Updated: Friday, 06 December 2013 16:17 | By Agence France-Presse

Dictator or icon? Slovenians recall Tito in new exhibit

The late Tito, former Yugoslavia's communist strongman, has been largely ignored in Slovenia since its independence but historians insist that, good or bad, he should be remembered: and a new exhibit does just that.

Dictator or icon? Slovenians recall Tito in new exhibit

A visitor stands in front of a photo-portrait of former Yugoslavia's communist leader Josip Broz 'Tito', in Ljubljana, during an exhibition dedicated to him, on November 16, 2013

Josip Broz -- nicknamed "Tito" -- ruled over the former Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980, having been named president for life. 

But he has been a controversial figure in Slovenia, which broke free from the republic in 1991, with people divided between those who see him as a war criminal and others who remember happier times. 

"Tito was a respected statesman, he was not greedy and kept nothing for himself," 62-year-old Damjana told AFP, visibly excited as she visited the exhibit "Tito: a Yugoslav Icon", which opened last month in the capital Ljubljana.

Robert, 27, and his girlfriend Jana said they heard about Tito from their parents and noted "it was high time such an exhibit took place."

"Times were better then... They didn't have more money than now but values were different, people were better, trusted each other," Robert said.

This flattering picture clashes with the one of Tito as a ruthless leader who sent thousands of political opponents to special prisons and camps, including on the notorious Adriatic island of Goli Otok, off the coast of present-day Croatia. 

Many disappeared altogether. 

For historian Joze Dezman, the exhibit glorifies a dictator responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 people -- Nazi collaborators but also civilians -- at the end of World War II who attempted to flee Yugoslavia but were caught, tried and executed, leaving mass graves all around Slovenia. 

"It is sad to see that younger people whose parents lied to them their whole lives about Tito still believe they were right," Dezman said. 

"We need to face this cult (of Tito) with healthy facts. We have to investigate him in a critical way," he urged. 

Along the walls of the exhibit, photographs show Tito alongside statesmen and stars, including US President Richard Nixon, Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie and the actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren.

Old editions of magazines like Paris Match or Time also have him on the cover.

A charismatic leader who skillfully dealt with both East and West, Tito was welcome in all the major capitals, meeting with Queen Elizabeth II or John F. Kennedy and hosting guests from Hollywood and elsewhere on his private island in the Adriatic Sea.

He oversaw a Socialist regime that was far from democratic but nevertheless much softer than behind the Iron Curtain, which might help explain his continued appeal. 

"In many schoolbooks... Tito is presented as a positive personality mainly due to his resistance to the Nazi regime and, later, his break with communist Russia," Bozo Repe, a history professor at Ljubljana University, told AFP.

"After his death, the (Yugoslav) federation broke into pieces in the cruelest way, so people remember his era with nostalgia," added Dezman, referring to the brutal wars that ravaged the region in the 1990s.

While Tito -- who died in a Ljubljana clinic after a long illness -- has been ignored in public life, some of Slovenia's best-selling books over the last decade have been those unveiling new details about his life, his friends, the women he loved or the food he ate.

"I don't like him nor dislike him," said Damjana's 22-year-old granddaughter Sonja. "My grandma has been telling me about him and I see now he must have been a man of the people and had many qualities."

"This exhibit is welcome, but it comes almost too late," added Milan Lukman, in his seventies, posing with pride in front of an image of Tito. 

Alongside personal objects and new video testimonies by close Tito collaborators, the exhibit also mentions the prisons created for dissidents under Tito. 

"We do not want to judge him. We want every person to come here, see the exhibition and form his or her own opinion," said Mojca Poredos of the agency Ti&To, which organised the exhibit.

"He was a person who should be known as a historic personality, an icon of former Yugoslavia," she told AFP.

The exhibit runs through February.

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