(Although this blog deals largely with current events it will occasionally delve into historical topics …. because that’s how I roll.)
First, we’re talking about the longtime Yugoslav leader, born Josip Broz, not any member of the Jackson family. And, up front, the question sounds … odd. But it’s been asked for a long time, and may not be as crazy as it sounds.
Josip Broz, known by his nom de guerre Tito, was unquestionably one of the most successful revolutionaries of the 20th century, leading his Yugoslav Partisans to victory against the Fascist occupiers in 1945, and holding on to the leadership of that fractious Balkan country until his death in 1980. Although he was a sincere Marxist-Leninist, his fateful break with the Soviet Union in 1948 drove Stalin into conniptions and made Yugoslavia something of an associate, if unofficial, NATO member through the Cold War.
But who really was Josip Broz? There has never been any doubt that he was a bona fide International Man of Mystery and large parts of his life remain shrouded in darkness – and Communist hagiography. Born in Kumrovec, in then-Habsburg Croatia, into a peasant family in 1892, to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother, Broz became a locksmith and moved around Austria-Hungary in the years before the First World War looking for work; unlike nearly all other Communist leaders, Tito had actually once been a proletarian. Little is known for sure about his early life, only a very few pictures survive, but when the Great War came he was serving as an NCO in the Austro-Hungarian Army, fighting against Serbia in 1914 (something which Yugoslav authorities obscured until after Tito’s death, since it looked bad), and then against the Russians in 1915. A good soldier who was decorated for valor, Broz was captured a few months later, badly wounded.
There the path gets convoluted. What exactly he did in Russia as a POW is almost impossible to determine. He returned to his homeland five years later a convinced Communist and joined the underground Soviet-led apparatas a full-time revolutionary. Tito was very much a creature of the Soviet secret police, an “illegal” with 33 NKVD
covernames to his credit. Accordingly, he spent the interwar years on the run from the authorities in several countries. Stalin knew him as WALTER, the covername he used the longest. There is little doubt that in the 1930s, when he perfected his clandestine tradecraft (what the NKVD tellingly called konspiratsiya), Tito was in Moscow for extended periods of time – doing what isn’t clear, but there’s little doubt that he played an active role in Stalin’s notorious purges. The Yugoslav Communist Party leadership was all but annihilated by the NKVD in 1937-38, and Tito was more or less the last man standing, leaving him fatefully in control of the party in 1941, when the Axis invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia. Conveniently, he and his cadres had spent the last 20 years living underground and perfecting their clandestine political work, readying for eventual armed struggle. The rest, per the cliché, is history.
There have long been whispers that Josip Broz, Croatian peasant, and Tito, world leader, were not the same man, with the implication that the NKVD switched an impostor at some point. There have been many variations of the Balkan urban legend: the real Broz died in battle in 1915, or in Russian captivity during WWI, or he was killed during the purges in the late 1930s. One version, predictably, claims that Tito was “really” a Jew (and perhaps a Freemason too, for full conspiratorial effect).
As for hard evidence, there has never been any. What is not in doubt, however, is that many Yugoslavs felt that Tito never spoke his native language very well, including people in Kumrovec who didn’t seem to recognize him. He made regular grammatical errors and used malapropisms that normal Croats wouldn’t say. To many, his pronunciation sounded a bit … Russian. When Dragoljub Mihajlovic, leader of the Serbian nationalist Chetnik resistance during WWII, first met Tito in 1941, he thought that he actually was a Russian – and Mihajlovic was far from the last to wonder.
Tito’s defenders have always said that the man had spent so much time in Russia, from 1915 to 1920, and certainly quite a bit of time in the 1930s too, that it had changed his speech patterns, and there was no mystery. Yet the urban legend has never gone away, and periodically new stories will emerge to stir the pot without providing anything conclusive to bolster the “fake Tito” hypothesis.
Yet the U.S. National Security Agency has recently released a paper which sheds important light on this obscure, yet intriguing, topic. Shortly before the Yugoslav leader’s death, “Is Yugoslav President Tito Really a Yugoslav?” appeared in Cryptologic Spectrum, a classified NSA in-house journal. Through close analysis of Tito’s speech patterns, the unnamed author concluded that Tito did not speak Croatian like a native, but like someone whose native tongue was Russian (or Polish). Moreover, Tito’s spoken variance with standard Serbo-Croatian (to use the Communist-approved linguistic term) could not be explained by spending a few years in a foreign country. Given’s NSA reputation as a – and perhaps the – world leader in language analysis, this conclusion deserves to be taken seriously.
The paper can shed no light on who Tito really was – that unfortunately will be left to the conspiracy theorists – yet provides convincing evidence that he was probably not Josip Broz, the Croatian peasant lad. Perhaps the NKVD was even better at creating “legends” for its illegals than anyone suspected. It appears doubtful there’s much light left to be shed on this case, since relevant papers were probably destroyed long ago, plus Tito and his Comintern contemporaries are long dead, yet it now seems fair to take this strange-sounding question out of the realms of weird websites into more respectable venues.
UPDATE, 26 SEP 2015: The NSA link above isn’t working as of today; I don’t know if this is a temporary glitch or permanent so below is the cited article — enjoy!