Milovan Djilas Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Djilas was a leader of the Partisan forces in the resistance to the Axis and its allies and collaborators in the Yugoslav Revolution during World War II, and he was a founding father of Titoist Yugoslavia. In the process he became a major theoretician and critic of postwar communism as well as a major European writer.

Early Life

Milovan Djilas was born the fourth of nine children to peasant parents on June 12, 1911, on the Podovo Plateau, overlooking the village of Podbišće, Montenegro. His paternal grandfather, Aleksa, was a hajduk, an anti-Ottoman bandit leader, reportedly assassinated on orders from the then king of Montenegro’s father-in-law. Djilas’ father, Nikola, served in the Montenegrin army during World War I and, as a police commandant in Kolašin afterward, resisted the incorporation of the old Kingdom of Montenegro into the new Yugoslavia. Djilas’ mother, Novka, came from Siberia from a slightly better background than his father. Djilas’ childhood was nevertheless one of a peasant growing up on a battlefield.

Djilas’ early education was completed in Podbišće, Kolašin, and Berane (now Ivangrad). In these years, through his teachers, he was exposed to not only the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin but also the works of Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, and other great writers. By the time he went to study literature at the University of Belgrade in 1929, he was already a confirmed Communist. He put action before theory and became a radical student leader opposed to the royal dictatorship of King Alexander of Yugoslavia.

In March, 1932, Djilas was arrested and jailed for eight days as a warning, which he failed to heed. Consequently, in April, 1933, he was arrested again, tortured, and sentenced to three years in prison, where he for the first time met influential Communists such as Moša Pijade and Alexander Ranković. In prison Djilas became one of the most dedicated Stalinists in the local Yugoslav Communist leadership.

Upon his release from prison, Djilas went underground, leaving literature temporarily behind, to pursue a revolutionary career. He sided with Tito against Joseph Stalin’s attempt to gain greater control of the Yugoslav Communist Party and recruited fifteen hundred Yugoslav volunteers to fight with the republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, Tito therefore appointed Djilas to the Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party and to its ruling Politburo a year later.

Life’s Work

During World War II and the Yugoslav Revolution, Djilas was, along with Tito, Pijade, Ranković, and Edvard Kardelj, one of the leaders of the Partisans in the resistance against the Axis Powers and their collaborators. He held the rank of general and was in charge of the Montenegrin theater. In addition to being in the thick of the fighting to liberate Yugoslavia, he also played an important role in Partisan agitprop activities and was the editor of the Party newspapers, Borba (the struggle) and Nova Jugoslavija (the new Yugoslavia). He also served as chief negotiator between Partisans and their Axis enemies and the Partisans’ Soviet allies, including Stalin himself.

At the end of the war, Djilas was made Minister for Montenegro in the Yugoslav Government for National Unity and was awarded the Order of Kutuzov by the Soviet Union. In 1946, he was promoted to minister without portfolio. Djilas also was an architect of Titoism, Yugoslav national Communism, after the rupture in Soviet-Yugoslav relations in 1948. In 1949, he explained the new Yugoslav position before the world in the United Nations. By 1953, he was Vice President of Yugoslavia, President of the Federal Assembly, and Tito’s heir apparent.

Djilas’ wartime experiences and encounters with Stalin gradually led to his disillusionment with Stalinism and the Soviet Union and eventually communism itself. In 1953-1954, he published a series of highly critical essays (republished in the West in 1959 as the volume entitled...

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Milovan Djilas Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Djilas joined Yugoslavia’s Communist Party as a student and participated in its quest for power before and during World War II. He quickly rose to high government posts and became a close friend of Tito. In 1953 he publicly accused government officials and party members of corruption and betrayal of communist ideals in an article, appropriately titled “Anatomy of a Moral,” and was forced to resign from his posts. He was also expelled from the party and was jailed three years later. While in jail, he wrote additional books of criticism, for which he received additional prison sentences and was not released until the end of 1966. Meanwhile, he became the most celebrated dissident in the postwar communist world.

Djilas wrote several books of fiction and on political and historical subjects. Perhaps the most important is his early work The New Class (1957), which mercilessly pilloried the communists for rising to power only to improve on the corruption of the bourgeois predecessors against whom they revolted. This book’s title, “The New Class,” entered political terminology and has since been applied almost exclusively to communists. Djilas followed that book with Anatomy of a Moral (1959), a collection of satirical articles in which he continued his attack on bureaucracy and corruption. Conversations with Stalin (1962) moved his criticisms into the international sphere, drawing a devastating portrait of moral degradation of the Soviet dictator and justifying Yugoslavia’s break from the Soviet Bloc in 1948.

In Wartime (1977) Djilas chronicled the events in Yugoslavia in World War II. It pays homage to the struggle of the partisans and reveals several secrets, such as the meeting between the partisans and the Germans in 1943—which ostensibly took place to discuss a prisoner exchange, but which in reality planned a joint resistance to a possible Allied landing in the Balkans. Djilas’ uncompromising honesty and courage of conviction have made him a reliable witness to the events of World War II and the ensuing Cold War.

The changes in Djilas’ thinking over the years merit emphasis. From a fervid communist he eventually became a social democrat; however, at heart he remained a communist who regretted the missed opportunities of putting Marxist theory into a successful practice.

Milovan Djilas Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Clissold, Stephen. Djilas: The Progress of a Revolutionary. New York: Universe Books, 1983. A traditional political biography of Djilas, stressing the years in power and opposition to Tito. Very little consideration given to Djilas’ literary achievement.

Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. Translated by Michael B. Petrovich. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. Djilas’ memoir of his disillusionment with Stalin during his 1944, 1946, and 1948 diplomatic missions to the Soviet Union and encounters with him.

Djilas, Milovan. Land Without Justice. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958. The first volume of Djilas’ autobiography, dealing with the years 1911-1928. Also a major literary work.

Djilas, Milovan. Memoir of a Revolutionary. Translated by Drenka Willen. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. The second volume of Djilas’ autobiography, covering his radical activity during the years 1928-1941. The making of a revolutionary and a primer in Communist revolution.

Djilas, Milovan. Wartime. Translated by Michael B. Petrovich. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. The third volume of Djilas’ autobiography, covering the Yugoslav Revolution and World War II.

Djilas, Milovan. Rise and Fall. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. The final volume of Djilas’ autobiography. The creation of the New Yugoslavia and its independence from the Soviet Union. Djilas’ disillusionment with communism and fall from power.

Hammond, Thomas Taylor. “The Djilas Affair and Jugoslav Communism.” Foreign Affairs 33 (January, 1955): 298-315. An able contemporary analysis of Djilas’ fall from power and its impact on Titoist Yugoslavia and the rest of the Communist world.

Jovanovich, William. Now, Barabbas. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. A memoir by Djilas’ friend and principal publisher relating some of his encounters with and reflections about Djilas.

Mihajlov, Mihajlo. “Comments on The Unperfect Society.” In Underground Notes. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976. Perceptive commentary by Djilas’ close friend, a fellow Yugoslav dissident, on perhaps Djilas’ most important “political” work.

Reinhartz, Dennis. Milovan Djilas: A Revolutionary as a Writer. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1981. A generally sympathetic literary biography of Djilas, stressing the intimate connection between art and politics in his life and work. Based in part on extensive interviews with Djilas.