describing how the Communist bureaucrats fawned on Djilas while he was still on top, and then sneered at him and traduced him the moment Tito’s favors were withdrawn. Djilas has already published three books dealing with his personal experiences during the period covered in the present volume, from 1945 until he left prison in 1967. The most famous was Conversations with Stalin, based on personal encounters about which Djilas now adds some interesting supplementary details. In The New Class, Djilas became the first to identify the emergence of the privileged nomenklatura as an essential element in all the communist one-party systems. Tito: The Story from Inside gave a memorable firsthand account of Tito’s policies, behavior, and appearance during the time when Djilas and he were constantly in each other’s company.
The new volume, which is over four hundred pages long, consequently omits some of Djilas’s best stories and contains much material that is of interest mainly to people with a close knowledge of leading Yugoslav artists and politicians at the time. Those who are interested in Djilas’s life but are unfamiliar with the Yugoslav background, or are daunted by more than 1500 pages of autobiography, will find useful Stephen Clissold’s scholarly and succinct biography: Djilas, The Progress of a Revolutionary.1 Moreover, Clissold writes lucid prose, in contrast to the English version of Djilas’s book, which sounds as if it was translated by someone for whom English was not his first language. Otherwise he would not have Djilas, at the start of his career, describe himself as “a beginning writer,” or let him comment, after being rebuffed by a friend, “This did not sit well with me,” or blame an adversary for being “incapable of grasping stormy times.”
The new volume does however contain some fascinating new sidelights on the history of the period. For example, Djilas recalls Molotov’s remark to Tito that he had personally favored accepting the US offer of Marshall aid in 1947 but had been overruled by the Soviet Politburo. From the Soviet point of view, of course, Molotov was right. If the entire Soviet bloc had accepted there would have been no joint European Recovery Program, Western Europe would have remained physically and morally enfeebled and, at a time when the local Communist parties were still riding high, might have fallen to Soviet power.
Another revelation is that the concept of “a separate path to socialism,” which we all associate with Tito’s Yugoslavia, was in fact put forward first in 1947, at the initial meeting of the Cominform, by the Polish leader Gomulka, who proposed “a Polish path to socialism.” The strongest opposition to the idea came from the Yugoslav delegation, which included Djilas and was militantly Stalinist. Less than a year later, early in 1948, Tito’s second in command, Edvard Kardelj, told Djilas that the direct cause of the developing dispute between Moscow and Belgrade was Tito’s determination to send two divisions of the Yugoslav army into Albania. (This plan, never carried out, was manifestly part of Tito’s program for incorporating Albania into the Yugoslav federation; it has already been referred to by the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who described his own alarm in his book The Titoists, published in Tirana in 1982.) Djilas asked Kardelj whether the troops were necessary, to which Kardelj replied: “Well, the Old Man [nickname for Tito] insisted. You know how it is….”
Most of the new volume deals with the period before Djilas split with the Party. Unlike most intellectuals who have repudiated communism, he finds it difficult to make a complete break with his past. Indeed, in some sections of the book he specifically justifies his earlier actions. This obliges him to make light of the postwar Stalinist terror, which, as he has previously written, took place sooner and reached worse excesses in Yugoslavia than in any of the other newly communized countries. In explaining this apparent contradiction, Djilas writes that his life, like his love, has been divided into two parts. The first, linked to his first wife, Mitra, represents for him “the poetic, revolutionary ecstasy of my youth.” The second, linked to Stefica, his second wife (whose steadfastness and courage he often mentions), coincides with “my search for a way out of the icy, iron-clad darkness of Marxist and Leninist dogma.” He recalls with pride the time just after the war when he and Tito visited a railroad being built by members of a youth brigade. They stopped working and thronged to welcome the great leader: “Spontaneous enthusiasm, the unquenchable ecstasy of youth! We too were carried away by ecstasy—an ecstasy as strong and as pure as in children….”
In this mood he shrugs off the wartime and postwar atrocities for which, as he suggested in his book Wartime, and told the interviewer George Urban,2 the Partisans were responsible; and he goes on insisting that the victims all collaborated with the Axis. He claims that the regime’s worst crime was committed after the break with Stalin, when the pro-Soviet communists were interned in the notorious Goli Otok concentration camp. But although appalling tortures and humiliations were inflicted in this camp, most of the inmates emerged alive. On the other hand, in May 1945, as Djilas told Urban, the thousands of men fleeing from the Partisans into the British occupation zone of Austria were “mostly simple peasants, terrified of what the communists would do to them,” and, when they were sent back, they were shot without trial. The British officers who had served with the Yugoslav resistance forces must have known this would happen. Djilas told Urban that he found it “profoundly shocking” (as indeed it was) that the British never investigated the circumstances under which these Yugoslavs were killed. In his autobiography Djilas ignores this blot on the Partisans’ record even though it took place during the time when he was one of Tito’s three closest associates.
On the subject of Tito’s postwar show-trials, which Djilas says were so numerous that they could not all be reported, he can never bring himself to admit that many pro-Western victims, whom he indiscriminately lumps with “Fascists, renegades and counterrevolutionaries,” were in fact punished for holding the same views on human freedom that he himself later defended. Djilas is not a political analyst with a clear view of the kind of society he would like, but rather an imaginative writer who, from bitter experience, has learned what some of his postwar victims claimed at the time: that among the prerequisites of the freedom of thought and expression in modern times are an accountable government and its indispensable corollary, an effective opposition.
It has to be said in his defense that, coming from a very primitive background (his mother only learned to read, he notes, after her children had grown up) and having thrown himself into communist agitation from the moment he left his native Montenegrin village, he had until the break with Moscow been trained exclusively as a Marxist-Leninist. During the time he served as head of Tito’s Agit-prop—between 1942 and 1953—lying was an essential part of his trade. He was thus able to approve the execution of the Chetnik leader, General Mihailović, as a traitor to his country, even though, as he writes in this volume, he knew Mihailović was nothing of the kind.
A second important victim of the postwar trials was Archbishop (later Cardinal) Stepinac of Zagreb. Djilas concedes that from the regime’s point of view the trial was a fiasco since it made Stepinac into a martyr; indeed today the cult of the cardinal is more passionate than ever. Djilas writes that he was remote from the Stepinac affair but he still has “no doubt that [Stepinac] collaborated with Pavelić [the head of the Croat puppet government], supported him, and urged him to force conversion on the Serbs.” Catholics close to Stepinac at the time assert, on the contrary, that he warned the authorities that the Church would not recognize the authenticity of the conversion of Orthodox Christians, if this was obtained under duress. Confirmation of this claim may well be contained in Stepinac’s personal diaries, which were confiscated; that is perhaps the reason why the Communists still refuse permission to see them.
This volume deals only briefly with the suppression of all Yugoslav political opposition, which took place while Djilas was still in power. In my own talks with him, however, Djilas recognized the accuracy of Kosta Cavosacki’s scholarly monograph, From Pluralism to Monism,3 which chronicles the process by which Tito’s wartime coalition government, set up under British auspices, was transformed gradually into a one-party dictatorship. This short book, of which one thousand copies slipped through the censorship in Belgrade in the summer of 1983, and of which no reprints have been permitted (although virtually all the educated people in Belgrade have managed to read it), gives an instructive demonstration of the Leninist pattern by which a Communist party struggling for power goes into partnership with other groups, which it eliminates when it no longer needs them.
By far the most effective of the non-Communist opposition leaders who joined the Tito coalition, as Djilas confirms, was Milan Grol, the leader of the Serb Democratic party. Contrary to the accepted view that after the civil war the prewar political parties were hopelessly discredited, Djilas writes that, at first, the Partisans needed Grol’s support to win over the Serb peasants. He describes Grol as “a European intellectual of a high order…impervious to corruption and human weaknesses,” and he implicitly makes it clear why Tito felt it necessary to have Communist thugs burn Grol’s newspaper in the streets and to use Djilas’s polemical articles to destroy Grol’s reputation. We learn about the attacks on Grol from Cavosacki, however, not from Djilas.
After disposing of the opposition, Tito, with Djilas as his chief propagandist, moved on to eliminate the Communist party’s fellow travelers, of whom the most prominent and the most obedient was Dragoljub Jovanović. When Jovanović objected to the Communist decision to take over the peasants’ cooperative movement (which, as an independent organization, had been important in prewar Yugoslavia) and Tito consequently decided that he would have to go, the police chief, Aleksandar Ranković, said it would be difficult to formulate any charge against so docile a politician. According to Djilas, Tito retorted: “Then make him guilty of something!” At the time, Cavosacki notes, Djilas was writing: “The masses are like a big river flood throwing mud on to the banks—as they will throw out Jovanović and his friends.” Soon afterward, Jovanović was jailed.
Among the charges made against Tito’s coalition partners were accusations that they had associated with “hostile elements,” among whom Djilas specifically mentions two Slovenes, Crtomir Nagode and Ljubo Sirc, but he says nothing more about them. In fact these men were in trouble for having insisted that the government carry out a wartime agreement among the Allies that Yugoslavia would have free elections. Both were sentenced to death as British agents. Nagode was duly hanged. Sirc was reprieved and kept in prison for seven years—although he could have got out very much sooner if he had not firmly refused to cooperate with the secret police. His elderly nonpolitical father was held as a hostage and condemned to ten years in prison, and died in jail.
In his autobiography, which has not yet been published but which I have seen, Sirc describes how, on January 17, 1954, he and his fellow prisoners listened spell-bound to the proceedings of the Central Committee, broadcast live, in which Djilas was denounced and forced to recant. Sirc, hearing all of Djilas’s closest associates compete in denouncing their former friend, admitted feeling sorry for him. Djilas, for his part, expresses no similar feeling about Sirc.
The romantic glow with which Djilas perceives the early years of Communist power extends to Yugoslavia’s relations with the United States. Oblivious to the Communist party’s violation of Tito’s wartime pledge not to impose communism by force, and speaking of a time when ordinary Yugoslavs could be hanged for meeting Western diplomats, Djilas complains that members of the US embassy were “arrogant and provocative.” Moreover, without giving names, dates, or places, he recounts the highly improbable story that American military representatives “promised our enemies that US parachute troops would take over Belgrade and that the US Navy would seize the Dalmatian coast.” In suggesting that, after the war, the Communists were still struggling against implacably dangerous enemies, Djilas seems to justify the regime’s measures, however morally repugnant.
Nonetheless, before passing judgment on these reminiscences, we must remember that there are very strong extenuating circumstances to account for Djilas’s eagerness to defend his past; indeed, in his position, it would have been hard for anyone to remain detached. For as he rightly says, poisonous attacks on him, to which the regime never allowed him to reply, have been going on for decades; they have, in fact, become a sure way for ambitious men to demonstrate their loyalty. With some justification, Djilas attributes the vicious attacks mounted against him by his former friend Vladimir Dedijer to Dedijer’s need, after a period in the political wilderness, to work his way back into Tito’s favor.
Dedijer has been publishing thick volumes full of previously unobtainable official documents, which he has called Additional Notes for a Biography of Marshal Tito. Djilas cites newspaper articles alleging that Dedijer obtained access to these documents by pretending that he was engaged in writing a book attacking Djilas, and indeed Dedijer presents Djilas as responsible for almost all the Partisan atrocities. Though the archival materials in Dedijer’s book are useful, his own account is spattered with factual errors and has not been taken seriously by professional historians. (Djilas notes, for example, that Dedijer gives a false account of the death of Djilas’s father.) Western readers will find even more objectionable Dedijer’s statement, based on no evidence, that in 1942 the British and Nazis were in collusion to destroy the Partisans.
Djilas asks plaintively: “What is the matter with Dedijer? Slovenly research? Malice? Madness? Or all three at once?” An unbalanced mind is certainly suggested by Dedijer’s reaction when some Partisan veterans managed to delay the publication of one of his books. He announced he would take up this repression of intellectual freedom at the Russell Tribunal, a body of which he was once president and which had been set up to denounce alleged American war crimes in Vietnam. Dedijer, knowing that it was now thirty years since Djilas had been allowed to publish anything, insisted on his freedom to publish a book containing much personal abuse of Djilas.
In his new book, Djilas writes that his disillusionment with communism began almost as soon as Yugoslavia’s breach with Stalin permitted him to visit the Western countries. On his first visit to the US in 1949 to represent Yugoslavia at the UN, Djilas declared himself unimpressed by the flaunted evidence of wealth. Even so, he tells us, he was thinking: “Something must be wrong with our Marxist teachings…if a country so well developed and with so large a proletariat was not socialist, and if that proletariat was actually antisocialist.”
His fall from grace, which takes up the last quarter of the book and is by far its most interesting part, occurred remarkably fast. Among the malicious stories, popular in official circles in Belgrade and repudiated in his book, is that he broke with Tito because he was an ambitious man, already politically on the downward slope. On the contrary, returning to Belgrade in the spring of 1953 from a visit to India, he was astonished to receive a ceremonial welcome; he had been elected during his absence to be one of Yugoslavia’s three vice-presidents. In October 1953, Tito and his wife Jovanka, along with all the Party leaders, dined at Djilas’s apartment. As late as the beginning of January 1954, a couple of weeks before his fall, Djilas was selected over the head of a rival candidate to be president of the National Assembly. He interprets this as an indication of Tito’s last-minute hesitation about how to deal with him. He was by then regularly using his control over the Communist organ Borba to write long articles developing liberal ideas and denouncing the corruption within Tito’s new elite.
Until his public humiliation, Djilas still thought of himself as a communist and says it was only the thought of their infant son Aleksa that dissuaded him and Stefica from committing suicide. Two years later, when he realized that his books would never be published in Yugoslavia, he took the decision to publish abroad, knowing that this would probably mean prison and separation from his wife and child. Unlike many of his compatriots, Djilas is not a demonstrative man and after his arrest he concealed his wretchedness until his first morning in prison. Then his eye fell on a Donald Duck cartoon in a newspaper and he remembered his three-year-old son climbing on his father’s knee each morning so that they could look at the comic strips together; he writes that he “cried uncontrollably.”
Toward the end of this volume, prompted perhaps by renewed attacks on him in Yugoslavia, Djilas comments: “I have never been ashamed of my party and of my revolutionary past.” Reading this, one recalls the statement Milan Kundera made to Philip Roth:
People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The evil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarian poesy which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever.4
In much of his writing Djilas comes closer to Kundera’s view than is suggested by this volume of his autobiography—manifestly written to defend himself against outrageous slander. In an article in Le Monde (November 15, 1984) on the trial of the Belgrade scholars, he concedes publicly and for the first time that it was the Marxist-Leninist revolution itself which was at the origin of Yugoslavia’s present arbitrary and lawless society. If it was criminal to express unorthodox views, he writes, then he too was guilty:
A hundred thousand times more guilty than each one of the accused or than all of them together. The fact that I am not in the dock with them is neither a fault nor a merit. I am ashamed for my country and for my past. I never suspected that forty years after the revolution justice would be administered in this way. To the extent that my own revolutionary past has contributed to this state of affairs, I ask everyone, and most of all the six men who stand accused, to accept this article as an expression of solidarity and of regret.
The courage needed to express these dangerous thoughts in a foreign newspaper will be obvious to anyone familiar with one-party rule and with the murderous record of the communist secret police—which is no better in Yugoslavia than it is in Poland. In any future editions of Djilas’s autobiography, the Le Monde article should be included as an epilogue. It marks the most recent stage in “the progress of a revolutionary.”
April 11, 1985
Universe Books, 1983, and Temple Smith (London), 1983. ↩
See interview in Urban’s Stalinism: Its Impact on Russia and the World (London: Temple Smith, 1982). ↩
Published in Vojislav Kostunica and Kosta Cavosacki, Party Pluralism or Monism: Social Movements and the Political System in Yugoslavia, 1944–1949 (to be published in the East European Monographs series of Colorado Associated University Press in September 1985). ↩
See “A Talk with the Author,” by Philip Roth, published as an afterword to the Penguin edition of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1981). ↩