The 1968 Belgrade Student Revolution

The 1968 Belgrade Student Revolution

An interview with Sonia Licht about the student protests she took part in at Belgrade University against the `Red Bourgeoisie` in1968.

I've been doing quite a bit of reading for a project I've been working on. One the subject involves repression in Yugoslavia. The most well known of these was the 1968 student dominated protest movement. The BBC's History Hour had an interesting section on that event, I've made a short video of the interview with one of the participants.

Its quite interesting, usually apologists for brutality from "Socialist states" like to describe protestors and victims as counter revolutionaries of either bourgeois or Fascist variety. Here though the Belgrade students framed there protests in explicitly Marxist terms, they even dubbed their occupation the Red University of Karl Marx.

The full episode which includes an attempted assassination of an Israeli diplomat and the founding of an excerise program can be heard here. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswqlk

Link https://youtu.be/6O1k5Z6xkLU

I made a transcript of the video too.

Program Announcer:

We begin with another set of student protests from 50 years ago. 1968 was a turbulent year in much of Europe and the U.S, a new found sense of free expression had led to demonstrations against the old elites, against the inequalities of capitalism, and against the Vietnam war. That’s certainly what was happening in the West, but there was also unrest in the Eastern bloc and that’s where we’re going now as we take you back to June 1968 and a student revolt in Communist Yugoslavia which exposed deep discontent at the country’s unique system of market socialism. Dina Newman has been speaking to one of the leaders of that protest Sonia Licht.

[Music- Yugoslavian National Anthem Hej Sloveni]

Dina Newman:
Yugoslavia was formed after World War II as a one-party communist state, by its wartime anti-fascist leader Josip Broz Tito. But Tito soon parted company with Moscow’s brand of communism. And adopted a more flexible approach, the so-called Market Socialism. Yugoslav citizens were allowed to travel and work abroad, but Tito’s Communist Party dominated domestic politics. In 1968 many Yugoslav students still supported socialism but they wanted reform.

Sonia Licht:

Definitely, we were the last generation who believed that socialism can be reformed, can be made better according to the needs of its citizens. And what happened during 68 proved to us that that system that we are living in cannot be made better.

Dina:

Sonia Licht was a twenty-one-year-old philosophy student in the university of Belgrade. Growing up in the 1950’s she had been told that Tito’s Communist party ran the country on behalf of the working classes.

Propaganda films of the time showed enthusiastic workers and happy peasants rebuilding the country from the ruins of World War II.

[Film Narrator] Progress is being made in industry and agriculture, in health and in education, in mining and transportation.

Dina:

But by the end of the 1960’s Yugoslavia had one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe and pockets of dire poverty. Yet top Communist bureaucrats enjoyed high salaries and better housing, health care and education for their children. These officials were known as the `Red Bourgeoisie`.

Sonia:
The Red Bourgeoisie, was the leadership of the Communist party, but also directors of huge corporations such as export-import companies, they had all kinds of privileges that the working people did not have.

Dina:

At the same time, yourself and many other students were actually members of the Communist party, so you still believed in the Communist ideology, right?

Sonia:
Well we should make a difference Dina between socialism and communism. We believed in the socialist project, we believed in social justice, we believed in the necessity to have an alternative to hardline Stalinist communism, but also to American Imperialism.

Dina:

Inspired by their vision of socialism as well as the student protests in Western Europe on the 2nd of June around 4,000 Belgrade University students attempted a protest march. They were [pushed back by armed police and retreated to their Halls of Residence in the so-called student city on the outskirts of Belgrade.

Sonia:
I joined on the next day, the mood was, well something between the kind of euphoria and wondering what is going to be the next steps.

Dina:

Then news came through that the Faculty of Philosophy in the centre of Belgrade had been occupied. Sonia and some of her friends hurried there. They found students as well as hundreds of residents gathered around the faculty building.

Sonia:
The news started spreading, the media also started giving some reports, of course they were terribly negative against the students `class enemies` etc, etc, the usual stuff. But still the citizens of Belgrade started assembling.

Dina:

Encouraged by public support, the protestors renamed their University the Red University of Karl Marx. Day and night, they debated Marxist philosophy and political developments elsewhere in Europe. They drew up a list of demands, including freedom of speech and assembly and the end of the hated Red Bourgeoisie. Many leading intellectuals and artists joined the protest.

Sonia:

For example, I remember the most famous Yugoslav actor whom I met one morning at 4 o’clock in the morning, completely on her own, [hard to make out, best guess is Dušica Žegarac an actress who took part in the student protests, - Transcriber note] was at that time quite young, very famous. She took some gloves and water and she was cleaning the bathrooms. On her own, no one asked her to do it. For me she remained one of the symbols of the 68 movement. Cleaning the loos, which was not the most pleasant thing to do.

Dina:
Because of course you had several thousand people and those bathrooms must have been over flowing.

Sonia:
Of course they were.

Dina:

But on the fourth day of the protest a woman from a local factory approached Sonia. She said that bosses at her factory were organising `hit squads` groups of workers who were going to storm the university building that night. The protest organisers most of the students to leave the faculty building for their own safety, and only a hundred or so of the most determined protestors stayed on. Sonia was among them.

Sonia:

If I would tell you that I was not afraid that wouldn’t be true, in the same time we were relying on each other, we were trusting each other and we were really feeling, thinking there is something so much bigger than us going on that whatever happens, happens.

Dina:
And you were preparing yourself for some kind of violent confrontation?

Sonia:
Yes.

Dina:
And what happened?

Sonia:
Nothing, no one came.

Dina:
Wow, how did you feel after that?

Sonia:
People would expect that you feel happy, that is not that simple, because, you know because we were the last generation to believe in socialism. And then your illusions are being smashed. Every such situation leaves an emptiness in you. So, I remember that feeling of emptiness as well.

Dina:

Thousands of students returned to the protest the next day and the occupation in Belgrade lasted for seven days and nights in all. There were student protests in other parts of the country too, but on the 9th of June President Tito gave a speech which came as a surprise not only to the students but also to his own advisors.

[Brief excerpt of Tito’s speech in Serbo-Croatian]

Sonia:
He said that the students are right, there are many things that went wrong in the country, he sides with the students; except a small group that are the enemies and that are working someone else’s interest. We immediately knew that the small group are we at the Faculty of Philosophy and that we will be singled out as the enemy. So he did one of his famous, famous manipulations, he was a great manipulator.

Dina:
Most students fell for Tito’s manipulative rhetoric and returned to their Halls of Residence.

[Serbian folk music plays]

Dina:
The student city on the outskirts of Belgrade shook with the sounds of `Kolo` a traditional Serbian circle dance, as the students celebrated their apparent victory.

While most students celebrated, Sonia and her colleagues at the Faculty of Philosophy braced themselves for the reprisals. Sonia and a few other activists were kicked out of the Communist Party, their passports were confiscated and they were barred from jobs in education. Eventually some student leaders were arrested and served jail terms, so on the face of it Tito won. But Sonia believes that their protest was not in vain.

Sonia:
We changed the understanding about the real nature of the regime. We understood that the right to rebel should be a basic Human Right, but it isn’t. And that this so-called socialism cannot be reformed, it has to be destroyed.

Program Announcer:
Sonia Licht, who is now the president of a think tank called the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence was speaking to Dina Newman. And there’s a photo of Sonia on our website, as ever search for BBC Witness.