Tracing Tito’s legacy in Zagreb

I’m not sure how I had truly imagined an activity about Josip Broz Tito would be, but there are only two people waiting for the guide beside me. Both of them are Croatians, and when the guide arrives, the first thing she does is ask me to pay her the twenty euros fee in cash. No one else shows up, and she begins to explain, all in English so that I understand, that the Meštrović Pavilion became a mosque during Ante Pavelić’s puppet Nazi government. The three imposing 45-meter-high minarets the dictator had built around the pavilion would later be demolished by Tito’s government, which converted the pavilion into a museum of the socialist revolution. Today, it serves as the headquarters of the Croatian Artists’ Union.

The path leads us through streets in Zagreb that I’ve already had time to walk before the tour; the guide details where and how the anti-fascist militants and partisans were tortured by the Ustaša during World War Two, which lends itself to a quite interesting conversation about the collaborative role played by a significant part of the civilian population. Both the guide and the other woman listening to the tour, a lady in her sixties who also works as a tourist guide in a smaller town in Croatia, point out that the post-Yugoslav Croatian governments have tried to convey the idea that the entire Croatian population was united against fascism, a notion undoubtedly flawed in light of images showing crowds saluting Nazi troops while entering Zagreb in 1941. The guide also tells me the cathedral is completely covered in scaffolding and cannot be visited since the 2020 earthquake.

Dinamo de Zagreb’s “fan shop”.

I come across a big Dinamo Zagreb store, which is conveniently located in the city center; in fact, the popularity of football in Croatia cannot be underestimated. The Croatian national team has achieved two consecutive podiums in the last editions of men’s football World Cup, and footballers like Luka Modrić are revered throughout the country, something that is also evident in souvenir shops. In Ban Jelačić Square, the guide explains that the person it is named after is considered a national hero in Croatia for his role in the 1848 revolution, although his figure was somewhat controversial in socialist Yugoslavia and has remained so to this day. During the socialist era, Jelačić’s colossal statue was removed from the square, and it was renamed Republic Square because Jelačić was seen as a traitor and a foreign agent who allied with the Austrian monarchy against Hungary. While explaining how, with the advent of democracy, Croatia rehabilitated Jelačić’s image to present him as a national hero, the guide takes the opportunity to criticize Zelenski, blaming him for, unlike Tito, not fighting on the battlefield, and “only appearing on TV”.

We stroll through sunny Zagreb, and the other man that’s on the walk approaches me, asking me where I’m from. He recommends that I go visit other cities. When I mention that I’m only here for a day and not even staying overnight, he encourages me to come on another occasion and explore the southern cities (Split, Zadar, Dubrovnik), which are, and I quote, ‘more Venetian.’ That’s actually quite true; although Zagreb is undoubtedly very appealing and enjoyable to visit, its imperial architecture doesn’t differ too much from Vienna’s. Being well-maintained and preserved, it lacks that shroud of decay you see in Eastern European cities like Bratislava or Budapest, which is something positive, I guess, but also makes it somehow less interesting.

We arrive at the monument to the Baković sisters, where the guide stops to explain their story, although I conclude that the other two people already know it quite well, so the guide is speaking exclusively to me. Well, these are two iconic figures from Zagreb’s labor movement who helped spread anti-Nazi propaganda among the partisans fighting against Ante Pavelić; both of them ended up being arrested: Rajka was tortured and murdered, and Zdenka committed suicide by throwing herself from the prison window. The monument that commemorates them is austere and elegant: two busts with their effigy on the wall, where people have also placed some wreaths of flowers. Right afterwards, next to the National Theater, a neoclassical building in yellow tones, the guide sadly tells us that the square where we are standing used to be called Marshal Tito Square, but in 2017, the mayor of Zagreb decided (against the wishes of the population, it seems, from her undertone) to rename it as Republic of Croatia Square.

After this two-hour immersion into deep Yugo-nostalgia, we’re finally at the final stop of the tour, facing the State Archives of Croatia and enjoying a pleasant midday sun. Finally, the guide delights us with an exposition about the excesses of repression and censorship in socialist Yugoslavia. As she explains, Tito was already convinced of the malevolence of Stalinism after his trip to Moscow in 1935. Consequently, he built a regime directly opposed to the Soviet Union, and Stalinists were censored or sent to Goli Otok as political prisoners working 12-hours a day on forced labor—a form of censorship that inevitably affected individuals with no connection to Stalinism. To wrap things up, the guide shares an hilarious anecdote I already knew, which claims that, after several assassination attempts by Soviet agents, Tito supposedly sent Stalin a passive-aggressive letter with the following warning: “Stop sending us assassins. We’ve already captured five. If we catch one more, I’ll personally send one to Moscow. And I assure you, no more will need to be sent.” We say goodbye and I continue strolling through Zagreb.

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