Book talk explores link between culture, society in 1920s Belgrade

Assistant professor of history Jovana Babović (pictured above) gave a talk on her book  Metropolitan Belgrade: Class and Culture in Interwar Yugoslavia  on Friday Oct. 12. Babović informed audience members about the history of Yugoslavia and its culture. (Josie Kwan/Assoc. Photo Editor)

Assistant professor of history Jovana Babović (pictured above) gave a talk on her book Metropolitan Belgrade: Class and Culture in Interwar Yugoslavia on Friday Oct. 12. Babović informed audience members about the history of Yugoslavia and its culture. (Josie Kwan/Assoc. Photo Editor)

In the small, comfortable room of Welles 121, the History Department held a book talk on Friday Oct. 12. Assistant professor of history Jovana Babović, who has a specialization in modern European history, discussed her most recent book Metropolitan Belgrade: Class and Culture in Interwar Yugoslavia.

Babović’s book revolves around Belgrade, the capital of a newly unified Yugoslavia in the early 20th century. In her presentation, Babović used a PowerPoint of maps and examples of advertisements she found in her research to probe the history for the audience. 

Metropolitan Belgrade touches upon the social and cultural history of Yugoslavia as the country became curious and eager for new entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s. Since the city envied the European culture of cosmopolitan cities like Paris, Belgrade moved away from more traditional folk performers to accept more foreign acts.

Babović continued to connect society and what it finds entertaining, which she contrasted with the historians’ tendency to focus on politics instead of popular culture. 

“Entertainment in many ways reflects the society we live in, what we do for fun. It often reflects what’s on our mind, what’s happening in the world,” Babović said. “The entertainment industry sometimes challenges or spoofs politics. It’s a global network. It can create unity.”

Associate professor of history Catherine Adams found the talk enlightening, especially when it involved the culture and mass public consciousness.

“Some performers have the ability to be crossovers, to be gateways into culture in a way that is not threatening,” Adams said. “Under the surface it’s not so much about the performer as it is about what that culture thinks about itself.”

Adams believed Babović’s book was an effective expression of the networks that connected Yugoslavia with Europe. 

“Most people don’t know much about that part of the world,” Adams said. ‘We focus on the war instead of the ways the populations interacted with each other. 

The new performances that captured the attention of middle-class Belgradians, like circus performers and jazz bands, paved the way for popular culture in the interwar society. New performers were streaming into the city and pushing the domestic entertainers out. 

Babović described the spatial segregation that took place due to the hordes of international performers who began to populate the city in the 1920s. Belgradians increasingly built cinemas, night clubs and cabarets to sate the demand for entertainment, thus squeezing out native entertainers who performed for the lower classes.

Babović researched heavily and found many performers of interest in Europe. Dancer and burlesque performer Josephine Baker received special attention for her role in the industry. 

Baker was an African American, American-born French entertainer. She was subjected to racist imagery and violent protests as she performed across the world. She was often met on stage with stink bombs and a protesting crowd for pushing the boundaries of entertainment. 

Although these reactions recurred as Baker performed in European cities like Berlin and Budapest and even Belgrade’s neighbor Zagreb, Belgrade haled Baker as a musician.

Assistant professor of history Ryan Jones remarked on how most newly fashionable trends are recycled in history, using examples from Babović’s presentation and modern trends. 

“Cultural history is recent, it’s important to realize humans have been consuming and creating culture before now,” Jones said. “You see Josephine Baker and the scandals around that, how is that any different than the scandals in the middle of an NFL game? What’s important is accepting the history.”

Knowledge of history like the time after World War I as described in Babović’s book and presentation pushes the idea of identity through entertainment. Yugoslavians were willing to damage their domestic entertainment community to get closer to their European identity. 

“I wanted people to think about Belgrade as a European city, it was part of the European network and European culture,” Babović said. “It was contributing to and consuming the culture.”  

Culture and society’s connection throughout history has been reflected in many ways, one medium being entertainment. By establishing the different forms of entertainment in a specific country and how its society reacted, Babović documented a piece of history everyone can learn from.