Central & Eastern Europe / History / Popular Culture

Dropping the baton: Tito, youth culture and the Slovene syndrome

Tito’s cult of personality prevailed for a few years following his death in May 1980. By the end of the decade, however, this legacy was in a serious state of dissipation.

Poster for Novi Rock festival, Ljubljana 1982 (featuring two punks photo by Zvone Drušković). Stray Satellite archive.

“Traditionally, Tito’s relationship with the nation’s youth was given ritual shape by the annual celebration of Youth Day (Dan mladosti), which fell on Tito’s official birthday of May 25. Featuring folk dances, military bands and pop-rock performers, it was one of the most anticipated live TV broadcasts of the year.“

My first intimate encounter with Yugoslav politics was when walking behind a group of local teenagers in Trogir in 1985. One of them was carrying a small rucksack on which she had written, in felt pen, the words “Sex Pistols”, “The Doors”, and “Tito”, followed by a five-pointed star.

This strange juxtaposition did not appear incongruous at the time. Tito was a man of many parts, an authoritarian leader who enjoyed luxury living but who had also been a man of action: a Partisan, an anti-Stalinist, an anti-imperialist who had demonstrated that a non-aligned movement could exist outside the blocs. Drawn up alongside Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten, Tito arguably had the better claim to be an icon. 

Having ruled more or less unchallenged as leader of Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death on May 4 1980, Tito had accrued the kind of personality cult that other East European leaders could only dream of. It was a cult that extended beyond the grave.

Tito left a Yugoslavia beset by financial crisis and high unemployment, but without a clear successor. The country was largely in the hands of grey politicians who hid behind impenetrably wordy policy documents and collective decisions. Without Tito, there was little to bind this uninspiring ruling caste to its people. “And after Tito – Tito!” (“I posle Tita – Tito!”) was the slogan that appeared almost as soon as the man’s funeral was over.

Tito’s popularity with young people was genuine and widespread (although far from universal), and it left a significant mark on popular culture. One of the most popular rock-pop songs of the early Eighties was Count on Us (Računajte na nas) by Novi Sad band Rani Mraz, released in 1979 and much quoted during and after his final illness. “Some may think we are carried by the wrong flow/Because we listen to records and play rock and roll” (Sumnjaju neki da nosi nas pogrešan tok/Jer slušamo ploče i sviramo rok) went the refrain, driving home the message that electric guitars and denim jeans were by no means incompatible with Titoist idealism. The song was written by Đorđe Balašević, who went on to become an “urban chansonnier” (his own words) of great poetic subtlety, delivering social criticism as well as wistful balladeering. Another song that served as soundtrack to the immediate post-Tito years was Comrade Tito We Pledge Ourselves to You (Druže Tito mi ti se kunemo), a song which had its origins in the Partisan period but which became a radio hit when covered by pop heartthrob Zdravko Čolić in 1977. Re-released in spring 1980 when Tito was already in hospital, it went on to sell over 300,000 copies.

Far from pledging themselves to Tito however, the youth of Yugoslavia spent the 1980s becoming increasingly indifferent to the old man’s heritage. The country’s economic malaise, accentuated by political paralysis, engendered either disinterest and detachment, or new forms of social activism that had no further need for the Tito cult. Ironically, this rapid decline in political deference was to a large extent nurtured by the Titoist state itself.  Most of the youth publications and cultural manifestations in communist Yugoslavia were paid for by the Yugoslav League of Socialist Youth (Savez socijalističke omladine Jugoslavije or SSOJ), an organization that served as the youth wing of the party and a transmission belt for state propaganda. It administered all manner of youth-related events and served as something of a playground for ambitious young politicians. As with almost every other socio-political institution in Yugoslavia, the League had a branch in each of the federation’s six republics and two autonomous provinces, many of which grew increasingly independent from the centre as the Eighties wore on.   

Initially intended to fulfill an agit-prop function, the magazines published by the Youth League also dealt with fashion, pop culture and rock, and had by the early Eighties had become the main conduits for the punk and new wave trends then sweeping the country. Weeklies such as Polet in Zagreb and Val in Rijeka increasingly looked like Yugoslav versions of the NME, with grainy rock pics on the front cover and band interviews inside. The youth press increasingly became a school for independent journalism, too, finding subtle ways to criticize the status quo without bringing down the wrath of their political superiors. Polet was reined in in 1981, and it was the Slovene Youth League’s weekly Mladina (simply, “Youth”) that went on to play a crucial role in breaking down taboos and challenging the authority of the party.

At the beginning of the decade, Mladina was as loyal a Titoist publication as any other. “Tito, we believe in your vital power” (Tito, verjamemo v tvojo življenjsko moč) was the headline on February 21 1980, when the ailing president was expected to croak at any moment. By 1987 it had become the most irreverent, outspoken, and widely quoted magazine in the whole of Yugoslavia. Its official publisher the Youth League allowed it free editorial rein; the local communist party had all but given up any attempt to keep it under control. 


Traditionally, Tito’s relationship with the nation’s youth was given ritual shape by the annual celebration of Youth Day (Dan mladosti), which fell on Tito’s “official” birthday of May 25. Tito’s actual birthday was on May 7; the new date was chosen because it was on May 25 1944 that Tito survived a German parachute attack on his partisan headquarters at Drvar. Youth Day was celebrated with an evening display of music, marching and mass calisthenics at the Yugoslav People’s Army Stadium in Belgrade. The choreography was relatively simple, designed to be performed by kids from all over Yugoslavia rather than by trained sportspeople. With crowds of participants massing to form different shapes out on the pitch, however, it was frequently an impressive spectacle. Backed by a variety-show mixture of folk music, military bands and pop-rock performers, it was one of the most anticipated live TV broadcasts of the year.

Providing the event with an almost regal degree of ceremonial was the delivery to Tito of a special baton or štafeta, which had been carried the length and breadth of Yugoslavia by a relay of runners in the run-up to the day itself. A different štafeta was designed every year - many of these totemic objects still grace the display cabinets of the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade.

Although considered tasteless by many of Tito’s contemporaries, the presentation of the štafeta was regarded as an unavoidable component of the leader’s cult. Once the man himself was no longer on hand to receive the štafeta, however, the Youth Day celebrations took on a more mawkish aspect, in which the nation’s youth was symbolically rededicated to a leader already in the grave. 

In 1983 the stadium show was widely ridiculed for taking the Tito cult too far. The late president’s portrait was projected onto expanded polystyrene clouds, making him look like some kind of deity. The script for 1984 envisaged the building of a railway into the stadium so that an actor dressed as Tito could enter in a mock-up of the “Blue Train” - the liveried carriages used by Tito when travelling by rail. The idea was dropped due to fears that it would subject Youth Day to even further mockery. In the end, the main theme of the 1984 ceremony turned out to be rock music, with the opening song-and-dance sequence prefaced by a girl painting a white guitar on a red board. “Why are we so connected to rock and roll?” asked RTV Belgrade’s commentator. “The answer is clear: it is the music of our generation, our way of life!’

While the content of the stadium show was agreed by federal youth functionaries and media professionals (it was, after all, a TV show), the štafeta relay was organized by a different branch of the Youth League each year. In 1987 it would be the turn of the Slovenes. Given that the whole concept of the štafeta was the subject of increasing criticism in the northern republic, the idea that Slovenia would have a deciding role in the ceremony was an unnerving prospect for many. 

Congress at Krško

In April 1986 the Slovene branch of the Socialist Youth League (Zveza socialistične mladine Slovenije or ZSMS) had totally revamped its programme at a congress in the town of Krško, slewing off its role as a mere transmission belt for party policy and becoming a political actor in its own right. The congress embraced “new social movements” such as environmentalism, gay rights, feminism, pacifism, and other forms of civic activism that did not always find a natural home within the Yugoslav League of Communists. The congress called for an end to the death penalty, the introduction of a civil alternative to military service, the legalization of strikes, and a non-nuclear energy policy.

All of this was pretty revolutionary for communist Yugoslavia, and the congress was met with a wave of official condemnation. The idea of changing the rules on military service was seen as a veiled attack on the Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslavenska narodna armija or JNA), an organization traditionally considered to be one of the sacrosanct pillars of the Yugoslav state.

The Slovene communist party nevertheless seemed prepared to accept the Slovene Youth League’s new role, allowing it to develop as a forum for new ideas. To more conservative communists outside Slovenia this was a potentially dangerous heresy, with the Slovene branch of the Youth League becoming a source of opposition to the party rather than a loyal and subservient ally.

One of the things called for by the Krško congress was an end to the ban on Slovene rock group Laibach, who had been prevented from performing after a succession of scandals in 1983. Formed in the industrial town of Trbovlje in 1980, the band were abrasively avant-garde, producing slabs of guttural noise over which military-uniformed front-man Tomaž Hostnik declaimed what seemed like manifestoes, in the manner of some post-punk Marinetti.

It was Laibach’s use of German that really raised hackles. Laibach was itself the German name for Ljubljana, and most of the group’s posters were daubed with German slogans. Exhibitions of their artwork were advertised under the name “Laibach Kunst”.  This identification with Teutonic Central Europe (and the dark historical associations that went with it) seemed to be a deliberate rejection of Yugoslavia’s anti-Nazi traditions, and Slovenia’s place within it.

Even though Slovene musical culture was by now accustomed to the confrontational aesthetics of punk and post-punk, Laibach still went too far for some tastes. When they played at the 1982 edition of Novi Rock, an annual showcase for the best new bands, Tomaž Hostnik got a bottle in the face. Hostnik commited suicide in 1982 but the band quickly regrouped, enrolling a new vocalist in Vlatko Fras, whose distinctive bass growl has been their trademark ever since.

Laibach Kunst

It was Laibach’s appearance at the Music Biennale in Croatian capital Zagreb in April 1983 (when they appeared alongside 23 Skidoo and Last Few Days) that catapulted them into the realm of true scandal. Laibach’s video projections juxtaposed porn films with socialist parades, including footage of former leader Tito. Police arrived to pull the plug. Political functionaries in Zagreb made complaints to their counterparts in Slovenia, essentially asking why this bunch of delinquents was still at liberty to play.

Slovene TV decided to investigate the Laibach phenomenon with an interview that was aired on June 23. It made for strange, unsettling viewing. Presenter Jure Pengov asked the questions; he didn’t get any straight answers. An invisible spokesman read out art-theoretical statements in response, while the band themselves, clad in what looked like uniforms, stared at the camera.

Memories were still fresh of the Nazi-Punk Affair of November 1981, when Slovene newspaper Nedeljski dnevnik had accused the local punk scene of being a front for the far right. Although this attempt to launch a witch-hunt badly misfired (most of Slovenia’s intellectual community came out in punk’s support), a residue of popular suspicion still remained. Maybe these weird musicians on the TV really were Nazis after all?

Accused of being a danger to socialist society, Laibach were banned from live performance. They kept busy, however. 1984 saw the foundation of Neue Slowenische Kunst or NSK, a collective that included Laibach, the visual arts group IRWIN, the theatre group Sisters of Scipion Nasice, and the graphic design studio Novi kolektivizem or NK, in which members of both IRWIN and Laibach were involved. Laibach in the meantime toured abroad, released records on western labels, and collaborated with British dancer and choreographer Michael Clarke. They also provided the rushing, clanking and at times anthemic soundtrack to the Sisters of Scipion Nasice’s production Baptism Beneath Triglav (Krst pod Triglavom), an audio-visual reworking of Slovene national identity that became a critical and popular success in early 1986.  In many ways Bapitism introduced the wider Slovene public to NSK and rendered them an acceptable part of the national culture; discussion of their work – and what it might mean – was no longer limited to Mladina and the youth press.

Laibach fanzine; Ljubljana 1983]

By the time the Slovene Youth League adopted the band’s cause in April 1986, Laibach were the most notorious band in Yugoslavia and also one of the most admired, a successful cultural export that, to western Europeans at least, looked more like an advertisement for the country than a challenge to its ethos.  Much of Slovenia’s intellectual cream (Tomaž Mastnak, Rastko Močnik and Slavoj Žižek among them) had produced reams of articles in support of Laibach since their concert ban, arguing that the group’s provocations were simply a mirror to the repressive reflexes of a politically exhausted establishment.

By the end of 1986 the attention was drifting back to the question of Youth Day, and whether the manifestation needed to be revamped in order to reflect a changing society marked by economic crisis, youth unemployment and growing political turbulence. Slovene youth officials saw the choreographed mass-participation of the ceremony as an anachronistic hangover from the socialist-realist epoch, whose logic of mass mobilization actually ran counter to the creed of self-managing socialism that was widely hailed as Yugoslavia’s hallmark.

The Ljubljana University branch of the Youth League had already declared itself in favour of cancelling the štafeta outright, and had come up with some pretty radical alternatives – how about a march of the unemployed, or a demonstration against militarism? On December 10 1986 Ljubljana students set up a stall on the city’s Plečnikov trg to publicize a petition against the relay. They also displayed a four-metre tree trunk, carved to look like a gargantuan parody of the štafeta. Newspapers throughout Yugoslavia went ballistic; the štafeta was a symbol of the Brotherhood and Unity of the Yugoslav peoples, and to make fun of it was an attack on the state itself.  The leadership of the Slovene Youth League were actually inclined to go ahead with the štafeta, but wanted to modernize the way in which the relay stages were actually handled, turning the hand-over ceremonies into celebrations of alternative creativity and social initiatives rather than propagandistic celebrations of the Tito cult.

There was a growing sense that Slovenia was Yugoslavia’s problem-republic; talk of a “Slovene Syndrome” began to circulate in sectors of the press who increasingly saw the alpine republic as a veritable factory of subversive opinions. It was in February 1987 that things came to a head. The month began with the publication by intellectual journal Nova Revija of a special issue entitled Contributions to a Slovene National Programme (Prispevki za slovenski nacionalni program) in which an impressive roster of cultural figures gave their views on how the republic should redefine its relations with the rest of the Yugoslav federation. The publication attracted the expected criticism for undermining the fundamentals of the Yugoslav system, but the Slovene communist party’s response was unexpectedly mild, criticizing the content of the publication but in effect saying that society was mature enough to make up its own mind.

The Poster Affair

At the end of February 1987, a much bigger scandal erupted around the Slovene Youth League’s plans for the štafeta. The design of the poster for the event had been entrusted to NSK’s graphic design group Novi kolektivizem or NK, which comprised IRWIN’s Roman Uranjek and Miran Mohar, Laibach’s Dejan Knez, and graphic artist Darko Pokorn. What they came up with was an image of a muscular male nude carrying a Yugoslav banner in one hand and a torch (based on Ljubljana architect Jože Plečnik’s never-executed design for a Slovene Acropolis) in the other. Slovenia’s landmark alpine peak, Mount Triglav, loomed grainily in the background.

When the design was presented by Roman Uranjek to a meeting of the federal Youth League in Belgrade on February 25, reactions were positive. Uranjek told the meeting that the design referenced the graphic art of the Partisan movement and the socialist-realist style of the immediate post-war years. His audience clearly saw the poster as a successful exercise in retro chic. One JNA general told Uranjek that he was relieved that the poster featured a recognizably masculine figure rather than some modish abstract composition.

Youth Day poster 1987 (Novi kolektivizem)

Once accepted, the design was published in Belgrade daily Politika the following day. Which is where it was spotted by history buff Nikola Grujić, who just happened to have seen the poster’s male figure somewhere before. NK had taken it from a work by Nazi artist Richard Klein, painted some fifty years earlier. Grujić had seen it reproduced in AJP Taylor’s book From Sarajevo to Potsdam, a copy of which he had at home.

Once out in the open, the poster was condemned by media throughout Yugoslavia. Most people considered it an unforgivable act of subversion aimed against Youth Day and, by extension, socialist Yugoslavia itself. Quoted in Politika on March 2, the federal Youth League’s general secretary, the Macedonian delegate Aco Kocevski described the poster as a “hostile act which goes against the foundations of our society”; views which were echoed by League president Hashim Rexhepi in party newspaper Borba the following day.

The leadership of the Slovene Youth League under Tone Anderlič felt that the real target of criticism was not so much the poster as Slovenia’s political direction. However neither Anderlič, nor Slovenia’s communist leader Milan Kučan could afford to risk a major rift with federal institutions. Withdrawal of the Slovene Youth League from the organization of the štafeta would be a disaster for Slovenian prestige. The Slovene youth leadership disowned NK’s artwork (“we didn’t know where the design came from” was their only, and probably honest, excuse), in order to more robustly defend the other aspects of their platform.

The initial response of NK themselves was to argue that re-use of a Nazi image did not make the resulting poster a Nazi work.  Other aspects of the poster were taken from non-Nazi sources, they pointed out. The typeface, spelling out the words “Dan mladosti” or “Youth Day” at the base of the poster, had been taken from clandestine Partisan newspaper Slovenski poročevalec. This was entirely in keeping with what they called the “Retro Principle”, juxtaposing motifs from historical sources in order to create a new context.

As was so often the case with members of NSK, an interview with Novi kolektivizem published in Mladina on March 13 relied on Sphinx-like riddles rather than clear answers. In a way these riddles were a means of survival: if NK had said openly what they really thought about Youth Day, criminal proceedings would have come sooner rather than later. “The retrogarde artist researches the historical presence of art and considers past models in order to build a complete awareness of the dialectical development of art and culture” they explained. “The posters of Novi kolektivizem express the planetary will to liberation from repression, through the juxtaposition of symbols…. It often happens, however, that the viewer is attracted to one of the symbols and repelled by its counterpoint.”

Nowadays NK are slightly more forthcoming. The collective’s Roman Uranjek had this to say while I was preparing this article. “We were not interested in the ridiculous side of Youth Day, but in the absurd ritual of honouring a dead president who was also a totalitarian. We worked according to the method of the Retro Principle, where we mixed different totalitarianisms together, because both Fascism and Stalinism shared a common glorification of the cult of personality.”

However widely NK’s motives were understood at the time, the Slovene cultural community were quick to jump to their defence. A round table organized by Radio Študent and Mladina (published in Mladina on March 13) was typical of many debates of the time in that it regarded the reactions of the Yugoslav media as being far more dangerous than anything contained in the poster itself.

NK were iconoclasts, and iconoclasm had become necessary in a system that had become sterile.

By late May 1987, Yugoslavia’s chief prosecutor had eventually concluded that action should be taken against members of NK for harming the image of the Yugoslav federation. The Slovene prosecutor’s office declined to take the recommended action, a show of independence that demonstrated once again the limits of federal authority. 

In the meantime, the štafeta set off as usual from Mount Triglav on March 21, arriving in Belgrade on May 25 where it was handed over to federal Youth League president Hashim Rexhepi. It was an oddly hybrid celebration, featuring as usual children from all over Yugoslavia, JNA conscripts, stars of the rock-pop world, and some unusually jarring references to Yugoslavia’s ongoing politico-economic crisis. In an opening performance of the traditional round-dance known as the kolo, the massed dancers split up into eight groups (symbolizing Yugoslavia’s republics and autonomous provinces) before gradually joining up again, as if to suggest that Yugoslavs will always come together when the going gets tough. The male-female duo delivering the TV commentary didn’t appear to know the script: “why are we dancing eight different dances?” asked the male. “It’s a warning about the current situation” came the answer from his colleague.

In 1988 the štafeta was due to be organized by the Vojvodina branch of the Youth League. Sharing many of the views that had been expressed by Slovene youth leaders the year before, the Vojvodina team decided to drop the štafeta completely. The relay was never held again. Youth Day itself went ahead as usual, but with performances that suggested the spectacle had finally received the overhaul its critics had sought. The final sequence, conceived by choreographer Damir Zlatar Frey (who had, incidentally, worked with Laibach on his Metastaze project in 1985), and the Zagreb-based Italian theatre director Paolo Magelli, featured an extraordinary, flowing, torchlight procession held in a blacked-out stadium. An introductory speech dedicated the performance not to Tito, or Brotherhood and Unity, but to “Meyerhold, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mayakovsky, Rosa Luxemburg… all those great artists who believed in the new.” Artistically, it was the most ambitious Youth Day celebration ever held; it was also the last.

The Epilogue

In the summer of 1987 the entire NSK collective set up camp in London. Laibach had a concert at Riverside Studios to promote their new album Opus Dei; the Rdeči Pilot theatre company (successor to the Sisters of Scipion Nasice) were presenting an impenetrably pretentious play in the same venue; while IRWIN had an extensive, career-spanning show in the Air Gallery. It was almost as if everybody from Slovenia came with them: cultural activists, artists, the odd Marxist philosopher, and even a couple of art historians from neighbouring Croatia had grabbed NSK’s coat-tails to constitute a motley armada of unlikely cultural plenipotentiaries. If NSK were perceived in their own country as problematic, they were seen abroad as Yugoslavia’s most compelling cultural export. NSK’s hosts in London were running a budget deficit and members of both IRWIN and Novi kolektivizem ended up sleeping on my floor. The authors of the notorious poster (an example of which was displayed in London, where it was read as an ironic collage from a historically turbulent region), told me all about their experiences earlier in the year, although I was far from aware of the extent to which 1987 was a watershed for them, and for Yugoslavia as a whole.

For many of the NSK generation, the cult of Tito had never worked its spell, and his legacy was there to be explored, analysed and criticized rather than scrawled on the back of a school bag. “I can only speak on my own behalf”, says Roman Uranjek today, “but when Tito died, I was 19 years old and as a rebel I did not want to watch the live broadcast of his funeral.  We had a party with friends and we honestly had fun and got drunk.

In 1987, when we came to court because of the poster, I understood the essence of the repressive system, because the federal prosecutor in Yugoslavia would have demanded 5 years in prison for us.

We are now living in a state of vulgar capitalism, and I appreciate the quality of the welfare state, which is disappearing more and more rapidly.”

The way in which NSK were received in the West, where they were seen as edgy and chic in a pop-cultural sense, regardless of any political background, accorded them a new-found aura of respectability at home. NSK were soft power, Slovene style, redefining the image of a republic which increasingly saw itself not only as the most westernized in Yugoslavia but also the most deserving of western attention. When Laibach recorded a video for Sympathy for the Devil in 1988 they filmed it at iconic Slovene locations such as Predjama Castle and the Postojna Caves, in ironic reference to the fact that they had become a national institution, a musical tourist board promoting a state in the throes of formation.   

The position of Slovenia within the Yugoslav federation had been thrown into sharper relief by events in Serbia, where a hard-line faction led by Slobodan Milošević had won control of that republic’s communist party in September 1987. The new Serbian leadership favoured a re-centralization of the federation in order to more accurately reflect the interests of the Serbs, Yugoslavia’s largest and most geographically scattered national group. The Slovene authorities needed to prevent this at all costs in order to protect the increasingly liberal culture taking shape in their own republic. These two approaches were incompatible, and the stage for Yugoslavia’s disintegration was set.

The Yugoslav Peoples’ Army made an attempt to bring Slovenia to heel in 1989, when three Mladina journalists and a JNA sergeant their were put on trial for betraying military secrets. A military court found them guilty; the Slovene authorities responded by placing the four in open prisons with lax regimes. The trial was a massive miscalculation by the JNA, destroying whatever latent loyalty the Slovene public still felt towards the symbolic pillars of communist power.

As a frequent visitor to Ljubljana in the late Eighties I was naïve enough to imagine that the model of reform developed in Slovenia would ultimately be copied by other Yugoslav republics, resulting in a renegotiated federation – or confederation – that would continue to carry Yugoslavia’s name. It didn’t seem all that improbable at the time. Slobodan Milošević was a glaring anachronism in the age of Gorbachev, pluralism and democratic change; surely he wouldn’t be around for much longer.

The Slovene model of reform may not have led to a Yugoslavia-wide revolution, but it did lead to a Slovenian revolution. And it is clear that punk strategies and art-provocations played a significant role in securing it. “Excesses always serve to point out how the system actually works, that at its core it still reacts with Stalinist reflexes” is what broadcaster, impresario and Novi Rock founder Igor Vidmar told the Zagreb magazine Start in 1988. Whenever punks, NSK members, or organizers of student actions got into trouble with conservative critics, a broad constellation of people – from ‘Sixties’ leftists to careerist communists and national liberals – would mobilize to defend them. Attempts by Yugoslav federal institutions to intervene in Slovenian’s political affairs found themselves blocked by a Slovene party which, whether through sheer opportunism or sincere belief, found it more important to defend Slovene democratic space than shore up the crumbling edifice of communist discipline. There were plenty of intellectuals on hand to argue that Slovenia’s distancing from the federal centre was in itself the logical outcome of Tito’s own constitutional arrangements. At the same time, however, they were aware that the emerging world was one in which the cult of Tito simply did not fit.   

© Jonathan Bousfield