Stojanović, Dubravka – A Foot in the Door. Materials for the Political Biography of the 20th Century Library

noga_u_vratima Stojanović, Dubravka – A Foot in the Door. Materials for the Political Biography of the 20th Century Library

2011, pp. 296

Price $9

Cover design: Ivan Mesner





The historian, Dubravka Stojanović, obtained her MA in 1992 and her PhD at The Faculty of Philology in Belgrade. From 1988 through 1996, she worked at the Institute of Modern History of Serbia. In 1996, she joined the History Department of the University of Belgrade, and in 1998, she obtained the chair of Universal Modern History. Her books: Principles put to a Test. Serbian Social-Democracy and Serbia’s War Program 1912 – 1918 (1994) (Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socialdemokratija I ratni program Srbije 1912 – 1918); Serbia and Democracy 1903 – 1914, A Historical Study of the “Golden Age of Serbian Democracy”(2003); Serbia 1804 – 2004 (with the co-authors M. Jovanović and Lj. Dimić, 2005); Cobblestone and Asphalt. Urbanization and Europeanization of Belgrade 1890 – 1914 (Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890 – 1914) and Oil in Water. Essays in the History of Serbia’s Present (2010) (Ulje na void. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije).




All unfortunate editors  are so in the same way, while all the fortunate ones are fortunate each in his or her own way. This reverse paraphrase of the opening sentence of Anna Karenina had been employed by Ivan Čolović, editor of the 20th Century Library, in an interview given longtime ago to the Belgrade weekly NIN, in order to explain the position of publishing and publishers in Yugoslavia of those days1. Well, almost thirty years later, it is still so, even though the country is very different from what it was then. All along, the conditions have been such that that the easiest way out was to declare one self unfortunate. It was enough to go with the flow and join the ranks of those believing that it couldn’t be otherwise. Excusing oneself by ”this day and age”, by socialism,  repression, crisis, shortages, war, transition, dangerous regimes, and chaotic state of the world has always been the easiest way out. Being a ”fortunate editor”, meant in those long gone days, just as it means today, having one’s own way, one’s own path, found across many  rough obstacles, and most often, following it alone.

This book has been occasioned by the jubilee anniversary of The 20th Century Library. This year (2011) marks 40 years of its existence. It is the only surviving theoretical literature edition initiated in former Yugoslavia. Although such editions had flourished then and had been a part of a vibrant intellectual scene, none, safe The 20th Century library, has managed to survive the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the insuing wars and system changes, to make a transition, and remain a going concern in new market conditions. For that reason alone, but also because, in our past, institutions have had a way of falling much faster than they had been erected, The 20th Century Library has earned its right to a biography2. As in many other cases, it has survived thanks to the perseverance of individual people, most often in spite and in defiance of the system. It deserves a biography, because it typifies all the cases of cultural projects which were conceived and which survived thanks to the enthusiasm of people who changed the system more than the system could change them. There are numerous such examples in our past. Still, to this day, they have not helped bring about a change in the basic relationship between the system and the individual, so that the system would be there for the sake of the individual, and not the oher way around.

There have always been more reasons for The 20th Century Library to become extinct than to continue to exist. Only one year after its inception, in 1972, a book published under its insignia was banned by the authorities, and both the edition and the editor lost their first headquarters, an office at ”Stamenkovic Brothers” People’sUniversity. This marked the beginning of a saga to which this book bears witness. Čolović had to move The 20th Century Library, as his authorial edition, fom one publishing house to another, in search of more favorable conditions, or simply of more safety for it, when it  came under a threat. After being in foster homes of Duga (The Rainbow Publications), BIGZ (Belgrade Publishing Company), and Prosveta (Enlightenment Publications), it finally, in 1989, became the property of its editor. In all of the stages of its evolution, it has been exposed to political pressures, in danger of losing its authonomy, of being assimilated and used in  battles that were not its own. Systems, methods, and stated objectives, were subject to change, as well as individuals and groups holding the power. However, The 20th Century Library bothered all of them by the mere fact that it stood apart, not showing the slightest interest in playing ball with them. That is why this book about The Library is also a book about those systems.

Methodologically, this book belongs to the field of social history. This is why one can raise the question whether that approach is in synch with its subtitle, Materials for the Political Biography of The 20th Century Library. Besides being an open allusion to the well known book by Vladimir Dedier, Materials for the Political Biography of J. B. Tito, our title can suggest that one is dealing here with classical political history. It not the case nevertheless. Many political happenings, which, during the last 40 years, shook Yugoslavia and Serbia, and shaped their history are touched upon here, but strictly from the perspective of a series of books. Hence, The 20th Century Library is our main topic, as one of the many pieces of our country’s social and cultural mosaic of the last four decades. Our research is focussed on it, treating it as a thread running across diverse power structures, political regimes, reversals of political fortune, and turmoils. That is why this research methodologically belongs in the field of social history – it sets aside all those seemingly tempestuous and swift changes in the superficial, shallow, political sphere, contemplating them from the depths of the much slower and gradual pace of broader social change. Concurrently, a new approach to political history is applied here. It is observed from a social historian’s remote ”observation post”, for whom political currents are only a framework in which is placed the larger society, exemplified by a tiny, yet mightily resilient edition of theoretical literature. All the political happenings and changes did exert influence upon  the Library, while it exerted none upon them, but it always reflected them like a mirror, from a deliberately chosen marginal position.

It is precisely because it has, through all these years, kept small circulation and a limited number of titles per year, the edition has been well positioned to have a unique perspective on the political sphere. Thanks to its intentionally chosen marginal position, it was able to survive all the political regimes that, for one reason or another, did not wish it well, to preserve its autonomy, and remain a witness. If one were to look for a recipe that enabled Čolović to be a ”fortunate” editor, it would be, first and foremost, his resolve to resist entering any ”mainstream”, and never to become a part of the ruling establishment, never to – in his own words – become a big publisher. This enabled him to outlast and bid farewell to a number of individuals and groups in power, and not vice versa. It made it possible for him to paint a picture of the Serbian society and politics from his own unique angle, from within his own little circle of liberty, which is the title of the the final chapter of this book. As important for the Library as it may be, this picture is even more important, or at least should be so, for Serbian poltics and society.

It is important because individual episodes of the history of The 20th Century Library raise general questions. In the first place, it is the problem of relationship between power and society, as well as that of relationship between society and individual. More specifically, the central question is upon what foundations have rested autoritarian governements, succeeding one another throughout our history? Do they limit the liberty of the society and the individuals, or would it be that neither the individuals nor the society really seek liberty? Would regimes continue to be repressive if they encountred stiff resistance from the society? Or, perhaps, they feed on weaknesses of the society, on its conformism, fear, and weariness of smallest risks? Who is holding whom on a leash here? Are political regimes that which puts the brakes on the development and maturing of the society, or is the society that which produces regimes allowing it never to grow up, regimes sucking up to it and lulling it to sleep, sheltering it from adult responsibilities? These questions and answers have been tested and weighed in this book in connection with many situations in which The 20th Century Library had found itself.

That is why it occured to the the editor and this author that the 40th anniversary of the Library should be marked by a volume of its own history, as its 200th publication, not to glorify the edition, well, not only for that purpose, but also to show the world that one could always, and in a variety of difficult circumstances, survive, that there have always been people who dared survive. And, they were not a small number. All the conflict situations accounted for in this history show that there have always been journalists, friends, intellectuals, ordinary office clerks, ”regular guys”, even officials, who dared oppose powers that be, that there had always been room for dissent, as much room as was strong the resolve of individuals to fight for it. That is why this book is not only about The 20th Century library, but is equally about all those people who never allowed the door to be shut, who kept their foot in it. That is why this book is also dedicated to all those who will have to fight similar battles in the future.

The book has a classical structure, and is divided into four chronological wholes. This pattern is far removed from any methodological models of social historiography, but it was chosen deliberately. It makes it possible to follow seemingly accelerated changes of political circumstances and gradual social and cultural developments as two distinct currents. This makes it easier to see their interdependence, and to understand ways in which they are intertwined.

Part 1 is devoted to the affair of ”Stamenković Brothers” People’s University, triggered by a governement ban on the book Power and Trembling by Dobrica Ćosić, number four in the Library, published in 1971. Part 2 covers the period from 1972 through 1989, which the Library spent in foster care at Duga, BIGZ, and Prosveta publishing companies, examples of Yugoslav style workers’ self-management. It felt the constraints of self-management and the stings of accusations of political infractions,  but even more oppressive than the government itself was the general climate of conformity. The third part speaks of the dramatic period from 1989 to the year 2000, the time of disintegration  of the Yugoslav state, wars, and system change. It was also the time when The 20th Century Library came under private ownership, which brought upon it certain new kinds of pressure and challenges, typical of the transition from socialized to private economy. Political and anti-war engagement of its editor, and now proprietor, impacted the Library  again. The last period, from 2001 to 2011, is the post-Milošević era, in which direct political pressure was already a thing of the past, but that made the issues of social inertia, closed-mindedness, and outmoded ideological bagage, even more transparent, to use one of the favorite terms of our transition’s vocabulary. This period has clearly shown that the realm of freedom in our country remains narrow, confined to a tiny circle, one’s own circle, the one that brings luck to fortunate publishers. Its expansion depends again on the individual, but also on the perennial competition between the individual, the state, and the society.

The book draws from diverse sources. The best documented is the first chapter, because, thanks to the affair at ”Stamenković Brothers” People’s University, and many saved official documents, related to it, there was a diversity of material, which permitted viewing these events from different angles. In addition to that, the editor of the Library kept in those days a detailed diary, inserting in it original documents and press articles. All the subsequent crises are also accounted for in official and unofficial documents, preserved in his personal archive, which has enabled the author to reconstitute events. Given the author’s social history perspective, a portion of source-material was sought in unintentionally preserved bits and pieces of the past, such as lists of bookstores representing the Library, invoices, orders, contracts, and letters. Folders full of such documents were significant testimonies and corroborating evidence, regarding some of the topics important for this book.

In addition to that, the editor and the authoress of this book live together. In other words, she has, for almost twenty years, heard numerous accounts of events discussed in her book. This can be an aggravating circumstance as much as it is an advantage. An advantage, since it enabled her to write this book at all. Constant discussions and conversations about all these topics facilitated the reconstitution of events, helped fill the gaps left by insufficient historical documentation, and better understand the context. The aggravating circumstance, of course, is the fact that the reader can doubt the objectivity of the author, and write the book off as naked propaganda and glorification of a life companion.

This issue needs to be settled at once. First and foremost, I have always maintained that a historian is always subjective, and that is how it ought to be, for it is how he or she will always want to find out more about that which attracts him or her personally. The question is: why would we occupy ourselves with something to which we do not relate personally, to which we are neutral, indifferent?3 The very choice of his research topic is a part of the historian’s effort to explain to his own self phenomena which intrigue, obsess, and compel him to perpetual re-examination.

Secondly, and even more importantly: the materials preserved by the editor speak more of Yugoslav and Serbian politics than they do of Ivan Čolović personally. All the situations to which this book testifies are used as a medium through which is explored a broader scene, a broader issue, a longer lasting problem. Writing about Čolović and The 20th Century Library is a case study, a narrow crack in the wall through which one can see a broader background, and point the finger at some perennial problems of our society. From the moment I saw the saved documents, it was clear to me that our most recent history was refracted through them, and that it would be possible to raise many crucial questions about the second half of the 20th century by sufficiently generalizing the situations to which the documents were testimonies. Not taking advantage of such a treasure-trove of documentary material under my own roof would have been a serious case of professional malpractice for me as a historian. And, that is how and why this book came into being.

Many helped me in my work on it. Latinka Perović and Rajko Danilović gave me interviews in which they enlightened me on the early seventies, which helped me understand the first affair created by the ban of Dobrica Ćosić’s Power and Trembling, in 1972. Dragoljub Todorović, the author of one of the most intriguing books on Dobrica Ćosić4, helped me with additional explanations arrive at better, more accurate understanding of the role this author and his activity played in our cultural and political history. I owe a debt of gratitude to the historian Marko Miljkovic for collecting and organizing the data regarding the reception of a number of the Library’s publications, which deepened my understanding of its role and place in the public sphere of Yugoslavia and Serbia. Milena Marković has prepared a complete bibliography of The 20th Century Library, which has been made available to the reader in the Appendix to the book. It enabled me to produce an analysis of the topics,  of the succession of scientific and scholarly fields and paradigms throughout this entire series of books. I am greatly indebted to Drinka Gojković for her support and advices that made my book better. I owe a great deal of gratitude to Dejan Ilić for the openness and sincerity with which he expressed his disagreement with some of my views, which made me face certain weaknesses in my book I would not have perceived otherwise.

D. S.




(1)       Milo Gligorijević, ”Veseli život izdavački” (The Merry Life of Publishers), an interview with Ivan Čolović NIN, June 6, 1982.

(2)       Srpska književna zadruga (Serbian Literary Cooperative) is the only other edition that got a similar biography: Lj. Trgovčević, Istorija Srpske književne zadruge, 1992 ( A History of the Serbian Literary Cooperative).

(3)       More detail in D. Stojanović, Kaldrma i  asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890 – 1914, Beograd 2008, p. 10 (Cobblestones and Asphalt. Urbanization and Europeanization of Belgrade 1890 – 1914).

(4)       D. Todorović, Knjiga o Ćosiću (The Book on Ćosić), Belgrade 2005.