The Partisan Memorial is an often overlooked space in Mostar, but it carries a great deal meaning with people here. Unfortunately, the politics behind the monument has turned it into an ideological battleground.
The artist, architect, and essayist behind the Partisan Memorial, Bogdan Bogdanović, was born in Belgrade in 1922 and is the creator of 20 monuments across former Yugoslavia. Bogdanović reflects on his early artistic career, “I thought monuments were absurd, which was not a very good attitude to start with.” Despite his skepticism, he became well-known throughout Yugoslavia and beyond for his unique visual style of remembrance. He began his career in 1952 when he won a design contest for the Memorial to Jewish Victims of Fascism in Belgrade.
His use of abstract and almost formidable form with light-handed application of symbols created an entirely new genre of monument, not sentimental, not obvious, but still powerful. However, his metaphysical approach to architecture soon became synonymous with Socialist Yugoslavia, and Tito’s leadership.
This was not always well received, and Bogdanović was known to be an outspoken opponent of fascism and nationalism. His liberal and nonconformist approach to politics and art was often criticized. For example, his alternative experimental architecture school located outside Belgrade was raided and wrecked by political hooligans in 1990. In 1987, when Bogdanović penned a 60 page open letter to Slobodan Milosević that was highly critical of the future president and rising nationalism in Serbia, he was branded a traitor. Under threats from radical individuals and groups, he and his wife left Serbia for Vienna in 1993.
Mostar, known as the “Red City” has a long history of Anti-fascism, resistance, and disaffection. The diverse city was made up of Croats, Muslims, Serbians, and Jews who fought in solidarity together against the occupation of Nazis, Ustaše, and Mussolini’s forces during WWII. One in every 3 citizens, known as Partisans, in Mostar fought in the liberation struggle that forced out the invaders on February 14, 1945, which became a holiday in Yugoslavian Mostar.
Bogdan Bogdanovič was asked to commemorate this struggle in the 1960s to honor the fallen Partisans who had died, many of whom are buried at the site. It was his largest undertaking yet. His design incorporated modern city planning to intentionally flow smoothly between the categories of monument, gathering place, and an open city space. The massive piece of landscape art was inspired by Middle Eastern necropoleis and models of Etruscan settlements. Symmetry is a consistent theme throughout the site, with various balanced paths, walls, gateways, and celestial designs. Bogdanović explores the dualistic concept of life and death, describing the monument as the mirror of Mostar, “The city of the dead above the city of the living.” Although it is a cemetary, Bodganović intended it to be a gathering place that retained an air of remembrance.
In the process of building the Partisan Memorial, Bogdanović included the residents of Mostar, and many people volunteered their time to help build the monument, even school children traveled to the site on field trips to observe the construction and help out. Residents donated some of the stones to create the monument, which in the end, had more than 12,000 stone details and 1193 stone plates. There are 630 tombstones remembering fallen Partisans and 560 are actually buried there.
The Partisan Memorial was officially opened in 1965, on the twentieth anniversary of the Liberation of Mostar in the presence Tito himself.
In 1992, on February 14th, the monument was mined and it continued to be severely damaged throughout the war. In 2003, if was given official monument status and there were efforts in 2005 to restore the monument, but the operation fell short of a proper restoration. Although the reparation could not be considered complete, it was formally reopened again. By 2016, the memorial had fallen even further back into disrepair, and neo-nazi and neo-ustaše themed vandalism continued, especially around the February anniversary.
This year, on the 10th and 11th of February, there was another round of vandalism with fascist symbols and threatening messages written on the walls of the memorial. A group of hooligans verbally attacked a procession of the Association of Anti-fascists and shouted threatening messages, but the quick intervention of the police force prevented any major incidents. These events are further manipulated by local politics and media that use ethno-political “point-scoring” to place blame on specific groups and divide Mostarians.
In this political climate, could a class of people separated from politics and nationalism come together to save the Partisan Memorial?
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