Placing All Bets on Memorials: Memory Mania Goes Balkans

As Confederate war memorials are being removed or relocated across the United States, Ana Milosevic looks at “memory mania” in the Balkans — and the various meanings and purposes of monuments.


At a recent symposium on European remembrance, I asked three experts in dealing with the past about the road to reconciliation. Does it begin as a political process or should it be initiated by a collective need to come to terms with the past? They could not agree on an answer. Still, they were all firm in their conviction that memorial-making contributes to both reconciliation and various ways of coming to terms with the past.

Even before a monument is born in bronze or stone, it comes attached with a set of various wishes for its intended function. Some might believe a given monument should raise awareness about a collective tragedy or empower marginalized communities. For others, a monument should assist in confronting a difficult past, or create a narrative surrounding a shared history in order to pacify social tensions and contribute to reconciliation. The list of wishes goes on and on. Many different expectations are placed on a single piece of stone, concrete, or iron, and many monuments imbued with various wishes have risen across Europe in the last 20 or 30 years. Memory and memorialization have become the dominant way to speak about the past (let’s not be pretentious and say history). But there is more to this process of monument-making than meets the eye: memory is also part of a booming business, centered on memorial tourism, heritage making, and souvenir shopping. We all feed off of memory, both symbolically and literally.

One of the places where this global memory mania is most evident is a part of the world which Winston Churchill claimed “produces more history than it can consume”: the Balkans.

Souvenirs in Belgrade (Photo credit: author)
Souvenirs in Belgrade (Photo credit: author)

In the memory lands of the Balkans, we seem to remember everything and at the same time remember nothing. We erect monuments to rulers from past millennia that claim continuity with the contemporary state to fortify its fragile existence.

At the same time, we masterfully sidestep memorializing leaders such as Serbia’s former Prime Minister, reformer Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated less than two decades ago. Sometimes through our engagement in memorial-making, we even claim to “remember” things we have never experienced ourselves. A number of monuments have been erected in the Balkans to honor events, foreign dignitaries, and statesmen who have no ties whatsoever with the region. Finally, we use monuments to mock our own memory mania. Mostar’s monument to martial arts legend Bruce Lee was created as a symbol of neutral solidarity in the ethnically divided Bosnian city: a sort of cry-out in protest against the further appropriation of public space for the staging of war grievances as part of the wider politics of memory.

Our Disneyfied memory lands often willfully mystify their past(s) by combining the divine and profane, unmasked truths and white lies. Heroes are often villains, and villains are also heroes. Defeats are victories, and beginnings are ends. What exists today is a grey zone, in which almost everything is open to interpretation. So what does it mean to make a monument in the Balkans today?

Here, I want to share two thoughts:

  1. Making a monument in a public space to memorialize a tragic event (perceived as collective tragedy) is a political statement.
  2. Making a monument is a zero-sum game. Surplus in memorial activities produce outcomes contrary to their initially stated goals. When this becomes widely accepted practice, making a memorial has very limited impact on a society.
Photo credit: author
Photo credit: author

One market, so many nationalisms

Several years ago, a friend of mine called me to ask where he could find flags of all the countries of the former Yugoslavia. For as long as I could remember, flags were state symbols exclusively displayed on governmental buildings. Once Tito’s picture had been in every classroom and there had been a Yugoslav flag flown on schools, hospitals and public offices.  The first time I ever saw a flag adorning private property had been in 2009 in Kosovo, where each house displayed a new blue flag to celebrate the previous year’s declaration of independence. My friend had entrepreneurial skills and quickly understood that there was a market for flags, pins, hats, mugs and all other sorts of ethno-national accessoire.

These materials sell well not only in various diasporas, but also during commemorative or sporting events. They have even become an inseparable part of many memorials. During a recent trip to conduct field research on the Serbo-Croatian border (see #zg2bg), I could not help but notice that many of the candles lit at memorial sites bore the same symbols and trademarks.

I remembered the same friend from the beginning of this story when shopping for souvenirs in Skopje, Vukovar and Belgrade: historical figures from the recent and not-so-recent past kept making their way onto our fridge. Ancient kings, 1990s warlords, saints and presidents: there is a vast assortment of memorabilia on offer to satisfy anyone’s taste in an agreeable and readily identifiable past.  Yet the point I am trying to make does not necessarily refer exclusively to the existence of one vast economic market for all sorts of ethno-nationalist memorabilia in the Balkans. It is also the same political “market” in which different actors compete for their own narratives of the past and their own readings of history. In doing so, they feed off of symbolism which is given new life through memorialization.

As years of research into collective identities and behavior has taught us, exposure to symbols and observance of anniversaries alone have limited power in mobilizing a given population unless a compelling narrative holds them together. To use terminology borrowed from economics, I would argue that neither the supply nor the demand of ethno-national memory has waned significantly since the 1990s. Across the region, many of the political actors engaged in memory entrepreneurship are the same as those in the 1990s. But the “consumers” of this memory are the ones who have changed: from populations both inside and outside countries who identify themselves with their respective imaginary communities, to a wide of range of national and international actors.

This is most visible in the increased attention given the commemorative genre which is now treated as tremendously important. The most well-attended commemorations are those that seek to honor memories labeled as contested or marginalized by the previous regime, political system or a given group. What is usually commemorated are historical events from WWII and the Yugoslav wars. With each anniversary, the meanings and values associated with an event are negotiated and reconstructed though narratives to create a plot. More often than not, a commemorative event results in a hybrid reading of both wars: the first (WWII) is interpreted as a cause, and the other (the 1990s wars) as a consequence.

Using commemorations both as a venue and a tool, many memory entrepreneurs compete to re-enforce their own readings of the past. An indicator of this memory malaise is what I call the Balkan commemorative tour – a series of well-attended remembrance events which begin sometime in April and end in August. But the Balkan commemorative tour doesn’t just attract an ever increasing number of visitors each year. It also drives the behavior of high-ranking politicians who have “the duty” to once again derive moral and political lessons from the past. The presence, discourse and behavior of political elites during commemorative events are meticulously scrutinized. Alternatively, their absence becomes the subject of serious criticism. This means that commemoration attendance has become an integral part of the job of a president or prime minister. But it also transforms a commemorative event into a mediatic stage, placing the discourse and behavior of political actors at its core. Rather than honoring victims, memorialization becomes little more than a vehicle for the political navigation and negotiation of different expectations of a wide variety of actors, such as the EU, the local community, victims’ associations, civil society organizations, and war veterans. For these “consumers” of memory, annual commemorations are seen as a way to measure the political pulse of a nation and its political elites, in order to detect (changed) political attitudes towards the past. Does this mean that monuments no longer serve to honor the dead, but rather stand to placate the living?

Croatian Homeland War candle (Photo credit: author)

Right to memory, right to forgetting

Since the end of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, numerous monuments have been created across the region. These have been both official or informal (private) monuments. Some have been created with the support or on the initiative of the government, while others have been brought into being by grassroots groups, such as various communities of bereavement, survivors, victims’ associations, and families. But it’s not just the actors who have created and managed these memorials that differ; the purpose of the memorials is also different.

The first type of monument seeks to become a place of memory, the physical embodiments of memory and its “truths”, “narratives”, “causes” or “consequences”. The second type places at its core the process of mourning while seeking to communicate the (prematurely) severed bonds between the deceased and the living.

Various actors have voiced support for or funded the “right to memory”, which has become an “obligation to remember” as an undisputable step in dealing with the horrors of the wars, moving forward from them, and fostering reconciliation. This has contributed to the outbreak of memory fever that has seriously shaken the very fragile relations in the Balkans. What this imperative of memory overlooks is that a memorial is not just a piece of stone, or a tabula rasa on which to inscribe a list of wishes.

On the one hand, memorialization can become a societal band-aid, or quick-fix solution for a host of aches. This means it can also mask the existence of much deeper wounds. On the other hand, it can transform the deeply personal grieving process into a very public act of social activism through the expression of grievances and the quest for justice. In the end, the right to memory and the right to justice seek to symbolically compensate for that severed bond between the deceased and those left behind. A memorial’s aim is to fill the void left by loss, to seek acceptance and recognition of one’s own grief, one’s own tragedy. But frequently these demands are not raised by those who were directly affected by the loss or trauma, but from others who claim to “speak in their name.”

In the Balkans, official memorials are not just public reminders of human tragedies, broken dreams and “never agains.” They are symbolic offerings on the altar of the Homeland, even when they appear disconnected from political actors and discourses.  Slovenia’s recently unveiled memorial “to the all victims of all wars” is yet another example of how memorials are used to establish a narrative — in this case, an all-encompassing reading of the wars.

Recently, such attempts to generate a bird’s eye view on a difficult past have not exclusively been characteristic of the Balkan memory lands. Over the last decade, the European Parliament has been a champion in promoting an overarching approach to remembrance of the victims of totalitarian regimes. In 2018, the Parliament will enshrine this interpretation of European history in a monument in Brussels. The creation of such a memorial, with the aim of influencing collective attitudes towards the past on national and transnational levels, is without a doubt a political statement. What the consequences will be remain to be seen.

In the end, we must be aware of the fact that the right to memory means little if it doesn’t result in listening to the voices of those left behind. Meaningful confrontations with the past do not start or end with the mere politics of memory. The goal of politics should be to institutionally impede the reoccurrence of atrocities such as those committed at Srebrenica or Jasenovac by promoting peace, democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, which must also be reflected in educational policies and informed by objectivity in narrating history. As it stands now, political monopolies on the past and memorialization mean that local communities, victims, survivors, and their families are overshadowed by so-called “lessons” and “messages” from the past. It simply does not serve them, whether in dealing with their grief or their grievances. The grip politics has on the past, with all of its associated traumas, means that open wounds cannot heal — as long as we re-enact them annually though the politics of memory.


Croatia's PM Andrej Plenkovic gives a statement to the media following the Jasenovac commemoration, 2017. (Photo credit: author)
Croatia’s PM Andrej Plenkovic gives a statement to the media following the Jasenovac commemoration, 2017. (Photo credit: author)

Not all roads depart from memory

If left untreated, open wounds can begin to fester. Twenty years after the Yugoslav Wars, wounds inflicted on individuals and communities have not been healed by the right to memory. Those who are lost and those who are left behind have been publicly exposed, stripped of their emotional and empathic dimension. Through the political competition that reduces their experiences to mere numbers of those murdered in a macabre hierarchy of pain, the victims are de-humanized yet again: first through the sufferings they endured in life, and a second time posthumously. Politicized victims become victims once again, as marble stones upon which to project general expectations that deprive them of their individual experience.

History has become a repository of “useful” past(s) to identify with in the Balkans and beyond. It is consumed through memory to support a myriad of personal, national, or political objectives. Thus, memory seen both as commemoration and politics becomes utility: a tool to express moral and political attitudes towards the past, or to contest them. As such, the salient purpose of memorials and commemorations is the economy of memory: the political gain which is derived from their utility in reaching and mobilizing populations around an open wound, a myth, a desired narrative of the past. In essence, the destiny of these memorials is not to become totemic symbols of “never again,” but rather never say never again.

Memorials no longer work. We used them, we abused them: To make a point, to draw attention, to take initiative. Continuing on the same path means going in circles, denying us the possibility of any real change in the future. Marble stones do not speak, but if they did, I am sure they would want us to think about the future and not just about the past.


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Ana Milosevic

Ana Milosevic is a researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium. For several years she focused on peace building, reconciliation and post-conflict transformation of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Western Balkans. Ana's main research interests cover European integration, collective memories and identities with a special focus on dealing with the past. In addition, she is interested in understanding societal responses to traumatic events of our times, such are the terrorist attacks.