In 1951, Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan paid his first visit to Yugoslavia. He had recently resigned from the Labour government over charges to teeth and spectacles and accepted an invitation to holiday in Yugoslavia with his wife Jennie Lee, who recorded in her memoir My Life with Nye: “No holiday was ever so timely. We both needed to get away, to see new places, new people, to make new and stimulating political contacts.”
The trip would prove fruitful in that regard as they developed new relationships with important officials in the Yugoslavian government and enjoyed hours of discussion over the nature of Marxism, politics, the international arena and other related subjects. It was on this holiday that Bevan began to put together his notes and write In Place of Fear.
Bevan and Lee visited a number of different places in Croatia whilst on their visit, including Dubrovnik and Opatija, as well as the other federal states of Yugoslavia, but the most significant meeting took place on the islands of Brijuni off the north-west coast of Croatia, the official summer residence of Prime Minister (later retitled President) Josip Broz Tito. This meeting was to be the beginning of Bevan and Lee’s conflicted relationship with the Yugoslav communists.
At the meeting, Bevan and Lee met with Tito and a number of his key government ministers. Michael Foot wrote that this was not a very formal meeting: “they sat in a grey stone shelter on the beach, open to the sea on one side and furnished with plain wooden trestle tables and wooden forms, a kind of outdoor dining room but with the flavour, too, of a partisan company’s headquarters.”
Foot explained that Bevan “came away with indelible memories of the special quality of Yugoslav bravery, of their absolute resolve to resist Soviet encroachment, of the greatness of Tito, and with another possession more peculiar to Jennie and himself – an immediately established affinity with Milovan Djilas, who had acted as his host in his official residence in Belgrade.” Djilas was a close ally of Tito’s in the Yugoslav Partisan movement during World War Two and later became Tito’s deputy.
Although they did not agree on everything, Bevan, Lee and Djilas enjoyed debating questions of Marxism, politics and philosophy. Lee reflected that the “affinity between Nye and Milovan was not… based on political agreements. It was a matter of temperament. They were both poets, romantics, unrestrainable individualists, stormy, unpredictable mountain types.” Djilas later wrote a letter to Bevan expressing his joy at people from different cultures and different positions merging together and debating ideas:
“It is understandable that – in different countries under different conditions – identical or similar viewpoints are being born. Yet it is striking how ideas unite hitherto unknown people. I think that the personal relationship established between both of you and ourselves is only the beginning of something much more lasting and deeper, the beginning of that unbreakable link between people who through different methods and ways and even from different ideological positions truly fight for the freedom of men and peoples.”
Djilas wrote that he was impressed by Bevan and saw him as “a dynamic personality with a lively, unconventional mind.”
Bevan came away from Yugoslavia encouraged by what he saw. He was particularly supportive of Tito’s determination to chart an independent course to socialism without the interference of the Soviet Union. Bevan dedicated space in In Place of Fear to acknowledge the path of Yugoslavia after World War Two. He wrote of the revolutionary spirit of Yugoslavia during the war:
“The passionate desire for national freedom, which is the centuries-old tradition of the peoples of Yugoslavia, merged during the war with the revolutionary aims of the Yugoslav Communists. There was therefore a clear understanding between the two. For the urban workers, Socialism, for the peasants, land, and for both national independence.”
Bevan believed that this was contrary to the aims of the Soviet leaders. He argued that they had “developed the psychology of what Tito has described as the “leading nation”, which is a polite term for imperialism”:
“Through the medium of the Cominform the Soviet Union wished to bind Yugoslavia to her as she had bound Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Yugoslav institutions, ideas and policies were to follow the Soviet pattern.”
Bevan wrote that Yugoslavia had thrown down a gauntlet to the Soviet Union by insisting on its independence, rather than exchanging “their new-won liberty for the tutelage of the Soviet bureaucracy.” He viewed this situation as the “most striking modern illustration of what happens when political parties apply outworn categories to different national situations and to novel situations within nations.”
Bevan and Lee visited Yugoslavia again in 1952, spending time with Djilas in Montenegro before visiting Bosnia. When Bevan and Lee were taken to meet Tito, it would be the last time that Djilas saw Bevan. It was the end of what Djilas called “a selfless common search within the socialist movement from two corners of Europe, two different cultures and types of experience.”
A couple of years later, Djilas would be expelled from the Central Committee of the party and stripped of all political functions, being accused of socialist revisionism after he had written articles calling for greater democratisation of Yugoslavia and criticising what he saw as the increased bureaucracy of the party leadership.
During the Third Plenum of the Central Committee in January 1954, Djilas was even accused of falling under Bevan’s influence. Bevan was personally hurt by the news of his friend’s expulsion: he wrote to Tito expressing his concern and to ask about the fate of Djilas and Vladimir Dedijer, another friend from Bevan and Lee’s first trip who was the only person to speak out in defence of Djilas at the Plenum. Bevan also dismissed the charges that he had influenced Djilas’ political ideas. In 1956, Djilas was arrested and spent four years in prison, only to be sent back to prison in 1962 for another four years.
After the arrest of Djilas, Bevan’s engagement with issues in Yugoslavia were not so prominent in his columns for Tribune. He would still praise Tito for standing up to Stalin and insisted that it was “a significant historical fact that the two Communist Parties which have been the most successful are those which were able to follow their own path – in China and Yugoslavia,” but he was also more willing to criticise Tito, specifically referring to the imprisonment of Djilas as evidence that there was a lack of liberty under the rule of the Communist Party.
Bevan and Lee agitated for Djilas’ release from prison and after Bevan died in 1960, Lee and Djilas would keep in regular contact. Djilas later dedicated his 1961 book Conversations with Stalin to Bevan. Although the events of Djilas’ arrest soured Bevan and Lee’s relations with the Yugoslav Communists, the trip to the Brijuni Islands highlighted a desire to seek out new friendships and allies in a world increasingly divided into two distinct and conflicting ideological blocs.
It also represented an attempt to grapple with the different interpretations of socialism in the midst of Labour’s own internal struggles over its future. Bevan’s sympathy towards Yugoslavia might have been responsible for the nickname given to him by Conservative MP and former Secretary of the BMA Chares Hill: “The Tito from Tonypandy.”
Bevan’s trip was not the last trip by a famous Welsh person to the Brijuni Islands. Richard Burton stayed there as a guest of Tito in 1971 while preparing to play him in a Yugoslavian movie about the Battle of Sutjeska in 1943, where Tito led the Partisan forces against the Axis powers – but that’s a story for another post!