A Belgrade Tradition: 70 Year Anniversary of the First Democratic Protests

On Friday afternoon I was in downtown Belgrade for a couple of business meetings. Aside from the unusually lovely weather in late November, it was a day like any other. I finished both meetings, packed my stuff and got on my cell to call a cab, with juste enought time to get home before my son got back from school. I got the same response from all three cab companies that I called: “We’re sorry but, as a gesture of support to the protests today, we won’t be working for the next hour.” Great. Thankfully, one of my business associates was there with his motorcycle and, knowing his faithful Yamaha steed would get us through almost any crowd or traffic jam, offered to give me a ride home.

Notice I didn’t even bother to ask exactly who was protesting or why. Prostests are so common in Belgrade that most of us tend to just try to ignore them unless they have something to do with the issues affecting our individual lives. Nevertheless, the information junkie that I am, I got home and ended up finding out that the students of the University of Belgrade were protesting new terms for fullfillment of requierments for certain financial aid for tuitions and so on. I wish them all the best in their efforts but I was a student a decade ago and my son is still in elementary school so I’m not really all that interested. Sorry. It did however remind me of a blog post I wrote and tucked away on my hard disk for future use. I thought I’d release it on the exact day that will mark 70 years since the first massive student protest in Belgrade but, with the current students planning on continuing their protest come Monday, this weekend seems like more appropriate timing. We’re taking that step back again now. The one I call retrograde. In fact, take a few steps back ’cause this picture isn’t just big. It’s huge. And you’re going to want to see it.

The year 1939 had been a tough one on all of Europe. In Serbia it was better known as the Bloody Year of 1939. It remained known as such even after World War II, which was just around the corner. What some don’t know and many fail to recall is that, before World War II came about, a vast portion of the Serbian high society, polititians and bourgeoise in Serbia and much of the region, actually liked the ideologies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Yes, you read that right. Don’t forget that Hitler was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938. This vehement little creature with the funny moustache had an ideology that very much appealed to the higher classes and a killer rhetoric. Bluecollar workers and students saw it differently, of course. The Bloody Year of 1939 saw more than 800 protests throughout the Kingdom of  Yugoslavia.

Allow me to introduce you to a few of the characters in this particular story – the story of the first massive organized student and proleterian protests in Serbia. Miloš Matijević, better known as ‘Slim’ (Mrša) was a tall and lanky bluecollar type that had been born and raised on a small, impoverished farm. A hard worker, after years of unsuccessful farming, physical odd jobs and such, he ended up landing a decent gig in the textile industry in Belgrade. In the late 1920’s he became a member of the Communist Party and set his sights on creating better conditions for the working class. True, most of us still cringe at the word ‘communist’ now that we all know what happened post WW II. But all that ‘Slim’ Matijević and those similar to him knew was that it was time for a change and this ‘communism’ thing, equal shares and opportunity for all, seemd like a great idea.

Our next character became a member of the Communist Party in the mid 1930’s and was a Montenegrin born Serb, Radoje Dakić. He was an electro-mechanic working in one of the larger factories of the time in Belgrade and was often arrested for his revolutionary activities and served a sentence or two in prison. A third working class character in the story, but far from the average woman of her time, was Vukica Mitrović. Born in Budva Montenegro, she had attended elementary and secondary schools there before her family’s finacial troubles and move to Belgrade. She was unable to continue her education but soon found an administrative job in  the Belgrade textile industry and joined the Communist Party in 1933. Vukica was arrested in a huge police raid of the offices of the Communist Party in April of 1935 and tortured by the authorities in prison so she would give up certain information and colleagues. Vukica kept quiet and, although a trial was held, she was finally released due to lack of evidence. Her friends called her ‘Sneak’ (Šunja) for her ability to carry out underground revolutionary tasks quietly and efficiently.

Rifat Burdžević

Rifat Burdžević was a baby faced and strong voiced young man. He was born in a small town in Serbia where, after having been orphaned at the age of two, he was raised by family members and enrolled at the Law School of the University of Belgrade in 1933. Last, but certainly not least, there was Aleksandar ‘Leka’ Ranković. ‘Leka’ Ranković was born in Obrenovac and raised mostly by his mother as he had lost his father at a young age. Ranković is a story all on his own so suffice it to say he would later become one of the most significant characters in the Communist Party of the former SFR of Yugoslavia.

These are the five main characters that, though they would have been nothing without the thousands they had following them at the time, organized and carried out an unlikely but successful mass protest. It was early December of 1939 and the workers, the students, the people – were fed up with low wage hard work, lack of bread, milk, other essentials and the lack of interest from the government in all these matters. A protest was organized, mostly by the five young people you have just been introduced to in the above paragraphs. The protest was scheduled for December 5th, 1939 and a permit for such a gathering was requested from the authorities. The permit was denied and warnings issued to the organizers, students and several trade unions. The next day, the organizers rescheduled the protest for December 10th and applied for a permit again. The second permit was also denied and warnings once again issued. The organizers, students and workers had no other choice but to use guerilla tactics. The protest went undergound for the next couple of days. The organizers made sure that the word got out to the authorities that the protest was planned for December 15th, each time giving them a different location. The students and workers had leaders among them that knew that the protest would in fact take place on the evening of December 14th and their task was to gather as many protesters as possible in the sidestreets around the one designated area – Slavija Square.

I imagine it was a cold and gray afternoon. It must have already been dark as the protest leaders and group leaders went from house to house gathering their fellow protesters. Police and guard had heard a rumor that the protest would happen a day early, but units were now hopelessly scattered around several locations in the city and any other information was scarce. The day had been pretty much like any other but as 7 pm approached, it was an empty and eerie sight. Those who were present say that the usually busy Slavija Square was deadly quiet and without a soul in sight except for a few policemen.  Slavija was. The streets around Slavija weren’t. They were absolutely packed with protesters.

Slavija Square, Belgrade, early 20th century.

At 7 pm, Leka, Vukica, Rifat, Radoje and Miloš came out to the center of Slavija Square. Rifat, the young and fiery law student was usually their spokesman and a great one at that. As he yelled out “Down with bloody war! Down with high prices! Down with terror!…” the protesters began to flood the Square. By God, it must have been an awesome sight. Police began regrouping, beating and arresting protesters. Many were injured and many killed. But it was too late. This began days of the most massive protests this region had ever seen. Protests began in other cities of the region and they changed the future and marked history. Mission accomplished.  When will the world learn that the fate of a nation lies on the shoulders of its children, its workers and its intellectuals?

The above is another amazing part of history that has simply been forgotten by most. So much so that as soon as the new democratic government came to power, a few years ago, the street where it all began was renamed from 14th December street to Cara Nikolaja II street. Not that anyone really noticed because most didn’t know why it carried the previous name in the first place. I wonder if the current government remembers how they themselves came to power in October of 2000. I wonder if they realize that, communist or democratic, they had a common goal. I wonder if they realize that they did the exact same thing 60 years later. December 14th marks the 70 year anniversary of the first massive democratic protests in Belgrade. I’ll be having myself a glass of wine around 7 pm and toasting anyone and everyone who took part in it. I hope you’ll join me.


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