Thirty-six years ago today on May 4, 1980, Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia, died due to gangrene, a complication of circulatory problems in his legs. He had served as President of Yugoslavia for almost three decades and had served as de facto ruler of Yugoslavia since the 1940s. In the late 1940s Tito’s political ambitions for Yugoslavia (and himself) put him at odds with Joseph Stalin’s Moscow-centric leadership, leading to Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the USSR. Tito envisioned Yugoslavia as a counter to the bloc of Slavic countries to the North (Yugoslavia more or less means “Land of the South Slavs”). The USSR attempted to rebuild the relationship with Yugoslavia under the leadership of Nikita Krushev in the 1950s, but Tito’s Yugoslavia maintained an independent approach to foreign policy, even while remaining communist. Yugoslavia, aligned neither with the West nor the USSR, instead joined a global brotherhood of non-aligned countries, notably Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Ghana.
Tito was no pacifist, but his dictatorship kept the various ethnic groups of Yugoslavia peacefully united during his time in office. He himself was the son of a Croat father and a Slovene mother. During his reign Yugoslavia was seen largely as a communist success, with high literacy rates and free medical care for all. But in the late 1970s, the last years of Tito’s life, Yugoslavia began to destabilize due to a mix of political stressors as complicated as Yugoslavia itself; nationalism and a declining economy, however, were at the top of the list. And with Tito’s death, the central political stability that he embodied was lost. Slovenia and Croatia, the more developed parts of Yugoslavia, desired greater political and economic autonomy. Compromises to maintain unity were turned down by Croatians and Slovenians, and Yugoslavia refused to amend its national constitution. Adding to this increasingly tense political situation was the fact that Yugoslavia’s important role as a non-aligned state was losing significance as Cold War tensions eased. Tensions finally exploded in March 1991 with the beginning of the Croation War of Independence—a conflict that quickly took on strong ethnic sentiments, involving soldiers as well as civilians.
The war in Croatia was just the beginning of conflict in Yugoslavia—the Bosnian War, taking place in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, began in April 1992 and lasted until December 1995. Like the war in Croatia, the Bosnian War was fought along ethnic lines. In Bosnia, Muslim Bosniaks (making up the largest ethnic group in Bosnia) were at odds with Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Bosnian Serb forces targeted Bosniaks, destroying entire towns and killing the inhabitants or forcing them into concentration camps in which they suffered torture and rape. The conflict and ethnic cleansing ultimately claimed the lives of over 100,000 and displaced upwards of 2,000,000.
Many of these displaced Bosnians (mostly Muslim Bosniaks) left Yugoslavia completely, becoming refugees throughout the world. And many of those internationally displaced Bosnians eventually settled in St. Louis. Most St. Louisans are probably (at least somewhat) aware of the significant Bosnian immigrant population here in South St. Louis City and South St. Louis County. It has been reported that St. Louis hosts the largest concentration of Bosnians outside Bosnia. Bosnian immigrants have been credited with stabilizing neglected South City neighborhoods and giving new entrepreneurial vigor to the city’s economy. The stories of these Bosnian immigrants have been recorded by the Bosnia Memory Project, a compilation of oral histories started by two professors at Fontbonne University. So the death of Tito was not only an important event for Yugoslavia, or for Europe, but for St. Louis as well.