The first thing to understand about the 'Spomeniks*' is that they represent many different things to many different people... they are the legacy of a bygone era, they are witnesses to suffering, they are the embodied mythos of a generation, they are objects of anger, they are testaments to triumph, they are symbols of resentment, etc, etc, etc. In a direct physical sense, what are commonly referred to in English as 'spomenik' (the Serbo-Croatian/Slovenian word for 'monument') are a series of memorials built from the 1950s-1990s during Tito's Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, whose primary intent was to honor its people's resistance struggle during the People's Liberation Struggle (1941-1945) (aka WWII) against Axis occupation and oppression. They commemorate not only the crimes which occurred during the region's brutal occupation, but they additionally celebrate the 'Revolution' which defeated them, all lead by Tito's Partisan Army of rebel fighters. However, these monuments were, and still are, more than just the sum of their parts.
What are Spomeniks*?
Photo 1: A 1978 map of a select number of Yugoslav spomenik sites
*See language note at bottom of page.
At the outset of Tito's new Republic (established from the ashes of that revolution), ambitious plans were laid to craft something new, something brave and adventurous -- a classless country ruled by principles of socialism, a population free of ethnic tension, all bound together by feelings of 'brotherhood and unity'... and Yugoslavia's 'spomenik project' (Photo 1) was a part of that grand plan. A 2017 paper by Nina Stevanovic cites a source relating that by 1961, over 14,000 memorial objects were already constructed across Yugoslavia honoring WWII (NOB) and the socialist revolution. By the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it is unknown exactly how many memorial objects were created in total, but if their creation was at the same rate that they were built from 1945-1961, the total number would be well over 40,000. Such a phenomenal wellspring of memorial construction is distinct and unique compared to other European countries during that time period, as such, it immediately becomes evident the importance with which the Yugoslav government put upon the creation of a mass landscape-wide memorialization of the events of the People's Liberation Struggle, WWII, and the popular uprising that set the revolution into motion.
Optimism, Righteousness & Education
Photo 2: A historical photo of the Monument to the Revolution in Podgarić, Croatia [profile page]
Within this new country of Yugoslavia, Tito envisioned a diverse utopian society unified around its own internal sense of progressive optimism, which itself would be held together by a firm grasp on its own shared future and by a collective righteousness in their victory against fascist aggression. The construction of this vast array of monuments was part of that plan. As such, these monuments operate not only as surreal and abstract structures memorializing a horrific past and arduous victory against fascism, but additionally, they function as political tools meant to articulate the country's vision of a new tomorrow (Photo 2). This is most visibly evidenced by the fact that a central feature at a significant number of these memorial complexes are various styles of large amphitheatres (Photo 3) -- the purpose of these amphitheatres were to act as outdoor classrooms, utilizing the monuments as a tool to communicate the history, mythology and ideology of 'Socialist Yugoslavia' to the tens of thousands of school children who were brought to them every year from across the country via Tito's 'Young Pioneers' political youth initiative (Photo 4).
Photo 3: A historical photo of the amphitheatre complex and Makedonium monument in Kruševo, Macedonia [profile page]
Photo 4: A historical photo of children gathered at a Young Pioneer rally at the Vraca Memorial Complex in Sarajevo, BiH [profile page]
When visiting the monuments, it is plain and immediate to see that the amphitheatres were designed integral components to these memorials sites (as they often directly meld into the monument's architecture and surrounding landscape). This reality reinforces the notion that these Yugoslav works existed not simply as some customary passive memorial objects (think of the standard and functionally invisible equestrian statue in the center of the traditional town square), but, instead, they operated as a national network of active grand teaching tools for relating to a burgeoning population the ethos, history and narrative of Tito's "New Yugoslavia". In 1927, Austrian philosophical writer Robert Musil observed: "The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument." Little did Musil know that less than half-a-century later, Yugoslavia would prove him wrong.
From Seasides to Mountain Tops
So, from the 1960's to the 1980s, hundreds (if not thousands) of these spomenik sites were built across the Republic of Yugoslavia... from big ones the size of a 15-story building (Photo 6), to smaller ones as big as a refrigerator. It was a colossal effort in monument building unparalleled in Europe, both then and to this day. The monoliths towered from seasides to barren mountain-tops (Photos 7 & 8), standing as forces which dominated the landscape wherever they existed. But where many hundreds once stood, scores have now been destroyed and left derelict in the subsequent years after the war and ethnic conflict that overtook the Yugoslav region through the 1990s -- but in the wake of that turmoil, the ruins of an unseen web of lost cultural markers was left behind. The ones that still remain intact tell a powerful and passionate story about memory, history and a future unrealized. This website aims to explore and unfold that story.
Photo 6: Vintage photo of the "Monument to the Uprising", Petrova Gora, HR [profile page]
Photo 7: A historical photo of the "Gull Wing" monument in the Adriatic seaside town of Podgora, Croatia [profile page]
Photo 8: A historical photo of a school group approaching the Kozara monument near Prijedor, BiH [profile page]
In the following sections linked below, you can explore more of the collective history of these sites, delving into questions about their style, the form, their fate and their current condition. In addition, you can also choose to explore the spomenik sites individually through a variety of pathways and educational resources. Watch videos about them, explore the digital library, read my feature/analysis articles about them, and much more! The links below will begin you on this journey:
Language Note: for those speakers of the Serbo-Croatian group of languages or Slovenian/Macedonian who are wondering about my strange use of the plural "spomeniks" for the singular word "spomenik" (which I use throughout this website), instead of the linguistically correct "spomenici'" or "spomeniki" -- I do this merely as a simplified plural Anglicization by naturally adding an "S" to the end of the noun "spomenik", as I felt using the Slovenian or Serbo-Croatian form of plural for "spomenik" could be confusing to English readers and/or those not familiar with those languages or their plural word rules and structuring.
Photo 5: A historical photo of school children on a visit to the Monument to the Battle of Sutjeska at Tjentište, BiH. [profile page]