It has been gratifying to note the level of interest in Finds’ edition of Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia by Richard West, first published in 1995 (i.e. at a time when interest, for the grimmest of reasons, could not have been higher). Evidently, readers and scholars are still keen to reflect on the twentieth-century story of how a state of ethnoculturally diverse Slavs was made and then unmade in the western Balkans. Richard West’s study of Tito is, naturally, much preoccupied by the question of whether Tito can really be evaluated as the great unifier, the paternal statesman who kept a lid on Yugoslavia’s ‘nationalities problem’ with a firm and steady hand. On the whole West is well disposed to Tito. 15 years later, though, it’s a matter of debate whether Tito’s efforts are even remembered, never mind celebrated.
In his review of West’s book for the New York Review of Books in November 1995, Michael Ignatieff drew an evocative picture of what had been Tito’s stature at home:
“The ruin of all he stood for makes it easy to forget that he was probably the only leader of a Communist system who ever seemed to enjoy genuine popularity, and whose cult depended on something more than terror and propaganda, although it certainly depended on them as well. Years after his death, his photograph was still everywhere: taped to the cash register of a pasticceria in a Dalmatian resort; stuck beside a plastic Orthodox cross on the dashboard of a Belgrade bus; in a plastic wood frame over the mantelpiece of a tin-roofed cottage in central Bosnia…”
That said, Aleksa Djilas, reviewing for Foreign Affairs, was much more struck by that ’ruin’ to which Ignatieff referred:
“On May 4, 1995, the 15th anniversary of Tito’s death, there were no official commemorations in any part of the former Yugoslavia. The media made few comments, almost all of which were negative and sarcastic. Up to 1990, around 14 million people had visited Tito’s mausoleum. But for the anniversary only family members, representatives of the small and politically marginal League of Communists, and a few others came to his grave, which is no longer protected by the presidential guard of honor. The myth of Tito had vanished…”
Did Tito foster a system of government that at least tried to encourage Yugoslavs to bury their historical nationalist antagonisms? Or was it more the case that he barred a gate which was torn down and trampled underfoot once he was gone? Richard West’s contribution to the argument is clearly still of considerable interest.