A view of the monument at the WWII spomenik complex in December Victims Park in Zagreb, Croatia.
A view of the monument at the WWII spomenik complex in December Victims Park in Zagreb, Croatia.
A view of the monument at the WWII spomenik complex in December Victims Park in Zagreb, Croatia.
A view of the monument at the WWII spomenik complex in December Victims Park in Zagreb, Croatia.
Name: Monument to the December Victims (Spomenika prosinačkim žrtvama)
Location: In the Dubrava neighborhood of Zagreb, Croatia
Year completed: 1960 (1 year to build)
Designer: Dušan Džamonja (profile page)
Coordinates: N45°49'30.9", E16°02'17.0" (click for map)
Dimensions: ~5m tall monument
Materials used: Concrete and wire
Condition: Fair, neglected
This small spomenik complex in the Dubrava neighborhood of Zagreb, Croatia commemorates the 16 anti-fascist civilians who were hung by Ustaše forces on December 20th, 1943
World War II
After Axis forces invaded and occupied the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April of 1941, the present day countries of Croatia and Bosnia were re-organized into an Axis puppet-state which was called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which was ruled by Croatian nationalist Ante Pavelić. The Ustaše, a Croatian ultra-nationalist group, were tasked to be the military arm of the NDH and to enforce order across the country. As Pavelić wished to create an ethnically pure nation of Croats and Croat-aligned groups, ethnic-Serbs, Jews, Roma, communists and other dissidents were heavily oppressed and targeted with violence. As a result, many of these oppressed peoples now living in the NDH organized into rebel groups united with Josip Tito's Partisan armed resistance. In order to dissuade people in the NDH from joining these resistance movements, the Ustaše would routinely round up prominent members of local communities, holding them hostage and threatening to execute them in retaliation if any Axis soldiers or infrastructure was attacked by the Partisan rebels.
In the darkness of December 18th, 1943, Marijan Badel, commander of the Turopoljsko-Posavska Partisan Detachment, set out on a mission to attack several German ammunition depots in a village north of Zagreb called Sopnica (the village's name changed to Sopnica Kašinska in 1975). After disarming the depot's guards and evacuating the villagers, four warehouses filled with 8,500 tons of armaments and munitions were destroyed with explosives. The Ustaše in Zagreb were quick to respond to this attack with reprisal killings. Two days later on December 20th, 18 civilian hostages, who were mostly local intellectuals held captivity by the Ustaše in case of Partisan attacks, were taken under the cover of night from their prison cells and packed into Ustaše trucks. They were then driven to the main square of the Zagreb neighborhood of Dubrava, what was at that point on the far eastern outskirts of the city. The hostages were then unloaded and crudely hanged from wooden utility poles by their necks on either side of the main road through Dubrava as a warning to locals (Photo 1). During the Ustaše's process of attempting to hang the hostages, two escaped. One of the two who escaped was prominent Croatian architect Milovan Kovačević.
Photo 1: A victim hung from a pole in the Dubrava area of Zagreb, 1943
German military diplomats sent as envoys to Zagreb to advise the Ustaše were horrified by these hangings. German Army General Edmund Glaise-Horstenau (Photo 2), who was stationed in Zagreb, strongly and repeatedly denounced the hangings, characterizing them as 'criminal' and went out his way clarify that his men were not involved. As early as 1941 Glaise-Horstenau was quoted in reports to German High Command communicating such sentiments:
Photo 2: Edmund Glaise-Horstenau
"Our troops have to be mute witnesses of such events; it does not reflect well on their otherwise high reputation... I am frequently told that German occupation troops would finally have to intervene against Ustaše crimes. This may happen eventually. Right now, with the available forces, I could not ask for such action. Ad hoc intervention in individual cases could make the German Army look responsible for countless crimes which it could not prevent in the past."
Furthermore, the brazen and grisly nature of these executions at Dubrava greatly disturbed many across the city. Yet, the tragedy served as a visceral event which emboldened many in the Partisan resistance to continue their fight against the Ustaše, while also serving as a tool in recruiting more into their resistance, as it was a viciously tangible episode which Partisans could easily point to for illustrating Ustaše brutality. Unable to control the Partisan resistance, the Ustaše increased violence against the Zagreb population even more after the Dubrava killings, committing 25 additional hangings between then and February of 1945. However, in the beginning of May 1945, the NDH government fled Zagreb in response to advancing Partisan armies. The city was finally liberated on May 8th, 1945 by several divisions of the 2nd Partisan Army.
Directly after the war, the name of the main thoroughfare through Dubrava was renamed "December Victims Avenue", in honor of those 16 victims hanged along the street. Furthermore, all 16 men executed men were declared National Heroes by the Yugoslavian government. Then, in the late 1950s, plans were made by the municipality of Zagreb to create a spomenik complex to commemorate the memory of those 16 executed civilians at Dubrava. Interestingly, the idea for constructing a monument at this location was not that of the municipality of Zagreb, but by the sculptor himself, Dušan Džamonja (who was personally moved by the tragedy which had occurred here). As such, the monument at Dubrava commemorating the 1943 execution was donated to the city by Džamonja. One of his early concept designs for the monument can be seen in Photo 3. The completed monument was officially unveiled to the public on December 20th, 1960, a date commemorating 17 years since the executions. The central memorial sculpture was originally located on a small earthen mound in the middle of the park. Standing roughly 5m tall, the style of the concrete sculpture Džamonja created was of a highly modern and abstract nature, comprised of a distorted pattern of honeycomb-like shapes. Such an abstract style was something never before used to this degree in Yugoslav war memorial construction. It sparked a flurry of innovative abstract WWII monuments across Yugoslavia, thus resulting in many considering Džamonja as the father of abstract WWII monument design in Yugoslavia.
Photo 3: Concept design study by Džamonja
Photo 4: Graffiti on the monument as of May 2018
For many years during the Yugoslav-era, the December Victims spomenik complex here at Dubrava was a well honored and patronized memorial. However, after the onset of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, Croatian nationalism began to increase and Zagreb municipality's interest in historical relics of the National Liberation War began to wane. As a further consequence of these political changes, in 1990, the name of December Victims Avenue in Dubrava was officially changed to Dubrava Avenue (Avenija Dubrava). Meanwhile, during the same time period, the December Victims spomenik sculpture was moved from its original location on top of a prominent earthen mound to a new setting lower and less visible setting within the park. In addition, when the sculpture was moved to its new location, all of the original signs, engravings and inscriptions that originally went along with the memorial disappeared, either stolen, destroyed or missing. Today, the spomenik complex sits relatively idle, not seeing a great deal of commemorative or honorific use. The memorial has been defaced with spray paint by vandals occasionally over last two decades, but the municipality (along with other volunteer groups) has made better efforts in recent years to address such abuses. The monument was subject to an especially vitriolic instance of graffiti in May of 2018 (Photo 4). Yet, despite this abuse, there have even been efforts recently to begin holding modest remembrance ceremonies at the site once more.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
There are no plaques, panels or engraved stones which exist here in the immediate vicinity around the December Victims monument at Dubrava. Records indicate that some nature of inscriptions may have existed at one time, but after the monument was moved from its original location to its current location in the early 1990s, the original plaques seem to have disappeared.
While this monument does not bear or provide any inscriptions, its surface nonetheless does have a very textured and tactile surface (Slide 1), which almost allows it to speak even in the absence of words. Meanwhile, this surface of the sculpture has been a victim of constant graffiti, as evidenced in Slide 2. The municipality seems to be effort into attempting to remove it, but from looking at photos over time, the monument is repeatedly vandalized, cleaned and then vandalized yet again.
Photo 5: The base of the December Victims Memorial at Dubrava
In its most basic nature, the abstract form of the sculpture which designer Dušan Džamonja created here for the December Victims Memorial is meant to represent a collection of the hanged bodies, an obvious reference to the bodies which were suspended along the streets here in the Dubrava neighborhood of Zagreb, Croatia in December of 1943. A series of five sunken heads at the top of the sculpture can be easily recognized, while the base of the sculpture rests on sharp points, just as if they were the hanged victims dangling feet desperately searching for leverage from the ground. Upon first look, this 'dangling' effect leaves the sculpture looking perplexingly unstable to the point one almost feels it could be toppled with a simple push. As a result, the fact that it remains so tenaciously upright and in place serves, in a way, to defy the logic and assumptions of the viewer, leaving them with feelings of nervousness and confusion. In actuality, the sculpture is held up by a concealed steel rod anchoring the structure to the ground (Photo 5).
Meanwhile, using a flexible wire grid inner structure with densely textured concrete applied over top, Džamonja was able to achieve this highly abstract, yet also highly organic, visual form. This achieves a form which is both familiar but at the same time otherworldly, which elicits a strange sense of unease and horror. This combination of the strangeness of shape along with the appearance of instability of orientation is what historian Horvatinčić describes as being a 'geometry of fear', where such 'malformed and contorted visions' of the human form can elicit strong and powerful emotions without actually portraying graphic visceral realism. In a 1987 interview with the Zagreb paper Vecernji List, Džamonja spoke of his symbolic approach in addressing painful topics within the design of this monument at Dubrava, making the following statements (translated here into English):
"Regarding the topic of suffering, my first monumental realization was in fact my modest memorial contribution to the Dubrava neighborhood of Zagreb, dedicated to the December victims. The essence of this endeavor was that I realized that it was impossible to include and communicate the extent of this suffering through the classical approach or through figurative expression. It was the liberated form via [abstraction] which made it possible for me, through the sculptural symbols, to express the complexity and depth of the drama during World War II in a more universal way."
Zagreb based researcher Sanja Horvatinčić notes that it is interesting to think that had it not been for Džamonja's gesture to not only donate this monument but also to create it in such a revolutionary and forward-thinking style for the time period, then Dubrava might not have been the home of what is often considered the first truly abstract WWII monument in Croatia. Furthermore, the evolution of Yugoslav abstract memorial sculpture might have evolved very differently if had not been for the creation of this very influential work of art.
Photo 6: Ceremony at the memorial, Dec. 20, 2017
Status and Condition:
Upon my most recent visit to the December Victims spomenik complex in the Dubrava area of Zagreb in the spring of 2017, I found its condition to be fairly good, however, it still faces a considerable amount of neglect and lack of attention at the same time. Firstly, the grounds of the park are fairly well-manicured and landscaped, while the lawn and grass appear to be regularly cut and maintained. Meanwhile, the structure of the central memorial sculpture itself is very good, yet, graffiti and vandalism to the sculpture are very evidently a regular occurrence. However, it seems the municipality (along with local anti-fascist youth groups) do put forth reasonable effort to clean and remove the graffiti whenever it is found present, as evidenced by the faded remnants of old spray paint marks on the sculpture. As far as labeling or signage around the park, it is altogether absent, with no signs marking the park or leading visitors to it from the road. In addition, there are no interpretive or informational signs, plaques or engravings anywhere around the memorial or the park indicating what event took place here or what the monument is supposed to represent. It can be assumed that such signs and plaques were present in the original presentation of the memorial, however, after the sculpture was moved to a less prominent location in the park in the early 1990s, these elements of the memorial went missing, either stolen, lost or destroyed. As a result, if someone were to stumble across the memorial by happenstance, they would be unable to ascertain any information whatsoever from the general surroundings. Furthermore, I have found no efforts made by the municipality of Zagreb to promote or advertise this location as any sort of point of local interest or historical attraction.
While the memorial park does see a considerable amount of visitors and walkers passing through, it would seem that the vast majority do so only because the park exists within a bustling city neighborhood, as very few who come here seem to interact or engage with the memorial sculpture in the first place. The few young people whom I found visiting the park's space and whom I asked about the sculpture were unaware of what it was or what it meant. During my most recent visit, I found no signs of honorific flowers, candles or wreaths left here, which leads me to suspect few in the local community patronize or pay respects to the memorial. However, in recent years, there have been some modest commemorative events which have been held here (Photo 6), as well as educational and historical tours by heritage groups such as the Zagreb-based organization "Documenta".
Additional Sites in the Zagreb Area:
This section explores additional Yugoslav-era historical, cultural and memorial sites in and around the greater Zagreb region that might be of interest to those studying the monuments, sculpture and/or architecture of the former Yugoslavia. The sites examined here will be the Monument to Executed Hostages, the Monument to Ciglenica Fighters, the Monument to Rade Končar, the monuments dedicated to the "Carrying of the Wounded", and the Monument to Ivan Goran Kovačić.
Monument to Executed Hostages:
Located in the center of Zagreb, just north of the main train station within Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera in front of the Library of Croatian Academy of Arts & Sciences, is a modest memorial sculpture titled "The Shooting of Hostages" (Photo 7). Unveiled in 1954 and created by Croatian sculptor Frano Kršinić in the style of Socialist Realism, this early monument depicts a scene of six men and two women, rendered in bronze, at the moment just before being executed. Wrought with pathos, this emotional work shows bound figures in anguish, angry, and screaming, but also defiant and stoic, as seen with the two central figures, who have their chests laid bare open to accept their fate. This work is meant to symbolize the +7,000 citizens of Zagreb that were executed by the Ustaše during WWII. A common practice of the Axis forces in Yugoslavia was retaliate against any Partisan incursions with executions of civilian hostages. This was the first significant WWII monument erected in the city center of Zagreb after the war.
Photo 7: A photo of the Monument to Executed Hostages in Zagreb, Croatia. Credit: Patricija Stopar
This monument continues to exist in good condition and is regularly commemorated, though, there have been numerous instances of it being defaced with graffiti. Today, the work is protected by the national government of Croatia as an immovable cultural asset. The exact coordinates for this monument are N45°48'28.3", E15°58'43.2".
Monument to "Ciglenica" Fighters:
Within the Park Pravednika Među Narodima (Park of the Righteous Among the Peoples) is a bronze sculpted memorial work that commemorates 60 fighters of the anti-fascist group "Ciglenica" (Photo 8). Unveiled in 1971 and created by Croatian sculptor Tomislav Ostoja, this monument is located near the site where the Ciglenica had its headquarters building. The Ciglenica were an anti-establishment anti-government youth organization who were active in protests and demonstrations throughout the late 1930s. However, after the Ustaše came to power at the onset of WWII, the vast majority of the Ciglenica youth were rounded up and either executed or sent to concentration camps. The monument is composed of a 8m tall series of 8 bronze reliefs showing scenes of turmoil and struggle, but also celebration and culture. Next to the monument is a bronze plate that has written in raised lettering the names of all of the 60 Ciglenica youth who were killed or executed.
Photo 8: A photo of the Monument to the Fighters of Ciglenica in Zagreb
This monument here within the park sits in excellent shape, although, it is certainly one of the lesser-known memorial works to WWII within Zagreb. The exact coordinates for this location are N45°48'24.5", E15°56'40.1".
Monument to Ivan Goran Kovačić:
Within the city center of Zagreb, just north of Jelačić Square, is situated the beautiful Ribnjak Park. Inside of this park is a memorial sculpture that is dedicated to the famous poet and fallen Partisan fighter Ivan Goran Kovačić (Photo 9). Unveiled in 1963 and created by Croatian sculptor Vojin Bakić [profile page], this work consists of a stone-carved abstract geometric rendition of the head of Kovačić. This minimalist interpretation of Kovačić was repeated again by Bakić the following year in 1964 by Bakić, this time in stainless steel, in Kovačić's hometown of Lukovdol [profile page]. Interestingly, when this stone version was presented to the Yugoslav president Josip Tito at the Zagreb Autumn Fair in 1963, he is reported to have remarked "What on earth is that?... I could have made that myself!" Tito, with his historical background as a laborer and metallurgist, was not always the most charismatic fan of modern art. The current condition of the Ribnjak monument is fair, with it being clearly regularly cleaned and maintained.
Photo 9: A photo of the Monument to Ivan Goran Kovačić in Zagreb. Credit: Nikola Kovačević
While Ribnjak Park does play host to various local events, my research revealed no information or reports that indicate any nature of direct annual commemorative or remembrance celebrations are held for this monument any longer. The exact coordinates of the monument within Ribnjak are N45°49'03.8", E15°58'46.2".
Monument to Rade Končar:
Not long after the end of WWII, the electronics manufacturing company "Rade Končar" was established in the Zagreb neighborhood of Trešnjevka within the remains of a Seimens plant that existed there before the war. The factory as named after Rade Končar who was a famous Partisan fighter, KPJ Central Committee member, Yugoslav National Hero and labor organizer. Končar worked at the Seimens plant before the war and was subsequently executed by Ustaše/Italian forces via firing squad in 1942 at Šibenik for his involvement with the Partisan resistance. The "Rade Končar" company became one of the most important in Yugoslavia and expanded their factory at Trešnjevka into a vast modern facility.
In 1952, a bronze figurative monument depicting Končar was erected within the grounds of the factory, placed in front of the old administration building atop a 3m tall pedestal. However, in 1972, it was moved to a more public location along Matka Baštijana Street in front of a newly built company skyscraper (Photo 10). Created by Croatian sculptor Vanja Radauš, the sculpture depicts Končar mid-stride, extending his left hand forward while holding a hammer in his right hand (a clear symbol of his working class background). The monument stood as an important symbol for not only the workers of the company (which had by the 1980s over 20,000 employees at locations across the country), but also for the people of Yugoslavia, who held Končar up as one of its most respected folk heroes.
Photo 10: A vintage photo of the Monument to Rade Končar [source]
Photo 11: A recent photo of the Monument to Rade Končar [source]
The statue of Rade Končar resided at its prominent public position along Matka Baštijana Street until November of 1991. With fears for its safety, as many socialist-era monuments in Croatia were being attacked and destroyed during this time after the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the bronze sculpture of Končar was relocated back onto the factory grounds within an area that was no longer accessible to the public (Photo 11). The inscribed pedestal was removed (with the monument simply being placed standing on the ground) and no accompanying inscriptions or plaques were included within its new setting (not even the name of who the statue was depicting). Sources relate that this relocation brought it back its original 1952 location. Today, the sculpture sits in good condition and is well taken care of by Končar employees. Even in recent times, some Zagreb journalists proclaim that the Končar monument deserves to be placed back in a public setting for all those who wish to see and appreciate the work. The exact coordinates of this statue are N45°48'15.9" E15°56'04.7", situated at the northeast end of the factory within a green park just in front of the factory gate off of Fallerovo šetalište. Access to the monument is only available to Končar factory workers or to those with special permission to access the factory grounds.
The "Carry the Wounded" Memorials:
One of the most repeated motifs of Yugoslav-era figurative bronze monuments was the "Carrying the Wounded" depiction. The relevance of this motif was referencing the fact that during WWII, Tito witnessed first-hand the savagery that Axis forces inflicted upon his wounded Partisan fighters when they were left behind to be captured. As such, Tito vowed to never leave behind a wounded Partisan fighter. Generally embodied with to figures carrying a wounded person between them, the sculptor most well known for variations of this motif is the Croatian artist Antun Augustinčić. He created more than a dozen of such memorial sculptures (of various configurations) that could be foundd all across Yugoslavia. Within Zagreb, there are two notable examples of bronze memorial sculptures created by Augustinčić exemplifying the "Carrying the Wounded" theme. Both of these works are located at university faculties and are dedicated to the Zagreb university students who fought as members of the Partisan resistance.
Photo 12: Monuments dedicated to "Carrying the Wounded". Credit: Flammard
The first of these "Carrying the Wounded" monuments was erected in Zagreb by Augustinčić in 1953 and placed within the central courtyard of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (Photo 12 - left). The monument sits in good condition and is well taken care of. Its exact coordinates are N45°48'24.0" E16°00'29.0". The second version of Augustinčić's "Carrying the Wounded" monument was ereceted within the Faculty of Medicine (Photo 12 - right), positioned within the rear grassy lawn of the University Medical Center. It also resides in good condition and is well taken care of. Its exact coordinates are N45°49'05.9" E15°59'01.7".
And Additional Sites of Interest:
Monument to Executed Partisans at Vrapče: During WWII, the Zagreb neighborhood of Vrapče was host to numerous executions by Ustaše forces. One particular spot within the neighborhood served as the site of execution for roughly 30 of Partisan fighters who opposed and/or took action against the Ustaše regime. These killings were carried out during the winter of 1945 (over several separate instances) and were conducted by hanging the victims. This was the fouth major instance of public hangings carried out in Zagreb by the Ustaše during the war. in 1959, a monument was erected at this site of these execution in Vrapče, which consistsed of a series of 30 metal bars held within a metal rectangle (Photo 13). Each of the bars represented one of the 30 people who were executed at this spot. The sculpture (which was created by an author I was not able to identify) stood roughly 3m tall and sat within a raised stone block courtyard. This work stood up until 1991, at which point the metal sculpture was removed and replaced with a wooden crucifix. The memorial space was then rededicated to "all the victims for the freedom and survival of the Croatian people". The exact location of this site is N45°49'28.1", E15°54'22.2".
Photo 13: Vintage image of the Mon. to Executed Partisans at Vrapče [source]
Photo 14: A view of the Monument to Moša Pijada in Zagreb [source]
Monument to Moša Pijada: The political thinker and politician Moša Pijada was among the most significant ideological leaders of Yugoslavia and a close conifdant of President Josip Broz Tito. Statues of him were located all across the country, but one of the most notable ones was a full size bronze figurative work created in 1954 by Croatian artist Antun Augustinčić. The work showed Pijada deep in thought in the process of writing in one of his books. This statue was originally located in Zagreb placed in front of the entrance to the Workers' University, which itself was named after Pijada during the Yugoslav-era (but is today known as the People's Open College). However, in 1993, the statue was removed from the university and relocated within Zagreb to the Home for the Aged and Infirm of the Lavoslav Schwarz Foundation (Photo 14). It resides at this location up to the present day and sits in good condition. The exact coordinates for the location of this sculpture are N45°49'28.8", E16°00'36.7".
Monument to 13th Proletarian Brigade: In the northwestern Zagreb neighborhood of Črnomerec is a memorial marker that is dedicated to the fallen Partisan fighters of the 13th Proletarian Brigade (Photo 15). Situated in front of the district school at 272 Kustošijanska, the monument is composed of a flat concrete monolith upon which were originally set raised letter inscriptions of the names of the fallen brigade members. At the foot of the monument are three minimalized geometric figures bowing their heads in reverence. This work was created in 1985 by Zagreb sculptor Nikola Bolčević (who trained under sculptor Antun Augustinčić). During the 1990s, the work was seriously damaged with graffiti and the removal of much of its raised letter inscription. However, in recent years, the monument was repaired and cleaned, while the inscription was renewed with two large brone panels. Today, it stands in good condition. The exact coordinates for this monument are N45°49'53.2", E15°55'20.9".
Photo 15: Mon. to 13th Prolet. Brigade at Črnomerec. Credit: Pavle Miljovski
Photo 16: A vintage image of the Iron Lattice sculpture at Maksimir. [source]
"Iron Lace" at Maksimir Park: Roughly 1.5km west of the Dubrava monument site is the vast urban greenspace known as "Maksimir Park". While this historic public space has numerous monuments and sculptures of note, one of the most unique Yugoslav-era creations within the park's landscape is a large 6m tall metal sculpture known as "Iron Lace" or "Željezna čipka" that stands as a centerpiece of a summer stage (Photo 16). Created in 1988 by Croatian sculptor Aleksandar Ljahnicky, the sculpture consists of a lattice of metal tubes that form a complex of geometric interlocking cube shapes. The structural framework of the sculpture is formed by a series of small triangles that all combine to create a classic hexagonal lattice (giving the form significant strength). Over the years, this Iron Lace sculpture has come to stand as one of the symbols of Maksimir Park and is still used as a summer stage centerpiece. Its exact location for this sculptural work N45°49'26.4", E16°01'10.4".
The December Victims monument here in Zagreb is right in the center of the Dubrava district of the city (which is east of the Zagreb city center), located in the 'December Victims' Park directly north several hundred meters from the central Dubrava tram and bus stop (see HERE for Google StreetView). If you are arriving here by car, parking can be made anywhere that it is available, but parking may be difficult depending on traffic at the time. The exact coordinates for the central Dubrava tram and bus stop is N45°49'28.0", E16°02'14.3". If you are interested in taking the tram from the Zagreb city center, take the 4 and 11 gold line trams towards Dubec or the 12 and 7 yellow line trams to their terminus at Dubrava (see map here). Meanwhile, the yellow, purple, red and blue bus lines all stop at Dubrava (see map here).
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Selected Sources and More Information:
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