Name: Monument to Fallen Fighters and Victims of Fascism from Slabinja
Location: Slabinja, Croatia
Year completed: 1981
Designer: Stanislav Mišić
Coordinates: N45°12'36.9", E16°40'09.5" (click for map)
Dimensions: ~15m tall spire
Materials used: Poured concrete, rebar and stainless steel
Condition: Fair, neglected
The monument at the spomenik complex in Slabinja, Croatia commemorates the fallen soldiers and civilians of this village who were killed during the National Liberation War (WWII)
World War II
Conflict began in the town of Slabinja, which is in the Banovina region, in April of 1941 when the Axis-controlled Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was formed out of the remains of the Axis conquered Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The region then fell under the military administration their NDH nationalist Ustaše militiamen. A campaign of war and terror was waged against the town by the Ustaše, as many of its residents were of ethnic-Serb descent, who the NDH wished to specifically expel or liquidate from its borders. Of the Slabinja residents who did not flee the Ustaše oppression, many were either executed or sent to the region's many death camps, such as Jasenovac (which is less than 25km to the east of Slabinja) (Photo 1). However, as a consequence of this oppression, many Slabinja residents decided to take up arms against the Axis forces. Many of these rebels in Slabinja joined the communist-led Partisan resistance movement and went on to take part in numerous anti-Axis offensives across the region, most notably the 1942 Battle of Kozara.
Photo 1: Ustaše soldiers executing ethnic-Serb prisoners near the Jasenovac death camp, 1942
In 1943, there was a lull in fighting and conflict in the area, so as a consequence, many of the town's refugee residents attempted to return to their homes to rebuild their lives. Returning residents even went as far as to build a small monument to the victims of Ustaše violence and brutality. However, it was not long before Axis forces returned and drove them out again, killing many. The violence finally came to an end when the region was liberated by Partisan forces in May of 1945. By the end of the war, more than half of Slabinja's original 1100 inhabitants had either been killed or displaced, with the town's post-war population only being recorded as 495 people.
In the late 1970s, many in the town felt it was necessary to build a proper modern spomenik complex to commemorate the people who had died and fallen defending the region during WWII, especially as the original 1943 monument was felt to not be adequate. With help from national and regional organizations, the town council of Slabinja organized the monument's construction, choosing Zagreb designer Stanislav Mišić to create the complex. The monument was symbolically unveiled to the public on May 30th, 1981, which is not only the day of the 40th anniversary of the Yugoslavian people's uprising against oppression, but it is also the same month in which the town was finally liberated from Axis forces in 1945. The occasion was celebrated by thousands of the region's inhabitants during a ceremony that included music, theatrical plays and poetic readings by famed writer Đorđe Đurić. The titled given to the memorial sculpture was "Monument to the Fallen Fighters and Victims of Fascism" (Spomenik palim borcima i žrtvama fašizma). The central sculptural element of the spomenik complex is a 15m tall spire clad in stainless steel, with a large red painted concrete triangle intersecting the spire at a sharp angle. Arranged around the monument are five engraved stone markers telling the detailed story of Slabinja from 1941 to 1945.
For many years the spomenik complex was a well visited and highly maintained attraction for the town, however, with the onset of Croatia's struggle for independence and the ensuing Yugoslav Wars through the 1990s, the area again fell into conflict. With the region still being largely compromised of ethnic-Serbs, the area of Slabinja was included within the breakaway ethnic-Serb separatist region of Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK), an unrecognized rebel state which attempted to break away from the newly independent Croatia between 1991 to 1995. The conflict led to the Slabinja monument being severely neglected and, as a result, it received a significant amount of damage. Many parts of the spomenik still show evidence of bullet holes, bearing testament to the region's recent violence, unrest and war.
Since the beginning of the 1990s conflict, the monument has not received any nature of appreciable rehabilitation or repairs, as it currently stands in a highly degraded and dilapidated stated. Meanwhile, as far as I have been able to determine, there are no plans on either the local or regional level to put forth any efforts towards such rehabilitation or repairs.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
There are several engraved and inscribed elements here at Slabinja. Firstly, on the central stainless steel spire of the Slabinja memorial sculpture, the names and ages of exactly 547 fallen victims from the surrounding region of Banovia region, which was heavily impacted during WWII, are directly inscribed (Slides 1 & 2).
Additionally, in front of the memorial sculpture at the spomenik complex there are five engraved stone markers set flat into the ground (Slide 3). Close up views of these five marker stones can be seen in Slides 4 - 8. This set of markers tells the story of what happened to the village of Slabinja during the five brutal years of the war, with each stone dedicated to recounting a specific year of the war. I will relate the inscription on all five markers here, roughly translated from Croatian to English:
Engraved stone relating events of 1945. Monument at spomenik complex in Slabinja, Croatia.
1941 (Slide 4)
"In Slabinja in early 1941, there lived about 1100 inhabitants. But then, under the attack of fascist Germany and its allies, the land of old Yugoslavia was broken up. The Ustaše government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) introduced, with the help of the occupying forces, unheard of terror, oppression, abuse, exile and the killings of innocent people. In Slabinja, a dozen prominent locals were arrested. The Communist Party organized a National Liberation movement, which included residents from Slabinj. From September 1st, the village operated a cell of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ), with 4 members and 5 candidates. Many of the town’s youth joined in with the Partisan units on Kozara."
1942 (Slide 5)
"Ustaše terror became more and more intense, but the liberation movement was growing and expanding. On the 9th and 10th of May, resistance troop organization in Slabinja exceeded the amount in the liberated area of Potkozarje (Bosnia). However, most inhabitants who had not fled to Bosnia, the Ustaše had caught and put into camps. The village was left deserted. During the fascist (Axis) offensive on Kozara, Slabinja shared the same fate of those Partisans fighting at Kozara. Many in were in agony and in the machine of war, the heroes of Kozara lost their lives. A small number managed to secretly return to the village, but most of them all fell into the hands of the fascists. They were then driven to forced labor and death camps across Europe. The Ustaše government then settled their own officials and family members in the vacated abandoned village of Slabinja."
1943 (Slide 6)
"During the spring of this year, Slabinja survivors returned to the village and attempted to re-organized their lives. The Communist Party groups and Skojevska Organization assembled groups of the United League of Croatian Antifascist Youth (USAOH), the Yugoslav Antifascist Front of Women (AFŽ) and rural People's Liberation Committee. In October, new groups of soldiers again chased the residents away from the village. The Ustaše carried out brutal reprisals in Dubica (Bosnia), arresting about 30 Slabinja residents, and on December 17th they surrounded the village and at a local church killed and butchered 96 women, children and elderly people. The rest of the inhabitants fled from the brutal Ustaše sword to the liberated areas of Banija (Banovina region) and Potkozarje (Bosnia). The village was deserted again."
1944 (Slide 7)
"At this point, the residents of Slabinja are scattered across the regions of Banija and Potkozarje and dying at death camps across Europe. Any people who can are fighting in the organized National Liberation movement and struggling in Tito’s heroic army. The residents of Slabinja suffer, they grieve and suffer, starve and die, but maintain hope in the victory over fascism. The village was deserted, but not dead."
1945 (Slide 8)
"On May 6th, 1945, the surviving residents of Slabinja returned to the village. They returned to the overgrown and burnt remains of their homes to count the dead, heal their war wounds and to ignite the fire of free life. They came and swore to keep the idea of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ as their anthem, while defending the freedom and sacredness of their homeland. They vowed to forever commemorate the memory of their fallen friends, whose lives are woven into the foundation of our liberty and happiness of future generations. Forever will live the legend of the 548 fallen Slabinja residents - with 107 of them dying in the ranks of the Liberation Army of Yugoslavia and another 441 victims of fascist terror. The legend - they will live forever with us!"
A wide variety of symbolic and representational interpretations have been put forward regarding the memorial sculpture here at Slabinja created by Stanislav Mišić. Firstly, according to the 1981 Đorđe Đurić book "Epitaf Kraj Zelene Rijeke", the symbolic interpretation of this memorial sculpture is as follows:
"In the lower part of the monument is one of the longest inscribed lists of fallen soldiers in any single Yugoslav village (547 surnames and names) from which rises into a pyramidal tower to a height of 15 meters. This symbolizes the victims of Slabinja and that their suffering was not in vain. Furthermore, it symbolizes the rise of the freedom of those who survived the cataclysm of war, in whose foundations were embedded the lives, blood and bones of those who have fallen on Kozara, Jasenovac and around Croatia, Yugoslavia and Europe."
Meanwhile, Zagreb academic researcher Sanja Horvatinčić makes the following observations in reference to this work's symbolism (translated from Croatian into English):
"This is a pronounced pyramid-like vertical, a piercing thin red volume of triangular shape and acts as a direct reference to the aesthetics of Russian constructivism... [in addition] what is noticeable is the imposition of abstractness and of constructive demanding structures upon the natural landscape without any attempts to establish a physical or emotional relationship with the viewer."
Photo 2: "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" by El Lissitzky (1919)
Photo 3: Photo from 1960s of mural at Uroševac/Ferizaj, Kosovo
The reference here by Horvatinčić to Russian constructivism is quite compelling, as the most famous Russian constructivist work "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" by El Lissitzky from 1919 (Photo 2) seems highly connected to the monument. In this highly politicized work by Lissitzky, the sharp 'red wedge' shape is meant to be symbolic of the Bolshevik Red Army revolutionaries piercing (or defeating) the anti-Communist White Army (the 'white circle') during the 1917 Russian Civil War. As such, it would not seem to be a huge leaf to consider that the creator of this monument here at Slabinja, Stanislav Mišić, hoped that through employing a symbolic reference to the 'red wedge', it would conjure within viewer similar interpretations of communist revolutionaries defeating its adversaries. It is interesting to note that another example of the 'red wedge' motif within public art of the former-Yugoslav region can be found in the town of Uroševac/Ferizaj, Kosovo. In the town's center square, a large mural was created on the side of a hotel in 1960 that depicted a waiter in a geometric style. The central composition of the waiter's shape is made up of a large red triangle (Photo 3). This mural exists today essentially as a monument to the town's working class heritage (symbolized by the waiter), which therefore makes understanding the waiter's shape as a deeper symbol of the proletariat Bolshevik 'red wedge' all the more revealing.
However, despite these ideas I have described above, it must also be mentioned that the author of this work, Stanislav Mišić, used triangle-shaped elements in other monument projects that he completed during the Yugoslav-era, a characteristic most notably visible in the Partisan Battalions Memorial at Bihać, BiH, which he created in 1966 (12 years before his monument here at Slabinja) (Photo 4). As such, it is entirely possible that the triangle form seen here at Slabinja is less of an overt symbolic element and more of a personal sculptural design approach used by Stanislav Mišić that he subsequently and repeatedly incorporated into his various memorial works through the years. Therefore, assuming that the red triangle in the Slabinja monument is a nod to Soviet Constructivism may not be an entirely accurate interpretation, especially as the art worlds of Yugoslavia and the USSR were quite disconnected and separated during the post-1948 Yugoslav-era, making a direct Soviet inspiration by Mišić seem less likely.
Photo 4: A photo of the the Partisan Battalions Memorial at Bihać, BiH
Status and Condition:
The state of the small spomenik complex here in Slabinja, Croatia is somewhat poor. While the landscaping and grounds in the vicinity of the complex are in reasonable order, this is more than likely due to the fact that the memorial is located in the center of the village adjacent to a children's playground, and less so to do with efforts to maintain or preserve the memorial. The lack of care extended to memorial complex by the village's municipality is plainly evidenced in the highly degraded condition which the monument currently resides in, with much of the concrete deteriorating, the paint smearing away onto the metal and moss growing on the top of the structure. From what I was able to evaluate, the sculpture seems to have existed in this state for some time now. Meanwhile, there are no directional signs along the main highway alerting or leading local visitors to the complex, nor did it seem as though the village was making any attempts to promote or advertise the spomenik as any sort of historical point of interest or cultural attraction.
Upon my most recent visit to the site, I found no evidence of any honorific wreaths, candles or flowers left here, leading me to believe that efforts to honor the site locally are minimal. Furthermore, I was not able to find any evidence or documentation that commemorative or remembrance events are held at the site any longer, official or otherwise. Meanwhile, I was not able to find any indications that there existed any upcoming plans or efforts to restore or rehabilitate the Slabinja spomenik complex. Interestingly though, I did find reports that in September of 2016, a ceremony was held at the memorial site. However, the ceremony was not for the monument, but to recognize a new children's playground being built at the location just a few dozen meters away from the memorial sculpture. Articles about this ceremony, which mention the playground was for children still plagued by the region's deadly anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance, make no mention of the monument.
Selected Sources and More Information:
Finding this spomenik site here in Slabinja, Croatia is a relatively easy endeavor. Firstly, from the A3/E-70 motorway, take the exit for Lipak/Jasenovac onto Highway 47. Follow Highway 47 south over the Sava River, tracking along the Ulna River for about 35km. After you pass into the town limits for Slabinja, drive another half kilometer and you will see the Slabinja memorial sculpture on the right hand side of the road. You can see an image of the entrance to the monument HERE on Google StreetView. The exact coordinates for parking locations are N45°12'36.6", E16°40'08.9".
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