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Nataša Milićević, Phd
Institute for the Recent History of Serbia
Belgrade, Republic of Serbia


“REVENGE OF THE VILLAGE”: PEASANTS AND TOWNSPEOPLE IN OCCUPIED SERBIA 1941–1944

Vol. XXXVII, 2/2019, pp. 121–136
https://doi.org/10.29362/ist20veka.2019.2.mil.121-136

 

ABSTRACT/RESUME:

Relations between townspeople and peasants in Serbia under German occupation in World War II were multifaceted, just as they had been during the interwar period. They were somewhat controversial during both periods. However, under the influence of war and the occupation, in addition to mutuality, dependence and cooperation, the controversy acquired a new form: animosity, bordering on outright “hostility”. War and the occupation partly changed the pre-war relations between towns and townspeople and farmers and peasants in the rural areas. Now it was the townsfolk and towns that felt that the farmers and the countryside had an advantage. This was partly true. For urban dwellers the countryside was not only a place of greater freedom of movement and a chance to escape the wartime hardships in towns, but a source of food as well. Unlike townspeople, the peasants did not have to buy their food, or at least not all of it. It was the availability food that gave them superiority over the people living in towns. There were many ways of showing this superiority: corruption, hiking prices, week-long absences from marketplaces, or the sale of only very perishable foodstuffs (fruits, some vegetables such as tomatoes or cabbage), and even preferring to put up with confiscation of foodstuffs by German or collaborationist authorities rather than selling them in towns at lower prices. As money transactions virtually lost their importance after 1943 due to high inflation, bartering farm products for clothes, footwear, or other industrial goods became the dominant form of trade. In order to tackle this situation, the authorities undertook various measures. The German authorities usually punished the offenders by fines, confiscation of food, or even imprisonment. The Serbian authorities tried to mitigate the increased resentment between towns and the countryside. They appealed to the peasants to show solidarity with the townsfolk during wartime. They also called on townsfolk, above all of civil servants, to go to the countryside systematically and acquaint themselves with the hardships of farm labor and help the peasants plough the soil and cultivate the land, even proposing longer summer vacations. They also tried to organize courses in popular education. At the same time, they punished dishonest peasants and published their names in the newspapers. However, the purchasing power of peasants was extremely low in 1943, reaching only 20% of the pre-war level. Except for food, they had to buy everything else (industrial goods – clothing, footwear, sugar, salt, gas etc., and also tools). The quantities and prices of what they could sell were below the prices of goods they had to buy on the gray market. Furthermore, working their small plots of land, Serbian peasants had to feed not only towns and townsfolk, but also supply the occupation forces, sell at fixed prices to the Serbian collaborationist authorities, contribute to the refugees (some 400,000), and pay taxes while feeding numerous resistance fighters at the same time. Under such conditions they could make some money only if they sold at high prices or bartered food for the products they needed. At the same time, the peasants showed solidarity too. There are numerous examples where they risked their lives to hide and feed people wanted by the government. This was especially the case with Jews. Sometimes whole villages took part in hiding them. There was a similar situation with members of the resistance movement. In any case, as in the other parts of Europe, between peasants and town-dwellers, between rural and urban areas during the war, there was, apart from relations of mutuality and inter-dependence, also ill-will with elements of “animosity”. But there was also cooperation with elements of solidarity – especially in cases when the people in towns were in physical danger.

 

KEYWORDS: Serbia, WWII, German Occupation, Village, Town, Peasants, Townspeople Middle Class, Nutrition

 

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