Weaponization of Bosnian Monuments by Political Authorities and Ethnic Nationalism
Tatiana Gnuva has recently graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in History and Human Rights.
Memorials in Bosnia and Herzegovina often reflect the political vision of local authorities, including the nation-building projects of the Bosniaks, Serbs, or Croats. They are used to foster political engagement and patriotism, often by portraying a negative image of a rival ethnic group. Benedict Anderson’s conception of an imagined community indicates that the nation and national identity are political constructs requiring the utilization of certain elements, such as cultural heritage and history, to come into being. The repurposing of monuments in Bosnia and Herzegovina exemplifies this process. Memorials such as the Slana Banja Memorial Complex and the Mrakovica Monument on the Kozara Mountain have taken on an active role in the nation-building of both the Bosniaks and the Serbs.
The Slana Banja Complex can be used to track Bosnia’s past, first visualizing events from the Second World War, highlighting the anti-fascist partisan struggle, and reflecting the importance of socialist values in the nation’s history as a force capable of breaching ethnic divides. Other sections of the memorial complex immortalize the years and conflicts that led to political independence. The socialist memorial complex had fallen into disuse until 25th May 1995, a few months before the end of the Bosnian war when Serbian fire killed seventy-one Tulza civilians. Local authorities decided to bury all the victims in the Slana Banja complex, a controversial decision at the time as some religious authorities opposed burying Muslims and non-Muslims together. Mustafa Ceric, the highest representative of the Islamic Community in Bosnia, even spoke in condemnation of the inter-religious joint burial. In accordance with their neutrality and non-nationalist principles, the local Tulza political officials decided to move forward on this joint interment. The collective burial was a political choice meant to express unity and stand against the nationalist forces that would promote division. The memorial expressed the local authorities’ political vision of a united Bosnia where ethnic differences are not cause for division. They deliberately attempted not to include any of the usual markers that divide individuals in the region, such as religious markers like crosses. Instead, officials reasserted the ‘unity’ of the victims by consistently referencing it in the memorial inauguration speech and the later commemoration speeches. Even with this attempt at neutrality, Bosnian Serbs and some Bosnian Croats in Tulza and across the state do not identify themselves with the Tulza narrative, as they do not agree with this ‘perfect’ and ‘idealized’ image of a united independent Bosnia that ignores the inherent tensions and divisions that led to the current arrangement of the country.
The memorial expressed the local authorities’ political vision of a united Bosnia where ethnic differences are not cause for division. They deliberately attempted not to include any of the usual markers that divide individuals in the region, such as religious markers like crosses.
The memorial reflects a need: after gaining independence and in the wake of conflict, authorities must build a strong, stable nation capable of uniting a divided population. This is both the memorial’s initial purpose, when it was first created to foster nationalism and rally Yugoslavia behind socialist values, and its more recent secondary purpose, which has served Tulza political authorities by calming inter-ethnic divisions after the tragedy while equally articulating a new united vision of Bosnia. They must create ‘an imagined community’ using history and a specific perception of the past. For the state to effectively emerge and prosper, officials have to formulate a notion of national identity and sentiment and manufacture a feeling of togetherness. Slana Banja successfully connected various segments of history by encompassing different wars to instil continuity in Bosnian political and social struggles. The structure works towards projecting a national vision and collective sense of belonging in addition to creating a robust national identity. Slana Banja is both commemorative of the victims, serving as a lesson for the new generations, and a tool for forming national and local identity. The transformation of the area around the memorial into a park is designed to amplify the meaning associated with the complex and expand its public reach.
Slana Banja - its evolution and role in promoting a certain conception of Bosnia’s national project – represents a memorial’s ability to both mirror and reconstruct our relationship with the past. Commemorative restoration processes can become effective parts of nation-building efforts. Repurposing Slana Banja created a new building block for local and national identity by promoting inter-ethnic coexistence amidst the ongoing ethnic war and opposing the social and political future envisioned by this manifested ethnic nationalism. The memorial’s evolution over the years serves as both a physical depiction of the Bosnian search for national identity as well as a materialization of the current dominant historical narrative in Tulza and national aspirations of local political officials. This historical recollection skates over the inter-ethnic nature of the divisions that led to the war and the extremely violent acts that occurred between these groups because of ethnic nationalism, preferring to express a sense of belonging and togetherness meant to draw together all ethnic groups present in Bosnia. The monument thus evolved over the years, becoming a product of political and ideological trends shaped by the interests of political entities seeking to influence the nation’s state-building and construction of national identity. The monument’s dominant commemorative focus changed to fulfil post-independence needs and was weaponized by political interests. The sections most frequented are those that reflect and contribute to strengthening the current dominant national vision in Tulza.
The memorial’s evolution over the years serves as both a physical depiction of the Bosnian search for national identity as well as a materialization of the current dominant historical narrative in Tulza and national aspirations of local political officials.
Monuments are sources of truth but also political instruments that convey incomplete and selective narratives of previous events. They are reminders of the past and lessons for future generations. Yet, they can also be used as a loud facade to communicate one version of the past and overshadow more inclusive perceptions of national history. The unity of Bosnia is still a very fragile concept, and some groups are not willing to accept this Bosnian political project that requires them to give up on their own nationalist hopes which are embodied for some in the Republika Srpska. The area of Slana Banja that immortalises the grief, suffering, and horror associated with the Second World War is falling into disuse, whereas the partisan section of the memorial has been maintained and renovated. Slana Banja’s most visited parts and neglected sections reveal the privileged, highlighted, and even ‘useful’ parts of the past as well as those silenced and ignored as they do not contribute to advancing officials’ political vision. Parts of the complex that can be employed to foster national identity and create a sense of historical continuity that strengthens Bosnian nation-building have been maintained and given a recreational function to attract more individuals. National considerations and the memorial’s role in nation-building take on greater importance than simply remembering an unabridged version of the past that recognises negative aspects. The monument only materializes a singular perspective of the past and the future. It reflects one idea of Bosnia, an image of coexistence and unity rather than of division and ethnic nationalism. There remains a diversity of opinion concerning national visions of Bosnia’s political future.
Indeed, Slana Banja’s neutral narrative goes against the usual commemoration practices elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Memorials and commemorations across the region often reflect the nation-building attempts of Serbs and Bosniaks and are weaponized by ethnic nationalists. On the very same day, remembering the same events, cities across the territory organize commemorations that might alternatively position Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats as distinct groups being victims or perpetrators. The narratives expressed by memorials and other commemoration practices, are often very politicized and articulate an image of a divided Bosnia that highlights inter-ethnic tensions. Different cities commemorate the same events differently, motivated by different political visions. Bosnian Serbs aim to strengthen Republika Srpska, while those who are Bosniaks attempt to legitimize their state. Some political groups such as the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the ruling party in Republika Srpska, are particularly vocal about positioning the Serbian military as heroic in opposition to other ethnic groups, even going as far as glorifying genocide. In 2021, the SNSD posted a video referring to the Serbian general Ratko Mladic as ‘a legend’ after he was convicted of war crimes, including genocide, by the UN court in the Hague. The groups often attempt to justify their actions during the war, positioning themselves as heroes or victims and their adversaries as cruel perpetrators. Some have referred to these occurrences as a ‘war of memories’ or ‘memory competition.’ These different political and ethnic groups minimize events that may challenge their national projects. The Serbs, for instance, diminish the crimes committed by their forces during the war and attempt to divert attention to the crimes committed by those on the other side. They attempt to silence the crimes committed by Serbs in Srebrenica and emphasize the major crimes committed against Serbs in Jasenovac. Whereas the Slana Banja memorial purposefully does not include religious symbols or references, other memorials and commemorations often include religion in their representations of events. Bosniak narratives often incorporate religion into the meanings of the war, and some recollections of events have become ‘Islamocentric’. Similarly, Serbian memorials and commemorative practices often feature Orthodox symbols and include Orthodox religious authorities.
The Mrakovica monument on Kozara mountain has become one such politicized monument. It was originally built to commemorate the anti-fascist partisan struggle during the Second World War yet was repurposed for the political projects of a specific ethnic group. It was intended to represent the unity of all ethnic groups fighting as one against the German occupiers. The fact that Muslims, Serbs, and Croats were involved was highlighted in commemoration ceremonies and used to justify a political project in which all ethnic groups lived together in harmony. It was meant to emphasize the need for unity between all the different groups. In a speech, Tito even designated Kozara as the base of unity in Yugoslavia as it was a place where all ethnic groups were commemorated. After the 1992 war, however, the meaning of the monument changed. Kozara mountain was now located in the Serb-majority area of Bosnia Herzegovina, and those attempting to legitimize the Republika Srpska highlighted the fact that most of those commemorated by the memorial were Serbs. The Serbian nation-building project used Kozara. Authorities also included Christian religious markers such as a cross, whereas previously, the site had not been affiliated with any specific religion. Some even began to call Kozara ‘the mountain of sacriﬁce of the Serbian Christian people.’ Serbs were portrayed as victims, with the perpetrators being the Croats and the Muslims. The role of other ethnic groups in the anti-fascist struggle was downplayed or ignored. Even though the memorial had slightly changed physically, it was portrayed as a memorial to Serbs only by those supporting the Republika Srpska. It is no longer a place of unity but a place of ‘executions of the Serb population.’ By contrast, the Mrakovica memorial complex on Kozara is still perceived by Bosniaks as a place that reflects the possibility of harmony between the different ethnic groups.
[Mrakovica monument on Kozara mountain] is no longer a place of unity but a place of ‘executions of the Serb population.’
To conclude, political authorities have understood the power of memorials to shape collective memories. Slana Banja reflects a united vision of Bosnia that has managed to move past ethnic divisions, whereas the Mrakovica monument on the Kozara Mountain is used to amplify Serbian victimhood and legitimize the Republika Srpska. Memorials are essential in the restoration of war-torn areas, an opportunity to reflect and understand the past, yet they can also be used by authorities to strengthen a country’s national and political projects. It is essential that political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina foster political engagement and a sense of collective national identity through these monument transformations and other commemorative practices, as many in the region have little faith in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current political system. Polls indicate that only twenty-three per cent of the population believed that elections are conducted fairly. Nine out of ten participants in a survey stated their lack of faith in the political direction of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. Additionally, political candidates must register their ethnic identity (Serb, Bosniak, or Croat), meaning that encouraging ethnic nationalism through weaponizing commemorative practices and rewriting Bosnian history is a particularly useful strategy. Another practice that continues ethnic divisions and encourages ethnic nationalism is maintaining segregation by ethnicity in schools. This results in isolating individuals with different ethnicities from one another from childhood. The commemorative structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina have undoubtedly become politicized as the past is being used to constitute the building blocks for national identity.
 Benedict, R Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 2016).  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ioannis Armakolas, ‘Imagining Community in Bosnia: Constructing and Reconstructing the Slana Banja Memorial Complex in Tuzla,’ War and Cultural Heritage, 2015, 225–50, https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781107444911.010.  Ibid, 236.  Ibid, 236.  Ibid, 248.  Ibid, 226.  Ibid, 227.  Ibid, 240.  Ibid, 227.  Ibid, 227.  Nicolas Moll, “Fragmented Memories in a Fragmented Country: Memory Competition and Political Identity-Building in Today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Nationalities Papers 41, no. 6 (2013): 910–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/00905992.2013.768220, 910.  Ibid, 910.  Ibid, 910.  Lamija Grebo and Vladimir Kovacevic, “Facebook Removes Video Glorifying ‘legend’ Ratko Mladic,” Balkan Insight, June 21, 2021, https://balkaninsight.com/2021/06/17/facebook-removes-video-glorifying-legend-ratko-mladic/.  Nicolas Moll, ‘Fragmented Memories in a Fragmented Country: Memory Competition and Political Identity-Building in Today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina.’ Nationalities Papers 41, no. 6 (2013): 910–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/00905992.2013.768220, 922.  Ibid, 914.  Ibid, 915.  Dzenan Sahovic and Dino Zulumovic, ‘Changing Meaning of Second World War Monuments in Post-Dayton Bosnia Herzegovina: A Case Study of the Kozara Monument and Memorial Complex,’ War and Cultural Heritage, 2015, 208–24, https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781107444911.009.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Jessica Keegan, ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Extremely Complicated Electoral System Unpacked,’IRI, October 1, 2022, https://www.iri.org/news/bosnia-and-herzegovinas-extremely-complicated-electoral-system-unpacked/.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Rodolfo Toè, ‘Bosnia’s Segregated Schools Perpetuate Ethnic Divisions,’ Balkan Insight, May 22, 2018, https://balkaninsight.com/2016/07/15/bosnia-s-segregated-schools-perpetuate-ethnic-divisions-07-15-2016/.