Problems of modernisation in Serbia at the start of the twentieth century

Author: Dubravka Stojanovic
Uploaded: Tuesday, 09 December, 2008

A scholarly and witty talk by the historian - and author of the recently published Kaldrma i asfalt on the modernisation of Belgrade in the years before World War I - discusses how liberal ideas were interpreted, and implemented or not, in the first years of Serbia’s independence, in ways that retain their relevance to this day.

Liberal-democratic ideas reached Serbia practically at the same time as they emerged in Europe. Beginning with the 1840s, the works of the main liberal and democratic thinkers were translated into Serb only a few years after their publication, and in due course laws based on these ideas and books came to be written. These laws, it must be said, were largely translated from foreign languages: they were not interpreted but simply copied. This was commonly done, but it led ultimately to deformation and changes, to such an extent that the faults of these translated laws metastasized and lost all relation with the adopted European model.

When talking about liberal democracy, it is important to remember that definitions vary. A minimal definition can be that democracy assumes a certain set of institutions and decision-making procedures. Taken from this angle, the Serbian case appeared perfectly fine: there could be no doubt that beginning with the last decades of the 19th century everything was in accord with Europe. The problem lies in the fact that the analyses made by our historians, political scientists and legal historians stopped there.1 Were the constitution and the laws O.K.? Yes. Were the institutions created - assembly, government and courts - separated? Yes. So everything was in order. But they never investigated how it all functioned, and wherein actually lay the systemic error that soon turned them into their opposites. I wish to speak here about what is a very important aspect of the democratic order, because in their analysis of democracy theoreticians have come to understand that this minimal definition of democracy cannot stand: that it is not enough to guarantee the existence of a democratic society, and that society must also adopt certain ideals to guide its functioning. And, finally, that it must also have a degree of political culture that permits such a system to function in the prescribed manner.

Talk of democracy commonly begins with the ideals of the French Revolution, in other words the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. What I have done is to analyse how these ideals were understood in Serbian society in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th. We immediately find here an explanation for why things could not function properly. Our historians have largely analysed the ideal of liberty and have rightly concluded that in the 19th century the people understood this all very well, learning from the books that had been brought in from the West. But an insoluble problem arose immediately with the second ideal: that of equality. Equality came into the history of ideas in various ways. It is one of the key ideals of the French Revolution, but in its liberal interpretation it is above all the equality of all citizens before the law. However, it was never understood in this manner here [in Serbia]. Our citizens were never equal before the law, for the simple reason that we did not adopt the ideal of the legal state, since our state was always a party state. The second problem lies in the fact that equality, while being embraced as the greatest value, was understood in a way directly contrary to its original meaning. Here it was understood as social equality, i.e. social rather than legal equality: not as the right of all to enjoy the same social opportunity, but as the obligation to remain socially equal, to prevent anyone becoming rich - better that the neighbour’s cow should perish! This understanding of the ideal of equality derived logically from the type of society that prevailed in Serbia until the Second World War, a society that was indeed made up of largely equal people, where eighty- seven per cent of the population were peasants, of whom over fifty per cent had less that two hectares of land. To have two hectares of land which you worked with oxen and a wooden plough meant going hungry already in February.

So this was the social matrix that had to be maintained at all costs: that no one should stick out, that society should not stratify, that it should never change, that it should never modernise, because this type of ideal of equality was seen as a kind of protection, which made us feel safe. For if this were called into question, if social differentiation were to take off, we should find ourselves in a completely unknown situation. This produced the ideology described above, which Latinka Perović in particular has written much about, and which was best defined by Dobrica Ćosić when he said that backwardness was an advantage. Here we find that backwardness of ours, the perception that equality in poverty is an advantage, a kind of cradle that we fear to leave. A long time before Ćosić, back in the 1890s the British traveller Viviani passed through Serbia and wrote a travelogue with the title Serbia - The Poor Man’s Paradise. This more or less sums it up. In other words, we are safe if we are all the same, regardless of the fact that we are poor; better this than to enter risky social situations in which the individual will be forced to look after himself, which might bring him pain. The main fear, in fact, is that we may have to confront some problem alone, as individuals.

I will read you a quotation from Samouprava, the daily of the People’s Radical Party that governed Serbia for over fifty years, which practically formulates this as an ideology, as a doctrine. It says: ‘The transition from patriarchal life, in which the zadruga heads took care of the progress and welfare of the whole zadruga1 - the transition, therefore, from that way of life into one in which every one of its members had to look after himself - meant that every individual worked less well, and that he was much more affected by harmful influences.’ This is in effect a proclamation of what could be described as a national Peter Pan syndrome. In other words, that the nation should not grow up, that we should remain in the cradle where, as they openly say, the zadruga head would take care of the whole zadruga. It is not up to us to think. He will do all the thinking. But he cannot be held responsible, since his position is not elective - he remains unchallenged until he dies. He is to do the thinking, he is to take care while we all remain in the foetal position, in the soft womb of the community, because anything else is too risky. To leave or to question is highly dangerous; and there are also, as they say in conclusion, those harmful influences that can confuse the individual much more easily than when we all remain together. And these harmful influences come from all sides, they bewilder us, they upset us with their foreign tongues, they force us to learn things; whereas in this way, when we are all together, then, o brother!, they cannot do a thing to us.

Arriving at this level of analysis, I have already destroyed what I mentioned at the outset: the individual is missing. All that they had learned so diligently - and they had read it all, Stuart Mill and that the freedom of one individual is limited by the freedom of another - but over here there is no individual, because the warm womb of the community is the place where we obviously feel best, and which is recommended as the social model for us. Therefore, the main thing in the national assembly was to make fun of citizens, and especially of those who were somewhat better educated than the otherwise practically illiterate average. It was a kind of sport pursued both in journals and in the assembly: whenever you did not know what to say, you could at least take a poke at your opponent. Who, as we know, is by definition an enemy, either because his wife wears hats and corsets, which is wrong in itself since she should wear simple skirts and headscarfs, or because he is too educated. As one of the most popular deputies often used to say, ‘when there were fewer literate people here, Christ walked in this land’. So this is the concept: as soon as you learn to read and write, you raise your head from the warm womb and cause problems. Along with the rhetoric, the sport - for it was the best way to insult someone - this came also to infuse the laws.

I have not yet mentioned here examples concerning Belgrade. When, for example, Belgrade was discussed in the Serbian national assembly - whether to approve some loan for it, some credit for sewage or an aqueduct - the deputies would argue that Belgrade should not allowed to develop too much, because it would infringe upon equality. Here are a few quotations: ‘it would look like a bare-footed dandy with a top hat’, which means that the dandy is barefoot below but puts on a top hat. Or ‘it would look like wearing a patent-leather shoe on one foot, while the other is shoeless’; or like ‘a peasant carrying a silk umbrella’. Such arguments were used to hinder the development of Belgrade: one should not allow Belgrade to advance too far; to create such a difference between Belgrade and, as they would say, the rest of our people. This, in principle, truly hindered Serbia’s development. Many historians who disagree with this interpretation say that it was all just demagogy, when at the time of some election it was claimed that railways would change our society, introduce something that alien to us, and so on. Latinka Perović has written about how the assembly voted against the law on a national health service, on the grounds that it was unnecessary to bring in doctors, vaccination and such like, because our people was naturally healthy. This leads to cases such as those I have already mentioned in Peščanik, like when the assembly voted in favour of a law banning houses on two floors, because by sticking out too much they would offend our people. The plan was simply to curry favour with those notorious Belgrade millionaires - you can imagine the kind of millionaire wishing to build a second floor! And so on.

The third ideal, that of fraternity, is the most complicated theoretically, and there are many debates on what it actually means. But one possible reading of it is to interpret it at the national level, i.e. as a concept of national fellowship and national unity. What is particularly important to understand here is that a key aspect of democratic theory is that the three ideals - those of liberty, equality and fraternity - are mutually equal. That they serve only to control each other, so that society may advance; but that one can never claim to be more important than the others, since only if they are of equal value can society truly develop. When we address the national ideal in our [Serbian] historical experience, we can immediately see in all texts that these ideals were not treated as equal, but that there were always clear priorities. If we were to draw up a ranking of these priorities, we would find the national one far ahead of all others. Equality, as social equality, was of secondary importance, while individual liberty remained effectively imprisoned in journals, libraries and perhaps university halls, where it was discussed but always remained in the position of something that might one day perhaps be reached, once we had achieved what is known to be most important and rank highest.

I can quote here another passage, this time from the Independent Radical Party’s paper Odjek . The most liberal names of Serbian intellectual and political history wrote in it: Jovan Skerlić, Milan Grol, Ljuba Davidović, Ljuba Stojanović. The text says quite openly: ‘One must subordinate all political demands to this policy’ - meaning the national policy. The article thus talks of subordination, which a military term, not even bothering to use a euphemism such as ‘hierarchy’. No, it is subordination. It continues: ‘We do not question the importance of differentiation of political ideas.’ See, they don’t question the importance of it. They had studied in Paris, they had brought from there the ideas of pluralism, democracy and so on, yet they say they do not question the importance of differentiation of political ideas. And they add: ‘But we insist that internal liberties’ - which means freedom of the individual - ‘must not go beyond what is required for this, our noble and greater task’, without specifying what the greater task consists of, since it went without saying at the time that it was a question of so-called national liberation and unification. You will find this same argument over every law proposed at that time. Such as the law on freedom of the press: whether we did or did not need a free press. They agreed in the end that such a law could pass, provided that it did not go too far, because - I will again quote a paragraph to illustrate what I mean - ‘unfree Serbdom right now demands of us not a law on freedom of the press, but our unity, and our unanimity, and our fraternal exertion on behalf of its liberation’. This is how all problems were solved: we cannot have freedom of the press right now, wait for national unification to be completed, after which it will be no problem. Not now a road or a factory, not now a school, not now...... Nothing doing. Wait, unfree Serbdom demands of us to wait, we all know what the priority is, after which everything will be hunky-dory. But solving the national problem has been taking two centuries, nor can it be solved, and in the meantime everyone has been waiting in the anteroom.

Actually, the problem did not lie even in what could be called the hierarchy [of priorities], or what they preferred to call subordination, but - and here, I think, we come to the basic misunderstanding - in the fact that this egalitarian understanding of equality and this nationalist model of fraternity were in fact fused; and that this social equality - which assumed that we ought all to be the same, equal in poverty - was perceived as the precondition for national cohesion. So only by being the same in this way (God forbid that someone should get rich!), only then are we a nation, only then can we further our patriarchal model of identity, which lies at the source of our strength itself. This is the most crucial and deepest place we can reach through this type of analysis, where the patriarchal model of society appears as the true guardian of a certain kind of identity, one that can guarantee that we shall be good at war. In other words, we must preserve a society of equality in poverty in order to safeguard our national ideal, because that ideal alone permits us to make war for as long as is necessary to achieve it all.

I can take as an example here the fact that Serbia was among the first European states to subsidise university education for women, which was quite unbelievable for a country in which over eighty per cent of the population was illiterate. The Serbian state systematically funded university education for women, and since we had no universities at the time they were largely educated in Switzerland. Several female doctors and architects did indeed graduate there, but a problem arose in that other laws were not harmonized with the worthy intention on the part of the state to have these women educated. On the basis of the existing employment regulations, on their return to Serbia these women were not allowed to practise as doctors, higher school teachers or architects, because the law did not permit it. The state, in other words, spent the money but could not help them on their return. They could work as nurses or primary-school teachers, as architectural assistants in offices, but they could not practise in the same way as their male colleagues.

A first group of women, in this case medical doctors, appealed to the assembly in 1904. to be allowed to practise on a par with their male colleagues. This set off an unbelievable parliamentary debate, which went on forever and greatly amused the deputies, who followed one another in contriving who would be the more humorous demagogue. When the actual vote grew near, the true arguments appeared. A number of deputies argued that one could not allow this to women, because if women started to work our patriarchal family would suffer. They said that, being different from other nations, we could not so easily abandon our patriarchal family. The patriarchal nature of our family, they said, had to be upheld, because it was indispensable to us. Why? Because of national liberation and unification. Let me illustrate this with another quotation. One deputy said: ‘Leave the Serbian woman in peace in her Kosovo home, so that she may lull to sleep the future avengers of Kosovo with her Senj songs‘.1 It is perfectly plain: Kosovo has been in a frozen position since 1389; this is the question of all questions, and it can be used to hinder anything, including the right of women doctors to work as doctors.

But my favourite example is that of the Belgrade sewer system. I can’t resist referring to it, since it seems to me to sum it all up. As we have already discussed on Peščanik, thirty-five years were spent in debating the installation of sewers, before which it all flowed along the Belgrade streets. Infections spread, everyone knew how harmful it was, but for various reasons the decision on the sewers could not be made. The quotation goes: ‘If we were to beautify Belgrade at the people’s expense’ - in other words, it is not a matter of sewers but of beautification of Belgrade - ‘we should not be able to send to war the kind of soldiers we need to deploy.’ How could sewers prevent one from deploying soldiers? I really don’t understand it. Great Britain, which at that moment had both sewers and women doctors, was at this time an empire extending to all continents. That did not, in other words, prevent it from fighting wars. But here this was in fact used to obstruct any kind of development, and to ensure that we should remain in a warm womb where no one was permitted to stick out. The error, in other words, was in the very way in which things were perceived.

Translated from a discussion broadcast on the Peščanik [Hourglass] website of Belgrade’s Radio B92, 7 November 2008.

 

Translator’s notes

1.The singular exception is Olga Popović-Obradović’s seminal work on the nature and functioning of the Serbian state in this period. Olga Popović-Obradović, Parlamentarizam u Srbiji 1903-1914, Belgrade 1998.

2. The zadruga, which used to prevail in parts of the Balkans, was a peasant social and economic unit based on common ownership of land and animals by an extended family and headed by the oldest male.

3. Senj is a town on the Croatian coast identified with 17th-century anti-Ottoman guerrillas.

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