Feature 03 Apr 17

Anti-Fascist Monuments: Croatia’s ‘Unwanted Heritage’

As Croatia grows more conservative, many monuments built in the Communist era to commemorate victory over fascism during World War II are being left to decay or be vandalised.

Relja Dusek BIRN Zagreb
The Petrova Gora monument. Photo: Relja Dusek.

With its sturdy iron-plated concrete structure, the Petrova Gora monument was one of the most remarkable World War II memorial sculptures in the former Yugoslavia.

It was built in central Croatia near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina to commemorate an uprising by people in the Kordun and Banija areas against the fascist Ustasa militia and the Nazi puppet regime in power at the time, the Independent State of Croatia.

But this once-proud monument, which took a full decade to build and was finally completed in 1981, today looks like a decaying skeleton ready to fall apart, with its missing stainless steel plates like gaping wounds revealing crumbling concrete.

The construction, which was created by famous Yugoslav architect Vojin Bakic, shares the fate of many other monuments that were built to commemorate the war against fascism in the country.

Half of the monuments in Croatia, about 3,000 of them, were damaged or destroyed during the 1990s war, or afterwards by vandals, or later removed by the authorities.

Bakic’s other eminent memorial sculpture, Monument to the Victory of the People of Slavonia, which was unveiled in 1968 in the village of Kamenska in north-eastern Croatia, was mined and destroyed by the Croatian Army in 1992.

One of the most famous photographs from the former Yugoslavia during World War II is that of a young anti-fascist Partisan fighter, Stjepan Filipovic, proudly waiting for his execution with his hands in the air, yelling: “Death to fascism, freedom for the people!”

His memorial in Opuzen, in southern Croatia, was also destroyed in 1991, along with many others.

The fate of these monuments became the theme of a documentary called ‘Unwanted Heritage’ by Croatian film director Irena Skoric. The film was first shown at last year’s Sarajevo Film Festival, while the Croatian premiere happened in March in Zagreb, at the International Documentary Film Festival.

“It all started about six years ago. I thought that I should do a film about destroyed masterpieces of our art so that they are preserved despite the barbarians who tried to erase them from the collective memory of the Croatian people,” Skoric told BIRN.

“Around the same time, famous Belgian photographer Jan Kampeners published a book about monuments of the National Liberation War in Yugoslavia, and for many around the world, these monuments were sensational. In a way, a stranger had to come and point out that our beautiful historic monuments are unique in their modernity and creativity,” she said.

Skoric said that she believes that the large-scale destruction of the monuments had a clear political purpose.

“These monuments with their high artistic worth were the best promotions for anti-fascism. In the end, that is exactly why they were destroyed,” she argued.

A problem with history

Disrepair is visible at the Petrova Gora monument. Photo: Relja Dusek

Antonio Grgic is an artist from Croatia who has staged a performance piece called ‘Shadows of Monuments’.For the project, Grgic studied the destruction of monuments around the region and across Eastern Europe - and says that Croatia is unique because it is the only state that has a problem with its anti-fascist history.

No other state had damaged or removed so many monuments that were built to commemorate the fight against fascism, he believes.

“Partly it was done legally. In [the eastern Croatian town of] Osijek, when [Croatian nationalist politician and army general] Branimir Glavas was a warlord, the city council decided that all monuments of National Liberation Army should be restored,” Grgic told BIRN.

“Of course, that was just an excuse to remove them. And it happened. The monuments were eliminated from the public space and never returned.”

Grgic argued however that a bigger issue was the monuments that disappeared without trace.

“Who gave an order to demolish those monuments? I understand it was a chaotic time [in the early 1990s] and a war, but the worst is to accept all that as something normal. It is not normal,” he said.

Although it has been more than 20 years since the end of its war for independence, Croatia still has a problem dealing with its Communist years.

The origins of this go back to World War II and the Independent State of Croatia, which is still respected by some people who ignore the fact that it was a puppet state of Nazi Germany.

They argue that Croatia was finally independent then and that Yugoslavia was not an option that Croatians chose freely. The government claims that Croatia isn’t the successor to the Independent State of Croatia, but it sees the crimes committed by all totalitarian regimes - fascist and communist – as equal.

As a result of this approach, even those monuments which were not destroyed or removed were mostly left to decay without any upkeep and become vandalised.

Art historian Snjeska Knezevic said that since the 1990s, the anti-Communist mood has grown in Croatia, resulting in less respect for the anti-fascist struggle. At the same time, there have been attempts to enhance the status of the Independent State of Croatia.

“In former Communist countries, iconoclastic fury was directed against apologist monuments to the ideology [of Communism] and its protagonists, but memorials were unharmed. In Croatia, they were destroyed,” Knezevic told BIRN.

Knezevic believes however that Croatian state did not directly participate in the destruction.

“Memorials were left to different political groups of the right, anti-Communist, nationalist or neo-Ustasa, who destroyed them,” she said.

A special moment

Stjepan Filipovic on the gallows, and the monument dedicated to him in Opuzen before it was destroyed.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Putevima revolucije.

Grgic said meanwhile that he is angry that monuments to what he describes as “the brightest moment in the history of this region” – the defeat of fascism – are being damaged or removed.

“These monuments represent a special moment in our history and some people are trying to forcefully rewrite it. I still believe there is love and brotherhood and unity between people,” Grgic argued, referring to the Communists’ ‘brotherhood and unity’ slogan, which was coined during the war.

“That was not a lie and the demolition of monuments won’t change a thing,” he insisted.

Sanja Horvatincic of Institute of Art History in Zagreb thinks that such monuments are primarily of historical importance, even though some of them have serious artistic value.

“Ninety per cent of the monuments are not dedicated to [Yugoslav leader Josip Broz] Tito or Communism, but to specific people and events in history,” Horvatincic told BIRN.

“They don’t just have local importance for some particular community, but also national and international importance, especially in the context of the European consensus on the fact that the World War II ended thanks to anti-fascism,” she said.

Unfortunately, she argued, the Croatian authorities feel what she described as “a certain discomfort” about how to deal with them - as well as the perception among some officials that the Nazi-allied Croatian regime that ruled during WWII was no worse than the Communist one that followed it.

“The [system of] protection of monuments reflects the confusion in the country and its perception of World War II, and the equalisation of the opposing sides in the war,” she said.

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