At the end of his life, the old lizard had a fondness for greenhouses: he would lie there, warming himself by the hour amid the poinsettias, slipping in and out of sleep. When he died, they buried him in the biggest of his greenhouses and set an honor guard to watch over the white marble slab with his name in raised brass letters: Josip Broz Tito, 1892–1980. It once was a national shrine: visiting heads of state and schoolchildren came there to lay wreaths. Hardly anyone visits it anymore. When I stopped by Belgrade in the autumn of 1992, the honor guard was gone and I had the place to myself. It was raining and drops were splashing onto his tomb from a broken windowpane.

The ruin of all he stood for makes it easy to forget that he was probably the only leader of a Communist system who ever seemed to enjoy genuine popularity, and whose cult depended on something more than terror and propaganda, although it certainly depended on them as well. Years after his death, his photograph was still everywhere: taped to the cash register of a pasticceria in a Dalmatian resort; stuck beside a plastic Orthodox cross on the dashboard of a Belgrade bus; in a plastic wood frame over the mantelpiece of a tin-roofed cottage in central Bosnia. They made a cult of him, but it was prudential rather than reverential, for his people knew his foibles only too well: his taste for heavy south German luxury, for uniforms, cars, villas on the Adriatic; he, like them, was living beyond his country’s means. Some knew about the Goli Otok, the Adriatic Alcatraz he kept for political prisoners. But they also knew that he had kept the Russians at bay in 1948, 1956, and 1968; that because of him, they had an ambiguous kind of freedom to run their bars and hotels, to travel abroad and earn marks in Germany and lire in Italy.

Most of all, they knew he had stopped them from killing each other. At party rallies, they used to shout “We are Tito! and Tito is us!” He guaranteed their survival. He had saved them from themselves. When they forgot this, he would bang the table and remind them. In 1971, the nationalist revival in Croatia began: signs written in Cyrillic were smashed; the Croatian flag was waved in public; the Serbian minority began arming themselves. Tito came to Zagreb and harangued the Central Committee. “Do we want to have 1941 again?” The mere mention of that terrible year of foreign invasion, civil war, and genocide was sufficient to bring them around. And then he sacked the party brass and imprisoned some intellectuals, including Franjo Tudjman. Just to show that he was being fair, he also purged the Serbian party. Divide and rule was the reality of Tito’s “brotherhood and unity.”

For thirty years, his regime made the most of his wartime accomplishments, but the publicly available version of these was a concoction of half-truths. He portrayed himself as the leader of a national uprising against the German and Italian invaders. In reality, he won power in a vicious civil war against Ante Pavelic’s Croatian Ustashe and Draza Mihailovic’s Serbian Chetniks. Richard West’s biography contains a usefully skeptical account of Tito’s war, including his habit of making truces with the Germans and Italians whenever it would help him against the real enemy, his fellow Yugoslavs.

The partisan myth may have been shot through with falsehoods, but it did possess a singular attraction. Pavelic’s Ustashe stood for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Mihailovic’s Chetniks called for a “great Yugoslavia” and inside it a great and ethnically pure Serbia. West quotes from a typed letter Mihailovic sent to his senior officers on December 20, 1941, which listed among the aims of his military units “the cleansing from state territory of all national minorities and non-national elements.” Tito was the only leader who stood against ethnic nationalism. West fails to explain what mixture of cunning and conviction went into Tito’s adoption of “brotherhood and unity,” but it meant that he was the only leader capable of rallying Muslims, Serbs, and Croats alike to his cause.

It all seems like a conjuring trick now—that country of his which has vanished into thin air. In the Zagreb cafés which used to display his picture, he is cursed as a Croatian traitor; in Belgrade, he is loathed as the man who made Serbia small in order to make Yugoslavia big. As for Bosnia, there can’t be many Muslims left who thank him for creating their republic in 1945.

The central question about Tito’s legacy is whether a federal union of the South Slavs was ever really workable. Nationalist historians in Croatia and Serbia would argue that Yugoslavia, under its inter-war kings and under Tito, was always a Versailles fiction, an artificial creation which suppressed ethnic identity and deferred national self-determination. For them, Tito’s attempt to postpone the historical reckoning with ethnicity was bound to fail. Like that other Versailles state, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, they say, tried to defy the historical logic of ethnic self-determination—and as with Czechoslovakia, its doom was sealed once the Communist regime fell apart. Tito, in their view, won the civil war of 1941 only to make the civil war that broke out in 1991 inevitable.


West’s biography faces both ways on whether Tito’s Yugoslavia was bound to fail. On the one hand, he argues that it was not an artificial Versailles state. “Though long divided by history and religion, the South Slavs were both ethnically and linguistically one of the most homogenous peoples in Europe.” On the other hand, West writes, Tito never overcame the narcissism of minor difference which drove Croats and Serbs to harp on their essentially small divisions. “There never was a real Yugoslav nationalism or patriotism.” Yugoslav patriotism had nothing to identify with, beyond Tito himself. The national institutions—party and army—were in the hands of the Party nomenklatura; civil society was weak; the press was tamed. As long as Tito lived, maintaining the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, a pan-Yugoslav civic nationalism never had the chance to root itself in independent institutions and free debate.

Pan-Yugoslav civic patriotism required genuine democracy, but in an ethnically divided society with a history of fratricide democracy might also have been a recipe for civil war. We will never know, since Tito’s regime did not even begin to protect elementary democratic rights. It did not encourage a fair system of justice and did not allow dissident groups of any sort to form parties. Even the mildly dissenting intellectuals of the Praxis group were silenced. Tito’s failure to allow democratic institutions was the issue that brought about Milovan Djilas’s break in 1953. He began with an attack on party privileges, which soon widened out into a demand for elections and free expression. “No one party,” Djilas wrote, “not even a single class, can be the exclusive expression of the objective imperatives of contemporary society.”

Djilas lived to take grim satisfaction in the disintegration of his rival’s accomplishments. Indeed, the collapse seemed to confirm the rightness of his lonely revolt. Tito, he told everyone who came to see him, let himself become the prisoner of the Communist elite, and let his Yugoslavia be destroyed by his failure to share power with the people.

But if Yugoslavs had been given the chance to vote in 1954, or later on, would they have voted for Tito or for the Chetniks and Ustashe veterans who wanted to pull Yugoslavia apart? If democracy is taken to mean a simple matter of declaring national preference, without any accompanying development of civic institutions, then elections might have unleashed the ethnic nationalism which was to destroy Yugoslavia later on. Tito’s position was that you could either have democracy or you could have “brotherhood and unity,” but you couldn’t have both. In fact, he never gave democracy a chance, and after he died there was neither democracy, nor brotherhood and unity: there was civil war.


The first politician in Yugoslavia who understood the implications of Tito’s death, the first to perfect the post-Titoist style of nationalist populism, was Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, a high Party official since the early 1980s. Sent down to Kosovo in April 1987 to settle a dispute between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, he realized that by setting himself at the head of Serb discontent in the province, he could ride his way to the top of the Party hierarchy in Belgrade. As Aleksa Djilas, Milovan’s son, has written, Milosevic “found the strength to overcome the fear of the masses, so characteristic of any entrenched bureaucrat.” He lacked any strong convictions of his own, but he shrewdly saw, in Aleksa Djilas’s words, “that the best way to escape the wrath of the masses was to lead them.”

Nationalism was also a cunning diversion. Taking up the cause of the Kosovo Serbs allowed Milosevic to distract Serbian attention from the disastrous economic legacy of Titoism: the chronic foreign indebtedness, inadequate investment, and the shabby second-rateness of a Communist economy.

The best guide to what followed—Milosevic’s rise to power in Serbia, the emergence of a Greater Serbian ideology, and the step-by-step descent into war—is to be found in Alan Little and Laura Silber’s The Death of Yugoslavia. The book accompanies a particularly revealing television series of the same name, produced by Brian Lapping Associates and shown on BBC Television and the Discovery Channel. Little is a BBC radio reporter who made his reputation with eyewitness dispatches from Sarajevo, and Silber is the Balkans correspondent for the Financial Times. In their own words, they have written neither a call to arms of “the ‘Save Bosnia Now’ type” nor a “we were there and it was horrible” account of the war.


Instead, The Death of Yugoslavia is a fascinating and meticulously documented reconstruction of how Serbian expansionism, Croatian nationalism, and Slovenian secessionism combined to destroy the Yugoslavia Tito had created. It is an unfolding story of intrigues in the inner sanctums of Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo. The ordinary people of Yugoslavia are sometimes heard, as it were, chanting in the streets far below. But the book concentrates on the council chambers, party headquarters, and army command posts. Silber and Little provide a deliberately top-down account of the Yugoslav tragedy, insisting that the origins of the disaster lie in a power struggle between ex-Communist politicians for the post-Titoist succession. No overwhelming waves of popular nationalism forced these men to the brink; as Silber and Little show, the initial sparks of Serbian nationalist resentment in Kosovo had to be fanned by Milosevic and his local agents before they could be made to burst into flame.

There seems little reason to question The Death of Yugoslavia’s central conclusion that the burden of responsibility for the breakup of Yugoslavia lies with Serbia’s Milosevic. He was a pure creation of Tito’s Yugoslavia, who set out to destroy Tito’s work for no other obvious reason than self-aggrandizement. Silber and Little, together with the television team led by Norma Percy, Angus Macqueen, and Paul Mitchell, managed to exploit current divisions in the Serbian leadership to brilliant effect. Politicians with scores to settle were tempted to commit astonishing indiscretions about the secret machinations that led to Yugoslavia’s downfall.

Milosevic’s right-hand man, Borisav Jovic, obviously grew tired of being in his boss’s shadow; in The Death of Yugoslavia he edges past him into the limelight to reveal that Milosevic never objected to Croatia’s secession itself—there is even evidence that he turned a blind eye, for six months, to clandestine arms shipments from Hungary which were intended to arm a breakaway Croatian state. What was at stake for the Serbian regime was not whether Croatia should have self-determination, but which parts of Croatia should be allowed to extract themselves from Yugoslavia. Milosevic portrayed himself as Yugoslavia’s defender; in reality, he fought merely to absorb the Serbian minority in Croatia into a Greater Serbia of his own.

Indeed, Croatia’s Tudjman and Serbia’s Milosevic understood each other perfectly: in secret talks, Silber and Little show, they divided up the corpse of Tito’s Yugoslavia between themselves. Each provided the other with the enemy they needed in order to mobilize the ethnic paranoia in their respective societies. There was a fatal symmetry in their particular brands of ethnic nationalism. Neither believed that the Bosnians were an authentic ethnic group in their own right. Milosevic regarded them as renegade Serbs who had lapsed from Orthodoxy under the Turks; Tudjman saw them as renegade Catholics. Such views made a carve-up of Bosnia between them seem the most natural thing in the world: they only fell out over the size of the portions of Bosnia each would take over.

Their cynicism was equally symmetrical: Milosevic posed as the defender of Serbs everywhere, and then allowed Tudjman to expel the Krajina Serbs when the costs of pretending to be their savior proved too high. Tudjman, for his part, posed as the friend of Slovenian and Bosnian independence, only to betray both when it suited him. Tudjman’s portrayal of himself and his country as blameless victims of Serbian aggression cannot conceal the low cynicism with which Croatia has acted as the scavenger in Bosnia, now siding with the Serbs, now with the Muslims, depending on which side would increase the Croats’ advantage. Reading the tangled story of Tudjman’s calculations and subterfuges should convince anyone that the current Muslim—Croat federation is likely to be short-lived, and that Tudjman will turn on Izetbegovic again as soon as it seems advantageous to do so.

The Death of Yugoslavia also casts a strong light on the secret chain of command that directed Serbian ethnic cleansing. It provides powerful evidence for what most observers have long suspected: that, between 1991 and 1994, Milosevic personally directed the dispatch of the vicious Serbian militias to “cleanse” Croatia and Bosnia. Vojislav Seselj, one of the leading Chetnik paramilitary leaders, proudly boasts, on camera, “Milosevic and his generals didn’t give us orders, just requests: ‘We need your fighters in this or that place.’ We didn’t let them down.”1 It was Seselj’s men who engaged in a particularly sickening cleansing of the eastern Bosnian town of Zvornik in early 1992. A senior UN official, José Maria Mendiluce, happened to be driving into Zvornik just after Seselj’s men had slaughtered civilians. He saw them piling trucks high with the corpses of men, women, and children. Forty-nine thousand Muslims once lived in Zvornik; several thousand were executed and others were sent to concentration camps. Now no Muslims remain in Zvornik. While Milosevic continues to lie on camera (“an organized genocide, even organized from Belgrade, even organized by me” is “out of consideration”), the killers themselves point the finger of responsibility squarely at him.2

Norman Cigar’s Genocide in Bosnia also produces evidence to show that ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, far from being the inevitable but random brutality of war, or the unplanned outbreak of immemorial ethnic hatreds, was a carefully planned program of territorial aggrandizement directly ordered from Belgrade. Local Serb non-combatants were evacuated from areas marked for cleansing; local militias were armed and drilled by Serbian experts; at the last minute, Serbian militia leaders would arrive to carry out plans to get rid of Muslims. These leaders worked in tandem with regular Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic. Atrocities—particularly the mutilation of bodies—were calculatedly carried out as a useful part of a policy of ethnic expulsion. The more savage the atrocities the more rapidly an area could be cleansed. As Cigar points out, all sides have engaged in ethnic cleansing, but none so tenaciously or effectively as the Serbs, and none with such insistent management from the top of the political hierarchy.

The Death of Yugoslavia also undermines Milosevic’s pretense that Serbian armed forces have stayed out of Bosnia’s civil war. His confidante, Borisav Jovic, reveals the extent of his boss’s brazen lies. When Bosnia proclaimed its independence in the spring of 1992, Milosevic and Jovic secretly transferred every Bosnian Serb in the federal army to units in Bosnia, thus providing Karadzic with a fully equipped army of 80,000 soldiers. Milosevic contrived to pay and supply this army secretly so he could deny having any connection with it.

It still seems surprising that a man like Milosevic who was entirely a product of Titoism should have had so little loyalty to the system that produced him. As The Death of Yugoslavia shows, Milosevic positively exulted in the growing paralysis of federal institutions, and the growing implausibility of the Titoist slogans. The Serb leader watched with pleasure as successive presidents of the Yugoslav federation futilely attempted to appease Belgrade crowds that were angry over Kosovo by invoking the Titoist slogan of brotherhood and unity; they were silenced by contemptuous jeers.

But Titoism did not evaporate overnight. One unexpected source of resistance to Milosevic’s plans, Silber and Little disclose, was the high command of the Yugoslav National Army. Although most of its officers were Serbs, the YNA was not converted overnight into an instrument of Serbian expansionism. The army was extremely unwilling to intervene either in Slovenia or in Croatia. Despite being brow-beaten, through the federal council, by Jovic and Milosevic, the top generals initially refused to engage in what they saw as a struggle that would destroy it as the guardian of the Titoist inheritance.

Apart from the army leaders, no one capable of matching Milosevic in brutality and guile ever stood up to defend Tito’s federation. This is surprising. Even allowing for the universal and deserved discredit into which all Communist regimes fell in the 1980s, the sheer rapidity of the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia is a major historical puzzle. Having jettisoned communism, the Yugoslavs had good reasons to stay together. They had a common language and a national economy more in need of reform than fragmentation. There were longstanding patterns of ethnic intermarriage. In huge regions of the country—Bosnia, central Croatia, Macedonia—ethnic groups overlapped and intermingled in such a way that imposing ethnic states was irrational and could be achieved only through genocide and ethnic cleansing. The ties that bound Yugoslavia together were real enough. With so much going for it, Yugoslavia did not fall apart: it had to be pulled apart, deliberately, by its own political elite. Why they did so is much more a story of cynicism, greed, and stupidity than of nationalist conviction. None of the nationalist leaders had any convictions worthy of the name. The sole rationale for ethnic nationalism that counted was that it enabled the Titoist party managers to expand their power. Nationalist rhetoric helped them to mobilize and then sacrifice their fellow citizens to a suicidal politique du pire.

Gradually the fortunes of war in the Balkans are laying bare the remarkable bankruptcy of Greater Serbian ideology. The much deceived Serbian people are now paying the price for Milosevic’s manipulation of their hopes and fears. More and more of them, like their victims before them, are becoming refugees. The Croatian assault in August drove Serbs from their ancient Croatian homelands and from their Hercegovinan strongholds. Serbs now face eventual eviction from eastern Slavonia and its capital, Vukovar. Having vowed to make Vukovar their Stalingrad in the war of 1991 and then having suffered the ignominy of losing it, the Croats must retake it, sooner or later, while Milosevic must hold it or risk losing power in Serbia itself. The same pressures face him in Bosnia. If the Muslim—Croat alliance continues to drive Serbs out of western and central Bosnia, Milosevic may have to elbow aside the legions of Mladic’s Bosnian Serbs and send in an army to defend, not the Bosnian Serbs, but his own regime in Belgrade.

Those who expect the exhaustion of battle to bring the Balkan elites to their senses may have to wait a while longer. There was a time when the Serbian leaders might have been willing to settle; they may now be forced to fight on to reverse recent losses. The Muslims are bent on revenge; the Croats are bent on scavenging, and sooner or later these so-called allies will turn upon each other. The Americans are racing to put a deal in place while the approach of winter slows the pace of fighting; but time is not on their side, because the Balkan forest fire has not yet burned down to the waterline. The best the Americans can hope for is an armed truce of uncertain duration. But further wars remain likely as long as each group of elites remains convinced that its only safety lies in hacking out more ethnically pure territory of its own.

It is hard to conceive of a people who have been worse served by their recent leaders than the Yugoslavs. It is hard to imagine a politics more nihilistic, more self-destructive than theirs. The blame for this has to lie, not with these low creatures as individuals, but with the system which taught them what they know. Tito left behind a united country and a Communist system, and the system destroyed the country. For it was the system which taught this elite to believe that politics is conspiracy and political success is the art of the lie. It was the system which taught these men that they had no other purpose than the maintenance of power by any means. The tragedy is that it was all so unnecessary: a workable European state, composed of nations no more divided by history than the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English were divided by theirs, has been destroyed forever, not by ancient hatreds but by the blind folly of its politicians.

This Issue

November 2, 1995