The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

The Death of Tito: The Death of Yugoslavia?


The repercussions of the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia continue to make media headlines today, as recently illustrated by the arrests of Yugoslav war crimes suspects former Serbian General Ratko Mladic (May 2011) and Croatian-Serb General Goran Hadzic (July 2011), both of whom have been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to atrocities committed during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. In this article, guest author Simon Andrew discusses the decline of Yugoslavia in the years following the death of iconic Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito. Tito’s death in 1980 marked the beginning of a turbulent decade which would ultimately result in the death of Yugoslavia, as structural problems in the Yugoslav federation were increasingly exacerbated by economic decline, rising nationalism and the changing international climate at the end of the Cold War. As a result, the federation became increasingly untenable, ultimately resulting in the dissolution of Yugoslavia, a process marked by widespread violence and bloodshed, the consequences of which are still being felt today.


The Death of Tito: The Death of Yugoslavia?


By Simon Andrew.


 “I thought of the old adage that you could tell something about a nation by its vocabulary… Serbo-Croat had a disturbingly large number of words for butchery” –  Brian Hall, The Impossible Country: A Journey through the last days of Yugoslavia (Minerva: 1996)


As communist regimes collapsed across central and eastern Europe at the close of the 1980s and early 1990s, no country saw more violence and blood-letting thanYugoslavia. Constructed as a multi-ethnic federation, comprised of six republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) and two semi-autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina), Yugoslavia contained a number of diverse ethnic and religious groups, a legacy of the region’s six centuries of empirical rule by the Habsburg Empire from the west and the Ottoman Empire from the south east. A first attempt to establish a South Slavic confederation, The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, formed in 1918 in the aftermath of the First World War but did not survive the outbreak of the Second World War; although a second attempt, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, formed in 1943, was originally more stable. This was due in large part to the strong leadership of war-time partisan and communist leader Josip Broz Tito. Only after Tito’s death in 1980 did nationalist tendencies become increasingly prominent as the individual states in the Yugoslav Federation demanded ever greater autonomy and independence. This surge in nationalism and desire for autonomy ultimately led to five years of conflict, The Yugoslav Wars of 1991 – 1995, as the former federation collapsed amid bloodshed and atrocities which still make newspaper front-pages today.


The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: consisting of six republics, two autonomous provinces and a patchwork of ethnicity.


Tito’s Death


“We all cried, but we did not know we were burying Yugoslavia” – Mahmut Bakali, Kosovar Albanian politician and former President of the League of Communists in Kosovo, speaking about Tito’s death.


Tito was widely credited for his ability to unite all ethnicities and religions in Yugoslavia: initially under the banner of resistance during World War II and then via communism during his subsequent 35 years in power. His death in 1980 therefore created a considerable power vacuum. Post-1945, the second incarnation of Yugoslavia was often dubbed ‘Tito’s Yugoslavia’ due to his emblematic role as figurehead of the federation. During his lifetime, Tito was untouchable and unassailable in his position as leader of Yugoslavia – he commanded a great deal of respect from both the population he ruled and from foreign leaders for his role in liberating Yugoslavia during the war and the strength of character demonstrated during his conflict with Stalin in 1948. James Gow in The People’s Prince argues that the egotistical impact of this adulation hindered Tito’s thought process in regards to the longer-term future of Yugoslavia. Gow feels it is not impossible to imagine that Tito would have known that Yugoslavia’s future would be difficult without him at the helm, due to his overbearing association with the federation (Melissa K. Bokovoy, Jill A. Irvine, and Carol Lilly, eds., State-Society Relations in Yugoslavia, Macmillan: 1996).


There was no clearly identified successor to the Yugoslav leadership upon Tito’s death. Due to his longevity, many of the partisan ‘old guard’ (such as Edvard Kardelj) had already died, whilst purges conducted against ‘nationalist politicians’ in both Croatia and Serbia in the early 1970s had removed a number of the ‘best and brightest’ younger generation of politicians from the party.


Some measures had been taken to plan for a post-Tito Yugoslavia however. The 1974 Constitution had outlined plans for Tito’s eventual secession by proposing a rotating Presidency on a yearly basis, with each of the republics and provinces being allowed their turn to assume overall control over a presidium comprised of representatives from each individual republic and province. This rotation had two main negative effects: firstly, it led to an elongated and ineffective decision-making process and secondly, it effectively hamstrung the republic – depriving it of strong leadership, and more importantly, consistency over time. Ivan Ivekovic in ‘Identity: Usual Bias, Political Manipulations and Historical Forgeries. The Yugoslav Drama’, argues that Yugoslavia was set up to only ever truly function under the control of a dominant arbiter such as Tito, reliant on popularity and charisma, so the system left behind for his successors was unlikely to work without a similar overseer (S. Bianchini and G. Schopflin eds., State Building in the Balkans: Dilemmas on the Eve of the 21st Century, Longo Editore: 1998).


Tito’s death also marked a broader generational handover. Many of those who had fought as part of the war-time liberation movement had now reached the age where their involvement in politics was coming to an end, and with it, their partisan mentality of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ became a less dominant aspect of party politics. Members of the younger generation, who had no memory or personal attachment to such events, had begun to tire of the ‘endless celebrations’ of the partisan movement (Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, Oxford University Press: 1993). However, many who were disenchanted with the federation waited until Tito had died before making a more concerted effort to gain further autonomy or independence for their respective regions, either out of respect for Tito himself or in recognition of the power and influence he wielded overall.


Tito (left) in 1943, the Partisan commander who brought 'Yugoslavia' together. However, later generations became increasingly disenchanted with the 'myth' of wartime unity and the 'partisan mentality' of their leader.


Tito had been the glue which held Yugoslavia together –  not necessarily always in a positive way – and so it took a number of years for criticism and ill-feeling towards Tito to become prevalently expressed in the public-domain. In the years following Tito’s death these criticisms slowly disseminated however, while the growing trend towards decentralisation that had marked the latter years of Tito’s rule also gathered pace, leading to the emergence of a new generation of nationalist leaders such as Franjo Tudjman (President of Croatia 1990 – 1999) and Slobodan Milosevic (Serbian President 1987-1997 and President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia 1997-2000), whose extreme-nationalistic tendencies contributed significantly to the collapse of the federation.


Rising Nationalism


During Tito’s rule nationalist sentiment within Yugoslavia was evident but remained largely contained (at times forcibly, such as during the ‘Croatian Spring’ of the early 1970s). The two largest states in Yugoslavia – Serbia and Croatia – had never been fully happy with each other’s role in the federation however. Many Croats felt that it was Serbia’s excessive influence, (especially due to the continuation of the Serb monarchic line) which had made the first attempt at a Yugoslav union fail so spectacularly in the inter-war years, while many Serbs cited the relocation of industry to other areas of Yugoslavia (Croatia and Slovenia in particular), after World War Two as ‘punishment’ for their previous dominance. These long standing grievances remained throughout the communist period, leading to widespread prejudice. Brian Hall, emphasised that  the most important point to remember was ‘that you could not – must not – believe what one group said about another’ (Brian Hall, The Impossible Country, Minerva: 1996).


Tito himself was of mixed ethnicity, having a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother. After the Second World War Tito thus declared his intent to create a new ‘Yugoslav’ identity that would unify the constituent republics. The concept of ‘Yugoslavism’ was promoted throughout the communist era, however the percentage of the population which identified as ‘Yugoslav’ remained persistently low. Census data compiled in 1961, 1971, 1981, and 1991 recorded people’s allegiance with their ethnic or federal nationality, although one caveat here is that the census did not allow people to declare themselves as holding an ethnic allegiance as well as being Yugoslav – so it was not possible to indicate identification as, for example, both a Slovene and a Yugoslav – rather, individuals had to choose one main allegiance. Nevertheless, the data is revealing, with a peak figure of only 6.6 per cent of the population identifying themselves as ‘Yugoslavs’ in 1991; ironically at the very point the federation was in a state of collapse. This figure is so negligible that we can see that Yugoslavism, at least as a primary identity, only ever enjoyed a minority following.


Interestingly however, there are still those who feel some connection with the Yugoslav identity today. In 2007 former Serbian Government President (2007 – 2008), and current Government Minister Oliver Dulic declared himself as ‘a Yugoslav by nationality’: like Tito, he was also a child of mixed ethnic backgrounds (a common product of Yugoslavia especially in the more homogenous areas); on top of this although he is ethnically a Croat, he was born in Vojvodina, an autonomous province of Serbia.


Oliver Dulic: A Yugoslav in a world without Yugoslavia?


Figures relating to ethnic and national identification varied across the respective regions of Yugoslavia. Ethnically mixed regions – particularly Bosnia, where Serb, Croat and Muslim communities lived in close proximity in relatively equal proportions on the whole – saw larger amounts of people who considered themselves as ‘Yugoslavs’; although the overall figures were still low in comparison to those indentifying with various ethnic loyalties. More homogenous ‘fringe’ republics – Slovenia especially – were the most indifferent to the idea of cultivating a common identity. If anything this was seen as a threat to the republic’s autonomy and the unique Slovene nationality and culture. By 1974 the newly formulated Yugoslav Constitution had acknowledged the failure of the common Yugoslav identity to take hold, allowing for a level of decentralisation and greater autonomy for individual republics, meaning that the separate states increasingly grew apart, gaining further autonomy in the succeeding decades.


Another factor which strengthened separatist feeling in the republics, particularly during the latter decade of communist rule, was economic decline. The Yugoslav federation had debts totalling nearly $20 billion at the time of Tito’s passing. Further economic decline during the 1980s emphasised the growing disparity within the federation and this also magnified nationalist sentiment. The fundamental equality of the federation had always been under question, but now the western states, Croatia and Slovenia in particular, were consistently wealthier than the rest of the federation (Statistical Pocketbooks of Yugoslavia, 1966 – 1979). Slovenia for example, was consistently listed as the richest Yugoslav republic, however the Slovenes continued to receive per capita investment from Belgrade which far exceeded that received by other republics, fostering rivalry and discontent. By the late 1980s, Slovenia, whose population made up roughly 8 per cent of the federation’s total, accounted for roughly 20 per cent of the total GDP. In turn, Slovenes became increasingly worried about maintaining their prosperity, which gave rise to growing suspicions that that their economic growth was being stunted by Belgrade. These concerns were heightened by the growing importance and appeal of the European Economic Community (which would soon become the EU), and particularly the role of Germany, who became being the first influential nation to acknowledge claims to full independence made by both Slovenia and Croatia.


Tito’s death heralded the start of a new era for Yugoslav politics. The task of following in the footsteps of such an inspirational and charismatic leader, who had overseen the liberation of his country from Nazism and then ruled for 35 years would have been difficult for even the most highly groomed of successors. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that Tito left a plan for succession which was highly flawed. Leadership of the Presidency would rotate between the leaders of the constituent members – not allowing any single person to stamp their authority or besmirch Tito’s legacy and reputation, but also not allowing for any stability or continuity. The poor state of the economy and the steady growth of nationalist tendencies amongst the majority of Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups coincided with the loss of such a well-respected leader to result in a fatal combination. With the Cold War ending, and Yugoslavia’s unique position of ‘non-alignment’ outside of either sphere of influence also at an end, the country quickly diminished in terms of international importance. A growing desire amongst people across Eastern Europe as a whole to rid themselves of Communism meant that ‘Yugoslavia’, so associated with Tito and his distinct brand of Marxist ideology, was consigned to history – although not without a bloody struggle as the federation collapsed.


About the Author:


Simon Andrew has recently completed his BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University, graduating in July 2011. During his final year of study Simon researched and wrote his History Dissertation about the break-up of Yugoslavia. Simon will begin studying for an MA in History at Swansea University in September 2011.


Some Suggested Further Reading on this Topic:


Crnobrnja, Mihailo, The Yugoslav Drama (Tauris: 1994)

Doder,  Dusko, ‘Yugoslavia: New War and Old Hatreds’, Foreign Policy, 91 (1993) 3-23.

Gow, James,  ‘The People’s Prince – Tito and Tito’s Yugoslavia: Legitimation, Legend and Linchpin’ in Melissa K. Bokovoy, Jill A. Irvine, and Carol Lilly, eds., State-Society Relations in Yugoslavia (Macmillan: 1996)

Hall, Brian The Impossible Country: A Journey through the last days of Yugoslavia (Minerva: 1996)

Hodson, Randy; Massey, Garth; and Sekulic, Dusko, ‘Who were the Yugoslavs? Failed sources of a Common Identity in the Former Yugoslavia’, American Sociological Review, 59 (1994), 83-97.

Ramet, Sabrina P., Balkan Babel: the Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the death of Tito to the fall of Milosevic (Westview Press: 2002)




July 27, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I really enjoyed this article. The quotes gave a flavour to the piece that helped evoke mood, and it felt well sourced and consistent. Coming from a position of almost complete ignorance on the subject, I was fascinated by the account of the break up and the pivotal moment of Tito’s death within it. A articulate, thoughtful piece.

    Comment by Richard Snow | July 27, 2011 | Reply

  2. Really interesting. Informative and well written summary.

    Comment by PJ | August 3, 2011 | Reply

  3. This is an incredibly well written article, which made it a very enjoyable read. It is not common that find writting this fluid and concise outside of academic journals. I you the best of luck in your future studies, Mr. Andrew.

    Comment by john | January 26, 2012 | Reply

  4. Thank you for such an interesting and enlightening description of where Yugoslavia was and where it’s modern remnants are. I now feel less ignorant as I search for a way to converse positively with my next door neighbor who is Muslim and a successful emigrant from Sarajevo as well as a survivor of the terrible events that he must have endured during the birth of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

    Comment by James | October 9, 2012 | Reply

  5. A very elaborate panorama on post Tito Yugoslavia. The citations and references are very admirable and most helpful for people interested in post conflict analysis.

    Hats off!


    Comment by Saïd. | February 20, 2013 | Reply

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