Captain Jovanka Broz: Partisan and riflewoman who became First Lady of Yugoslavia

 

Of the many women that Josip Broz Tito enticed or forced to his bed, the striking Jovanka Budisavljevic was the one best known to the world and whose loyalty stood the longest test. The girl who had joined the future Yugoslav President's partisans at the age of 17 during the Second World War, and earned a reputation as an accomplished sharpshooter, with the rank of captain, would in a secret ceremony in 1952 become his third, or possibly his fourth, wife, and accompany him on state visits around the globe.

They met in 1944, when she had laid down her weapon to serve as a nurse, during the German combined air and ground assault called "Knight's Move", or "Rosselsprung" that was intended to kill or capture Tito. The Germans considered Tito at that time their most dangerous enemy, since his campaign for his country's liberation was also assisting the Allies on their advance towards the Reich through Italy.

As Rosselsprung burst upon the partisans the 20-year-old Jovanka played an important part in evacuating the wounded, and after the assault failed, Tito – who as self-proclaimed Marshal and Prime Minister of the emerging Yugoslav federation had been commanding his 200,000 troops from a cave at Drvar in Croatia – took her on to his personal staff.

Tito already had a mistress, Davoranka Paunovic, whom he called his "greatest love", but when she died of tuberculosis soon after the war the way was clear for Jovanka to fill the void. The uncertainty about Jovanka's role led some around him to try to divert him from her, and suggest that she was a spy or that she was trying to control him, but it became clear she was one of those he wished to be closest to him when she stayed at his side as he recovered from a gallbladder operation in 1952.

The dark-browed, raven-haired Jovanka, one of five children born in Croatia to ethnic Serbian peasant parents, became an elegant advertisement for the "non-aligned movement" that the Communist Tito established with leaders of countries including India, Indonesia, Ghana and Egypt, to be a counterpoint to the domination of the left by the Soviet Union.

Jovanka first played the role of Tito's official First Lady on 18 September 1952, when he welcomed to Yugoslavia the visiting British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. With Tito she tasted the feted "Camelot" of US President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline only a month before Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and back in Yugoslavia dined with the film stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were filming there.

She was photographed dancing with the women of Ghana, and astride – or perhaps side-saddle – on a camel in Egypt, as well as in evening dress graciously receiving tributes, her hair swept up in the bun that became her signature, or in an open-top car, smiling at her husband's side. They enjoyed a private cinema, a former royal palace for their residence, a yacht, and holidays among the Adriatic Brijuni islands.

The couple had no children, and during the 1970s, as Tito was adopting measures that those versed in Balkan politics consider to have opened the way for a loosening of the Yugoslav federation, they appear to have drifted apart. Tito womanised elsewhere but always sent Jovanka a bouquet of flowers on her birthday. Though they were thought to live apart, she still appeared in public, if less often. Her last appearance at a state occasion was on 14 June 1977, at a reception for the Prime Minister of Norway.

Rumours resurfaced among Yugoslav Party insiders that she exerted unwelcome control over the now ageing President, who was 32 years her senior. For the last three years of his life she did not see him at all, though the birthday flowers still arrived. In Tito's final year, she told a newspaper, certain people whom she did not name had accused her of plotting against him: "They were able to isolate and separate us both, and then they did whatever they wanted."

When Tito died aged 87 on 4 May 1980, Jovanka attended his funeral. In the years when she and he had enjoyed every luxury, she had chosen hardly ever to speak in public, but after his death total silence was imposed on her. Amid fast-changing governments, as Yugoslavia unravelled without her husband's personality to maintain it, Jovanka had her identification papers and property confiscated, and was turned out of her house.

"They chased me out in my nightgown, without anything," she said many years later, "not allowing me even to take a photo of the two of us, or a letter, a book. I was in isolation and treated like a criminal ... I could not leave the house without armed guards."

She was kept in a crumbling government-owned villa with a leaking roof in the Dedinje district of Belgrade, and often went without electricity for light and heating. The dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 left her stateless until 2009, when she was given a Serbian passport. A public appeal from one of her sisters eventually brought repairs to the house and the return of heating. "It was unbearable", a friend is reported to have said. "Jovanka was wearing all her winter clothes."

Despite her discomforts, Jovanka made sure every year of visiting, Tito's mausoleum in Belgrade, known as the House of Flowers, on the anniversary of his death. Ivica Dacic, Prime Minister of present-day Serbia, one of the seven independent nations into which Yugoslavia broke up, said, "Unfortunately the historic injustice has just started to be undone at the end of her life. With Broz's death we are left without one of the last most reliable witnesses of our former country's history. "

In her declining years she said she placed no blame on Tito for their estrangement, adding: "Tito loved me until his death". Her last wish was to be buried at his side.

Jovanka Budisavljevic, partisan and consort: born Pecane, Croatia 7 December 1924; married 1952 Josip Broz Tito (died 1980); died Belgrade, Serbia 20 October 2013.

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