Monday, January 12, 2015

My Log 456 Jan 11 2015: Stevan Dedijer, son of a Black Hand assassin, Princeton graduate, Communist apparatchik, physicist and true Renaissance man --- with thanks to his son Jevto, of Montreal for lending me his autobiography

Marshal Tito during the Second World War in Yu...
Marshal Tito during the Second World War in Yugoslavia, May 1944 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cleveland Tower, Princeton University, Old Gra...
Princeton University, where the Serbian youth got his education in the early 1930s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It seldom happens that I sit down with the intention of writing something, and yet with little idea of what I want to say. That is the state I am in at the moment: I want to write something about a book I have read about the life of a remarkable man of our time, Stevan Dedijer, born in Sarajevo in 1911, died in Dubrovnik  at the age of 92, but a man of such wide-ranging curiosity and talents as to enable  it to be said of him that his life and experience forms “a chronicle of the 20th century.” 
The book in the form of an autobiography, is called  Stevan Dedijer --- My Life of Curiosity and Insights, has been edited by his third wife, Carin, a Swede, and their son  Miki, and I have it on the authority of those who knew Stevan that he was, as they say nowadays, “a one-off”, a positive, optimistic, genial person who kept changing horses (again, as the saying goes), throughout his life.
Stevan Dedijer as an American soldier, 1944

He came from a peasant background in Bosnia but his father was already a person of note as a core member of the so-called Black Hand, the group which assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, whose death precipitated the First World War in which tens of millions of people lost their lives. The father was never home during that war, and died in Switzerland of the Spanish flu when Stevan was just seven, so he had little influence on the boy’s life. The child’s early precocity earned him the support of a wealthy American  woman with a Serbian husband, and she arranged for him to be educated from the age of 12, in Italy, and later in the United States, right up to Princeton university.
He was 23 on graduation from Princeton, and after rejecting  a job offered by an industrialist, he decided  “to renounce all personal interests for a cause”. He returned to the United States after a visit to Serbia in 1934, where he rejected the offer of a good job from an industrialist (who paid his fare back), and thereafter he scrabbled along by selling his blood for $50, and living in five-dollar-a-night rooms, until  two years later he joined the Yugoslav Communist party, and became editor of a Serbian newspaper in Pittsburgh at $10 a week, working under the direction of a man who was a member of the Comintern, the international Communist organization, who had entered the US illegally. Not until he was 85 did it ever occur to him to ask himself: “How did I change physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally …. in a world dominated by half a dozen colonial empires and the rising Communist Soviet Russia based on Marx’s doctrine and the rise of fascist powers demanding a re-division of the world even by a new world war?” He remarks throughout the book on this apparent lack of self-awareness.
There seems always to have been an intense toughness to this Princeton-educated young man. He married a Party member, the first of three wives,  who eventually confessed she had fallen in love with and become pregnant by, another Communist. When he next  met his rival, Dedijer jabbed a cigar into the man’s cheek, and said, “Disappear from Pittsburgh or I will kill you.” Dedijer comments in the book: “I was surprised and could not believe what I had just done… He just stared at me and walked off. Next morning I found that he had left for New York.” 
In April 1941 the Nazi invaded and took over Yugoslavia, where the Croatian fascists began to kill Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats. When Serbs and Croats in Pittsburgh began to fight each other in saloons,  Dedijer wrote to Elliott Roosevelt drawing attention to these enmities, and received a letter in reply, written by FDR, calling for the unity of all foreign-born Americans against the Axis powers. Dedijer published this letter in his newspaper, and other Communist supported journals picked  it up. It is to his credit that when Yugoslav was breaking up in the 1990s into warring mini-states, he opposed the aggressions of his people, the Serbs, blamed it all on Serbian vice-president Milosovic, and continued to live in Dubrovnik, among the Croats.  
Before that war was launched in 1991, however, he underwent many remarkable adventures. He was asked by  a University of Texas professor who hailed from the neighbouring Bosnian village, to join the Office of Strategic Services, the famous OSS, founded a few months before by the legendary Bill Donovan. He was told by a Communist party representative that he was very likely to be sent to Europe on the same ship as a correspondent of Life magazine who was the son of the leader of the Serbian Democratic Party.  Dedijer was told that he should “find an occasion to throw him into the Atlantic.” In the event, he never took the ship, but “from this I learned how easy it is to find fanatical individuals, as I was at that time, to commit terrorist acts, from assassinations, to blowing up dozens of human beings, or even more serious ones as is happening now in all parts of the world.”
For the OSS he was given rigorous training, determined to be the best among his peers, and one day, he was told to wait at the back entrance to the camp for a truck. He was approached by an officer who told him, “You are now dismissed from the OSS. If you tell anybody what you have learned you will go to jail for many years. Climb in that truck and get the hell out of here.” Evidently, they had learned he was a Communist.
He volunteered in the United States army, was sent to Europe, where he was one of three soldiers
assigned to be bodyguard to the commander of the 101st Airborne division, General Maxwell Taylor. The division apparently had to hang on in the pivotal Belgian city of Bastogne to forestall the last desperate advance of the German army and when that battle was won he asked to be transferred to aid the Partisan army headed by Tito in Yugoslavia.   This was just after the Americans, who had supported the fascist-supporting Chetniks of Mihailovitch, finally realized  that only Tito was fighting the Germans.
Back in his home country he discovered that his brother Vladimir had become a leader of the Communist party, and he himself was assigned by one of Tito’s closest associates, Milovan Djilas, later jailed by Tito for ten years, to become  editor of the leading Party newspaper. He says he heard about many people disappearing in Yugoslavia, and was often approached by wives desperate for news of their husbands, and later in life he was told his brother had estimated the number of people killed by Tito in revenge killings at 195,000.  He comments: “Nothing of this appeared in the newspapers I edited.” Gradually it was borne in on him that state-owned enterprises were inefficient, at least in Yugoslavia, and after a stint in which he was supposed to try to improve Tito’s image in New York, he realized that the leading Party personalities were riven with rivalries. He had expected they would all be comrades, discussing the nation’s problems frankly in comradeship, but he found even senior members were afraid of Tito.
Physics had always been a major interest, and when Tito decided Yugoslavia  needed a nuclear bomb, Dedijer was asked to head the effort. He soon found that those in charge of this advanced science didn’t know what they were doing; but his blunt statement of the facts did not sit well with the authorities and gradually he was sidelined, eventually removed from his position, and then his passport was taken from him. For six years he lived by translating books for Pergamon Press, the English firm founded by Robert Maxwell. Thirteen times he was refused a renewal of his passport, but contacts he had made with physicists in Denmark and Sweden eventually enabled him to leave Yugoslavia.
He was given a post with Lund University in Sweden, and he began to be aware that with his inquiring mind, his broad knowledge of so many subjects, he had begun to touch on what he called a new discipline, that is, something he called social intelligence.
So far as I can understand it, this is no more than a recognition that a vast amount  of information exists, so profound in its scope as to make old-fashioned spying obsolete.  This may sound like recognizing the obvious (I got a sense that he was also in a mild way, a bit of a con man: later he was a consultant for both Saudi Arabia and the PLO), but Dedijer was able to parlay it (to use an American expression) into a genuine discipline to such an extent that he is today recognized as the founder of this new academic subject.
Looking at it now, one is struck by an immense irony: today, more than ever before, intelligence is held more secretively against the scientific chest than ever before, and is guarded by huge government institutions who feel the need to control every utterance made by anyone, anywhere,  as Edward Snowdon’s leaks from American sources have  demonstrated.
I was struck by two other ironies towards the end of Dedijer’s account of his fascinating life: at the age of 70 he undertook to become a parachute jumper again, with the aim of holding 50 jumps a year. After only seven jumps he so severely damaged himself that he had to give it all up (an ironic comment on the athleticism of which he was so proud). Secondly, and more to the point, though priding himself on being at the centre of global intelligence, his reaction of shock, horror and disbelief in face of the brutal breakup of his native country, Yugoslavia, an event that took him totally by surprise although it had been foreseen in a CIA study, seems at odds with his own view of himself as standing at the centre of global intelligence.

Nevertheless, this book about this remarkable man’s life contains an immense amount of information about our modern world which justifies its sub-title as “a chronicle of the twentieth century.” That can surely be said of very few individuals.

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