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New Countries, New Views On Tito – Analysis


Thirty two years after his death, the cult of personality built around Josip Broz Tito in history teaching across the old Yugoslavia has been replaced with narrower, nationalistic interpretations.

By Boris Pavelic

“Josip Broz Tito. Politician. He was the president of Yugoslavia. A womanizer. He had a lot of women. Everybody lived well during his times. There was a lot of money.” This was the way a high school student from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina recently described a photo of Josip Broz Tito. It illustrates, a bit grotesquely, how Tito is perceived within the educational systems of the successor states to the old Yugoslavia.

Left to right: Jovanka Broz, Tito, Richard Nixon, and Pat Nixon in the White House in 1971
Left to right: Jovanka Broz, Tito, Richard Nixon, and Pat Nixon in the White House in 1971

Another high school student’s description of Tito was cited in a 2011 edition of “Skolegijum”, a Sarajevo based education journal: “I think this is Josip Broz Tito. He was at the top of the former Yugoslavia. He was a machinist and a locksmith”, the student wrote after being asked to describe the man in the photo. Such distorted descriptions of Josip Broz Tito are the result of “de-Titoization”, a process which was “one of the main characteristics of the changes in history teaching after the dissolution of Yugoslavia”, as the Zagreb historian Magdalena Najbar-Agicic puts it in the book “The myth of Tito”.

“The impact of that change on the collective consciousness still hasn’t been sufficiently explored,” Najbar-Agicic stresses. Together with “de-titoization”, which has affected the teaching of Tito in all the countries established after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the “nationalization” of Tito’s legacy has also been pursued. Twenty two years after his death, the communist personality cult of the founder and life long president of socialist Yugoslavia has been replaced with narrower, nationalistic interpretations of Broz as a person and his historical importance in school history teaching.

Before the nineties, Josip Broz Tito’s historical image, as in Yugoslav society as a whole, was in line with the communist idea of their leaders as perfect and unquestionable heroes. Najbar-Agicic stresses that Tito’s personality cult was one of the “basic cohesive factors for creating a feeling of unity among the citizens of Yugoslavia”. “Tito was not only an unquestioned authority in all domains, but also a symbol of a common history, stemming from the people’s liberation struggles during WWII”, writes Najbar-Agicic.

After 1990, that interpretation changed rapidly and radically in Croatia. The process, however, was to some extent similar in all the countries which emerged from the former republics of the socialist Yugoslavia. The Serbian historian Dubravka Stojanovic has analysed the way interpretations of Tito changed in Serbia in several of her works, and has identified two main phases of change after 1990. Until 2000, wrote Stojanovic in the book, “The Culture of Remembrance – 1941-?”, the Second World War was interpreted “in an ideologically confused way, a way which generally fits the period of Slobodan Milosevic’s rule”. “The partisan and Chetnik movements were interpreted through a deliberately ambivalent ideological amalgam of communist and nationalist ideology, which meant that the formerly unquestioned image of Josip Broz Tito and his partisan movement was mechanically merged with an idealised image of Draza Mihailovic and his Chetniks”, Stojanovic explained.

After 2000, the process advanced towards an ongoing idealisation of Mihailovic’s Chetniks and a minimisation of the role of Tito and the partisans. “A new version of the major events of WWII was written into the schoolbooks in Serbia, a process which could be described as ‘revising the revision’”, Stojanovic wrote. According to her, the roles of the main actors in the war were switched round from communist times “Chetniks became the ‘good guys’, and partisans the ‘bad guys’”. “This was a very dangerous intervention which added to the destabilisation of an already highly disrupted Serbian society”, Stojanovic claimed.

A similar, if not so radical transformation occurred in Croatia. The Croatian historian Snjezana Koren explained how Tito’s image had changed in Croatia, saying that “the interpretation of Tito changed in the first schoolbooks after 1990”. “Data about Tito became very basic. His role in the war and his resistance to Stalin were still recognised, but negative characteristics began to come to the fore: Tito started to be interpreted as a dictator, and his responsibility for mass murders after the war and the political liquidation of his comrades started to be mentioned”, Koren said. However, the Zagreb based historian also emphasised that “the main thrust” of Croatian schoolbooks after 1990 was that “Tito was to blame, not so much for the fact that he was a communist, but primarily because he was not Croat enough”. “Tito was shown as an enemy of Croatian statehood”, Koren said.

Unlike Serbia, Tito’s image in today’s Croatia schoolbooks “is somewhat more positive than during the nineties”, Koren says. His role in resisting Stalin’s dictates has been positively evaluated, but his alleged responsibility for the death of his war time comrade Andrija Hebrang and the torture that took place in the Lubyanka-style prison of Goli Otok is always emphasised. Two schoolbooks currently in use in Croatia, interpret Tito’s death as “the beginning of the dissolution of Yugoslavia”, Koren noted.

In today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina three “official” histories exist, and therefore three “official” interpretations of Tito: Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak. The Serbian version has been dictated by the institutions of Republika Srpska and implemented by the Ministry of education, which controls the production of history textbooks. Zeljko Vujadinovic, an historian from Banja Luka, explained that in Republika Srpska textbooks that “basic data about Josip Broz is given”, although “many biographical details are omitted”. The WWII period is explained in more detail, with an emphasis on the role of Tito’s communist party in leading the partisan movement. “The spontaneous resistance of the Serbian people, in answer to the crimes of the independent state of Croatia, NDH, is mentioned,” Vujadinovic said.

The other two “official” interpretations of Tito exist side by side in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Despite the fact that history teaching is theoretically the responsibility of the educational ministries for each of the ten cantons of the Federation, in practice two “national” approaches exists: Bosniak and Croatian. The Bosniak version was analysed in a 2011 issue of Skolegijum by Enes Kurtovic, using an example textbook for the 8th grade of primary school, “History 8”, published by the Sarajevo publishing house, Bosanska Knjiga. Tito was mentioned in the chapter about the “people’s liberation movement in Bosnia”, but “there was nothing specific written about him as an historical person, as Elvis Presley was written about for instance“. Kurtovic ironically concludes that the ”textbook’s authors used the tried and tested method of holding their tongue about problematic matters”.

As in Croatia, the Sarajevo textbook considers Tito’s death as the beginning of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but with the additional slant that “Serbian political and intellectual circles then openly started to ask for the 1974 Constitution of Yugoslavia to be terminated”. History textbooks for Croats in Bosnia, as Kurtovic showed in his article, are in many ways similar to those in Croatia. “History 8”, a textbook for the 8th grade pupils in Croat primary schools in Bosnia, published in Mostar, cited a Croatian encyclopaedia in giving Tito credit for the return to Croatia of the regions of Istria, Rijeka and the islands. Even so, “Tito was responsible for acts of revenge and repression at the end of WWII”, and he also “ruled Yugoslavia for 35 years, trying to reconcile national equality with communist rule”. “Although he was the absolute ruler for more than three decades, Tito left the state in complete disorder”, states Mostar textbook.

In Montenegro schoolbooks, the overall image of Tito is a positive one according to Radovan Popovic from the Montenegrin state education bureau. “In line with our guiding principles, Tito is presented as a positive historical figure”, said Popovic. ”Unlike previous eras, his image is shown to scale, plainly and without being idolised. Tito is described as he was, as a man who marked an epoch in his own way”, said Popovic.

In Macedonia, “the overweaning importance” that was attributed to Tito’s role in old Yugoslavia, was replaced by “world and Balkan history instead of a purely Yugoslav history” after 1991, the history teacher Igor Jurukov states in his analysis “History teaching in the Republic of Macedonia”, published on the web. “History teaching has undergone a great deal of change over the last 15 years, incorporating new trends, but also focusing on the needs of Macedonian citizens, the events and historic, well-known personalities that might be seen as ‘connectors’ leading to a new vision of a common Macedonian history,” Jurukov said.

There have also been attempts to teach history in the Balkans in a different, non-nationalistic way. In 1999, the Center for Democracy in Southeast Europe (CDSEE) launched “The Southeast Europe joint history project”, in which four history textbooks were written in English by prominent historians from the region, and then translated into seven regional languages. The textbooks focused on the Ottoman empire, the birth of the national states, the Balkan wars and WWII. The editor of the Serbian edition, Dubravka Stojanovic, explained that “the project went much further than the Franco-German joint textbook which deals with the non-confrontational part of their joint history after 1945”. “Our project is an avant-garde one, and can cause dramatic reactions in a closed and lazy society, because it questions the basis for our self-containment and self-isolation”, Stojanovic said. The CDSEE textbook, in addition to basic facts about Tito, gave a number of descriptions of Tito by the people who met him and worked with him, including Fitzroy Maclean, a British army liaison officer with Tito’s partisans in WWII.

The joint regional schoolbooks were given a great deal of publicity when they were published, but did not take root in everyday school history teaching in the Balkan countries. So the national emphasis on the interpretation of Tito still remains the main methodological approach. With that in mind, Dubravka Stojanovic’s opinions on the Serbian history experience could contain a lesson for other post-Yugoslav countries. “History science and teaching have more often served as a kind of military training then as a critical thinking discipline. They were often used to adjust history to the needs of the present, to “change” the past and to justify what’s happening now, or to incorporate current ideological motives into an acceptable, rather than a real, historical context”.

This kind of history teaching, which includes how Josip Broz Tito is taught, seems to be very much alive and well in the Balkans.

Boris Pavelic is a journalist with the Croatian daily newspaper, Novi List.

This article was originally published by Balkan Insight’s Balkan Transitional Justice initiative, a regional initiative funded by the European Commission and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland that aims to improve the general public’s understanding of transitional justice issues in former Yugoslav countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).

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The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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