The Partisan Memorial Cemetery, built between 1959 and 1965 by Serbian and Yugoslav architect Bogdan Bogdanović, is one of the crown jewels of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a city of over 100,000 people. The site is dedicated to the memory of those who died fighting as Yugoslav partisans against the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, united into a multi-ethnic coalition whose legacy today is to wage the most effective anti-fascist resistance campaign against the Axis powers during World War II and to found the Yugoslav nation.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, the cemetery was visited by townspeople not only as a place of remembrance, but also as a park and playground where students drank, smoked and chatted; where couples went on dates and even made love; and where people walked and jogged. But in recent decades it has fallen into disrepair, overtaken by illicit activities and a general aura of insecurity.
On the evening of Tuesday June 14, Marko Barišić, an anthropologist from Mostar, found the site more badly damaged than ever. Hundreds of stone flowers that bore the names of anti-fascist fighters, their birthplaces, and the places and years they were executed had been shattered into pieces, strewn across the grassy ground. Saddened, he shared images of the desecrated site on social media, which quickly disappeared viral in the surrounding region and abroad. The incident was condemned by officials, including Denis Zvizdic, the speaker of the House of Representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s parliament, who denounced the attack as a “neo-fascist rampage.”
Although the cemetery was declared a national monument in 2006 – one in a series of “tetralogy” of the most important works – it continued to deteriorate due to negligence and the actions of malicious actors. A few years ago, the entrance to the cemetery was graffiti with messages such as “Kill the Muslims” and “Long live the Ustaše of Mostar” (the Ustaše were a right-wing Croatian fascist and nationalist political party active before and during World War II). Soon after, swastikas began to appear on stone slabs.
The protracted deterioration of the Partisan Memorial Cemetery over the past three decades – as well as its transformation into a site of bitter political struggle in the present day – reflects the complicated way in which the past is often militarized in contemporary conflicts.
“It is virtually certain that the perpetrators of this destruction of the cemetery were Croats who lived in the city, because in previous acts of vandalism against the cemetery, graffiti glorified Nazi-era Croats and called for the death of Bosnian Muslims,” Roko said. Rumora, a PhD student in ancient art history at the University of Chicago who was born in Dubrovnik, Croatia, said in an interview. “It’s a commitment to do this. It’s not something three drunk guys can do with a hammer.
Hyperallergic could not independently verify who the perpetrators of the rampage were. Nevertheless, for years many local residents and elected officials have remained content with the gradual decay of this monument of historical and architectural significance. When it was vandalized, efforts to clean or repair it were slow materialize. Some may even have had a vested interest in its decrepitude: according to Rumora, members of some Croatian political parties complained that the land on which the memorial sat had been expropriated from the Catholic Church in the 1960s and had to be returned.
“It was part of the Yugoslav ideology: that people could unite against the enemy and work together – that different ethnicities and religions could coexist – and that was normal, not fascism or nationalism,” he said. Barisic to Hyperallergic.
Barišić and Aida Murtić, who co-wrote together an article in the journal Paragranate in June 2019 on the Partisan Memorial, agree that its neglect and destruction is linked to the prevailing attitude of the state towards the past existence of the state of Yugoslavia and what it represented for the possibilities of multiculturalism and of socialism. “The anti-Yugoslavian hysteria helps the new elites legitimize themselves,” Murtić said.
The Partisan Memorial Cemetery was an example of Bogdanović’s political engagements and architectural style. Vladimir Kulic, an architectural historian at Iowa State University who studies the architecture of the former Yugoslavia, met and interviewed Bogdanović when he was writing his doctoral dissertation in the 2000s.
“The cemetery was really a symbol of this unified, anti-fascist struggle that crossed ethnic lines,” Kulic told Hyperallergic. “The symbolism is precisely the reason why it is continually damaged and destroyed, perhaps more than its other monuments. The cemetery really exposes a past that questions the aspirations of the political elite of the present.
Meanwhile, it is a primary representation of his preference in monumental design for open, indeterminate structures that allow visitors to complete them with their own set of meanings. The Partisan Memorial Cemetery, Kulic said, “merges and blurs the lines between diverse disciplines of architectural landscape and architectural sculpture,” creating a “synthetic statement that speaks to the memory of World War II through profound and meaningful expression. “.
Kulic, Barišić, Murtić and Rumora all agree that they perceive a level of outrage in response to the latest desecration of the site that has been unprecedented in the past.
“Judging by the reaction, I think it’s possible it’s a step too far,” Rumora said. They were also heartened to see that others were beginning to recognize the uniqueness of Bogdanović’s work and Yugoslav memorials as a whole. Speaking of the Yugoslav past, Kulic said, “The memory of this unit is also something that has the ability to mobilize people – and maybe that’s the hopeful part.”
The destruction, Kulic added, signals a global moment when a revitalized right wing increasingly targets monuments that express “inter-ethnic unity.”
“The monument itself and the aspirations of the monument, as well as the reasons for the destruction of the monument, are very relevant to us around the world, but also to us in the United States,” Kulic said.
“I fear a city without memory, just as I fear people without a subconscious”, Bogdanović said once. But he was also famous for his motto: “Life conquers death”.