In Other Words

Mourning for a Dictator

The day Tito died, as witnessed by a young Croatian girl.

GEORGES BENDRIHEM/AFP/Getty Images
GEORGES BENDRIHEM/AFP/Getty Images

From Marica Bodroži c's collection of short stories, Tito is Dead; translated by Gerald Chapple from the German.

Josip Broz Tito was dead: the man with the giant round glasses whose portrait hung in my classroom and whose image was on the badge I got when I was initiated into the Pioneers, a badge and a partisan-like cap, a red star and a red kerchief. His penetrating gaze graced every shoemaker's shop, every butcher shop, however bloody, every dusty old teachers' staff room in whatever hick mountain village, every shopping center, every bureaucrat's office and every classroom. Nobody was to forget the glorious battles "of our men" who had courageously faced the foe and not only conquered them by dint of arms but with their hearts as well, as they fearlessly brought about the death of fascism and freedom to the people.

Granddad caught it on the early morning news and called me into the kitchen. Tito was on every channel. Within a few hours he became the sole image of the nation, framed by thin-faced mourners.

From Marica Bodroži

c‘s collection of short stories, Tito is Dead; translated by Gerald Chapple from the German.

Josip Broz Tito was dead: the man with the giant round glasses whose portrait hung in my classroom and whose image was on the badge I got when I was initiated into the Pioneers, a badge and a partisan-like cap, a red star and a red kerchief. His penetrating gaze graced every shoemaker’s shop, every butcher shop, however bloody, every dusty old teachers’ staff room in whatever hick mountain village, every shopping center, every bureaucrat’s office and every classroom. Nobody was to forget the glorious battles "of our men" who had courageously faced the foe and not only conquered them by dint of arms but with their hearts as well, as they fearlessly brought about the death of fascism and freedom to the people.

Granddad caught it on the early morning news and called me into the kitchen. Tito was on every channel. Within a few hours he became the sole image of the nation, framed by thin-faced mourners.

The radio responded immediately to the event. My favorite program was canceled. There was a special report on Tito’s life and work instead.

Granddad was transfixed as he watched the screen with one blind eye and one seeing eye. He’d often take off his cap, agitated, and put it on again. Time and again he’d shake his head, emitting a "tsk, tsk," almost a hiss. Now, he’d say, the devil’s going to ride roughshod over the whole damn population, and it had all been for nothing. He’d made soup for soldiers during World War II all for nothing, he said, because he thought that would be it for at least a hundred years. A soldier in the company he was assigned to refused to shoot 20 soldiers who’d suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I never figured out whose side they were on and didn’t ask, because the mere thought of executing them would get the better of me and because Granddad’s repeated description of it always kept me entranced. In the end, the commanding officer had to shoot the prisoners himself, since even the cook didn’t want to get his hands dirty. The ones who’d refused to kill were unable to extricate themselves from this gratuitous massacre that took place during the last days of the war; they could choose either to observe the unilateral glee of a man who’d cracked up or to join the 20 men against the wall. And so everybody there heard the names of those condemned to die. The crazed CO ordered them to take a step forward, one by one, and give their names. Their voices were heard one last time before the bullets hit their skinny bellies and the emaciated bodies dropped to the ground like flies.

Later on there was a rare sentencing. The CO came face to face with his company cook in court, when my grandfather recited the names of the 20 dead men as if in a trance. Even at home my Granddad would repeat their names while looking off aimlessly into the distance. It was only in retrospect that I was able to figure out why his gaze used to wander and only then that I understood why — for all his doubts about the marshal’s sacrosanct greatness — he felt Tito’s death as a genuine loss. I understood later on how palpably his body must have sensed a disaster yet to come, because it was very soon afterward that war broke out again, and this one was to separate those who hated one another but, even worse, those who loved one another. What for? Because war brings nothing and nobody together.

I heard it said in the village that Tito had forced people into living together, alongside one another, and that they would now have their revenge. On politics and on their enemies, on everybody who’d made their lives so hard. That’s why it came as no surprise when I read that the first thing the Albanians did after Enver Hoxha died was to cut down plum trees the state had planted and to stamp their revenge once and for all on their own countryside. A desolate, grass-covered wilderness was on the other side of the border now, where you used to see tree plantations. You can only see boring scrubland, thick stumps of cut-down trees — witnesses to a time that was not granted any chance to survive, least of all in its plum trees.


For the next translation, click here.

Marica Bodroži ć was born in Yugoslavia, now Croatia, in 1973 and has lived in Germany since 1983. Her first book, Tito is tot, from which this excerpt is taken, won a number of prizes in Germany. Gerald Chapple is a freelance literary translator. Excerpt reprinted with kind permission from the author.

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