The Spomenik Tragedy-History, Art, and Culture in the Balkans Facing Decay

Yugoslav architecture, monuments and memorial parks once represented a valuable historical, artistic, and cultural heritage, yet nowadays they are in danger of severe damage due to lack of care, or intentional abandonment. Whilst other former communist states that fell on the Eastern side of the  Iron Curtain hurriedly sought to erase the marks of their dictators, most Yugoslav structures either commissioned by Josip Broz Tito or the Yugoslav republics, remained, though these relics of the past are now being neglected, to the point where younger generations even fail to know that they exist, not to mention their location or significance.

With the defeat of the fascist regimes in the Second World War, the communist/partisan resistance and tragedy of those that fell victims, was immortalized in monuments across the former Yugoslavia. They were placed in strategic and symbolic places, commemorating important battles, anti-fascist movements, or locations where the war took the lives of many innocent civilians, among them- concentration camps. The monuments are in no way common, and indeed they have gained world wide attention for their unusual design, which despite the passage of the years, still impress with their albeit debated artistic value.

More than just uncommon structures, the monuments catalyze the remembrance of mass war crimes, struggles, and the rebellions of locals that fought against the fascist Ustasa regime and the Axis Powers. Under the federal socialist government of Yugoslavia, remembrance of this time in history also sought, perhaps indirectly, to unite and develop peaceful co-existence among its various nations (suzivot), which seemed to be underway under Tito’s leadership, but crumbled in the early 1990s, when Yugoslavia not only broke up, but also descended into another period of war, when atrocities and even genocide were once again hailed among the different nations of the region.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, like the rest of the former Yugoslav countries, is endowed with a number of such commemorative monuments, though some are left in dire states. Unlike some other former Yugoslavian republics, the country also experienced the deadliest conflict on the continent of Europe, since WW2. The memory of the 1992-1995 war lingers on, whilst ‘Never Forget’, which was previously cemented into the ‘spomenik’, is now widely stated, and symbolic for the Srebrenica genocide and large scale of war crimes committed in last war.

In BiH’s constant state of political instability, the accounts of the common fight against fascism that saw no ethnic boundaries among the partisans, but solidarity, and a vision of social justice (which ultimately led to the establishment of the communist regime), are now either left unspoken, or re-written on nationalistic grounds.  Perhaps not coincidentally, monuments which symbolise this, are also left to their own device, to crumble, unless they suit certain nationalistic agendas. The idea of unity of the peoples who reside here is constantly attacked by those who wish Bosnia and Herzegovina remained divided. This is one very reason why the grandeur and memory of the monuments is wilting, as their commemoration and historical documentation of unity cannot stand the present’s sharp words and rhetoric that seek to divide the old and the young Bosnian-Herzegovinians into labels and categories of humans that should maintain imaginary or physical borders with each other. Historical togetherness in this sense, comes in stark contrast with calls for separation, or the enemy image developed as a result of the latest Bosnian war.  Apart from current separatist values, embodied in words, communal memories, and nationalism running high, and being propagated by those whose comfortable positions are threatened by values of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence, BiH’s WW2 monuments are also facing the challenge of time, as their self-preservation period is slowly being replaced with decay.

Putting these memorials into a larger context and perspective, their history is not just of local significance, for example, how the warring nations of the Balkans were once brought together for the pursuit of a socialist vision. They represent important moments in European history: the defeat of fascism, and the human sacrifice involved in the Second World War. They are also a part of the region’s (Former Yugoslavia’s) history, with all of the dictatorial elements it involved, something that cannot be altered in the present, but learned from. They are a valuable asset for a country which is just starting to be discovered by international tourists, and seek to know what took place here, more than just taking scenic hikes in its pristine mountains, or enjoying quick rafting trips on BiH’s white water rivers. However, these physical accounts of history are not promoted enough, nor are they easily accessible. The names of the tens of thousands of victims could soon be erased by the elements, while their symbolism and role in the European WW2 history, forgotten. Vandalism at the sites of the monuments covers their appearance in random graffiti,  while bushes slowly overgrow the structures. In places, footpaths that lead to these monuments are covered in rubbish.

The Vraca Memorial Park is just one of these seemingly forgotten monuments. Located just around a half an hour walk from the Sarajevo city centre, on a small hill, approaching it looks like one is about to visit a ruin. Plants grow comfortably between the cracks in the stairs, while the overgrown forest hides plaques and the names of around 70 000 women, children, and men whose lives were taken during WWII in Sarajevo. During the 1992-1995 war, the park was damaged by fighting, and despite it receiving national monument status, given its state, this recognition seems to only be on paper, as the premises are neither restored, nor preserved. Instead of serving an educational, cultural, and historical purpose for schools, or tourists, its relative isolation, and corners hidden by overgrown vegetation seem to serve as an ideal retreat for drug related gatherings, and couples seeking privacy in the outdoors.

The era in which these monuments were designed and erected without doubt mires them in controversy, as despite some nostalgic memories of BiH residents dating from Tito’s times, communism and its marks are contentious and perhaps uncomfortable topics. They are nonetheless part of BiH’s and the region’s history, but one which seems to be best ignored by certain governance structures, and left to its own device, facing imminent self-destruction. Acting on and requesting the preservation of these symbolic architectural structures, whether deemed ugly, intriguing, or valuable, is however a local issue, in need of initiative, or else, growing nationalism in the Balkans will not only further destroy relationships, but also bury the physical marks of moments in history when coexistence was possible.

Further resources:

Database of WW2 monuments and memorials in Former Yugoslavia

Anti-Fascist Monuments: Croatia’s ‘Unwanted Heritage’ -BalkanInsight 

Concrete clickbait: next time you share a spomenik photo, think about what it means







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