Josip Broz Tito: The Man Who Was Too Tough for Stalin

Josip Broz Tito was the man who built his own variant of socialism in the middle of a Europe divided by two opposing forces fighting for world domination.

Jul 22, 2022By Katarina Palinic, MA Political Science
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Portrait of Josip Broz Tito, 1954, via Yousuf Karsh


Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito was undoubtedly one of the most praised personas of the 20th century, not just in the Balkans but across the countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Much like any prominent historical figure, this communist leader raises a lot of differing opinions. Even today, more than forty years after his death, discussions about Yugoslavia’s ruler can get heated in the countries of the former communist power. While some view him as a benevolent dictator who built a self-sufficient socialist empire in the middle of divided Europe without bowing down to any Eastern or Western leaders, others see him as an authoritarian who used political oppression to forge the image of peaceful cohabitation between the peoples deeply diverged by ethnicity and religion. What is the real story behind the man who was the first Socialist leader to stand against Soviet hegemony and the only one who managed to leave Coniform?


Josip Broz Tito: Forming a Strong Man & a Strong Marxist

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Soldiers in the Great War, 1916, via Heinrich Boll Stiftung


Josip Broz Tito is the man who said “no” to Stalin. He was the only foreign president ever to light a cigar in the Oval Office. This man welcomed the most prominent political and public figures of the 20th century, including the British royal family, Elisabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, and many more in his summer residence.


The story of this powerful man begins in rural modern-day Croatia in a big peasant family in 1892. Croatia was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a monarchy ruled by the Habsburg family. But the beginning of the 20th century marked the last days for this once immaculate royal family. The Great War changed the European political scenery once and for all. For Josip Broz Tito, then an itinerant metalworker, it was a turning point in his life since he was drafted into the army.


His soldier skills quickly turned him into a major and got him to the Eastern Front fighting the Russian czar’s army. There, he was wounded and hospitalized in captivity. The following few years were a crucial factor in developing his political beliefs and, as it would later unveil, the political beliefs of more than 20 million people. A social democrat in the pre-war years, Tito was acquainted with a much more radical ideology: Bolshevism. He identified with this ideology so much so that in 1917, he participated in the July Days demonstrations in St. Petersburg and in the October Revolution, which eventually brought Lenin to power.


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Even after the Brest-Litovsk agreement was signed, the treaty that ended Russia’s part in World War I, where any other war prisoner could just go back home, Josip decided to stay and join the Red Guard Unit in Omsk, Siberia.


Bringing Bolshevism Back Home

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Lenin giving a speech, 1917, via Britannica


With his now already steady Marxist beliefs, Tito returned to his home country in 1920, now called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Not long after his return, he joined the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY). In this organization, he thrived even though it was proscribed by the royal government and was at times harshly and violently suppressed.


Even though this organization mainly was underground until World War II, Broz was so determined in his actions that he even got noticed at the communist headquarters in Moscow. He was rewarded by being named the Zagreb Committee’s political secretary. Shortly after that, Yugoslavia’s political scene has shaken by the assassination of Croat deputies in the Belgrade parliament in June 1928. Broz took this chance to take CPY out of the shadow and organized street demonstrations, but he was quickly imprisoned.


He spent the next five to six years in prison, much like the rest of his party. By the time he was released, the party had slowly recuperated from the state oppression, and Josip Broz solidified his position on the national level. It was at this time he got the pseudonym that would later solidify his personality cult: Tito.


In the following years, Europe was in a state of prelude for one of the bloodiest events in modern history, World War II. Tito spent these years crafting his communist skills, working in the Comintern apparatus. When Stalin started his Great Purges against internal enemies, Tito not only managed to survive but profited from them, having solidified his position with the Comintern and earned the title of CPY’s new secretary-general. One thing was completely clear by this time: Tito had the complete communist scene of Yugoslavia in his hands.


World War II: From a Partisan to a Statesman

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Yugoslavian army propaganda, 1944-1946, via Musem of Yugoslavia, Belgrade


And then came the war. Yugoslavia in World War II was in utter turmoil, living through a violent and incredibly complex part of its history. In a nutshell, the Axis powers occupied and partitioned Yugoslavia in April 1941. It was at this time their satellite state, called the Independent State of Croatia, was formed, with the ultranationalist Ustashe organization in charge. Meanwhile, the Serbians had Chetniks, the Yugoslav royalist and Serbian nationalist movement, and guerrilla forces in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia.


This was Tito’s time to shine. Together with his party comrades, he formed what would later be known as Europe’s most effective anti-Axis resistance movement during World War II. The main stated objectives of the Partisans were the liberation of Yugoslav lands from occupying forces and the creation of a federal, multi-ethnic socialist state in Yugoslavia.


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Film still from the movie “Battle of Neretva,” 1961, via IMDB


And how did Tito manage to persuade so many people to join him? For the most part, it was the rural non-educated population who supported him, as they had been living under some type of oppression for their whole lives, and the idea of a country centered around worker’s rights without national or religious discrimination was like a utopia.


It is also interesting to note that the movement gathered a lot of women, who enjoyed a somewhat equal treatment in the Partisans as opposed to their pre-war life. After a few years of hiding in the woods and practicing guerilla warfare, many successful battles (the battles of Neretva and Sutjeska later were adapted into critically acclaimed movies that served as Yugoslavian military propaganda), Belgrade was liberated by the Soviet army. This made it clear: Yugoslavia was now in the hands of the communists.


Saying “No, Thank You” to Stalin

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Stalin signing the Yalta agreement, 1945, via


Tito had it all now. People were already blindly following his orders, drawn in by the idea of a welfare state promised to them. All he needed to do now was to consolidate his power. He did it following Stalin’s modus operandi by purging his government of non-communists and holding fraudulent elections that legitimated the jettisoning of the monarchy.


In November 1945, a new constitution was proclaimed, creating The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, a federal state that was defined as a union of six federated states: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia, plus two autonomous provinces inside Serbia: Kosovo and Vojvodina. Today, they are all independent countries, except for Vojvodina, which is still a part of Serbia. What ensued after this constitution was almost half a century-long rule of what some perceived as freedom while others felt oppression. It all started with trials of captured collaborationists, Catholics, opposition figures, and even distrusted communists. The trials were conducted in a way that fit the ideal Soviet state construction.


But the ideological romance between Stalin and Tito did not last long. Stalin quickly realized he couldn’t be Yugoslavia’s puppet master, especially once Tito gained enough power to pursue his own foreign policies with Albania and Greece. By 1948, Stalin decided he wanted Tito gone and initiated a series of purges aimed at defeating Yugoslavian policymakers. He didn’t succeed in this, and Tito maintained and solidified his control over the Communist Party of Yugoslavia as well as the army and the secret police.


Somewhere around this time, Tito is credited with telling Stalin:


“Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle… If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”


The historical accuracy of these exact words was never confirmed, but it did go with Tito’s general attitude towards Stalin, the most feared man at that time. Thus, Tito completely cut off Yugoslavia from the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites and steadily drew closer to the West.


Finding the Third Way

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The Non-aligned movement, 1960, via New Frame


However, Western ideals of capitalism and liberal democracy were far from what Broz and his party associates wanted for his country. Too liberal for the East and too socialist for the West, Tito aspired to design his internal and foreign policy as equidistant from both blocs. In his goal to stay neutral in a world where the USSR and USA were arm wrestling for the position of the world’s strongest force, Tito had to seek like-minded politicians.


He found them in developing countries, starting with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. The purpose of this federation went from nonengagement to the concept of “active nonalignment”—that is, the promotion of alternatives to bloc politics, as opposed to mere neutrality. The Non-Aligned Movement drew the attention of many other countries. However, by the end of his life, Tito’s nation had been eclipsed by other new member states.


The split from Stalin did not only cause foreign policy changes but the complete theoretical rearrangement of the internal policies. Yugoslavia wanted to create its own path, a new model of socialism with the workers as the emphasis. Responsible for Yugoslavia’s new theoretical direction was Tito’s right-hand man, Edvard Kardelj, who was generally regarded as the chief ideological theoretician of Yugoslav Marxism, or Titoism, as it became known. The new socialist model included abandoning Soviet-style central planning, trimming down central agencies, and, most notably, workers’ production management, embodied in the formation of the first workers’ councils in 1950.


The End of Josip Broz Tito & What Was Left After

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Tito on Brijuni in the 1970s, via National park Brijuni


The impact of this was especially important for the internal relations of multinational Yugoslavia. The power shifted from the federation to the republics, giving them some freedom to express their dissatisfaction. This was mainly seen in Yugoslavia’s most developed republic, Croatia, where the Croatian Spring movement displayed people’s wish for national liberation in the early 1970s. Tito managed to silence the movement, but even with his endless efforts to push Yugoslavism as an identity above national identities, he was never able to erase national and religious sentiment in the republics.


With all of the civil unrest before him, Tito had to work towards a new constitution in 1974, which promoted the weaker and smaller federal units at the expense of the big two—Serbia and Croatia. And even with the displeasure of people, it somehow managed to work until his death in May 1980.


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The Croatian Spring Movement, 1971, via HKV


When Tito died, the whole country was left in tears. But these tears were not tears of mourning. They were tears of fear. Deep down, everybody knew something terrible was about to happen. The mask of brotherhood and unity never managed to cover the fact that national and religious divides were deep in Yugoslavia. While the rest of Europe was progressively healing from the traumas of World War II, Yugoslavian authorities tried to cover up the fact that there were some gruesome crimes committed against various ethnic groups. This simply caused tensions to boil over and eventually erupt towards the end of the 1980s. This evolved into one of Europe’s bloodiest wars after the Second World War, thus forever ending Tito’s life work, Yugoslavia.

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By Katarina PalinicMA Political ScienceKatarina is a contributing writer from Croatia with a passion for political history. She recently obtained her Master's degree in Political Science from the University of Zagreb. Her professional interests include geopolitics, diplomacy, and European history.