Benjamin Keatinge is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. He travels regularly to the western Balkans and from 2007 to 2016 he lectured in English literature at South East European University, North Macedonia. He is editor of Making Integral: Critical Essays on Richard Murphy (Cork University Press, 2019) and author of several academic essays on modern literature.
The Irish poet Richard Murphy (1927-2018) kept a series of prose Notebooks throughout his writing life in order to develop and hone materials for his poetry. Some excerpts from these Notebooks have been published as In Search of Poetry (Clutag Press, 2017) and we now have privileged insight into a series of meditations by Murphy on monumental structures that he used in his collection The Price of Stone (Faber & Faber, 1985) to ‘give voice’ to his poetic concerns. Each stone monument is a persona that speaks on behalf of the poet, a technique of displacement that enables Murphy to avoid any overt confessionalism. Many of them are notably redundant structures with no living relevance in contemporary (1980s) Dublin, or for the 21st century. The Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park, for example, speaks ‘about itself today … as a monument isolated in a country and a century that have changed … celebrating things or people that nobody remembers …’ (Murphy 2017,136) and it appears as ‘an Anglo-Irish obelisk, an immense landmark that has lost its purpose but kept its style’(139). As such, it is stranded at the high watermark of Empire in the modern Irish metropolis just like its fellow structure, Nelson’s Pillar, destroyed by the IRA in 1966 and now replaced by the Dublin millennium Spire. In Murphy’s words, Nelson atop his pillar had ‘lost’ his ‘touch’, and so was ‘dismasted and dismissed’ by Irish republicans. The poem about him can do nothing more that raise a ‘chiselled’ yet anachronistic ‘voice’ in a city and country that no longer remembers or respects the values he stood for (Murphy 2013, 180).
An unforeseen parallel can be drawn between postcolonial Dublin and the remarkable modernist memorials to fallen Partisans of World War Two that are dotted across former Yugoslavia but which no longer serve the function for which they were originally built, namely to consolidate the values of ‘brotherhood and unity’ by which Tito’s Yugoslavia was melded together. Two recent scholarly interventions, by independent researcher Donald Niebyl and by curators Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, serve to recollect and catalogue these extraordinary structures. As Donald Niebyl explains in his groundbreaking Spomenik Monument Database project website and accompanying book (‘spomenik’ is the Serbo-Croatian/Slovenian word for ‘monument’):
. . . the decaying ruins of those monuments deemed incompatible with present-day political and religious situations linger on the peripheries of the landscape, just below the surface of collective memory. In this limbo, they quietly ‘haunt, if not undermine, the new national regimes’, since their abstract, universalist symbols of progress still resonate with many Yugoslav citizens, almost as if the monuments represent some unrealised utopia. (Niebyl 2018, 9)
The theme of utopia is taken up by the curators of an equally remarkable exhibition held at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York from July 2018 – January 2019 under the heading Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980. The exhibition catalogue contains images of these decaying memorials, and of other landmark Yugoslav buildings in various states of disrepair. For example, the Partisan Memorial Cemetery at Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina:
. . . invokes the scale of epic cycles and sedimentary layering, with each round of forgetting and remembering, burial and recovery, enriching its elusive resonance. [But] today, Mostar is divided, Yugoslavia is gone, and the necropolis is an untended, graffiti-stained memorial not only to the fallen heroes but also to the fallen country. (Stierli and Kulić, 141)
The neglect of the Mostar Memorial Cemetery is mirrored across the terrain of former Yugoslavia and many of these idealistic, visionary monuments are now under threat of absolute destructions and decay. Niebyl’s website gives a frank assessment of the condition of each catalogued structure alongside photographs and maps, thus providing an invaluable resource for historians, travellers and scholars of culture and memory in the western Balkans. But he strikes a sombre note and observes that ‘scores of these monuments, which were once massive attractions visited by hundreds of thousands, now sit as ghostly remnants of an old exhausted powerhouse … lingering as haunting relics to even those who live amongst them’ (Niebyl, Spomenik Database).
It is perhaps worth recalling the ideals these monuments once represented. Historian Keith Lowe in The Fear and The Freedom: Why the Second World War Still Matters (2017) underlines how architecture and urban planning were important strands in the general thrust towards renewal after 1945. ‘The old world’, Lowe writes, ‘with its crumbling buildings and dysfunctional cities, had to be swept away’ and ‘architects like Sigfried Giedion and Le Corbusier’ were calling for ‘the world’s cities to be torn down and rebuilt along modern, functional lines’ (Lowe, 104-5). The modernist memorials in Tito’s Yugoslavia were part of that country’s postwar rebuilding effort and they served as ideological cement for the regime. Although they now appear as ‘very ambiguous objects: beautiful, sad, powerful, strange, weak, bold and almost invisible’, when they were designed, they ‘were intended to catalyse universal gestures of reconciliation, resistance, and modern progress’ (Kirn and Burghardt, 66). They are thus uniquely enigmatic to our present (2019) moment, representing lost ideals, contemporary dilapidation and drift, as well as elusive futures; are they ‘ambassadors from far-away stars, witnesses of an unrealized future, or specters that continue to haunt the present’ (66)? They emerge from the rubble of war, speak eloquently of the need to overcome the atavistic impulses of the twentieth century, and then recede into the past themselves.
As Keith Lowe reminds us, the buzzword that followed the catastrophe of 1939-45 was ‘freedom’: ‘freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear’, according to Franklin D. Roosvelt; ‘freedom of all peoples to choose their own form of government’ according to the Atlantic Charter. For the Communist and Socialist movements, ‘freedom from exploitation’ was paramount, while for Western economists, ‘free trade and free markets’ would be the main road to freedom, and freedom itself as an abstraction as well as political aspiration would be interrogated by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre (Lowe, 6). Tito’s Yugoslavia was uniquely placed as a Communist state that balanced, to some extent, the liberal freedoms of the West against the social restrictions of the Soviet model and which acted as a buffer state in the Cold War polarisation of the period. Indeed, as we are reminded in Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić’s Introduction to the catalogue to MoMA’s Concrete Utopia exhibition:
Postwar Yugoslavia legitimized itself by claiming to pursue emancipation along intersecting axes: internally, from class oppression and ethnic rivalry, and externally, by supporting anticolonialism. (Stierli and Kulić, 8)
The ‘utopian project’ undertaken by Tito and his federal government, was to both neutralise ethnic tensions at home and to promote postcolonial emancipation abroad, notably through leadership of the non-aligned group of nations. Tito’s modernist memorials, and indeed other architectural projects in former Yugoslavia, gave ‘material shape to a larger social project’, one which was ‘utopian’ in being part of ‘a hopeful, future-oriented process’ of liberation at home and abroad (Stierli and Kulić, 8).
For all of these reasons, the monuments of former Yugoslavia are uncanny, or unheimlich, meaning (in the context of Sigmund Freud’s original German): ‘uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny, ghastly; . . . haunted’ (Freud, 2) and also, by contrast with the German antonym heimlich: unhomely, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, unconcealed, un-secret, something inadvertently revealed. For Freud, the uncanny is the ‘return of the repressed’ that encompasses:
. . . all those unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all those strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will. (Freud, 10)
The uncanny helps to explain all those ghosts and spectres that populate our psychological and literary daydreams. Historically, the modernist architecture of former Yugoslavia stands as an unwelcome and uncomfortable reminder of ‘all those unfulfilled but possible futures . . . those strivings’ that the wars of the 1990s nullified. Yugoslavia is a country, we should be clear, that ‘nowadays exists only in memory’ but these monuments are nevertheless sites where ‘that historical drama is again laid bare’ (Kirn and Burghardt, 66), the drama of wartime slaughter and subsequent ‘brotherhood and unity’. We know that collective memory and commemoration take place in the present, representing current interests and power structures. The strange omnipresence of the Partisan memorials across the six constituent republics of former Yugoslavia is, arguably, ‘uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny’, feelings that the Gothic decay of many of these structures can only reinforce. By ‘laying bare’ the ‘suppressed’ strivings towards freedom and equality of the Tito era, the Yugoslav spomeniks stand as a rebuke to the kleptocratic, nationalist powers that currently hold sway in the region.
The abstract qualities of the monuments themselves lend them a certain indefinable fascination. As Donald Niebyl explains:
Tito wished to de-emphasize Yugoslavia’s Soviet connections, resulting in Yugoslavia looking instead to the artistic movements of Western Europe and America for the sculptural inspiration on how to embody Yugoslavia’s Partisan heritage. As a consequence, anti-fascist WWII sculptural memorials began to spring up across Yugoslavia in the styles of abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction and minimalism, sculptural styles never before employed in memorial construction at this level and at this scale. (Niebyl, Spomenik Database)
Freed from the dictates of ‘socialist realism’, Yugoslav sculptors and architects sought an abstract symbolism that hinted at the historical realities behind the monuments, but which also embraced an openness and artistic indeterminacy. At the political level, as Gal Kirn and Robert Burghardt affirm, ‘the most obvious way of representing universalism is abstraction’ (71). So the monuments are not prescriptive. Although a product of an official discourse and of a one-party state, they retain a mysteriousness that can be variously interpreted. They oppose ‘partisan universalism’ to ‘the logic of nationalism’ (71) and thus create a space for forgiveness and unity within the Yugoslav collective memory. Indeed, this was Tito’s intention:
Tito hoped they could create a shared language of universalism between conflicting groups, acting as spaces of solace, reflection and forgiveness for all viewers, objects for the victims which could stand as testament to the crimes of the perpetrators, yet without creating resentment and bitterness within those who may have committed the crimes. (Niebyl, Spomenik Database)
As the renewal of vociferous nationalisms in ex-Yugoslavia took hold in the 1990s, these ideals were almost wholly forgotten. Indeed, Yugoslavia itself became a discredited concept and any assertion of vestigial unity was swept aside in the maelstrom of nationalisms. Many examples of ‘monument cleansing’ were recorded while surviving structures were sometimes co-opted into ‘new nationalistic narratives’, or simply allowed to fall apart (Kirn and Burghardt, 71).
Their fate tells us much about the impulses behind commemoration and the political dynamics that determine what a nation or state remembers and how. A headline from Balkan Insight in July 2011 declared: ‘Macedonia Leaves its Partisan Heritage to Decay’, and journalist Aneta Risteska reported that:
The amount being spent on Classical-inspired monuments to the likes of Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon is being measured in hundreds of millions of euros. Meanwhile, despite its historical significance, the World War II museum in the central town of Prilep is a virtual ruin. (Risteska, Balkan Insight, 25 July 2011)
Risteska further reports on ‘official negligence’ with regard to ‘the memorial house to the Second World War in Veles’ site of ‘Macedonia’s largest complete mosaic, . . . by artist Petar Mazev’. Donald Niebyl’s Spomenik Monument Database assesses the same monument in Veles and its museum, officially known as the ‘Memorial Tomb to the Heroes of World War II’, to be ‘in poor condition, suffering from lack of staff, poor maintenance, recurring leaks and extended periods without electricity’ (Niebyl, 185). In the North Macedonian town of Gevgelija, the ‘Monument to Freedom’ (opened in 1969 on Vardar Hill), has crumbled into disrepair. Relocated in 2005 to nearby Mrzenski Hiil to accommodate a new road next to the original site, local war veterans were promised ‘a grand memorial complex’ at the new location. But the remaining structure is now ‘severely damaged beyond the point of any reasonable repair’ and, needless to add, no memorial complex has materialised (Niebyl, Spomenik Database).
One can readily see how such examples of neglect are themselves a somewhat neglected chapter in the annals of history and memory in the western Balkans. Kirn and Burghardt, for example, maintain that ‘in the ethnic Macedonian parts [of North Macedonia], the monuments have been well kept (Prilep, for example)’ where indeed the ‘Burial Mound for the Unbeaten’ in the Park of the Revolution, Prilep is, in fact, well-maintained even if the World War II museum in the town’s centre has not been refurbished, as Aneta Risteska’s article revealed. One perceives here, in North Macedonia at least, a less malign fate than the protected heritage site at Mount Makljen, Bosnia and Herzegovina where the ‘Monument to the Battle of the Wounded’ was ‘dynamited by vandals’ in November 2000 (Niebyl, 109) and is listed as being ‘in ruins’ on the Spomenik Database. Or the ‘Monument to Ivo Lola Ribar’ at Glamoč, Bosnia and Herzegovina, similarly ‘in ruins’. Perhaps such attritions in regional heritage are among the least costly losses brought about by the transitions in ex-Yugoslavia which have also included crimes up to and including genocide.
In this light, it is hardly surprising that the grandiose makeover of Skopje, dubbed ‘Skopje 2014’ pursued by Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE government resulted in World War II monuments being ‘overshadowed by taller ones, part of the government-sponsored Skopje revamp’ (Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 19 November 2014) and for the equally grandiose Museum of the Macedonian Struggle (the ‘VMRO Museum’) to give only passing notice to the Partisan struggle while foregrounding the broader ‘Macedonian Struggle’. The vulgar realism of the displays in that museum is offset elsewhere in North Macedonia by the more interesting abstraction of the ‘Ilinden Memorial’ or ‘Makedonium’ at Kruševo which, according to the Spomenik Database is ‘well kept’ and ‘regularly manicured and maintained’ (although the present author would demur based on a visit in September 2018). One can readily see, at least, that several such important lieux de mémoire have been incorporated into the new social and political order in different ex-Yugoslav countries, notwithstanding many instances of neglect and vandalism.
However, I would like to suggest that there are more insidious risks which may imperil the monuments that have survived up to now. One is accustomed to historians speaking of the burdens of the past. After all, Karl Marx insisted that ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, an axiom that would seem to apply, in the popular mind, to South Eastern Europe, and to former Yugoslavia (Marx, 5). But what if the opposite is the case? What if, rather than the weight of tradition and history, the Balkans actually suffers from forgetfulness, inattention, what historian Roy Foster terms ‘therapeutic voluntary amnesia’ (Foster, 58), an incapacity to remember and a selective and unreliable memory? The practice of remembering, of course, is also a practice of forgetting, or misremembering. Perhaps the loneliness of Nelson atop his Pillar or Wellington stranded in the Park is exacerbated by a contemporary indifference to the past, a willed ignorance and inability to connect the personal and familial to the collective. Australian poet Vincent Buckley, writing in the 1980s, felt that, in Ireland:
. . . the conditions for sustaining corporate memory have been destroyed. Every generation . . . has had as one of its chief signs the phenomenon of interrupted lives, and hence interrupted memory-transmission . . . For the great majority, the national memory is no memory at all, or it has no personal memory to run beside . . .
Buckley raises the important issue of ‘the conditions for sustaining corporate memory’. As affluence has belatedly come to Ireland, there is a greater awareness of our history and urgency towards the business of protecting and documenting our heritage. Do these conditions pertain to ex-Yugoslav countries, afflicted as many of them are by the scourges of unemployment and emigration. Surely, it is these conditions that have determined and will determine whether the monuments of former Yugoslavia are blown up, neglected or incorporated into a living commemorative culture. The possible fourth alternative of museum status, as national heritage monuments, seems unrealistic given the ‘conditions’ – economic, social and administrative – that predominate. Kirn and Burghardt are surely correct when they argue that ‘only when these objects connect to a social practice that they are again imbued with true meaning’ (74). Regrettably, many of them do not so ‘connect’ and thus may not survive or have not survived. The prospect of ‘retrieving’ them, in some active sense, for ‘emancipatory and antifascist politics’ (74), as Kirn and Burghardt advocate, seems impossibly remote and utopian.
Donald Niebyl is similarly cautious about the long-term viability of these monuments. In terms of their original purpose, we now know that they did not, in fact, sustain ‘brotherhood and unity’ much beyond Tito’s death in 1980 and they live on as relics of a noble but flawed social experiment:
The ones that survive stand now as a testament to Yugoslavia’s bold decision to use public art as a means to achieve what might be considered a dream larger than had ever been attempted using public art. Yet, despite it all, many woke up from the dream confused and bewildered by the experience, not only unsure how to feel about the monuments, but unsure how they were supposed to feel about the entire Yugoslavian experience, and even more extreme, for many, the dream turned into a nightmare during the ensuing Yugoslav Wars. (Niebyl, Spomenik Database)
The monuments raise complex issues of heritage management which are highly dependent on the political and economic circumstances in each of the former Yugoslav countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. This is perhaps where the innovative and exhaustive research of Donald Niebyl should be most applauded. Through his own determined efforts, he has achieved what no network of national museums in the region would have been able to achieve, namely, the compilation of a fully documented database of all of the major spomeniks or monuments throughout the territory of ex-Yugoslavia. It is a remarkable achievement and one which might serve as a model for future curatorial projects that cross international frontiers. In her article, ‘To Share or to Keep: The Afterlife of Yugoslavia’s Heritage and the Contemporary Heritage Management Practices’, Marija Jauković anticipates the usefulness of a digital platform of the kind that Niebyl has created (the Spomenik Database went online in 2016, two years after Jauković’s article was published). In 2014, Jauković had written:
The internet-based approach could be seen as beneficial since it is able to overcome physical distances and geographical divisions. It also offers a possibility of ideological equality and a space within which more voices could exist in equality of belonging to a group, defined by different sets of characteristics. The participants become users of a certain tool, rather than members of groups defined by nationality or religious community. (Jauković, 98)
Niebyl deserves great credit for having, single-handedly, created such a tool, one which promises to assist in the ongoing documentation of the condition and maintenance of the built heritage of former Yugoslavia.
One might further suggest that it is at the supra-national and local levels, rather than at the national level, that the best chance of saving the spomeniks lies. Vladimir Kulić reminds us in the catalogue of Toward a Concrete Utopia that:
. . . war memorials punctuated the entire territory [of Yugoslavia], creating an invisible network spanning from the centers of the largest cities to distant uninhabited landscapes. The most important sites became destinations of patriotic tourism, . . . with maps, guidebooks, and art-historical studies published in huge print runs . . . As groups of school children, veterans, workers from self-managing enterprises, or simply individual families arrived, their participation encouraged a secular communion with their fellow citizens across the country. (Stierli and Kulić, 33)
This intra-Yugoslav tourism no longer happens, certainly not on any great scale in connection to the spomeniks. However, the locations of many monuments, in city parks, or squares or as amphitheatres in open settings, means that they remain, in many communities, a focus of leisure and recreation (‘secular communion’), even if the heritage side of such activities is less conspicuous nowadays. Monuments in urban locations are often visited in daily life, not as isolated acts of cultural pilgrimage. In Kavadarci, North Macedonia, ‘The Memorial Ossuary of Fallen Fighters’ is located on a hill in the City Park, and as Donald Niebyl notes in his monument description, this spomenik remains an inevitable, if marginal, presence in the life of the town:
As Gradski Park is still an active and well used city park, . . . with many visitors each day, . . .[although] few if any were coming to the monument area of the park with any intention of honoring or viewing the monument itself. While there was some indications of wreaths and flowers left at the granite plaques bearing the fallen soldiers names, it seemed more that the monument was being used as a ‘hang out’ place for kids and as an object to vandalize and graffiti. (Niebyl, Spomenik Database)
The monument is in ‘moderate to poor’ condition and there is a lack of any sense that the monument is actually a heritage site with ‘no signage or directional markers anywhere in town (or even in the park itself) alerting visitors to the monument’s presence’ (Niebyl, Spomenik Database). Nearby, on the edge of Kavadarci, an even more striking spomenik lingers at the margins of citizens’ consciousness, the ‘Memorial to 12 Vataša Youth’, which the Database tells us is ‘located roughly 4km south of town’ and is a memorial ‘which commemorates the Massacre of Vataša, in which 12 male youths (aged 15 to 28) from the nearby village of Vataša . . . were shot to death at this spot on June 16th, 1943 by Bulgarian Axis forces’ (Niebyl, Spomenik Database). This is a good example of the thousands of smaller spomeniks that lie everywhere in former Yugoslavia and which are documented to some extent in the Database. The out-of-town location of the ‘Memorial to 12 Vataša Youth’ beside the Luda Mara river is the setting for traditional picnics and family gatherings on the 1st May holiday weekend and it remains, as Niebyl notes, a site of ‘regular commemorative ceremonies’. One might conclude here that both these monuments in Kavadarci, although neglected somewhat, are nevertheless integrated into the life of the town affording some local protection even if they don’t feature (yet) on the broader tourist trail. Other, more high-profile monuments, such as the ‘Stone Flower’ at Jasenovac, Croatia (site of the notorious concentration camp) is now ‘in good condition and is well maintained’ being ‘popular with both tourists and those paying their respects’ (Niebyl, 63). It is the national(ist) controversies that arguably most imperil the spomeniks and condemn them to neglect or destruction within the boundaries of the new Yugoslav states, while local and international concern may afford them some hope of protection.
Donald Niebyl concludes that the legacy of the spomeniks is destined to be a ghostly one:
As the monuments lay scattered across the landscape in a fractured network, they appear as a residual framework or ‘skeleton’ of Yugoslavia, a shadowy vestige of a nation long past. (Niebyl, Spomenik Database)
This being so, they will retain their fascination for seekers of ruins and relics and lovers of old structures, much like Richard Murphy in his description of an old ‘Friary’ in County Mayo, Ireland:
Here the rain harps on ruins, plucking lost
Tunes from my structure, which the wind pours through
In jackdaw desecration, carping at the dust
And leprous sores my towers like beggars show.
(Murphy 2013, 224)
We are fortunate to now have documentation and discussion of the ‘lost / Tunes’ of these monuments in the form of the Spomenik Database and the MoMA exhibition which expertly chart the magnificence as well as the ‘desecration’ of these striking monuments in former Yugoslavia.
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