Finding Tito in the Museum of Yugoslavia.
Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade.
I hadn’t been aware of it before my visit to the Serbian capital. But actually my general knowledge of modern history and its key world leaders had a large Yugoslavia shaped hole in it. Churchill? Sure, I have a solid overview. Stalin? Yup, I could certainly give you a few facts and figures. Mussolini? I reckon if I racked my brain I could tell you some stuff. Hitler? Duh…
But what about Yugoslavian President Josip Broz? The leader better known as Tito, a pseudonym he used as a young man while doing underground Communist Party work. Tito, eh? I’m gonna be honest and admit that my knowledge of the man amounted to diddly squat.
Luckily for me, Belgrade has the perfect place for what you might call Tito enlightenment. Step forward The Museum of Yugoslavia, a place that focuses so heavily on the man who ruled the country between 1953 and 1980 that people often refer to it as the Tito Museum. Thus one afternoon Sladja took me to see what I can honestly say is one of the oddest, most unique museums I have ever visited.
Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade.
The museum takes visitors on a haphazard but fascinating tour through The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1943) and its successive Socialist Yugoslavia era (1945-1992). This is a dense, complicated history (for me at least) that would be challenging to follow even in the hands of a skilled author.
Under the stewardship of the museum though, one could easily slip into a quagmire of confusion. In fact, the narrative is all over the place and told through acquired antiques and historic artefacts. Moreover, some of the stuff on display comes with English commentary, others just in Serbian, a few pieces nothing at all.
In any case the museum’s curators have planted the focus firmly on Yugoslavia’s legendary leader. And in that sense, they’ve definitely succeeded in painting a picture of the man and his life and times. So how to summarise the legacy of Josip Broz Tito?
Born in the village of Kumrovec in northern Croatia, he first worked as a locksmith before joining the Austro-Hungarian Army where he became the youngest sergeant major of the day. During World War I the Russians captured him and he served time in a Prisoner of War camp. The below portrait, painted by the Serbian artist Đorđe Andrejević-Kun, is one of several in the museum.
Josip Broz Tito.
After the war, in the recently formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Broz’s political career took off when he joined the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. First he became the General Secretary, then The President. When World War II broke out, Tito positioned himself as a fierce enemy of The Nazis, leading the resistance guerrilla movement The Partisans.
Yugoslavia’s place in the story of World War II is especially complex. One museum item that caught my eye is this antique poster referencing the 27th of March 1941. This was the day a British backed coup succeeded in overthrowing the Yugoslavian government who had, just two days earlier, signed the Tripartite Act, an alliance with Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy.
Following the coup, the new government refused to ratify the previous agreement with The Nazis. Hence the Germans got all pissed off and invaded. The bombing of Belgrade began on April the 6th, while on the 10th a pro-fascist group called Ustaše announced Croatia (hitherto part of Yugoslavia) as an independent state in full support of The Nazis. By the end of April Yugoslavia had capitulated under German occupation. What a mess.
Nevertheless, Tito’s efforts against The Nazis didn’t go unrecognised. Consequently, in 1944, it was Winston Churchill himself who gave Tito a signed photograph thanking him and Yugoslavia for their heroism. The photograph shows Churchill, Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference in 1943. A very cool museum piece.
Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade.
Churchill gave Tito the present when they met in Naples. In order to impress the British Prime Minister, he wore his Marshall’s uniform, decorated with medals and gold braids. Churchill later wrote: “He was wearing a magnificent blue and gold uniform, which was very tight around the corner and highly inappropriate for the fervent heat!”
When World War II ended Tito was a man with plenty of friends in high places. As a result, he was able to wield great influence. And so he came to power, forming The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of which he was the Prime Minister between 1944 and 1963.
He also became president in 1953, a role he held until his death in 1980. Along the way, Tito managed to depose Peter II, the last king of Serbia. He also executed a dangerous political enemy, Draža Mihailović, and effectively stifled all domestic opposition. Such are the acts of a dictator. Among his many political successes, he became the first Communist leader to break free from The Soviet Union and forge his own independent road to national Communism.
He also maintained an incredible cohesion between all of Yugoslavia’s six republics, suppressing the rise of revolutionaries and nationalist groups. The below painting, Vigil or Fruits of Peace by the artist Miladin Aničić, depicts Tito in contrasting perspectives as a beloved ruler and hated dictator.
Vigil or Fruits of Peace.
The artwork shows a sculptor carving the great leader’s face into the rocks overlooking a verdant, paradise-like land. Does the artist think of Yugoslavia as a utopia? Or is he being ironic? And the hives and buzzing bees on his head. Do they symbolise the leniency and grace of honey? Or the ruthless bee stings that will come to anyone who poses a threat? It’s a curious piece, whatever the answers.
Outside, in the large garden, Sladja and I strolled down the central path admiring dozens of striking sculptures. They were all gifts to President Tito from across Yugoslavia’s various republics. Most of them were birthday presents, such as Doe and Fawn pictured below, by Vladeta Petrić.
If the museum experience had ended there, I may have left feeling somewhat underwhelmed. However, we definitely got our money’s worth with the second part of the complex, the House of Flowers. Tito had it built in 1975 as an indoor winter garden just a short walk from his private residence.
Tito loved his House of Flowers so much he quickly made plans for the central chamber to become his final resting place. And that’s precisely where the state buried him after his death in Slovenia on the 4th of May 1980.
Museum of Yugoslavia.
At 87 years old, Tito had been suffering from blood circulation problems in his legs. But when doctors insisted he needed to have one leg amputated, he simply refused. Before long Tito developed gangrene, after which a close advisor eventually convinced him to have his left leg removed. Unfortunately though, the amputation came too late.
Despite being a controversial figure, Tito had a fantastic reputation among world leaders and boy did they turn up in force for his state funeral. In fact, there were 31 presidents, 22 prime ministers and 6 princes in attendance, including the likes of Indira Gandhi, Robert Mugabe, Helmut Schmidt, Margaret Thatcher and Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
Amusingly, U.S. President Jimmy Carter was a no show, as he didn’t want to bump into Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Carter did come and visit Tito’s grave later that year, standing right on the spot Sladja and I were on that afternoon.
We also took a moment to pause at the grave of Tito’s third wife, Jovanka Broz. A lieutenant colonel in the Yugoslav People’s Army, she was married to Tito for 28 years, though they had no children together. According to several historians, Jovanka was the victim of several ambitious politicians who succeeded in turning Tito against his wife in his final years.
House of Flowers.
In the days following Tito’s death, Jovanka found herself placed under house arrest where she lived out the rest of her life in quiet seclusion. Finally, her wish to be placed next to her husband in the House of Flowers was fulfilled in 2013 after she passed away aged 88.
The House of Flowers also holds an exhibit on Tito’s political life. This one does a much better job of breaking down his story with a logical, well-presented, year by year narrative.
Part of the display focuses on Youth Day, a national celebration held each year on Tito’s Birthday, May the 25th. These were huge events dominated by a curious tradition called the Relay of Youth.
It involved youngsters from all over Yugoslavia racing across the country handing over a baton containing a special birthday pledge for Tito. The race started in his home town Kumrovec and finished in Belgrade, where one lucky young boy or girl got to present the baton to Tito.
Furthermore, the museum houses a massive collection of batons he received over the years. The tradition became so important all kinds of organisations began sending him their own unique batons as presents throughout the year.
Some came from The Army, others from schools and businesses. An incredible amount of time and effort went into the design and creation of these batons in the hope that they would stand out from the crowd.
Museum of Yugoslavia.
There are other gifts on display too. How about this fancy silver writing set gifted to Tito by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963? Apparently it was one of his favourite presents from a world leader, hence it had pride of place on his office desk for years.
I also got a kick out of this signed photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The British monarch sent it to Tito in 1971 ahead of her visit to Yugoslavia in 1972.
It was The Queen’s first visit to a communist country, which began in Belgrade. After a few days in the capital she, Philip and their 22 year old daughter Princess Anne embarked on a 780 mile tour around some of the country’s most popular scenic spots.
The last display we saw was on Tito’s famous Blue Train, the president’s luxury 19-carriage mobile palace. This was how he travelled across the country, meeting the people and attending conferences and special events.
Lavishly designed with Art Deco furnishings, Tito also took the Blue Train for visits to France, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and beyond. On numerous occasions world leaders such as Yasser Arafat and François Mitterrand stayed in the guest carriage,
The Blue Train.
And it was the blue train that carried Tito’s coffin from Slovenia to Belgrade for his funeral. Incredibly, it’s possible to rent the train for a ride from the Serbian capital to the Montenegrin town of Bar. Yes, it’s pricy. When not in use visitors can get tickets to see the Blue Train on display in Belgrade’s Topčider Station.
On our way out Sladja stopped to read the guest book. There were comments by people from all over the world, the vast majority of them positive. While I felt much of the exhibit in the main building lacked cohesion, I’m still glad I took the time to explore the place.
After all, I learned a lot about Tito. And to stand in front of his tomb… well it was surreal and melancholic… perhaps even a little exciting. For anyone looking for a curious entry point to the man and his life, The Museum of Yugoslavia is well worth a visit.
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