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Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 16 Jun 11

Concrete Relics of Bygone Yugoslavia Slip into Oblivion

Few now visit the gigantic concrete memorials of the Tito era. But these monuments offer a window into the mentality of the former Balkan state, a new book by a Belgian photographer explains.

Shengjyl Osmani

Almost exactly 20 years ago, on June 25, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, and so went the nation of “brotherhood and unity” – to borrow from the Communist-era slogan about the Yugoslav federation.

Today, memories of Yugoslavia are fading, and the monuments built by, or to, the charismatic strongman, Josip Broz Tito, are all but forgotten.

Each spomenik, or monument, in the Slavic tongue, is reminder of the complicated legacy of ethnic harmony, prosperity, repression, and ultimately the cataclysmic failure, of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, SFRY.

Tito, who led Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980, commissioned monuments throughout the country immediately after World War II. Most honoured Partisan fighters, Communist heroes and Tito himself. Now, few visit them.

Located in towns and villages all over former Yugoslavia, thousands of gigantic monuments remain, abandoned, their original meaning fading from the fore. With the former republic now a mosaic of seven independent states, new national identities have supplanted the old collective loyalty.

“People don’t like the monuments. They are not keen on them and the ideology which they represent has no meaning for the new states in the Balkans,” says Jan Kempenaers, a Belgian photographer who has been visiting these relics for more than a decade. His book, Spomenik, explores their meaning through 25 different monuments.

Many also are difficult to locate.

“They are often located so deep in the mountains that only the people who live there know even where to find them and how to get there, so local people had to help me find the paths to the abandoned monuments,” Kempenaers says.

Most are abandoned and are not protected as cultural heritage. They include wired shapes of winged eyes, giant flowers and concrete UFO. The material of choice: beton brut. This reinforced concrete was favoured for its strength and flexibility.

Tito also handpicked renounced designers to develop these giant, concrete tributes.
Writing for the German magazine Der Spiegel, Angela Franz singles out Dusan Dzemonja, a famous sculptor who created “Spomenik Revolucije,” which towers like a giant winged eye on the battlefield near the Croatian town of Podgaric Berek.

Franz also points to Vojin Bakic, who designed the unearthly spomenik at Petrova Gora, where the Partisans’ main field hospital was located, and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who created the “Stone Flower” in the World War II concentration camp at Jasenovac.     

“Half of my classmates died in the war, the other half fought each other, by being either Communists or anti-Communists,” Bogdanovic says for Der Spiegel. “I can only say this: ... I've seen it, I've lived it, and I did not understand it,” he added.

Bogdanovic, who died in Vienna last year, intended his flower made of cement as a symbol of peace.

Selective memories:

Wolfgang Höpken, a professor of Eastern and South-eastern European History at the University of Leipzig, locates popular indifference to the monuments in the fact that they represent only the Partisan version of history. They are very selective, leaving out many others who took part in the war.

“These monuments are institutional memories, and represent only constructed memories by the state, not individual memories,” Höpken told a conference organized by the Italian-based Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso. “They were selective and strongly biased, and were created from winner’s position, excluding all others who were not directly involved with the Partisan war.”

But Andrea Rossini, an Italian journalist author of “Circle of Memory,” a 2007 documentary on Yugoslav monuments produced by Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, takes a more nuanced position. He argues that these monuments contributed something to the collective memory of World War II in Yugoslavia.

“Free of the dogmas of Stalinist aesthetics, artists such as Dusan Dzemonja, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Milodrag Zivkovic created extraordinary monuments that have become places of memory of the Communist regime that built them,” he says.

The Jasenovac Flower

The Jasenovac Flower Monument by Bogdan Bogdanovic | photo by Luka Zanoni, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

The monument created by architect Bogdan Bogdanovic was unveiled in 1966 on the site where Croatia’s World War II Fascist government ran an extermination camps for Serbs, Jews, Roma and political dissidents.

After the museum opened in 1968, Jasenovac was proclaimed a Memorial site. During the war of the 1990s the monument was damaged and the museum pillaged.

But the memorial was reopened in 2004 following rebuilding of the “Flower” and repair of the museum.

Memorial Website: www.jusp-jasenovac.hr

The Mrakovica ‘Tower’

Kozara, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Monument of Mrakovica Tower, by Dusan Dzamonja | Andrea Rossini, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

The monument, designed by the architect Dusan Dzamonja, was unveiled on mount Mrakovica in 1972 in memory of one of the most tragic episodes of the Second World War.

On Kozara following a long siege, thousands of partisans and civilians lost their lives at the hands of Nazi troops supported by the Ustasha. All survivors, died in Jasenovac, where they had been deported.

The ‘Tower’ was built in Kozara National Park situated in the north-west of Bosnia and Herzegovina, near the rivers Una, Savam Sana, and Vrbas.

The Memorial site was stage to new violence during the war of the 1990s and today is in a state of abandon. Thanks to foreign donations, the museum is currently being renovated.

Park Website: www.npkozara.com

The Sutjeska ‘Columns’

Sutjeska, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Monument of Sutjeska, by Miodrag Zivkovic | photo by Andrea Rossini, Osservatorio Balcan e Caucaso

Designed by the sculptor Miodrag Zivkovic, the monument was unveiled in 1971 at the site of one of the bloodiest battles between the Axis Forces and the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Army during the Second World War.

The memorial is found in the Sutjeska National Park, included in the municipalities of Foca and Gacko in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Neglected during the war of the 1990sm it was reopened in August 1996 on the decision of the Republic of Srpska (BiH) authorities.

Yugoslav Monuments Go Ignored in Pristina

The symbolism of a unified nation of Slavs in Tito’s Yugoslavia never was fully embraced in Pristina. 

Locals largely ignore the two communist monuments in Kosovo’s capital. A monument honouring those who fought for the Partisans is glaring in its ommission of Albanian fighters, says Emin Salihu, a historian in the Institute for Protection of Kosovo Monuments.

National Liberation War Monument, in Pristina | photo by Shengjyl Osmani

Dating back to the 1960s, it’s located near the grave of Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s first president.

Thus, the existence of these symbols has irked many Albanians, especially those who don’t feel nostalgia for Yugoslavia, Salihu said.

In Pristina’s centre, the 1957 “Brotherhood and Unity” stands as a towering symbol of the motto of Tito’s Yugoslavia, in a place where ethnic harmony has been elusive.

'Brotherhood and Unity' Monument, Pristina | photo by Shengjyl Osmani

“The ideology of the ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ monument spreading out the Yugoslav era where Serbians, Montenegrins and Albanians have never been welcomed by any of the parties,” says Haxhi Mehmetaj, head of the Institute for Monuments and Regional Museum of Pristina.

Both the war memorial and “Brotherhood and Unity” have escaped demolition over the years, but they’re not protected.

Mehmetaj says this makes sense because most Kosovars never supported their creation in the first place.

And Salihu says the Institute for Protection of Kosovo Monuments has no plans to protect these monuments — or maintain them for that matter.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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