Episode 32

Exploring Spomeniks: The Brutalist Monuments of Former Yugoslavia

Published on: 16th November, 2023

In this episode, I discuss the brutalist Spomenik monuments of the former Yugoslavia with Donald Niebel - founder of the Spomenik Database.

Donald is an environmental scientist turned researcher from the United States

We delve into the historical significance, architectural design, and location details of these unique, massive structures.

Donald explains how he transformed his initial curiosity about these striking monuments into a comprehensive online resource.

Sharing his experiences and insights, Donald reveals the value of the Spomeniks as instruments for studying local and regional histories.

The Spomenik Database can be accessed at https://spomenikdatabase.org

00:00 Introduction to the Podcast

00:06 Exploring the Spomeniks of Yugoslavia

01:02 Discovering the Spomenik Database

01:33 Interview with Donald Niebel: The Man Behind the Spomenik Database

02:40 The Journey of Documenting the Spomeniks

04:39 The Challenges of Cataloging the Monuments

07:35 The Significance and Interpretation of the Spomeniks

08:25 Public Reactions to the Spomeniks

14:23 The Role of the Spomenik Database in Education

16:51 The Community's Connection to the Spomeniks

18:30 Future Plans for the Spomenik Database

24:23 Donald's Personal Connection to the Spomeniks

25:58 Conclusion and Final Thoughts

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Hi, and welcome back to the podcast with me, David Bailey. In this edition of the podcast, we're talking Spomernik. Spomernik are large monuments from the former Yugoslavia, and you see them across the whole of the Western Balkans. And in particular here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Normally they're massive structures built out of concrete.

And I think the architectural design is called brutalism, but they are very impressive. In fact, there's one not too far away from me in Banja Luka on the hill overlooking the city, called Ban Birdo, commemorating the fight of the partisans when they liberated Banja Luka back at the end of the Second World War.

ey were everywhere during the:

But what is the history behind these Spominik? And where, in fact, are they all located? This is something that has fascinated me, and on some research recently on the internet, I came across the Spominik database. The Spominik database has a lot of information about where these memorials, these monuments stand, a little bit about the history, and some really stunning photographs as well.

I thought... That the whole project had been set up by somebody from the former Yugoslavia. But I was amazed to find out that it's the work of an American, Donald Niebel. I managed to catch up with Donald via Skype recently, to find out more about the Spominik database and why he feels so passionate about it.

But first... Who is Donald Nabel? I am a 38 year old person who is from Maryland originally in the United States and I grew up. Training to be working in environmental science and in resource management positions, which I'd done over the years. I worked with state government, local governments, federal government doing various sorts of environmental management sorts of jobs and I'd been doing that up until about a year ago when I quit to pursue this project of mine full time.

Database. It started in about:

And in 2016 I went to go visit them for the first time after spending weeks and weeks researching them, trying to figure out how exactly do I find them, where are they located. And after going over there for several months between jobs I was moving from Oklahoma to Illinois and I had a little bit of time off between work, so I thought I'll just go over there and see if I can find as many as I can.

And when I got in through the process I just rented a car when I arrived and just started driving across the countryside, typing in points on my sat nav and going from point to point, learning along the way, talking to people having people explain things to me and translate things for me and and I came back and I had all this information, all these histories, all these translated inscriptions and documents.

And I thought, okay. Why don't I just put a little corner on the internet of all of this material, just in case anyone's interested, and also so nobody has to go through All of the pain and trouble I went through the first time, just to see these magnificent creations, and that's what I did. And then as soon as I had done that, I immediately started getting feedback from people, not just in the region, but all across the world who were...

Just captivated by what I'd put together and I took that as Encouragement to go further and that's what I've been doing since then You know I spoke to somebody from the region here from Bosnia Herzegovina Not long after I found out that you'd created this database and I said I didn't mention that you'd done it to them I just said I'm interested in these is there a list of them somewhere in an archive in Belgrade or in Banja Luka, or Sarajevo, or wherever.

And they hunted around, and they said, no there's not one that exists. Is yours the only one that, that, the unique thing that documents where all these monuments are? Even asking a simple question like that, you don't necessarily get a simple answer. Because and I think that's what frustrates people about the former Yugoslav region is asking simple questions don't get simple answers.

For instance, asking a question like, What language do they speak in Bosnia Herzegovina? Doesn't get you a simple answer. Depends on who you talk to. And in the same way, asking a question like how many monuments are there? Is there anywhere the documents, all of the monuments? Such questions like that are very difficult to answer in any sort of authoritative way.

First off, because even by the end of the Yugoslav era there were, there was no catalog of monuments across the entire landscape. Even let's just take Bosnia. For instance, let's exclude the other former republics. Bosnia never did a a sort of catalogue. Even during the entire Yugoslavia era, Bosnia never put together an authoritative compendium of every NOB memorial site that existed.

In that country, and as a result it's not really known to this day how many existed or exist today. There are a couple some of the municipalities have local... documents for their regions but some of other municipalities maybe had it at some point, but lost them over the course of the war.

Those documents are long gone. So looking at just Bosnia, for instance there is no complete record. And as far as the work I do, I by no means say that I have, that my website or the work I do, I have done is cataloging every. Single one because if you look at all of the former Yugoslavia, some people estimate there are is somewhere between 20 to 40, 000 NOB memorial objects.

So that would be a lifetime worth of work, if not several lifetimes by several people to go through and catalog every single one. So my work is essentially focusing on the ones. That are charismatic, the ones that are most historically significant, that tell the most the story of the region in a way that kind of encapsulates the region as a whole, that, objects that are architecturally, artistically significant, that are larger than life, so on and so forth.

I try to find a way to contain myself because... You can easily get lost in the enormity of it all if you try to bite off too much. So I try to contain what I'm cataloging. And also cataloging stuff that I think, maybe international tourists or people from around the world might be intrigued by, or could lead them on a journey of self discovery for themselves.

Most of the monuments are, and this is, I know a wide generalized observation from me, but most of them are in the brutalistic, what they call the brutalistic style of that era. So it's concrete on steroids. Some of them are absolutely stunning, and the one that I have yet to see in... In real life, as it were, is the one in Sudetska, this large gateway in the middle of a valley.

When you show people that are not from the region these brutalistic designs, we in the West, for example, we like things to be aesthetically pleasing. It's almost, I don't know, like modern art for us. How have you found people that you've shown this to who aren't from the region when they say, God, don't they look ugly?

Or do they actually see something? I think a lot of times when you tell people that these are monuments, especially World War II monuments or war or monuments to massacres or atrocities, people in the West are often confused. Because it defies their understanding of what a traditional kind of commemorative shape is supposed to look like.

It's not something so straightforward as other monuments, other popular monuments we might see other places, whether it be, Holocaust monuments in Poland or... Other sorts of World War II monuments in the United States et cetera, et cetera. Often I think people have this initial kind of confusion upon seeing them and then a fascination by them because it's...

It's clear when you see these forms that there is an incredible amount of information that they're trying to convey, whether it be feelings or history or ideology or a sense of belonging or past. And I think people, many people, at least for me, at least have been curious to understand what that message is to.

Kind of translate this visual vocabulary into something that makes sense, that you can look at and it not be necessarily just a... Like when you look up at the stars and you see nothing but stars and just unintelligible points of light. But when you start to... leArn about, let's say, the constellations, or the universe.

You finally can look at it, and you can order things, make things make sense. And I think that's what a lot of people yearn for, and I think that's one of the reasons I've put together the database and the histories that I have. These aren't necessarily just, these orientalized objects, as many people in the past kind of interpreted them before I started doing my work, saying, oh, look at these weird things that these weird people did.

They're more, obviously, than just abstract works of art. They're commemorative objects that encapsulate a, a shared history for millions of people, in many cases. You mentioned that phrase there, a shared history. Going round and looking and documenting these objects, some of which are...

Almost non existent now they've been destroyed or, hugely damaged to the ones that are still almost pristine in a way. With the differences of opinion and I'm going to use this phrase, but it's going to annoy some people, but it is what it is. There's a certain amount of revisionism happening in the region.

For example that orchid, I think it's an orchid at Jasanova. Where the concentration camp was is some people will now say it was only a collection center as you went around the region. What were the reaction of local people when, you went around with your camera asking questions, but was it all just love and hugs or did you have to cope with some hostility and negativity?

I would say that generally when I talk to local people and explain to them what I was doing. It was often met with, most of all, just confusion, people couldn't for the life of them understand why someone would travel all the way from America to their small little village to look at something that had maybe fallen into neglect or this this sort of neglected object from another time that maybe is cared about in the community, but they couldn't understand why.

Someone from across the ocean would care to travel so far to see it and that was often the very first encounter, the majority of the encounters that I had with people. And often times, there were often people, there were people also that, explaining what I was doing, they, would be, not necessarily aggressive, but very forceful in wanting me to understand what this object was, because I think they often would assume that I was coming from a place of absolute, uh, ignorance as far as what this was or what it represented, and so they were very adamant to want to explain to me what this was to put it into context for me in, from their perspective as far as, kind of anger or any sort of meanness.

I would say very rare to encounter anything like that. All, although, although I would say that I tried to my best to be, careful to avoid. Situations like that, in going into areas that I knew were very sensitive, I would tread very lightly and do my best to, avoid doing anything that might offend people or that might put myself in any sort of unfriendly situation.

I think for the most part, I would say it was overwhelmingly positive overwhelmingly. Just curious or excited and very interested to know why someone like me was there. I've published a blog post in the last 10 days about Day of the Republic. 29th of November, when Yugoslavia, it was their Republic Day.

Some of the reaction I got from young people was, what republic are you talking about? Quite an outpouring on direct messages. Now, nobody put this publicly, but through direct messaging, personal messaging and everything else, especially on Instagram a lot of people said, I miss it so much. Yes, it was a great day for us.

It was one of the best holidays we ever had. Oh, to go back to those times, et cetera. So bringing it back to the young people. And for example, My wife's niece, who's now 16, has got no, um, perception of what it might have been like. Grandparents only talk in, in, in certain ways about it. Some groups here think it's a betrayal if they talk about their...

The database, though, has got a part, in my humble opinion, in education for future generations. Did you see it as such a thing, or is it such a thing in your aim, to be an educational tool, Donald? Oh yeah, I would say very much part of what I do is meant to... Educate people no matter where they are, whether it be in South America, or Australia, or in Montenegro, or wherever.

There, I get messages from people. I remember one I got not that long ago from a woman in Slovenia who said that she knew about the monuments that were in her local area, but she had no idea how many more there were across the entire former Yugoslav landscape. And so even people that were from the region are often just amazed by the vast amount of objects of monuments, of memorials, and all of their various, Forms and incarnations that existed because, like I was saying, there weren't often good compendiums across the landscape to show what there was.

Yeah, there were a couple books here and there that showed the biggest one, the most significant ones. But, there was no one resource. There was no one stop shop to show you the vast amounts of hundreds and hundreds of sites that there were much less how to get to them, directions, photographs all of the information that I provide on my website.

A lot of the histories that I detail for individual monuments sometimes are the first time that Histories about a particular incident at this location has ever been written about in English. Or the author of the monument, the first time they've been written about in English. And I try to do my best to, reach out and find this information and make it accessible to people who might not otherwise have a way to locate it.

I assumed, and you should never assume, I know, in the English language, because it makes an ass out of you and me, But I was assuming that the Yugoslavian state had funded the building of these huge monuments, only to find, from my research anyway, very limited though it is, that the local communities foot the bill for these.

And some of these communities are quite rural, very small with not much in the way of income, yet people are very proud. My wife, for example, says, my grandfather used to haul rock up to build the one looking over So when you were going around doing the research, did people reflect that, that they felt that this was part of their community, or had they forgotten about that in the mists of time?

I think it really depends on where you go, who you talk to, the people in just about every community. Can have different feelings remembrance, practices ways of looking at the past. And even within close proximity, I don't think, you can't necessarily look at just one former Republic or and say, this is the practice here.

It really depends on, almost on an individual community level. How monuments how memorial objects are treated. They almost often act as barometers to how people interface with their own history. And I think that's. A unique attribute of these, of the monuments in the sense that they can tell so much.

They act as like a fulcrum to learn about not just the history of the region, but to learn about how people that still, live in these communities feel about their own history and how history, the idea of history has changed, what is memorialized? Remembered what is forgotten.

There's just so much that through the World War Two monuments of Yugoslavia, so much that can be learned about the country, the past, the present. And so on and so forth. You said that it could take two, three, four lifetimes actually to get all this documented.

What's the plan to, what's the plan for Donald coming back? Have you got more trips planned to come back to do more? Or is it now just a pure academia that you have to take care of? Oh, I definitely plan on coming back probably in the spring. The last several years I've spent at least, somewhere between one to two to three months in the region.

And so I definitely plan on coming back again. I have lots more people to talk to and meet, a lot of colleagues to interface with. I have lots of more monuments to see and even potentially do some events some talks and tours maybe even and it's just become. This huge thing, almost like an institution in and of itself.

The database that I've put together I get emails from people just about every day that are just so excited about the work I've been doing. I just got, just the other week, I was in D. C. Speaking at the embassy for North Macedonia. To an audience there and also at the University of Maryland.

And there are just tons of people that are really excited. And interested in this subject. And I think that if I can, whatever I can do to help facilitate that I feel like is. I look at it as living history. If, and as there are a lot of young people, and I say young people, let's say 25 and below that follow some of the content that I put out from their own country, because they're absolutely amazed that an Englishman would, A, want to live here, and two, talk positively about it.

Donald, what would you say to young people across the region as far as these Spomenik are concerned? Is it there's something they should be following, getting interested in, or is it or do you just say, do what you want? I try not to go too much in far as telling people how they should feel about anything.

Especially as someone not from the region, that's not my business. People what I want to do is provide to the people the information the history as far as I can interpret it from my perspective, from my research. And just put it out there for people to interpret. As they will. I'm not, I'm not someone that's coming.

I'm not a Yugo nostalgic. I'm not someone that's trying to advocate reestablishing Yugoslavia. I'm not someone that says, let's bring back communism to the region. I'm someone that's trying to do this from a documentarian point of view that can say, this history, appeared to be, dwindling to be, these monuments were falling into a state of forgottenness, oftentimes, or neglect.

And I just wanted to, photograph them, document them, say, this is what I found. This is the way things exist in this particular spot. Now, this is the history that I found through my research about what happened here, what this object commemorates and I don't presume to tell anyone how they should digest that.

This is simply putting out the, making sure the information is available to those who are interested in interfacing with it. It would be great for people to have some pointers of where they can go on the internet. To find the content that you are creating, that you are producing concerning the Spominix, so they can do their own research as well, and maybe stimulate them to meet up with you when you next come back.

Where can people find... The Spominic information. The name of my website is called SpominicDatabase. org and I'm also very active on Twitter and on Instagram and on Facebook as well under that same name. So it is very easy to just type in those two words and find out, find a whole array of outlets to connect with me through.

And also I respond to email very readily as well, info at spomonicdatabase. org. And I love hearing from anyone, no matter who it is whether you have feedback or opinions or just input critiques. I always appreciate hearing anything that anyone has to say because... Even as much as work as I've done, I feel like every day I'm learning something and everyone has something they can share with me to help bring me a closer to a closer understanding about the region.

I felt like I feel like it took me a good one. Maybe almost a good two years of just, of reading and research before I even felt like I had a kind of even a cursory understanding about the history of, the former Yugoslav region as like a general whole And I think it's often when I'm talking to people about it, people say, Oh, wasn't there a war in Yugoslavia?

What was that all about? You can't explain that to someone in just a few minutes. It would, you could take weeks of anything just to give them a brief understanding. And I encourage people, just do as much reading as you can, because I think there's so much that can be learned, not just from the monuments, but from the region itself.

Learning about the region through the monuments especially in this multicultural era that we're living in now. Yugoslavia was among the very first multicultural experiments and I think seeing how that all resulted in the end, I think there are many lessons that can be learned from consuming and understanding the history of Yugoslavia and what happened afterwards and how it exists now.

I really look forward to catching up with you when you come back. I'm sure we're going to keep in touch. And it would be really nice to host you here. Finally here's the question that I like to give people one that might put you on the spot. Out of all the Spominik that you've seen so far, what would you say is the one that means the most to you?

Obviously, that's always a difficult question. I think certainly one that is the most impactful that I hear people tell me that... Was for me when I first saw it, that many say was supposed to be the showcase monument for Yugoslavia. The one, like you were saying earlier, at Sutjeska at the town of Tientista Bosnia, Herzegovina.

The one by Miodrag Zivkovic is just absolutely amazing to see it for the first time. But not only that one the one at Pogaric in Croatia is absolutely unbelievable. There's so many other ones that I can think of to say, to mention, there's certainly, the one at Dražgoža in Slovenia, you could say Kozmaj in Serbia or the Macedonium in North Macedonia so many unbelievable ones that I think everyone, I've talked to people who are some of the biggest world travelers and they say, Exploring the monuments of Yugoslavia has been one of the most amazing travel experiences of their life.

And so I just encourage people jump into it and you won't regret it. Donald, thank you so much for giving me your precious time today. And please, if you're listening or watching or reading about this, it would be, you just got to get hold of what Donald's craving and look at it and consume it.

It's fascinating. Donald, thank you so much indeed for your time. Thank you so much. Have a great day. Donald Neeble there talking to me about the Spominik database. To find out more about the various Spominiks, the link to the Spominik database is in the description notes below. I really hope that you've enjoyed this particular episode of the podcast.

And that you'll subscribe to the podcast feed so that you're notified every time a new episode is uploaded. That's all from me for this edition. I'll catch you on the next one. Until then, please do stay safe.

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An Englishman in the Balkans
Find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina
Encouraging people to find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"Welcome to "An Englishman in the Balkans" podcast, hosted by David Pejčinović-Bailey.
In this podcast, you'll get a unique look at life in Bosnia and Herzegovina through the eyes of an immigrant. Each episode, David shares his experiences living in this often misunderstood country, and introduces you to some of the interesting people he's met along the way.
From exploring the rich culture and history, to discussing the challenges and joys of immigrating to a new country, this podcast offers a thoughtful and engaging look at life in the Balkans.
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David Pejčinović-Bailey

I am a podcaster, living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and sharing my experiences of living in this often misunderstood country.