SPOMENIK MONUMENT DATABASE, out this week from FUEL Publishing, chronicles the massive, brutalist war memorials spread across the former Yugoslavia. While “spomenik” simply means “memorial” in Serbo-Croatian, the word has come to be associated with the particular form these monuments took from the 1960s to the 1980s: wildly asymmetrical abstract constructions of concrete, stone and metal, often placed incongruously in remote, pastoral settings.
The intertwined geometric forms of the monuments evoke everything from birds and flowers to fists, flames, and swords, and without context they can appear highly abstract and even whimsical. The events they memorialize, however, are often searingly tragic. The Axis invasion of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April 1941 brought a conflict as brutal and blood-soaked as any in Europe, compounded by vicious ethnic and religious rivalries that saw some factions (such as Croatia’s Ustaše NDH militiamen and Montenegro’s Chetniks) siding with Axis forces against their former countrymen. These rivalries would later rekindle into full-blown war after the unraveling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in a conflict that saw many of these formerly well-maintained monuments ignored, vandalized, or even utterly destroyed.
The book is the result of a years-long project of Donald Niebyl, an American author and researcher who has traveled extensively throughout the Balkans, compiling an exhaustive (though as a postscript states, by no means complete) database of these structures. In addition to his own excellent, otherworldly photographs of the spomeniks (most taken during the warmer months, though occasionally one is framed by dramatic snowdrifts), Niebyl has also compiled historical photos and postcards from the Cold War era, when they were often the sites of annual memorial ceremonies, as well as destinations for tourists and students.
While the visual strangeness of the spomeniks alone is certainly enough to warrant their own book, the stories that accompany them are harrowing, to the point that not telling them would be a disservice to the project. Niebyl has done extensive research on his subject, and he approaches each spomenik as a memorial first and an architectural object second. As each monument is given a full writeup covering three categories (History, Design and Construction, Status and Condition), the book’s encyclopedic structure means that many of the texts repeat the same information. But when it comes to a historical period as dense and tangled as that of the Balkans in WWII, it’s easy to forgive this repetition, as it builds into a kaleidoscopic perspective of the mass-scale human tragedy that occurred in the region.
For lack of a better categorization, the monuments are organized alphabetically by location, which means from page to page you’ll jump from the Dalmatian coast to the mountains of Serbia to the northern borders of Slovenia. While sorting by country would have been an option (as in Soviet Bus Stops, also from FUEL), the truth is that, at the time the spomeniks were built, they were all in the same country. In addition, since the book’s dust jacket folds out into a map of the entire region (with unique drawings representing each of the spomeniks and a corresponding number key), it’s a simple enough matter to triangulate the shapes, names, and current countries of the monuments – or simply start with the map and look up supplementary information in the book.
The placement of many spomeniks in remote areas such as hilltops and forests away from city centers is not simply an aesthetic choice; most were built as close as possible to the actual sites of the battles, massacres, and executions they commemorate. Some of the monuments even contain the remains of the dead they memorialize in subterranean crypts, serving, like the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin, as both memorial and ossuary. And if the locations of some are based on events that may ultimately be apocryphal (such as the Monument to the Detachment in Brezovica Forest, supposedly placed at the exact site of the elm tree where the first partisan brigade was formed), these remote settings only add to the mythology of the “National Liberation War”, as WWII was known in Yugoslavia, and the national heroes it produced.
From a preservation perspective, the general remoteness of spomeniks has seen mixed results; for each that has been blasted to pieces by nationalist militias, dismantled by scavengers, or graffitied by vandals, there are many others that have simply waited out the decades of post-Communist indifference, aging no faster than the stones and trees around them. While Niebyl’s project captures these curious structures in a relatively stable post-Cold War and post-Balkan Conflict era, the region’s history has shown that peace can be fleeting, and that the future of these structures – as well as that of the nations and populations they stand in for – is never a certainty.
Spomenik Monument Database
By Donald Niebyl
FUEL Publishing, £22.50