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New Series no.17/18 July - September 2000

Bogdan Bogdanovic in Mostar
by Bogdan Bogdanovic

Bogdan Bogdanovic (born 1922) is an architect and urban theorist of international renown, and a former two-term mayor of Belgrade. He was responsible for a number of widely admired monuments to the victims of fascism, in different locations in the former Yugoslavia (Jasenovac, Knjazevac, Krusevac, Mostar, Sremska Mitrovica, etc.) His many books include Mrtvouzice - mentalne zamke staljinizma [Dead Ends - the mental snares of Stalinism] (1988), written in reaction to Milosevic's rise to power, and Grad i smrt [The City and Death] (1993). An eloquent interview with him on the criminal responsibility of the intellectual godfathers of Milosevic's compact with Greater Serbian nationalism was translated by Branka Magas in International Viewpoint 215 (28 October 1991).

You have been living in Vienna for quite a long time. What made you leave Belgrade?

I was persecuted. My house was disfigured by graffiti calling for my lynching at a time when many were ready to obey such calls. There were attempts to break in and assaults in the street. Not to speak of threatening telephone calls, including death threats, from various paramilitary bodies. I cannot recall all of them who demanded my death - White Eagles, Black Eagles, Yellow Snakes, Seseljevci, etc. All of it, of course, was directed from one place and by one person, one sick person. It is true that Milosevic never said anything or publicly mentioned my name, but he pulled the strings. Never before in my life was I so present on television as at the time of the campaign against me. The TV would show a static image of me, so that everybody could identify me and abuse me in the streets as a traitor to the Serb people.

Was this due to some personal animosity towards you, perhaps of a family nature?

You are right, there is some truth in that. My family has always been liberal-minded. As a small boy I experienced the 6 June Dictatorship [established in 1929 by King Alexander] as the lights going out. I have always opposed such rule. This is why Milosevic saw myself and my nephew Ivan Duric as dangerous opponents, even enemies. I believe he feared Ivan more, because he was a talented politician. I myself belonged to the world of culture. The only difference between me and my nephew was that he believed that changes could be achieved by purely political means, whereas I always doubted that. Milosevic simply despises everything that is not fascist.

So you left largely because of the threats. But was it also because you felt isolated?

I did not fear being on my own. Isolation is not an enemy of intellectual work or spiritual life. I am not saying that one needs no friends, simply that isolation helps at times when you are groping towards your own schema of the world, of things. This is why people went to live in deserts, monasteries or tekie - in order to be on their own with themselves. This I did not mind. It was the physical and, of course, psychological terror that made me leave. I was aware that I would not be able in that city to complete my work, my books, on which thanks to my departure I have been able to work in quite a different atmosphere. I wrote and gave interviews, but felt that I needed a different environment: a normal city and normal people. Vienna proved to be the place in which I could complete my work.

Fascism in Serbia

How do you explain the phenomenon of Milosevic's emergence, of the emergence of fascism in Serbia?

People like myself, who were not infected with the nationalist plague, have tried to analyse this both collectively and individually. The answer is to be found in the title of a book by Radomir Konstantinovic: Filozofija palanke [Boondock Mentality]. This is the product of a small, enclosed milieu that can realize its sense of identity only through hate. I am talking about people who have no idea what they are and what they are not, but who do know that they are not Croats or Muslims or Turks. They are, in fact, nothing. It is in such human defects, in human incompleteness, that the motive cause of this tragedy should be sought. I know well the spirit of the Serb people. The Serb mentality was formed in the 19th century. We had two models. The first was that of Dositej Obradovic, a nice and normal person. He left the church when he saw what it was up to. Some say that he was a Mason. Perhaps, I do not know. He lived in the West and dressed in Western fashion. He preached universalism and thought that the Serbs should become part of Western culture. Some ten years after him along came Vuk KaradÓic, who was the complete opposite. Vuk was a Romantic, who preached an extreme form of nationalism. It is possible that had his idea won completely, it would not have been so bad. He was very anti-clerical, you know. As things turned out, however, it was precisely his idea of extreme nationalism that merged with religious exclusivity - a terrible combination.

Your father Milan Bogdanovic was not only a literary critic, but also an expert on world religions, great spiritual systems.

Yes, but I think I am an even greater expert [Laughs]. He was a man with an open mind, but his behaviour was not that of a good believer. I am talking about his conversion to Islam. Did you know about that? He became angry with the Orthodox Church and clergy because they would not allow him to divorce my mother. So he converted to Islam and became Mefail Bogdanovic. He did not do it out of religious conviction. He did not understand that others might find it offensive. It was an act of protest. I think that true Muslims did not like it. I myself approved of it, because I saw it as an act of courage: he decided to stand up to the establishment and the authorities of the time. This is the kind of thing that intellectuals did before World War II. After the war, demonstrative changes of position became more frequent among intellectuals. In England Anglicans became Catholics, in France people converted to Islam. This search for the experience of the other should not be condemned. The Pope himself has recently said that we should come to know other religions. Being an agnostic, I find it quite natural that people wish to explore other religious systems. I have read the Bible in great depth searching for data about ancient cities. I have also read the Koran thoroughly in French. The Jewish books too. One should learn about non-monotheistic religions too. Religions represent a great treasure, but also a potential bomb. It all depends on how the knowledge is taken. If it is done in the wrong way, problems ensue. One of the causes of the Yugoslav tragedy lies in such misunderstandings. Children were not given the chance to acquaint themselves in any normal way with religions and the differences between them, so were unable to grasp their essential philosophy. Children entered religion through the wrong door, with nationalist motivation, so the tragedy was inevitable.

Against Social Realism

You became a famous architect only after you gave up social realism. Was this due to your education?

It was like this. I became a student of architecture before the War. After 1945 there were new demands. There was a lot of construction and reconstruction going on throughout Europe, often of poor quality. I never liked that kind of architecture - building boxes. What happened next was pure chance. I was invited to compete for building a monument to the Jewish victims of fascism and won. I must admit I was not very enthusiastic. I did not think that building monuments was such a great thing. Then I started to browse through Jewish books, which was my first contact with religion. I realized I was confronted with great philosophical riches. The monument I made was small, but it did not follow the rules of Social Realism. I realized then that memorial architecture could be a kind of practical philosophy. Thinking about life, death, moral values, good and evil, I had to acquire a degree of knowledge of philosophy. All religions share a mystic dimension. This is the direction I followed in approaching anti-fascist monuments. It found greater understanding among governmental and party leaders than among local officials, who did not like the fact that my monuments did not have five-pointed stars or clenched fists, as Russian monuments did. While I was building them, the old [Partisan] fighters would grumble about why there were no five-pointed stars, no hammer and sickle. I had to find various ways of dealing with their complaints and I must say I was able to convince them easily, as if they were small children. I would say: Do American planes carry five-pointed stars? Yes indeed, they would say. Then I would tell them that it was a Pythagorean sign, to scare them. Then I would tell them that when the point was up it was a symbol of God, but if it was down it symbolized the devil. Eventually they would say: All right, carry on, but it will be your responsibility. An archaic form offered those fighters a safe formula, because it could represent all cultural models.

I had the luck that the party leaders were in conflict with the Soviet Union and were committed to being different. Every monument I made was different. I never entered a project without preliminary research into its cultural dimensions. There was another problem with anti-fascist monuments. They had to reflect different kinds of sensibility. I built into them those cultural models based on religious systems I mentioned earlier. There was a simple reason for this. If you think in this way, then the safest path to follow is to delve deep into the past, to prehistory, and look for archetypes that have retained their meaning to this day. Those cultures contain values which later, due to different circumstances, separated out to form different systems. Everything changes but the human anthropological structure, which remains the same. I used to say that my monuments were anthropological monuments. I sought to make my monuments into models of contemplation of the ultimate aims of life. They are a kind of applied philosophy.

You have visited the Partisan monument in Mostar, which you also built.

Monuments, you know, are not there only to speak about what happened in the past. They are history in their own right. There is also an evolution of their meaning, a generational change. Monuments have a logic of their own, which is why some live while others die because their meaning has lost its potency. The monument in Mostar has been damaged, but that can be repaired. I feel that today it has acquired a new meaning. This is very important for me as a creator, since a monument that does not have the ability to survive in the sense of meaning becomes dead stone. There are monuments that have become a source of derision. They exist throughout Europe. The most important thing is for a work to retain a continuity of meaning. The monument in Mostar has been quite neglected. Its surroundings have totally changed in a way that I never dared to imagined. It now finds itself in a virgin forest, in the middle of a splendid virgin forest. The whole thing reminds me of Borges's story about curiosity being aroused in a jungle. The basic meaning has remained. By pure chance it has come to join two modern ideas: an anti-fascist stand, and a stand against ecological catastrophe. It has suddenly become an ecological monument. This is why I told the people as we were visiting it that they should take great care of the woods, of this ecological wealth. So we have a monument that will be able to say something also in the future.

What is the difference between your first and your present visit to Mostar?

There is a great difference. Last time I felt terribly depressed. The city had a ghostly appearance. It was almost deserted. I was horrified by the empty space. Now, however, it is all different. I did not know what was going to happen, but then there was this great reception for me organized by Orucevic and Tomic, where I was able to meet all of Mostar. Everyone was very excited. Some people I think even cried. Tears came to my eyes too. I am old enough to know that not everything is so ideal, that it will take a long time; but the start has been made and I am convinced that the city has a future.

You remember your birthplace, of course. Do you see a ray of hope at all? Do you think that something positive could happen in Belgrade or in the FRY?

It is a terrible thing to say but I do not, for the time being. If only Providence would bestow on us what it granted the Croats [Laughs]. I am afraid that even then nothing would change! You see, after Tudman's death a new government was formed by forces that were already in existence. But after Milosevic's eventual departure, it will be nationalists, I fear, who come to power. The catastrophe exists in the minds, as all catastrophes do, but this one is deeply ingrained in the consciousness. The great tragedy of the people and the country lies in the fact that everything in Serbia has been reduced to a personality which in reality does not exist. Milosevic is a phantom. He is a blank. His mind and his feelings are vacuous. He and his wife possess something which is very deep, some dark, dark bond with a Stalinist Russia partly wearing Orthodox garb. Orthodoxy in Russia has produced great writers and philosophers; in Serbia it has produced Chetniks. I hope I am wrong, but I see no glimmer of light so far as Belgrade and Serbia are concerned.

How do you view the events in Montenegro, its desire to leave the FRY. Would that produce a resolution of the crisis or a new catastrophe?

I think that Dukanovic is very intelligent. I think he is cleverer than Milosevic. He is very crafty. I do not know whether he is also a moral, honest man. I do not believe him to be an a priori separatist. But even if people in Montenegro do not wish to separate from Serbia, they do not want to be servants or to live as a second-class nation. It is Milosevic who is pushing them towards secession. He drove away the Slovenes, wrote off the Macedonians and the Croats as well. It could all have been different. There could have been a confederation, or separation if necessary but a normal separation respecting the AVNOJ frontiers. Cities would have survived, people too. Milosevic carries within himself a psycho-pathology of war. He is compelled to seek war. Just as a murderer must kill and a psychopath rape, he must make wars. The West let him wreak destruction for far too long. The terrible thing is that his own madness, by what in psychiatry is called induction, has brought a whole people to the edge of madness - and worse still has done so with the help of a nationalist opposition. It sounds incredible, but he is not a nationalist. Why? Because he is nothing. He is a vacuous personality willing to do everything in order to keep the wealth he has acquired and nothing else.

Do you think that Serbia's isolation might produce a positive energy that could bring about democratic change of the right kind?

I don't think it could. The longer it lasts, the more the people appear to me to be worn out, lost. Serbia lives in misery. We should not forget that misery produced fascism. Fascism in Germany grew out of poverty, not only material but also mental, of the kind in which Serbia has been living for a long time. The policy of isolation of Serbia seems wrong to me. But a change in strategy would not bring about anything new. Milosevic would simply treat it as his personal victory. The Serb question is so complicated that I see no solution. I just cannot think of any.

Translated from an interview in Ljiljan (Sarajevo), 31 July - 7 August 2000.
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