New Public Monuments in the Region: a weapon in the civil war of memory

Author: Todor Kuljić

Photo: Hrvoje Polan

The fall of socialism was followed by a change in the symbolic capital of memory. By the end of the 20th century, when the national suppressed the class issue, national public monuments became dominant symbols of memory in the new states. Public spaces were marked by churches and monuments to national figures in every corner of the new re-nationalized post-socialist countries. Since a public monument is always an expression of collective piety set in stone, a particular sacrifice made for the collective requires a regular ritual of memory conducted over the grave. Moreover, monuments are places of comfort, because they symbolize the possibility of overcoming one’s own crimes by remembering one’s victims. Public national monuments are far more an expression of a group’s readiness to remember its own victims than its own guilt. After the fall of socialism and the break-up of Yugoslavia, new national monuments were raised, but in some areas (Croatia, Kosovo) old multiethnic monuments were also widely demolished. Memories of national victims and the victims of communism swiftly and abundantly took over the public spaces. New states and new value systems had to be fed by a grand monumental symbolic capital. In order to make it more plausible, the erection of monuments to the victims of the civil war of the 1990s was diligently followed by a widespread search for the victims of communist violence. This article is an observation of new monuments as important weapons in the contemporary civil war of memory in the region.


When the German historian Reinhart Koselleck stated that monuments are identity creations of the survivors he wasn’t just saying that the indestructible stone permanently ensures the remembrance of the dead and the unity of a group, but that monuments offer something deeper to the living – identity and meaning. In other words, monuments don’t just mark a place of burial, they are also symbolic constructions of memory. They do not carry the messages of the dead, but rather help those who are alive speak to the living. They awaken memories, and politicize emotions. It is an instrumental resistance against oblivion. All graveyards are spatial symbols of the continuity of a social group, and a monument is a material symbol of the dead individual. Monuments are erected by the government. In order to be plausible, their monumental symbolism has to suggestively express the power of the government. They are not places of grief but a source of newfound power. Although European rulers had for centuries been depicted in paintings in the images of Apollo, Hercules or Odysseus, the most prominent symbol of public monuments was the horseman. The Middle Ages inherited the invincible warrior riding a powerful horse from the Antique period, but this monumental symbol was often impersonal. Monuments to absolute rulers didn’t become tradition before the 17th century. They were erected to French kings and German princes. The next faze came in the 19th century, when, according to historian E. Hobsbawm, this tradition evolved into a statue-mania: monuments were erected to fathers of the nation in the USA and South America, and to general political symbols in France.

The state used the horseman as a symbol of its power in our region as well. The monument to Prince Mihailo on horseback was revealed in the center of Belgrade in 1882, and a picture of him riding a horse, according to Miroslav Timotijević, was previously printed on a poster in 1871. The monuments to Karađorđe and Prince Miloš did not depict them on horseback. The monument to Count Jelačić on horseback was erected in Zagreb in 1866, removed in 1947 and then brought back in 1991. A similar monument was erected to King Tomislav of Croatia in 1947, also in Zagreb. A monument to Alexander the Great, also on horseback, was erected in Skopje in 2011. Monuments to Skanderbeg riding a horse were erected in the city centers of Tirana and Prishtina. In Veliki Bečkerek, the largest city in Banat, a monument to King Peter I of Serbia on horseback was erected in 1928, and then renewed in 2005. A monument to King Peter riding a horse was erected in Bijeljina in 1937, and renewed in 2003. In 2004 a monument to the murdered King Alexander was revealed in Niš, in 2002 in Lapovo, and monuments to the same ruler on horseback existed in Sombor and Cetinje until 1941. Ljubljana had as many as four public monuments to King Alexander until 1942, according to Božidar Jezernik. As a rule, there are no monuments to communists on horseback. Standing statues of communist figures in overcoats were symbols of class liberation as well as state and party power. The monument by Avgustinčić from 1948, a standing statue of Tito, was in fact a replica of a monument by the same sculptor to King Alexander, erected in Varaždin in 1935, and taken down in 1941. The sculpted figure of Tito in a single block was a monolithic expression. According to historian Olga Manojlović-Pintar, Tito set in stone is metaphorically indestructible and eternal as a rock.

Looking from a wider historical perspective, the French Revolution definitely brought down the monopoly of monuments to nobility, introducing new civil and national monuments. The Enlightenment and the Revolution utterly destroyed the representative role of monuments to absolutism, and established the nation. Deprived of the Christian and dynastic frameworks, the people became great instead of the individuals-rulers who had been placed at the center until then. Monuments to tyrants were demolished, Voltaire and Rousseau became new ideological paragons. The new political culture didn’t just demand new classics but a new way of distinguishing between mortal and immortal, lasting and transient. Allegorical statues dedicated to a nation, like the Marianne – a symbol of freedom and reason, ensured the authority of the new republican political culture and served as an antithesis to the authority of the previous government, which was upheld by the grace of god.

With the expansion of civil national myths, monarchist monuments were being demolished. The civil was slowly overpowering the dynastic culture of memory, to the same extent in which the government relying on the grace of god retreated before the expansion of the republican culture.

The newly awakened nation immediately began erecting monuments to its heroes, because it was the memory of their martyrdom, not Jesus’, which strengthened national identity. The nation, as a new homogenous unity, began successfully distinguishing itself from others through public monuments in the 19th century. Moreover, monuments became a symbolic capital not only of the nation, but parts of its elite as well. Monuments to rulers and military commanders (Karađorđe, Prince Miloš, King Tomislav of Croatia, Chancellor Bismarck and others) homogenized a nation, unified regional identities, but differentiated classes. The working class began collectively remembering itself through monuments to its own leaders and communists only in socialism. The symbol of the socialist hero facing death, was not a horseman. Socialism imposed a different sort of class symbols set in stone. But then after the fall of European socialism the strike of national restoration immediately renewed the monarchist monumental symbol of the horseman. The evolution of the European monumental public memory is cyclical precisely due to the societal and ideological shift between revolution and restoration.

In spite of the expanding criticism towards war, with the restoration of the nation in the late 20th century, national public monuments became dominant symbols of memory in the new nation states. A public grave as a unity of life and death carried new symbolic messages. In the new re-nationalized post-socialist states, public spaces became marked by churches and national monuments. Of course, national monuments are far more an expression of a group’s readiness to remember its own victims than its own guilt.

A particular emblem of the modern culture of nationalism is the monument to the unknown hero. These are empty graves without remains, but full of national imagination. It’s not without reason that Benedict Anderson mentions the strong connection between nationalism and the cult of the dead. Adding that a grave to an unknown Marxist or liberal is unheard of.

Memorials to fallen heroes were mediators between politics, trauma, collective memory and public art. It’s not simply about an artistic expression through granite, but a deliberate tendency to emphasizes a public perspective of a socially acknowledged death. Simply put, a battle for the meaning of death is taking place. As a means of stopping events, public monuments shape a selective past for the use of the present, so they are, naturally, highly politicized places of memory, demonstrating power and military dominance. This is the message of all imperial monuments whose aim is to inspire awe at the power of the state and its military, not to awaken pity towards the dead or to stir doubt in senseless killing. So the question of whether these archetypes of a heroic death are in fact preparing citizens to fight in some future “patriotic” war is not a rhetorical one. Are the new national monuments in our region not a spatial expression of an armed past? Here too are nations homogenized through the aesthetic of death. Monuments are a reminder of transcendental immortality. They are graves serving as an emblem of a nation’s immortality and markers of established national values. The monumental and the aesthetic negate the oblivion of death, showing that it is sublime to die for one’s homeland. Public and state monuments rarely depict de-heroization, which would serve as a reminder of the crimes one’s own group has committed, or of pointless death.



After each major upheaval the living quickly choose new important dead, take down the old and build new glorious graves. The grave is mute, dead men tell no tales, so dead bodies have a great advantage as symbols. They don’t say much about themselves, words can be put in their mouths, and meanings even more so. As the American poet Edwin Robinson put it: “I shall have more to say when I am dead.” A symbolically charged grave justifies the government, and its meaning last as long as the government. Tito’s grave was important for the government until the breakup of SFRY. In Croatia, after that, graves of S. Radić, F. Tuđman and A. Stepinac became symbolic capital. Similar things happened in other countries after the fall of socialism. Just as history is written by them, important monuments are erected, remembered, but also forgotten by the victors. At times, an integrative role of an official predecessor’s grave is destroyed by unofficial counter-memories. Although Imre Nagy was a symbol of destroyed memory in Hungary until 1989, just like A. Stepinac was in Yugoslavia, still even in such a state their graves were an important ferment of anticommunism during socialism. Communists themselves created their undertakers through forbidden memory, which erupted immediately after the fall of socialism and became active. In a way, both kinds of memory, forbidden and liberated, are repressive because they establish new meanings for the dominant collective memory. In a similar way graves marked by a monument are active. After the fall of socialism renewed national memory is an especially emotionally charged new kind of collective pressure through previous counter-memory which has in the meantime become liberated and dominant.  

The need for monuments became especially acute in newly founded states of the late 20th century due to a thorough shift in values. Monuments were the pillars of moral and ideological values in the process of establishing the first nation states in the region, and after the breakup of Yugoslavia the restoration of these tendencies was, in an artistic sense, unoriginal. The demolition of communist monuments has marked the symbolization of renewed capitalism in a thanatopolitical way. Parades of corpses, just like re-burials and demolishing statues, symbolize deeper restorative value twists of dead body politics. Religion and nationalism are being renewed everywhere over the bodies of the dead. According to Katherine Verdery, monuments to Soviet liberators were demolished in all the countries of the Warsaw Pact – the statue of S. Stambolov was restored in Bulgaria, in Romania the monument to Hitler’s ally Ion Antonescu, and monuments to Emperor Nikolai II and Peter the Great were restored in Russia. Tito’s grave as well now exists in a new context, equipped with new meanings. In atheist socialism death was amateurized, but a new wave of its clericalization hit after 1989. Monuments to the Homeland War in Croatia are also visually completely contrary to antifascist monuments: they are usually without concrete figures, made of black marble, “decorated with coats of arms and flags, and with a cross as the most common religious symbol.” Tanja Banjeglav has noticed an accentuated national and clerical trait among the monuments to the defenders of Zagreb: the Wall of Pain, the Voice of Croatian Victims, the Homeland Altar. These places of memory are not ordinary symbols, but polished grand-identities of a young statehood. They are bothered by old public monuments. With the demolition of old monuments in renationalized states during the late 20th century, monuments to standard-bearers and horsemen and symbols of national liberation were renewed. Old public monuments were demolished by the same generations that built them. The demolition of public monuments is a testament to a breakdown of values: Latvian and Slovakian monuments from the 90s were a reaction to Soviet and Hungarian monuments, and the monuments to the Homeland War were erected in stride with the demolition of monuments to fighters in the Yugoslav People’s Liberation War in Croatia. In this country the revolution of spatial memory was the strongest. Over 3000 antifascist monuments were destroyed in Croatia, according to S. Mesić in 2011, a part of which were destroyed by Serbs. At the same time, monuments to the Homeland War were widely erected with emphasized religious symbolism.

A strong spatial revolution of memory occurred in Kosovo as well, only several years later. After 1999, in the place of old communist monuments here, hundreds of monuments and statues were erected in honor of the last war and its victims. Apart from the monuments to heroes of illegal resistance and liberation war, A. Jashari (Prekaz), Z. Pajaziti (Prishtina), A. Ramadani (Gjilan) and F. Agani (Prishtina), monuments were erected to historical heroes. According to S. Maliqi, examples of these monuments are the Skanderbeg monument in front of the government headquarters and the Kosovo Parliament, monuments to famous figures such as Mother Theresa (in Prishtina), Bill Clinton (Prishtina) as well as the monument of gratitude for the international military intervention (the monument to the NATO alliance in Prizren). In most smaller cities in Kosovo there is at least one statue of a local hero, and entire memorials have been erected in places of war conflicts or of civilian suffering. The most famous of them are the graveyard memorial complex in Račak (where Albanians were killed in 1998), and the memorial center for Adem Jashari in Drenica. Public monuments, unlike private ones, are not an expression of personal or spontaneous grief, but express the identity of a wider group. The connection to these graves is a symbolic message that those who gave their lives for the future of the young state of Kosovo did not die in vain. The body is transient, mere dust, but memory is enduring and the energy of the living is mobilized through these graves and channeled in a desired direction. memory activists keep memories from oblivion in a liturgical way, and tie past traumatic events to a group, through a deliberately shaped community of memory. The most active in this regard today are young states Croatia and Kosovo, attempting to distance themselves from former Yugoslavia through the victims of the recent liberation wars.

Contrary to that, in titoism, most huge memorials were seen as a mark of the post-national approach, which tends toward the universal. These monuments were modern and avant-garde, much more so than their civil predecessors. Hana Lencović, historian from Zagreb, writes about the “humane experience which monuments from that period have to offer” and about “the moral vertical which they aimed to awaken in a man”, “so that the people are propelled towards a better future”. The Slovenian philosopher G. Kirn and Berlin architect R. Burghardt have a similar view, that instead of a formal expression of suffering, modernist monuments in socialism express universal gestures of reconciliation, resistance and progress. Contrary to them, post-communist monuments express defensive semantics of ethno-nationalistic ideologies, turned towards the past. Since the 1960s the central Jugoslav memorials to “fallen soldiers” and “victims of fascism” (Džamonja, Bogdanović) took abstract, modernist forms. Although an imaginative metaphor, here too is a monument used as symbolic capital which ensures the fiction of timeless values.

The monumental restorative turn from the universal abstract to the mostly classical national arrived, closely following the break of socialism. Post-communist monuments were immediately renationalized. Within the newly construed militant past, through the idea of liberation, in a space riddled by permanent wars and unstable borders, death is more glamourous and the collective pressure to resect death is more prominent. Thus the unusually fast and abundant expansion of memories of national victims and victims of communism within the public space. New states and new value systems had to be supplied by a grand monumental symbolic capital. In order to make it more plausible, the erection of monuments to the victims of the civil war of the 90s was diligently followed by a widespread search for the victims of communist violence. Monuments have become important weapons in the civil war of memory. Although each monument is an agent of memory, at the same time it is a device of oblivion whose role is to lessen the “weight of memory” for the observer, according to historian James Young. Nevertheless, the demolition of old and erection of new monuments in the Yugoslav civil war was far from this cathartic purpose. New monuments here were a spatial expression of a militant past. This is why Olga Manojlović-Pintar claims that they are fundamentally idealess.

Normalized nationalism brought with it a re-traditionalization of motives and and archaic stylization of public monuments. The symbolism of the conjoined figures of the horseman and the horse relates to the indivisible unity of national sentiment, in which the line between liberation and conquest is blurred. The figure of the horseman placed in the ethnocentric public space of a city square is a stark symbol of a life force which, stripped of every trace of complex meaning, expresses a disdain towards nonbelligerent wavering. Everything which has complex meanings is wavering, and thus politically useless. The national reactivation of the power of the horseman is an archaic symbolization and apotheosis of the power of the nation state – a compelling contrast to the socialist horseless hero. The hero on horseback returning from the battlefield, establishing peace and unity, is the link to deeper medieval foundations of the state, a visual guarantee of continuity and immortality of the nation state. 

On the other side are modernist memorials, which were significantly more numerous that the multiethnic partisan monuments, built especially since the early 1960s (when massive social realist monuments were abandoned) and symbolizing universal messages of peace. The leader in an overcoat symbolized the class and the antifascist warrior, and the figures of workers were a symbol of resistance of the socially oppressed, not nationally threatened. The figures were openly dedicated to social justice and women’s rights. They were placed outside of squares, in previous battlefields, surrounded by nature, far from villages (Kadinjača, Sutjeska, Kozara), they were more open, and had complex meanings through the forms of stone expressions. Olga Manojlović Pintar especially points out memorial parks with monumental abstract forms.

In this monumental architecture, Kirn and Burghardt notice a modernist aesthetic with an abstract-surrealist tone (which gravitated towards universality, but was characterized by fantasy), and which was equally contrary to socialist realism and to the ethnocentric monarchist horseman.

The knot values were expressed by multiethnic antifascism turned towards the future, not ethnic monarchism turned towards the glorious medieval past. The abovementioned writers notice even more than that see a certain openness in the abstract formal language of monuments to the Yugoslav revolution, which leaves room for individual thinking and association. They claim that it enables multiple interpretative approaches and stirs up fantasies. And that is simply the language of the anti-monument.

It wasn’t by chance that partisan monuments were demolished mostly in places of the most intense armed conflicts of the 1990s. In the words of Gal Kirn they had to be destroyed, because they represented a symbol of a different kind of future, which was portrayed in the universalist tendencies of the partisan figure. It should go without mention that the antifascism of multiethnic partisan monuments rejected the logic of nationalism: the monument to Boro Vukomirović and Ramiz Sadiku, who were shot by a firing squad in April 1943, was erected in Landovica in Kosovo in 1963, but the bust of Vukomirović, a Montenegrin by nationality, was removed several years ago. Monuments to the Homeland War in Croatia were an important symbol of the new and insecure sate, but the mass demolition of antifascist monuments served to prevent the revival of Yugoslavia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia this fear was not as prominent. Darko Karačić claims that during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina all parties involved either demolished communist memorial museums and busts of the people’s heroes, or they renationalized antifascist victims. Since there was no war in Serbian territory until the armed conflicts in Kosovo, nor were there new heroes and victims, and because the new state was still called Yugoslavia, the revision of the spatial expression of death took a different route. There were fewer new monuments erected, and the old ones weren’t widely demolished. Only after the fall of Milošević did the new wave of ideological revisionism of antifascism begin, with the passing of the Law on equal rights for partisan and chetnik fighters in WWII. The relationship towards the dead changed as well, and members of the clergy began attending official commemorations. One death especially gained huge symbolic capital. Not because several local monuments were previously erected to Draža Mihailović, but because the State Commission for Investigating the Circumstances of the Execution of Draža Mihailović was formed in 2009, and he was rehabilitated in 2015, while the search for his grave is still ongoing. The construction and staging of consistent successors through the appropriation of a grave and a corpse as symbolic capital is colorful and imaginative.


It’s easy to conceive that the meaning of monuments changes over time, due to new attributions given by younger generations and new groups in power. What are the deeper value assumptions of the last change in the culture of memory in the region? Can the distinction between the two cultures of memory, in the words of Aleida Assmann – the culture of guilt and the culture of shame – help in understanding the distinction between a classical monument and an anti-monument? Those who fight against the fading of the memory of Auschwitz speak of the German guilt for Nazism, and those who wish to draw a line speak of their shame. In our region, however, no line has yet been drawn, nor is there the idea that crimes should be forgotten, simply because the crimes of our own nation have not yet been admitted. In order for something to be suppressed, the fact that crimes were committed has to be acknowledged first. The opinion that every kind of violence was a legitimate form of national defense is predominant in the region today. Everyone claims self-defense. There can be no executioner if everyone is a victim.

From an historical perspective, in the culture of shame the individual is tightly bound to the community with a clear superior priority of national interest. In societies dominated by the culture of guilt, however, individuals are equipped with a conscience which turns them into a responsible entity which accepts and acknowledges universal norms and values. While shame stems from the superior collective identity – the nation, guilt emphasizes individual identities because the individual matures through an introspective confrontation, at the heart of which lies guilt. Guilt is a source of individualization, and only with the awareness of guilty (as a crime against universal values) an individual becomes an independent person. Contrary to that, shame does not individualize. Why?

Because dealing with evil is different in these two cultures. In the culture of shame society persecutes the destructive forces which undermine the dominance of the collective consciousness, while in the culture of guilt society protects the individual with conscience and readiness to repent. Both cultures coexist today in societies turned toward dealing with the shadows of the past in the form of value systems, patterns of thought and interpretation which influence self-reflection and the perception of others. The ethnocentric consciousness always revolves around the categories of honor and humiliation (winning a war, humiliating conditions of peace), which inhibits a true dealing with the problem of guilt within one’s own group. For Germany it’s Versailles and Nurnberg, for Croatia it’s similar humiliations in 1918 and 1945, when it became part of Yugoslavia. The upper limit of admitting awareness of one’s own crimes here is speaking about shame: the only crimes admitted are those committed by individual extremists who tarnished the glorious accomplishments of liberation.

As a rule, cultures of shame talk about the collective We of a nation, while in cultures of guilt responsibility is individualized. The “Stone Flower” monument to the victims of Ustasha terror in Jasenovac was erected in Yugoslavia in 1966, but after the independence of Croatia the same monument became a ballast for the new Crotian memory. While the victims suffer because of memory, and because they haven’t been redeemed (Serbs, Jews, Roma), the executioners suffer because they are forced to remember. Because of the unease of the executioner Jasenovac isn’t an anti-monument. The syndrome of the executioner’s trauma includes repressing some shameful memories which cannot fit into the new bright national past and the new values of the EU. It’s possible to live with different interests, not so much with conflicting values. But this isn’t the case only in Croatia, in fact in the entire region hatred towards another nation is considered a reliable indicator of patriotism, and international reconciliation still suspicious. There is no new monument dealing with the past, because nationalistic revanchism is still unrelenting. The new hotspots of tensions in the region are Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where new national monuments are also weapons in the civil war of memory.    

Self-victimization as the framework of memory is a bottomless well of symbolic capital of various political forces everywhere, and it’s still difficult to see it drying up. The erection of new monuments to national liberators and national victims is also a testament to that, while a monument to victims of a nation’s own violence is unheard of. The official culture of memory decides whether the 1991 – 95 war in the region was civil or imposed by outside forces, a homeland war or secessionist, liberating or a national catastrophe. Declaring the chetniks as a liberation movement in 2004, and introducing the medal of the Ravna Gora movement in Serbia, nationalism bypassed the moral choice between “defeat” and “liberation”. This is why it’s even more unclear today whether 1945 saw a liberation or a new occupation. The new confusion regarding the past is being imposed by the revision of the past, but also by public monuments. There is still very little chance for an anti-monument, as a basis for new memory in the region, as long as there are monuments to F. Tuđman being erected in Croatia and to the Russian Tzar in Serbia.   

Self-victimization is not the only basis of new national solidarity. Thomas Mann once warned the Germans that “our humiliation has been exposed before the eyes of the world, and the new German post-war identity is born from the spirit of shame”. But then a negative solidarity emerged, because Germans were no longer united around a positive memory of their own value, they united as a negative collective of executioners on the basis of their collective shame. So it wasn’t by chance that K. Jaspers rejected the thesis of German collective guilt, because the other too mobilized and united Germans to action. Assmann notes as well that the feeling of collective shame inhibits conscious dealing with the past. The German trauma of memory arrived relatively late, but had a great impact on the German history of memory. It didn’t originate from mass unprecedented crimes committed, but from their exposure by the winning side. It wasn’t a trauma of guilt, but of shame. And this collective trauma of shame in Germany was a defense against an open public and collective memory up until the Walzer debate in 1998/99.  It’s difficult to say if even the culture of shame can be reached in the region today, let alone the culture of guilt in public (socially accepted) memory? In every corner of former Yugoslavia blind patriotism (my nation is always right) is still the norm, and the blame for the war is projected onto the other side. An important requirement of changing the culture of memory is a stronger connection with spaces (cultural, economic – a small-scale Balkan globalization). The decline of tensions between nations is a requirement for dealing with the blame of one’s own nation (on the level of shame and guilt) and vice versa. The situation in the region is still tangled because there are more nations involved in the crimes. The Hague is still requesting that each nation singles out its own butchers, because there is no such thing as nations of butchers and nations of victims, although Serbs are the most stigmatized. And this confusion of roles is an obstacle for a more open dealing with the past.

But this chaos can be politically useful for some. The political parties of today know all too well how to benefit from death and how to use death in order to control their subjects. The graves of leading politicians and the monuments which mark places of mass bloodshed of a nation are places of memory and of grief, but also symbols of values, places of gathering and integration of followers. A grave integrates a group. During the 1990s graves here used to be political weapons of inter-national revenge. Kosovo and Jasenovac successfully mobilized Serbs and Bleiburg is still a strategic safety fuse for anti-Yugoslav and anti-socialist identity in Slovenia and Croatia.


Given everything previously mentioned, are public anti-monuments still an impossible mission of memory in the region, and is this why perhaps classic monuments should be regarded more realistically given that they intoxicate more than connect to the past? This is not a rhetorical question, because from the 1990s monuments to horsemen and armed warriors keep popping up in city squares in the region, symbolizing the power of the nation and the triumph of victory. Priests everywhere keep consecrate both the horses and the horsemen equally. If a monument is a place of memory where a group can offer its response to death, but where meaning is also imposed on the living, then the anti-monument is an act of resistance to these ritual demands. Classical public monuments can never be a substitute for responsible memory, because they are one-dimensional memories and interpretations of the past expressing transient ideologies of those who erect them. Contrary to them, anti-monuments tend to de-monumentalize holy spaces and rid memory of the fame which intoxicates and paralyzes with unlimited piety. They do this through irony, but also through new complex symbolism of emptiness and multiperspectivity which includes the memories of those who were marginalized. Those who’ve never visited them can find images on the Internet. The most famous anti-monument is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by the American architect P. Eisenman from 2005. It consists of 2711 concrete blocks of various size, resembling graves, in an area of around 13 000 square meters in the very center of Berlin, near the Reichstag. Another similar monument is the one by J. Gerz from 1986 in Hamburg, consisting of a 12-meter-high aluminum board covered with a dark layer with an invitation to citizens in several languages to add their names to the antifascist message. Their signatures will fade in time, so this is a kind of self-destructive monument. Gerz claims that the best monument isn’t the monument itself, but rather the memory of the lost monument. So when it comes to the anti-monument, the monument itself is a visitor. This characteristic isn’t supposed to offer comfort, but to provoke, not to inspire stability but change, not to be ignored by passers-by, but to call for their reaction. The goal of anti-monuments is not to have the memory of death prescribe mandatory messages, as is the case with famous national monuments, but rather to decentralize and democratize meaning within globalization. To avoid didactic logic and demagogic rigidity of monuments means to let visitors express their personal opinion towards the deceased. If the essence of spatial memory can be understood this way, then monuments are symbolic predecessors of future activity, not just a token of the past. Do we have an abstract anti-monument structured by emptiness, but also by trauma, in the region? We do. The “Stone Flower” by Bogdanović in Jasenovac. Sadly, this pattern of alternative memory didn’t threaten the classical national horseman set in stone. The complex meanings of anti-monuments harm new nation states. Monumental national memorials with simplified symbolism are much more useful. National unity doesn’t stand for symbolic wandering because they confuse and puzzle visitors. In order to make the message more direct, they all emphasize the soldier, the cross, the crown or the state coat of arms. Every small town in the region nurtures the brand or the museum of the glorious past. Few recognize that the condition for de-provincialization is de-monumentalization.

Every monument dulls the understanding of history as much as it encourages it. Classical monuments in time become archaic and die, because the new era mocks not only their rigid form but also their claim to eternal truth, imposed as a fixed star of collective memory, in the words of the American Anglicist J. Yang. Contrary to it, the anti-monument suggests an inevitable evolution of memory. It helps us remember things differently, and to suppress the potential for vengeance which stems from past conflicts, which are nurtured by local war memorials made of hard black granite. In the 21st century they celebrate the subjects’ duty and readiness for sacrifice. In order to achieve peace, the past must be disarmed by anti-monuments, because they inspire a disobedient memory among citizens. An individual cannot erect an anti-monument. Only when the state erects a monument to the victims of its own violence can we call it an anti-monument. But, where nationalism is the norm, the anti-monument is a risk.   

In spite of that, it should be noted that we need monuments too, not only to promote the glorious past and great national figures, but also to commemorate a nation’s wrongdoings. Collective shame for something that our group has done but should not have done, ought to be remembered. For example, an anti-monument would be a monument to murdered Serbs in Zagreb, Sarajevo and Prishtina, and to murdered Muslims and Albanians in Belgrade. Is this society even capable of reaching this kind of anti-monumental level of auto-reflection? It isn’t. The region is far from even the thought that classical memorials are a monumental demagogy, and anti-monuments a subversion. A permanent civil war of memory is still far from this dilemma because the memory spaces are occupied by the clash of conflicted glorious pasts – the national horsemen in city squares. Glorious self-centered versions of the past, but also the future, set in stone, are the dominant monumental culture of the region.


What else characterizes the public memory of the region today? Throughout history, the fear of disappearance and oblivion within individuals has been overcome in many ways by blending into the immortal collective. In tanatopolitics death is never a simple end to life, but a transition into another life which is of importance for the group. Those include various kinds of political collectives which are exemplified as being superior immortal units in the sense of morals and values. Today, a nation is the dominant framework of a desired vision of the post-mortal kinship with a political body. In a political sense its indestructibleness and self-renewal reside in the uniformity of the promise of a nation’s immortality and the lack of competition in the sense of moral capital of a life given for one’s nation. National politicians today do not reside in the cold ground, but in glorious tombs. Their places of burial can become weapons at any moment. While graves are places of grief, tombs are places of oaths. The symbolic capital of monuments to local national politicians today is equal to their potential to excite and harden a nation. Tito’s multinational monuments are worthless as weapons, so they were destroyed and removed. But the tombs of national politicians as some secret door to the past are still an active volcano. Monuments to the people’s liberation are torn down, as monuments to national liberation are erected. The evolution of public memory of the region in the past 30 years is condensed in this shift.

Because graves and monuments are active, sometimes the dead can be killed again. This new death is not brought about by erasing individuals from official memory, it arrives when the projected oblivion is also tied to the disappearance of the institution of which the individual was the head. The political death of Hitler was ensured by the fall of the Nazi party and the Third Reich, while the celebration of Stalin wasn’t punishable even after the fall of socialism. While Hitler has no grave, Stalin’s bust still stands between Lenin’s Mausoleum and the walls of the Kremlin, where he was buried with around ten other Soviet leaders. Mussolini as well evaded organized oblivion. His remains were buried in his hometown Predappio in 1957, and thousands of neo-fascists flock here every year to also visit the museum which celebrates the Duce. The fall of fascism also meant the political death of almost every Quisling from Pétain to Pavelić, while the fall of European socialism didn’t kill the more liberal communist politicians such as Tito and Dubček. Still, that is only partially true for the political death of Tito because the memory of him doesn’t fit into the normalized nationalisms in the region. After his death of natural causes in 1980, by the end of the 1980s the Law on the protection of Tito’s name and image was abolished, and finally in 1992 SFRY was no more. In spite of the strong Tito-nostalgia, his name is politically almost worthless today. It’s less important that nostalgic individuals and hardcore supporters oppose Tito’s political death. The disappearance of a party which nurtures the authority of a leader is far more important for a political death.   

Every nationalism in the region today tries to take its identity (dynastic or religious) as far back into the past as possible, and thus historically justify the new statehood. The communist ideological continuity (Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Tito) was much shallower in a temporal sense, void of a blood bond or a religious connection, so the link between life and death mediated by a grave was colder in this case. Still, the monuments everywhere awaken feelings. From a socialist perspective, public graves and monuments we don’t just gain the experience of an individual death, we also experience an especially emotional sense of a specific group’s vulnerability, the one which ties us to a collective. Important segments of culture come from a connection between pain and memory, while art shapes this new connection. Pain as an intense emotion creates memory. But memory also creates pain. An emotional memory moves to action, becoming a political memory when fused with ideology.

Abstract multiethnic symbols of a monumental memory carry more universal messages than a spatial expression of a classical ethnic memory carved in black granite. L. Mumford has said it more eloquently: “If it is a monument, it cannot be modern, and if it is modern it cannot be a monument.”


*T. Kuljić (1949), sociologist, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade (retired). His fields of study are historical sociology and culture of memory.


Translated from Serbian by Luna Đorđević