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Yugoslavia’s First Lady

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Jovanka Broz, the former first lady of a nation state that no longer exists, died in Belgrade on 20 October, aged 88. Tito’s widow received a state funeral and was buried with full military honours. But she lived the second half of her life in isolation, and by the time she died had been all but forgotten.

Nina Krushcheva may have paved the way for the public role of the wife of a communist leader, but it was Broz who really broke new ground as an Eastern Bloc first lady, in her glamorous international trips with Tito. For Yugoslavs, freer than their Warsaw Pact neighbours to travel to the west, Broz’s eclectic fashion sense reflected a self-conscious celebration of cosmopolitanism.

The romance (and romantic re-writing) of the couple’s meeting as idealistic Partisans resisting Nazi occupation garlanded official versions of their marriage, which was in turn projected as a new ideal of modern life. It was also read as shorthand for the ethos of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ in the multiethnic federation: she was Serbian, he was Croatian. It’s almost too tempting to see their relationship as a metaphor for the state of the nation, not least because of the protracted disintegration of their marriage in the 1970s.

Tito’s death was announced on national television on the evening of Sunday, 4 May 1980. The mayor of Split interrupted a football game to let the crowd know. The players wept; the 50,000 spectators sang: ‘Comrade Tito, we swear to you, from your path we will never depart.’

The sentiments of brotherhood, unity and ‘After Tito Comes Tito’ did not extend to the newly widowed Broz (they never got divorced). Her fall from grace was swift. In a rare interview later in life Broz spoke of how she was ‘thrown out of her house’ and placed under de facto house arrest elsewhere shortly after Tito’s death: ‘They chased me out… in my nightgown, without anything, not allowing me even to take a photo of the two of us.’ Not much symbolism here, just political jockeying for position among Tito’s successors, though Broz’s recollection foreshadows the many thousands of sudden, panicked departures during the wars of the 1990s.

Comments on “Yugoslavia’s First Lady”

  1. Timothy Rogers says:

    It’s difficult to sympathize with the plight of Jovanka Broz, an example at the highest level of the hypocrisy of the old Communist Party leadership when it came to special treatment of themselves, their kinfolk and their cronies. Tito, who had a fairly regal notion of his own personage, was extremely sensitive on this point, which, I think, accounted for his harsh treatment of his old friend and colleague, Milovan Djilas, after the latter had managed to get his pointed critique of these folks published in the West as “The New Class”. Naturally other “deviationist” ideological reasons were found for dismissing Djilas from his post and punishing him, but it was his frank portrayal of the greed, corruption, and self-regard of this class of officials and apparatchiks that wounded Tito the most (he was the prime mover and also the most blatant example of conspicuous consumption). In spite of this Djilas managed to retain some admiration for specific deeds and political achievements of his old comrade and thought about how and where he went wrong until the end of his days. In spite of Tito’s rather prominent personal and political flaws there was always a reservoir of public admiration for the man too, based on his wartime record and his ability to hold the brittle and fragile entity of Yugoslavia together. Starting out in the late 40s as a rigid, doctrinaire, and punitive Stalinist, Tito eventually broke from this mold. (It’s doubtful that he “mellowed” in some humanistic way. Rather he saw the incompetence and economic disasters that went along with the Stalinist approach to managing a modern economy – in this he demonstrated a practicality lacking in many of his colleagues in the Eastern bloc. It’s wise to remember that the final break was brought about by Stalin due to his inability to stomach any other communist’s independent “line” of thinking or reform, considering such a challenge to both his authority and prestige. All the other reasons cited for the break – Trotskyism, espionage for the West, right-wing deviationism, etc. – were the same old nonsensical gabble used for purges of rivals and opponents.)

    The blog photo is interesting because it not only shows a communist first lady making efforts to appear stylish, but it does the same for Tito. In an earlier set of memoirs Djilas had commented on the fact that Tito had always been something of a dandy and that even when he was on the run as a mountain-territory guerrilla during WWII he remained fastidious about his clothing and grooming (after all, he grew up in a middle-class family in the late Habsburg era and was familiar with the social habits of the Viennese held up as models for anyone on the make during the pre-WWI era).

    In 2011 my wife and I spent a few days in one of Tito’s “leisure palaces”, which is now a very elegant small hotel on the shores of Lake Bled in Slovenia. The building had been erected in the late 1940s as a “retreat” for high-ranking party members and their families, and it sits on beautiful arboretum-like grounds that overlook Lake Bled, with a view of the small island where Saint Mary’s church is and the Julian Alps beyond. The site had formerly held a Karageorgović dynasty family estate. The setting and view are very picturesque and used on many a promotional photo for travel to the region. Entrance through the front gate takes a walker down a straight road flanked by tall old trees and flowering shrubs, and the building itself is not grandiose in the ugly Stalin-Ceauşescu “wedding cake architecture” manner. It’s done in a kind of modernized neo-classical style with a minimum of ornament on its facades (this may have been influenced by some of the work of Slovenia’s most talented 20th century architect Jože Plečnik, many of whose buildings and interior design products can be seen in Ljubljana). What’s interesting about the Vila Bled hotel is that it still keeps some of the old communist artifacts visible. For instance, there is a large conference room in the hotel that has a wide band of a mural high up on two of its walls, with the strip showing various heroic scenes of the communist resistance against the Germans during WWII, culminating in a woman clad in flowing white robes and holding a hammer and sickle banner, leading a procession of workers and fighters in an urban setting (it seems to be a direct allusion to Delacroix’s famous painting of Liberty at the barricades in the 1830 revolt in Paris.). The style of the painting is very reminiscent of the style of the American painter Thomas Hart Benton, who also did a number of “populist” murals during the 1920s and 30s. Of interest to me was a scene in the leftmost panel, where a speaker holding a rifle is rousing a group of peasants and fighters – looking at the face of this figure I was sure I saw a portrait of Tito, though the hotel staff denied it or claimed ignorance on the point (they said it would have offended correct notions of “collective leadership”, which brought a smile to my face).

    You won’t find many monuments to Tito remaining on public view today in any of the countries into which Yugoslavia divided itself (there must be storage rooms chock full of portraits, busts, and statues, and I suppose a market for items of “red nostalgia” may develop someday, such are assimilative powers of capitalism). The Vila Bled is an interesting place to ponder these matters and to experience the luxurious vacation style created by and for Tito and his pals. Searching the internet, I’ve learned that there is still a small park with a statue of Tito close to the house where he was born in the town of Kumrovec, which is very close to Croatia’s border with Slovenia (his mother was a Slovene, his father a Croat). Rather than interpreting this as a holdout of communist nostalgia, I think that leaving the statue in place is a case of a local pride, because it reflects the old sentiment, “here’s one of our hometown boys who really made good out there in the big wide world”, which happens to be the truth. It was this widely believed notion that Broz-Tito was “one of us” that in fact propped up his position as a popular dictator.

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