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Why were so many destroyed or abandoned?

As you explore many of the Yugoslav monument sites scattered across the former nation, you will notice that a number of them are in various states of disrepair, neglect, abandonment or even complete destruction (Photos 1 & 2). After the fall and fragmentation of Yugoslavia and the independence of the former republics in the early 1990s, this process of neglect and destruction of many monuments across the Yugoslav region began almost immediately.

In fact, where many thousands of these anti-fascist monuments once stood, thousands were also subsequently destroyed. However, it is not known exactly how many even have survived to this day. This lack of information is not only a by-product of a lack of cataloging and inventory of these memorial sites, but also because they are still being actively neglected and destroyed, not just by vandals and thieves, but also via the power of local and regional governments themselves. But why are so many being destroyed and neglected you might ask? Why are local authorities and governments not preserving and protecting these sites?

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Photo 1: The monument at Makljen Pass in Bosnia during the Yugoslav-era

Photo 2: The ruins of the Makljen Pass monument in BiH after its 2000 bombing

These are multi-faceted questions that don't have one simple straightforward answer and vary across regions... but we will examine a few possible explanations in the following sections.

Lasting Resentment

One of the hopes behind crafting these forward-looking abstract monuments to create an atmosphere of unity, forgiveness and reconciliation in the post-WWII era. Such efforts were especially crucial when considering that there were a sizeable amount of soldiers who were former-Axis collaborators (Ustaše, Chetniks, Balli Kombëtar, etc) and civilian sympathizers of those movements whom Tito desperately wished to effectively integrate into his new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Such integration of the war's victors, perpetrators and victims within one political and cultural landscape would be a difficult matter, which is one reason why Tito's "Brotherhood & Unity" ideology was such a foundational principle in Yugoslavia and also why creating a series of symbolic monuments to emphasize are reinforce that ideology was paramount.


Photo 3: A Roman painting of four members of the Severan family, with one member's face erased as a result of 'Damnatio memoriae'

However, despite these efforts towards unity, there were many in Yugoslavia who refused to fully integrate into this communist-led multi-cultural society or give themselves over to the ideals of 'Brotherhood & Unity'. Such refusals were the result of many issues, whether it be strongly held religious/ethnic/national identities, distrust towards communist rule/leadership, anger in regards to WWII events/loss, massacres which had occurred during/after WWII, or even such extreme stances as holding on to fascist beliefs. For such people, these monuments and memorials often acted as conspicuous points of contention for their lingering resentment and anger, even despite these monument's ambiguous amorphous forms and universalist messages. During the hey-day of Yugoslavia, this resentment and anger was very much kept in check by the Yugoslavian government's intense efforts in stamping out inter-ethnic retaliations, nationalism or religious hatred in any form, accompanied by the intense promotion of the ideals of 'Brotherhood and Unity'. However, at the onset of the fracturing of the Yugoslav state and the erosion of the unifying Yugoslav identity and ideology, ethnic nationalism, religiously-aligned and anti-Communist ideologies spread like wildfire.

Anti-Yugoslav sentiments were fiercest in the years directly after the former country's breakup. For example, one source describes that prominent Croatian-born writer Dubravka Ugrešić wrote in her 1998 book "The Culture of Lies" that "the terms Yugoslav, Yugonostalgic or Yugo- zombie are synonyms with national traitors." As a consequence such anti-Yugoslav prevailing attitudes, in many areas, those stark Yugoslav symbols of "brotherhood and unity" were often the first things targeted and destroyed as war and conflict began to overtake many parts of the region through the 1990s. In many places, the destruction took on a form such that it seemed as though there were forces were at work intent upon erasing from society's collective consciousness the memory and history contained within these monuments, similar to the ancient Roman practice of "Damnatio memoriae" (Photo 3), where traitorous persons condemned by the Roman Senate had all traces or records of their existence obliterated.  

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Photo 4: A photo from the 1960s of the Jasenovac monument site in Croatia

Furthermore, it is important to note that feelings of resentment towards these abstract monuments came from not only the perpetrators of the memorialized crimes, but also their victims as well in some cases. For instance, upon the revelation of its design in the 1960s, some ethnic-Serbs were horrified by the decontextualized and ambiguous design of the 'Flower Monument' at the site of the former concentration camp in Jasenovac, Croatia. These vocal critics considered its modernized flower shape, symbolizing reconciliation and forgiveness, to be a tawdry and insufficient memorial to such a horrific and monstrous crime (at which thousands of ethnic-Serbs, Jews and Roma were killed). Some extreme opponents even demanded it be torn down. Many exclaimed such remarks as, "Who are you to grant these criminals forgiveness?" or "Why does this memorial not depict the crime... why are the deeds being covered up?". In fact, some of these ethnic-Serbs felt the Jasenovac spomenik was so outrageous that they accused its creator, Bogdan Bogdanović, of being a Croat-sympathizer and treasonous Serb-traitor, accompanied with calls for his execution.


These anecdotes, albeit extreme examples, illustrate that even memorials built for victims with even the best of intentions of harmony and absolution can sometimes be viewed as unacceptable, inadequate and even insulting when evaluated from certain perspectives. As this section has shown, antipathy towards the Yugoslav memorial heritage was something that did not have just one origin and did not begin only when the Yugoslav Wars began.

An Inconvenient Legacy

In addition, there were other contributing factors towards the destruction and abandonment of the spomeniks. During the time of Yugoslavia, there were some groups who felt that the "Brotherhood & Unity"-style multi-ethnic, religiously diverse Yugoslav union was a mistake and resented communist rule. As ethnic and religious tensions flared up in Yugoslavia post-Tito's death in the 1980s, these nationalist and anti-communist groups subsequently grew in size, power and influence (Photo 5). Then, as Yugoslavia began fracturing into separate states in the early 1990s, leading to a series of bloody wars, many in this new contentious and violent political landscape viewed the monuments as antiquated artifacts and unwelcome reminders of an unwanted system of government. The fracturing was so deep, in fact, that in many areas of the Yugoslav region renamed entire cities which were named to honor Tito, while hundreds of street names and squares were redesignated in order to expunge all traces of their Yugoslav, Partisan or communist heritage.


Photo 5: Anti-Yugoslavia, pro-Croatian independence demonstrations in Zagreb in 1989 [source]

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Photo 7: The KLA/UÇK monument at Landovica, built 2017

And through that fracturing, new countries were being formed with new (or resurrected) identities, new ideas for their own futures and reinterpreted outlooks on their national histories -- all guided by new political ideologies -- and in many cases, the legacy and universal symbolism of the spomeniks did not fit into or could not be aligned with those new ideologies and 'new histories'. Through the course of this national reinvention, new monuments were erected that spoke in a new symbolic vocabulary. Consequently, some governments, militaries and political groups waged active campaigns to diminish the importance of the old Yugoslav monuments and, in many cases, actively worked to eliminate them from the memorial landscape so that the 'old system' could be forgotten and replaced with the 'new system'.

This historical marginalization and cultural erasing took many forms: new monuments were built on top of the ruins of old ones (Photos 6 & 7), monuments were overtly targeted, defaced and destroyed by vandals, old monuments were ignored in favor of new monuments, plaques bearings the names of fallen Partisans from WWII were replaced with plaques bearing the names fallen fighters from the 90s Yugoslav wars, memorial crypts contains the remains of Partisan fighters were demolished and scattered, etc, etc. However, it is important to realize that in each of the former Yugoslav republics, this phenomenon manifested itself in different ways. Among the most contentious and complex examples of the post-Yugoslav monumental erasure of the 1990s was in the Bosnian region, where the region's three primary ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats & Bosniaks) used monuments to compete in a quickly changing political landscape. A paper by Mraović & Begić describes the situation there in the following terms:

"[In the Bosnian region] the territory markers (monuments, commemoration ceremonies, names of  schools, streets, and institutions) from the pre-1990s period have been replaced en-masse by new monuments, commemoration ceremonies, names, and collective histories. Interestingly, this was done is such a way that [Yugoslav symbols] and almost all markers associated with [them] were replaced by three mono-ethnic narratives and their symbols. This symbolic cleansing of territory has a dual purpose, to differentiate 'us' from 'them' and to make the ethnic other feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and out of place in 'our' majority-controlled areas. In that regard, they almost represent a continuation of war through other (symbolic) means aimed at cementing ethnics cleansing and partition accomplished during the war... This 'enforcing and reinforcing of symbolic domination' has been primarily accomplished through the mass construction of religious buildings and symbols."

Problematic Revelations

An additional factor which is necessary in understanding the escalating anger through the 1980s towards the Yugoslav communist government and the Partisan memorial heritage were the shocking revelations that came to light through the 1970s and 80s in regards to the official government concealment of WWII-era and post-war mass killings, as well as revelations about the Yugoslav government's secret political prison on an small island in the Adriatic Sea.

In the years directly after WWII and the official formation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the communist government made the official decision to conceal from the general public a significant amount of mass-killings. These concealed mass killings were of several varieties: 1.) massacres committed by the Partisan Army against civilians during WWII, such as the Kulen Vakuf massacre, 2.) certain massacres committed by domestic Axis collaborators against civilians during WWII, and 3.) post-WWII massacres committed by Yugoslav Partisans against captive Axis collaborators, such as those at Kočevski Rog or Huda Jama (Photo 7). The public knowledge and discussion of such massacres was kept hidden and suppressed in Yugoslavia for decades (with memory of such incidents passed down primarily by families and communities through the 'secret histories' that we discussed in the last section). This policy of historical concealment was rationalized by the government through the argument that such revelations could threaten the country's foundational ideology of "Brotherhood & Unity", while also fearing that such information could compromise the Yugoslav public's perception of and belief in the "moral superiority" of Tito's communist government over their WWII adversaries.


Photo 7: The Barabara Pit site, where the Huda Jama massacre occurred in May/June 1945


Photo 8: Remains of massacre victims in Barbara Pit at Huda Jama

It was not until the mid-1970s that information on such massacres finally started trickling into public discourse in Yugoslavia, which was kick-started most conspicuously with the Zaliv Scandal in 1975, which brought to into public discourse for the first time accounts of the thousands of extra-judicial executions of Slovene Home Guard war prisoners by the Yugoslav Partisans in May & June of 1945. As more and more information about the significant scale of these massacres surfaced in the public, many exhumations and body retrievals of these old massacre sites began to take place (Photo 8). As such grisly events occurred, these emotional and visceral scenes added not only to inter-ethnic and inter-religious bitterness within the country, but also feelings of anger, resentment and disillusionment towards the Yugoslav government for keeping such secrets from the public for so long. Furthermore, such feelings of anger and betrayal in relation to these grisly long kept secrets only further complicated and compounded the disillusionment already being felt by many towards the communist party, their Partisan/Yugoslav heritage, and the monuments dedicated to them. As the dismantling of Yugoslavia began in the 1990s, some of the first new monuments to be built during this new era were monuments marking the sites of these long secret and long hidden massacre sites.

Yet another incident worth mentioning that further eroded the "moral superiority" myth of the Yugoslav state within the collective consciousness of the Yugoslav peoples during the 1980s was the revelation of the secret Goli Otok (Barren Island) prison for political dissidents (Photo 9). Situated on a small isolated island in the Adriatic Sea, the prison was primarily used for those who dared voice support for the Soviet Union and Stalin. During its existence, it held over 16,000 prisoners, while well over 400 died there. For decades, the camp's existence was an explicitly taboo subject, with any and all people, especially released prisoners, prohibited to publicly discuss the prison. When the first accounts were published about the Goli Otok prison in 1980, people were shocked and appalled by the accounts of what was transpiring there. The prison was officially closed down a few years later in 1988, just before the start of the Yugoslav Wars.


Photo 9: An aerial view of Goli Otok

Bygone Relics

Another important point to mention is that by the 1980s, the majority of the young and middle-aged population of Yugoslavia was born AFTER the end of WWII and the 'socialist revolution'. As such, these younger generations who had grown up without having directly experienced the struggle of 'revolution', who had lived relatively comfortable and stable lives within the evolving consumer culture of Yugoslavia, began to feel that this concepts of 'the revolution' or 'the people's uprising' were no longer immediately relevant, influential or impactful upon their lives. Such attitudes resulted in the spomeniks and the Partisan memorial heritage of Yugoslavia being perceived as 'old-fashioned' by many, which resulted in the spomenik's shared symbolic language ceasing to effectively communicate with those who they were intended to reach. This waning of enthusiasm and dwindling connection can be evidenced in the significant drop off in attendance of annual celebratory events at many of the largest celebrations memorial celebrations the mid-1980s.  For example, sources relate that between 1983 and 1984, there was a decrease in attendance at the annual commemoration ceremony for the famous Sutjeska monument in the BiH of roughly 140,000 people. Meanwhile, by 1988, the large daily Sarajevo, BiH newspaper 'Oslobođenje' was not even mentioning the annual Sutjeska event.


Photo 10: Slovenian delegate Barbara Zupanc holds newspaper announcing Slovenian independence in 1991

Then, as the nation of Yugoslavia began to fragment, many people within this new political landscape even more so felt that these 'universalist' and 'inclusive' symbols of the 'old system' were no longer meaningful any longer to their lives, their culture or their personal histories in the face of new-nationhood. For the populations of each of these recently independent nations (Photo 10), ideas of nationalistic pride, ethnic pride, religious pride, pride in capitalism, etc (all formerly suppressed concepts), became for many more significant guiding and foundational factors in people's day-to-day existence than the now bygone Yugoslav ideals of 'unity', 'brotherhood', 'collectivism', 'socialism' and 'reconciliation'. It was upon these long suppressed concepts that new identities were formed in these new nations and new monuments which spoke in a new visual and symbolic language were built.

Furthermore, with the ideology of 'Brotherhood & Unity' dismantled, some WWII victims and their families, now flushed with feelings of nationalism and unrestrained religious expression, began to feel the abstract decontextualized spomeniks obscured and glossed-over the real horrors and crimes they were meant to commemorative, feeling that they insufficiently memorialized the dead. As a result, many spomenik sites, which were nearly always originally devoid of overt religious symbolism, subsequently during the post Yugoslav-era had built within them new overtly-religious monuments and religious structures (as mentioned above) in order to, on one hand, cater to this new post-Yugoslav well-spring of cultural religious expression, but also as a means to co-opt the cultural memory of the site. For example, religious monuments were built at such spomenik sites as Sanski Most & Kozara, while churches were built at the sites at Ostra, Kraljevo and Kragujevac, among others (Photos 11 & 12).


Photo 11: New cross monument built at Sanski Most, BiH NOB site


Photo 12: New church built at Ostra, Serbia NOB site

As a consequence of this decline in the visitation and maintenance of many Yugoslav memorials, many of them slowly began to fall into the obscurity of disuse and disrepair. Some began to be damaged for fun by vandals or cannibalized all together by locals simply for scrap and building materials. And now, scores of these monuments, which were once massive attractions visited by hundreds of thousands, now sit as ghostly remnants of an old exhausted powerhouse... lingering as haunting relics to even those who live among them, primarily because, it is asserted, they suggest a "shadow narrative, often poorly articulated but present, about an alternative political and social possibility". However, it must be stated that this is was not the fate of all of the monuments of the former Yugoslavia. Many remain as vibrant attractions and are well maintained. The present-day state of and feelings towards the remaining spomeniks across the former Yugoslavia is what will be looked at in the next section.

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