Two years after the death of Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia is engaged in a fit of public soul-searching about one of the most controversial episodes of his long rule: the physical and psychological tortures inflicted on thousands of pro- Soviet Communists who opposed his break with Moscow in 1948.
In recent months, a series of novels, plays and newspaper articles has shed new light on the historic conflict between Tito and the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin -- the first schism within the world communist movement. And while no one here questions Tito's decision to stand up to Stalin, doubts have been raised for the first time about the methods used to silence his domestic opponents.
At the center of the controversy is the concentration camp set up in great secrecy on Goli Otok ("Naked Island"), an arid and desolate outcrop of rock in the northern Adriatic Sea. Between 1948 and 1952, thousands of alleged pro-Soviet sympathizers passed through the camp. Some died as the result of the treatment they received there. Others committed suicide.
Word of the camp first leaked out in the early '50s -- but, as long as Tito was alive, the subject was taboo for the semiofficial press. Even Western history books on Yugoslavia scarcely mention Goli Otok. It is only now, 30 years later, that the truth is coming out.
What made Goli Otok unique as a prison camp was that the inmates were forced to beat and torture each other. The idea was not merely to isolate Yugoslav supporters of Stalin, but to break them psychologically and thus prevent them from ever becoming a Soviet fifth column inside Yugoslavia.
Antonije Isakovic, the author of a best- selling novel about Goli Otok which was published in March, says the camp revealed "the darkest side of human character." His account of what took place there, based on lengthy talks with former prisoners, has been compared by literary critics to Dante's "Inferno" or Dostoevsky's "Home of the Dead."
Isakovic is reluctant to talk about the methods used on Goli Otok which, he says, took him a whole book to analyze. But, in an interview here, he did provide one example which sums up what the camp was like.
New arrivals, together with those inmates deemed still politically unreformed, were forced to run through a corridor of fellow prisoners wielding sticks and whips. The guards stood back and watched as the victim was beaten and verbally abused.
Some victims collapsed, bleeding, on the ground. Those who made it to the end were required to point out which of the prisoners had not beaten them hard enough. These men were then forced to run the gauntlet themselves.
"The persecuted became the persecutors," Isakovic said. "Just try to imagine what someone's mind must have gone through if he would report on a friend who had tried to be kind to him."
These character-destroying techniques were one reason for the silence that later surrounded Goli Otok. Neither prisoners nor guards wanted to talk about their experiences in public. Some inmates became so dependent on their captors that, in later life, they were almost incapable of taking even trivial decisions for themselves.
A lecturer at Belgrade University recalled the case of a friend from Goli Otok who would anxiously ask the security police if he should take out a loan or get married. "Finally they got fed up with him and told him to go away . . . Yugoslavia had changed but he hadn't."
Many Yugoslav officials and journalists insist that what happened at Goli Otok should be seen in the context of the times. In 1948, after being expelled from Stalin's Cominform, Yugoslavia was fighting for its very existence. Tito knew that, unless he destroyed the supporters of Stalin, they would destroy him.
"Had we not sent the Cominformists to a place like Goli Otok, the whole of Yugoslavia might be a Goli Otok today" was how one senior official put it.
While Isakovic accepts that there is something in this argument, he also has reservations which are shared by many other Yugoslavs.
First, as well as the hardline Stalinists, many innocent people ended up in Goli Otok. Some were arrested by mistake, others were caught up in a witchhunt or sent there by petty officials anxious to settle old scores.
Second, Isakovic questions whether the ends always justify the means. "This is a very dangerous argument," he said. "We were fighting Stalinism with Stalinist methods when the real weapons against Stalinism are greater freedom and greater democracy."
The debate about Goli Otok is all the more remarkable because it represents one of the very rare occasions when a communist country has openly discussed its own victims. Even now, however, many details remain obscure -- including the number of prisoners. Figures have ranged from 8,000 (published in the Yugoslav press) to over 50,000 (an estimate by Amnesty International).
The controversy has been taken up by young people anxious to learn the truth about their own country at last. When Isakovic gave a lecture at a students' center in Belgrade, more than 1,200 people showed up -- a huge gathering for such an event.
The Communist youth paper, Mladost, has also entered the fray. In an open letter to the Yugoslav leadership, it called for a full investigation into why it was that "inmates were tortured in a way worthy of the Nazi concentration camps and Stalin's Gulag."
In addition to Isakovic's novel, "The Instant," a play about the treatment of Stalinists is showing to full houses all over Yugoslavia. Called "The Karamazovs," it tells the story of a pro-Soviet army officer who declared himself for Stalin in 1948. After being brought up to believe in the Soviet dictator as a kind of demigod, he finds he cannot change his opinions overnight -- and is beaten and brainwashed by his fellow officers.
The success of "The Karamazovs" is a sign of increasing cultural liberalization in Yugoslavia: five years ago the same play was banned.
Isakovic, who began writing "The Instant" in 1976 and sent it to the publisher in 1979, sees the spate of works about Goli Otok as a kind of national cleansing or catharsis. He compares it to the soul-searching that went on in the United States following the war in Vietnam.
"America overcame the experience of Vietnam by talking about it. Had it not done so, it would not be a democratic country -- but a concentration camp. We too have to tell the truth about our past," he said.