Surviving the Great Purge and WWII
Unfortunately for most people in Eastern Europe, Stalin’s Great Purge was just beginning and Yugoslavian communists were particularly distrusted. As Tito moved between Paris, Yugoslavia, and Moscow, he had to keep his head down as several of his friends and fellow party leaders were summoned to Moscow, interrogated, and shot. Though it’s not likely that Tito set up rivals to be killed, that’s the way it worked out and Tito climbed the ranks.
Tito attributed his survival during the purges to just avoiding Moscow. He gave several excuses as to why he couldn’t make it back to Russia and when he was there he kept quiet and left as quickly and quietly as he could. Tito also began building up a base of younger subordinates who were more loyal to Tito than the party and were unlikely to set him up to be executed, as was common during the Purge.
When Tito did have to spend time in Moscow as the new secretary of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), he had a few people try to have him arrested. Luckily, Tito was charismatic and kind enough (he never denounced anyone) that several prominent communists vouched for him and he was spared arrest and execution. Tito learned a lot about Russian communism and the Purges left him with a bitter view of the motherland, but he remained dedicated to the communist ideology.
Finally, the tensions in Europe and the rising flood of German power broke into a second world war. France fell along with most of Eastern Europe quite quickly. Tito swiftly returned to Yugoslavia to organize a resistance along with the government in exile under the teenaged King Peter II.
With a lot of communist supporters still present and the dichotomy present in a communist rebel group fighting a fascist conqueror, Tito quickly rose through the ranks of the resistance and was named commander-in-chief of the resistance forces by the CPY. Tito’s forces also sought to aid escaping Jews and as a result, Tito had thousands of freed Jews fighting for his resistance army.
Soon, Tito’s forces had liberated an area of Yugoslavia large enough for about 300,000 to a million people to live free of German rule. As the resistance grew and became more successful between 43-44, the Germans worried that the Allied forces would pick the Balkans as a friendly place to invade Europe and shoot north to mainland Germany.
On May 25, 1944, the Germans launched Operation Knight’s Move directed at destroying the resistance headquarters and a specific emphasis on killing or capturing Tito. The attack was scattered over miles of airborne assaults in the collection of towns, mountains and defended caves around the liberated area of Drvar.
As a lucky coincidence for the resistance, officer training was ongoing in Drvrar and the school leaders and recruits immediately joined the fight, stumbling across a few parachuted supplies meant for the Germans and capturing weapons and equipment. Tito and his closest advisors were trapped in a cave by heavy German fire until groups of resistance fighters came and cleared the way for his escape.
Over several days the Germans pushed the resistance fighters back, but at great cost to their own forces. Tito was eventually airlifted out by allied air forces. The Germans lost almost 2,000 killed or wounded to about half that number for the resistance fighters. The resistance headquarters were disrupted and several ranking members killed, but Tito survived and had the whole resistance up and running almost immediately. As a whole, the German operation was a complete failure.