In Memory of Our Marshal

An evening of rock, red wine and memories of Tito’s Yugoslavia

We meant just to have a drink at a certain Serbian pub in Vienna’s 16th District, but it turned into bottle after bottle of red wine, old rock melodies and irresistible atmosphere. The bar was called Marshal’s (Maršal Nas Pub, in Serbo-Croatian), named after Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the prime minister-president of communist Yugoslavia for 37-years.

A waiter escorted us to our reserved table as the music was already reaching its peak. A duo was singing ex-Yugoslavian rock songs our parents used to listen to, while aching to meet their first loves for long walks in the twilight. Those moments seem far away now, frozen in time, cherished in their deepest memories. But the two musicians were giving their all to make it come alive again, at least for one night. I was struck by their charisma, and as I poured myself the first glass of red wine, I decided to find out who they were.

There were three at the table, the guitarists plus one. This third fellow introduced himself; he was from a village in central Bosnia:

“The rock scene is slowly dying among the ex-Yugoslavian community in Vienna,” he sighed. “This place used to be full of rock fans. Nowadays, they are either too busy to have fun or just like the commercial hits better.”

The place is atmospheric, dark tongue and groove paneling, with the wooden tables and high-backed benches of a Viennese Heuriger or a Koliba in the Tatras, friendly, lived in, ready for a good time. On the walls hang neither the harvest nor the hunt, but scenes from the life of Josip Broz Tito making the place hard-core Yugoslavian. Still remembered, still honored.

“Marshal, you know, Tito was marshal all those years under communism,” explains the other musician, a man in his 40s from Central Serbia.

The light was dim. There was no stage; the musicians just sat around a table and sang, with the entire bar joining in the old melodies, keeping them one evening farther from oblivion.

At my table, the next bottle of wine had just come. The glasses filled red and we cheered all together.

“I raise this glass in Tito’s honor!” whooped one of the guests. We all laughed and took a sip of wine. We made an ex-Yugoslav rainbow there: next to me was a Bosnian Muslim, then two guys from Croatia, on the other side my Serbian friend from Bosnia, four girls from Serbia and across, a person I had just met from Slovenia. This mix of nationalities wasn’t a problem for us, just a detail we tell each other, like where you went to school or whether you play an instrument or a sport. It’s odd to think of how our parents struggled over this for so many years.

For our grandparents, under The Marshal, there was no issue at all.

Josip Broz Tito was born in 1892 in Kumrovec, Croatia, in Austro-Hungary. Trained as a metallurgist, he worked first in Slovenia, then for Benz in Munich and even test-drove for Daimler in Wiener Neustadt. At 25 he became the youngest sergeant major in the Austro-Hungarian army before being severely wounded and captured by the Russians. In and out of prison camps for several years, he joined the Red Guard and became a committed communist. His first major post was as Secretary-General of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. During the Second World War he led the People’s Liberation Army, and afterwards became the prime minister, later president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, comprised of Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Serbs and Macedonians. He remained the supreme political and military authority of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980.

On the international stage, Tito remained neutral and independent. Distancing himself from Stalin, he was able to bring Yugoslavia into the Marshall Plan and led a group of non-aligned developing countries that included Egypt, India, Indonesia and Ghana. Among the Central European satellite countries, the economy was thriving;  still, with the right to travel, many Yugoslavs emigrated to neighboring Austria and beyond. All you needed was the precious Yugoslav ‘red passport,’ and the world was yours.

The movies and memories of the era speak for themselves.

“We would fill our new Trabant with gas and venture fourth,” said our neighbor at the next table, a retired tailor in her 80s. The Trabant was the everyman’s car in the Communist Bloc, produced in East Germany.

“Through the valleys of Central Serbia, mountains of Croatia, and then up the coast from Dalmatia, over Trieste, to Nice.” Her gaze softened, lost in a dream-like mist; for just a moment, it seemed like a ‘better’ kind of freedom.

But Tito was an authoritarian, his policies were directed at suppressing nationalism and promoting ‘brotherhood’ and ‘unity.’ People prayed to him as if praying to God. My grandfather was in the front row of Tito worshippers. He loved him with a special sort of love, somewhere between adulation and fear.

“I remember him crying for days when Tito died,” said my grandmother. “He mourned for Tito, longer and deeper than he did for his own father.”

People felt safe then. Today, to us, this seems like a false security, a feeling of dependency that grew out of communist rule, when ‘love thy neighbor’ was more ideology than conviction.

It was in late November last year at a party arranged by the Croatian community in Vienna, that I witnessed separatist nationalism first hand. Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Macedonian dance groups took part. After the performances, a party had been arranged.

“Can I have one Jelen please,” a guy from my group asked for a Serbian-brand beer. After being ignored, he asked again and finally received his punishment for intentionally provoking the waitress: “We do not serve Serbian beer at a Croatian party.”

An insensitive question and inappropriate answer.

Some ‘hidden’ tensions still exist, undoubtedly, and lie sleeping somewhere below the surface where circumstances could perhaps one day stir them back to life. In Tito’s time, the peoples and cultures of Yugoslavia had all lived happily together, until the promise of power had seduced old jealousies back to the heat of passion once again.

Back at Marshal’s Pub, we all drank Serbian wine. It was the best one on the menu.  Looking at the wine bottle: 2008 – it too had left the past behind. Finally, glasses were again raised, and then voices. This often happens when Serbians – and Croats, and Bosnians – get to the third bottle: Ja sam mala garava, crna tvoja ciganka. (I’m your dark-skinned little one, your little black Gypsy.)

A person at the neighboring table stood up to toast with us. He didn’t know the words.

“Oh, this is lovely,” I heard the pronounced sing-song of the Emerald Isle.

“Ireland?”

“Yeah. I am Paul, my friend Dizzy, two girls over there are from Germany and…”

“…and I am from Bosnia,” a girl introduced herself in Serbo-Croatian. It puzzled me. Why would the Irish and the Germans come to a Serbian pub on a Sunday night, I asked her:

“These guys spend more time here than you or me!” she laughed.

“And it’s the only lively bar on a Sunday,” Dizzy added, on the bottom line.

Germans, Bosnians, Serbs, Irish… We’d all fought one another in one alliance or other at some point in history. In the pub, we were one happy family. Maybe it was just the alcohol, or perhaps the thick dust of history so generously veiling the memories of ambition or injury. I was really not sure. It certainly was too much for that night.

On the way home, we stopped for a Turkish kebab.

 

Maršal Nas Pub
16., Herbststraße 32
Tue.-Thu. 17:00 – 00:00
Fri., Sat., Sun., 17:00 – 02:00
0699 174 85 878
generalstab@marsalpub.com

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