The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija at Petrova Gora, or Peter’s Mountain, in central Croatia, belongs to the most notorious derelict Yugoslav-era monuments. In addition to a range of emotions, the Petrova Gora monument generates more questions than answers. What happened in the surrounding woods? Why build this sculpturally and architecturally exceptional behemoth on this forested hilltop? How did one of the biggest and most impressive World War II monuments in the world end up in such a state of dilapidation, decay, and desolation? While tourism, mostly unorganized, to the site continues to grow and the Monument increasingly features in various pop culture productions, local activists lead small-scale efforts to keep the site alive. Is this enough? What else can and should be done here? And why does it all matter?
Fallen Partisan fighters, detained migrants, and post-apocalyptic youths also make an appearance.
Featuring the song “Sve ostaje nakon nas” by Žen.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “The World Has Moved On” by Rozkol]
DONALD NIEBYL: At the end of this grand staircase leading up you see this towering vastness of stainless steel, undulating and reflecting in the distance, and it just calls to you, it beckons you.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija at Petrova Gora or Peter’s Mountain, in central Croatia, belongs to the most notorious derelict Yugoslav-era monuments.
DONALD NIEBYL: You can’t help but get a feeling of sadness when you visit it, when you’re faced with it.
PETER KORCHNAK: In addition to a range of emotions, the place generates more questions than answers. What happened in the surrounding woods? Why build this sculpturally and architecturally exceptional behemoth on this forested hilltop? How did one of the biggest and most impressive World War II monuments in the world end up in such a state of dilapidation, decay, and desolation?
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: There is not enough money to renovate it and there is no plan what to do with it. And this is the official attitude of the heritage office authorities for the last 30 years.
PETER KORCHNAK: While tourism, mostly unorganized, to the site continues to grow and the Monument increasingly features in various pop culture productions, local activists lead small-scale efforts to keep the site alive.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: We are gathering over there and advocate a question of this monument protection.
PETER KORCHNAK: Is this enough? What else can and should be done here? And why does it all matter?
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, the past, present, and future of the Monument to the Uprising at Petrova Gora.
Fallen Partisan fighters, detained migrants, and post-apocalyptic youths also make an appearance.
But before we summit Petrova Gora, a reminder that this and every episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is made possible by…you.
Thank you to everyone who has joined Remembering Yugoslavia as a monthly supporter on Patreon or donated on the Remembering Yugoslavia website via PayPal.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “European Populism” by Nosens]
[BACKGROUND NOISE – INTERIOR OF CAR IN MOTION]
Migrant Crisis at the Petrova Gora Monument
DONALD NIEBYL: The path itself is a dramatic mountain road coming from the valley, up winding through the mountains…
PETER KORCHNAK: Donald Niebyl is the creator of Spomenik Database, an educational website that catalogues the most significant Yugoslav-era World War Two monuments (“spomenik” is of course the Serbo-Croatian word for monument). You may remember Niebyl, a friend of the show, from my interview with him in Episode 15, “Ace of Spomenik Database.” He and his website have done a lion’s share of globally popularizing these monuments.
I, too, used Spomenik Database to learn about the monument I’m heading to, as well as many others around former Yugoslavia. But on a bright January day last year I still fall for the Google Maps trap and end up on a logging road the website advises not to take. I speed through the ruts thankful it hasn’t rained in a while and listen to the bottom of my rented Škoda scrape against the dirt.
About a kilometer from the monument, I spot a police SUV parked at the side of the road. Three Croatian cops in blue field uniforms tower over a handful of figures in dark clothing and disheveled hair huddling on the dry-leaf-covered ground. It must have just happened: the trio have apprehended a group of migrants passing through the woods on their way to the hallowed West, no doubt aiming to overnight at the monument.
The rest of the way, I recall news reports to picture what’s going to happen next. One of the police vans I saw down on the main highway will pick up the apprehended men. The police will drive them to the Bosnian border, somewhere in the woods at a spot not unlike this one, beat them, and push them back over the imaginary line. These Afghanis or Syrians or Pakistanis will become some of more than 7,000 of their brethren Croatia will end up forcibly expelling in 2020. And they will attempt, on another day, at another place, to cross back into the fabled European Union.
And so, on the way to a dilapidated monument commemorating tragic events from the Second World War, I witness the tragedy of today.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: When you approach this in such a way, then you are faced with the continuity of the crisis, basically, from that period until now.
PETER KORCHNAK: Another friend of the show, Sanja Horvatinčić, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Art History in Zagreb where she focuses on the role of monuments in the production of history and heritage. An unwitting part of her research is collecting at monument sites Second World War-era objects along with those discarded by today’s migrants.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It’s very striking to witness, especially when you go there with the aim of visiting [a] site from the Second World War and then you encounter [the] suffering of the people at the moment. And this mountain that used to be a shelter for people who were themselves refugees and who, you know, were suffering the consequences of the war, many of them civilians, of course, and seeing that this is again for some people of refuge and a shelter, it’s quite striking.
It is, at the same time, also very disturbing, that today, we are witnessing the persecution of these people and not, as we would maybe expect, hospitality or offering them help. It is a matter of EU politics that decides that these people are supposed to be outside of Fortress Europe.
PETER KORCHNAK: The name of this region, Kordun, comes from the word cordon. When the area was part of Austria-Hungary, it served as a military buffer zone between the Empire and Ottoman Turkey. From the mid-16th to late 19th century, the Empire populated this borderland called the Military Frontier or Vojna Krajina with, among others, large numbers of Serbs fleeing from the Ottoman Empire, offering them land grants, lower taxes, and religious freedoms in exchange for border military duty.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: So this region has this long tradition of being some kind of a watchdog for European and Christian civilization. So in that way, it’s also interesting to go a bit deeper in those communities and to learn about how they experience this new wave of migrants and how they are coping with this somehow constant state of war and peace episodes.
Petrova Gora Monument: A Glorious Ruin
PETER KORCHNAK: In my native Slovakia, I am used to seeing castles or churches on hill tops. Here on Veliki Petrovac, at 507 meters or 1,663 feet, the second tallest peak in the Petrova Gora range, I am visiting a Yugoslav-era monument.
DONALD NIEBYL: All of a sudden, without any sort of notice or sort of overture, you’re just kind of dumped in this huge open area that’s been cleared, where there’s this parking lot and visitor center.
PETER KORCHNAK: With January sunset some two hours away, light has already begun to soften. Shadows lengthen at sheer angles.
[BACKGROUND NOISE – CAR STOPS, DOOR SLAMS]
The reception plaza and the visitor center are but a brick-and-concrete skeleton, stripped of anything of value. Ripped up benches.
Broken glass and chairs and tiles in former offices, shops, and restaurants in one of which a green-spray inscription implores FIRE WALK WITH ME.
Countless tags and carvings on bare walls—some express love for a girl named Maja, others announce support for the Ustaše, Antifa Stuttgart has left its signature, and on the way to the monument large white letters declare SMRT FAŠIZMU, or Death to Fascism.
Leading out of the courtyard, a granite-tiled ramp flanked by crumbling staircases slopes up to a grassy plateau where some 150 meters, or 500 feet, away the monument itself rises into view, towering over the beech forest. Halfway to the monument, I circle a flat granite disc covering an ossuary, which houses the remains of fighters who died in the area during World War Two.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Sve ostaje nakon nas” by Žen]
The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija is dedicated to the local civilians and Partisan fighters, mostly ethnic-Serb peasants, who died in combat against the Ustaše forces in the Petrova Gora range in 1941 and 1942. The Partisans helped the locals build a fortified stronghold here; part of the complex was a forest hospital, which was one of the biggest in Europe and never discovered by the enemy. Hundreds of locals and Partisans perished in the back-and-forth fighting before the Ustaše prevailed and the Partisans retreated. In the course of the entire war, some 27,000 inhabitants of the Kordun region, or 30 percent of the population, were killed, in combat, by execution, or in concentration camps, including Jasenovac.
The convoluted, violent history of this and similar multiethnic regions provides a backdrop for the monument’s siting.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: They were also the regions that had these very large monuments because in those places, you had big fights and atrocities, everything was much more intensified. So they have more monuments, bigger monuments, and more destruction over those monuments because the 90s somehow in the minds of some people continued the wars in the 40s.
DONALD NIEBYL: With the people that I have brought there and try to give an experience of understanding about not just [the] Petrova Gora site but many other of the sites as well, when they visit these sites, not only are they overtaken by the visuals, by the atmosphere, but many are completely unprepared to learn about the history of the site. Because a lot of people, especially Americans, maybe even Western Europeans, they come in drawn by the visuals, with often very little understanding about the actual history.
I remember particularly on the Atlas Obscura tour that I was part of people were certainly not prepared and they were certainly very shaken in many ways because this was like a very dark part of history that they themselves had no knowledge about. I can tell you that in America very few people know anything about the kind of the Yugoslav episode of World War Two.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: For people that are first time over there or they are not aware of the historical heritage of the monument and surroundings, I cannot even imagine, what are they thinking about?
PETER KORCHNAK: Aneta Vladimirov heads the department of culture at Srpsko Narodno Vijeće, the Serbian National Council, “an elected political, consulting and coordinating body which acts as a form of self-government and autonomous cultural institution of the Serbs in Croatia in matters regarding civil rights and cultural identity.”
ANETA VLADIMIROV: What this very profound aesthetics and an excellent way of commemorating, which was really very developed in Yugoslavia, what does it say now to somebody who is just passing or is coming for touristic reasons, I’m not sure. You know, when you are there, you have more questions than when you are in your classroom and learning about the Second World War.
PETER KORCHNAK: With all the questions swirling through my head, the Monument itself leaves me speechless. I’ve seen it in many photographs as I planned my journey but now that I’m here, I approach it with bated breath and cautious steps, and unexpected reverence.
DONALD NIEBYL: Photographs do little justice to being able to convey the atmosphere and monumentality and sheer vastness of the [Petrova Gora monument] complex. And I think that a lot of people when they visit it for the first time—and certainly every person that I’ve taken to visit it for the first time—has certainly been in awe and had no idea of what it was, they would be faced with, even despite seeing all the pictures online available for it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Designed by Vojin Bakić in 1974 after a contentious design competition and unveiled in 1981, the [Petrova Gora] monument comprises a 37 meter or 121 foot or 13 stories tall and 40 meter or 130 feet wide concrete structure, a building really. Its shell was enveloped in vertical stainless-steel panels arranged in five wavy layers staggered to and fro as they surge toward the pinkening sky.
DONALD NIEBYL: You see this towering vastness of stainless steel, undulating and reflecting in the distance, and it just calls to you, it beckons you. And I can’t think of anything else I’ve seen anywhere else in the world quite like it.
PETER KORCHNAK: The place has “a highly expressive quality,” writes Ješa Denegri, a Belgrade art historian and critic, in a review. “Like an underground cave created by forces of nature and passing through bare concrete walls in a spiral motion, the space reaches the uppermost platform.”
DONALD NIEBYL: It predates the sort of stainless steel undulating complex architecture that Frank Gehry became later famous for by 10 years. So Vojin Bakić, the creator of it, was well ahead of his time in creating something of this scope and size out of this material. And I can only imagine what it would have been like to see it in its original form. And today, we get a hint, still, obviously, of what’s left there, but I don’t think we’ll ever truly know.
What’s I think to me unique about it is that you have this space, an unquestionably significant and unequivocally unique architectural work by one of the greatest Croatian artists of the 20th century.
PETER KORCHNAK: “This structure is an inseparable organism of sculpture and architecture and landscape,” writes the art historian Denegri. “As such, it is difficult to find a suitable comparison in contemporary sculptural/architectural production, both here and abroad.” Denegri compares the monument to a mushroom, a tree, and a flower, but the fact that there is no single object to parallel its appearance testifies there really is nothing that compares to the monument.
Or what’s left of it anyway. Many, if not most, steel panels which covered the entire structure have been pilfered over the past quarter century, exposing their frames and the concrete skeleton inside. Wall insulation juts out of the frame. Through the holes in the walls I can see graffiti and debris.
DONALD NIEBYL: You can’t help but get a feeling of sadness when you visit it, when you’re faced with this, because unquestionably this structure, you know, symbolically it works on so many levels, not just commemorating the loss of the many people who died here during World War Two but also the architectural prowess that Yugoslavia was able to cultivate.
PETER KORCHNAK: As I slowly circle the [Petrova Gora monument] building, looking up its hulk and yes, taking tons of photos, I probe my own emotional state. Abandoned buildings always evoke a sense of melancholy for me, even nostalgia for the way they used to be when they were serving their purpose. Here I feel a strong pang of regret, at lives lost and forgotten, at time and treasure expended and discarded, at memory kept and neglected. And I examine my helplessness at the magnitude of it all that, I fear, no photos, or podcast stories for that matter, can ever assuage.
DONALD NIEBYL: It was among the last grand Yugoslav monument architectural projects, built as something to bring about a remembrance of those revolutionary values that many felt were being lost because this new generation of the 80s grew up after the revolution.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Sve ostaje nakon nas” by Žen]
PETER KORCHNAK: The building was originally intended in its 25,000 square meters, or 270,000 square feet, to house a conference center and cinema in the basement; a museum, an exhibition space, and a library above ground; and a lookout platform at the top. But the interior was never fully completed. 7,700 cubic meters, or 10,000 cubic yards, of concrete and a thousand tons of iron were used in the construction.
The entire complex, including the access road, infrastructure, visitor center, the monument structure, and what was completed of the interior cost about $16 million in today’s US dollars.
The monument was opened unfinished after Tito had died, one of the last grand monuments built in socialist Yugoslavia. As the 1980s, with its economic and political crises, unfolded there was a decreasing willingness to dedicate time and treasure to memory-making in support of an increasingly unpopular ideology and history. Whether I compare it to the regime’s last megalomaniac hurrah or the final ray of a setting sun, Petrova Gora [monument] reflected Yugoslavia’s history and post-history in Croatia like few other places.
At the turn of the 90s, as Croatian independence was becoming a reality, Croatian Serb nationalists held rallies here to point out parallels with World War Two history.
Petrova Gora Monument: An Identity Weapon
During the ensuing wars of Yugoslav dissolution, the site was used by the armed forces of the Republika Srpska Krajina statelet as a base. Among other things, they lobbed rockets on Karlovac, about 28 kilometers or 17 miles, and on Zagreb, 56 kilometers or 35 miles, away as the bomb flies.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: So, this is another, you know, fact that contributed to the animosity on the local level, because, you know, people from Karlovac knew very well that they were being attacked from Petra Gora. That’s not easy to forget.
PETER KORCHNAK: According to Horvatinčić, “it is easily noticeable that the intensity of war conflicts in the 1990s directly and, after the end of war, also indirectly conditioned the degree of the monuments’ destruction.”
ANETA VLADIMIROV: And it’s important to say that is, of course, a burden that is on the shoulder of the Serbian people in Croatia as such.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Serbian National Council’s culture department Vladimirov heads focuses on the issues of memory and remembrance. They conduct various commemorative artistic and activist events and campaigns, including here at Petrova Gora, that aim to present 20th century history and combat historical revisionism through the lens of the Serbian minority in Croatia.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: Every generation should take this burden in a way that is a question of responsibility and not a question of guilt. Unfortunately, in our society, we do have this guilt narrative and not responsibility.
PETER KORCHNAK: Here is one of the reasons for the monument’s current state.
Independent Croatia’s identity, the story that a nation tells itself about itself, underwent a major twofold transformation. First, Croatia is a modern Central European nation on the border of civilized Europe and the barbaric Balkans and the non-Christian world beyond.
Subsumed in this notion is an oppositional stance against Serbs, whose national myth, by the way, too considers them as Europe’s last bastion of Christianity (that’s a whole another story). Serbs who populated the area of Kordun and other Krajina regions hugging Bosnia’s border fought in the 1990s against the new Croatian state (and earlier in World War II against the Ustašist Independent State of Croatia). The incentive for Croatia to overlook, if not actively neglect the quote-unquote Serbian area, in memory politics, in economic development, emerges out of the picture.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: The author Vojin Bakić is very interesting. His brothers, four of his brothers were killed in concentration, Ustaša concentration camp Gospić-Jadovno-Pag, that was a camp before Jasenovac was established. And unfortunately Vojin Bakić was alive to see that burning of his— of the monuments that he imagined and built up with the Yugoslavian people, with the Croatian Republic, and people of Croatia. And his atelier was also burned down.
It’s not so important, but it’s okay to say that he was also of Serbian origin.
PETER KORCHNAK: Numerous monuments by Vojin Bakić around Croatia were demolished, destroyed, or severely damaged in the 90s wars and after, including Bjelovar, Čazma, Gudovac, and Kamenska. Many survived, including Dotrščina in Zagreb and Lukovdol near Karlovac to name just those I’ve visited.
In the 90s war, the site at Petrova Gora also hosted once again a field hospital, treating thousands of sick and wounded.
As I circle the structure, I tuck into the forest to relieve myself. Staring ahead I spot something odd on the dry-leaf-covered ground. What looks like a discarded boot turns out to be a prosthetic leg, knee to foot, lying partly buried in the forest floor debris.
The Croatian army took over the site in 1995 during the infamous Operation Storm, independent Croatia military’s campaign to retake Krajina in which hundreds of Serbs died and hundreds of thousands fled.
While the looting and destruction of the interior began at the end of the war as the Croats took possession, photos from 1995 still show the exterior of the monument intact. Over the ensuing quarter century, the monument was further vandalized and damaged by the local population and neglected by the authorities on all levels.
The other transformation Croatian identity underwent since the turn of the 90s and reason for the monument’s current state has to do with socialist Yugoslavia. From brotherhood and unity, Yugoslavia’s principal ideological pillar, Croatia swung toward the culmination of a thousand-year old dream of independence, with Yugoslavia labeled as a prison of nations; from Yugoslav togetherness with other peoples to national and cultural distinctiveness; from atheism to Catholicism; from being part of “a land of workers and peasants” to a middle-class, educated, urban nation; from red to black, to use the ideological color coding. An “aggressive landmark,” to use Horvatinčić’s expression, built by a communist government to pump its socialist tires in a rural, “backward” region had no place in the new country.
In Croatia from the early 90s on, three of its 6,000 monuments and memorials were systematically targeted and partially or fully destroyed. If monuments not only commemorate but also present an interpretation of history, when a new, nationalist version of the past replaced the previous, socialist one, old monuments in conflict with the new narrative had to go—or at least be left to their own devices.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It will be a very illusionary to think that this political framework and this ideological framework would accept these landmarks, these very important and big structures that were symbolic embodiments of the socialist state and the Communist Party, that they would be, you know, treated as some kind of neutral heritage. It’s quite obvious that they cannot become a part of what the system today represents.
It somehow also offers these sites a really revolutionary potential or more of a revolutionary than they were when they were built. Because today, they really stand in the opposition to the dominant memory politics. And they are somehow revealing that dominant memory politics cannot comply with antifascism.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: Monuments are important, they are indicators of the dedication to the topic. And the state that they are in is also an indicator of our today’s society.
When you have a society with nationalism as a key principle, then imagination is very suspended.
PETER KORCHNAK: To recap, from the 1990s on in Croatia, the monument was, particularly on the symbolic level, considered Serbian and communist and to a lesser degree rural—and thus unacceptable.
Horvatinčić does find silver, or should I say stainless steel, lining in all this.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: The good thing that is evolving around these symbolic sites recently, maybe even more than before, is that it really complicates these struggles over the past. Because it is also forcing us today, not only to side whether you’re antifascist or you’re fascist. It is also like making you think more deeply into how is antifascism part of contemporary society, in which ways can we even claim that term in the system that we have now.
Now that we also have these movements in the US for example, with the destruction of monuments or the attacks on the monuments that are embodiments of some negative colonial periods, basically saying that they are still present now, that they are not the thing of the past. So the struggles over these sites of memory are something that is very beneficial, fruitful for making people aware of the current struggles. So it really generates a fruitful discussion.
Tribes of Europa at Petrova Gora Monument
PETER KORCHNAK: Though I’m running out of daylight, I really wish I could enter the building and climb up to the top.
But the [Petrova Gora monument] building is locked today, security having been increased with a new heavy duty padlock following the filming of the Netflix show Tribes of Europa which had concluded a few weeks back.
As preparations for filming on a then-secret German project proceeded in the summer of 2019, the area was closed off and visitors turned away. Horvatinčić found herself and the foreign visitors she was guiding nearly expelled by security staff. “Is it legally possible for a registered cultural property to be closed to the public and leased to a private production company?” Horvatinčić asked in an interview for the Croatian paper Jutarnji list. She found the granting of the filming permit free of charge problematic as well and warned of further degradation of the monument and of heritage in general.
The representative of the production company said the Ministry of Culture had approved the production and the local municipality of Vojnić issued a permit for the filming. The municipality for its part claimed the goal of permitting film productions like these is to promote the area as a destination and to boost local employment. Up to 300 locals were said to have been hired as extras.
While Horvatinčić suspected that, in the pre-filming cleanup original materials and objects were removed along with trash, I find the opposite problem on my tour: leftovers from the filming in instructional signs taped to walls and, in the basement, remnants of a set prop.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: I don’t think that this TV series will do anything good either for the monument or for the local community. I think it will just maybe perpetuate this ruined image, because obviously the ruined state of that monument is what is making it attractive.
PETER KORCHNAK: Released in February 2021, the show takes place after a global catastrophe that splintered Europe into a bunch of warring tribes. The story follows three siblings in their quest to reunite after the discovery of a mysterious cube splits them up and scatters them across the microstated continent.
[SOUNDBITE – Excerpt from “Tribes of Europa” Trailer]
I suffered through the generic young-adult narrative which felt like something written by a salivating sci-fi fanboy bluffing in the big game: there’s a cute protagonist; there’s gladiator-style fighting; there’s real cool tech, cyberpunked and futuristic both; there’s BDSM and a tribe of lesbians…
There’s also monument-sized plot holes, stilted dialog, and weird-angled camera work. If the production company scored an overtime winner with their previous Netflix show Dark, they flubbed it with Tribes of Europa. Had parts of it not been filmed at the Petrova Gora monument and a few other locations around Croatia, I’d have gladly skipped it and saved myself a few good hours. Thankfully, the show is only six episodes long, which only underscores how thin the story really is.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the whole thing: the story is set in 2074.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It’s like 100 years after the monument was chosen on the competition and that it started to be built. And that is also the year when we had this new constitution, 1974 in Yugoslavia, that is kind of interpreted very often as the zero point for the dissolution of the state, somehow this symbolic beginning of the war among the Yugoslav tribes or the Yugoslav peoples…
PETER KORCHNAK: The Petrova Gora monument is used as a military base of one of the warring factions in the show, the good guys so to speak. There is no mention of its actual history or location—it’s a mere prop.
DONALD NIEBYL: I was hoping that the site would be presented in a way that you would understand what it was and maybe respected its history and its symbolic value. But in the show, it’s actually geographically decontextualized: it’s instead depicted at someplace in Germany, I think. No reference whatsoever is ever given to what it is, why it looks like the way it does, which I felt was kind of a missed opportunity.
But at the same time, I was speaking to my Sarajevo art historian colleague, Boris Trapara, who was telling me that he thought the depiction was great and that he appreciated that it was a site that was given space to be seen and to be visually consumed by people around the world in a way that it may not have had an opportunity to be seen otherwise.
PETER KORCHNAK: Aside from Horvatinčić, critiques of the production and the treatment of the [Petrova Gora] monument appeared in a number of articles in the Croatian media.
For example, Vojin Bakić’s granddaughter Vjera Bakić said the artist’s estate as the copyright holder for the monument’s design was obligated to be informed of the filming but had not been.
Jurica Pavičić wrote in Jutarnji list: “For us, Tribes of Europa is an allegory of our political and economic here and now. For global viewers, the series may be a reminder of a looming future. For us, it is a report on the present.”
In an article for Večernji list, Denis Derk concluded, “The filming of a pan-European apocalypse in the space of the sculptural-architectural creation of the great artist Bakić certainly has no tourist, but it certainly has civilizational connotations. Connotations we should be ashamed of.” Meaning, it’s a shame that Croatia and its historical heritage are being used as a site for catastrophic narratives.
This kind of use of a World War Two monument, in the immediate vicinity of buried remains of fallen fighters, brings up a lot of questions.
DONALD NIEBYL: Does this go beyond the pale in the sense of an offensive usage of a cultural monument? Is this exploitation? Is this revisionism? Is this inappropriate? Or is this a way to reinvigorate the site and promote it as an attraction that will help to preserve it?
ANETA VLADIMIROV: I mind this exploitation.
PETER KORCHNAK: Aneta Vladimirov from the Serbian National Council again.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: What troubles me is, you know, using something that you didn’t make it yourself, or it’s not connected to you [in] any emotional way, use it for your own purpose and at the end for making profit out of it.
And this question of profit is something that is actually bothering me with this perspective, international perspective towards Yugoslavian monumental heritage.
PETER KORCHNAK: As for the longer-term impact of the show, I’m with Denis Derk who wrote: “The [show] was sharply criticized by those who claim that the plot itself is full of recycled motives about the struggle for power and survival. It is therefore difficult to expect that foreign tourists will rush to the Banija and Kordun locations after watching Tribes of Europa the way they rushed to Dubrovnik and its surroundings where the mega-popular series Game of Thrones was filmed.”
Tribes of Europa is but the latest prominent instance of utilizing the monument at Petrova Gora for commercial purposes.
Pop Culture Invasion at Petrova Gora Monument
If I were indeed able to ascend the 13-story structure [of the Petrova Gora monument], I’d be able to see as far as Slovenia to the west, Zagreb to the northwest, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the east.
I’d also be sharing the platform with a growing number of antennas and other communications equipment, serving telecom, radio, television, police, and other masters. These have been put up without permits and generate no lease revenues. Horvatinčić believes that, “if funds had been raised from the antennas all these years, we could have been well on our way to having a restored monument soon.”
In 2019 the German beer company Beck’s made an infomercial featuring a crew of urban explorers perusing the site and having cans of the brew on the roof.
[SOUNDBITE – Excerpt from Beck’s Infomercial]
Bosnian rapper Priki filmed the video to his song “Yustalgija” at the monument. I featured the track in Episode 20 “Rock‘n’Retro.”
[SOUNDBITE – Excerpt from “Yustalgija” by Priki]
The monument now features not only in a number of artworks, but also commercial products like t-shirts, mugs, and other such merchandise, little of which activity, I assume, generates revenue for the site or the local community.
And, of course, since Jan Kempenaers’s photographs, Spomenik Database, and the MoMA exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia,” stoked worldwide fascination with Yugoslav-era monuments, Petrova Gora also features in countless snapshots on blogs, Instagram, and magazines.
DONALD NIEBYL: If you can say anything about the recent attention, it’s certainly given the monument more publicity in effect of making more people know about it and its plight and its degradation and its importance than has ever been known in the past.
As more people within Croatia and the wider former Yugoslav region rekindle this memory of this site, and as the international community, whether it be tourists, or people seeing it maybe in the media, or even on the Netflix TV show, develop this curiosity about it. It brings about a potential for it being better preserved, maybe even rehabilitated into the future, a possibility that I don’t think existed maybe 10 years ago.
PETER KORCHNAK: What gets forgotten in all this, according to Horvatinčić, is that this is not just a cool-looking building. It “has a symbolic and commemorative significance for a large number of people, especially for the local population who died en masse during World War II providing heroic resistance in the fight against fascism.”
That history has inspired a number of songs, including “Petrova mi gora mati” or “Petrova Gora, My Mother” or “Petrova Goro herojska naša” or “Our Heroic Petrova Gora.”
[SOUNDBITE – Songs cited]
In addition to coordinating the Serbian minority’s cultural activities, Aneta Vladimirov is also a singer. The song “Na Kordunu grob do groba” or “Grave upon Grave at Kordun”—
ANETA VLADIMIROV: —it’s about the fallen fighters, Partisan fighters. This is about one and about his mother and father who are mourning and missing him. So this is a kind of a dialogue between the parents and the son who got killed in fighting against fascists. And I will give my best, it is very awkward.
[A CAPELLA SINGING]
Na Kordunu grob do groba,
Traži majka sina svoga
Našla ga je, na grob klekla,
I ovako sinu rekla:
O moj sine, radost moja,
gdje počiva mladost tvoja?
Okay this is just a short version, shorter version [LAUGHTER].
Bottom-Up Initiatives at Petrova Gora
PETER KORCHNAK: Parallel to, even predating, the Petrova Gora monument’s global notoriety—
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: —have been many bottom up initiatives.
There was a kind of a new interest in Zagreb, mainly in the cultural circles in Zagreb in 2000s about the author of this monument, Vojin Bakić.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2007 and then again in 2014, an exhibition of Bakić’s works was held in Zagreb. In that city he authored the sculptures at the Dotrščina Memorial Park and the downtown Ribnjak Park.
Between 2004 and 2006 the Croatian artist David Maljković made a series of videos and video installations titled, Scenes for a New Heritage, which among other things, featured cars wrapped in tin foil driving around the monument sometime in the future.
Igor Grubić’s poetic-experimental documentary Spomenik featured the monument at Petrova Gora as well as eight others to show “the unexpected fragility of these monumental structures” and “question the purpose of monuments today.”
In 2012, Zagreb-based Galerija Nova issued—
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: —a public call for ideas how to renovate and what to do with Petrova Gora, what to do with this monument.
PETER KORCHNAK: The gallery then held an exhibition of the submissions. But—
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: —none of these proposals ever were realized.
There were some interventions in the building, a pop up exhibition with stencil markings, like graffiti, with like a timeline or a history of the construction of the [Petrova Gora monument] building. But this is, I think, everything that remained from that period.
But what was important was that like, some people were claiming that site again. And they were showing a lot of interest to think about its future.
There were several such initiatives. The most recent one is by the local community and I think that it has bigger potential because it’s a very locally-oriented group of people led by one woman who is not interested only in Second World War heritage, but also in like a local folk traditions and things like that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Tatjana Vlačić Vujičić helps coordinate a variety of events, like commemorations, restoration of small monuments, outings to sites of memory, and similar activities in the Kordun region.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: Local communities have very clear ideas [of] what they want, and they really have very close relationship to these places. And they really claim them as their own.
People in Zagreb, especially in this academic or cultural circles, often tend to, also, in a way exoticize these sites in these places, because they are in [a] village, you know, there’s something wow, amazing, and they have their ideas of what they should be and what they should serve. And they’re not very realistic very often.
These monuments that were at the time when they were built, many of them, you know, like in the 70s or in the 80s, they were not really perceived by the progressive left wing currents, at that time, as something progressive. They were perceived, as you know, like, the party trying to legitimize themselves, you know, putting a lot of money into these large complexes while people are not having good standard of living, you know, they’re kind of they were in the contradiction with the proclaimed ideas that they were supposed to celebrate.
But now they became much more symbols of left and progressive ideas, now that they are deteriorated and now that they are kind of rejected.
PETER KORCHNAK: It is indeed the locals and the Serbian National Council that work to keep the monument alive and perhaps even restore it. In close collaboration with the Alliance of Antifascist Fighters and Antifascists as well as the neighboring municipalities, the Serbian National Council has been co-organizing a commemoration of the May 14, 1942 event when Partisans broke through Ustaše lines and more broadly of the crimes of the wartime Ustaša regime against minorities.
Serbian members of the Croatian parliament, Serbia’s ambassador, and antifascists from the nearby Bosnian town of Velika Kladuša often join the commemoration, laying flowers, lighting candles, and making speeches.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: I cannot say that we have this understanding from the political elite that it is important to come there. They are maybe afraid of their right-oriented voters.
Event organizers also use the occasion to criticize Croatia’s government for inaction on monument destruction and preservation as well as for tolerating, if not supporting, historical revisionism. And they coordinate a volunteer work action to clean up the complex.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: We are gathering over there and advocate a question of this monument protection.
[The] Ministry of Culture is trying to do something. For example, they are giving a small amount of money for people checking of the monument and communicating with the police and with local authority and going over there [on a] regular basis. But it’s really just on a sanitary level.
PETER KORCHNAK: According to one report, between 2004 and 2008 the government spent the equivalent of $44,000 US dollars and in 2015 the Vojnić municipality $11,000 on the monument’s maintenance and cleanup.
At any rate, though the commemoration event is a calendar staple, bigger challenges remain.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: In everyday life, you know, it’s very hard to explain to the people that are living kind of on an existential, minimal or below the dignity of existential minimum why it’s so important to fight against revisionism, or why it’s so important to have different forms of culture and artistic events in our public spaces that are dealing with the past.
PETER KORCHNAK: Though Horvatinčić confirms that activities at the monument “have almost exclusively been produced by the cultural organizations of national minorities and by NGOs, including the former Partisan veterans’ organizations and (groups of) individual activists,”
other groups have organized events here as well. One such event was an open-air cinema movie night in the visitor center courtyard a few years back.
Another was the Perseid Meteor Shower star-gazing event held at this mountaintop site for many years beginning in 2006. In 2019 Petrova Gora was proclaimed an International Darky Sky Park, one of only 15 in Europe. But, last year another antenna was installed in the complex whose red light pollutes the view and so the event moved to the Lika region.
“Sve ostaje nakon nas” by Žen
PETER KORCHNAK: “We will not give up until our thoughts are clear / Everything remains after us” sings the Zagreb band Žen.
How to Restore the Monument at Petrova Gora
What remains of the monument is a starting point. “To restore the Petrova Gora memorial today does not mean to subsequently get involved in the political and ideological circumstances of the time of its creation,” says art historian Ješa Denegri. “It does not even mean relating to the messages originally communicated by the memorial. Rather, the restoration of the monument is the debt of the Croatian social and cultural environment to this great artist—Vojin Bakić—whose entire oeuvre is also their pride.”
But whether a renovation goes the political-ideological route or the artistic-architectural one, it seems like a distant prospect.
DONALD NIEBYL: I think the best that maybe can be hoped for is decreasing the amount of degradation that occurs or preserving it in a state where it is avoided from any more attacks or looting or destruction.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Monument is a cultural heritage protected zone. “For such a facility, there must be a management plan and coordination among relevant state bodies,” Horvatinčić has told Portal Novosti, adding, “The burden of that responsibility cannot be transferred only to the local government or to the municipality of Vojnić. The state must cooperate with the local governmental bodies and the official conservation department in [nearby] Karlovac. Any intervention of this type must be approved and issued by the department, if it is recommended at all.”
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: They confirm that nothing really changed regarding the memorial and that there is not enough money to renovate it and there is no plan what to do with it. And this is the official attitude of the heritage office and authorities for the last 30 years, I guess.
PETER KORCHNAK: By some estimates, a complete renovation of the monument would cost 150 million euros. It is unclear who would pay for it or who would coordinate it.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: You really have to have differentiated resources for developing this monument into something that can be a question of developing the local community and at the same time having something internationally important. You cannot do it with small measures, with small money and small time and with one office somewhere in Karlovac. You have to have this state dedication to this and of course, it’s almost impossible.
So this giant, this wounded giant is actually in the hands of small ones. And it’s almost a biblical picture.
PETER KORCHNAK: A major factor that impedes any progress toward restoration, as if there weren’t enough already, is the fact the area is split among three municipalities, Vojnić, Topusko, and Gvozd-Vrginmost, and two counties, Karlovac and Sisak-Moslavina.
DONALD NIEBYL: Nobody is a 100 percent sure about who it belongs to, and whose problem it is to restore it or deal with it or manage it.
PETER KORCHNAK: So state inaction is compounded by jurisdictional challenges on the local level.
Part of the memorial complex at Petrova Gora is a Partisan Hospital. Located about 8 kilometers, or 5 miles, from the Monument, it used to be an open-air museum in Yugoslav times. It is here that some attempts at restoration are under way.
Submitting the Partisan Hospital for UNESCO Heritage protection has been discussed off and on over the years, most recently in 2017.
In April Horvatinčić unveiled on the site a restored memorial to dr. Marija Šlezinger who worked here during the war.
And just a few days ago, an RTL portal report quoted the mayor of nearby Vojnić, Nebojša Andrić, member of the right-wing HDZ party no less, as saying he plans to initiate a major renovation of the Partisan Hospital Complex. His inspiration: a similar but much smaller hospital complex in Slovenia that sees some 250,000 paying visitors every year. Perhaps it is the economy stupid after all. Tellingly, the video report did not make it up to the monument.
Tourism at the Monument to the Uprising on Petrova Gora
So all signs point to tourism as a logical first step toward reviving the place.
DONALD NIEBYL: It’s a space that people want to see not just in the region there, but around the world. I mean, there is an overflow of people who are yearning to learn about it, to visit it.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the 1980s, up to 150,000 people visited the monument each year.
These days, estimates a local fire marshal, a hundred visitors a day on average come here.
The monument is included on one of the hiking routes featured in a 2007 guide to the Petrova Gora area. Interestingly, the description recycles the oft-cited factoid that the monument was devastated during the 1990s Homeland War when it was “occupied by rebellious Serbs” rather than after the war.
During my visit, a handful of people, all driving cars with Croatian license plates, come through—a young couple taking selfies with the monument, a family disappointed at the state of the place—but they all walk around in a hurry, snap a few photos, and rush down the road again. Still this was seven of us in the final hour of daylight on a January Saturday.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: I like to imagine the future where we will, again, go to these sites, to educate our children, and to have some fresh air and to also, you know, see the countryside and, you know, visit the people who live in the surroundings. This is something that I think was a good practice when they were thinking about these monuments; where to build them and how to build them was also a matter of, you know, bridging the gap between the cities and the village.
So yeah, this is something that would be nice if it could function, but I think that just at this moment this doesn’t work because first of all, people are leaving those regions because they have no means of living there. And the whole infrastructure is not something that would enable such a concept of consuming memorial spaces.
And whereas in the 1980s, some 400 kids attended the elementary school in Vojnić, in 2019 only 70 did.
So this area an hour’s drive from Zagreb is both depopulating and aging on top of being underdeveloped in the first place and suffering the consequences of two 20th century wars.
As with the usage of the monument by outsiders in recent years, the questions of tourism seem even more pertinent from the outside.
DONALD NIEBYL: What approach should be made in having tourism be taken into the Petrova Gora site. Is it something that should just be a free for all? Should anyone just come in willy nilly and explore it like the urban explorer sorts of folks? Should it be used as this site for exotic futuristic TV shows and music videos? Or should it be something that needs to be presented in a very regimented and official sort of context? What is good tourism versus bad tourism? What is good interface versus bad interface?
But at the same time, how do you respect the site without exploiting it financially, commercially, in a way that obviously would be almost hypocritical to the memory and heritage of the site?
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: On the one hand, it’s the same old story that we know with capitalist tourism story and heritage. Even if you have something under UNESCO protection, it doesn’t mean that it will benefit the local community. It can do worse for the local community—we know everything about the [sic] gentrification etcetera.
This logic that the visibility and the commercial potential would necessarily bring benefit to the local community is per se flawed. Even if we imagine this kind of crazy future scenario where hordes of people will come to visit this monument with loads of money.
What we know is that this monument is already, or has been already for decades, very visible. It’s like, quite a well known image, a well known structure, and it was featured in an exhibition in New York City, it’s everywhere among those lists of sites that you should visit or you must visit when you go to Eastern Europe, etc.
PETER KORCHNAK: The exhibition being “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980” at the Museum of Modern Art. Horvatinčić was an expert adviser for the 2018 exhibition which “introduced the exceptional work of socialist Yugoslavia’s leading architects to an international audience” to explore “large-scale urbanization, technology in everyday life, consumerism, monuments and memorialization, and the global reach of Yugoslav architecture.”
In an interview for the German outlet Tageszeitung Horvatinčić said the exhibition helped to preserve the modernist architectural heritage of Yugoslavia, but it had no influence on the culture of remembrance. She also said the Croatian Ministry of Culture had no idea what to do with the monument after the MoMA exhibition, continuing to treat it as a hot potato. And at the same time, the Ministry was conducting a study with the aim of reducing the number of protected monuments commemorating the Second World War.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: There is no direct link between the visibility of these sites and interests or needs of local communities, especially when you create such a dichotomy and such a fake image around something that people don’t even recognize as such. So many people are coming there, just to see this strange alien form, not really knowing what this thing is about and what it means for the local community, if it means if it means anything anymore.
PETER KORCHNAK: For years now, Horvatinčić has been bemoaning the “visible tendencies of the tourism-oriented management of Yugoslav monuments and memorial sites, especially those aimed at an international audience, [as] often based either on the “ruinophilic” appeal of those sites or on…the exoticisation of the ‘former East’.”
ANETA VLADIMIROV: We are losing this chance, not taking this chance to make something out of it. And that would be more than exploitation and this fascination of the dying architecture.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ultimately, however, there is a bigger issue at play.
ANETA VLADIMIROV: The question of the profit or just money making through travel, through touristic interest or that angle of treating this place, it cannot be done without this redefining the relationship towards [the] antifascist period, heritage, or artistic heritage, or this concrete utopia from Yugoslavia.
I’m not sure what is, if we analyze this situation, what is the future of this place?
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “The World Has Moved On” by Rozkol]
PETER KORCHNAK: I wonder that myself as I head out. On the access ramp, I turn around and walk backwards to watch the monument recede from view. I hate making predictions but I feel there’s little chance the monument will ever be restored to the original form or even completed or otherwise returned to its intended functions. Times they have a-changed and, as with Yugoslavia, there is no going back.
For a moment I imagine a giant transparent sarcophagus or lid placed over the structure to conserve it in the current state, to freeze it in the now so to speak. The monument could thus be redefined or updated as the Monument to the Uprising and to the Memory of the Uprising, its end state reflecting its evolving functions and the people’s and the country’s relationship to it.
As soon as I hit the road, the contemplation dissipates with the exhaust from the police car now parked at a side road with its lights off. Neither the monument’s creators or destroyers envisaged the place as a shelter to the people passing through on their way to their imagined paradise. But here we are.
Once I’m on the main highway, I keep glancing over at the monument peeking over the treetops on the Petrovac hill. The last rays of daylight reflect off of its surface and an image of a lighthouse comes to mind. The symbolism of an antifascist uprising as the revolution’s guiding light must have been hard to miss way back when. To this day local residents reminisce about seeing daily the sun’s reflection bouncing off the Monument’s surface, flickering into their yards, their lives.
And so that last glint, like the past’s conspiratorial wink to the future, becomes my own monument to Petrova Gora.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia.
[SOUNDBITE – “Chariots of Fire” 8-bit version]
PETER KORCHNAK: On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, a little Yugoslav computer that refused to die.
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos, videos, and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens, Rozkol, and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. The song “Sve ostaje nakon nas” by Žen played with permission and eternal gratitude. Buy their music! Special thanks to unrecords, Haris Rahmanović, and Menart.
I am Peter Korchňak.
In addition to all the linked sources:
- Denegri, Ješa. “The Sculptural and Architectural in Organic Unity.” Oris No. 77 (2012): 124-136
- Dragičević, Zana. “Spomenik na Petrovoj gori – Prilog istraživanju in revalorizaciji.” Anali Galerije Antuna Augustinčića (2012–2015). Vol. XXXII–XXXV, No. 32–33/34–35 (2015): 385–404
- Horvatinčić, Sanja. “The Peculiar Case of Spomeniks: Monumental Commemorative Sculpture in Former Yugoslavia Between Invisibility and Popularity.” II Lisbon Summer School of Culture / Peripheral Modernities / 9th – 14th July, 2012
- Horvatinčić, Sanja. “Between Memory Politics and New Models of Heritage Management: Rebuilding Yugoslav Memorial Sites ‘From Below’.” In: A Future for Our Recent Past: Model Projects of Modern Heritage Preservation in Europe. Icomos Hefte des Deutschen Nationalkomitees / Journals of the German National Committee Vol. LXXIII (2020):108-115
- Pavlaković, Vjeran. “Croatia’s Contested Memoryscape.” In: Darko Gavrilović, ed. One Hundred Years of Serb-Croat Relations (1918-2018): Dominant Narratives and the Cultures of Remembrance. Novi Sad, CHDR, 2018, pp 37-67
- Škrbić Alempijević, Nevena and Josip Zanki. “Croatia After 1989: Memories of Socialism in Post-Socialist Times.” In: Tomas Kavaliauskas, ed. Europe Thirty Years After 1989: Transformations of Values, Memory, and Identity. Leiden: Brill, 2021, pp. 91-104
- Upton, Dell. What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, p. 14
Na Kordunu grob do groba,
Traži majka sina svoga 2x
Našla ga je, na grob klekla,
I ovako sinu rekla: 2x
O moj sine, radost moja,
gdje počiva mladost tvoja?
Otac plače, majka cvili,
Otvori se grobe mili
Grobak se je otvorio,
Sin je majci govorio:
Ne plač mila majko moja,
Teška mi je suza tvoja
Teža mi je suza tvoja
Nego crna zemlja moja.
Ajde majko domu svome,
Ne dolazi grobu mome
Ajde majko kaži rodu
Da sam pao za slobodu
Idi majko kaži rodu
Da se bori za slobodu.