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Knin

(KNEEN)

Click on slideshow photos for description

Brief Details:

Name: Monument to Knin Liberators (Spomenik oslobodiocima Knina)

Location: Knin, Croatia

Year completed: 1969

Designer(s): Đorđe Romić, Grozdan Knežević & Mihail Kajfeš

Coordinates: N44°02'19.6", E16°11'26.3" (click for map)

Dimensions: 25m tall (before destruction)

Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar

Condition: In ruins, destroyed (1995/1996)

 

History:

This spomenik was built in memory of the fallen Partisan soldiers of the 8th Dalmatian Corps who gave their lives during the liberation of Knin.

 

World War II

Towards the end of 1944, several divisions of the Dalmatian 8th Partisan Corps struck a series of significant victories against Axis forces across the Dalmatian region, resulting in a serious weakening of Axis control along the Adriatic coast. Then, on November 3rd, 1944, the Adriatic's last Axis stronghold of Šibenik was liberated from the German XV Mountain Corps, with members of the Partisan 8th Dalmatian Corps pursuing them as they fled the city. As these Germans troops, along with their Chetnik and Ustaše support stagg, retreated from Šibenik, their commander, General Gustav Fehn (Photo 1), received orders from German High Command to head towards the city of Knin (roughly 55km NE of Šibenik). Once the Mountain Corps reached Knin, Fehn was instructed to set up a fortified position at the south end of the city and defend it from a Partisan capture at all costs, as German Command intended Knin to be a fortress along the new Axis front line against the advancing Partisan Armies.

Photo 1: General Fehn

Photo 2: Partisan artillery units firing on German positions during the Battle of Knin, 1944.

From November 7th to December 9th, 1944, the 8th Dalmatian Corps, who had roughly 35,000 troops under the command of Petar Drapšin, engaged these German, Ustaše and Chetnik Axis forces (numbering roughly 20,000), in what would come to be known as the 'Battle of Knin' (Photo 2). The reason for the especially long length of this one particular battle was because of a stalemate which lasted for several weeks between Partisan and Axis troops. However, as the stalemate wore on through November and demoralized Axis forces who sensed possible defeat, Chetnik and Ustaše Home Guard forces (along with General Fehn) retreated north towards Bihać, which left open an opportunity for the Partisans to take the city. On November 25th, the Partisans employed a new strategy to take advantage these Axis troop reductions, using tank squads and new strike points. On December 3rd, around 11am, the remaining German troops in Knin evacuated their posts and Partisans took control of the city. This victory at Knin signaled the total defeat and expulsion of Axis forces from the Dalmatian region. During the battle, roughly 700 Partisan soldiers died in the fight for this victory, while well over 6,000 Axis soldiers were killed.

At the end of the war, General Fehn, the commander of the German XV Mountain Corps during the Battle of Knin, was captured by British troops in Italy as he attempted to escape prosecution. The British subsequently handed Fehn back over to Yugoslavia and on June 5th, 1945, he was executed without a trial by Partisans in Ljubljana.

 

Photo 3: Early sketch of monument by Romić

Spomenik Construction

In the late 1960s, government and veteran organizations coordinated efforts to construct a monument on Spas Hill commemorating Knin's liberation, just below the 9th century Knin Fortress. The commission for this project was awarded to the young local Knin architect Đorđe Romić and Grozdan Knežević (along with sculptor Mihail Kajfeš who made the bronze reliefs). Also, beneath the monument a crypt was created which would house the remains of Partisan fighters who worked towards the liberation of Knin. Initial designs imagined a much more sprawling monument structure, however, after much reconsideration it was greatly reduced in form (mostly due to budgetary constraints) (Photo 3). At the end of roughly a year of construction of the monument (done by the local Dinara Construction company), it was finally unveiled to the public during a ceremony on November 25th, 1969, a date which marked the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Knin. The complex in its original state consisted of a 25m tall concrete obelisk with 18 fins of varying lengths radiating from the structure's upper half. This obelisk was then set within a large concrete honeycomb base. Meanwhile, situated at west-facing base of the honeycomb structure were four large bronze relief plaques, which showed depictions of the liberation of the town of Knin.

 

Yugoslav Wars to Present-Day

The monument complex on Spas Hill began to fall into disrepair at the start of the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s. Tensions began when Knin was taken over by the separatist VRS forces from the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) in October of 1990, who then proceeded to made the town their capital of the RSK. However, five years later the Croatian Army/HVO re-took Knin from these incurring VRS forces during Operation Summer and Operation Storm during the summer of 1995 (Photo 4). It was not long after the Croat forces regained the town that the monument complex on Spas Hill was dismantled and presumably dynamited to destruction. It is still not known to this day who the people were who destroyed the structure and while there have been discussions and official talks since its destruction of rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts, as of now, it still sits in pieces, completely abandoned and in ruins. In addition, it is not clear if the remains of the Partisan fighters who were buried in a crypt beneath the monument are still there or not.

Photo 4: A Croat soldier celebrating the liberation of Knin, 1995

 

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

Before the damage the monument complex here at Knin was faced with in the 1990s, the central monument here had in front of it four large bronze relief panels (Photo 5). There panels were all created by sculptor Mihail Kajfeš. In addition, in front of each bronze panel was an inscribed polished marble slab, which can also be seen in Photo 5. Each large bronze plate contains the depiction of two scenes: a larger one on top and a smaller one below. The larger sized scenes on top appear to be illustrations of Knin Partisans rising up against Axis occupation and struggling against Axis forces, while the smaller lower scenes on the panels appear to be depictions of the hardships of everyday citizens and civilians contributing to and surviving the war.

Photo 5: The four original bronze plaques in front of monument, circa 1970s

In Photos 6 & 7 you can see two examples of some of the larger scenes from this monument's bronze relief panels which are artistic renderings of Partisan actions during WWII. The themes and portrayals depicted here are ones common to other relief panels seen at other Yugoslav WWII sites, such as occupier oppression, civilian uprising, Partisan liberation, etc. In the two large panels shown here we see additional conventional themes being explored, such as Partisans humanely caring for wounded fighters (Photo 6), as well as Partisans vanquishing German soldiers (Photo 7).

Photo 6: A large scene from one bronze relief showing the rescuing of wounded Partisans

Photo 7: A large scene from one bronze relief showing Partisans fighting German soldiers

Meanwhile, in Photos 8 - 11, we see all four of the smaller lower scenes of the bronze panels which depict illustrations of citizens and civilians working towards the Partisan effort, as well as the suffering the endured during wartime. Such concepts explored in these panel's scenes are mothers tearfully watching their sons and daughters depart to join the Partisan war effort (Photo 8), civilians working and toiling to help the Partisan war effort (Photo 9), civilians fleeing with their belongings to escape war, violence and oppression (Photo 10), and finally, the joy of being reunited with loved ones and returning home after Partisan liberation and the end of the war (Photo 11).

Photo 8: Mothers see their children off to war

Photo 10: Civilians fleeing violence

Photo 9: Working towards the war effort

Photo 11: Being reunited after liberation

Today, no trace remains of any of these plaques at the monument site. During the late 1990s, all four of these bronze panels were taken from the site. It can be presumed that they were more than likely scavenged and melted down for their valuable bronze metal.

Another former element of the memorial complex that seem to be also missing are the four polished white stone panels that were inscribed with poetic verses by Dalmatian poet Jure Franičević. Each of these four engraved stones were situated flat in the ground just in front of each bronze plate, just as seen in Photo 5. While I have found no photographic record of these engraved stones, text within a monograph of Đorđe Romić's work, four poetic verses accompany photos of each plaque  [PDF link], leading me to believe that these are indeed the original inscribed Franičević verses. However, I was unable to 100% verify that these are indeed the original inscribed verses or even Franičević poetic verses at all. Laid out in the order which they appear in the text, they are as follows [translated from Croatian into English]:

Stone 1: You have given life and you are now eternal.

Stone 2: In brotherhood you are now eternal.

Stone 3: In the eyes of freedom you are now eternal.

Stone 4: In action and deed you are now eternal.

 

Photo 12: A view of the Partisan monument at Knin looking out over the town, 1960s

Symbolism:

Before this monument at Knin was destroyed and brought to the ground, it stood high on Spas Hill, being visible across the entire city (Photo 12). It stood as a visceral symbol for all who saw it of the Partisan victory against Axis forces in this region during WWII. At the same time, this monument would have also served as a contentious symbol for any local peoples who collaborated with Axis powers against those Partisan forces. As such, it is not surprising that this monument was destroyed after the onset of the Yugoslav Wars and the independence of Croatia, as it stood as an overtly contentious symbol in an area of heated political/nationalistic tensions, especially in the aftermath of Operation Summer in 1995 during which the VRS forces waged a fierce attack on the city. Furthermore, the monument existing as a symbol for 'Yugoslavia' itself would have made it a target, as the VRS forces the Croatian Army & HVO had repelled from Knin were being supported in part by the Yugoslav politicians in Belgrade. The subsequent victory Croatian forces achieved against the VRS troops is still widely celebrated in Knin.

As for the exact intended symbolic meaning of this memorial sculpture, the central theme of the work seems to be that of "the flower". In a monograph of Đorđe Romić's work, he writes [PDF link] the following description of the monument's intended symbolism [translated here from Croatian into English]:

"This monumental flower, with its concrete petals, is focused on all the directions and paths of the fallen fighter's journey towards the treasures of life and freedom. The sculpture is bumpy and irregular, but proudly emerges like a plant from between the stones... yet despite its strangeness it grows inexorably upward, bursting from the rocks, just as hard as the freedom from within which it was born. With its form and size, this symbolic monument evokes the memory of the days of our glorious past, the victims who fell for the liberation of Knin, while at the same time transmitting a revolutionary message to future generations."

However, other sources describe the monument as a sort of 'signpost', with some news articles [PDF link] even proclaiming that the monument is a "signpost to a better world... [and] by its occurrence [marks] the beginning of this new world... it is a bond in a continuous new construction and a sign that speaks of creation and existence, of an ever-newer possible world." Even the authors of the work expressed intentions that the sculpture was meant as a marker to "symbolize the dynamic revolution". As far as the concrete grid at the base of the sculpture, it was described by the authors as an attempt to create "simultaneous associations of the power of the people, of slavery, of disadvantages, from which arises a miraculous sculpture of revolution and victory".

 

Meanwhile, the design team wanted to avoid any potential of negatively impacting upon the sacred space of the nearby historically significant ruins of the Knin Fortress, while also attempting to modernize this space it at the same time. As a result, it was hoped that the sculpture's modernist design would act as a spatial 'counterpoint' or 'foil' of the ancient and austere construction of the fortress.

 

Status and Condition:

This monument complex at Knin has been completely destroyed and devastated, lying in ruins on the top of the Spas Hill. Dynamite or some nature of explosive was presumably placed at the base of the central memorial sculpture in mid-1995 during the Yugoslav Wars (just after Croats took Knin from the VRS forces during Operation Storm), and the structure was brought down to the ground. Presently, the monument complex has been completely overgrown with vegetation and brush, with no efforts being made whatsoever by any parties to either recognize, repair or rehabilitate the ruins. Needless to say, there are few (if any) visitors to this site and no signs or directional markers lead to the monument... meanwhile, the city makes no efforts to promote it and no annual ceremonies or remembrance events are held here. It is not even clear as to whether the human remains of the Partisan fighters who were interred here in a crypt under the memorial during the site's construction were ever properly exhumed and moved to new locations.

In 2007, the Croatian Ministry of Culture approved a movement to renew and re-establish the ruined monument, however, since then, no money has been appropriated to achieve this mission and no official efforts have been launched. Some local politicians are attempting to fully replace the monument with a Christian cross, yet Anti-Fascist groups feel such actions would be inappropriate and that the monument should be accurately restored.

 

Directions:

Getting to the Spas Hill monument at Knin is a bit tricky, so it is important you follow these directions carefully. As you are travelling towards the city center of Knin along Trg Oluje road, a bridge will cross you over the train tracks, then immediately you will reach a traffic circle. Take the second right on the traffic circle onto Ulica Gojka Suska. This quickly turns into Svaciceva Ulica, which you will follow up the hill until you reach a dead end at a parking lot, where there is a arched/tunnel building (part of the fortress). You can see a view of the parking lot on Google StreetView here. Park here and walk north back up the road about 50-60m and you will see a dirt trail going uphill into the woods on the west (left) side of the road. This goes to the top of Spas Hill. You can see a view of the trailhead from the road on Google StreetView here. Walk up the trail to the ridge and follow it north along the ridge and you will see the spomenik along the trail.

A map to the location of the monument at the spomenik complex in Knin, Croatia.

Click to open in Google Maps in new window

 

Slideshow

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