30th Sep 2023

Tito's life remains an enigma as anniversary draws near

  • The UK's Queen Elisabeth II with Tito on a visit to Yugoslavia in 1972 (Photo: waz)

In a month's time, the Balkans and the world at large will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Josip Broz Tito, the president of the former Yugoslavia and the most successful locksmith who ever walked the earth.

Beyond the official version of his biography, his life remains shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories. The only undisputed fact seems to be that he is dead. But the rest - the exact dates of his birth and death, the place where he is buried, his origin and identity - remain controversial.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Who was the creator of socialist Yugoslavia, its Marshal, the lifetime president of the state and the Communist Party chief, the founder of the Non-Aligned Movement and one of the most prominent leaders of the 20th century?

"History as a science has yet to reconstruct his early biography," says historian Dragan Vlahovic, a well-known Belgrade journalist who has written several books about Tito. "Tito himself started the confusion about his birth, so that in the books by various biographers 12 different dates are given."

Tito's birthday was celebrated on 25 May in Yugoslavia. But according to Mr Vlahovic, the correct date remained a secret even to his only official biographer and war-time friend, Vladimir Dedijer. Officially, Tito rose to the top from a modest background: a locksmith by trade, he was supposed to be the son of a peasant couple from the Croatian village of Kumrovac, his father, Franjo, a Croat, his mother, Maria, a Slovene.

Mr Vlahovic, referring to data from the Vienna war archive, believes the real Josip Broz was indeed born in 1892 in Kumrovac but died in April 1915 as a soldier in the 25th Regiment of the 42nd Home Guard Division of the Habsburg army, in the Battle of the Carpathians.

Raif Dizdarevic, a long-time Tito companion and one of the last heads of state under the ex Yugoslavia's system of rotating presidents, claimed a copy of the death certificate of Josip Broz from 1915 was kept by Tito and found in a black suitcase after his death.

"In his working room in the White Villa, Tito kept some documents in a small locker. Among the documents was a copy of Broz' death certificate. It was issued by the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of War in 1915 and accompanied by a list of soldiers killed and missing, including Broz," Mr Dizdarevic wrote.

In one of the rare statements on his own life, Tito said that he had taken part in the fighting in the Carpathians in 1915, adding that he had been wounded in that battle. Mr Vlahovic recalls Tito's account of events: "He said he remembered lying in a muddy ditch when an enemy soldier with a thick moustache and eyebrows appeared in front of him and thrust a spear into his right shoulder."

Dusan Ferluga, a pathologist from Ljubljana who carried out the autopsy on Tito's body, said "there was no scar on the right shoulder or anywhere else," however, Mr Vlahovic says.

A source of constant speculation about his origins was Tito's comparatively poor mastery of his supposed Croatian mother tongue. Instead, he spoke and wrote well in Russian and German and got along in English, Czech and Polish.

Another publicist, Pero Simic, claims that Tito was a Comintern agent who infiltrated the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia with the task of organising the Communist Party. His official biographer suggests he may have been born in Vienna and attended a military intelligence school in Pecs. Meanwhile, high-ranking intelligence officials of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia believed Tito to be the illegitimate son of a Polish colonel named Lebedev.

It is very difficult to establish reliable facts about Tito before 1928, when he was tried in Zagreb for alleged Communist activities. When he was elected a deputy to the national parliament in 1950, the Federal Statistics and Records Bureau asked him to fill in a questionnaire with personal data. The reply was short: "Don't give information. T."

Rumour had it that Tito silenced all those who were ready to testify that he was not Josip Broz from Kumrovac and all those who tried to investigate details of this background.

"The man called J.B. Tito was born into an aristocratic family and had the habits and lifestyle to match: He played billiards, chess, cards, practiced riding, fencing, gymnastics and tennis and spoke several foreign languages. A locksmith like this never existed in the world," said his personal physician Alexandar Matunovic in an interview after Tito's death.

According to a popular anecdote, the Queen of England and her guests at a Windsor Castle party were impressed when Tito sat at the piano and played Chopin.

Dr Matunovic repeated what Tito told him in one of their last conversations: "If you think you know me and know who is Tito, you are hugely wrong, doctor! I know that from the beginning you wanted to know everything about me. I am aware that you know more than others. But you do not know who is Tito, nor will you ever know. No one met Tito, nor will meet him."

He added: "I'm Faust, now you know who I am. Not just Goethe's Faust - but the Faust of all Fausts!"

In his time, he was a larger-than-life personality. But what he left behind did not last: Tito's Yugoslavia fell apart in a series of bloody wars.

He was a playboy, a charmer, a spy, a merciless murderer and a bombastic dictator. When the fairy tale named Yugoslavia drew to an end, the remains of its creator were buried under two tons of marble in Belgrade in the "House of flowers" mausoleum. Many still do not believe it is the real Tito who lies underneath - it must be somebody else.

Tito's women

Tito died on 4 May 1980 in Ljubljana and was buried four days later in Belgrade. He lived with his first wife, Russian Pelagia Belousova, in Moscow from 1919 to 1928. They had four children, but only one, Zarko, survived childhood.

Tito's second wife, Hertha Haas, was of German origin. They lived together in Zagreb between 1937 and 1941. She died this February. Their son, Misa, is a Croatian diplomat in Indonesia.

Serbian Davorjanka Zdenka Paunovic, Tito's great love, was only 25 years old when she died in 1946. On Tito's behest, she was buried in the park of the Karadjordjevic dynasty palace complex where Tito lived after the war.

In 1952, Tito married Jovanka Budisavljevic, 32 years his junior and Yugoslavia's official first lady until his death. She still lives in Belgrade.

His death was followed by revelations about an impressive number of presidential mistresses. A recent exhibition of photographs shot by himself showed an infatuation with maids and cooks.


Punish Belarus too for aiding Putin's Ukraine war

While Belarus has not sent its own troops to fight Russia's war in Ukraine, the Minsk dictatorship has been heavily involved. As a result, Belarus must be punished for its involvement — what can the world do to sanction Belarus?

Poland's culture of fear after three years of abortion 'ban'

Poland in 2020 imposed a near-total ban on abortion, triggering mass protests — and today the demands for access to safe abortion continue. On International Safe Abortion Day, dozens gathered in Brussels calling for solidarity among member states.


Punish Belarus too for aiding Putin's Ukraine war

While Belarus has not sent its own troops to fight Russia's war in Ukraine, the Minsk dictatorship has been heavily involved. As a result, Belarus must be punished for its involvement — what can the world do to sanction Belarus?

Latest News

  1. EU women promised new dawn under anti-violence pact
  2. Three steps EU can take to halt Azerbaijan's mafia-style bullying
  3. Punish Belarus too for aiding Putin's Ukraine war
  4. Added-value for Russia diamond ban, as G7 and EU prepare sanctions
  5. EU states to agree on asylum crisis bill, say EU officials
  6. Poland's culture of fear after three years of abortion 'ban'
  7. Time for a reset: EU regional funding needs overhauling
  8. Germany tightens police checks on Czech and Polish border

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  2. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  3. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  4. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  5. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations
  2. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  3. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  4. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us