Death of Tito Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The death of Tito left a power g ap in his union of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims that ultimately resulted in Yugoslavia’s dissolution in war.

Summary of Event

When Tito died in 1980, he left behind a unified but precarious Yugoslav state. He had been the undisputed leader of Yugoslavia since the end of World War II. Although a committed Communist, he broke with Joseph Stalin in 1948, rejecting Stalin’s charges that he had been disloyal. Tito emphasized that his country could pursue an independent course and remain Communist. He later allied himself with President Gamal Abdel Nasser Nasser, Gamal Abdel of Egypt and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru Nehru, Jawaharlal of India in the Nonaligned Movement, Nonaligned Movement a group of nations attempting to pursue common policies that put them between the rival Cold War powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia;dissolution [kw]Death of Tito (May 4, 1980) [kw]Tito, Death of (May 4, 1980) Yugoslavia;dissolution [g]Europe;May 4, 1980: Death of Tito[04160] [g]Balkans;May 4, 1980: Death of Tito[04160] [g]Yugoslavia;May 4, 1980: Death of Tito[04160] [c]Government and politics;May 4, 1980: Death of Tito[04160] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 4, 1980: Death of Tito[04160] Tito Churchill, Winston Mihailović, Draža Stalin, Joseph

Yugoslav leader Tito.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Tito was a master at manipulating power blocs, both outside and within his own country. He had fought with distinction on the Communist side in the Russian Civil War (1918-1920), and he became Stalin’s agent in Yugoslavia. Although he had condemned World War II as an imperialist war, he reversed his position when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. During World War II, he organized the Partisans, an underground organization of Yugoslavs fighting to remove the Germans and Italians from Yugoslavia. In 1943, he gained the support of Winston Churchill, who had been championing the cause of Draža Mihailović, leader of the Serbian Chetniks, and a fervent anti-Communist. Churchill became convinced that Mihailović was not fighting as hard as Tito and that he may even have been collaborating with the enemy. Churchill’s switch to Tito is still a fiercely debated issue among historians, many of whom believe Tito’s agents fed Churchill false information.

During the war, the Partisans and Chetniks fought each other, realizing that one group or the other would dominate the country when the Germans and Italians were defeated. Tito gained a reputation for drawing Communists and non-Communists to his cause, and American and British officers serving with his forces were impressed by his efforts to unify Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.

After the war, Tito quickly consolidated his power—executing Mihailović and purging some of his own followers whom he suspected of disloyalty. He continued his close relationship with Churchill and the Western powers, aware that they acted as a buffer against the Soviet Union, which dominated the countries of Eastern Europe. When Stalin expelled Tito from the Communist movement in 1948 and threatened to invade Yugoslavia, he was deterred by Tito’s army, which would have inflicted considerable casualties and, more important, by the possibility that the Western powers would come to Tito’s aid.

Tito dominated Yugoslavia’s warring factions. The Serbs had taken the lead in post-World War I Yugoslavia, and other groups—particularly the Croats—resented Serb hegemony. Tito did not resolve tensions between the Roman Catholic Croats and the Orthodox Catholic Serbs; instead, he suppressed them. He stifled political and religious dissent of all kinds. He established a command economy, in which all economic decisions were made by the central government, so that farmers, for example, were given production quotas. However, he did not go so far as to collectivize agriculture—as in the Soviet Union with its huge government-owned farms. As a result, Tito’s form of Communism was regarded in the West as less authoritarian and more worthy of support when compared to Soviet tyranny.

In addition to jailing and even murdering his political opponents, Tito relied on his own charismatic personality. He dressed the part of war hero, with a chest full of medals. He downplayed his own ethnic origins (he was the son of a Croat village blacksmith) and made sure that no one group had undue influence in any branch of government. His powerful support from the Western powers, including economic and military aid, made it difficult for anyone within the country to oppose his policies.

Tito’s overwhelming presence gave Yugoslavia a veneer of unity and economic health it never really possessed. His relaxation of central planning in the 1970’s, for example, was not a sign of his liberalism or of the country’s strength but rather a desperate effort to deal with failures in economic development. Similarly, he had achieved no workable model of a unified Yugoslav state. In 1971, realizing that he had not built the institutions that would ensure his nation’s survival, he established a twenty-two member collective presidency, composed of the presidents of the six republics and representatives from their respective assemblies, elected for five-year terms. Tito was then chosen chairman of this unwieldy federation. He projected a sort of round-robin government, which after his death would be headed, in rotation, by the presidents of the republics. In the absence of a single strong leader, each republic would have its share of power.

However, Tito’s loosening of the central power proved problematic. Franjo Tudjman (later elected president of an independent Croatia) challenged Tito’s concept of a unified Yugoslav state. Although dissenters such as Tudjman were punished, the idea of a single Yugoslav state was undermined as Tito’s policies were shown to be ineffective and the economy weakened. Tito tried to reimpose censorship on intellectual life, but his death only showed how futile it had been to deny the tensions he could check but not eradicate.


Tito’s death left the major issues of World War II unresolved and a country without the institutions or the political culture to deal peacefully with those issues. For example, Tito had not addressed the grievances of Serbs, whose leader had been executed after the war and whose king he had deposed. There were large Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia which felt threatened once politicians such as Tudjman were free to foment their ideas of independence. Who would protect Serb minority rights when Croatia was independent? The Croatian Ustachi (a fascist organization) had slaughtered thousands of Serbs during World War II. When the new Croatian government adopted some of the Ustachi’s symbols, Serbs feared another bloodbath. On the other hand, Croats, who had bridled under Serb dominance before the war, feared the resumption of calls for a “greater Serbia,” which to Croats meant a loss of some of their lands where Serbs lived and wished to be united with the Serbian republic. Other minorities, such as the Muslims, were caught between the warring claims of Serbs and Croats.

For decades—since the end of World War II—Tito had silenced all talk of national political rights. According to Communist ideology, ethnic rivalries could not be permitted or even acknowledged because the goal of the Communist state was to produce a culture free of racial, ethnic, or other group loyalties. Consequently, with no rational discussion of underlying problems, the debate about what happened in Yugoslavia remained frozen in the attitudes of World War II. To many Serbs, the Croat slaughter of their people during the war seemed like yesterday. To Croats, the Yugoslav state, and especially the army, became nothing more than a bastion of Serb tyranny.

Marshal Tito’s death did not make the breakup of Yugoslavia inevitable, but it did contribute to a climate of intolerance and ignorance that his political program did nothing to ameliorate. The demise of Communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe meant that Yugoslav leaders, devoid of any credible ideology, resorted to policies that played on people’s memories of World War II and awakened their worst fears about inclusion in a nation-state in which they would find themselves once again despised and perhaps exterminated minorities. The vicious and brutal wars of independence that resulted in the 1990’s reflected these historic animosities that Tito’s rule had repressed and that leaders following him were unable and unwilling eventually to control. Yugoslavia;dissolution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beloff, Nora. Tito’s Flawed Legacy: Yugoslavia and the West Since 1939. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. One of the key studies of postwar Yugoslavia, criticizing Churchill’s support of Tito, Tito’s rupture with Moscow, and his failure to encourage brotherhood or unity among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dedijer, Vladimir. Tito. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. Official biography is still worth consulting for its authoritative detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Djilas, Milovan. Tito: The Story from Inside. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. An impressive and critical view by one of Tito’s closest confidants turned dissident.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramet, Sabrina P. Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to the Fall of Milosevic. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Traces Yugoslavia’s steady deterioration since 1980. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stankovic, Slobodan. The End of the Tito Era: Yugoslavia’s Dilemmas. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1981. Chapters on Yugoslavia’s army, economic conditions, the struggle to succeed Tito, and Soviet-Yugoslav relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Richard. Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1995. Detailed study of Tito’s triumph in World War II, his consolidation of power, his quarrel with Stalin, and a reassessment of his final years leading to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and to war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Sir Duncan. Tito’s Yugoslavia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Yugoslavia’s history after World War I, its role in World War II, its early years as a Soviet satellite, the break with Stalin, the evolution as an independent Communist state, and its economic development.

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Categories: History