Josip Broz was born on May 7, 1892, the seventh son of peasant smallholder Franjo Broz and his Slovene wife Marija Javeršek. After training as a blacksmith and metalworker, Josip Broz became an officer in the Austrian army in World War I, only to be captured by the Russians in 1915. Fired by the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution, he joined the Red Army and fought in the Russian Civil War before finally heading for home in 1920. Some believe that the man who came back to Croatia with a discernible Russian accent was a Soviet-trained impostor who had assumed the identity of the original Josip Broz – an appealing but unlikely tale. Whatever the truth, on his return Broz found himself in a turbulent Yugoslav state in which the Communist Party was soon outlawed, and it was his success in reinvigorating demoralized party cells that ensured his rise through the ranks.
Broz took the pseudonym Tito in 1934 upon entering the central committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party (he became leader in 1937). Nobody really knows why he chose the name: the most frequently touted explanation is that the nickname was bestowed on him by colleagues amused by his bossy manner – “ti to!” means “you [do] that!” in Croatian – although it’s equally possible that he took it from the eighteenth-century Croat writer Tito Brezovacki.
Tito’s finest hour came following the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, when he managed to take control of the anti-fascist uprising, even though it wasn’t initially inspired by the communists. Despite repeated (and often very successful) German counteroffensives, he somehow succeeded in keeping the core of his movement alive – through a mixture of luck, bloody-mindedness and sheer charisma rather than military genius. He also possessed a firm grasp of political theatre, promoting himself to the rank of marshal and donning suitably impressive uniforms whenever Allied emissaries were parachuted into Yugoslavia to meet him. The British and Americans lent him their full support from 1943 onwards, thereby condemning all other, non-communist factions in Yugoslavia to certain political extinction after the war.
Emerging as dictator of Yugoslavia in 1945, Tito showed no signs of being anything more than a loyal Stalinist until the Soviet leader tried to get rid of him in 1948. Tito’s survival – subsequently presented to the world as “Tito’s historic ‘no’ to Stalin” – rested on his innate ability to inspire loyalty among a tightly knit circle of former Partisans while isolating and eliminating those who disagreed. Flushed with the prestige of having resisted Soviet pressure, he concentrated on affirming Yugoslavia’s position on the world stage and increasingly left the nitty-gritty of running the country to others. Forming the non-aligned movement with Nehru, prime minister of India, and President Nasser of Egypt after 1955 provided a platform which allowed him to travel the world, giving Yugoslavia an international profile yet to be regained by any of its successor republics. In domestic affairs he contrived to present himself as the lofty arbiter who, far from being responsible for the frequent malfunctions of Yugoslav communism, emerged to bang heads together when things got out of control. Thus, his decision to bring an end to the Zagreb-based reform movement known as the Croatian Spring in 1971 was sold to the public as a Solomonic intervention to ensure social peace rather than the authoritarian exercise it really was.
A vain man who loved to wear fancy uniforms and medals, dyed his hair and used a sun lamp, Tito enthusiastically acquiesced to the personality cult constructed around him. May 25 was declared his official birthday and celebrated nationwide as “Dan mladosti” (“Day of Youth”), enhancing Tito’s aura as the kindly father of a grateful people. He was also a bit of a ladies’ man, marrying four times and switching partners with a speed that dismayed his more puritanical colleagues. Affection for Tito in Yugoslavia was widespread and genuine, if not universal. There’s no doubt that Titoist communism was “softer” than its Soviet counterpart after 1948: many areas of society were relatively free from ideological control and, from the 1950s onwards, Yugoslavs were able to travel and work abroad.
For most Croats nowadays, Tito’s legacy is ambiguous. Tito was fortunate enough to die before Yugoslavia’s economy went seriously wrong in the 1980s, and for many he remains a symbol of the good old days when economic growth (paid for by soft Western loans) led to rising living standards and a consumer boom. However, the authority of the party – and Tito’s leadership of it – was never to be questioned, and many dissenting voices ended up in prison as a result. Tito is also seen as the man responsible for the so-called Way of the Cross (Križni put) massacres of 1945 (when thousands of Croatian reservists were put to death by avenging Partisans), the repression of Croatia’s Catholic Church, and the crackdown on the Croatian Spring. Despite keeping national aspirations on a tight leash, however, Tito’s Yugoslavia ensured Croatian territorial continuity by establishing borders still in existence today. For this reason alone, many streets and squares in Croatia continue to bear Tito’s name.