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Zagreb

Brief Details:

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

(ZAH-greb)

 

History:

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 group, 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 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.

 

Spomenik Construction

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 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

Present-Day

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 last two decades, but the municipality (along with other volunteer groups) have 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 from over time, the monument is repeatedly vandalized, cleaned and then vandalized again.

Slideshow

 

Photo 5: The base of the December Victims Memorial at Dubrava

 Symbolism:

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 obviously 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 the 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 struture to the ground (Photo 5).   

Meanwhile, using a flexible wire grid inner structure with dense 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 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, structure of the central memorial sculpture itself is very good, yet, graffiti and vandalism to the sculpture is 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 local point of 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 who I found visiting the park space and 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 Zagreb-based "Documenta".

 

Directions:

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).

 

Click to open in Google Maps in new window

Slideshow

Comments:

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