“Stop sending people to kill me… If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”- part of a letter to Stalin from Josip Broz in 1948. After WWII, few leaders outside of Western Europe and North America stood up to Stalin and lived. Most of Eastern Europe was either directly a part of the U.S.S.R. or almost entirely subservient to the global superpower. Yugoslavia was surrounded by those loyal to and/or afraid of Stalin, but Josip Broz Tito never folded.
Born in 1892, Tito was 22 at the start of WWI. He quickly proved to be a competent and athletic soldier. He came in second in the Austro-Hungarian army fencing championships (still a very relevant skill in WWI) and became the youngest sergeant major in the army. Tito was awarded a medal for bravery when he commanded a scouting party that captured 80 Russian troops during the war.
Soon into the war, however, Tito was captured by the Russians after being wounded in battle. Weak from his wounds, Tito battled flu, typhus and other illnesses. In the hospital, he became accustomed to Russian culture and language through the great works of Russian literature.
During his imprisonment, Tito was shuffled around until he eventually escaped a lightly guarded camp and went on the run. Tito befriended several Bolsheviks while in Russia and was helped a few times by other Bolsheviks. Once, when a train was stopped to search for escaped prisoners, Tito fooled the searchers by speaking such fluent Russian that they thought he was a local.
From his time in Russia Tito became enamored with socialism and the beginnings of communism, sources debate if he joined the communist party during this time in Russia or later. Whenever he joined, Tito was enamored with communism and the plight of the average worker. But a communist party-ordered assassination in Tito’s country of Yugoslavia led to the outlaw of the party.
Not one to follow the law against his morals, Tito joined the underground communist movement in Yugoslavia. At first, Tito tried to find a job as a factory worker but he was fired or forced out of these jobs as his employers learned of his communist affiliations. Eventually, he gave up on a quiet life and a hope for a steady job and became a dedicated revolutionary.
After wandering around Yugoslavia and inciting worker strikes and writing inflammatory articles about the treatment of the working class. He was arrested on occasion and eventually spent significant prison time with a long-time communist, Mosa Pijade. Pijade would become a sort of mentor to Tito and expand his communist views. After his long stint in the Lepoglave and Maribor prisons he was released only to be picked up at the gates to serve a four-month prison sentence he ran from elsewhere in Yugoslavia.
Released in the mid-1930’s, Tito faced a Europe torn between Fascism and Communism, and a very active communist party trying to assert control in Spain. Though Tito never actually fought in the Spanish Civil War, he was incredibly active in the communist party and rose through the ranks as he excelled at the planning and organization of the communist activities across Europe.