Yugoslavian Spomeniks

Forging National Identity in Socialist Yugoslavia after World War II

The former Yugoslavia is filled with unique monuments to World War II called Spomeniks that have evolved in their meaning and underlying ideology depending on the political and social climate at the time.

The Allied victory at the end of World War II legitimized the newly formed Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia and the ruling Communist Party, led by Josip Tito. The Spomeniks (monuments) that were created during the Tito years were symbolic, abstract representations of fallen heroes and victims of fascism as described by Senadin Musabegovi, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sarajevo, and Bojana Pejic, art historian. Following Tito's death in 1980, new nationalisms resulted in altering the interpretation of many of the Spomeniks in accordance with local nationalist sentiments.

The Spomeniks of the former Yugoslavia were created out of a need to remember lives lost and the struggle for victory over the fascist occupiers. Older monuments created by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were deemed unnecessary and were destroyed out of a need to forget the former rulers while creating a new multi-national state that was unified under one Yugoslav banner. For Tito, this was essential so that the underlying national tensions could be pacified under his “Brotherhood and Unity” ideology. This unification was important because his vision depended on the myth of a single national liberation victory for all of Yugoslavia, not any single ethnicity, according to Veljko Radulovic, an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Montenegro.

The Yugoslav Communist Party celebrated the underlying myths of uprising and revolution. The National Liberation War was the uprising and seen as the victory over the invading fascists, while the revolution was the state being forged through the “brotherhood and unity” of the many ethnicities coming together to accomplish the victory as noted by Musabegovic and Pejic. With the creation of these new monuments arose a new collective Yugoslav memory and a new artform known as “socialist modernism”. During this time, Yugoslavia was unique in that it did not constrain its artists to state-mandated realist projects that emphasized a human figure, like the Soviet Union or other communist countries. Yugoslav artists began to interpret ideas and concepts in a more abstract form resulting in various art projects including the Spomeniks.

Two examples of Spomeniks that were created in the socialist modernist style are The Battle of Sutjeska Memorial Monument Complex at Tjentiste and the Monument to the Revolution in Kozara National Park. The Sutjeska Memorial was originally conceived in 1958. At the time it was simply a crypt for 3000 soldiers who fell during the 1943 Battle of Sutjeska which demonstrated that Tito’s partisans could withstand the German onslaught, resulting in the Allies beginning to directly support Tito. In 1971, the monument was completed by architect Miodrag Zivkovic and is one of the most important World War II monuments in Yugoslavia. It is often compared to the Greek “Winged Hero of Samothrace” due to of the shapes of the wings as well as Greece and Bosnia being seen by some as crossroads of ideas, politics, and religion according to the Spomenik Database. Unfortunately, during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, there was an attempt to blow up the monument. Today, the monument enjoys a resurgent popularity not because of its former ideological presence, but because of its artistic form. It is used as a venue for music festivals and art shows. It has even inspired other artworks such as the Ninth Fort WWII monument in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Kozara National Park, near Prijedor, Bosnia, was originally created in 1958 as it was deemed by Tito to be of “historical significance” owing to the 1942 Battle of Kozara as noted on the park's website. According to the local Prijedor Danas newspaper, a Monument to the Revolution construction committee was formed in 1962 with 49 applicants submitting design ideas with the one from Dusan Dzamonja being selected. The memorial was completed in 1972, with an adjacent museum, also designed by Dzamonja, built one year later to house battle relics and artifacts. In a 2007 interview documented in the Spomenki Database, Dzamonja would say that “it was a common saying in Yugoslavia those who were going to Rome, those who were going to Mecca, and those going to Kozara (…) It is a very isolated place, you have to want it.”

The Monument to the Revolution at Kozara rises 33 m to its peak. It is rather difficult to get inside the monument, as Dzamonja wanted it to feel claustrophobic so that a visitor feels like the partisans who were surrounded by the Axis armies. He wanted people to feel that although there was little room for escape, there is always light which triumphs over the darkness. When one looks up, light shines in through a uniquely shaped circle. For locals, this symbolizes two ideas according to Gal Kirn, Faculty of Arts (Sociology of Culture) at the University of Ljubljana. The shape of the circle represents a Kolo dance, a local folk dance, which signifies solidarity and cohesiveness within living in a multinational community. The other is the suffocating feeling of the fascist armies closing in on the light.

The Kozara monument was largely spared during the Yugoslav wars due to its remote location. However, this did not keep the monument from becoming a piece of nationalist propaganda. The area was occupied by Serbian nationalists which resulted in a pro-victimized Serbian context to the museum displays with many other groups left out as their inclusion wouldn't fit the desired narrative as noted by Manuela Brenner, Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Regensburg. This allowed the meaning of the monument to be deconstructed and then reconstructed to fit the needs of the occupiers, who pushed Serbian ethnicity rather than overall loss of life. After the war, the narrative was changed to not solely emphasize Serb losses. However, because Kozara and the city of Prijedor are in the Republika Srpska, an area dominated by Bosnian Serbs, some nationalist rhetoric remains according to Brenner. Like the monument at Sutjeska, Kozara enjoyed a rebirth of memory in the 2000’s as it has become home to commemorative ceremonies in remembrance to the battles fought here in the second World War.

Gal Kirn, Faculty of Arts (Sociology of Culture) at the University of Ljubljana, has stated that the post-WWII Yugoslavia monuments were the memorialization of a resistance movement based on a transnational ideal amongst the varying ethnicities that had been united under Tito’s banner. By bringing the ethnicities together, it attempted to omit the varying degrees of tension and hostility that each group might have against one another. The feeling of monuments amongst those same ethnicities today is a representation of the failure of a nation to eliminate these underlying tensions and stay together. Kirn believes that the monuments represent the past, as well as the defeat of Yugoslavia, with their original meanings often misunderstood. It is interesting to note that interpretation of the monuments continues to change even if the artists themselves specifically highlighted what it was supposed to mean.

Understanding the overall dynamic of Yugoslav monuments depends on the social and political climate in which they are portrayed. During their construction they were billed as abstract representations of the state ideology of “Brotherhood and Unity.” They came to represent a present and a future multinational state that attempted to omit or silence the tense inter-ethnic conflicts of the individual regions. Brenner states that once Yugoslavia dissolved, the monuments that had served the socialist republic needed to be deconstructed and reimagined in a way that fit the narratives of each new state. This was especially so for the Monument to the Revolution where the monument was made to fit the Serb narrative by placing a cross nearby, directed against the Muslim population. It is anticipated that as long as these monuments stand, they will continue to have meanings that are interpreted in ways that fit the current social and political climate.

(Edited by Brad Poss)


The Battle of Sutjeska Memorial Monument Complex in the Valley of Heroes View of Monument with mountains in the background Source: Spomenik Database / Permalink Creator: Unknown Date: Unknown
The Battle of Sutjeska Memorial Monument Complex in the Valley of Heroes View of the Monument in the snow Source: Smithsonian Magazine / Permalink Creator: Mihovil Pirnat Date: December 2018
Monument to the Revolution (Kozara)
Bird's eye view of Monument Source: Atlas Obscura / Permalink Creator: Unknown Date: Unknown
Interior of the Monument to the Revolution (Kozara) Interior view of Monument to the Revolution Source: Art Academy of Trondheim / Permalink Creator: Unknown Date: October 22, 2014
Artistic Rendering of Dusan Dzamonja's Design for the Monument to the Revolution Stylized minimalist artistic rendering of Monument to the Revolution Source: U Spomen Spomenicima / Permalink Creator: Unknown Date: Unknown


National Park Koroza: Vuka Karadžića 43 , Prijedor, Republika Srpska, BiH Valley of Heroes (Tjentište): 8MWQ+F86, Tjentište, Bosnia & Herzegovina


National Park Koroza: https://npkozara.com/
Jeremy Laylin, “Yugoslavian Spomeniks,” Global World War II Monuments, accessed July 24, 2024, https://worldwariimonuments.org/items/show/42.