10th European History Forum: Memorials in East and Southeast Europe Forgotten – alienated – reinvented

Conference report

Memorials are more than memories cast in basalt and concrete; as reference points, they are sources of veneration and contempt, at the mercy of political interests and deliberate acts of manipulation. And, time and time again, citizens weigh in with their creativity and exemplify how they themselves want to remember – through photos, crosses, or, at times, even a spray can.

Eine Stalin-Statue liegt mit dem Gesicht nach unten auf einer Wiese

There he stands, larger than life, bearing a sword, just as people recall him; warlike, gazing into the distance. The Bismarck Memorial, sited near the Port of Hamburg, stands 35 metres tall. The statue of Germany’s former Reich Chancellor is one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the world; erected between 1901-1906; but, for some time now, a dispute has raged as to what should be done with this decrepit memorial. Critics argue that, in light of his anti-democratic policies and colonial ambitions, Bismarck is today no longer an acceptable figure for the public space and that he needs to be removed entirely from the public eye; others want to preserve him but break his heroic pose.

Admittedly, Bismarck is not a unique case: across Europe, monuments are the focus of controversial debates as to what to do with relics of a by-gone era. Given the plethora of discourses, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung decided to make the complex handling of memorials the focus of its European History Forum, which – now in its 10th year since its inception – was recently held online due to the enduring pandemic.

Monuments are more than mere concrete or sandstone: they reveal how we, how societies, deal with history and how, at times, politics endeavours to interpret or even reinterpret and invent history – not least of all in order to create (new) political realities through remembrance culture.

The aim of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung’s European History Forum, which, this year, was attended by 200 historians, museum staff, researchers and journalists from 13 countries, was to promote independent, inclusive and cross-border research and remembrance culture; as Walter Kaufmann, Head of the East and Southeast Division at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung emphasised in his opening statement: What counts is listening with curiosity and perceiving nuances as a source of wealth. And, what also counts is calling into question the myths promulgated by those in power and gaining the respect of the victims of tyranny and despotism.

Irina Sherbakova, Board Member and Chair of the Scientific Research and Education Center Memorial and co-organiser of the History Forum, recalled how, ten years ago, the first call was made to engage in dialogue on commemorative culture. This became the impulse for today’s History Forum, she explained. According to Sherbakova, the response to this call at the time was to turn history increasingly into the “cudgel” of political interests – to the detriment of her own and other societies. These topics have continued to be of great relevance until the present day, she added. “Rights, freedoms and democracy are closely wedded to the war on memorials,” underscored Irina Sherbakova.

Memorials as mirror images

Memorials are mirrors of societies, emphasised Aleida Assmann, a cultural scholar and recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade; mirrors that enable a society to see itself. The debates surrounding memorials, such as the one to Bismarck, and their significance, were not least of all also related to demographic changes in German society, she added. She went on to say that memorials had been slumbering like Sleeping Beauty, unnoticed by the general public, only then to be subjected to critical analysis, including on the associated topic of colonialism.

Assmann pointed out that the critical examination of figures such as Bismarck was of great political relevance, not least of all as a means of developing social and discursive counter-models, in light of the fact that representatives, such as those of the far-right AfD, were endeavouring to establish a trivialisation and manipulative German narrative. Assmann advocated openly questioning topics such as Imperial Germany and also revisiting its discussion in schools. She argued that, by contrast, simply reconstructing memorials made little sense – and criticised that the reconstruction of the Prussian Palace in Berlin had plainly illustrated this point, as the prestigious construction project had strengthened a dynastic tradition, one which opposes the tradition of civil society, without demonstrating the critical facets of Prussianism. Ideally, some form of debate or examination of memorials and monuments should therefore materialise, Assmann believes, adding that this would meaningfully enrich historical culture.

Kurapaty and its crosses

Exactly how complex remembrance and the scrutinisation of statues can be, especially in East and Southeast Europe, became clear in the course of the numerous debates during the History Forum concerning the region’s monuments and memorial sites that emerged – or, at times did not emerge – in the context of the downfall of the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and Yugoslavia, on the other.

Holzkreuze auf beiden Seiten eines Waldweges
Wooden crosses in Kurapaty, Belarus

In Kurapaty, Belarus, for example, a new memorial site was recently erected in light of the state’s non-existent willingness to remember. Dozens of crosses were pitched in places where human remains had been found – a sign of remembrance to the victims of the Stalinist repressions – an act of protest against the state and its policy of obfuscation. Through the commitment and dedication of survivors and activists, a place of remembrance and denunciation, a Golgatha pathway, has materialised, explained Iryna Kashtalian from History Workshop in Minsk. Individuals and their fates often went unknown and archives in Belarus were not open to the public, she added. Government agencies had meanwhile also erected a memorial as a response to the crosses, though without the involvement of the general population. The more than 100 memorial crosses were removed, an example of how the state is seeking to control and monopolise commemorations.

The Croatian historian, Ivo Goldstein, using the example of the erstwhile fascist Jasenovac concentration camp, described how a manipulative remembrance culture leads to conflicts between disparate actors. Situated south-east of the country’s capital, Zagreb, the concentration camp saw 80,000 people murdered under the fascist Ustaša State, most of them Serbs, Jews and Roma, but also multi-origin resistance fighters. Today, recollection of what happened there is the subject of dispute among a very broad cross-section of political interests. Whilst Serbia estimates the number of victims to be higher – as many as 700,000 – the tendency in Croatia is to play down the significance of the camp. There, the talk is more of a labour camp; the role played by the fascist Independent State of Croatia (NDH) at the time is barely called into question by the public at large. Goldstein pointed out that, out of protest, the victim groups – comprising Jews, Roma and Serbs – do not participate in any of the official commemorations organised by the Croatian government. The situation was being more politicised than people imagined, Goldstein postulated at the History Forum. Historians like himself, and all those who call the official historical myths into question, also find themselves the focus of political attacks. The 2018 report of the Holocaust Remembrance Project (compiled in co-operation with Yale University) mentions Croatia as a country that has a profound issue with Holocaust revisionism. A current study by the University of Graz furthermore substantiates that Croatian pupils are scarcely aware of the role played by fascist Croatia during the Second World War.

 Destruction of anti-fascist memorials

Jasenovac Schienen






Today, an imposing flower-shaped stone sculpture of the renowned Yugoslavian architect, Bogdan Bogdanovic, a masterpiece of monumental art, stands on the site of the former Jasenovac concentration camp. The oversized flower sculpture is a reminder of the victims of fascism. Whilst the cenotaph impressively dominates the landscape. the ideological heritage of these edifices is frequently denied these days, given that the partisans, under the later Yugoslavian president, Josip Broz Tito, and their successes in combating fascism – along with their motto: Fraternity and Unity – stood in contrast to the ideologies of those who, on the territory of a disintegrated Yugoslavia, launched national states in the 1990s, underscored Olga Manojlovic-Pintar, a historian from the city of Belgrade. With far-reaching consequences: in one case in point, over 3,000 anti-fascist memorials have been destroyed in the last 30 years in Croatia alone; by rejecting communism, anti-fascism is being discarded at the same time.

One initiative seeking to preserve monuments from destruction and apathy in Southeast Europe is the Group of Architects (grupa arhitektura). This group plots memorials and orchestrates their protection and retention across borders. Jelica Jovanovic, an architect from Belgrade, observes that local communities especially are the ones that preserve the memory and thus the memorials in the region. Overall, little dialogue takes place between government agencies and the general population, however, she stated. As in the past, the former Yugoslavia continues to deploy “history as a weapon”, Jovanovic postulated.

Milovan Pisarri, from the Centre for Public History, explained that, in Serbia for example, a remembrance policy predominated through which only Serbia’s own victims count, while others are blocked out.

Reminders of war and rape

Time and time again, remembrance culture and the handling of monuments plays an important role in the context of national narratives. Kosovo, for example, has memorials such as the “Newborn”, which was created in 2008 from a collection of seven letters made of concrete and alludes to the formation of the young country and celebrates this event in the public view of the capital city, Pristina, with its changing colours and always new design elements.

Blick auf den Schriftzug "NEWBORN" in Pristina, Kosovo
"NEWBORN" in Pristina, Kosovo

These newly-created monuments stand in aesthetic contrast to those which reflect the past, such as memorials to the country’s former president, Ibrahim Rugova. And memorials also promote new reflections in other ways, such as the Heroinat Memorial, a typographic sculpture in the centre of Pristina. It was the first memorial devoted to women who had been raped between 1998 and 1999 during the Kosovo war, explained Kosovan sociologist, Jeta Rexha. The sculpture is also a rarity across the region – even though rape was systematically used as a weapon of war during the Balkan Wars, affecting tens of thousands of women.

Heroinat Memorial in Pristina
Heroinat Memorial in Pristina, Kosovo

Whilst male figures make up the vast majority of monuments and memorials in most countries in East and Southeast Europe – a reflection of the political and historical realities – monuments and memorials to women are conspicuously under-represented. One exception to this is the Statue of Mother Teresa, also in Kosovo, a homage to the nun who helped the poor in India. The surgical masks that were placed on the statue further added to the memorial’s mission statement by focusing attention on pressing environmental issues – a high-profile public protest directed, in particular, at the serious air pollution engulfing the country.

In this regard, memorials are increasingly also mutating into objects of aesthetic and substantive extensions and unexpected connotations – and proof that these memorial sites represent much more than a status quo carved in stone. Critical examinations conducted as part of remembrance culture thus give rise to dynamic content and the creation of new perspectives and messages.

Soviet soldiers – individual name plates

Namensschilder Treptower Park Ehrenmal
Name plates at the Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park (Berlin)

The exact same approach was adopted by Obelisk International e.V., which is underway in Berlin’s Treptower Park: the site of a Soviet memorial to the fallen, it is also a communal grave for unknown soldiers of the former Red Army who perished during the Second World War. With over 7,000 fallen soldiers, it is the largest grave of its kind outside the Soviet Union. Over the course of time, countless name plates honouring the fallen have been put on the nameless grave, leading to the “memorial site being transformed”, according to the historian, Mischa Gabowitsch, from the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Denkmal eines Mannes mit Schwert in der Hand und Kind auf dem Arm, auf einem kaputten Hakenkreuz stehend
Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park in Berlin

As he explained, the aim of the initiative is to honour each individual soldier and establish the names of the fallen Red Army soldiers as enduring elements of the memorial. In this regard, these actions constitute an impressive example of bottom-up remembrance – a hybrid network comprising historians, relatives and activists has emerged, explains Gabowitsch. These actors lastingly underscore the formative effect citizen participation can have on remembrance culture.

But precisely this form of participation is frequently lacking according to those attending the Forum. The plans behind the Berlin Obelisk International e.V., for example, are in clear contradiction to what the Russian Embassy envisages. And there are other areas where the differences in approach between government agencies and dedicated citizens collide when it comes to their interpretation of the past – it is not uncommon for creative or alternative forms of commemoration to be viewed as “vandalism” or “illegal”; at times, resulting in legal consequences.

Skopje 2014 – historical distortions and corruption

The extent to which remembrance culture is deliberately abused by political forces can be seen in the example of Skopje 2014. This architectural project of mega proportions, sited in the city centre of North Macedonia’s capital, was launched by the former nationalist government – an untransparent process without the involvement of the population at large in the estimation of Ivana Dragsic, an urban planning activist and expert. The erection of countless monuments in the centre of Skopje, she argues, is cementing the nationalist narrative, including the dissemination of false historical references. The aim was to promulgate the construct of a true “Macedoniadom“ in public spaces, but the Albanian minority that populates the country was deliberately left out of the picture.

Reiterdenkmal auf einem Platz in Skopje
Skopje 2014

Analyses show that the project, which resulted in Skopje’s city centre being grotesquely redesigned, has very strong ties to corruptive practices – in one of Europe’s poorest countries, papier-mâché memorials were erected at a cost in excess of 700 million euros; unknown artists with links to the ruling party at the time received horrendously exorbitant fees. The nationalist-populist alignment of this memorial tsunami is further reinforced by the questionable representation of female figures, which are unilaterally depicted in their maternal role, thus propagating unilaterally traditional gender stereotypes. Admittedly, the costly kitsch project did spark a crucial, critical debate in North Macedonia – with the active participation of civil society actors – on the then government’s missteps, which further underscores the significance of memorials for political discourse.

Revival of monumentalism

Remembrance cultures are multi-faceted, including in the post-Soviet states. In Moscow, the Dmitlag Stone is a reminder of Soviet repression; in 1994, it was erected on the initiative of Memorial. The organisation has been a co-host of the European History Forum for many years. The stone stands symbolically for all the Muscovites who perished in the Gulag; thousands of detainees were killed in the 1930s at the Dmitrov labour camp situated outside Moscow. The laying of the memorial stone came about through a bottom-up initiative. According to Irina Sherbakova of Memorial, whilst an open movement began focusing on the victims of Soviet terror as of the 1990s, a mythological image of the past has been further created since the turn of the millennium. The successes, victories and accomplishments of the USSR have experienced a revival and a return to monumentalism can be observed.

In one case in point, discussions are underway in the Russian capital to redesign the prominent Lubyanka Square. Felix Dzerzhinsky, who created the precursor organisation to today’s KGB, and concentration camps – may very well return to his once prominent place following his recent absence – the first chief of the Soviet secret police was pushed off his pedestal in 1991 and has been sitting in a sculpture depot ever since. Aside from Dzerzhinsky, Juri Andropoy and two czars are also on the short-list to grace the square which the KGB overlooks. By contrast, the proposal to erect a cenotaph in front of the headquarters of the KGB at Lubyanka Square to commemorate the victims of the repressions, who, especially during the Great Purge of the 1930s, were brought to the headquarters to die by firing squad, was met with little interest by the city’s leaders.

The perennial Stalin – now you see him, now you don’t; now he’s golden, now he’s pink

In 2010, in Georgia, during a cloak and dagger operation in the birthplace (Gori) of the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, a bronze statue was dismantled – the end of the Stalin cult had begun – admittedly, this type of clandestine eradication of the past did not sit too well with the population as a whole. The handling of the Stalin question remains a contentious matter across the country even today. When Stalin figures were, once again, erected in the country in 2012, they were not destroyed, but, by all accounts, defaced by activists – in protest against the perceived colonial heritage of the Soviet Union – and sprayed with pink paint.

Eine Stalin-Statue liegt auf einer Wiese (Blick auf den Kopf)
Toppled statue of Stalin

These actions, in essence, brought the leanings of anti-Soviet sentiment to the fore, said the historian, Elene Keklia, in a summary of her research findings on this subject. By contrast, actions involving the use of gold paint tend to be an expression of an iconographic cult feeling towards Stalin as a revered folk hero and Nazi conqueror. The two groups – the more elderly Stalin devotees (gold) and the critics (pink) – never engage with each other, Kekeli emphasised. Two deviating remembrance cultures exist side by side without ever communicating with one another.

Srebrenica genocide denial propaganda

Likewise, with regard to how the genocide committed on over 8,300 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia and Herzegovina in July 1985 should be remembered, two deviating interpretations find themselves at irreconcilable ends of the pole. Whilst victims’ associations gather on the memorial complex in Potocari-Srebrenica every year to remember the crimes, key policy-makers from the Bosnia region dominated by Serbs and in Serbia, at the very same time, deny the thousands of murders that took place, even though a number of key perpetrators and backers have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

Gedenktafel in Srebrenica
Memorial plaque in Srebrenica

Milica Pralica, a human rights activist and staff member at a Bosnian non-governmental organisation, emphasises that everyone critically examining the past is automatically labelled a traitor to the Serbian-dominated entity, the Republika Srpska – one widespread leitmotif is to cast all those as enemies who call for a critical reappraisal of their own history.

The denial machinery surrounding the Srebrenica genocide has, in recent times, taken on an international dimension following the bestowal of an award on Austrian author, Peter Handke: the Nobel Committee in Stockholm had awarded its Prize in Literature to the writer in 2019 despite his evident issues with historical facts surrounding the acts of violence committed during the Bosnian War. The statement that Handke, as an author, should be treated separately from his political leanings was, however, further taken ad absurdum during this time: Serbian politicians bestowed on Handke the same accolades that war criminals such as Radovan Karadzić and Ratko Mladić had previously received. The newly-created Handke Monument, which was inaugurated in Banja Luka at the beginning of May, thus stands for one thing in particular: the ignoring of historical facts and the blatant denial of the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims.

Balanced remembrance

Yet, conflicts surrounding commemorative culture do not necessarily have to materialise. Examples also exist of lines of remembrance where both sides receive mutual consideration, such as the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire international military cemetery in France.

internationale Gefallenenmahnmal Notre-Dame-de-Lorette in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire in Frankreich
"Ring of Remembrance" in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire in France

Inaugurated in 2014, the location is one of the world’s largest memorial sites, with close to 580,000 names listed in alphabetical order. Here, no differentiation is made between the nationalities, or between friend and foe. The concept represents a new approach to commemorative culture. “It is a revolutionary approach,” emphasises cultural scholar, Assmann; the dividing lines between the victorious and the defeated are removed, to leave the common suffering of all soldiers engaged in the First World War the centre of focus.

Assmann further emphasised the need to explain and to respect history when memorials equally serve as burial places. Where human remains lie, reverence is the primary consideration, the scholar underscored, adding that this was a trans-cultural and not a negotiable human universal.

Dealing with Red Army soldiers – from destruction to artistic confrontation

In regions influenced by the former Soviet Union, war memorials to soldiers of the former Red Army are the most widespread form of memorial, which frequently serve as burial places. Given the lack of a centralised office to care for these places of remembrance, various actors in the respective countries take on the task of mapping and cataloguing. Destructive acts, such as those perpetrated on the Glory Memorial in Kutaisi, Georgia, in 2009, tend to be rare occurrences; instead, more and more new structures are being erected, such as those in Minsk in 2014 or in the Israeli city of Netanya.

Where government efforts to remember fail to materialise or are viewed as being one-sided or inadequate, citizens repeatedly take up the cause; in Ukraine, for example, where a memorial to a Soviet soldier is equipped with a cross – in place of a red star. Or, in Kyrgyzstan, where the red stars are replaced by crescents on numerous memorials to Red Army soldiers. All told, a “various ways of dealing with” these war memorials can be observed, explained the historian, Mischa Gabowitsch, from the Einstein Forum in Potsdam during his speech.

And, time and time again, the individual memorial sites reveal the importance of active social participation – resulting in content becoming transformed. On occasion, this also leads to corrections in commemorative culture imposed from the top down. In this regard, citizen interaction, i.e. their treatment of existing monuments, should be understood, not least of all, as an act of democratic processes.

Denkmal für sowjetische Soldaten, dessen Soldatenfiguen als Comic-Helden angemalt wurden
Soviet War Memorial in Sofia, Bulgaria

In Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, for example, a relief showing a Soviet soldier has, for years, been painted over and thus takes on ever-new, broader interpretations. Alternative forms of critical commemorative culture such as these are breaking ground virtually all over East and Southeast Europe and demonstrate the significance of memorials in the post-Yugoslavian and post-Soviet era for ongoing discourse and dynamic confrontations. Merely tearing down monuments, blind destruction: those attending the History Forum agreed that this was not a suitable path for remembrance culture to take and equally would not do justice to local people looking for something in their surroundings with which they could identify.

Blurring and mocking the monumental

By painting a Soviet tank pink in his native capital in 1991, the Prague installation artist, David Černy, sparked a discussion on Moscow’s ongoing influence in the Czech Republic – he was briefly arrested for civil disobedience. The tank has since become an attraction, not just for tourists but also for historians and researchers. Černy’s colour of protest – pink – crops up time and time again in commemorative culture, especially when the intention is to mock authoritarian symbols and systems.

But, when it comes to remembering, it is not always about democratisation or liberalisation: the radical right, supremely globally connected, uses memorials, for example, to spread fascist and racist messages. In the case of Mostar, the divided city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the artistically created Partisan Memorial Cemetery, a symbol of anti-fascism, is regularly smeared with swastikas and Ustaša symbols; the Ustaša Movement loyally followed the National Socialists in Germany.

Conquering the digital space

Extremist forms of remembering can also be found on the internet; the radical right uses new, digital platforms to spread anti-democratic constructions across the globe. The mass shooting carried out by a young right-wing extremist in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1991, for example – resulting in the death of 50 people – was transmitted to the broader public over the internet, including the song the attacker was listening to while carrying out the act: a Chetnik song, a eulogy to the Bosnian Serb war criminal, Radovan Karadzić.

Worldwide, trends towards revisionism, nationalisation, but also towards creative, progressive interventions in commemorative culture can be observed. In the conclusions drawn up by one of the workshops at the History Forum, the lack of interest or expertise within government agencies allows space for social interactions, personal engagement and grass-roots initiatives – this niche offers broad-ranging scope for framing the environment as a means of also bringing corrective elements into the public sphere.

Based on the conclusion drawn by attendees at the 10th History Forum, the one thing missing almost everywhere in the context of remembrance culture is citizens’ dialogue and an inclusive approach. Looking forward, new pathways and forms of expression should be developed in order to also address Millennials. The attendees furthermore appealed for value-oriented viewpoints to be more strongly integrated into the work of remembrance. Other conclusions drawn by the Forum: new language, provocations, and meaningful networking among individual actors would be expedient as these would go some way to countering the dangerous myths that prevail in commemorative culture; conquering the digital space is also essential so as to prevent the extreme right from taking control of this space.


Online conference: 10th European History Forum - Rethinking monuments in Eastern and Southeastern Europe

10th European History Forum: Rethinking monuments in Eastern and Southeastern Europe - Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

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