Obituary: Koca Popovic

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Koca Popovic, politician, soldier and poet, born 14 March 1908, Chief of General Staff Yugoslav National Army 1945-53, Minister of Foreign Affairs 1953-65, Vice-President 1966-72, died Belgrade 22 October 1992.

KOCA POPOVIC was a leading Yugoslav partisan commander in the Second World War and Vice- President of Yugoslavia under Tito in 1966-72. When he died in Belgrade last week he was buried with full military honours as a retired Colonel General of the Yugoslav National Army and a national hero. The occasion passed with scant notice by the local media - a sad symbol of the fractured historical memory pervading in the present tragedy of his country.

Popovic's personality does not fit the conventional image of a partisan commander. The son of a rich Belgrade merchant industrial family, he was born in 1908. His family moved to Switzerland in 1912 and sent him to a Catholic monastery. His first language was French. He did not learn Serbo-Croat until he returned to Belgrade in 1921.

His further education was typical of his class and generation, except at the Sarajevo training school for reserve officers, where he graduated as an artillery lieutenant. Popovic did not intend to pursue a military career. He had earlier been taken by an intense and rebellious sense of intellectual curiosity and adventure. On completing his law degree at Belgrade University, he moved to Paris and entered the philosophical faculty of the Sorbonne. The private centre of his world, however, lay, and was to remain - with stark intervals - in the Left Bank cafes and houses of progressive writers, journalists, artists and poets. He was close to the French Surrealists and experimented as a poet. This experience brought him logically into revolutionary left-wing circles both in Paris and Belgrade.

In 1933 Popovic joined the underground Yugoslav Communist Party, and wrote articles and pamphlets in their press. On the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1937 he enlisted in Paris and, travelling alone to the frontier, crossed the Pyrenees on foot. He fought with the Spanish Republican Army - not the International Brigade - first as an artillery instructor and later as a divisional commander. In February 1939, on the collapse of the Spanish republic, he crossed into France and was interned, with surviving Yugoslavs, at the notorious French camp at St Cyprien. It was here that a secret cadre of future Yugoslav offices was formed which was to provide a key element in the command and staffs of partisan resistance in the homeland after 1941. In 1940, one by one, these men returned to Yugoslavia through the clandestine channels of the Communist Party which covered Western Europe.

Popovic was at once absorbed into the central party machine in Belgrade as a member of the regional committee for Serbia to prepare for a partisan rising. When this rebellion broke out he set up a local band within which he formed special cadres to create future units. After the flight of the remnants of Tito's forces into Bosnia under German military pressure these troops were concentrated into two elite shock brigades which, on regular military lines, were to save the central partisan movement from destruction.

In May 1943 I led a British military mission which was parachuted into Montenegro with the task of identifying the central partisan command and report on its contribution to the Allied war effort. Early that morning we met the Yugoslav leaders: the first conversation was with Koca Popovic. He and I were together on many occasions in the following months. In frequent talks, between fighting, on marches, in pauses in the Bosnian forest and in other regions, I formed a lasting impression of the man.

Controlled by a sensitive and disciplined mind and power of will, Popovic was an intellectual soldier of outstanding talent. He was a lone wolf and a solitary man with rare unguarded moments. He had a touch of military genius and a hatred of war. He was wary of friendships and defended with devilish skill a total integrity of mind and heart. As a divisional commander with a sure instinct and comprehension of immediate situations, he sensed the weak spot in the German reign in Montenegro and was the immediate architect of our salvation by breaking out of the German encircling ring.

I grew to accept his contrived and polished sallies. Daring, with cool deliberation and secret by nature, he was the idol of his troops but few men knew him. His lack of fairness in private debate concealed, usually with success, a profound understanding of the reactionary capitalist British whom, he was amused to assume, we represented.

In the succeeding phases of the war in Yugoslavia he commanded the military occupation of Serbia and in the final stages he contested the northern retreat of the German armies in the Balkans in early 1945, acting as commander of the Second Army. He cleared Yugoslav territory up to, but not beyond, the Slovene frontiers with Austria and Italy. At the close of fighting he was appointed Chief of the General Staff, a post which he held until 1953.

Three years ago Popovic published Notes on Warfare, which contains extracts from his diary and daily notations. This work stops in 1945 and gives no hints as to his post- war career. He was at the nominal summit of executive power, both in government and the party machine. From 1953 to 1965 he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and actively concerned with the status and prestige of his country in the United Nations. In 1966 Popovic was elected Vice- President of the republic, and six years later, without comment, withdrew from public life.

Popovic had an unassailable sense of duty and loyalty to those with whom he worked but he was, with a certain irony, indifferent to political ambition or exalted personal status. His remaining years were spent modestly with his wife, Lepa, in Montenegro or Dubrovnik, and with the crowning mercy of visits to Paris, the Left Bank haunts of his youth and the company of surviving friends.

(Photograph omitted)