home Overview Memorial Monuments as Hangovers of the Socialist Yugoslav Past. By A. Jakir

Memorial Monuments as Hangovers of the Socialist Yugoslav Past. By A. Jakir

Aleksandar Jakir, University of Split, Croatia, Department of History

Cover picture: Monument to the Revolution (1967), World War II memorial in Podgarić, Croatia, one of Džamonja’s best-known works | Plamen at Serbian Wikipedia

In all modern societies, monuments play an important role in the process of construction of the historical or collective memory. During the times of socialist Yugoslavia, the state and the society were no exception. For more than four decades after the end of WWII, throughout the lifespan of socialist Yugoslavia, an exceptionally large number of “socialist monuments” were built, and numerous sculptors and other artists participated in this endeavour. Public monuments are probably the most visible examples of a country’s culture of memory, and are therefore also often at the centre of controversies during periods of political transition. 

In Croatia alone, over 6000 partisan monuments and memory sites were erected between 1945 and 1990. As early as 1961 inventories already included more than 14,400 monuments and memorials throughout Yugoslavia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in the south-eastern part of Europe, was a federation of six republics – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia (including Kosovo and Vojvodina), Montenegro and Macedonia.[1] Thanks to the internet, the pictures of these monuments are easily accessible.[2] However, as Owen Hatherley recently stated, photos of Yugoslav monuments known as spomeniks (the south Slavic word for monument) are often shared online, exoticised and wrenched from context; he stressed the importance of trying to understand what they truly represent.[3] An exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2018 under the title Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 introduced the exceptional work of socialist Yugoslavia’s leading architects to an international audience, highlighting the importance of this significant but neglected body of modernist architecture, whose forward-thinking contributions still resonate today. [4] It has been stated that the architecture that emerged during the period of socialist Yugoslavia — from International Style skyscrapers to Brutalist “social condensers” — is a manifestation of the radical pluralism, hybridity, and idealism that characterised the Yugoslav state itself.[5]

Since the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, thousands of these monuments dedicated to anti-fascist Partisan fighters and victims of Croatia’s World War II Ustasa regime, or representing other symbols of socialist Yugoslavia, have been vandalised or demolished, and many activists in Croatia are now determined to halt the destruction.[6] But one could add that in spite of the collapse of the old state and the wars of the 1990s, in some parts of Croatia at least a significant number of these monuments have remained untouched.

There is a complex relationship between commemorative sculptures or monuments and the formation of a collective memory. Today it is widely accepted that historical memory neither reproduces past events nor is an expression of past facts; rather, it is a construct through which past or present events are filtered, interpreted and then re-interpreted. Collective memories always represent an act of reconstruction and design,and are therefore inseparable from the social context. Collective remembrance changes, and so memorial architecture changes as well. The construction, destruction, restoration, or censorship of a country’s monuments allows scholars to analyse how political elites seek to transmit their ideological worldview and the mechanisms they use to mould the past in order to obtain contemporary political legitimacy. Both institutionalised memory– the interpretations of the past constructed by political elites, their supporters, and their opponents – and individual memoryare primarily subject to the needs of the present.

The political structures in socialist Yugoslavia were well aware of the importance of monuments as the most visible expressions of the socialist interpretation of history. The design of the memorial complex at Sutjeska is an outstanding example of the creation a desired memory culture from the perspective of the Yugoslav state. [7]

Tjentište War Memorial | Thierry Figini via Flickr

The proposal for the monument at Tjentište (in Bosnia-Hercegovina) by the sculptor Miodrag Živković was accepted as a perfect symbol and artistic expression of the “inescapable meaning” of the Battle of Sutjeska in 1943. The battle exemplified the struggle of all the Yugoslav nations against “foreign occupiers and domestic traitors”. The battle was defined as “a glorious historical example with far-reaching consequences, exalted and unique”. Živković’s work is still the most famous Partisan monument in the territory of the former socialist Yugoslavia. It was mentioned as a place of memory and as a site for a memorial complex for the first time in 1954. After Josip Broz Tito personally endorsed the ultimate design concept, he played a crucial role in adopting the law on financing the works in the memorial complex in Sutjeska. The design of the memorial complex at Tjentište, a place where it was claimed that “5,000 soldiers were buried”, cost approximately 57.8 million dinars, and was financed entirely by federal funds. Officially the monument was unveiled in 1971 in the presence of Josip Broz Tito under the title “Monument of Victory”. However, in an increasingly decentralised system, actors such as the Union of Partisan Veterans feared that the building of the memorial complex might meet with opposition on financial grounds, and so they quickly unveiled the monument, even though it was not yet finished. So by the beginning of the 1970s, although “brotherhood and unity” remained the official motto of the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia, the demands for “transparent accounting” within the federation were applied to all financial issues, and the financing of monuments and memorial complexes of common Yugoslav significance was no exception. And as far as the cultivation of the socialist memory is concerned, it is also clear that the members of the victorious partisans during the war and the representatives of the governing structures after 1945 were unable to pass on their conception of the memory to new generations, not even through the imposing and artistic monument to the Battle of Sutjeska. Nevertheless, the dominant interpretation of the battle in the post-Yugoslav context, as recent examples show, reflects the intentions emphasised at the time when the monument was erected in Tjentište. In the eyes of many in the Balkans, ​​Sutjeska continues to represents the symbol of the sacrifice, brotherhood and unity of the heroic anti-Fascist struggle, marking a milestone on the path to victory of Tito’s partisans in the National War of Liberation of 1941-45.

But at the same time it must be stressed that socialist monuments did not reflect plurality, nor did they attempt to integrate dissenting views: it was the struggle of the communist-led partisans under the command of Tito that was glorified. The official culture of remembrance during the times of socialist Yugoslavia promoted memories that endorsed the  regime and its ideology, and repressed other narratives. After 1990, partisan monuments, and public spaces in general, underwent an ideological and ethno-national transformation in order to excise the Yugoslav past from the dominant historical narrative and to replace it with new national accounts. Today it seems that we have competing narratives of the pastin the societies and states that emerged after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Research and scholarship that will help to deal with this “difficult heritage” by contextualising controversial events and interpretations of the problematic Age ofExtremes (Eric Hobsbawm) seems to be of crucial importance in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia.


[1] See Aleksandar Jakir: „Spomenici su prošlost i budućnost“. Politički i administrativni mehanizami financiranja spomenika za vrijeme socijalističke Jugoslavije, in: Časopis za suvremenu povijest 2019. br. 1, 151-182. https://hrcak.srce.hr/index.php?show=clanak&id_clanak_jezik=321808; and Aleksandar Jakir: Memories in Conflict. Remembering the Partisans, the Second World War and Bleiburg in Croatia, in: Tanja Zimmermann (ed.): Balkan Memories: Media Constructions of National and Transnational History (transcript) Bielefeld 2012, 187-205.

[2] https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=socialist+monuments+yugoslavia&qpvt=Socialist+Monuments+Yugoslavia&FORM=IGRE

[3] https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/7269/spomenik-yugoslav-monument-owen-hatherley?utm_medium=website&utm_source=archdaily.com

[4]  https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3931, see also the article by Niall Patrick Walsh: https://www.archdaily.com/908777/an-expert-guide-through-momas-toward-a-concrete-utopia-architecture-in-yugoslavia-1948-nil-1980

[5] https://placesjournal.org/article/concrete-utopia-architecture-in-yugoslavia/?cn-reloaded=1&cn-reloaded=1; https://www.archdaily.com/796770/jonks-photographs-depict-the-abandonment-and-beauty-of-yugoslavian-monuments

[6] https://balkaninsight.com/2019/05/21/the-struggle-to-save-croatias-vanishing-anti-fascist-monuments/

[7] https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=tjenti%c5%a1te&qpvt=Tjenti%c5%a1te&FORM=IGRE

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