Hated by drivers, and considered the ugliest square in Belgrade, Slavija’s riveting history ironically started off as an attempt to introduce British-style urban planning to Belgrade.
The development of the square began with Francis Mackenzie, an enterprising Scottish missionary who moved to the city in 1876 in hope of making Belgraders devote more time to the Bible, rather than smoking and drinking. In 1879 he bought a large patch of marshy land, drained it and started building a neighbourhood which, ironically, became known as “Englezovac” – “English town”.
The main square of Englezovac featured a “Hall of Peace”, where Mackenzie performed his philanthropic activities of educating less fortunate Belgraders, and, since mid-1890s, a hotel named “Slavija”, a nod to the pan-Slavic movement.
The philanthropic activities devoted to the poor in the Hall of Peace made it perfect place for the budding socialist movement. In 1910, the Hall was bought by Dimitrije Tucovic’s Serbian Social-democratic Party and Worker’s Union and turned into Socialist People’s club, a base for their activities and publications. In 1919, hotel Slavija hosted the meeting of various socialist, social democratic and worker’s movements from across the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, at which the first Yugoslav Communist party was founded. The party won the subsequent municipal elections in Belgrade, but was barred from taking power and banned in 1921.
After its tenants were forced underground, Socialist People’s club was turned into a restaurant, and then remodelled into a handsome art-deco cinema, also named Slavija. Nevertheless, Slavija’s socialist connections remained strong and the square was the site of a mass student and workers’ protest on 14 December 1939.
Despite the Slavija’s socialist connections, a wealthy Serbian merchant and owner of several upmarket department stores, Vlada Mitic, bought a large plot of land on the square and planned to build the largest department store in the Balkans. His plans were thwarted by WWII and then the arrival of the Communist party, who nationalised the land, but left it undeveloped, which led to the part of the square between Beogradska and Kralja Milana streets being named “Mitic’s hole”. Mitic’s grand store was not the only casualty of WWII at Slavija. The Nazis destroyed the old hotel and built the square’s much hated roundabout.
During the socialist times, in a piece of rather macabre urban design, the remains of Dimitrije Tucovic were placed in the middle the square and the new hotel Slavija was built. However, as Yugoslavia started to crumble in 1980s, Slavija’s communist spirit was slowly eroded.
In 1989, the communist heart of Belgrade became the home of the first McDonald’s in the Balkans, and a few years later the old Slavija cinema, birthplace of Serbian socialism was cleared to make way for an uninspiring parking lot.
Finally, in 2016, Dimitrije Tucovic’s remains were removed from the roundabout and replaced by the controversial “musical” fountain which occasionally blasts Michael Jackson tunes after the year-long face-lift of the square.