Yugoslavian Partisan Memorials: Between Memorial Genre, Revolutionary Aesthetics and Ideological Recuperation

Gal Kirn and Robert Burghardt


More than any other art form, memorial sites are invested with ideology relating to the national past, to grand events and historical victories, or to what after World War II related to massive sufferings and the collective remembrance of terror and violence. In the territory of former Yugoslavia, which is now shattered into seven different new nation-states, one finds an impressive and scattered collection of socialist modernist memorials with peculiar aesthetic qualities, testifying to their commonly shared past. Nowadays, after the bloody destruction of Yugoslavia, when partisan victory has turned into a defeat, this new historical constellation renders the monumental sculptures into very ambiguous objects: beautiful, sad, powerful, strange, weak, bold and almost invisible.
Many were destroyed by nationalist forces in the early nineties. Others still were vandalized, or were “at best” abandoned and rendered invisible. Nevertheless, for those who encounter them, the sculptures remain highly evocative: they could be ambassadors from far-away stars, witnesses of an unrealized future, or specters that continue to haunt the present.

In the Yugoslav context, the categories and oppositions shaped by the cold-war block confrontation have been blurred. In its hybrid in- between position, Yugoslavia produced a genuinely specific memorial typology that linked the memory of WWII to the promise of the future brought forward by the socialist revolution. Instead of formally addressing suffering, modernist memorial sites were intended to catalyze universal gestures of reconciliation, resistance, and modern progress. Examining Yugoslav monuments to the revolution is thus a manner of addressing certain moments, ones that neither fit easily into the expected monumental narrative nor into the aesthetic memorial genre.

The political dimension of memory is evident. Whose stories are being told, and by whom, is crucial for the determination of present and future. Indeed, Walter Benjamin’s intervention in the history of philosophy resurfaces in its purest form here. If dominant narratives in history are necessarily those of the victors, and if emancipatory politics always aim to address the history of the oppressed, shouldn’t the particular lines of memorial development attempt to clearly show how disputes, or radical disagreements, about the legacies are being outplayed, even if we have condemned them to being completely forgotten?
Some argue that memory must address specific stories of places, people and events that are long gone, and that have been buried in history. However, only through the materialization of the charged objects can we save these stories from complete oblivion. Yugoslavia is a country that nowadays exists only in memory. Perhaps it is on these commemorative sites, and through the legacy of the exceptional monuments they contain, that historical drama is again laid bare. This legacy points toward a past that had inscribed emancipation onto its future—far more than it tends to do today. Even if we are critical of a “simplistic” and nostalgic perspective, it must be said that socialist Yugoslavia pursued in many respects a more progressive politics than its successor states did, and that most post-Yugoslav societies did indeed miss out on emancipatory perspectives for the future. Twenty years after the bloody dismemberment, and while a neoliberal capitalist recuperation is in full swing, the promise of joining the European market does not have enough integrative force to make up for Yugoslavia’s loss of its previously diverse, multi-ethnic and socialist perspectives.

Image of Jasenovac (concentration camp), designed by Bogdan Bogdanović (1971). Photo © Robert Burghardt

The Typology of Yugoslav Partisan Memorial Sites: The Beginnings of Socialist Modernism

Between 1945 and 1990, several thousand monuments to the revolution were erected. Many had already been built in the 1940s and 1950s, often as simple memorial plaques on which the names of local villagers were listed. This first phase of memorialization was based on a mixture of popular forms of sculpture, and had a realist undertone. Noteworthy here is that monuments to the partisan struggle do not resemble the many examples of massive socialist realist monuments that are more typical of either the Eastern European countries or the Soviet Union. Then in the second phase, from the 1960s to 1980s, a sweeping movement of memorial building [or memorialization] emerged under the label of “socialist modernism”. The monuments were not only modernist, but they contained their own peculiar typologies: monumental, symbolic (fists, stars, hands, wings, flowers, and rocks), bold (sometimes structurally daring), otherworldly and fantastic.
A large majority of the Yugoslav monuments to the revolution were henceforth erected on historic sites of the partisan struggle, and as a consequence are nearly always located outside villages or towns amidst open landscapes. They form an invisible network of symbolic sites that still generate a consciously constructed Yugoslav space. However, they do not occupy the more classic and highly- visible sites of representation such as the central streets and squares of big cities. Many of these memorials were placed in parks, showcased by leisure-time destinations with picnic facilities, cafés, restaurants, or even hotels. In yet other memorial parks, museums or amphitheaters served as open-air classrooms. In addition to their double function as sites of mourning and celebration, memorial parks were conceived of as hybrid complexes, merging leisure with education, architecture with sculpture, objects with the surrounding landscape. Sometimes museum and sculpture merged; sometimes sculpture is was actually integral to the amphitheater. The mission of the amphitheater seemed to be important: it was regularly integrated into the sculpture, while sometimes the monument itself unfolded into a stage set. As classical modernist works of art, they stand as objects in the landscape, and the landscape surrounding them is transformed into a park that in turn stages the monument.

Kozara monument, designed by Dušan Djamonja (1972). Photo © Robert Burghardt

In the ideological systems developed after WWII, the opposing models of socialist realism versus abstract modernism were respectively identified with the socialist versus the capitalist world. After the break with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia began to aesthetically distance itself from socialist realism. In 1952, at the Yugoslav Writer’s Congress in Ljubljana, Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža renounced socialist realism in a remarkable text that was also endorsed by party officials, and the path towards socialist modernism was advanced. It not only prevailed in architecture, but especially prevailed in sculpture and later on in other arts (theater, cinema, and performance art, to name a few).
In the debates on the artistic heritage of socialist Yugoslavia, the role of modernist art has been interpreted differently. Artists have either been considered heroes, who fought for artistic autonomy or freedom under the dominance of the socialist system, or mere vassals of the authoritarian state, serving it with the proud production of a modern image. The relationship, however, between the state and artists cannot be understood through the simple iconology of the “state artist” versus the “dissident.” Excepting for the early post-war period, the Yugoslav state never proscribed a certain style. Instead, it adopted and appropriated new tendencies and positions in its own cultural policies. The state preferred more formal and decorative types of art—in other words, art that didn’t cause a stir. This formalist tendency within Yugoslav modernism earned it the title of “Modernist Aestheticism”, and yet we would argue that at the time, formalism was no less of a phenomenon in the Western modern art system.
Artists such as the sculptor Vojin Bakić or the architect Bogdan Bogdanović worked for the state institutions most of their lives, and insisted on never giving up their own positions. Bakić entered into dialogues with the avant-garde art group, Nove Tendencije (New Tendencies), consequently following his path into abstraction, which aimed to question traditional patterns of reception / expression. Bogdanović, who considered himself an agnostic, took a critical stance toward the Yugoslav socialist system, all the while fully supporting the partisan struggle. He developed an abstract-surrealist language, which strove toward being universal, yet was simultaneously grotesque and fantastic.

Between Abstract Form and Revolutionary Politics

Immanent motives of the monuments include various attempts at universality on a formal and artistic level, in addition to the universality inferred by their politics. There is a certain fascination for the very sweeping character of the monuments; a formal strength that outlives its own time, and that, simultaneously, is the result of very specific historical circumstances. “Untimely timeliness” generates a multi-layered space and opens up a dialogue between the history of art and specific historical experience.
The idea of the communist revolution contains many all-embracing claims such as the equality of men and women, but even more than that, it aims to integrate the perspective of a worldwide or even cosmic planetary community. In the specific case of the Yugoslav communist revolution, its application took the form of the abolition of private property and a more just distribution of surplus value, in addition to the projects of modernization, education, antifascism and the construction of a common, multi-ethnic space. The major task of these monuments to the revolution was to consider how their universal claims were addressed, and then later formalized into an aesthetic language.

Kosmaj monument, designed by Gradimir Vedakovic (1971). Photo © Robert Burghardt

We are faced with a logical contradiction at the heart of the very idea of constructing a monument to the revolution. Revolutions are generally associated with government overthrow and a destruction of certain (oppressive) heritages, operating primarily through the destruction of institutions themselves instead of the destruction of memory and its institutionalization in the form of monuments. Simultaneously, if we consider history as both an open process and a revolutionary practice—as a practice to keep the place of transformation open for further change—then a monument should intervene in this practice without presupposing a simple “passive” position of the subject, which would only follow from an official reading of the past. The idea of “making history”, however, indicates that social change generates new stories and memories that people want to keep and experiences that people want to preserve. It is not only the grandiose form that can preserve revolutionary form for eternity, but people’s everyday interventions. Perhaps revolutionary history strives for the opening up of history itself. In terms of transformation, one must assume the indeterminate character of any “real” movement.
The Yugoslav monuments operate by institutionalizing collective memory of WWII events. They then evoke formal gestures of opening towards the future. It is clear that the most obvious strategy of representing universalism is abstraction. In the abstract formal language of the Yugoslav revolution, memorials instigate a certain sense of openness that allows for personal associations. They remain receptive to multiple interpretations, and they awaken fantasies. Their abstract vocabulary allows for an appropriation of meaning that bypasses official narrations, allowing access to the monuments even for people who disagree with their official politic.
The monuments in question play much more into the realm of modernist art. Narratives of progress and modernization are apparent in the time structure that many of them embody. In their linear and progressive formulations of time, revolution is rather idealistic, and masks the often painful, difficult and complicated processes of social transformation. How can a monument to the revolution, which celebrates the social power that leads to change, relate to the realities of social practice? How can the trap of a program of prescribed and formalized memory be avoided, thereby creating space for people to develop their own memorial practices, which would then relate back to this change?

Current Ideological Investments: The National Reconciliation 
and Re-appropriation of Memorial Sites

The abstract monuments stand on symbolic sites, where many people have died and/or experienced the horrors of WWII. The memorial sites represent partisan universalism, the only social force that really rejected the logic of nationalism and consequently the logic of ethnic cleansing that was imposed by fascist forces. Abstraction in this regard has mainly provoked opposition by nationalist ideologues who have criticized the monuments for neglecting to show what actually happened on the sites. The gestures found in the monuments have been perceived as expressing particular national interests whilst conveniently suppressing others. Furthermore, the form of abstraction they engender denies the logic of a “national” form, as well as a certain kind of politics of victimization, which especially in the Yugoslav context became a very problematic logic in light of the civil war in the nineties.

Indeed, the memory politics of the Yugoslav Communist Party aimed at a conciliatory universalism that rested on a positive and inclusive idea of socialist Yugoslavism. During the socio-economically insecure 1980s, extreme forms of nationalism surfaced in various places, and the Yugoslav politics of memory in addition to the centrality of the antifascist ideology was undermined. In the eighties, a bitter dispute over the number of victims in the Jasenovac concentration and extermination camp was unleashed, in which the number of victims were either drastically over- or under-reported by the opposing sides. Similarly, the post-WWII extrajudicial killings (some of which were motivated by revenge, others by politics) by communists and partisans were for the first time broadly addressed, opening many wounds of the civil war that had taken place during WWII. New memorial sites were re-imagined and re-appropriated for the national cause, with the intent of rehabilitating local fascists and demonizing communists / partisans. Unfortunately, the attention mobilized in the process of memorialization was less motivated by the idea of bringing historical truth to surface than by its exploitation for the coming battles in the 1990s civil war.
Reconciliation thus became a part of the general nationalist politics that prepared the ideological grounds of the bloody breakup. There, communist leadership would perhaps have been better off openly addressing these issues before the breakup, however (apart from the 1946 documentary film, Jasenovac, which is actually one of the first Yugoslav films) the idea of broaching the subject of trauma just after the war had ended in a country that needed all the support for reconstruction it could muster was a problematic issue to say the least. Yet socialist Yugoslavia was actually more stable “right after the war” than it would be later on, which makes the topic one of the most significant blind spots of the communist leadership.

Bubanj monument (fists), designed by Ivan Sabolić (1963). Photo © Robert Burghardt

The Fate of Modernist Monuments: Destruction, Decay and Decontextualization

If we partly agree with the statement that the new historical context re-appropriated monuments for the nationalist cause, then we should disagree with the sad destiny of the anti-fascist sites in Croatia, where most of them were destroyed. In states such as Slovenia, Serbia or Macedonia, the narrative of self-liberation and partisan struggle has more easily integrated into the new nationalistic narratives and has been reconciled with those of other patriotic groups such as the Chetniks and Home Guards, who have received their own memorial sites. Within Macedonia, the historical revisionism is dramatically visible. If in the ethnic Albanian parts, the monuments are in utter neglect (case in point, Struga), in the ethnic Macedonian parts, the monuments have been well kept (Prilep, for example). With most museums around memorial sites closed and very few regularly organized field trips, these sites have been completely decontextualized. Yet the very recent fashionable academic turn toward “archaeologies of modernism” includes a renewed the thesis that their abstract form allowed an easy re-adjustment. On the contrary, it was precisely because of their antifascist and communist legacy, which symbolizes the other space (Yugoslavia), that many modernist partisan monuments have been destroyed and/or left to decay (as Bogdan Žižić’s film, Damnatio Memoriae aptly documents). They had to be destroyed, because they were a sign of a different future that embodied the universalist claim of the partisan figure. It seems that this specter haunted some, inciting them to undertake a rigorous “monument cleansing” by means of dynamite.
Nowadays, the partisan memory is increasingly condemned to oblivion. Monuments have been partly forgotten by most people, and due to their distant locations have become less and less visited (if at all then only by a few surviving partisans and art historians). Certain sites have even been removed or destroyed in the instances where their narrative has directly countered nationalist interests, such as the interest for these monuments. They attract attention as peculiar design objects posted on many design blogs, triggering both enthusiasm and discussion. The monuments still capture people’s imaginations. It could be argued that this interest is instrumentally helpful in saving some of the sites from total demolition, in that it insists on their high artistic value (the tactic of claiming that the monuments are not political but instead, works of “pure art”). Nevertheless, this tactic is still problematic, because it follows from a formalist understanding of art as an autonomous space. It is this formalism that denies the social function of objects and the complex role they play in a political discourse, one that could be described as being part and parcel with the process of abandonment.
What seems contradictory at first glance might therefore best be described by the term, “musealization”. Things that we find in museums tend to have fallen out of use. Our knowledge of the past becomes but a sediment, and its role in the present thus nullified. It is only when these objects connect to a social practice that they are again imbued with true meaning. Returning to these monuments is thus not simply about saving them, but about the possibility of retrieving the emancipatory and antifascist politics that they embody. It is not only about the consideration of “resources of hope”,1 as Raymond Williams has aptly put it, but about the possibility of their re-enactment and mobilization for present struggles.

Last but not least, the formalism of the “pure art” approach is embedded in the contemporary post-communist time-structure, which is primarily characterized by two discourses: 1) the discourse of totalitarianism, and 2) the discourse of nostalgia. Both lack the intention to open the present towards the future. Totalitarianism dismisses everything that challenges the present order as a threat to freedom, while nostalgia dwells in the construction of an idealized past. In the logic of this time structure, objects that challenge its order have to be either utterly revised or erased. Intervening in this context with the aesthetic ideology of the artistic autonomy of the object does not help us “rehabilitate” or mobilize the emancipatory potential for the future, but rather freezes it in a stand still, and in so doing stripping memory of its references to both the past and future references. The memorial art work becomes “eternal”, in a way, and in this respect it is complicit with dominant post-communist manners of dealings with the past.


Although the real future of the modernist memorials already lies in the past, the promise of a better future remains crystallized in the formal power of their material existence as sculptures. As physical witnesses, the monuments are not only witnesses to WWII and the partisan struggle, but they have become monuments to Yugoslavia itself; to its irreverently progressive anti-nationalist and anti-fascist perspective. They maintain an invisible network throughout the territory of former Yugoslavia and make apparent the disruption and segmentation of a formerly common space. Where the political investments of official power seem yet again to have been stripped of their ideological content—whether through past reductionism to Yugoslavian nation- building, or through the nation-building processes of the present—they fail to address their radical core, which is embodied in the monuments themselves: the call for a different future.

Petrova Gora monument, designed by Vojin Bakić (1981). Photo © Tomislav Medak

  • 1. Raymond Williams wrote an impressive book Resources of Hope (London: Verso, 1989).