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What is the legacy of the Spomeniks?

Introduction

What the lasting legacy of the spomeniks are is a complicated question that does not necessarily have any one specific answer. The most straightforward way to approach the question from the start is to ask, did the Yugoslav monument experiment achieve its goal, as in, were they able to successfully bring together a diverse group of ethnic people?... did they heal old wounds and communicate the Yugoslav ideology?... did they create the utopian society that Tito imagined? Furthermore, with the popularity of the spomeniks growing more and more both within the former Yugoslav region as well as internationally, national governments are again being tested as far as trying to decide how to relate to this heritage with the growing number of tourists coming to the region to visit them.

Healing Old Wounds?

While the Yugoslav nation did last a number of decades after World War II, up until the early 1990s, as soon as Tito died in 1980, things almost immediately began to slowly unravel. The nation that was built up around the 'cult of personality' of Tito and the concept of 'brotherhood & unity' could not survive the political vacuum, subsequent power squabbling and religious/ethnic/national tensions that began to increasingly manifest in his absence. While the spomeniks were created, in part, with the intention of cultivating a strong Yugoslav identity, a shared foundation built around 'revolution' and a sense of national unity among all people, the grisly wars of the 1990s seem to indicate that the efforts of these monumental works fell short of their intended goals.

Did the spomeniks heal old wounds and avoid instilling bitterness within certain groups? Well, as we discussed in earlier section, as soon as the Yugoslav Wars began, some of the first actions taken in many regions was a campaign of destruction waged upon many of these monuments. So, as hard as Yugoslavia's political elite may have tried to imbue them with a sense of hope, optimism and reconciliation to last for all time across all ethnic/religious/national group, even the most modern of abstract and de-contextualized memorial structures weren't enough to prevent them from becoming flashpoints and lighting-rods of tension and resentment. While some did survive the turmoil of the 1990s and remain active sites of memory, it is worth exploring whether these works survived in spite of their abstract and decontextualized form and not necessarily because of it.

Photo 1: Kolo dancing at Kozara, Bosnia in the 1970s.

Dreams & Nightmares

Firstly, it goes without saying that the spomeniks fell short in their ambitions of helping to facilitate the creation of a full fledged utopian society within Yugoslavia. Thus, while it was certainly a noble goal and a well intentioned endeavor, it could be argued that the spomenik experiment itself was not a success. It is true that some individual spomenik sites are still cared for and respected by their local communities, however, a significant number of them have fallen out of favor in their local communities and have been neglected, falling victim to vandals and aggressors. The ones that survive stand now as a testament to Yugoslavia's bold and innovative decision to use abstract public art as a means to achieve what might be considered an ambition larger than had ever been attempted using public art. Yet, despite it all, many woke up from the dream confused and bewildered by the experience, not only unsure how to feel about the monuments, but also unsure how they were supposed to feel about the entire Yugoslavian experience as a whole... and even more extreme, for many, the dream turned into a nightmare during the ensuing Yugoslav Wars. However, the fact that the spomeniks are still an intense topic of discussion and debate nearly 30 years after the end of the Yugoslav-era speaks to their lasting power and influence, especially on younger generations who never even personally experienced living in the former country.

A 'Skeleton' of Yugoslavia

As a result of all of this, the legacy of the 'spomenik experiment' is complicated. Some would just be happy to forget them, along with the ideologies they represented, while others feel the anti-fascist victories and tragedies they honor should not be forgotten, as many continue to use them as sites for commemoration and celebration (Photo 2). Even to this present day, it is a conflict that is still not resolved in many parts of the former-Yugoslavia. On one side of the spectrum, spomeniks represent bitter resentment towards the 'old system', while at the other side, they are nostalgic symbols of disillusionment in the 'new system', and within that spectrum, there is a deep chasm. As the monuments lay scattered across the landscape in a fractured network, they appear as a residual framework or 'skeleton' of Yugoslavia... a shadowy vestige of a nation long past. And how these different peoples feel about that 'long past' nation is, in part, reflected in what is left of each monument.

Photo 2: Modern celebrations at Spomenik at Dražgoše, Slovenia.

Spomeniks & Tourism

Photo 3: Spomenik tourists at the Petrova Gora monument in Croatia [source]

Over the last decade, there has been a growing interest in the spomeniks, not only within the former Yugoslav region, but notably all across the international community. Numerous popular publications, news articles, video projects and art shows around the world related to the spomeniks have began to propel them into a wider sphere of global awareness, especially after the MoMA Yugoslav architecture exhibit of 2018, where they were featured prominently. As a result of this growing global and regional interest in history and heritage of spomeniks, tourism to the former Yugoslav region to visit and tour them has risen dramatically (Photo 3). Even the notable American tour company Atlas Obscura has begun offering guided Spomenik Tours to the region to visit them. However, national governments within the former Yugoslav region are often left confused, unsure and unprepared as far as how to approach and relate to this burgeoning international touristic market, especially as there are divergent views on the Yugoslav-past within the populations of these present day countries, with some viewing it very unfavorably, and others looking back on it nostagically (the latter often being referred to with the term 'Yugo-nostalgia').

However, in 2018 a European Union funded project began with the Sarajevo-based NGO named the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) to develop a multi-country touristic route around the spomeniks. While the project is still in a development phase, the initiative does have the backing of regional governments, which indicates that a cooperative and unified multi-country government approach to reconciling the history and heritage of the spomeniks might be made real in the coming years. Such an agreement could signal that the concept of tourism might be a conduit through which the legacy of the spomeniks can be thoughtfully examined by all interested parties, working to help preserve them into the future as historical artifacts, as important memorial sites, and as part of the heritage of European WWII anti-fascism, while saving them from falling into the depths of obscurity and forgotten memory.