When we speak of democracy, we usually start from the ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality and brotherhood, and I analyzed how these ideals were understood in the Serbian society of the late 19th and early 20th century. We are certain to find the reason why things cannot work there. Our historians have mainly analyzed the ideal of freedom and have rightly concluded that these people from the 19th century had understood the books they brought from the West. However, an unsolvable problem comes with the other ideal, the ideal of equality. In various ways equality had been entering the ideas of history; it was one of the key ideals of the French Revolution. However, its liberal understanding is above all an equality of citizens before the law. This was almost never understood in this way here, and citizens were not equal before the law for the simple reason that we did not implement the state of law as an ideal, it was always a party state. Another problem was that equality here had always been embraced as a main value, but it was understood in a way that’s opposed to its original sense. Here it was understood as social equality, not as legal equality – not as a right of all people to have equal social opportunities, but as a requirement for all people to remain socially the same – don’t anyone dare get rich. That sort of understanding this ideal was a logical consequence of the type of society we had in Serbia up to WWII – a society of largely equal people, where peasants made up 87 percent of the population and 50 percent of those peasants had but 5 acres of land. To have 5 acres of land with a wooden plow and oxen meant that as soon as February you had nothing left to eat.

This is the social matrix they want to keep at all cost, so no one ever steps out of it, so the society never stratifies, never changes, so that it never modernizes – because in this equality lied some sort of protection, this is where we are secure. Because if that was questioned, if the social stratification comes, we find ourselves in an strange situation and this is where we come to this ideology that Latinka Perović wrote about before everyone else, although it is best defined by Dobrica Ćosić when he said “backwardness as an advantage”. This is where this backwardness of ours, this equality in poverty is seen as an advantage – as some sort of cradle we are too scared to step out of. Many years before Dobrica Ćosić, back in the 1820’s, a British travel writer Vivian passed through Serbia and wrote a study called “Servia: The Poor Man’s Paradise”.[1] That’s roughly it. We are safe if we’re all the same – never mind if we’re all poor, better that than to get into some risky social situations in which every individual will have to fend for himself, which can be painful for him. So the main fear, in fact, is of us facing some problem as individuals.

I will read you a passage from the daily Samouprava, that belonged to the People’s Radical Party, which governed Serbia for more than 50 years. This simply phrases this as a doctrine. It says: “By crossing over from the patriarchal way of life, in which the elders of the zadruga[2] took it upon themselves to worry about the advancement and the wellbeing of the whole zadruga, to another way of life, in which every member needed to take care of himself, every individual was less fit to work and various harmful influences affected him more severely.” This is simply a sort of proclamation of something we could call a national Peter Pan syndrome. That is to say – a way for a people not to grow up, for us to stay in this cradle where, as they state openly, an elder of the zadruga will worry about the entire zadruga. We are not to think of anything, he’s going to do the thinking – he bears no responsibility because he is not elected to this position, it’s a lifelong position. He will think, he will worry, and all of us should stay in the fetal position, in the soft womb of this community, because everything else is very risky. If we step out, if the individual lifts his head u, it is extremely dangerous, and as they say in the end – these harmful influences are coming from all sides, confusing us, torturing us with foreign languages, making us learn different thing, and when we’re together none of that is needed.

And since we reached this level of analysis, I already tore down what I said in the beginning – there is no individual. They learned all that well, they read Stuart Mill, the freedom of an individual is limited by the freedom of others, but the individual is no longer here, because society’s warm womb is a place where we obviously feel better and which is recommended to us as a social model. So the main thing in the Assembly was to mock the citizens, especially those who are somewhat better educated than the almost illiterate majority. It was some sort of sports in the newspapers and in the Assembly. Whenever you find yourself short on argument, it comes in handy to call your opponent, who is always an enemy, too educated or to say that his wife wears corsets and hats, which is not good – she should be wearing skirts and kerchiefs. One of the most popular representatives often used to repeat his theory how “when there were less literate people here, Christ used to walk this earth”. Therefore, this is the concept – as soon as you get an education, you lift your head up from this warm cradle and that’s where all the problems come in. But besides this rhetoric, besides the verbal sports being the best way to offend someone – this welled over into laws.

Maybe I didn’t state examples in Belgrade. When, for instance, there is a discussion on Belgrade in the National Assembly of Serbia how a loan should be approved for indoor plumbing or piping, the representatives used to say that Belgrade should by no means develop that way, because it would be unjust. Here are a couple of quotes: “It would look like a barefoot dandy in a top hat” or “It would look like someone putting on a polished shoe, while his other foot is bare” or “It is like a peasant wearing a silk umbrella”. So the development of Belgrade was being obstructed with these kinds of arguments. Belgrade must not be allowed to advance too much, to create a huge gap between Belgrade and, what they would call, the rest of our people. This, in essence, was really preventing Serbia to develop and many historians who oppose this interpretation are saying that this was a part of demagoguery, that it was used in the election campaigns – that the railroad will change our society, introduce something we’re not used to etc. Latinka Perović wrote about how the Assembly did not pass the national health law because they assumed that our nation is healthy by nature, so there is no need for doctors, vaccinations and the rest. This stretches to those examples which I talked about on Peščanik, when laws were passed against two-story buildings being constructed in Belgrade, because they are too contrasting and they are insulting to our people. It is playing up to famous millionaires of Belgrade – and you can imagine those millionaires who build a second story.

The third ideal, the ideal of brotherhood, is the most complicated one in theory. There are many discussions on what it really means, but one of the possibilities to understand it is to read it in the national key so it is a concept of a national community and national unity. What is of great importance here is to understand that in democratic theory one of the essential things is that each of those three ideals – liberty, equality and brotherhood – are equal. Therefore, they only control one another so society could advance, but none can be emphasized as being more important than the other two. Only when they are equally important can they the development of society. When we get to the ideal of nationality in our historical experience, we can tell from all the documents that these ideals were not equally important and that there always were clear priorities and that, if we make a list of those priorities, the national priority would be on top. Equality, as social equality, came second and individual freedom was restricted to magazines, libraries and possibly university classrooms where it was discussed, but it was always in a position which we will come to if someday we obtain what is clearly most important and what tops the list.

I can quote another newspaper, Odjek, which belonged to the Independent Radical Party. This is where Skerlić, Grol, Ljuba Davidović, Ljuba Stojanović wrote, those are the most liberal names of Serbian intellectual and political history, and here one article openly states: “To this policy,” referring to the national policy “all other political demands must be subordinated.” Therefore – subordination. This is now a military term, these are not even delicate terms such as hierarchy. No, it’s subordination. They continue: “we are not disputing the importance of differentiation of political ideas.” Imagine that – they are not disputing the importance. They used to study in Paris, they brought here the idea of plurality, democracy and so on, but they say that they are not disputing the importance of differentiation of political ideas, and they continue: “but we must say that inner freedoms,” this is the individual freedom, “should not cross the boundary of our higher and more important task” – and they are not even explaining the higher task, because at the time it is understood that this is the so-called national liberation and unification. You can find this argument in every bill that was voted on at the time. Freedom of the press – do we need it or not. They agree that we need it, but that it shouldn’t be taken too far, because, and again I will read you a quote to prove that what I’m saying is true: “The unliberated Serbian people are not asking us to pass a law on freedom of the press right now, they are asking us for unity and solidarity and our brotherly effort for their liberation.” This is how you deal with every problem – now is not the time for freedom of the press, wait till we deal with national liberation first. Now is not the time for the road, for the hospital for the school… not now, not anything. Hold on, the unliberated Serbian people want us to wait, we know our priorities, after that everything else will be dealt with smoothly. The only thing is that this national problem was not solved for two centuries, nor can it be solved, and all the other problems are left to wait in the lobby.

Translated by Ivica Pavlović

Peščanik, Radio B92, 07.11.2008.


  1.  Herbert Vivian, Servia: The Poor Man’s Paradise (London, New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897).
  2.  Communal joint-families [T.N.]

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Dubravka Stojanović, istoričarka, magistrirala 1992 („Srpska socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918“), doktorirala 2001 („Evropski demokratski uzori kod srpske političke i intelektualne elite 1903-1914“) na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu. Od 1988. do 1996. radi u Institutu za noviju istoriju Srbije, pa prelazi na Odeljenje za istoriju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, gde 2008. postaje vanredna, a 2016. redovna profesorka na katedri za Opštu savremenu istoriju. U saradnji sa Centrom za antiratne akcije 1993. radi na projektu analize udžbenika. Sa Milanom Ristovićem piše i uređuje školske dodatne nastavne materijale „Detinjstvo u prošlosti“, nastale u saradnji istoričara svih zemalja Balkana, koji su objavljeni na 11 jezika regiona. Kao potpredsednica Komiteta za edukaciju Centra za demokratiju i pomirenje u Jugoistočnoj Evropi iz Soluna, urednica je srpskog izdanja 6 istorijskih čitanki za srednje škole. Dobitnica je odlikovanja Nacionalnog reda za zasluge u rangu viteza Republike Francuske. Knjige: Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socijaldemokratija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (1994), Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o “zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije” (2003, 2019) – Nagrada grada Beograda za društvene i humanističke nauke za 2003; Srbija 1804-2004 (sa M. Jovanovićem i Lj. Dimićem, 2005), Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (2008), Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije (2010), Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek (2011), Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (2013), Rađanje globalnog sveta 1880-2015. Vanevropski svet u savremenom dobu (2015) i Populism the Serbian Way (2017).

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