The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops

William McLaughlin - August 8, 2017

“Stop sending people to kill me… If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”- part of a letter to Stalin from Josip Broz in 1948. After WWII, few leaders outside of Western Europe and North America stood up to Stalin and lived. Most of Eastern Europe was either directly a part of the U.S.S.R. or almost entirely subservient to the global superpower. Yugoslavia was surrounded by those loyal to and/or afraid of Stalin, but Josip Broz Tito never folded.

Born in 1892, Tito was 22 at the start of WWI. He quickly proved to be a competent and athletic soldier. He came in second in the Austro-Hungarian army fencing championships (still a very relevant skill in WWI) and became the youngest sergeant major in the army. Tito was awarded a medal for bravery when he commanded a scouting party that captured 80 Russian troops during the war.

Soon into the war, however, Tito was captured by the Russians after being wounded in battle. Weak from his wounds, Tito battled flu, typhus and other illnesses. In the hospital, he became accustomed to Russian culture and language through the great works of Russian literature.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
It was quite a feat just finding the right place and side to stay alive during the Russian Revolution. Wikipedia

During his imprisonment, Tito was shuffled around until he eventually escaped a lightly guarded camp and went on the run. Tito befriended several Bolsheviks while in Russia and was helped a few times by other Bolsheviks. Once, when a train was stopped to search for escaped prisoners, Tito fooled the searchers by speaking such fluent Russian that they thought he was a local.

From his time in Russia Tito became enamored with socialism and the beginnings of communism, sources debate if he joined the communist party during this time in Russia or later. Whenever he joined, Tito was enamored with communism and the plight of the average worker. But a communist party-ordered assassination in Tito’s country of Yugoslavia led to the outlaw of the party.

Not one to follow the law against his morals, Tito joined the underground communist movement in Yugoslavia. At first, Tito tried to find a job as a factory worker but he was fired or forced out of these jobs as his employers learned of his communist affiliations. Eventually, he gave up on a quiet life and a hope for a steady job and became a dedicated revolutionary.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
Tito and his mentor Mosa Pijade. Wikipedia

After wandering around Yugoslavia and inciting worker strikes and writing inflammatory articles about the treatment of the working class. He was arrested on occasion and eventually spent significant prison time with a long-time communist, Mosa Pijade. Pijade would become a sort of mentor to Tito and expand his communist views. After his long stint in the Lepoglave and Maribor prisons he was released only to be picked up at the gates to serve a four-month prison sentence he ran from elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

Released in the mid-1930s, Tito faced a Europe torn between Fascism and Communism, and a very active communist party trying to assert control in Spain. Though Tito never actually fought in the Spanish Civil War, he was incredibly active in the communist party and rose through the ranks as he excelled at the planning and organization of the communist activities across Europe.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
five of the highest-ranking generals in Russia, only two survived the Purges. Wikipedia

Surviving the Great Purge and WWII

Unfortunately for most people in Eastern Europe, Stalin’s Great Purge was just beginning and Yugoslavian communists were particularly distrusted. As Tito moved between Paris, Yugoslavia, and Moscow, he had to keep his head down as several of his friends and fellow party leaders were summoned to Moscow, interrogated, and shot. Though it’s not likely that Tito set up rivals to be killed, that’s the way it worked out and Tito climbed the ranks.

Tito attributed his survival during the purges to just avoiding Moscow. He gave several excuses as to why he couldn’t make it back to Russia and when he was there he kept quiet and left as quickly and quietly as he could. Tito also began building up a base of younger subordinates who were more loyal to Tito than the party and were unlikely to set him up to be executed, as was common during the Purge.

When Tito did have to spend time in Moscow as the new secretary of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), he had a few people try to have him arrested. Luckily, Tito was charismatic and kind enough (he never denounced anyone) that several prominent communists vouched for him and he was spared arrest and execution. Tito learned a lot about Russian communism and the Purges left him with a bitter view of the motherland, but he remained dedicated to the communist ideology.

Finally, the tensions in Europe and the rising flood of German power broke into a second world war. France fell along with most of Eastern Europe quite quickly. Tito swiftly returned to Yugoslavia to organize a resistance along with the government in exile under the teenaged King Peter II.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
with other nations such as Hungary getting in on the action, Yugoslavia had no chance in a formal war but thrived as a rebel state. Wikipedia

With a lot of communist supporters still present and the dichotomy present in a communist rebel group fighting a fascist conqueror, Tito quickly rose through the ranks of the resistance and was named commander-in-chief of the resistance forces by the CPY. Tito’s forces also sought to aid escaping Jews and as a result, Tito had thousands of freed Jews fighting for his resistance army.

Soon, Tito’s forces had liberated an area of Yugoslavia large enough for about 300,000 to a million people to live free of German rule. As the resistance grew and became more successful between 43-44, the Germans worried that the Allied forces would pick the Balkans as a friendly place to invade Europe and shoot north to mainland Germany.

On May 25, 1944, the Germans launched Operation Knight’s Move directed at destroying the resistance headquarters and a specific emphasis on killing or capturing Tito. The attack was scattered over miles of airborne assaults in the collection of towns, mountains and defended caves around the liberated area of Drvar.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
Tito (far right) and his officers who directed the resistance as well as administrating the free areas of Yugoslavia. Wikipedia

As a lucky coincidence for the resistance, officer training was ongoing in Drvrar and the school leaders and recruits immediately joined the fight, stumbling across a few parachuted supplies meant for the Germans and capturing weapons and equipment. Tito and his closest advisors were trapped in a cave by heavy German fire until groups of resistance fighters came and cleared the way for his escape.

Over several days the Germans pushed the resistance fighters back, but at great cost to their own forces. Tito was eventually airlifted out by allied air forces. The Germans lost almost 2,000 killed or wounded to about half that number for the resistance fighters. The resistance headquarters were disrupted and several ranking members killed, but Tito survived and had the whole resistance up and running almost immediately. As a whole, the German operation was a complete failure.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
Tito’s 1946 Time cover when he was causing upheaval in the post-WWII status quo. Pinterest

Standing up to Stalin and forging an independent path for Yugoslavia

As the war ended, Tito’s rebel government merged with the monarchy in exile, leaving Tito as the effective leader of Yugoslavia for the remainder of the war. In postwar Yugoslavia, Tito was loved as the liberator and protector of Yugoslavia and was easily elected as the prime minister of the newly organized Democratic Federal Yugoslavia.

Tito went on to lead a communist government like Russia’s system but with several tweaks that made it its own distinct government. Tito also annexed Italian territory on the east coast of the Adriatic and actively supported the communists during the Greek civil war. The annexation led to some military skirmishes with western powers.

These actions caused tensions between Tito and Stalin, already in a tense alliance as the U.S.S.R. had spies deep in the Yugoslavian government immediately after WWI. As a communist nation that largely fought their own way through WWII, Yugoslavia forged their own way apart from the other eastern European nations. Stalin and Tito exchanged heated letters with Stalin claiming that Yugoslavia would crumble without Soviet support.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
The iron curtain of Soviet Communism was awkwardly broken up by Tito’s Yugoslavia. Wikipedia

Tito simply ignored this and chose not to attend the Communist nation’s Cominform meeting. This led to Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform and a possibility of war, but Stalin wanted to solve the problem quickly and relatively quietly, sending several assassins in Tito’s direction. Tito and his men caught all the various assassins. This led to Tito sending a public letter to Stalin with this highlight:

“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.” This was a certain split from the Soviet Union and its satellite states but did get Stalin to stop sending assassins. It also led to western nations being more willing to approach Yugoslavia; though they were a socialist state, they were now at odds with the U.S.S.R. Tito founded the Non-Aligned Movement for nations who didn’t see themselves sheltering under a stronger power whether that was the US or Russia.

The Yugoslavian Leader Who Survived Waves of Stalin’s Assassins and Hitler’s Best Troops
Tito with JFK. Tito enjoyed friendly diplomatic relations with a vast array of nations despite the nations core communist values. Pinterest

Under Tito, Yugoslavia would remain a united nation able to have great international relations with many countries. The brutal suppression of Stalinists and other opponents to his rule marred Tito’s early years as an unattached nation. Others have pointed out possible human rights violations under his rule including an eradication of the German population following WWII. Outside of these terrible incidents, Tito does seem to have been a benevolent ruler to his people.

Tito directly ruled until 1974 when he gave up most of his powers, but still served as a sort of ambassador for Yugoslavia at home and abroad. Tito passed away in 1980 and had a funeral attended by several prominent leaders. It proved to be quite a feat just holding Yugoslavia together as 10 years of political turmoil led to the breakup of Yugoslavia in a series of violent conflicts in the 1990s.


Sources For Further Reading:

Encyclopedia Britannica – Josip Broz Tito

Barrons – Five Things About Tito, The Father of Communist Yugoslavia

Pioneer Tours – Yugoslavia’s Iron Fist: The Life of Josip Broz Tito

History – Tito Is Made President of Yugoslavia for Life

Foreign Affairs – How Tito Kept Yugoslavia Together

The New York Times – Man in the News

New Yorker – My Mother and the Failed Experiment of Yugoslavia

National Public Radio – Flood Deaths Are Rising in Germany, And Officials Blame Climate Change

New York Time Magazine – Stasha Seaton: I Fled Yugoslavia in 1941. Then I Returned to Join the Resistance

Daily Mail – Did Yugoslav Dictator Tito Poison Stalin?

History Collection – Joseph Stalin’s Cult Of Personality