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Sanja Horvatinčić: “The story of Yugoslavia is used as a lesson on the acceptable version...”

Sanja Horvatinčić: “The story of Yugoslavia is used as a lesson on the acceptable version of socialism without its ‘negative sides’”

Sanja Horvatincic Photo: Matija Kralj, 2019

Memory landscapes in (post)Yugoslavia

Edited by Milica Popović, Sciences Po CERI and University of Ljubljana and Natalija Majsova, University of Ljubljana and Catholic University of Louvain.

Yugoslavia as a state existed twice, once as a monarchy and once as a socialist republic. Different historical legacies, state regimes, cultural and religious heritage are woven into the region – there is a myriad of different political entities and also a plenitude of political and/or national/ethnic identities. The dissolution of the socialist republic, responsible for an advanced modernization of the country and an unprecedented development of the region, ensued during the crisis of the 1980s, and continued all the way into the violent wars of the 1990s. In January 1992, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart. The end of the Yugoslav state, however, did not feature the end of the Yugoslav idea or the end of Yugoslav memory. While all are marked by “political abuse of power and the deeply unjust privatization processes” (Dolenec 2013: 7), each of the seven republics of Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Kosovo,[1] - reveals a particular memoryscape, abundant in internal battles, which sometimes converge and sometimes diverge, weaving a complex net of (post)Yugoslav memory.

In line with Catherine Baker's observation that “nationalism was an instrument, not a cause” (Baker 2015: 129), (post)Yugoslav memory continues to evolve in dialogue across the borders of (post)Yugoslav states. Although our approach in this series of interviews remains “republic-centered”, this does not in any way imply that we do not believe that (post)Yugoslav memory works as “nœuds de mémoire” (Rothberg 2009), producing new solidarities and possibilities for thought and action.

Before you is the fifth one in a series of seven interviews with seven leading scholars in memory studies, each discussing memory politics within one of the (post)Yugoslav republics. While the online edition of Historical Expertise will publish them one by one as they are ready, the printed edition of the journal will gather them all together and provide a well-rounded whole – a comprehensive, in-depth outlook on the memory landscapes in the (post)Yugoslav space today

M.P. and N.M.

3.The case of Republic of Croatia

Interview with Dr Sanja Horvatinčić, postdoctoral researcher, Institute of Art History, Zagreb, Croatia

Questions and Introduction by Milica Popović

Paris-Zagreb, 15.04.2020.

Abstract: As the Republic of Croatia is considered today to be the stronghold of anti-Yugoslav sentiments among (post)Yugoslav states, we look into the complexities and nuances of memory politics in this newest EU member state. Mainstream narratives are embedded in the national reconciliation policies and anti-communism emanating from Franjo Tudjman’s politics in the 1990s and the Homeland war. Through historical revisionism of World War Two and the role of Ustasha movement, they profoundly influence Croatian approaches to socialist heritage. Dr Sanja Horvatinčić further elucidates the key mnemonic actors in Croatia and how the destruction and the dereliction of the monuments from the socialist Yugoslavia have been an important element in Croatian nation-building, encouraged by “anti-totalitarian” European memory activism.

Key words: memory politics; monuments; heritage studies; (post)Yugoslav space

In Croatia, the elections held in all of socialist Yugoslavia in 1990 brought the victory of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a right-wing and pro-independence party, which secured the support of 41,5% of the voters. Such election results did not necessarily mean a clear mandate for independence, and there was potential for the Yugoslav crisis to unravel in many different directions. Yet, entangled with the economic crisis and a sharp fall in living standards in the 1980s, the crisis led to dissolution and dissolution led to war. As Croatia declared independence on the 25th of June 1991, war started and officially ended only in 1995, with the Croatian army taking control over the UN-protected area in Western Slavonia and the Republic of Srpska Krajina, resulting in approximately 200.000 expelled Serbs (Calic 2013: 402). Full civilian control and peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia into Croatia took place in 1998.

In 1990, 51,66% respondents in Croatia thought that “Yugoslavia should organize as a confederation of autonomous republics, which could per need create common bodies and freely agree on common tasks” (Grdešić 1990: 199-200 in Jović 2017: 13). Only due to the war had it become possible to embrace mythology and shifting memory narratives in order to reinforce anti-Yugoslav sentiments of the populations. As the authoritarian regime led by President Franjo Tudjman came to an end in 2000, Croatia embarked upon what was at the time considered a more democratic development strategy, which culminated in the state’s accession to the European Union in 2013. While the neoliberal economic reforms and seemingly pluralist political society did lead Croatia into the EU, they also contributed to the strengthening of overwhelmingly nationalist tendencies. Since 2013, there has been a rise in violence and hate speech against ethnic minorities, notably Serbs (Jović 2017: 236).

Following the principles of Tudjman’s reconciliation platform aimed to bring together national unity between supposedly divided Croats in WWII – the Ustasha and Partisans, in 2000 the Croatian Parliament adopted the “Declaration on the Homeland War” (Pavlaković in Pavlaković and Korov eds. 2016: 45) providing a unique “regime of truth” about Yugoslav history. Anti-fascism was “nationalized” (Djurašković 2016: 777; Djureinović 2018), and WWII memory narratives were revised. Parliamentary declarations followed, condemning “crimes committed during the totalitarian communist regime in Croatia from 1945 to 1990” in accordance with the Resolution 1841 of the Council of Europe (Banjeglav 2012: 113). Revisionism spilled over into the materiality of the (post)Yugoslav spaces – in Croatia, out of 937 memorials of the National Liberation Struggle only 310 were left by 2014 (Jović 2017: 192).

In 2019, the Zagreb City Assembly decided to build a memorial to Holocaust victims without referring to any of the Ustasha atrocities (Milekić 2020); and revisionist politics are still largely painting the general mainstream discourses. Economic situation does not fulfill the promised future of abundance that was supposed to come with the independence. Memory politics remain the site of contentions and enable us to further understand political and social cleavages in Croatia today.

In the following interview, Dr Sanja Horvatinčić offers her own perspective on the genesis and implications of the issues outlined above. Horvatinčić is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Art History in Zagreb, Croatia. She graduated Art History from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb. In 2017, she completed her PhD thesis on WWII memorials and memory politics in socialist Croatia. Her research focuses on the cultural production of monuments and memory politics of socialist Yugoslavia, and the role of revolutionary and socialist legacy in the context of EU heritage politics. She was a Researcher on the digital art history project ARTNET (Croatian Science Foundation), and is currently affiliated with the Research Seminar “Gender Politics and the Art of European Socialist States” (Getty Foundation). Horvatinčić was an expert adviser for the exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980” (MoMA 2018), and is a co-editor of the edited volume on Yugoslav monuments (Archive Books & Igor Zabel Foundation 2020). She is the coordinator of the international interdisciplinary project Heritage from Below | Drežnica: Memories and Traces that explores material culture, memoryscapes, and multilayered narratives of Yugoslav Partisan struggle in the context of current political and social crises.

  1. Your main research interests are critical heritage studies and research on the monuments built in the socialist Yugoslavia, and one of the results of your doctoral thesis is a comprehensive typology and a mapping of the destruction of monuments dedicated to the people’s liberation struggle and revolution. What is the current state of affairs regarding the state’s memory politics towards World War II in Croatia and, notably, regarding the era of the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi satellite? How is the memory on NDH juxtaposed to the memory politics towards the socialist Yugoslavia itself?

Trained as an art historian, I approached the topic of monuments in socialist Yugoslavia through the prolific, diverse and vibrant artistic production, facilitated after the Second World War by intense social and political impulses. As my initial methodological focus on formal aspects of monuments soon proved to be insufficient for this object of study, and as my archival and fieldwork intensified, my interest expanded to the realm of the memorial and heritage superstructure of the socialist system, yet remained anchored in the material culture as the bedrock of further inquiry. Besides the importance of empirical research of this prodigious and unique corpus of memorial structures marking various aspects of Partisan warfare and revolutionary liberation struggle, I think the central question today is why and in which ways these sites still – or again – appear to be so intriguing, engaging, and mobilizing to various individuals and political communities, both locally and internationally. The changing official status and dire condition of these memorial sites and structures, once an important part of social memory and national heritage, is emblematic of post-socialist memory politics in Croatia. The dynamics and absurdity of the whole phenomenon is paradigmatic in the way it challenges or deconstructs the very notion of cultural heritage, disclosing it as “the medium of interpellation: an instrument to produce the subjects and subjectivities deemed appropriate to a post-violence regime of order, stability, and reconciliation”, to quote Andrew Herscher (Herscher 2011: 148).

In many parts of Yugoslavia, institutionalized conservation science and public cultural heritage management were only constituted after the War, as part of the new paradigm based on Marxist philosophy, public property, and workers’ self-management. It is under such conditions that temporary structures, such as ruins of guerrilla Partisan hospitals hidden in deep forests, or illegal print houses in damp basements, could have been listed as national cultural heritage; on the institutional level, under a different category, their importance was equalled to gilded baroque altars or lavish bourgeois residences, most of which were, nota bene, for the first time properly documented and listed only within the socialist system. The changes of the ideological paradigm and commissioning procedures, as well as the class and gender profile of the involved actors, contributed to the fact that metal workers and illiterate peasant girls could, for the first time in history, become legitimate historical subjects of commemoration, cast in bronze and lifted on pedestals that were once reserved for emperors, priests or high-brow intellectuals. The importance of heritage was recognized by the new revolutionary government already during the War – first legal regulations on protection and conservation of cultural heritage in Yugoslavia were issued already in 1944. After the War, evaluation criteria and methodologies caught up with new international standards and cultural heritage charters were followed and applied systematically and consistently. Of course, these criteria were– and this was in no ways particularity of the Yugoslav socialist system – defined by heritage experts who were immersed in the cultural hegemony that defined the politics of heritage. The nomination and listing of what is locally referred to as “memorial heritage” is always exposed to the double – yet usually complementary and mutually enforcing – “burden” of memory politics and heritage politics. This becomes even more obvious if we pay attention to how this specific segment of cultural heritage came to be treated in the wake of political changes of the 1990s. Since then, in Croatia in particular, we have been witnessing a constant, more or less fierce and violent struggle over the political legacy inscribed in these sites and objects. I am therefore answering the question from this particular angle – how the change of heritage policy in Croatia reflected the official memory politics, or how it was used to support it, and how it is still being used to revision the past to fit the dominant political interests.

Interestingly, it took almost two decades after the independence of Croatia, before monuments dedicated to the Peoples’ Liberation Struggle, Revolution and Workers’ Movement (a category widely referred to as spomenici NOB) were put under official expert revision. During that period monuments were in large numbers physically destroyed, damaged, amended or removed, and in most cases – despite media coverage and protest reactions from local communities and experts – no one was held accountable for the offences and crimes against legally protected cultural heritage and public property. This was but one, perhaps the least damaging, aspect of the 1990s that shows how the new state selectively complied with its own laws. But if those monuments were nothing but “typified odious artefacts with clearly stated regime function” (Jerković 2017), why did they remain listed as Croatian national heritage after 1991? The reasons were highly pragmatic: their formal protection was a legal guarantee of the new Constitution of the Republic of Croatia. The Constitution’s chapter on Historical Foundations states that the “state-building idea [is] grounded on the historical right of the Croatian nation to full sovereignty”, which had been manifested “during the course of the Second World War, as expressed in the decision of the Territorial Antifascist Council of the National Liberation of Croatia [ZAVNOH] (1943) in opposition to the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia (1941), and then in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Croatia (1947) and in all subsequent constitutions of the Socialist Republic of Croatia (1963-1990), at the historic turning point characterised by the rejection of the communist system and changes in the international order in Europe, in the first democratic elections (1990) (…)” (Narodne novine 56/90). While ZAVNOH was the main political body of the communist movement in Croatia and part of the wider Yugoslav communist antifascist resistance which is now supposed to be rejected, this inner contradiction was in fact quite instrumental: it prevented the official disavowal of the antifascist and communist legacy and its symbols, yet de facto legitimated their physical removal and destruction.

Sooner or later, the Pandora box of historical revisionism was opened up in all former Yugoslav states, at different political moments, with varying reach and intensity, at various levels (from mainstream media to the legal system), and practiced by a variety of institutions and profiles (from national institutes to obscure “experts”). A new phase of historical revision(ism) in Croatia was attained with the EU accession: a number of non-binding declarations adopted by the European Commission since 1996, made it possible to condemn the communist antifascist legacy by simply labelling it as “totalitarian”. I will return to this specific issue a bit later in the interview.

The said process of the inner expert revision of spomenici NOB has been going on for over a decade, and – to my knowledge – it still hasn’t been completed. The revision has been operated as if it were as classified state project, within disciplinary inadequate and narrow expert committee, and – most importantly – without the standard democratic procedure that would allow for an open public debate, especially given that memorial heritage is of immediate interest to a myriad of social stakeholders.

  1. Looking at the mainstream memory politics in Croatia, how do you analyze the demolition and the neglect of anti-fascist monuments in Croatia? What kind of dynamics do these interventions cause in the memory politics of the country? There have been recent local initiatives, like in Pisak, where local communities have self-organized to reconstruct demolished and neglected anti-fascist monuments.

As mentioned above, a large proportion of memorial sites and structures were destroyed, damaged, amended or removed during and after the Homeland War (1991–1995), up until the present day. Unfortunately, we still lack methodologically grounded, systematic research of this phenomenon, which would include archival work and would analyze the mechanisms and dynamics of the destruction. The first comprehensive survey done by the Union of Antifascist Associations in Croatia in 2000 (Hrženjak 2002) showed that out of some 5500 monuments and memorial markers recorded and listed in the late 1980s, about 3500 (including plaques, busts and other types of memorial objects) were destroyed or damaged in the first ten years after the dissolution of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1990 –2000). Although the focus of my doctoral research, which I conducted from 2011 to 2017, were sculptural monuments and architectonic structures, and the process of creation, not destruction, of monuments and memorial landscapes, I also mapped and recorded, when it was possible, their current condition and compared it to the original projects. It should be noted that many monuments had already undergone several phases of construction or reconstruction during the socialist period, whether due to a lack of their maintenance or with the intention to uplift or modernize them, or to add or correct inscriptions on the plaques. Despite the fact that for methodological reasons my research included only free-standing structures and complexes, thus leaving aside memorial plaques and busts which were most frequently prone to removal, it showed that the overall statistics for Croatia are even worse. This tedious archival and fieldwork resulted in a map of more than 1700 monuments – mapping completely destroyed (30% of the analysed corpus), slightly damages (40%) and preserved more or less intact monuments (30%).

1. The map showing the damage degree of the monuments dedicated to the Peoples’ Liberation Struggle and Revolution in Croatia. HORVATINČIĆ, Memorials from the Socialist Era, 2017, p. 154

As the map demonstrates, the destruction of monuments greatly varied in different Croatian regions, and it is important to recognize that the intensity of war conflicts in the 1990s both directly and – after the end of war – indirectly conditioned the degree of the monuments’ destruction. Regions most devastated by the war often coincided with the greatest percentage of monuments’ destruction, and were often the most ethnically mixed regions that had severely suffered during the Second World War. After the 1990s, new monuments, dedicated to the Homeland War, are built on top of the old ones, with their epitaphs, names and symbols replaced, removed or overwritten. Such acts of obliteration of memory and attacks on protected heritage and public property have almost never been legally processed and very rarely covered in the mainstream media. The situation with media reports only started to change with the emergence of social networks and public pressure that it enables.

2. a, b. Monument at the site of the mass public hangings of antifascists and communists during the WWII in the Zagreb periphery Vrapče. In the early 1990s, the monument was destroyed and replaced by a cross, and the script on the memorial plaque changed to honor the “memory of all victims who died for the freedom and continuity of the Croatina people”. Photo: Goran Korov 2014

I have recently been closely collaborating with contemporary archaeologists; not to deal with excavations and mass graves, but with a somewhat different agenda. By examining material traces and memories, we are primarily focused on what has been happening on the verges or outside of the so-called authorised heritage discourse or beyond legal heritage frameworks. In other words, I am interested in how the legacy of antifascism and progressive social movements, a legacy that has been systematically contested and obliterated during the past three decades in this part of Europe, is being claimed “from below”, beyond or opposed to the official memory politics. I am thereby also interested in how certain formal aspects of monuments dedicated to such historical episodes and narratives have contributed to such efforts, i.e. how their material, structural, or conceptual features allow for them to be reclaimed as signifiers of current social and political crises, such as the rise of neo-fascism and the on-going migrant crisis in Europe.

3. A pop-up archaeological exhibition of objects found in a cave that served as a secret Partisan hospital during the WWII. Part of the international heritage project “Heritage from Below | Drežnica: Memories and Traces 1941-1945”, Drežnica, September 2019. Photo: Xurxo Ayán Vila

The locally initiated renewal of the bronze Partisan figure and its return to the pedestal in the Dalmatian village of Pisak in 2015 is in fact a part of a growing trend of counterhegemonic, grass-root initiatives for reconstructing, maintaining or preserving memorials, and – more importantly – public affirmation of antagonized social memory of those communities.

4.The official ceremony of the unveiling of the restored Monument to the Fallen Partisans and Victims of Fascist Terror in the Dalmatian village of Pisak, 2015. Photo:

The fieldwork methodology I have insisted on brought me to full understating of the importance of these widespread yet silenced practices of care.

5.a, b, c. Tatjana Vlačić Vujičić during the self-initiated renovation of the Monument to the Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Fascism, Bandino Selo, September 2019. Photo: Jadranka Radatović

  1. You have also been critically assessing the so-called Western gaze towards the anti-fascist monuments of Yugoslavia, “spomeniks”. At the same time, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held the exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948-1990” which was largely assessed as successful in terms of representing the ambiguities and critically deliberating different views on the socialist Yugoslav times. How do these foreign gazes engage in dialogue with one another, outside and inside of the (post)Yugoslav space?

I don’t see the widespread popularity of Yugoslav monuments and the exhibition at MoMA as necessarily opposed phenomena, but as different manifestations – taking place at different levels, through different agents and media – of a new wave of fascination with Socialist Yugoslavia as a political and cultural concept. I say “new” because admiration and idealization of self-managed socialism of the post-1948 Yugoslavia existed within the international left circles already in the 1960. The temporal framework of the exhibition (1948-1980) was clearly a historical-political one, although it can also be justified with merely formal criteria, i.e. the manifestation of modernism in architecture, design and urban planning. The story of post-Stalinist and pre-crisis Yugoslavia is used as a lesson on the possibility to go beyond the “extremes” of the bipolar Cold War division, the acceptable version of socialism without its “negative sides”. In a way, the emphasis on modernism as a universal western concept in such an in-between place is a way of “taming” and “humanizing” the negative image of the Balkans, perceived as a conflict multi-ethnic area on the borders of Europe, as a place of possible progress and successful implementation of the “Western values”. At the same time, the emphasis on the ruined modernist landscape once again shows the “real face” of the Balkans, while expressing concern over the loss or under-appreciation of these same values. This aspect is rather telling when it comes to issues imposed by the “Western gaze”. Such representation is also paternalistic or infantilizing insofar as it focuses on the absence and does not aim to affirm new forms of agency in the “desert of post-socialism” (Štiks and Horvat 2015). Sometimes, I get the eerie feeling that the images or ruined architectural masterpieces are just waiting for someone in the West to “fix them”. However, an implicit, perhaps unintentional critique of the new political and economic order established after the fall of the Wall is also present, countering the triumphal image of the “reunited Europe”. No wonder that exhibition held at such an important global institution as MoMA was largely ignored by the political establishment in Croatia.

Although I was implicated as curatorial advisory expert for this exhibition, I dare to claim that – under the given circumstances – the curators and the team involved made a respectable effort to showcase the most representative, canonical material on socialist architecture, design and urban planning that supports or at least does not aim to revise the already established “grand narrative” of Yugoslavia under Tito’s rule. Providing the type of imagery and narratives that would feed the imagination of the virtual hipster culture audience who indulge in ruinophilic and brutalist aesthetics was avoided, as much as it was possible considering the popularity and commercial character of the Museum. Furthermore, by putting an emphasis on the pinnacles of the architectural production and not on the political and social history, the exhibition managed to avoid the necessary balancing strategy that would involve exposing the “long kept secrets” about the “dark side of socialism”, so typical for Central and Eastern European exhibitions on this period.

Yet the question remains: why did the MoMA want to display the positive legacy of socialism at that particular historical moment? Was it to raise the value of the real estate for future investment into the attractive modernist hotels at the Adriatic coast, as some have speculated? Or to refresh the successful post-Cold War exhibition trend, now peeking not behind but in between the curtains? Was it because diligent scholars and experts managed to cast a new light on Yugoslavia, having “proved” that it is worth studying, or that today’s societies can even “learn” or “borrow” something from it to solve the current global economic and social crises? Apart from internationally affirming knowledge about and the “value” of Yugoslav modernist architecture and urban planning, and legitimizing the discourse on Yugoslav cultural space and Yugoslav studies, the heart-warming critical response of the exhibition in the US media has not yet been fruitful or productive for the local communities and immediate stakeholders of this heritage. A big portion of monuments and memorial complexes presented at the exhibition, are still in ruins, and some further deteriorated, privatized or rented as attractive backgrounds for TV series and commercials. Under the current circumstances, the grass-root initiatives that aim to reclaim these sites beyond official political and commercial interests are thus all the more important and worth studying.

2. How do you understand the revisionist memory politics in Croatia in the light of European memory politics which aims to equate communism and Nazism through a number of adopted declarations and statements?

An important consequence of the EU legal framework is the Croatian “Law on the Research, Arrangement and Maintenance of Military Cemeteries, Victim Cemeteries of the World War II and the post-war period” (2012). In practice, it has almost exclusively been applied to the sites of post-war “communist crimes”, mainly individual or mass graves of Croatian (Ustashe and Domobrani) and German (Wehrmacht and SS) soldiers. The media reports on exhumations and commemorations at these sites are highly pronounced, while the sites related to the war crimes of those military units or the graves and ossuaries of the Peoples’ Liberation Army soldiers who fought against them, which have been demolished or desecrated since the 1990s, have been marginalized or in most cases fully ignored. Despite the fact that Partisan monuments had been built in large number, many sites of atrocities were never adequately researched or properly documented, and their maintenance is fully in hands of national minorities, NGOs or activists. For example, at the site of the first and most brutal Ustasha camps on the island Pag, which preceded the formation of Jasenovac concentration camp, the built camps structures and pits with possible human remains have never been researched. The plaque – the only memorial marker at the site of most brutal forced labour, human torture and mass murder – has been repeatedly destroyed since 1990. The Serbian National Council renovated the plaque twice, but currently the site is unmarked. Unaware of it eerie past, the tourists are using the memorial site for enjoyment and sunbathing.

The most obvious example of the intention to literally equalize “war and post-war victims” – which is in fact an effort to equalize fascist and anti-fascist military forces, or victims of fascist ideology with victims of war and post-war retaliations – are new practices of monument making and commemorating the victims. During the last 10 years, there were two public competitions for a typified memorial to “the victims of the Second World War and the post-war period”, one organized in 2013 and a second one in 2019. While the first one resulted in a memorial that was built exclusively on locations of the “post-war period”, the latter competition ended up in scandal as the winner project proved to be a copy of the already exiting public sculpture in New York City. Thus the public discourse about the Second World War victims became almost completely confused with the “post-war period” or the so called “victims of communist terror”.

Forgotten and devoid of any official heritage status, these sites of counter-memory in socialist Yugoslavia were usually places of gathering of the extreme right wing. Over time, however, they came to be normalized as official sites of the newly independent Croatian state commemorations. More recently, the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes has been enthusiastically embraced by the centre and right-wing political parties in Croatia to publicly declare either their compliance with the anti-communist EU memory politics, or to push their right wing agenda even further by rehabilitating the fascist regime of the Independent State of Croatia.

The new geo-political constellations and ideological uses of the past on the territory of former socialist countries have imposed new political frameworks for the interpretation and management of the memorial heritage from the socialist period. The term “totalitarian” has become commonly used to define and reframe tangible and intangible heritage of former socialist countries in Europe. By retracing the use of this term since the 1920s, its changing meanings and interpretations throughout the 20th century, and the reasons behind its introduction to various types of official discourse (political, legal, and socio-cultural), it becomes clear that the function of the term “totalitarian” – as it has been used in the EU heritage policy papers and cultural programmes (such as “Cultural Routes” of the Council of Europe, the “Europe for Citizens” programme, etc.) – has a clear political agenda with potentially negative effects on the perception of the targeted cultural heritage by its current stakeholders. The term itself became widely used in the political discourse in the mid-1990s, when lobbying circles within the Council of Europe and the European Parliament started imposing a “totalitarian interpretation of Communism in the European assemblies, which directly shaped the EU’s remembrance policy”, as Laure Neumayer claims in her 2018 book The Criminalisation of Communism in the European Political Space after the Cold War.

This was done through a series of legal documents that have called for “dismantling” or “condemning” of all totalitarian regimes. Those are the following three documents: the Council of Europe Resolution no. 1096 (1996): “Measures to dismantle the heritage of former communist totalitarian systems” and Resolution 1481 (2006): “Need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian communist regimes”, and the European Parliament “Resolution on European conscience and totalitarianism” (2009). Among the “measures” suggested by the first one, I usually outline the following: “This process must include a transformation of mentalities (a transformation of hearts and minds) whose main goal should be to eliminate the fear of responsibility, and to eliminate as well the disrespect for diversity, extreme nationalism, intolerance, racism and xenophobia, which are part of the heritage of the old regimes” (Resolution 1096/1996). The term “totalitarian” is used to banalize and revise 20th-century political history by creating a simple binary pair – democratic vs. non-democratic – with the intention of equalising opposed ideological systems – Fascism and Communism. The political discourse based on this binary scheme serves both the aims of absolving the hegemonic ideology – Neoliberal Capitalism – of any links to Fascism, and of criminalising Communism and Marxism.

The introduction of the “anti-totalitarian” discourse into official EU heritage policy is a precedent in that it aims to reinforce the citizens’ identification with the EU’s political system by using oppositional discourse and creating a new type of common “anti-heritage”. I argue that the thus defined “shared” characteristics of the targeted heritage can be found neither on the level of formal and aesthetic analysis, nor on the functional level of these structures. The term “totalitarian heritage” itself functions as an example par excellence of the use of heritage as a metacultural practice, while the on-going programmes that have been certified by the Council of Europe, such as the ATRIUM European Cultural Route – Architecture of Totalitarian Regimes, perpetuate the use of non-scientific, unsustainable and contradictory terminology with potentially damaging effects not only regarding the re-semantisation, heritisation, and the social use of targeted architectural and sculptural built heritage, but on bolstering the existing cultural and economic divisions and prejudices between the European East and West. Other EU funded programmes include the recent Regional Cooperation Council’s “Culture and Adventure Tourism Development and Promotion” call, prepared a specialised project package called “Balkan Monumental Trail” (BMT), described as “a new joint regional route, a niche product that focuses on the attractiveness of the art and design, architectural value and in particular in situ design of the WWII monuments and buildings as a unique heritage of this specific period”. Directly referring to the “attractiveness for the international markets (…) best reflected through the Toward a Concrete Utopia exhibition at MoMA (…) the objective of the BMT is to create a pathway which highlights and explores the often forgotten and marginalised heritage of the abstract and modernist WWII monuments of the WB6 economies of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Republic of North Macedonia and Serbia.” Almost paradoxically, Yugoslav monuments are thus no longer “shared” among (all) former republics, but are distributed according to current geo-political power relations and economic interests.

6. The flashy opening of the reconstructed Partisan cemetery in Mostar in 2018. Photo:

Needless to say, this means further alienation of Yugoslav memorial heritage from its original political and cultural context, and its ideological misuse for current political aims. Nevertheless, the common experience of the Yugoslav antifascist resistance warfare did indeed form a genuine concept of “shared sites” of Yugoslav memory, still actively attracting visitors and stakeholders from all parts of the former state. Today’s cultural and commemorative practices that take place under – or despite – the changed political circumstances, still form a shared cultural and linguistic space, thus making a strong argument for heritage management models that would bind together and create cultural and memorial routes based on the territory of former Yugoslavia, or, alternatively, on the shared international experience of the resistance and collective struggles during the Second World War across the Mediterranean, European or even global territory. Such models, however, oppose or even subvert the hegemonic political agendas, be it neo-liberal/anti-communist on the EU level, or nationalist on the level of local politics in the former Yugoslav region. At the same time, visible tendencies of the tourism-oriented management of Yugoslav monuments and memorial sites – especially those aimed at an international audience  – are often based either on the “ruinophilic” appeal of some sites, or on the aforementioned trend of the exoticisation of the “former East”.

Although the concept of “memorial tourism” was developed within the self-managed socialist system in Yugoslavia as early as in the late 1960s, it was, at the time, based on comprehensive demographic/economic assessments and detailed physical planning of protected memorial zones. The idea was to implement novel heritage protection regimes over memorial and natural landscapes and artefacts with recreational and educational purposes to benefit local self-managed communities. The economic profit for the local communities was an important outcome, but not the guiding principle for such a model of heritage management. Under the changed political circumstances and economic principles, the absence of any kind of professional involvement and dialogue with local communities, the commodification of recent heritage by branding them as ‘difficult’ or ‘dark’, could lead to the scenario in which (hi-)stories of fascism and anti-fascism can freely compete on the “open market”.

3. What would you define as specifics of memory politics in Croatia in relation to the rest of (post)Yugoslav space? Is there a specific role of the Catholic Church in the creation of the mainstream memory narratives?

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has been an important ally of revisionist, anti-communist politics in Croatia, but I am not sure that this makes Croatia an exception, maybe just a more extreme case among other Yugoslav states. The Church officials have not spoken up or stood up for the need to commemorate victims, and to restore hundreds of devastated monuments and sites commemorating civilian victims, or graveyards and mass graves of the Partisans, even when they are ethnic Croats. At the same time, they have been prominent figures at commemorations organized at the sites of the co-called “victims of communist terror", where by referring to “Croatian soldiers”, they in fact honour the Ustasha or SS soldiers inaugurating them into national martyrs and normalizing the fascist regime. The affluent Catholic Church, supported by one of the highest percentages of state funding in Europe, and relying on its powerful and widespread propaganda infrastructure, is indeed one of the main agents of the creation or mediation of the official memory narratives in Croatia. Their official representatives rarely if ever use the opportunity to condemn the chauvinistic discourse of the far right. On the contrary, the Church has offered substantial support to some of the most notorious historical negationists by giving them voice through interviews, publications and broadcast channels. It must be pointed out, however, that this has also been the case with some public media services and State institutions, like archives and public libraries.

4. Are there different WWII interpretations in Croatia between media, political elites and academic communities or does the anti-revisionist politics remain at the margins? Would you consider the academic community, in the light of the recent surge in Yugoslav studies, as being at the more subversive end of memory dialogues in Croatia?

In the early 2010s, when I started my research, there were but a few scholars, mostly sociologists, philosophers and historians, who were touching upon the issue of socialist Yugoslav monuments. There were almost no art historians dealing specifically with that topic, while public commemorative sculpture and architecture were at best analysed as a specific, usually marginal or problematic segment of individual artists’ oeuvres, or recognized as an important yet under-researched part of the socialist cultural production. I’m glad that ten years later the research proliferated across a myriad of different disciplines and beyond, often by scholars who are not privileged to work in the academia. Paradoxically, the acceptance of this topic in the academia – although usually ignored in the mainstream art history curricula – was partially made easier exactly due to the afore discussed “Western gaze”, which has come in handy as a “legitimization” tool for the younger generation of scholars to pursue research of this demanding and socially highly relevant topic, which remains renounced or frowned upon in many local academic contexts. At the same time, numerous scholars abroad have successfully inaugurated Yugoslav studies as a separate area of study on the international level. But despite the fact that research results often question, challenge and directly oppose and criticise the dominant political rhetoric, including memory politics, I wouldn’t call them subversive, simply because, in most cases, scholars are unable or unwilling to intervene in the field of politics. However engaged and dedicated academic and cultural/artistic work is limited, both methodologically and structurally, as part of highly competitive academic and cultural labour market. What I consider subversive within the academic field is to challenge and disrupt these limitations, and for scholars to engage in social and political struggles, including their own workers’ rights, in a more active and direct way. Subversive scholars are those fighting for a diverse and equal academia, for free access to education, gender equality, and against academia as a place of class privilege and reproduction of cultural hegemony.

5. You have researched the monuments to labour that were built in Yugoslav times. To me it seems you were the only one in recent scholarship who has touched upon the topic. What has been the place of such monuments in official state policies – in the times of socialist Yugoslavia and in the memory battles of today?

This is another topic that allows us to justly inquire whose heritage is recognized and authorized, and how criteria for its valorisation are composed and revised in different political systems. The socialist period obviously affirmed and in different ways promoted narratives that spoke about the emancipatory struggle of the working class. In many cases, workers’ collectives were actively included in the decision-making processes, and many monuments that were built in or around factories functioned as symbolic places which created the sense of political community gathered around the positive tradition of their own past struggles. In Croatia, such memorials have been almost completely removed or destroyed along with the privatisation and physical removal of factories from the cities. Today, this red thread of working class memory culture is almost completely and systematically cut off, along with the workers’ shattered class consciousness. Even famous proto-socialist narratives, like the 1573 Peasant Revolt in northern Croatia and Slovenia, which was too popular to be erased, have been resemanticized – Matija Gubec, the heroic leader of the class struggle is no longer the symbol of repressed peasants who fought against the social injustice of the oppressive feudal system, but the whole commemorative event has been gradually transformed into a romanticized, depoliticized, touristic medieval festival, or into a national symbol of “Croatian peasantry” (or in Slovenia, Slovenian).

Here, I would like to emphasize the gender aspect of the social memory of the working class. Since the early 1990s, we have witnessed a systematic removal of both male and female busts as part of the political project of ideological “cleansing”. However, due to their smaller total number, monuments dedicated to women and women's history as such have been the greatest “victims“ of revisionism in the public space. In Zagreb, more than half of the 432 memorials (monuments, memorial plaques, and busts) erected in 1945-1990 have been demolished or removed, in addition to the renaming of 125 public institutions (87,57%) and 238 streets, squares, and other public areas (70,62%), which served as the utilitarian bearers of public memory in the socialist regime (Šimunković and Delač 2013). Today, Zagreb is a city with only seven historical monuments dedicated to women, which is only one of the numerous symptoms of re-traditionalisation of both the public and the private sphere, a process that has gone hand in hand with the restoration of capitalism in Croatia along with the defamation of the socialist regime.

Textile factories, like “Nada Dimić” in Zagreb and “Neda Knifić” in Senj, were often named after female Partisans and working-class heroes. Monuments, usually portrait busts, were regularly placed in front of or around factory complexes. Today what remains is a photo of an impressive, forgotten monument in the shape of an augmented, stylized industrial needle that once stood at the entrance to the “Pobjeda” textile factory in Zagreb. It’s background stonewall niche was supplemented by memorial plaques with the name of the factory workers who died as antifascists and victims of fascism during the Second World War. This factory, along with the original site of the monument currently awaits the next phase of gentrification in that part of Zagreb. Apart from the photos, archives or scarce material traces of such objects, there are also memories of those who worked there, or whose families inherited these marginalized and silenced (his)stories. This is the potential for developing a “heritage from below” approach.

  1. a, b, c, d More than 55 % of monuments and memorials dedicated to the WWII in Zagreb have been destroyed or removed from public space since the early 1990s, including sculptural busts of antifascist heroines, lists of names of workers that were killed in concentration camps or died in battles as partisans, and a number of memorial plaques in the interiors of the city’s public institutions, which commemorated their former employees, students or inmates. Photos: Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters and Anti-Fascists of Croatia (SABA)

6. Would you estimate that the national minorities in Croatia, notably the Serbian community, have developed their own counter-memory strategies inherent to their minority position and different reading of the past?

Yes, I agree. This is one of the aspects where the constitutional rights of national minorities in Croatia are used in a very productive way. We can even claim that they are making up for the breaches of the Constitution I mentioned earlier, and the lack of institutional acknowledgement and care over the antifascist legacy on behalf of the responsible state bodies. If we take a look at the initiatives happening on the institutional level, we will observe that they have almost exclusively been produced by the cultural organizations of national minorities, and by NGOs, including the former Partisan veterans’ organizations, and (groups of) individual activists. Here, I am mainly referring to the initiatives for the renewal of monuments, or for the commission of new public and art interventions that speak up on those issues using contemporary means.

There is a general lament on behalf of the experts, art historians in particular, over the degraded aesthetic quality of monuments built in the recent decades. However, the interest of contemporary artists in various aspects of cultural memory is far from low. On the contrary, the work of some of the most internationally recognized and acclaimed Croatian artists, like Sanja Iveković, Igor Grubić, Siniša Labrović, Fokus Grupa, Kristina Leko – to name just a few – has systematically addressed exactly those issues. Unwilling or simply unable (if we look at the official propositions of the memorial proposals and the way they define the very task) to contribute to or support the official politics of memory, they have indeed created a respectable body of work that can be considered counter-memorial in itself, as you suggested in your question. Moreover, I think that in the future, this very kind of artistic production will be evaluated as the monuments of this era – this is, for examples, Labrović’s gesture of healing the wounds of the mined Partisan monument in Sinj, or Grubić’s public intervention that involved equipping Partisan Heroes’ busts with red bandanas. The inability or unwillingness of the mainstream cultural elites and experts to recognize these as contemporary monuments, is primarily telling of their own limited or biased understanding of contemporary art and artistic agency. This is another moment where we can clearly see that monument-making, and cultural production as a whole is never “artistically autonomous” or “politically innocent”. This kind of engagement in memorial practices requires political literacy and alertness, and it holds a great deal of ethical responsibility on behalf of the artists, architects and all others engaged as cultural workers in this process.

7. Given that the interview will be published in a Russian journal, another question remains relevant. What is the public discourse towards the Russian Federation, on one hand, and USSR on the other hand, today? Are there key Russian figures being prominent in Croatian memory narratives, such as Stalin and maybe some others?

Due to the specific history of political relations between Yugoslavia and the USSR, and the fact that in Croatia, the graves of Soviet Red Army soldiers were not as present as, for example, in Serbia, we can say that the central site of memory is still the monument to the battle in Batina,[2] located on the Croatian side of the banks of the Danube, on the border with Serbia. There were several other smaller monuments to Soviet soldiers in Slavonia and most of them are taken care of by the Russian Federation today. Although the monument in Batina, the capital memorial project by the sculptor Antun Augustinčić and architect Drago Galić, was infamously unveiled right before the Informburo affair in 1948, it nevertheless preserved its iconic status in the Pantheon of Yugoslav monuments. A valuable record of the enormous, early post-war endeavour is an impressive propaganda film made in 1947-1948,[3] documenting all phases of the process of the construction of the monument, intended as a gift from Yugoslavia to the USSR, honouring 1297 Red Army Soviets soldiers killed in the battle and celebrating the joint struggle of Soviet and Yugoslav Partisans. The film was, however, never publicly screened because of the unexpected political circumstances. Unfortunately, if it hadn’t been for renovation on behalf of the Russian Federation, which is paradoxically one of the rare complete renovations of WWII monuments in Croatia, I am doubtful that the monument would have ever been restored and preserved.

The monument to the battle in Batina. Photo:

To my knowledge, Stalin didn’t have a monument before 1948, but neither did Lenin, Marx or Engels, although there were several plans and federal public competitions for large-scale monuments. One of the project proposals for the 1968 public call for the monument that was supposed to stand in front of the building of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in Belgrade was a vertical mobile sculpture, inspired by Russian Constructivism and authored by Zagreb-based architect Andrija Mutnjaković and visual artist Aleksandar Srnec. Their proposal, along with numerous others, was found inadequate, and the monument was never built. To my knowledge, the only full figure of Lenin in Croatia stood in the socialist Sisak steel factory workers’ residential neighbourhood, but it disappeared in the 1990s. The same happened to the busts that were placed in the interiors of some official public venues. This insistence on local heroes and the fact that the protagonists of the international communist movement were never monumentalized is one of the specificities of Yugoslavia, often perceived as one of its “political advantages”. This is a problematic claim, based on a revisionist or romanticized idea that disregards the pragmatic political reasons and long-term consequences of Yugoslav geo-political positioning towards the capitalist west.


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[1] All references to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo. It is important to note that in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kosovo had the status of an autonomous province, while the other six states had a status of a republic.

[2] The Battle of Batina or Batina Operation took place from 11 to 29 November 1944 at the Croatian village of Batina in Baranja, on the right bank of the Danube River, between the units of the Red Army and the People's Liberation Army against the Wehrmacht and their allies. According to some estimates, the Battle of Batina is the biggest battle by the number of participants, the intensity of fighting, and the strategic importance that occurred during the World War II in Yugoslavia. These actions created favorable conditions for the subsequent Red Army's offensive towards Vienna and Budapest, while the whole German front on the Syrmian Front was weakened.

[3] “Spomenik zahvalnosti Crvenoj armiji” (Monument to the Red Army), screenplay and director: Milan Katić, Jadran film, 1948.

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