Bogdan Bogdanovic speaks out: War in Yugoslavia, a house attacked by demons

The architect, whose entire career has been devoted to the tragic commemoration of war victims, is one of the very few Serbians brave enough to speak out against the current Serbian aggression. Here he describes the war fever that has gripped his country and lays the blame on the intellectuals


We are all used to the exploitation of art by tourism, but touristic exploitation of the miseries of war and the destruction of art is a grotesque perversion which brings us up short. That is what the Belgrade Tourist Board was offering in April: a day trip to the pretty historic Croatian town of Vukovar on the banks of the Danube, which Serbian-led troops pounded to bits during an eighty-six day siege last autumn (The Art Newspaper No. 11, October 1991, p. 1 and No. 12, November 1991, p. 10). The flyer for the day trip announces that, after leaving Belgrade by coach at 8 a.m., you arrive at Vukovar at 10, “the town whose monuments meant cultural and spiritual treasure of that part of the country. Demolished baroque churches (orthodox and catholic), the count Elc castle, the old town nucleus”. For safety reasons it is forbidden to leave the bus, and “considering special conditions” the lunch menu includes one aperitif, soldier’s beans and bread, a litre of Riesling and a doughnut. Cost about £7 ($12.40).

The tour also takes the visitor to the Dudik memorial park, where there is an extraordinary mausoleum like a sunken city by the Yugoslavia’s best known architect Bogdan Bogdanovic. The flyer describes the park emotively as “the execution place of Serbian people in World War II”, but such sectarianism is completely alien to Bogdanovic’s way of thinking. He has been one of the very few Serbs to have the courage to speak out against the kind of fanatical Serbian nationalism which has led to the present war. He was born in Belgrade in 1922 and he knows that war is not sweet because he fought with the partisans during World War II. In fact, almost his entire oeuvre consists of war memorials in every part of former Yugoslavia. He has been Professor of Architecture at the University of Belgrade, and was also for a brief period in the early 1980s the Mayor of the city. He was a member of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia, but was expelled from the Party when President Milosevic came to power.

He is at present living in Belgrade, threatened and insulted for the public stand he is taking, his phone tapped. Graffiti around his house sneer “Ustasha”, the name of the puppet government which during the last war collaborated with the Nazis.

He has allowed The Art Newspaper to republish what he said in the Dalmatian (therefore Croatian) periodical Nedjeljna Dalmacija last 5 September, because, he says, everything he said then remains true today.

“Most of my monuments are to the victims of Fascism, to the Partisan movements. They are monuments dedicated to suffering; they are never triumphalist and have no victorious character. All are tied to the enigma of death, and to the complexity of our feelings when faced with historic events.

I have subsequently discovered in them something which is not easy to admit even to myself: it is as if they anticipated the present. They commemorated that earlier tragedy with a premonition that it might happen again. This is true especially of my last two monuments, the ones at Vukovar and Cacak.

Cacak caused me lots of problems with the people from the war veterans’ association, who couldn’t understand it. It was an allegory, a house attacked by demons. It was completed in the 1980s and I was already daring to suggest that Fascism could return. When you look at that mausoleum, with its granite monsters biting into the construction, then you feel you have been transported into the present day situation.

It is no secret that Slobodan Milosevic [the Serbian President] is psychologically a self-destructive, suicidal type, but the trouble is that he is transferring his suicidal madness onto the nation as a whole. He does not want to fade away from the scene. If he is to go, then the whole of the Serb nation must disappear as well, one way or another.

The occult power of dictators doesn’t lie in the fact that they’re clever—they’re frequently quite limited, and I think Milosevic is a very limited man—but in the fact that they can draw a great number of people and even whole nations into the circle of their mad ideas. Hitler also had the brains of a gnat, yet he managed to bring the great and wise German nation to the point of madness. I think there is a sense in which the Serb nation is under the spell of Milosevic’s madness. In Belgrade cafés, streets and houses, you can hear constant war cries—invitations to killing and to hatred. All this is the result of an occult induction, as I think they call it in psychiatry.

The young, intelligent people feel a great sense of betrayal, even those who at first believed in all this. Unfortunately, I think they are few in number; they are mainly young intellectuals who might have had a career but now cannot. They have this potential within them, this power to do something, but are horribly suppressed, contained, frustrated ... I no longer count on the Serbian opposition. Such as it is, it provides Milosevic with a seeming legitimacy.”

Despite the contempt with which Bogdanovic views Milosevic, he does not consider him as most responsible for the situation in which Serbia finds itself. Already in 1981 Bogdanovic was criticising the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. He had just missed being elected a member of this Academy by a single vote. Apparently many members are voted in only the second or third time round and he too could have waited quietly to be elected next time. Lule Isakovic, a prominent Serbian writer and leading member of the Academy, said to him, “If only this or that person had come, you’d have gone through. But next time it will be OK.” Bogdanovic remembers he shouted at him, causing much consternation in the hall, “There will be no next time, you fuckers! I have a different kind of Serbianness, which will never be the same as yours, and this building will never see me again!”

“Yes, I already sensed the problem. I could not bear their way of understanding the nation and its values, precisely for the sake of the dignity of the nation to which I belong. How things went with them from then on we know from what has come out in public. The result was that miserable document—and philosophy—known as the Memorandum. [Drafted in 1986, this was the first systematic revision of the terms of the post-war international settlement in Yugoslavia and it opened the way to the Great Serbian expansion which began in 1987.] That Memorandum is a mishmash of out-moded economic ideas and warmed-up Great Serb and Serbian Cultural Club ideas from before the war.

Milosevic carries with him a great charge of evil, but he has a limited mind; but precisely because he has a limited mind, he was very impressed by that Academy document. He felt he was implementing something conceived by clever brains. In the last instance, so far as the creation of this terrible situation in which we find ourselves is concerned, Milosevic is only an executive. The ideological culprits are those others.

One day when the terrible moment comes—and it is bound to come—when we shall be talking of the Serb national catastrophe, when we shall be questioning ourselves about who was responsible for it and how it came about that we are the last nation in Europe to be surrounded by such enemies and such hatred, then many of the great brains of the Academy will find themselves in the dock—if they live to see the day.

You see, Serbia has lost this war. When I say ‘this war’, I am not thinking only of the current one, but of all our modern wars and our entire modern history from when we became free of the Turks in 1819. One hundred and seventy years have passed since the proclamation of the Hatt-i-Sherif, and in the course of all that time a State like Serbia—in Europe—should have made a far greater civilisational, cultural and economic leap. Today we should be at least where Hungary is, or where the Czechs are. A feeling of failure lies at the very heart of Serb nationalism, and with that come all the various justifications for this failure: all the various Cominterns, masonries and their unbelievable plots. There is indeed a sense of having missed out.

We see the map of destruction broaden. The irresponsible, indeed disgusting, Belgrade press presents this as some kind of victory. They write about advances, liberation, etc and the ordinary, already deeply indoctrinated, people acquire the feeling that we Serbs are winning the war. This is a terrible misconception. First, from a politico-military point of view they cannot possibly win, since nobody sensible would allow anything to be changed by force at the end of the twentieth century. Sooner or later those who are there will be forced to withdraw shamefully. Second, this war has been lost at another and even more terrible level: it is destroying our Serb feeling that our wars were just wars and that we behave honourably. This is not an honourable war. I say fuck this war, in which the defenders of villages make a skirmish and then Army tanks and personnel carriers come in to protect what they have done”.

His harshest words are in fact directed at the Serbian Army. The Serbian irregulars, he says, “may be waging war for some mad reasons—in the name of a sick, morbid and fanatical nationalism. But the Army is making war not because of any fanatical nationalism, nor, as it is frequently accused of doing, out of ideological fanaticism. The Army is simply fighting for its privileges!

The other day, after a long time, I walked through Dedinje, an exclusive suburb of Belgrade, and felt I had entered a completely unknown part of the city. I saw flood-lit spaces, heard music and felt I was in another world, somewhere in Switzerland. Tennis courts on which the children of high-ranking officers and generals play tennis during the night. At that moment I understood that the Army out there, with its tanks aiding those madmen—or, OK, even those pitiful people defending their immediate right to life—is not defending anything that can be described as a social or national cause. It is simply defending its own caste interests. This Army caste is oppressing us greatly.

As in the Lebanon, there are wars which are fought as consumer wars. There are great world-wide supermarkets of weapons, of designer arms. There is arms marketing, love of arms, pushing of arms like drugs; an emotive tie to weapons, in just the same way that people become dependent on other consumer goods. In some parts of the world, this consumer philosophy of arms-lovers can erupt suddenly. This is what happened in the Lebanon. There we saw countless small armies, with their commanders and paid chieftains, all of whom were also arms dealers. This is how wars are made: to serve the arms supermarkets.

I am afraid that this war, which started for all the reasons I have mentioned, is turning gradually into a similar kind of war to the Lebanese. The development of a consumer drive to possess a gun, to have a Kalashnikov or a Thompson, fell here on fertile ground. The people of the Balkans have become addicted to guns, in the same way that we have drug addicts in other parts of the world. There is an erotic attitude to weapons. When I joined the Partisans, among other things that surprised me was this endless attention to the arms: their constant cleaning, oiling, polishing. Of course, a gun must be kept clean, but this erotic relationship confused me. They slept with their guns, embraced them even when asleep.

In Belgrade slang, an attractive woman is called a gun. Well, a nation that equates women with guns is a nation that is addicted to them and should be cured, hospitalised. This is true not only of Serbs, Croats, Albanians or Moslems, but of all the Balkan peoples. If one day a more fortunate world would like to see a peaceful Balkans, then these little Balkan states should be subject to demilitarisation—no armies, no weapons, nothing. Today this is a utopia, I speak of dreams.

It is a notorious truth that this is an old men’s war. It is based on old men’s ideas, old men’s ideals and frustrations. I am speaking now of its Belgrade side, of the old men in the Academy who wished to complete Serb history because it seemed to them that it had not been properly completed back in 1918.

When this old men’s ideology starts to be transmitted into literature, and from literature into popular writings, and then into the press—especially the gutter press and the mass media—then it begins slowly to form the people. The young people who have caught the madness of war are, in fact, prisoners of this old men’s mentality which has charmed them. Unfortunately, many wars in history have been old men’s wars. I doubt that these young men, had they been allowed to form their own world view and their own understanding of national history, would have voted for this bloodshed. Those who bear the blame are the old men, men who know what war is like. But the young people don’t know, which is why they are often its victims.

I fear fragmentation into ridiculously small statelets. There’s that idiot who says, ‘I, president of Eastern Slavonia ...’. I might as well go into the street and say, ‘As president of the republic of Cubura [a Belgrade neighbourhood], I demand half of Cubura.’ It’s crazy and that is what’s so frightening.

This war has another side: I have said that it is a miserable, dirty and very bloody war, but it is also a meaningless war. I come from a family, many of whose members fought in the last war, but at least that was a serious war. Now we are confronted with a war that has no aim—on the Serbian side. The Croats and Bosnians are defending themselves, their aim is clear. And this war, apart from its lack of purpose, is also militarily undefined. There is a great deal of destruction; it has become a war of all against all, which is what makes it so horrific.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'War in Yugoslavia—a house attacked by demons'