Wednesday, February 11, 2015

European RC #3

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2015.

Tito: The Man Who Defied Hitler and Stalin a.k.a. The Heretic: The Life and Times of Josip Broz-Tito – Fitzroy Maclean

The author of this biography and his subject worked together in Yugoslavia for nearly two years during World War II. On the Adriatic island of Vis or in the Yugoslav interior, Maclean was head of the British mission to Tito and the partisans who were battling both Nazi occupation troops and non-communist forces composed of Croats (the Ustaše) or Serbs (the Chetniks). Maclean also acted as a go-between in a meeting between the Yugoslav leader and PM Winston Churchill in Naples in August 1944.

Obviously in two years of close proximity, Maclean was able to converse with Tito at length. Like Edgar Snow gathered material from Mao Tse-tung for Red Star over China, Maclean collected much interesting early life information and stories about the “illegal” life of a Communist conspirator-activist between the wars. He was also able to observe Tito and his comrades as it gradually dawned on them that supreme power was within their grasp. This book was the first study of the partisan war in Yugoslavia so it’s well worth reading for readers interested in how a socialist insurgency could take over a country with limited aid from either bloc.

Maclean, an anti-Communist, gives an objective analysis on how Tito and his people stifled dissent, nationalized industry, persecuted religious people, and forced peasants onto collective farms. Maclean relates the powerful story of the harassment, trial, and imprisonment of Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac, who angered Tito with the public complaints that "273 clergymen had been killed" since the Partisan take-over, "169 had been imprisoned", and another "89 were missing and presumed dead.”

He also treats objectively two other example of Balkan ambiguity: Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović and Milovan Djilas. Mihailović was a Serb, royalist general whose career during WWII was admirable on one hand but appalling on the other. He was the first to organize bands of Chetniks to resist Nazi occupation, but later many Chetnik groups collaborated or established a modus vivendi with the Axis powers. Milovan Djilas was a Partisan hero who later fell out with Tito because of Djilas’ dissident writings. Djilas could be seen as national romantic, patriot, or naïve idealist. If nothing else, this book will give a sense of the thorny questions and impossible choices Europeans had to face in the 20th century.

Maclean tells an unreal story about the surreal court of Stalin – the ghoul Molotov and the goblin Mikoyan and killer Beria partying all night long in drunken banquets at Stalin’s dacha; the cruel bullying and the fear Stalin promoted among his henchmen. Stalin acted senile and gluttonous, indulging in foul jokes and inane drinking games and humiliating dancing. It makes one wonder if he had a medical problem that was affecting his brain.

Maclean also explains clearly the events leading up to Tito’s expulsion from the Soviet bloc in 1948. It reminded me how little regard the Stalinists had for the truth when they were claiming disloyalty and deviationism. Tito turned to the West again and even landed some Marshall Plan aid from the US. Maclean again acted as a go-between.

I highly recommend this book for those into Balkan and Communist topics, Stalinism, and guerilla war. By the way, Maclean’s autobiographical Eastern Approaches (1949) is fun to read. It covers his life as a junior diplomat in Moscow in the Thirties and the show trials; his travels in the Soviet Union and forbidden zones of Central Asia; his adventures in the British Army and SAS in the North Africa theatre of war; and of course his time with Tito and the Partisans in Yugoslavia.

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