International Conference War, Revolution and Memory: Post-War Monuments in Post-Communist Europe
Zagreb, 17 – 18 February 2017
War, Revolution and Memory: Post-War Monuments in Post-Communist Europe attracted attendees and presenters across western, central and eastern Europe as well as the United States; among them, research fellows, students, faculty, editors and curators representing a wide variety of disciplinary viewpoints. Many researchers working on these topics work between disciplines ranging from; archeology to urbanism, heritage protection to engineering , architecture to cultural studies , memory studies to law, policy to history, to name a few. Over the course of the two-day conference, many monuments and memorial sites were discussed through the lens of; heritage protection and management, the effect of changing political climates on the memory of the past, impact shifting memory of the past has on memorial spaces, reinterpreting monuments in the post-communist/socialist context and understanding new modes of commemorative practice.
One of the main themes echoed over the weekend was the notion that policy alone cannot safeguard socialist heritage from the fallout of negative attitudes produced by nationalist narratives. These narratives foster contempt for the past which leads to neglect, vandalism, erasure and harmful re-interpretation of history. While many post-war monuments are considered protected heritage in their respective countries, many are threatened by a lack of support from governing entities at the local, regional and national level. Under the best of these circumstances, the site is minimally maintained, does not appear on tourism maps or in guide books and has an outdated exhibit that is difficult to access. Some monuments are left in a state of disrepair due to lack of funds or municipal interest necessary to upkeep. In the worst cases, iconoclasm threatens the survival of these sites. Neither protected from human destruction, nor natural forces, the sites continue to degrade.
Of particular note was the discussion which followed a reshuffled presentation on the inability of the state to offer protections from politically motivated vandals for the Partisan Necropolis in Mostar. This presentation was moved to a segment focused on holocaust heritage and memory surrounding sites in Poland and the Ukraine. Placing these disparate heritage sites in dialogue with one another served to provide contrast during the lively discussion regarding heritage, authenticity and preservation of memorial sites. Szmygin, who serves as the president of ICOMOS Poland, took a somewhat radical stance in the discussion, stating that the de-politicization of heritage is necessary to guarantee its survival for future generations. Given his disciplinary training, recent political shifts in Poland, as well as the galvanizing narrative woven by the collective traumas of the Second World War, this standpoint is reified. However, with the necropolis in Mostar as exemplar, protection is not limited to mitigating degradation from the passage of time, it must also protect against extreme forms of iconoclasm aimed to disrupt commemoration at the site. In this instance and other instances where heritage is contested and viewed as belonging to an opposing ideological group by some, it is impossible to separate politics from heritage protection. It was further explained that in protecting heritage without political context, the conceptual apparatus is lost. Sites are rendered illegible, stripped of their agency when read through the lens of current nationalist ideology without understanding the socialist contexts in which they were created. This raises an important question — what is the aim of heritage preservation? If authenticity matters, wouldn’t the preservation of socio-political context around which these sites and monuments were constructed be rendered the most authentic act? If sites are depoliticized, what is the point of protecting them?
It comes as no surprise that physical removal of a monument from a site produces cultural amnesia, and with it an erasure of the significance of the site of remembrance over time. Far more destructive and long lasting is the reprogramming of collective memory. Some presentations looked at what happens when collective memory is hijacked and supplanted with a new decontextualized reinterpretation of the past. Circumstances such as shifting political attitudes toward socialist heritage and the reinterpretation of history, have produced conditions which threaten longevity of memorial sites. In the post-communist context, monuments erected to commemorate the end of WWII in Sophia have come to signify a difficult Soviet past, striping the city and its inhabitants of a place to commemorate the war. Similarly at risk is the cultural memory of WWII in Slovenia, which has undergone significant revision in the last 25 years, through the erection of “Home Guard” plaques. These plaques alchemize Slovene Nazi collaborators into civil war heroes, in turn negating the memory of the Slovene Partisans who fought against fascism. In a reaction to the lack of funding to protect partisan heritage from the war, a local anti-fascist group in Croatia restored a partisan hospital using private funds and volunteer labor to renovate and rebuild the building as an independent grassroots project.
Also discussed was the extreme attempt by the Macedonian government to shape the cultural memory of its people by erecting towering neoclassical monuments and wrapping the existing socialist context in matched false facades. This act of revisionist cultural erasure of Skopje’s socialist past has unintentionally produced a kitschy neoclassical construct reminiscent of a theme park. The edits to Skopje’s Macedonia Square, more cheap knockoff than passable fake, have failed in their attempt to falsify authenticity. In a similar attempt at wiping public memory clean, communist era monuments from Budapest were ousted from their original context and placed at the edge of the city in a new “designed” configuration. At Memento Park, communist kitsch is purposefully employed in an attempt to contextualize the monuments for an outside audience composed of foreign tourists and young people, too young to remember communism.
Looking back, the strength of this conference was the creation of a forum for researchers from disparate, yet related disciplines to come together for transdisciplinary dialogue and debate on communist heritage from the post-war period. Presenters sought to comprehend memorial sites in their post-socialist context; outlining policies which extend protection to these sites and the socio-economic factors which threaten sites of socialist heritage; such as lack of economic support, changes in commemorative practice, shifting public perception of the past and revisionist historiography. Experimentation with how presentations are grouped could prove beneficial; citing the example of the “misplaced” Mostar presentation, placing research topics with unrelated elements in dialogue will yield productive discussions and increase audience engagement. Overall, SF:ius succeeded in producing a space for vibrant, interdisciplinary discussion of a broad range of topics related to memory and monuments in the European post-communist context. The high volume of presenters in attendance at other sessions was telling, as this interdisciplinary approach is a welcome respite from the myopic disciplinary-specific focus of many conferences. Ultimately, the success of this conference lies in the provocations made and the fact that more questions were raised than answers provided. Analyzing this post-socialist context there is no way to ignore the widespread ideological shift of politics. As borders tighten, differences become emphasized and nationalist tendencies make their way into populist thinking; there doesn’t seem to be a better time to discuss and advocate for this heritage.
Erika Lindsay is founder of a media-infused research and design practice which embraces collaboration and curiosity through creating at many scales. Her recent work, documents the reappropriation of monuments in former Yugoslavia as part of her ongoing research into memorial elasticity.
She studied at the University of Michigan where she earned a master of architecture and master of science in critical conservation. Lindsay holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in digital cinema from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
An assistant professor of Architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy, she is currently teaching a design studio focused on architectural conservation and adaptive reuse of difficult heritage as an exchange professor at the Warsaw University of Technology.