Even Anti-Fascists’ Graves Aren’t Safe from the New Far Right

In Mostar, Bosnia, fascists destroyed the graves of 700 Resistance fighters. The shameful attack is part of a Europe-wide effort to crush the anti-fascist legacy of World War II.

The Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, photographed in November 2015. (Leiris202 / Flickr)

Entering the partisan graveyard in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, I literally stumble on the remnants of a young life. From the fragment of stone I can tell the young anti-Nazi militant lived from 1923–1943, but not make out his name — nor, therefore, his religious or ethnic background. Like all seven hundred graves in the monument, his tombstone was smashed to pieces last week in a coordinated night attack conducted by Croat fascists.

Mostar lives in the shadow of its recent history. As the Yugoslav federation broke up alongside the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, a socialist country known for decades as a site of relative tolerance between minority populations and uniquely open relations with both East and West underwent a rapid reversal. The region was plunged into ethnonationalist war and ethnic partition imposed by both local actors and international powers. The conflict was marked by atrocities committed by all sides but particularly Serbian forces, principal among which was the Srebenica genocide conducted against (Muslim) Bosniaks by (Orthodox Christian) Serbs.

Graffiti at the partisan graveyard in Mostar, before the recent attack. (Matt Broomfield)

In modern-day Mostar, the Bosnian war is commemorated and used to underpin a burgeoning tourist trade in a fashion poignant and repugnant in equal measure. Just €1 will buy you a photo opportunity with a decommissioned AK-47 beside the UNESCO-listed Old Bridge, a seventeenth-century Ottoman construction blown up by Croat forces but since restored. Its heritage cannot be avoided. Less obvious to tourists, perhaps, is the city’s continued division along ethnic lines, with Bosniaks to the east of the river, (Catholic) Croats to the west, and the Serbian population mostly expelled to the Serbian state-within-a-state, Republika Srpska.

When I ask Sead Đulić, head of the local chapter of the Association of Antifascists and Fighters in the People’s Liberation War (SABNOR) and for nearly fifty years a prominent theater director, about the ethnic origin of the partisans buried in the monument, his response is clear: “First and foremost, they were partisans. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, Slovenians. . . . They were all famed for their bravery. But the memorial cemetery has been attacked multiple times since [the fall of communism in] 1992.”

His SABNOR colleague Mirad Ćupina points out that locals, too, are kept in the dark about this longer history of interethnic cooperation against the fascist threat, both during World War II and under Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito: “The local education system is ethnically segregated from kindergarten up, and history lessons stop at the outbreak of World War II.” Murals in the city exhort passers-by to “never forget,” but this instruction is clearly selective.

Indeed, many of the streets in Mostar where tourists now sip Aperol Spritz still bear the name of fascist collaborators like Mile Budak, whose collaborationist, fascist Ustaše movement ruled Nazi Croatia under laws cribbed from Nuremberg, conducted genocide against the Jewish and Roma populations, and forcibly expelled the Serbs; Jure Francetić of the fascist “Black Legion,” which implemented many of these policies; Ustaše foreign minister Mladen Lorković and minister of armed forces Rafael Boban; and collaborationist Catholic cardinal Aloysius Stepinac.

Graffiti at the partisan graveyard in Mostar, before the recent attack. (Matt Broomfield)

These same streets lead through the Croat quarter to the Yugoslav-era World War II monument, prominently located yet hidden by greenery, accessible only along an unkempt and litter-strewn track. The contrast between the well-kept graveyards in the city center housing Bosniak martyrs below Ottoman-style obelisks and kept open to tourist walking tours on the one hand, and the long-derelict partisan graveyard on the other, is clear. Swastikas and Ustaše “U” insignia were daubed over the monuments even before the recent demolition. Flowers have been trampled underfoot.

The desecration of graves is a crime against history, what one might call necrocide or murder of the already dead, denying their progress into memory and rightful commemoration. It is also an immediate statement to the present.

Locals say a group of twenty to thirty street fascists destroyed the graves, working through the night with sledgehammers. As Đulić observes, “They would not be able to do this without the complicity of the police and local government.”

Sead Đulić, head of the local chapter of the Association of Antifascists and Fighters in the People’s Liberation War (right) and his colleague Mirad Ćupina. (Matt Broomfield)

He accuses Mostar’s mayor, Mario Kordic, representing the right-wing nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, of fanning ethnic tensions ahead of the Bosnian general election scheduled for October 2022: “The local government conforms to ideas defeated in 1945, and the local quislings and Hitler copycats are growing strong in this fertile soil for fascism.”

One trigger for the attack is the fact the Yugoslav government expropriated (and paid for) the cemetery plot from the Catholic Church: more broadly, attacks on pan-Yugoslav communist heritage and its multiethnic ideals bolster sectarian ideologues in the region. But these issues cannot be explained away as a matter of outdated local chauvinisms, with no place in a modern Europe.

As Yugoslav anarchist Andrej Grubačić argues in his essay collection Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!, the Balkans should properly be remembered for a history of tolerance despite difference — both prior to the rise of nineteenth-century nationalisms in a premodern patchwork of “Bogomils, klephts, heretics, pirates and rebels,” and in the imperfectly realized ideals of Tito’s Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1992.

“The entire world is against similar actions conducted by ISIS in Syria and Iraq yet silent in the face of this attack,” says Ćupina. “The international community is open to deal with nationalists who are de facto fascists.”

A fragment of a grave. (Matt Broomfield)

In Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova demonstrates that “balkanization” is not the inevitable product of tensions on a backward and fractured peninsula. Rather, in this contested territory, both East and West have sought influence through nationalist strongmen, presenting “balkanization” as an inevitability in order to justify their policies in the region. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovinia lies at the bottom of the international food chain, as Russia exerts pressure via Serbia, and the United States via Turkey. “Those on the corruption blacklist are invited to Brussels, and our country’s three leaders are perpetually in Istanbul, Zagreb, and Belgrade,” adds Ćupina, sketching this triumvirate on the table surface.

With irredentist ethnic tensions on the rise, it is possible the next blows will not only strike at the dead. Serbian nationalist Milorad Dodik recently sparked Bosnia’s worst crisis in years by virtually withdrawing his community from the country’s power-sharing system in protest at the proposed criminalization of Bosnian genocide denial. Calls for fresh ethnic partition have never been louder.

A roadside mural in Mostar.

In response, Đulić and Ćupina call for public education on the evils of fascist nationalism, but state educational programs will remain meaningless absent economic reform. Otherwise, young people will continue to leave the country for the European Union, emigration and death will continue to far outstrip birth rates, and the country will be left with a dwindling population and no demographic to push for change. There are committed young anti-fascists in the country, where official buildings still bear scorch marks from major anti-government protests in 2014, but local activists state this movement dwindled due to lack of political organization or serious alternatives.

For his part, Grubačić argues in favour of “balkanization from below” — “replacing ultra-fine ethnic partition imposed by the West in favor of an anarchistic participatory society built from the bottom up” celebrating and enshrining local difference. It is a utopian vision, harder still to implement in the face of aggressive neoliberalization of the economy and generational indifference. In practice, resistance to conservative nationalism in Mostar takes the form of a waning metal scene, NGO-sponsored social programs, and US-facing trap music escapism.

A continued tradition of leftist football hooliganism notwithstanding, in Mostar “anti-fascist” feels synonymous with what one young local terms an aging and nostalgic Yugoslav “boomer” generation, rather than the youth. “It’s sad, but I want to say this attack is nothing to do with young people,” says the barman and would-be MC at a local youth center. “We just want to smoke weed and party.”

Someone has, at least, been up to the monument to cover up the swastikas and fascist insignia with spray paint. But the partially obscured markings are the palimpsest of a tired political culture, a negative approach to history in which each side endlessly attempts to wipe the other out but no alternative is proposed. The tradition of each dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living, and though Ćupina and Đulić bravely assert “no pasaran” at the close of our interview, there is little sense of what better future might come to pass in fascist nationalism’s stead.