The Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina was significantly damaged earlier this week. (photo by Marko Barišić; all courtesy the photographers)

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 as a multiethnic coalition whose legacy today is leading the most effective anti-fascist resistance campaign against Axis powers during World War II and founding the Yugoslavian nation.

Between the 1960s and ’80s, the cemetery was visited by city residents not only as a place of commemoration but also as a park and playground where students would drink, smoke, and chat; where couples would go on dates and even make love; and where people would take walks and jog. But in recent decades, it has fallen into disrepair, overtaken by illicit activity and a general aura of unsafety. 

On the evening of Tuesday, June 14, Marko Barišić, an anthropologist from Mostar, found the site more severely damaged than ever before. Hundreds of stone flowers that bore the names of anti-fascist fighters, their places of birth, and the places and years in which they were executed had been smashed into pieces, littered all over the grassy grounds. Saddened, he shared images of the desecrated site on social media, which soon went 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.

Hundreds of stone flowers were smashed to pieces. (photo by Marko Barišić)

Although the cemetery was declared a national monument in 2006 — one in a suite of Bogdanović’s “tetralogy of most important works — it continued to deteriorate from neglect and the doings of malicious actors. A few years ago, the entrance to the cemetery was graffitied with messages such as “Kill the Muslims” and “Long Live the Ustaše of Mostar” (the Ustaše was a right-wing Croatian fascist and nationalist political party active before and during World War II). Not long after, swastikas began appearing on stone plaques.

The protracted deterioration of the Partisan Memorial Cemetery over the past three decades — as well as its mutation into a site of bitter political contest in the present day — reflects the complicated ways in which the past is often weaponized in contemporary disputes.

“It’s virtually certain that the perpetrators of this destruction of the cemetery were Croats who live in the city, because in previous acts of vandalism against the cemetery, graffitis were glorifying the Nazi-era Croats and calling for the deaths of Bosnian Muslims,” Roko 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 an undertaking to do this. It’s not something that three drunk dudes can do with a hammer.”

The stone flowers bore the names of anti-fascist fighters who fought the Independent State of Croatia during World War II. (photo by Marko Barišić)

Hyperallergic could not independently verify who the perpetrators of the rampage were. Nevertheless, for years, many local residents and elected officials remained complacent about the gradual decay of the historically and architecturally significant landmark. When it was vandalized, efforts to clean or repair it were slow to materialize. Some may have even had a vested interest in its decrepitude: According to Rumora, members of some Croat political parties complained that the land the memorial sat on had been expropriated from the Catholic Church in the 1960s and should be returned.

“This was part of Yugoslav ideology: that people could unite against the enemy and work together — that different ethnicities and religions can coexist — and that this was normal, not fascism or nationalism,” Barišić told Hyperallergic.

Both Barišić and Aida Murtić, who together co-authored an article in the journal Paragrana in June 2019 on the Partisan Memorial, agree that its neglect and destruction are related to the state’s reigning attitude toward the past existence of the state of Yugoslavia and what it represented for the possibilities of multiculturalism and socialism. “The anti-Yugoslav hysteria helps the new elites legitimize themselves,” Murtić said.

Bogdan Bogdanović conceived of the Partisan Memorial Cemetery to serve as a “city of the dead” that existed in concert with the city of the living beneath it, a public space where commemoration and mourning could take place alongside conviviality and celebration. (photo by Wolfgang Thaler)

The Partisan Memorial Cemetery was an exemplar of both Bogdanović’s political commitments and architectural style. Vladimir Kulic, an architectural historian at Iowa State University who researches the architecture of former Yugoslavia, got to know and interview Bogdanović when he was writing his PhD dissertation in the 2000s.

“The cemetery really was a symbol of this unified, anti-fascist struggle that crossed ethnic boundaries,” Kulic told Hyperallergic. “The symbolism is precisely the reason why it’s being continuously damaged and destroyed, perhaps more than his other monuments. The cemetery really exposes a past that questions the aspirations of the political elite of the present.”

Meanwhile, it is a prime representation of his preference in monumental design for open-ended, undetermined 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 various disciplines of architectural landscape and architectural sculpture,” creating a “synthetic statement that speaks to the memory of World War II through deep and meaningful expression.”

Bogdanović was a committed surrealist who opposed the rationality of modern architecture that was standard in the socialist world. (photo by Wolfgang Thaler)

Kulic, Barišić, Murtić, and Rumora all agree that they perceive a level of outrage in response to the most recent desecration of the site that has been unparalleled in the past.

“Judging by the reaction, I think it’s possible that this is one step too far,” Rumora said. They were also heartened to see that others were beginning to recognize the singularity of Bogdanović’s work and Yugoslav memorials as a whole. Speaking to the Yugoslav past, Kulic said, “Memory of this unity is also something that has the ability to mobilize people — and perhaps that’s the hopeful part.”

The destruction, Kulic added, speaks to a global moment at which a revitalized right-wing is increasingly targeting monuments that express “cross-ethnic unity.”

“Both the monument itself and the aspirations of the monument, and the reasons for the destruction of the monument, are very relevant for us globally, but also for 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 overcomes death.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.