The Times, Jan 26 2017
Dissident sentenced to death by Tito’s communists only to escape and become a distinguished economist in the UK
Sirc was sentenced to death in 1947
At the age of 27, Ljubo Sirc was sentenced to death. It was 1947, and at least 200,000 people had been murdered under Marshal Tito’s reign of terror in Yugoslavia. Sirc was one of the accused in the infamous Nagode show trial against members of a newly formed liberal party in Slovenia. Crtomir Nagode, their leader, was executed, but others, including Sirc, had their sentences commuted to 20 years in prison.
When Sirc had been arrested, he had been taken to the former psychiatric department of Ljubljana’s main hospital, which had been used by the Gestapo for interrogations. There he was questioned by the notorious Mitja Ribicic, the man in charge of the reign of terror, about a trip he had taken into the mountains with the British consul and his family.
“From this Ribicic concocted the tale that I had spied on all the factories on the only possible road, although I had not been near one of them,” Sirc later wrote. “After this first interrogation, I was not allowed to sleep for a fortnight.”
At the end of the trial, when Ribicic told Sirc that his death sentence was being commuted, Sirc asked about his father, Franjo, who had also been put on trial, telling Ribicic that he surely knew that he had done nothing wrong. “Oh well,” Ribicic replied, “if he has not done what we have accused him of, he has certainly done something else. It will do him no harm to be re-educated.” Franjo died four years into his sentence. Ribicic was later Tito’s prime minister.
Prison was the making of Ljubo. With his linguistic fluency, his captors had him translate western economists’ writings, “for purposes of internal security”. Each page convinced him “that a communist economy will never function properly”. Sirc gained a deep understanding of communism’s theoretical contradictions. “I lived in constant spiritual excitement,” he wrote. “My mother hardly believed her ears when she visited me, when I excitedly said: ‘Now this is my real university.’”
In the files they held on Sirc, the authorities, recognising his relentless optimism, had given him the nickname “Utopist” or “Utopian”. He had already observed the practical wastes of Stalinist central planning and went on to become one of the world’s foremost critics of anti-democratic politics and economics. His liberal democratic convictions, and the courage with which he upheld them, never wavered. In 2001 he was appointed CBE.
Prison was the making of him, because it taught him about economics
Ljubo Sirc was born in 1920 in Kranj, a small town that had pioneered Slovene industrialisation. This owed much to his maternal grandfather, Ciril Pirc, the town’s mayor in the Twenties, and to his father, who had founded the textile industry there. Zdenka, his mother, gave up her pharmacy studies to devote herself to the family business. His father hoped Ljubo would follow, but two bouts of tuberculosis as a teenager led to a year in a sanatorium in Austria and two more years in Switzerland, where avid reading increased his interest in politics.
Sirc enrolled in the law faculty at the University of Ljubljana on the day Germany invaded Poland. In April 1941, as German forces approached Kranj, the Sirc and Pirc families fled to Ljubljana, which was under more liberal Italian occupation, and Ljubo joined a resistance group. In 1943, intent on reporting conditions in Slovenia to the outside world, he escaped over the mountains to Switzerland, breaking a leg on the way. The following year he made his way back to Yugoslavia to join the resistance forces, but was eventually arrested; partisans, it seemed, had been more concerned about keeping out non-communists than about fighting the Nazis.
Released in 1954, Sirc fled across the mountains again, this time to Italy: “I escaped across the border because the secret police tried to force me into working for them,” he wrote. He studied at the University of Perugia then travelled to London as a political refugee. He worked for the BBC monitoring service, listening to Yugoslav and Bulgarian broadcasts, and held a post at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
In 1961 he gained his doctorate in economics from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, then taught in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and at St Andrews before settling in 1965 at the University of Glasgow, where he spent 20 years teaching international economics. He went against the grain of the times, writing and campaigning about why communism was destined to fail. He was told by a group of left-wing intellectuals that he had deserved to be executed in 1947.
Much of his writing exposed the problems of the Yugoslav experiments with self-managed enterprises. In 1983 he was a co-founder of the Centre for Research into Communist Economies.
He embarked on a protracted, and only minimally successful, attempt to gain restitution for the confiscation of his family’s textile factory. It had been seized by the Germans, who sold it to a Berlin company making rocket parts, and when they burnt it down at the end of the war, the land was taken by the communists and Franjo Sirc conveniently arrested for being a capitalist.
When he was arrested in 1947, Sirc was engaged to Katja Székély — who later became a minister in the independent Slovene government under her married name, Boh — but the engagement did not survive his imprisonment. In London in 1960 he married Mary Johnson, a civil servant. They divorced, and in 1976 Sirc married Susan Powell, a lecturer in German and English at Glasgow, who was a huge support for the next 40 years. Their daughter, Nadia, has pursued a successful career as a solicitor in Glasgow.
In 1989 Sirc published his often harrowing autobiography, Between Hitler and Tito, and in 2010 a greatly extended memoir was published in Slovenia as A Life after a Death Sentence. When a reader asked him how he managed to maintain such a cheerful disposition in light of his dark experiences, he laughed loudly. “I was born with it,” he said.
Wanderer Standard 3 hours ago
RIP, what a life...
mama mia Standard 3 hours ago
A sad piece of news. I knew Ljubo well in Glasgow. He was a gifted and delightful man. R.I.P.