Identity Crisis in the Balkans

and its Spatial Manifestations




With the fall of communism and paradigm change, the supranational Yugoslav identity based on the credo of “Brotherhood and Unity” was confrontated with the nationalistic ideologies and politics, marking the beginning of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The transformations of the political, ideological and economic system, division to the national states, ethnic homogenization and series of military conflicts caused an ongoing identity-crisis of all the succesor states and ethnic groups.

One of the most evident aspects of multiple transitions in the countries of former Yugoslavia, the one very noticeable to the naked eye, is its implication on the physical environment. These transformations can be observed as a kind of visual manifestations of many of the social, political and economic, phenomena of the post-socialist reality. They testify about the ideological shift a society experienced after the fall of socialism and indicate the new relations that have been established ever since. Furthermore, the impacts of these transformations are sometimes so extreme, that they challange the traditional comprehension of the space and its social dimensions.

Spatial manifestations

By trying to understand how collective memory is being spatially erased and reinvented, the paper examines the meaning of monuments and architecture in the near past, concentrating on the period of Yugoslav socialism, events in 1990s and period of post-socialism. By investigating the visual and spatial controversies of the religious and national revival in new-emerged states of former Yugoslavia, the paper investigates whether the newly built mosques, churches and monuments are manifestations of ongoing identity-construction processes and are they places where the new post-socialist, balkanized nations are spatially and symbolically expressing themselves.



Imaging the Balkans

The Balkans is always somewhere else. For Slovenias it starts with Croatia, the Slovenian nation is part of civilized Central Europe, so called Mitteleuropa, and not part of  the wild Balkanian tribes. For Croatians the Balkans begins further east, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. Croatians see themselves as a part of  civilized catholic Europe, more connected to Italy and Austria, rather then with their southslavic family. For Serbia, the Balkans begins further south, with Kosovo, Albania. Serbians in their eyes are the last bastion against the Orient and islamic civilisations...

Going other way round, we could claim that Slovenia, from Austrian perspective is already the Balkans. Slovenians are seen as part of slavic hordes, to which the Austrians doesn´t have any connections. For Germans, Austria with its strange mix of people and questionable identity represents the threshold of the Balkans. For French people, the Germans always had something dark in themselves, something balkanic. And to extend the concept to the its extreme limits, we could claim that the whole European continent represents the Balkans for the English, with the Brussels as the new Constantinopole.



As every successful nation-state Yugoslavia had to develop vital and siginificant civil religion. Civil religion is a fuse of myths, quasi-religious symbols, rituals, cults, beliefs and practices that secure the nation’s validity and convince the people that the system is “good.” Characteristically, civil religions involve a myth-narrative about the origin of nation, usually through struggle and martyrdom; cults of “founding fathers, liberators and heroes”; a sense of “exceptionalism,” and victory, success  or redemption. Commemorations, monuments, patriotic rituals, and the phenomenon of sport foster civil religion as a spiritual force. The Yugoslav civil religion of brotherhood and unity consisted of the several main components. The myth of the origin of the nation during the World War II Partisan struggle (1941–45) and the repositioning of the nation after the anti-stalinist Cominform affair (Tito-Stalin split) of 1948 were its essence . Secondly, brotherhood and unity of all nations and minorities, notably the “Yugoslav spirit,” as one of core values. The cult of Josip Broz Tito as the nation’s founding father, war hero, and successful world statesman wes not less important part of it. After the communist consolidation of power and the launching of the revolution, the Partisan Struggle became the founding myth and core of the new patriotism. The new civil religion established its altars and memorial sites commemorating battles and sites of martyrdom from World War II, such as Sutjeska and Neretva  (sites of large-scale battles between the Germans and Partisans); Jajce (the birthplace of the Socialist Republic); Drvar (temporary base of Tito, attacked by German paratroopers in 1944); Šumarice (a hill close to town of Kragujevac where 7000 civilians were executed by Germans as a revenge for Partisan strikes), Jasenovac (biggest extermination camp of Ustaša regime) and so forth. The monuments were erected on sites where concentration camps had stood, where battles had taken place, or alongside the war cemeteries. Their impressive grandeur should also symbolize the unity of all the South Slavs.  Contrary to average war monuments of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, the Monuments of Socialist Yugoslavia were abstract, non-figurative sculptures and not busts of war heroes or patriotic workers. Socialist monuments in Yugoslavia attracted millions of visitors throughout the 1970s and 80s, most of them were students and school children who visited the sites as part of their patriotic education, others were war veterans and sorrowing relatives who had lost family membres during the war. Nowadays, they are barely visited at all. These structures today can be seen as fossils of the 20th century and testimonials of lost unity.

Containers of Symbolism

After the Dayton Peace Treaty marked the end of the war of 1992-95 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the process of country’s reconstruction began. Beside restoring its basic infrastructure and housing, a new period of mosque building started. In lot of cases, new mosques highlight the return of refugees and the reactivation of Muslim communities after the war. For the community returning to its prewar settlements, the rebuilding the mosque was a method of providing a material, visual evidence of their survival, at the same time recuperating themselves from traumatic events. The process of reconstruction was often a bottom-up process, as the villagers themselves were responsible for the (re)construction process of the mosque and thus regenerating and improving the social networks of the village. As the “new” mosques are giving the visual sign of the presence of Bosniak communities, distinguishing their area against Chrisitan neighbors, the process of reconstruction was in many cases used to enlarge the building itself or its tower, namely  the minaret. The postwar political tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina among its ethnic groups, notably the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, are being expressed principally through instrumentalisation od the cultural heritage, religion and language. Vjekoslav Perica in Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States claims that difference among its ethnic groups is not neccesary the religion, than the myth of nation’s origin. The ethnic groups are now intensifying their own national awareness by fostering the ethnic ties within the cultural sphere. Religion becomes central for defining the nation, it becomes the “hallmark of nationhood”. Religious architecture thus not only expresses the national feelings, it also gives the cultural framework from which the national ideas can be harvested. The mosques and churches are, beside their sacral function, objects of collective memory and thus they express the myths and histories orf the ethnic groups. These edifices are neither used as purely religious sites, nor are they signs of a great religious renaissance. Rather, they are manifestations of the socio-political transition of Yugoslavia since the 1980’s and representatives of an ongoing national and trans-national identity construction processes.


Built Environment and Ideology

The physical enviroment we inhabit is a strategic  method in the arbitration of national identity, as the phychological characteristics cannot exist in physical reality as  visible labels. Case studies presented in this essay display the many levels of production of identity through built environment and provide a fragment to understanding of a highly complex relationship between ideology, culture and built forms. Beside being political and cultural phenomenon, the process of building national identity becomes through built environment a physical structure. Throughout the whole history of human kind, architecture and built forms were used by politics as a tool, from totalitarian regimes that created architecture representing authority, colonial and post-colonial government stimulated hybridity in design and  communist regimes trying to built egalitarian  cities. In the times of identity crisis, “national”  architecture is a method of strengthening a nation’s identity by fostering authencity and historical roots, that are important factors in the self-perception of the nation. And as we see in the case of Macedonia’s “antiquisation”, it is of less importance how blurred and abstract this connection to the past is. It greatest threat is that it segragates groups in its historical imagination. Edward Said described this aspect as a struggle over national space: „This struggle is exacerbated when dealing with national space that represents geopolitical and social order, which aims to correlate between the homogeneity of population and its collective identity and territorial borders“

Michel Foucault was referring to postmodernist effort to redesigning architecture as dangereous. Nationalism in architecture, that finds it connection in distant past (avoid, disregard) overlooks the contemporary lessons that could be of advantage for the nation and thus the society. It provides a physical framework for the ideas of exclusion and inclusion.

„Space is fundamental in any exercise of power“