Getting Away With Murder- A Tomb Without Tito: The House Of Flowers (Travels In Eastern Europe #36)

After the death of Josef Stalin in March of 1953 a few letters were discovered on his desk under a newspaper. One of these was from the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. The two men had fallen out in the late 1940’s when Tito decided that hardline Stalinism was not for Yugoslavia. This break with the Soviet Union was not without its dangers. Stalin was a man who brooked no opposition. He had shown time and again the ability to have his opponents murdered, even if they were living in far off exile on another continent. The assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City is the most notable example of Stalin’s ferocious vindictiveness. In the case of Tito, Stalin planned to have him murdered just as he had done to thousands of others, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Even in Stalin’s last days before he suffered what would turn out to be a fatal stroke, he was still ordering attempts on Tito’s life. Why was Stalin so focused on killing Tito several years after the Yugoslav-Soviet split?

Strangely enough, Tito might actually have been one of the few people who actually scared Stalin. After all, Tito was one of the very few men to ever threaten Stalin and get away with it. The letter from Tito found on Stalin’s desk after his death stated quite clearly his intentions. “Stop sending assassins to murder me…if this doesn’t stop I will send a man to Moscow and there’ll be no need to send any more.” That is a remarkable statement. There is little doubt that Tito would have done his very best to carry out such a threat. He was no ordinary dictator. Tito was the very definition of a strongman. Not only did he issue a death threat to one of history’s most blood soaked dictators, but he also held Yugoslavia together for thirty-five years, a feat all the more impressive when one considers how the nation splintered into warring states a decade after he died. Tito was successful where others failed.

Josip Broz Tito

A different kind of dictator – Josip Broz Tito

In Life & Death – A Home For Tito
My visit to Belgrade offered me the opportunity to visit Tito’s tomb known as the House of Flowers (Kuća cveća). He was buried there after dying at the age of 87 while in Slovenia. It was a miracle he lasted as long as he did. The man known to adoring Yugoslavs as Marshal Tito had earned that title the hard way, by leading the partisan cause in World War II against three virulent enemies, the Nazis, fascist Croatian Ustashe and the Royalist Chetniks. At war’s end his Communist Partisans took power and managed to stay there, straddling the divide between East and West, communism and capitalism while playing each side off against the other. Tito emerged as a leader of international renown while spearheading the Non-Aligned Movement. For his efforts he would be revered, both at home and abroad. Following his death, Tito’s funeral drew an inordinately large gathering of international leaders and diplomats, making it quite possibly the largest state funeral in history.

They all came to pay their respects in the hills of Dedinje, an upscale area of Belgrade that Tito would call home in life and death. This was the area I visited on a gloomy March morning. Grey bellies of cloud hovered over the city, spitting random drops of rain. I disembarked at the bus stop closest to the tomb. The only other person who got off at this stop was a lady who looked to be heading home. In the 1980’s lines of people would queue to visit Tito’s tomb. The day I visited, no one else was around. The only people I saw on the property either worked at the ticket booth, mausoleum or museum. The Yugoslav Wars and the resulting disintegration of Yugoslavia had sent visitation plummeting. The tomb was closed for many years and when it reopened, Tito was no longer popular. The memory of the man was intertwined with the failure of Yugoslavia as a state, even if it that failure took place long after he died.

House of Flowers - The tomb of Josip Broz Tito

House of Flowers – The tomb of Josip Broz Tito (Credit: Clay Gilliland)

Reflections – Tito Is Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia Is Tito
An air of indifference hung heavy over the complex where his tomb lays. At one time it housed the Museum of Yugoslav History, displaying over 200,000 items in its collection. All the old exhibits were shelved after Yugoslavia collapsed. This part of the complex was now used as a gallery to display local artwork. The area around the tomb did have exhibitions that were linked to Tito. The most interesting of which was a collection of batons. These were part of a relay that would take place each year leading up to May 25th, Tito’s birthday. The batons were carried on mountaintops, swum across lakes and handled by parachutists jumping out of planes, among other displays of undying devotion to Marshal Tito. Tito was treated with the utmost reverence. In retrospect, these accolades were well deserved. He was the single irreplaceable figure in Yugoslavia. It is no exaggeration to say that without him the country would collapse, because that is precisely what happened.

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers (Credit: Ferran Cornellà)

Visiting the tomb meant I was paying respect to both Tito and the ideal embodiment of Yugoslavia. Here was the final resting place of the man whose persona reflected a nation. I actually found the setting a beautiful place to mourn. Tito’s wish was to be buried here. For a man who was at best a benevolent dictator, at worst an iron fisted demagogue, the House of Flowers gives his legacy a veneer of refinement. The tomb is set in polished marble with lush plants around three sides of it. The setting is peaceful and stately, worthy of an exalted head of state.

It was a worthy place to bury a deeply flawed, but great man. Only later did I discover that Tito is not actually buried in the tomb. His remains lie in a nearby flower garden. Thus visitors pay their respects at a tomb without Tito, to a nation that no longer exists. It is a fitting final commentary on a man who spent his life holding Yugoslavia together and whose death ultimately led to its dissolution.



The Unvisited – Georgi Dimitrov’s Missing Mausoleum In Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #8)

After tourists visit a city, they usually come home excited to share stories about the sites they have seen. Conversely, they sometimes regret not seeing everything a city has to offer. My experience in Sofia was quite the opposite. After arriving back home, I was excited about a site that I had not visited. My regret came from the fact that it was impossible to visit this site, for the precise reason that it no longer existed. The site was the once infamous and now vanished Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum. For over forty years, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians, along with dignitaries and tourists from Eastern Bloc nations, filed past the body of Bulgaria’s most famous communist leader. In a setting that mirrored Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, Dimitrov’s pale faced, waxen figure was on display for everyone to see. Whether a Bulgarian revered or loathed his memory was beside the point, each one of them at some point in his or her life was expected to pay their respects to Comrade Dimitrov. The mausoleum stood on what was then 9 September Square, so named because that was the date when a communist coup took place in Sofia, liberating it from the fascists and beginning the imposition of communism. Until 1990 Dimitrov lay in the white marble, neoclassical style mausoleum as a representation of the totalitarian system that had transformed Bulgaria. After the Iron Curtain fell his body was removed. Dimitrov’s expulsion did not herald the immediate end of the mausoleum. Instead it had a long and infamous afterlife prior to demolition several years later. Bringing down the mausoleum turned out to be much more difficult than constructing it.

The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum - stood in Sofia from 1949 to 1999

The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum – stood in Sofia from 1949 to 1999

Deifying A Dictator – Preserving Dimitrov
The death of Georgi Dimitrov was just as rapid and improbable as the construction of his mausoleum. In the summer of 1949 Dimitrov suddenly became ill while in Moscow. He had just turned 67 and there had been no previous signs of failing health. Nonetheless, his condition quickly worsened and on July 2nd he unexpectedly died at a sanatorium outside the city. Speculation has been rife ever since that Dimitrov was poisoned by Stalin, ostensibly because he had once been a close ally of Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito. Two years earlier these authoritarian rulers had been on the verge of creating an alliance between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Tito soon fell out with Stalin and later with Dimitrov. The Tito-Dimitrov split mattered little to Stalin. His paranoia was such that he could not stomach any leader of a Soviet satellite state making an alliance without his approval. Tito had become a sworn enemy of Stalin and Dimitrov had once been close to him. This guilt by association may have led to Dimitro’s death.

Dimitrov’s sudden death came as a dramatic shock to Bulgarians. The government quickly convened and decided that the grand statesman of Bulgarian communism must be deified. A mausoleum would be built to house Dimitrov’s embalmed body. This would mirror what had been done in the Soviet Union with Lenin. The government decreed that the mausoleum must be constructed immediately. This led to a herculean effort. In just six days a monumental work was erected. It would later be reinforced to the point that it could survive a nuclear war with secret tunnels underneath it that were connected to the Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters. The marble mausoleum was built to stay, but keeping Dimitrov on permanent display was highly problematic and labor intensive. The body required the care of four full time physicians who would totally refurbish it every year and a half. It was encased in a temperature and humidity controlled glass sarcophagus. Though the mausoleum was constructed to endure a nuclear conflagration, Dimitrov’s body was to be evacuated in the event of a conventional war.

A Cult Symbol of Bulgarian Communism - The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in 1969

A Cult Symbol of Bulgarian Communism – The Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in 1969 (Credit: Angela Monika Arnold)

The End Of An Afterlife – Rubble & Dust At The Heart of Sofia
Throughout his long afterlife Dimitrov became less of a dead man and more a symbol for the regime. There was something ghoulish about his deification that defied human dignity. What exactly was the point of keeping Dimitrov alive in death? It was as though the communists believed that his continued presence justified their creaking, ossified system. This frightening set piece at the heart of Sofia was front and center during every ideological extravaganza. Among the viewers were wide eyed school children who shuffled past in silent awe.  In 1989 the communist system in Bulgaria collapsed. The following year Dimitrov’s corpse was removed from the mausoleum, cremated and buried in the Sofia city cemetery. His long and public afterlife had finally ended, but the same could not be said for the mausoleum which would stand for another nine years.

There were varying opinions of what should be done with it. Some thought that the mausoleum should be kept as a reminder, a sort of living museum of what had transpired in the country for two generations. Others wanted it totally destroyed with the residue of communism swept away once and for all. Still another group thought it should be preserved as a symbol of Dimitrov’s positive legacy, whatever that was supposed to be. In the meantime, the neoclassical tomb became among other things, the setting for rock concerts and a pissoir for a public lavatory. Vandals defaced it with graffiti. Finally, in 1999 the government then in power decided to demolish the structure because it was a symbol of past tyranny. The demolition should have been simple, but soon turned into a farce. The first three attempts were unsuccessful. Over a thousand kilograms of explosives did little more than cause the mausoleum to tilt lopsided. It ended up taking more days to demolish, than to build. A decision was made that rather than one large detonation, to try a more methodical dismantling. This fourth attempt proved successful. The most enduring symbol of communism in Sofia was soon turned to rubble and then dust.

Life After Death - Georgi Dimitrov Mausoluem before its destruction in the 1990s

Life After Death – Georgi Dimitrov Mausoluem before its destruction in the 1990s

Without a Trace – Standing In Place Of The Past
Today the former site of Georgi Dimitrov’s Mausoleum is part of the renamed Prince Alexander of Battenburg Square. During my visit I strolled across this square totally oblivious to its former centrality in the life of every Bulgarian. If only I would have known about the mausoleum. I could have stood in the exact same place and contemplated what it must have been like not so long ago. Then again recreating that history would have been difficult, since a café and parking lot now stand on the very spot.