The history preceding the conflict: Yugoslavia up till 1991

Chapter 1
The era up till 1945

2. The death of Tito

On 10 May 1980 the Dutch publisher Uitgeverij Het Spectrum had no scruples about literally capitalizing on the death six days earlier of the Yugoslav president and die-hard Communist Josip Broz, or Tito as he was better known. Amongst newspaper advertisements was the headline ‘Yugoslavia After Tito’. The advertisement read: ‘Which course will Yugoslavia take? East, West or will it once again become Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia, just as before the First World War? Will national interests override the international ones?’ If you wanted to discover more ‘about this country’s wealth of history, art, workers’ self-rule, politics and music’ the thing to do was to invest in the 25-volume Grote Spectrum Encyclopedie.

This commercially astute publisher had played on the interest shown throughout the world over the previous week in the late statesman who was also the oldest major leader since World War Two. Governments from both East and West along with the Non-Aligned Movement, which was partly founded by Tito, sang the praises of this political tight-rope walker who not only managed to control regional differences in his own country but also maintained an independent foreign course between the Communist and the Capitalist powers.

Tito’s recognition and importance was demonstrated at his funeral. Apart from half a million Yugoslavs, dignitaries from as many as 129 countries came to pay their last respects to the statesman in Belgrade. They included four kings, six princes, three presidents, ten vice presidents, eleven parliamentary leaders, dozens of premiers, 47 foreign ministers and many Communist Party leaders. The official Dutch delegation was also considerable and consisted of Prince Bernhard, Prince Claus, Premier van Agt and Minister Van der Klaauw of Foreign Affairs.

Many people felt that Yugoslavia would probably never be the same again after the death of its first president and this was illustrated by the Dutch newspapers of the day. To quote the Algemeen Dagblad reporter B. van Oosterhout, Tito had taken Yugoslavia from being ‘a backwards Balkan province, a ball on the field of influence of international politics’ and had turned it into ‘a self-aware, independent Socialist country’.[1] Apart from the hundreds of thousands of mourners, Yugoslavia appeared outwardly unchanged in the days following the death and funeral of the ‘old man’ - ‘Stari’ or ‘old man’ being one of Josip Broz’ nicknames. Four months of illness had prepared the country for the death of the last major leader of the Second World War.

The Dutch newspapers focused considerable attention on the main points of Tito’s political course during the 35 years after the war: his independent foreign politics, workers’ self-rule and his policy concerning Yugoslavia’s separate regions. The daily newspapers described him as ‘the greatest statesman (...) to come out of the Balkans’,[2] the man who was called the ‘only Yugoslav’,[3] and – to quote Nehru – the man who had forged Yugoslavia out of ‘six republics, two autonomous provinces, five different peoples, four languages, three religions, two alphabets and one political party’.[4]

The question was whether Tito’s legacy would be preserved.[5] According to F. Schaling of the NRC Handelsblad, Tito ‘had lived too long because his all-but-eternal presence had blocked the solutions to many of the problems of Yugoslavia’s future and this had resulted in a general stagnation in the country’s leadership.’ This stagnation was, for instance, evident in the carefully-formulated rules concerning the collective leadership that was to govern Yugoslavia after Tito’s death and which, Schaling argued, ‘would automatically have a brief existence.’ Stagnation was also demonstrated by the fact that the set of leaders under Tito was generally frighteningly mediocre because Tito distrusted all forms of ambition and quality was not rewarded.’[6]

Clearly disturbance within the Yugoslav state system could not be excluded. A crisis could be caused by the leadership of the Soviet Union which had recently invaded Afghanistan: ‘The Afghan scenario – an internal power struggle, tensions between national minorities and finally a cry for help to sympathetic Communists in the Kremlin – ultimately was and is the nightmare of many Yugoslavs.’[7] However, Moscow publicly stated that it would leave Tito’s country alone. President Carter warned that the United States would tolerate no form of ‘terrorism’ against Yugoslavia. In diplomatic circles it was understood that here the American president was referring to the causing of internal disorder 'which is regarded as being a much greater danger to Yugoslav independence than any “normal’ military invasion.[8]

According to a leader article in the Volkskrant, ‘one of Tito’s greatest virtues is the fact that the formation of the Yugoslav nation seems to be sufficiently rooted so as to be able to survive his passing.’[9] By contrast other Dutch commentators argued that, although the Yugoslavs’ sense of national identity had increased under Tito, the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians ‘and all those other tribes’ were still contaminated by ‘the passionate tribal chauvinism that the mixed population of Yugoslavia has suffered from since time immemorial.’[10] ‘ The strength of the forces that threaten the country’s unity both at home and abroad will be revealed now that the old leader is no longer around’[11]

Tito’s obituaries were illustrations of the developments that had occurred in his country during the 20th century. He was born in 1892 to a Croat father and a Slovenian mother. Before assuming leadership of the Communist Party at the end of the 1930s, Tito had climbed the ranks of the Imperial Army to become a sergeant major during the First World War - Croatia still being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At first he fought against the Serbs along the Drina, a fact that he later preferred to omit from his biography.[12] After being captured by the Russians, he converted to Communism and initially remained in Russia. When Josip Broz returned to the land of his birth in 1920, Croatia was no longer a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes that was later to be called Yugoslavia. This first Yugoslavia took him by chance just as its end took him by surprise in 1941. The second Yugoslavia, which was formed after the Second World War, was largely his creation and survived him by only eleven years.

The events that led to Slovenia and Croatia’s proclamations of independence in the summer of 1991 raised the question as to the feasibility of a Yugoslavia that had been created and destroyed on two occasions during the 20th century. Of course, the question was not simply of academic importance but was also relevant for the initial positioning of other countries vis-à-vis the conflict that arose in 1991. Linked to this is the question of whether the collapse of Yugoslavia can be attributed first and foremost to causes within Yugoslavia itself (endogenous explanations) or to external developments and events (exogenous explanations). Some authors place great emphasis on internal factors in terms of the collapse of both Yugoslavias. One of them, Dusan Necak, has written: ‘The nations of Yugoslavia have faced a decision on their common destiny on several occasions in history, but the forces of division and disintegration have always been stronger than those of unity and consolidation.’[13] Ivo Banac, an authoritative historian who specializes in Yugoslavia and works at the University of Yale, goes one step further. He attributes no credit whatsoever to the Yugoslavs for the creation of their state of Yugoslavia (which literally means South Slavia): ‘Every examination of the Yugoslavia project will show that the idea of South Slavic unity and reciprocity was promoted, often unwittingly, by the non-Slavs and was undermined by the southern Slavs themselves.’[14] We will explore in depth the question of whether this is correct. The answers are important so as to show which centrifugal tendencies were present in both the First and the Second Yugoslavia, which were the mechanisms that had to counter these developments and why these ultimately failed. The reader must be patient here because Bosnia only enters the picture at a late stage. In fact, Bosnia-Hercegovina was not the source of major political problems in Yugoslavia. On the contrary, probably there would have never been a war in Bosnia in the 1990s if Yugoslavia had not already collapsed.[15]


[1] B. van Oosterhout, ‘Belgrado loopt uit’, Algemeen Dagblad, 07/05/80. Also F. Schaling, ‘Tito: de successtory van een meedogenloze partizanenleider’ & ‘Door breuk met Stalin kon Joegoslavië geschiedenis maken’, NRC Handelsblad, 05/05/80.

[2] M. Broekmeyer, ‘Tito was uitzonderlijk’, Het Parool, 06/05/80

[3] B. van Oosterhout, ‘Belgrado een tranendal’, Algemeen Dagblad, 09/05/80. Also ‘Tito was zijn eigen Marx’, de Volkskrant, 05/05/80.

[4] Nehru quoted in T. Kuijt, ‘Tito's leven in het teken van strijd’, Het Parool, 05/05/80.

[5] ‘Joegoslavië zonder Tito’, Algemeen Dagblad, 05/05/80; B. van Oosterhout, ‘Belgrado loopt uit’, Algemeen Dagblad, 07/05/80.

[6] F. Schaling, ‘Door breuk met Stalin kon Joegoslavië geschiedenis maken’, NRC Handelsblad, 05/05/80.

[7] T. Kuijt, ‘Tito's leven in het teken van strijd’, Het Parool, 05/05/80. J. den Boef, ‘Kan Joegoslavië zonder Tito?’, Trouw, 05/05/80, ‘Tito’, NRC Handelsblad, 05/05/80; F. Schaling, ‘Leiders Joegoslavië hebben eerste vuurproef doorstaan’, NRC Handelsblad, 06/05/80.

[8] A. de la Kromme, ‘Supermachten laten Joegoslavië met rust’, de Telegraaf, 08/05/80. ‘De politieke dood van een staatsman’, Het Parool, 05/05/80; ‘Commentaar - Tito's dood, Trouw, 05/05/80; ‘Russen blijven uit Joegoslavië’, ibidem, 06/05/80.

[9] ‘Ten geleide – Tito’, de Volkskrant, 05/05/80.

[10] ‘Tito was zijn eigen Marx’, de Volkskrant, 05/05/80. Also J. den Boef, ‘Kan Joegoslavië zonder Tito?’, Trouw, 05/05/80.

[11] ‘Joegoslavië zonder Tito’, Algemeen Dagblad, 05/05/80. ‘Tito's naaste adviseurs krijgen de macht’, de Volkskrant, 07/05/80; ‘Tito’, NRC Handelsblad, 05/05/80; F. Schaling, ‘Leiders Joegoslavië hebben eerste vuurproef doorstaan’, NRC Handelsblad, 06/05/80;’De politieke dood van een staatsman’, Het Parool, 05/05/80.

[12] Glenny, Balkans, pp. 571-572.

[13] Dusan Necak, ‘Historical Elements for Understanding the “Yugoslav Question”’, Akhavan/Howse (eds.), Yugoslavia, p. 14. See also Lampe, Yugoslavia, p. 7

[14] Ivo Banac, ‘The Origins and Development of the Concept of Yugoslavia’, Van den Heuvel/Siccama (eds.) Disintegration, p. 1.

[15] Susan L. Woodward, ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina: How Not to End Civil War’, in: Walter/Snyder (eds.), Wars, p. 75.