Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tito's two-day resurrection

This week I was reminded of perhaps the most bizarre thing to have happened in Serbia in the last couple of decades: Marshal Tito came back to life. Well, sort of. Allow me to explain.

In 1994, in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars, a man dressed as Tito claimed to have been resurrected for two days to see "what's going on in Belgrade." B-92, one of the only media outlets during the '90s not controlled by the government, coordinated the prank and intended to make a comical documentary about it. Perhaps this in itself seems strange, but the truly incomprehensible part was the public's reaction to the fake Tito. Although intended as a joke, it was taken very seriously by a large number of Serbs. Many people believed he was real or, at the very least, they didn't make light of this staged resurrection. They took pride in shaking his hand, they followed him around the streets of Belgrade, they asked for his signature, they serenaded him with Tito-era music, they addressed him in the first person, and they engaged him in genuine conversation about the state of affairs. Some praised him for his leadership, some blamed him for the breakup of Yugoslavia, some complained to him about Milosevic's regime, some claimed Milosevic was a better leader, some asked him if he was back to unite Yugoslavia, and some shared very personal anecdotes about how their lives had changed for the worse since he had died. Many became emotional as they described Tito's Yugoslavia overcharged with nostalgia. One man said poetically, "You were everything for us; you used to warm us like the sun."

How were the Serbs not in on the joke? On the most superficial level, the fairly young actor posing as Tito didn't even look much him save his build. This incident demonstrates how totally out of touch some Belgradians were in '94. They had been fed so much bogus from the censored news that they were at a loss for what to think. This deep-seated disillusionment led them to suspend their disbelief and buy into an impossible notion. The documentarians surely edited out some infidels, but it's extraordinary how much material they were able to gather with this poser surrounded by scores of people actively engaging with him.

As promised, B-92 made a documentary about this entitled "Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time." Here's a clip with subtitles:

Interspersed with clips of Tito's staged resurrection are snippets of the real Tito and of the then-current war in Bosnia. This links to the whole documentary (without subtitles) and if you go to 14:03 you'll see a brief clip of a bridge collapsing in Sarajevo due to shelling by Serbs.

In a post-production interview, the film-maker shared an anecdote that explains how deep this mayhem ran. As he tells it, the crowds became so massive that the police had to intervene. A police officer told the cameraman that he had to clear out, and as the cameraman started to tap the fake Tito on the shoulder to tell him they had to leave, the officer said, "No, leave him out of it." Even the police didn't seem to get it.

This experiment reminds me of how politicians will sometimes cite past conflicts to galvanize the public's emotions; they'll use dormant grievances to twist thoughts. For instance, Milosevic's "legendary field of Kosovo" speech marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Ultimately, this documentary goes to show how manipulation of the past can assume an unbelievable, even frightening momentum. And that's something I think we ought to be very wary about, especially as tensions escalate in the Balkans over the refugee crisis.


  1. "This links to the whole documentary (without subtitles) and if you go to 14:03 you'll see a brief clip of a bridge collapsing in Sarajevo due to shelling by Serbs."

    No, that is the famous bridge in Mostar, and it was destroyed by the Croats during the Croat-Muslim war. It was later rebuilt with Turkish funds.
    You really should do more research before you falsely accuse Serbs of things.

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stari_Most

    Stari Most (English: Old Bridge) is a reconstruction of a 16th-century Ottoman bridge in the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina that crosses the river Neretva and connects two parts of the city. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years, until it was destroyed on 9 November 1993 by Croat forces during the Croat–Bosniak War. Subsequently, a project was set in motion to reconstruct it, and the rebuilt bridge opened on 23 July 2004.