Ever since the debates about current or imminent “fascism” and “antifascism” (or Antifascism™) became popular again, I came to think about my grandad, who as a committed communist before WWII and then a partisan during it would probably have more to say than those engaging in these debates now. He was a bit of an oddity as a bourgeois lawyer/communist in Nikšić, a town in Montenegro, one of the poorest parts of Yugoslavia in his days due to its harsh landscape and low industrialisation.
From the precious little that I know of him, he was a mild mannered, slightly dandyish guy, who discovered communism during his studies in Belgrade, and decided that, despite the ban of the Communist party in Yugoslavia, he wanted to continue helping the common man who risked being put in jail simply for harshly criticising the frequently dysfunctional Yugoslav monarchy.
Unlike many of his infinitely more distinguished (and much richer) Yugoslav bourgeois communist contemporaries, from Koča Popović, the Ribar family or Marko Čelebonović, he kept a low profile, going to the Piva to fish, and leading an otherwise typical life of a small town bourgeois bachelor, until the war started.
Due to his beliefs he was put on a list of people to be assassinated by the Fascist Italy who invaded Montenegro, which led to him promptly fleeing to join the communist resistance. During the course of the war he was imprisoned several times, exchanged for other prisoners, was part of the Battle of Sutjeska and then was in Jajce for the second council of the AVNOJ, where SFRY was formed. During all of this, not only did he evade death several times and had to eat tree bark to stay alive but his mother, by then an elderly widow in a very patriarchal was imprisoned several times and almost executed.
When he returned from the war, he continued his small town life – fishing, walking around in nice suits, smoking, flirting with my grandmother – and was often addressed half-mockingly by his townspeople using bourgeois “Mister” instead of communist “Commrade” until he died of cancer at the age of 65.
Looking back at his life, there was no transgressive aesthetic, no flamboyant lifestyle, nor much in the way of overtly trying to depict himself as a communist or antifascist. He just was both: by helping those in need before the War and taking up arms against the actual Fascist during the War, when both of these things could get you killed and seemed like losing causes.
I inevitably like to contrast his story with that of those how now embrace the grand rhetoric of Antifascism™, with no risk, maximum praise (thankfully there are few fascists around – at least in the 1920s-40s sense of the word – and they tend not to reveal themselves) and often with a lot of aesthetic gestures: from banners and roses to masks and interior decor.
One of the ways in which ones current antifascism™ is displayed in former Yugoslavia by embracing the aesthetics of its highly conceptual WWII memorials. Forgotten during the 1990s while there were new wars to be fought or resisted, they have re-emerged in popularity in 2010s and have become the ultimate visual cues to signal one’s antifascism™.
However, what these sleek monuments came were built to represent, namely thousands of unglamorous but brave dead, became has transformed, in some parts of the culture, into a somewhat glamourous risk-free way to signal moral, intellectual and cultural rectitude. The real stories of the people who they are supposed to honour – the all-too human complicated and nasty suffering and bravery of peasants, labourers and maybe a student or two – has been reduced to a spice of their sleek aesthetic and a way for those who wield it in the cultural space to connect themselves to and capitalise on the suffering and courage of others.
These monuments have become a perfect canvas for antifascism™: an ideology whose only obvious purpose at the moment has become to provide moral superiority to its adherents, while they promise nothing back to those they supposedly seek to defend from perma-threat of fascism. Antifascists™ in ex-Yugoslav politics not only have very divergent political commitments, from NATO-loving (neo)liberals to various (anarcho)-leftists worshipping rebel movements, but have collapsed the complexity of politics and society into a clear-cut manichean struggle along the lines of Star Wars and Harry Potter. This, of course, is far from a new observation: Pasolini in 1968 warned us of the fetishism of (very real and crucial) antifascism to serve the interests of radical conformists and their egos.
But what makes these memorials perfect so beloved to the warrior posers of antifascism™? After thinking about this for a long while, a few months ago I saw a GIF of the famous monument to the hospital in Moslavina, jumping around like a cute cartoon character, and it really made me think of the criticism that these monuments were a bit too universal in their aesthetic. While we might shout “YOLOcaust” and start an endless campaign against those using them in commercials or music videos, it is a fact that without prior knowledge many of these designs are equally appropriate as context-less beautiful visual props in futuristic sunglass commercials as they are commemorating thousands dead. That, of course, does not give licence for them to be used in commercials for the said sunglasses, but is admittedly strange, given their intended purpose.
Indeed, most of these memorials have to rely heavily on somebody providing context, telling the story, and with the demise of SFRY many of them not only lost their attendants/tour guides who would take visitors around and explain the history, but also the context that makes them more than just aesthetic objects.
This is most obvious in the case of Bogdanović’s (still hotly debated) “flower” monument in Jasenovac. Not only do its breath-taking aesthetic not preclude it being used in a sunglass commercial, but it does also allow future generations to imagine what it means and commemorates very freely. Nothing in its curvy concrete definitely says that it was a place where hundred(s) of thousands of people were killed for their Serbian, Jewish and Roma ethnicities, but on the face of it, it could function as well as monument to an infamous “work camp” or even a place where the Communists killed their opposition (as revisionists now try to depict Jasenovac). Even the poetic idea of it symbolising flowering of hope and peace, was dealt a (decisive?) blow by the fact that ethic conflict erupted around it less than half a century after the last concentration camp victims burst free from it. While of course, every monument ever built in history, needs context and is an ideological tool, few are as opaque and ripe for projection as the SFRY-era ones, which is their greatest strength and weakness.
I really come to wonder what my grandfather would have thought of this, as he was walking around his city as a bourgeois communist before the war, or as he was eating tree barks, actually fighting around Sutjeska with a rag-tag group of people, brought together not by an aesthetic nor some minutely defined ideology, but just by the mundane will to live and maybe some idea of justice on top of that. Probably nothing: he probably would have seen this essay and project as what it is: just another way of shielding oneself from the key questions, which always make me feel uncomfortable: whose side would I have been on back then, without 2020 hindsight? Am I lying to myself thinking I would have been with the good guys? Am I lying to myself thinking I am with the good guys now?