A Dead Dictator, His Rusting Boat and a Fight for History

In a Croatian port sits a boat built to carry bananas from Africa to Italy, that laid mines for Nazi Germany and was sunk by Allied planes before it was salvaged as the personal yacht of a globe-trotting communist leader.

Josip Broz Tito and the state he led – Yugoslavia – have long passed into history, and the boat, the Galeb (Seagull), was left to rust in a corner of Rijeka’s once mighty docks.

Now, with Rijeka readying to become European Capital of Culture in 2020, city authorities have secured European Union money to restore the 117-meter (384-feet) boat as a museum, just as debate in Croatia rages over the life and deeds of the man who graced the pink mattress in the front port-side cabin.

If the Galeb was a symbol of Tito’s prestige on the world stage – a communist leader welcome in ports West as well as East – its restoration is part of Croatia’s own tortured process of reconciliation with its 20th century history.

Villain to some, hero to others

To conservatives in Croatia, Tito – who was born in what is today Croatia to a Croat father and Slovene mother – was a totalitarian dictator: to look fondly on him means to be nostalgic for a shared federal state that denied Croats their own until they forged one in a 1991-95 war.

Liberals, however, recall his guerrilla fight against the Nazis and the relative freedom and prosperity of Yugoslavs compared to those who lived in the Soviet Union or in its shadow.

They see in the disdain of conservatives a thinly veiled fondness for the World War II Croatian state that collaborated with the Nazis but was snuffed out with Tito’s Partisan victory – sentiment that has gained a foothold in mainstream Croatian

politics in recent years.

It is a tug-of-war over history and identity that was encapsulated this month in the renaming by Zagreb’s city council of the capital’s Marshal Tito Square to Republic of Croatia square.

Days later, the government ordered the removal of a plaque near the site of a World War II concentration camp that bore a notorious slogan associated with the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia.

“We live in a time when history is being reinvented retroactively,” said Ivan Sarar, who as head of culture at Rijeka’s city council is in charge of its 2020 makeover.

“It’s interesting that just by undertaking this [restoration] we have already been declared revisionists,” he told Reuters.

‘Quasi-cultural exhibitionism’

After years of false-starts, work on restoring the Galeb is imminent – “a mammoth, multi-million-euro task to recreate the 1950s chic of Tito’s floating palace, host to over 100 heads of state and some of Hollywood’s finest.

Some of the furniture remains – in Tito’s cabin, his turquoise-tiled bathroom and the adjacent salon with doors that open to the deck. But the ship itself is little more than a rotting hull.

The Galeb was the stage for Tito’s major contribution to history, said Sarar, a showcase for the non-aligned movement he helped found in answer to the East-West polarization of the Cold War.

But Sarar stressed: “We won’t be soft on anyone.”

He noted Tito’s cosy ties with dictators around the world, the exodus of Italian residents of Rijeka when he took the city as part of Yugoslavia, and his denial of democracy during 35 years of one-man rule until his death in 1980. Yugoslavia fell apart in war a decade later and some 135,000 people were killed.

It was Tito’s seizure of Rijeka and the Istrian peninsula that cemented his status in this part of Croatia as a liberator.

Dozens of streets in Istria still bear his name, as do others in the Balkans – most notably in Serbia, once the dominant republic in Yugoslavia.

Conservatives, however, struck a blow with the renaming of Zagreb’s Marshal Tito Square, part of a deal struck by the mayor to secure his majority in the city assembly.

The man behind the initiative, leading right-wing politician Zlatko Hasanbegovic, told Reuters that while Tito was “undeniably a significant historical figure,” so were Napoleon, Stalin and Lenin.

“In all countries, streets and squares bear the names of those who embody the values with which the entire nation identifies itself,” he said, describing the restoration of the Galeb as part of an attempt to revive the cult of Tito.

“Those insisting on it should ask themselves how the tens of thousands of victims of Yugoslav communism look on that kind of quasi-cultural exhibitionism.”

In Rijeka, Sarar denied planning any kind of homage to Tito.

“We want to create a place for dialogue, away from the current situation of extreme black, white and red truths that lead nowhere,” he said. “It’s bound to be difficult.”

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