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By Carl Savich
The first conflict between Yugoslavia and the US and the UK was over Trieste. This was one of the first incidents of the nascent and emerging Cold War. In Veneto and Trieste there were population displacements following World War II when a shooting war between Yugoslavia and the US was narrowly averted. Trieste was the first salvo in the Cold War.
Winston Churchill announced in his March 5, 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, that Europe was divided into two blocs: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere”. Churchill made explicit the division of Europe and the world into two spheres of influence, one led by the US, the other by the USSR. Even before the end of World War II, however, a division of the world into antagonistic spheres of influence was envisioned. US General George S. Patton had stirred controversy when it was reported that he had stated that the US and Britain were destined to rule the world, leaving out the Russians, who were then allies. Patton gave his speech on April 25, 1944 in Knutsford in the UK. Witnesses reported that he had actually said: ". . . [I]t is the evident destiny of the British and Americans, and, of course, the Russians, to rule the world …” In both US and British newspapers, however, his statements omitted reference to the Russians.
The “Knutsford Incident” stirred controversy and heightened tensions between the US, UK, and USSR. Was there manipulation? Who had manipulated Patton’s statements? Why is part of the FUSAG psyop deception meant to conceal the D-Day landing site from German forces? Patton caused further tension when he stated that the US should begin immediate hostilities against the Soviet Union: “Hell, why do we care what those goddamn Russians think? We are going to have to fight them sooner or later, within the next generation. Why not do it now while our Army is intact and the damn Russians can have their hind end kicked back to Russia in three months? We can do it easily with the help of the German troops we have, if we just arm them and take them with us. They hate the bastards.”
Trieste was the unlikely location for the first conflict of the Cold War. From 1867 to 1918, Trieste was a vital seaport in the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, Trieste became a part of Italy. Croatian and Slovenian forces annexed the territory around Trieste, which contained Slavic populations, in 1943 after Italy capitulated, although still under German military occupation. The German troops who held Trieste refused to surrender to Yugoslav forces.
The Yugoslav 4th Army and the Slovenian 9th Corps seized Trieste on May 1, 1945. Army units from New Zealand then arrived on the scene the next day to prevent Tito’s forces from annexing the region. Lieutenant General Sir Bernard C. Freyberg entered Trieste on the afternoon of May 2. He accepted the surrender of 7,000 German troops who were part of the Trieste garrison. The German Army troops surrendered to these New Zealand units but refused to surrender to Yugoslav troops. The Italian Prime Minister Ivanoe Bonomi called on the Allied governments to send troops to occupy Trieste to prevent its annexation by Yugoslavia. Yugoslav occupation forces had set up a local administration in Trieste. The conflict had the potential to lead to military clashes between Yugoslav Communist partisan troops and Allied troops.
Allied armed forces in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations came in conflict with Tito’s forces in May, 1945, when both Yugoslavia and the Allies assumed the occupation of the city. The two sides had agreed that:
“The territory around Trieste and Gorizia and east of the Isonzo River is part of Italy known as Venezia Giulia. The territory around Aillach and Klagenfurt is part of Austria.”
Tito claimed this Italian and Austrian territory and sought to incorporate it into Yugoslavia by force. Yugoslav forces continued to occupy the area east of Isonzo. Joseph Stalin had pledged Soviet backing for Yugoslav control of Trieste. The Trieste Crisis of May, 1945 was unique in that it pitted the Allied countries against each other and was one of the first and only intra-allied conflicts that had the potential to lead to military clashes.
Harry Truman threatened to use military force against Yugoslav forces: “Tito, I pointed out, had already violated the Yalta agreement by setting up a totalitarian regime and was now trying to extend it to Venezia Giulia by force. If Tito persisted in this, we would meet him with overwhelming force, and the time had come for a decision.” Alexander compared Tito to Hitler and Mussolini: Tito’s actions were “all too reminiscent of Hitler, Mussolini and Japan.” What resulted was “the race for Trieste”.
The German military commander of Trieste since September 23, 1943 was SS-Gruppenfuehrer Otto Globocnik, who founded and commanded the Nazi extermination camps at Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Belzec. Globocnik, born in Trieste, had been promoted to Higher SS and Police Leader in the Adriatic, Hoherer SS-und Polizeifuehrer (HSSPF) Adriatisches Küstenland, the Adriatic Coastal Region. In Trieste, he established the SS concentration camp at Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice mill, which was the only extermination or death camp established in Italy by the SS. On May 1, 1945; Globocnik was assigned with the overall command of the retreating German forces converging in Trieste.
In a June 4, 1945 Time magazine news report, "This Is Yugoslavia", the conflict was seen as one between the US and the USSR:
“The significant facts about Trieste were that: 1) Soviet tactics in eastern and southern Europe had been checkmated, for the first time, by equally positive British and U.S. tactics; 2) up to this week, the checkmating had been accomplished without a fight.
No Russians were directly involved in the Trieste dispute. British Field Marshal Alexander engaged Yugoslav Partisan forces “who had tried to seize title to Trieste before Italy's claims could be settled by Big Power negotiation,” according to a Time magazine report on May 28. Alexander negotiated directly with “Marshal Josip Broz Tito”. Alexander commanded US, New Zealand, and Indian troops who “held a line running inland from Trieste deep into Titoland.”
The Western Allies and Yugoslavia reached an agreement regarding Trieste on May 12. Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, negotiated with Tito. The Yugoslav troops vacated Trieste on June 12, 1945.
This is a period of Yugoslav history that is seldom covered. In 1945, Tito’s Communist Partisans occupied much of the Trieste region seeking to annex it to the new Communist Yugoslavia. The population in the area was mixed between Slavic Slovenians and Croats and Italians. There was a dislocation of population as the territory was eventually split between Italy and Yugoslavia. In 1947, Istria was given to Yugoslavia, resulting in the displacement of 250,000 Italians. Trieste, with large Slavic regions, was awarded to Italy. In the interim, the Trieste conflict provided one of the early crises of the emerging Cold War conflict between East and West. It was one of the first hot spots of the Cold War. Yugoslav forces shot down several US military aircraft over the disputed region. Truman and Stalin were involved in the crisis. At that time, it was seen as the first proxy war or conflict between the US and the USSR, with Italy as a US ally and Yugoslavia as a Soviet ally. Stalin and Truman sought to avoid an escalation of the dispute that would engulf the two superpowers in a world war.
US and Allied policy mischaracterized and misjudged the Trieste Crisis. US policymakers were swayed by rigid ideological assumptions. Trieste was perceived wrongly as Stalin’s exertion of pressure and influence against the Allies. US policy saw it as a power move by Stalin, using Tito as a proxy or surrogate, to advance Soviet influence in the Adriatic. Trieste was seen as a conflict between the USSR and the US and UK. In fact, Trieste was a local crisis fueled by nationalism and Yugoslav territorial objectives. The Yugoslav Communist political leadership sought to co-opt Slovenian and Croatian nationalists by realizing their territorial claims to Trieste, which contained large Slovenian and Croatian populations. Stalin was a secondary player in the Trieste Conflict.
US policy misjudged the Trieste conflict. The US preoccupation with ideological assumptions resulted in an inability to foresee the Stalin-Tito split. The break with Stalin caught the US totally and completely by surprise. US policy was committed to a rigid perception of the Communist bloc as monolithic. British historian Arnold Toynbee pointed out the flaw: “Every Communist country and every capitalist country is a nationalist country first. Yugoslavia, Russia, North Vietnam, South Vietnam’s Vietcong, China, Outer Mongolia---they are all Communist, but they are nationalist first.” Tito himself stated his priority was to his own nation: "No matter how much each of us loves the land of socialism, the USSR, he can, in no case, love his own country less. . . “
Yugoslavia would be the first major blunder by US foreign policy during the Cold War. Vietnam would later be a disaster. US foreign policy was rigidly guided by overarching ideological assumptions that straight-jacketed US policy and options. There is no question that the Cold War was an ideological conflict for the US. The March, 1947 "Truman Doctrine", an "ideological and economic crusade against communism", continued to guide US foreign policy.
Yugoslavia under Titoism
The break with Stalin meant that Yugoslavia was a renegade or rogue Communist state. US policymakers immediately jumped at the chance to foster division and disunity in what was then perceived as a monolithic Communist bloc. The US provided economic and military aid to Yugoslavia. Yugoslav leaders were able to take advantage of this policy to play off the two superpower blocs against each other and to obtain benefits from both. Yugoslavia thus pursued a unique nonaligned course. This independent course came be known as “Titoism”.
Titoism is based on the principle that in each Communist or socialist country, the way Communist goals are achieved is based on the particular conditions endemic to that country. Titoism rejected the Soviet model or pattern for development because that was suitable to the Soviet republics but not to Yugoslavia because the conditions were different in the two countries.
During the Informbiro period from 1948 to 1955, Titoism was was declared to be a heresy and antithetical to Communism by the Soviet Union. During these seven years, relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were tense and acrimonious with an economic embargo imposed by the USSR and the Soviet-bloc countries. It was only with the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 that foreign relations between the two countries began to change.
During the Cold War, Yugoslavia was the only Communist country in Eastern Europe not to join the Warsaw Pact, a defensive alliance formed to counter the military threat posed by NATO. Yugoslavia was “socialist, but independent”. Yugoslavia was able to retain an independent course, “positive neutralism”, because Yugoslavia was not perceived as a military threat to the Soviet Union and did not impact on vital national security issues. Yugoslavia never accepted full membership in the Comecon. The Comecon was the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON / Comecon / CMEA / CAME), in existence from 1949 to 1991, an economic organization of Communist countries which was a Eastern Bloc equivalent to the European Economic Community (EEC), but more inclusive. Full members in the late 1980s were the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Romania, Poland, Vietnam, Cuba, the People's Republic of Mongolia. Albania joined in 1949 but left in 1961 with China. Yugoslavia was an associate member of Comecon.
In Yugoslavia, worker self-management, samoupravljanje, profit sharing arrangements based on the theory of associated labor, and worker-owned industries and businesses, were endorsed. In firms with more than five workers were required to be self-managed on a democratic basis with the board of directors largely represented by workers. The Soviet Union rejected these deviations as examples of “Corporatism” and “Council Communism”.
The Titoist policies were attacked and Tito himself was vilified as “the Butcher of the Working Class” by the Soviet-bloc countries and was portrayed as a covert agent of Western imperialism. In Yugoslavia, those who supported the Soviet model were attacked as “Cominformists” and imprisoned in Goli Otok.
Yugoslavia: Informbiro Period, 1948-1955
The Informbiro period from 1948 to 1955 was a seven year span when foreign relations between Yugoslavia and the Communist bloc were hostile and tense. The term is derived from the Yugoslavian abbreviation of "Information Bureau," from "Communist Information Bureau" or "Cominform". Initially, the headquarters of the Informbiro were in Belgrade and Yugoslavia was one of the most strident supporters of a unified Communist movement led by the Soviet Union.
What triggered the split was the level of independent action which Yugoslavia pursued in the Balkans. Tito had sought to create a federation with Bulgaria without first consulting the Soviet Union. Tito had also unilaterally sent troops to Albania to prevent the spread of the Greek civil war. Finally, the joint-stock companies which the Soviet Union created were largely rejected by Yugoslavia as being too favorable to the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia was acting on its own, without consulting the Soviet Union. Stalin called Milovan Djilas and Edvard Kardelj, two of the highest ranking officials in the Yugoslav regime, to Moscow for discussions. The impasse, however, was not resolved. In 1948, Edvard Kardelj, a Slovene was the Yugoslav Minister of Foreign Affairs. Alexander Rankovic, a Serb, was the Minister of the Interior who headed military intelligence, OZNA, and the secret police, UDBA. Milovan Djilas, a Montenegrin, was vice-premier of Yugoslavia, who had met with Stalin in 1944 and 1948. Josip Broz Tito, a Croat-Slovene, was the prime minister of Communist Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1953. In 1953, he became the first president of Yugoslavia. The Cominform would accuse them of “nationalism” and “Trotskyism”.
The Stalin-Tito Split began in February, 1948, when Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov threatened Tito that "serious differences of opinion about relations between our countries" will result if Tito does not clear his actions with Moscow. On March 27, 1948, the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) sent a letter of warning to the Central Committee of the CPY. From April 12 to13, 1948, a CC CPY plenum discussed the CPSU letter. The CC CPSU sent another letter to the CC CPY with additional allegations on May 4, 1948. At a meeting in Belgrade on May 9, 1948, the CC CPY issued its reply to the Soviet letter. On May 20, 1948, the Yugoslav Committee issued a statement that the CPY would not send a delegation to the next Cominform meeting.
On June 28, 1948, a Cominform Resolution was promulgated which accused the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) of "depart[ing] from Marxism-Leninism," exhibiting an "anti-Soviet attitude," "meeting criticism with hostility" and "reject[ing] to discuss the situation at an Informbureau meeting." Yugoslavia was subsequently expelled from the Cominform. “Titoism” became a byword in the Communist bloc for heresy and treason and those who did not strictly follow the Communist Party line endorsed by the Cominform were purged as "Titoites" or “Titoists”.
The Cominform Resolution against Yugoslavia, released as a “Cominform Communique”, was released as follows:
“Resolution of the Information Bureau Concerning the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, June 28, 1948:
The Information Bureau, composed of the representatives of the Bulgarian Workers' Party (Communists), Rumanian Workers' Party, Hungarian Workers' Party, Polish Workers' Party, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), Communist Party of France, Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the Communist Party of Italy, upon discussing the situation in the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and announcing that the representatives of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia bad refused to attend the meeting of the Information Bureau, unanimously reached the following conclusions:
1. The Information Bureau notes that recently the leadership of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia has pursued an incorrect line on the main questions of home and foreign policy, a line which represents a departure from Marxism-Leninism. In this connection the Information Bureau approves the action of the Central Committee of the CPSU(B), which took the initiative in exposing this incorrect policy of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, particularly the incorrect policy of Comrades Tito, Kardell, Djilas and Rankovic.
2. The Information Bureau declares that the leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party is pursuing an unfriendly policy toward the Soviet Union and the CPSU (B). An undignified policy of defaming Soviet military experts and discrediting the Soviet Union has been carried out in Yugoslavia. A special regime was instituted for Soviet civilian experts in Yugoslavia, whereby, they were under surveillance of Yugoslav state security organs and were continually followed. . . .
The Information Bureau denounces this anti-Soviet attitude of the leaders of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, as being incompatible with Marxism-Leninism and only appropriate to nationalists.
3. In home policy, the leaders of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia are departing from the positions of the working class and are breaking with the Marxist theory of classes and class struggle. They deny that there is a growth of capitalist elements in their country, and consequently, a sharpening of the class struggle in the countryside. This denial is the direct result of the opportunist tenet that the class struggle does not become sharper during the period of transition from capitalism to socialism, as Marxism-Leninism teaches, but dies down, as was affirmed by opportunists of the Bukharin type, who propagated the theory of the peaceful growing over of capitalism into socialism.
The Yugoslav leaders are pursuing an incorrect policy in the countryside by ignoring the class differentiation in the countryside and by regarding the individual peasantry as a single entity, contrary to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of classes and class struggle, contrary to the well-known Lenin thesis that small individual farming gives birth to capitalism and the bourgeoisie continually, daily, hourly, spontaneously and on a mass scale. . . .
Concerning the leading role of the working class, the leaders of the Yugoslav Communist Party, by affirming that the peasantry is the 'most stable foundation of the Yugoslav state' are departing from the Marxist-Leninist path and are taking the path of a populist, Kulak party. Lenin taught that the proletariat as the 'only class in contemporary society which is revolutionary to the end . . . must be the leader in the struggle of the entire people for a thorough democratic transformation, in the struggle of all working people and the exploited against the oppressors and exploiters!
The Yugoslav leaders are violating this thesis of Marxism-Leninism. . . .
4. The Information Bureau considers that the leadership of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia is revising the Marxist-Leninist teachings about the Party. . . .
The Information Bureau believes that this policy of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia threatens the very existence of the Communist Party, and ultimately carries with it the danger of the degeneration of the People's Republic of Yugoslavia.
5. The Information Bureau considers that the bureaucratic regime created inside the Party by its leaders is disastrous for the life and development of the Yugoslav Communist Party. There is no inner Party democracy, no elections, and no criticism and self-criticism in the Party. . . .
It is a completely intolerable state of affairs when the most elementary rights of members in the Yugoslav Communist Party are suppressed, when the slightest criticism of incorrect measures in the Party is brutally repressed. . . .
The Information Bureau considers that such a disgraceful, purely Turkish, terrorist regime cannot be tolerated in the Communist Party. The interests of the very existence and development of the Yugoslav Communist Party demand that an end be put to this regime.
6. The Information Bureau considers that the criticism made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (B) and Central Committees of the other Communist Parties of the mistakes of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, and who ill this way rendered fraternal assistance to the Yugoslav Communist Party, provides the Communist Party of Yugoslavia with all the conditions necessary to speedily correct the mistakes committed.
However, instead of honestly accepting this criticism and taking the Bolshevik path of correcting these mistakes, the leaders of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, suffering from boundless ambition, arrogance and conceit, met this criticism with belligerence and hostility. . . .
7. Taking into account the situation in the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, and seeking to show the leaders of the Party the way out of this situation, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (B) and the Central Committees of other fraternal parties, suggested that the matter of the Yugoslav Communist Party should be discussed at a meeting of the Information Bureau, on the same, normal party footing as that on which the activities of other Communist Parties were discussed at the first meeting of the Information Bureau.
However, the Yugoslav leaders rejected the repeated suggestions of the fraternal Communist Parties to discuss the situation in the Yugoslav Party at a meeting of the Information Bureau. . . .
8. In view of this, the Information Bureau expresses complete agreement with the estimation of the situation in the Yugoslav Communist Party, with the criticism of the mistakes of the Central Committee of the Party, and with the political analysis of these mistakes contained in letters from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (B) to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia between March and May 1948.
The Information Bureau unanimously concludes that by their anti-Party and anti-Soviet views, incompatible with Marxism-Leninism, by their whole attitude and their refusal to attend the meeting of the Information Bureau, the leaders of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia have placed themselves in opposition to the Communist Parties affiliated to the Information Bureau, have taken the path of seceding from the united socialist front against imperialism, have taken the path of betraying the cause of international solidarity of the working people, and have taken up a position of nationalism.
The Information Bureau condemns this anti-Party policy and attitude of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia.
The Information Bureau considers that, in view of all this, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia has placed itself and the Yugoslav Party outside the family of the fraternal Communist Parties, outside the united Communist front and consequently outside the ranks of the Information Bureau.
The Information Bureau does not doubt that inside the Communist Party of Yugoslavia there are sufficient healthy elements, loyal to Marxism-Leninism, to the international traditions of the Yugoslav Communist Party and to the United Socialist front.
Their task is to compel their present leaders to recognize their mistakes openly and honestly and to rectify them; to break with nationalism, return to internationalism; and in every way to consolidate the united socialist front against imperialism.
Should the present leaders of the Yugoslav Communist Party prove incapable of doing this, their job is to replace them and to advance a new internationalist leadership of the Party.
The Information Bureau does not doubt that the Communist Party of Yugoslavia will be able to fulfill this honorable task.”
The USSR expelled the Yugoslavian Ambassador in the Soviet Union on October 25, 1948. Other Communist bloc governments followed with their own expulsions. From the scheduled meeting in Budapest, the Cominform issued on November 29 a new resolution that stated that "the transformation of Yugoslavia from the phase of bourgeois nationalism into fascism and direct betrayal of national interests is complete." The USSR unilaterally annulled in September, 1948, its treaty with Yugoslavia. Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia did the same.
The Cominform Resolution was promulgated because of the perception in the Soviet Union that Josip Broz Tito was not willing to follow the instructions of Joseph Stalin in regard to a unified foreign policy. Two issues were prominent. Although Stalin had at first encouraged a union between Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania, he now opposed the pace at which the Tito regime pursued this unification independently of Soviet control. Tito was perceived to be proceeding “without proper consultation with Moscow”. In other words, Tito was acting on his own initiative, unilaterally, and establishing a local and independent power base in the Balkans without consulting the Soviet Union. Another serious issue was Tito's willingness to "export revolution" to Greece where a civil war was raging. Stalin had already made commitments to the Allied Powers, the US and the UK, that he would not interfere in Greece, seen as a British and American sphere of influence as defined by the Stalin-Churchill agreement of 1944. Tito was seen as a loose cannon who endangered and disrupted larger Soviet objectives.
There is a spurious claim that Tito’s Communist partisan forces “liberated” Yugoslavia from the German occupation. This is false. German military forces occupied Yugoslavia at will and never lost any military engagements in the former Yugoslavia. Tito wrote a propagandistic, largely falsified, history of the war against Nazi Germany. German troops remained in Yugoslavia until the last day of the war. On October 10, 1944, Russian troops broke through the German lines in Serbia and threatened to encircle the German forces in Serbia. In response, the German military forces retreated from Serbia. By October 20, 1944, the Red Army had taken Belgrade after the German retreat. Belgrade was then turned over to Tito’s Communist partisans. Sarajevo was “liberated” only on April 6, 1945, when German Army Group E under Alexander Lohr withdrew from the city. Zagreb was “liberated” on May 8, 1945, when German and Ustasha military forces abandoned the city. The reason the German forces withdrew from Yugoslavia was because they had been militarily defeated by the Russians. Adolf Hitler committed suicide to avoid being captured alive by Russian troops in Berlin. Moreover, it was the Stalin agreement with Winston Churchill that established a spheres of influence scheme that prevented the Allies from installing a non-Communist post-war regime in Yugoslavia.
After the break with the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc in 1948, Yugoslavia was able to pursue an independent course during the Cold War. Both superpowers sought to prevent Yugoslavia from joining the rival power bloc, The Yugoslav regime was able to play off both superpower blocs against each other and to exploit the superpower rivalry and ideological conflict to remain politically, militarily, and economically viable. Yugoslavia needed the bipolarity created by the superpower conflict of the Cold War. Once the Cold War collapsed, Yugoslavia’s role in that system became obsolescent and anachronistic. Yugoslavia no longer had a purpose or function, ideologically, militarily, politically, and economically. Not surprisingly, with the collapse of the Cold War, Yugoslavia itself collapsed and disintegrated as a nation.