Categorized | Europe, European Union, World

Tito and Yugonostalgia: Name Change Reveals Political Fault Lines in Croatia

Image by Tony Fabijančić

The decision of municipal authorities in the Croatian cities of Zagreb and Karlovac to remove former Yugoslav president Tito’s name from streets and squares has rekindled the debate over the ruler’s legacy. Here, Tony Fabijančić assesses attitudes for and against Tito, nostalgia for the former Yugoslavia (“Yugonostalgia”), and the ongoing political division between left and right in Croatia today.

Croatia’s entry into the European Union in 2013 has had some positive consequences. To cite one recent example, the injection of 357 million Euros from the E.U. Cohesion Policy Fund into construction of the Pelješac suspension bridge on the southern coast, which would allow motor traffic to bypass Bosnia-Herzegovina at Neum and ensure Croatia’s territorial integrity. Supporters of accession would also point out the benefits of E.U. funds for urban renewal projects, subsidies for farmers, and duty-free exports into the European market.

Yet, at the same time, pessimists of E.U. accession paint a grimmer picture. They point to Croatia’s high unemployment rate, the emigration of tens of thousands of educated young people to other E.U. member states, and micro-regulations imposed on many traditional Croatian activities and products (for example, the forced name change to the old dessert wine, Prošek, due to its name similarity with the Italian Prosecco).

Politically, Croatia is in a strange and yet all too familiar place as hostilities between left and right are as entrenched as ever. An event in 2017 highlighted these political divisions, and hinted at deeper dissatisfactions among ordinary Croats with their lives in E.U. Croatia.

Thirty-seven years after the death of former Yugoslav president, Josip Broz “Tito,” on May 4, 1980, and 26 years after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the municipalities of Karlovac and Zagreb finally decided to rename streets and squares still dedicated to Tito.

Not all Croatians agreed with this decision. The desire to erase Tito from the present is countered by a strong impulse among some Croats to keep his memory alive. In fact, a wider ‘Yugonostalgia’ appears on the rise. To discover why this might be I travelled to Croatia in the summer of 2017 in the hope of understanding the political and cultural roots of Yugonostalgia.

My first stop was Tito’s birthplace in Kumrovec, a village in the northern Zagorje region of Croatia, on the Slovenian border. The drive took me through steep hills covered by vineyards and past crumbling two-room houses of brick, mostly uninhabited.

A white-facaded one-storey with begonias in the windows facing the street and with a trimmed hedge, Tito’s house was simply too done-up to be authentic. Inside a television replayed the national Yugoslav broadcast that announced Tito’s death in 1980. There were framed newspaper articles and poems on the walls lamenting his death and commemorating his life. Remarks in a guest book by the front window gushed about the former President. “You are not gone!” wrote a woman from Israel. “A great man and a great leader,” wrote someone else from Algeria. The book was filled with similar remarks by visitors from around the world. This global enthusiasm may be linked to Tito’s formulation in 1956, along with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Between 6000 and 7000 people with similar attitudes arrived in Kumrovec in 2017. They came on the 25th of May, the “Day of Youth,” and Tito’s official birthday. Many of these individuals might have attended similar events as part of the Pioneer Alliance of Yugoslavia, a sort of boy scout/girl scout organization which ‘educated’ young citizens about communism and Tito. Every year in Kumrovec a Tito impersonator can be sighted in the crowds, as can occasionally a former Croatian president (in 2015 Stipe Mesić was here and said, “All who say that Tito was a criminal and murderer are liars”). Many visitors still identify themselves as Yugoslavs first, before they identify themselves with the nation in which they live. They are the ones, typically, who are able to look past the crimes Tito committed, or who say that any alleged crimes served the high moral purpose of defeating one of Europe’s great evils.

In this vein, Franjo Habulin, president of the Anti-Fascist Fighters in the Republic of Croatia, told the left-leaning Zagreb daily the Jutarnji List in an online article posted May 27, 2017 (“Velika Reportaža iz Kumrovca”) that fascism was on the rise in Croatia. He said, “If we do not fight, those who lie will overcome.” He said that it would be unfortunate for those who were victorious in World War II to be defeated today. My father, who escaped Yugoslavia in 1963 partly to avoid three years of military service and partly to escape communism, laughed cynically when he heard this:

“For this guy, and others like him, anyone against communism is bad, and is a fascist. They call themselves anti-fascists because they don’t want to use the word ‘communist’ anymore.”

On the summer day when I came to Kumrovec, hardly anyone was in the streets. A Danish family took photos of themselves in front of a bronze statue of Tito by Antun Augustinčić. The father, a tall, ruddy man of around 60 with startling blue eyes, to my surprise, had no illusions about Tito. He knew about Goli Otok, the island where political dissidents were imprisoned and tortured. Turning his blue eyes seriously to me, he was compelled for some reason to reveal that his son had served with the U.N. in Bosnia during the last war. “He had to come home. He couldn’t stand it. It was too horrible. They were killing children!”

My father added to the Dane’s views of Tito. “What do you think? He was a killer of his own people, plain and simple.” He said that in his home village of Srebrnjak in 1945, young Miško Juranko, just 17 at the time, was arrested during the night, probably to be hanged.

“My mother was part of a committee that saved his life. They convinced authorities that Miško was just a kid, a nobody, someone who didn’t know anything about politics. How many other people in Yugoslavia just disappeared without a committee to save them?”

I remember this: during my stay in Yugoslavia in 1987, I got to know a World War II veteran in the neighbouring village of Dol. Slavko Jakopač, a big man with a buzz cut and a big laugh, befriended me over many a gemišt at his wooden table in his yard, and told me what he’d seen in the period after the Second World War. “You know the road between Sveta Nedelja and Samobor, the straight one out of concrete slabs, the ones the Germans built, solid as hell? Well on those Russian poplars Tito’s Partisans hanged dozens of people. I saw it with these eyes. Up on the chair, rope around the neck, kick the stool,” and here he demonstrated by kicking the leg of the table, jolting the wine out of our glasses. “That was communism, that was Tito.”

The woman working at the ticket office in Kumrovec said, “Ask any two people what they think of Tito, and one will tell you he was good, and the other will say he is bad.”

Interestingly, a few days after I spoke to her, another Zagreb daily, the conservative Večernji List, published an image of Tito on the cover of its weekend magazine, with a halo over one side of his head and a devil’s horn over the other. Lest one thinks this interest in Tito is just a historical one-off, the Večernji List regularly publishes its old issues about significant events in Croatia’s history, as well as commentaries on historically-freighted issues like the beatification and canonization process of World War II Archbishop (later Cardinal) Aloysius Stepinac. One really does get the feeling that the past in Croatia is always very much present.

Discussion in the Večernji List about Tito’s legacy was prompted by the decision of Zagreb’s city council to remove Tito’s name from numerous streets and squares throughout the city. Why, I wondered, after all theses years, after a quarter century of the new Croatia, had questions about Tito presence in Croatia’s capital city resurfaced?

“There were many old communists in power before, so no one made a change,” said my father, “even at the beginning of the new Croatia. These politicians said they were nationalists then, but they didn’t want to say goodbye to Tito. It’s finally time to get rid of him.”

Or, to take a different view, this business of the names of streets and squares was a recent expression of political jostling in Zagreb itself, and in Croatia more widely, between the left and the right. Wily Zagreb mayor Milan Bandić, searching for five extra seats in the municipal assembly needed for his government to form a majority, courted right-wing politicians who have long spoken against anti-fascist politics in Croatia. In June, 2017, he agreed to propose renaming Marshal Tito Square to the Square of the Republic of Croatia. And so he found those five seats with supporters of former Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegović. It was Hasanbegović who was accused during his tenure of apparently supporting the Bleiburg massacre commemorations with more interest and enthusiasm than the commemoration at Jasenovac.

Jasenovac is a town in Croatia near the Bosnian border where the Croatia’s Second World War Axis regime murdered thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and other alleged opponents. Anyone who has seen the haunting picture of Serbian villager, Branko Jungić, with his head about to be sawed off by Ustasha soldiers, will grasp the nature of atrocities committed at Jasenovac.

Less well known is the Bleiburg massacre which took place immediately after the Second World War, when tens of thousands of fleeing Croatian soldiers and civilians (including the elderly, women, and children), many associated with Axis forces in Croatia, but also Slovene Home Guards and Chetniks (Serbian nationalists), tried to surrender to British forces, were refused, and instead were handed over to the Yugoslav Partisans, who then carried out mass executions. Accusations against the British for complicity in a war crime have long persisted.

“There is a significant difference between Bleiburg and Jasenovac” said Hasanbegović in an interview with Le Monde in 2016. “It was forbidden to commemorate the crimes committed at Bleiburg for 50 years, while the manipulation of the crimes committed at Jasenovac and the exaggerating of the number of victims was one of the constituent elements of the Yugoslav communist regime and its ideology.”

All of this is at the back of the issue of renaming the streets and squares. Writer Ante Tomić, in an essay in the Jutarnji List, suggests that if Tito’s name is to be removed, then the territory he assigned to Croatia should also be given up (referring here to Slovenia’s recent attempts in the Hague to claim parts of Croatia’s Istrian coast). “Josip Broz Tito was the first in history to make two thousand and eight hundred square kilometers of the Istrian peninsula Croatian, as well as some other small territories in the Kvarner, around Zadar and the islands, and yet the Ustasha clowns from the Zagreb City Assembly call him a traitor and criminal.”

In keeping with Zagreb’s decision, the city of Karlovac in central Croatia voted on Tuesday, July 18, 2017, for a square dedicated to Tito to be renamed Croatian Defenders Square in honour of 1990s war veterans. Karlovac’s mayor, Damir Mandić, believed that Tito “suppressed basic human rights.” “We don’t have a reason to be ashamed of this decision… I don’t know, what should we be ashamed of? Let’s be the first in Croatia to pass a decision like this,” he said. He added that those who stood up against the Yugoslav regime in the 1990s were in fact anti-fascists.

There is more going on in Croatia than a revival or suppression of Tito himself in the interests of political advantage. During my trip in the summer of 2017, few people I spoke to in northern Croatia felt things were better now than they were in Yugoslavia. This feeling is at the heart of the rise of nostalgia for Yugoslavia at the ground level where people live. It is not Tito so much that anyone misses, but a way of life that is gone for good.

And this does not only mean that farming life is dwindling – that old family vineyards are being cut down, that those individuals in Yugoslavia who worked in factories in the morning, then laboured on their land the rest of the day, had job security – but also that the feeling of camaraderie and collective spirit as families helped each other is no more. My wife recalled, “I remember when I was a little girl, in the 1970s, women would pluck the slaughtered chickens to make pillows and blankets. They spread the feathers on the table and separated the fluff from the quills. They sang while they worked. It is a fond memory of my childhood.”

Milovan is a 65-year-old weekend resident in the village of Srebrnjak who has been around longer than most (an interpreter by profession, he told me he’d just finished translating the most recent Spider Man flick for the Croatian cinemas).

“You have it wrong,” he told me in English. “This has nothing to do with Yugoslavia versus Croatia, this feeling for the past. It has everything to do with the economy.” He said the average person was worse off than before. “The economy is 1000 percent worse. You just cannot get ahead today. Simply cannot. Employment among youth is around 45 percent! Consider this: in Yugoslavia, every company, every factory was obliged by law, by law, to pay its workers first, and health care premiums, before it took any profit for itself. That was the law. Today, there is no such law. If you work for a company, you might not get paid for six months, the owner might not pay his workers.”

“So what do the workers do?” I asked.

“In many cases, they do nothing. They keep working in the hopes that they will be paid eventually. And the owner, if he keeps the profits for himself says he will just invest the money. The question is, invest where, in what?”

Nostalgics for Yugoslavia, however, tend to overlook problems with their former country. Factory workers often finished their quota of work after only six hours, then would sit around playing cards the remaining two. I remember sales women in state-owned department stores smoking and talking when there were no customers, and with great reluctance and irritation getting up to serve a customer. Service across the board, in stores, at the border, was rude and slow.

My wife said that when she was a young girl in the early 1980s there were nestašice (“shortages”). Stores would run out of things like sugar or coffee, and when news spread of an incoming supply somewhere, everyone would swarm to the location. Around 1982, there were blackouts every third night from eight until eleven.

Thinking about some other positives about Yugoslavia, Milovan said, “There were freedoms too. You could travel out of the country whenever you wished, for example.”

“Hold on,” my father said, “I couldn’t just leave the country in the 60’s. There was not this freedom that you say. I had to escape to get out!”

“Well, you were young and hadn’t done your military service. But by the late 60’s it was different for the public. Things had loosened up.” Generally, he was right, but not all parts of the country were so liberated. For example, the island of Vis in southern Dalmatia was a military island closed to all outside traffic until 1988. And at least into the 1960s if residents wanted to leave the country they had to do so secretly. Many tried to escape by sea in the night and many were caught and killed.

In the upper parts of Srebrnjak, where my father was born, his in-law Franjo helped his family work the land. Franjo was a registered communist in Yugoslavia. I can remember the small golden bas-relief of Tito in the hallway of his house. “I was a member of the Party, yes, for a few years, but then I quit when the fees became too high and I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” Except for that first election in the heady days following Croatia’s declaration of independence, he has usually voted for the reincarnated communists, the SDP (Social Democratic Party). It is somewhat astonishing, and says something about the political system in which he lived, or his limited knowledge of history, that he only heard about the massacres committed by the Yugoslav Partisans at Bleiburg a few years go.

Asked whether he thinks life was better in Yugoslavia than it is now, he answers, “Yes, some things were definitely better. Everyone had work, that is the big thing. And I liked the spirit between people then.”

But when I wondered whether he would like to go back, he said flatly, “Not a chance. The Serbs controlled too much.” This is a familiar refrain in Croatia today. There may be nostalgia for Yugoslavia, but it doesn’t run deep enough among the general population to become a full-blown movement.

In Croatia, though, pro-Yugoslav, leftist attitudes continue to conflict with rightist nationalism, both in the political arena and among people generally. Recent events reinforce this at every turn. For example, in Jasenovac, the association of veterans of the 1990’s war, put up a memorial plaque for eleven fallen soldiers in December, 2016, which included the phrase “Za Dom Spremni” (“For Home (Land) – Ready”). This phrase, used by the Ustasha in the Second World War, but also in part (others will argue) by defenders of the Croatian homeland as long ago as the 16th century, got the political arguments rolling again. And now, perhaps more significantly, the suicide by poison of Herzegovinian-Croatian general Slobodan Praljak upon his conviction for war crimes, has heated up the debate once more, this time about Croatia’s more recent past.

Image courtesy of Tony Fabijančić.

Tony Fabijančić is an Associate Professor of English at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of two travel books, Croatia: Travels in Undiscovered Country and Bosnia: In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip, as well as numerous essays, scholarly articles, stories and photographs in literary reviews, journals and newspapers.

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About Tony Fabijančić

Tony Fabijančić is an Associate Professor of English at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of two travel books, 'Croatia: Travels in Undiscovered Country' and 'Bosnia: In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip', as well as numerous essays, scholarly articles, stories and photographs in literary reviews, journals and newspapers.

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