Monday, 19 September 2011

Belgrade: "The House of Flowers"

Tito's grave, House of Flowers
Just as a brief aside, I went yesterday to the Museum of Yugoslav History, a little bit to the north-west of the city centre. This complex was established by Tito in his dying years, and as well as providing a truly vast exhibition space, it is also the former Yugoslav President's final resting place. Tito's mausoleum was designed by the ailing leader from around 1974, in close collabroation with his favourite architects and sculptors.

It may not suit some of today's ultra-nationalist historians to remember, but Tito's death in May 1980 was met by genuinely felt grief across the former Yugoslavia. The most graphic illustration, perhaps, was at the football match between Croatia's Hajduk Split, and Red Star Belgrade from the capital; the game was stopped, half way through, to announce the death, and both sets of players wept openly. (Red Star went onto win 3-1, a victory that would normally have ensured substantial bragging rights for their fans, but the result went by almost unnoticed.) On the same night, as you can see in this youtube clip, the TV newsreader struggled and largely failed to keep a check on his emotions:

Tito died in hospital in Ljubljana, and his body was carried around all parts of Yugoslavia before being laid to rest at the House of Flowers. It's a marker of how much has changed in the subsequent thirty years, that an ex-JNA Colonel, having re-trained as an academic following the end of Yugoslavia, is now selling his self published book on Tito from the back of a battered Lada Zhiguli outside the museum.

Jovanka Broz Tito getting off an aeroplane, Belgrade, 1959
There are two very comprehensive fashion exhibitions on at the moment; one focuses on Tito and his very glamorous second wife, Jovanka; the other, perhaps more interestingly, focuses on fashion in post-war Croatia, up to around 1960. This exhibition well illustrates the difficult post-war transition Yugoslavia underwent, from being a ruined country destroyed by four years of occupation and bitter, bitter civil war, to building up the infrastructure of a flourishing consumer goods sector, alongside a re-building of industry and a (controversial and costly) re-organisation of farming.

Croatian fashion, May 1945: Partizans liberate Jelačić Square in the centre of Zagreb
Croatian fashion c. 1960: a woman at work on the "Highway of Brotherhood and Unity" between Belgrade & Zagreb
Elsewhere, the museum features well-tended grounds, featuring works by Yugoslav sculptors very well known for public commissions and portraits of the party leadership, particularly by Antun Augustinčić, who died the year before his biggest patron. The mausoleum itself is rather odd. Shorn of its honour guard (Milošević ordered the removal of a military presence at Tito's grave in 1990, as part of a so-called "detitoisation" process), Tito's grave seems almost incidental, a mere curiosity to visitors, in between two rooms exhibiting all of his many batons (!) and a rather dull room full of delicacies and trinkets donated by fellow members of the "Non Aligned Movement" ( a group of countries started by Yugoslavia in the Cold War, as aligned fully neither with the Western nor the Soviet blocs.)

The exhibition space here is rather fascinating, but the overall impression of the mausoleum is one of a cloying sadness; that of a great historical figure from a time past, little remembered or noticed in a fast moving contemporary world, in which his ideas and concepts no longer really apply.


  1. Hi I'm intrigued. Are you fluent in Serbo-croat or are the texts available in translation?
    I'd love to read a copy of your lecture in English if you're happy to send -

    all the best bob

  2. Hi there,

    I have rudimentary Serbian (no Serbo-Croat anymore) but I will have to learn the language properly once I move back after Christmas. Learning languages properly is my main task next year alongside the book-writing. So, the texts are normally slowly read via a mix of my basic Serb and Google translate!

    I just have a powerpoint from the lecture, no written text; can send that if you want.

  3. Yes please! At least I'll get the gist of your views or perhaps your view appropriate for your audience. thanks in advance