Belgrade War Heritage – From WWII to the Yugoslav Wars

Belgrade, the capital city of today’s Serbia, with a population of 1.3 millions, boasts traces of dating back to the Roman Empire. Strategically located on the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, through the ages it grew to become a major military and trading post.

A city at war – brief historical perspective

In the 19th century, with the foundation of a Kingdom of Serbia free from the Ottoman rule, Belgrade became a capital city of an independent power, right at the geographical center of the Balkan region.

In 1914, tense relations with the better established and more powerful Austrian Empire triggered WWI, where Serbia fought on the side of the winners, gaining territories extending to the Adriatic Sea from the dismembered Austrian empire. These regions were encapsulated in an unprecedented entity, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where Belgrade played again as capital city.

Soon after, WWII saw a bloody and rather unsung front opening in the Balkans, conquered from the north by Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and from the south by fascist Italy. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia ceased to exist, and Belgrade – initially the target of massive air attacks by Germany – was made for a while the capital of a kind of German protectorate. It was in the final years of WWII that communist-led resistance para-military corps led by Marshal Tito, secretly supported by the Western Allies, started operating massively against the Axis. Tito was backed especially by the British, who provided war materiel, staff for tactical decisions and political support.

When Serbia was liberated, with the help of the Red Army attacking from southern Ukraine through today’s Romania on Serbia’s eastern border, Tito raised to power, re-founding Yugoslavia as a communist country extending from Greece to Austria and Italy, and with borders with Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – all the latter three being communist countries, deeply entangled with the Soviet Union. Belgrade was again the capital city of a powerful and strategically relevant state.

Quite oddly from Stalin’s perspective, Tito did not capitulate the sovereignty of Yugoslavia to the USSR – unlike most states in Eastern Europe. This again was possible likely through the support of the West, in the quickly evolving geo-political situation soon after WWII leading to the Cold War, where former allies split on the two sides of the Iron Curtain. As a matter of fact, no Soviet military bases were ever placed in Yugoslavia, a communist country which until the Fifties even obtained war material from the West!

Tito managed to keep his post on the international scene and internally until his death in 1980. Soon after, the artificial ties between the many nations united in Yugoslavia began to crack, and almost at the same time of the end of communism in Eastern Europe, the country literally fell apart. As of now the bloodiest conflicts in post-WWII Europe, the Yugoslavian Wars saw the secession of several new national entities from one another and from Serbia. Belgrade is now the capital city of the Republic of Serbia.

War heritage in Belgrade – What is covered in this chapter

The troubled history of Belgrade as a capital city has left permanent traces in the fort, one of the oldest and most prominent highlights in town. The foundations bear traces of the ancient Roman fort, but a defense bunker dug underground within its premises is a witness of the role of this old part of the town in more recent years.

An ideal setting for a weapons display, the fort is also where the museum of military history can be found. Dating from Tito’s era, this place boasts a remarkable collection of war material from all ages, including WWII, the Cold War and the 1990s. It stands as a perfect counterpart for the air museum, covered in this chapter. Further items of interest include one-of-a-kind memorabilia items belonging to Marshal Tito.

Being Tito’s Yugoslavia capital city, it is no surprise the founder of postwar Yugoslavia was buried here. An extremely interesting purpose-built museum – a major relic of the Cold War era – surrounds the mausoleum. There you can find a massive documentation on the dictator, including signed photographs and gifts from prominent western political leaders – including virtually every US President in office during Tito’s many decades in charge! This witnesses the special status of Marshal Tito in the eyes of western powers.

Another characteristic sight is the ‘Genex Tower’, a unique skyscraper of American size, with a style resembling ‘Blade Runner’ motion picture’s set. A real punch in the eye in the landscape, this is tower is of course another witness of how private enterprises – this time, the Yugoslavian tourism group Genex – could get a prominent status in communist Yugoslavia, differently from Soviet-style fully centralized economies. It is also an example of an original architectural style from the Cold War era, showing the great care given to art and architecture by the communist party of Yugoslavia – another prominent example being ‘spomeniks’, monuments scattered over the entire former territory of the country (see this dedicated chapter).

Similarly interesting is ‘Avala Tower’, a TV tower with an elevated panorama platform from the 1960s. Besides the architectural interest, it is worth mentioning this tower was targeted by NATO air raids in 1999, and completely demolished. It was rebuilt in an identical shape and re-opened only recently.

The oddest among war-connected items in town is the former building of the ministry of defense, close to today’s capital directional center. Having being targeted by NATO bombing raids in 1999 and severely damaged, it was left for years damaged and derelict, a memento for the attack by NATO forces, and the focus of much controversy.

Photographs of these sites are from a visit in Spring 2019.

Map

The sites covered in this chapter can be found on the map below.

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Sights

Military Museum of Belgrade

When getting access to the beautiful historical fort of Belgrade, a vantage point to watch the oldest districts and the rivers, you will hardly miss an impressive array of cannons, howitzers, tanks and missile batteries from earlier than Napoleon to the Cold War.

This rich collection is the outside part of the Military Museum of Belgrade. Founded back in Tito’s era, this museums offers an overview of the war history of this war-battered part of the world, since ancient times to the latest Yugoslavian Wars of the 1990s.

The collection features interesting items especially from WWII, including pieces of German make, as well as from the Cold War period, like Soviet-made ‘Katyusha’ launchers and SAM batteries.

Despite the initial struggle with Stalin, after the latter’s death, relations with the USSR improved. Since then, military supply for Yugoslavia mainly came from the USSR, flanked by a non-negligible domestic production.

The indoor collection starts from much back in time, with weapons dating from the centuries of the struggle against the Ottoman rule. A major section is dedicated to the 19th century, when the Kingdom of Serbia was founded. As known, the spark for WWI came from the Balkans. Serbia took part to the war on the side of the Entente. As a result, after WWI the Kingdom of Serbia increased its territory and became known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia since the late 1920s.

Resulting from the political union of peoples of diverse ethnicity, religion, language and commercial vocation, this kingdom never experienced much stability. As a matter of fact, king Alexander I was murdered on a visit to France by Macedonian fighters for independence. The blood stained shirt of the king following the assassination – notably the first such event to be video recorded, albeit in 1934 quality – is preserved in the museum.

Like elsewhere in Europe, WWII years saw the suppression of the existing institutions. In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by neighboring Hitler’s Germany (which at that time was a single entity with Austria). The Nazi rule was implemented in the region of today’s Serbia, administrated by a German-backed local government. Items from this era are abundant, and include maps, weaponry and uniforms.

Of special interest are also the double-language notices – in German and Serbian – produced by Nazi Germany, with the distinctive eagle and swastika (similar to what you can find in the occupied territories of the USSR, see for instance here).

Also interesting are the bounty signs about Tito and other ‘comrades’ – the resistance movements were well organized and supplied, with the backing of Western Allies operating from Greece and southern Italy in the latter years of the war, thus creating real troubles to the invading powers.

Despite that, also improvised weapons were used, presented in the museum. Being an installation from Tito’s time, the operations of the communist-led resistance para-military units is showcased with flags, banners, uniforms and weapons.

A true relic in the museum is made of a small collection of Marshal Tito’s own uniforms and everyday items. These include some field items – torchlight, map magnifier – as well as more personal belongings – glasses, a USSR souvenir, apparently a pencil case, and more.

Some interesting photographs include portraits of US staff and aircraft operating from Yugoslavia, as well as a copy of the declaration of support to Tito’s army from the participants to the Tehran conference – Churchill, Stalin and president Roosevelt.

A very Soviet-style part of the museum is a kind of memorial, with a statue of Tito and a myriad of banners from various military groups – a kind of homage – completed by a massive engraved metal map of communist Yugoslavia.

A significant part of the museum deals with the 1990s wars. These include the early secession war mainly opposing Croatia, but deeply involving Bosnia-Herzegovina. Weapons of the Croatian army are on display.

A latter part is devoted to the war with Kosovo, which resulted in an open, mainly air-fought conflict against overwhelming NATO forces. From the fierce and polemical titles of the display cases in this latest part of the museum, it is clear that this fragment of history is still an open wound in the collective memory of Serbia. Maps of NATO bombing incursions have been created, and curiously translated into English, for the eyes of western visitors.

More substantial remains from this relatively recent struggle can be found at the air museum of Belgrade, covered in this post, in the form of wrecks of downed aircraft and western missile bodies.

Visiting

The museum is a major attraction among those scattered over the premises of the fort. Access to the outdoor part, surely deserving a walk-through also for those not particularly interested in history, is free of charge, and may be very appealing for the kids. The indoor collection is extremely interesting for war historians or history-minded people, but the exhibition may be hard for children. Most items are labeled also in English, making the visit interesting. Visiting the inside part may take from .5 to more than 1 hour, depending on your level of interest. A photo permit is required to take pictures inside. Website with info here.

Mystery Bunker in the Fort of Belgrade

This bunker is poorly advertised, and only scarce on-site descriptions are provided. It is basically made of a tunnel built close to a the most panoramic corner of the fortress. Access is via a narrow stair, giving access to a U-shaped corridor, connecting two double-floor underground circular towers.

On the lower floor of the towers, sleeping rooms for troops can be found, together with water tanks. On the upper floor what appears as an unfinished or lately interred firing position for high-caliber artillery can be found.

Construction is similar to some installations of the Atlantic Wall (see for instance here and here), hence it may date from WWII or soon after.

Due to the (strangely) scant description, it is hard to tell the history of this mystery bunker, and I am only guessing its function.

Visiting

The site can be visited with an inexpensive ticket, to be purchased (cash only) by the entrance to the helical pit, a much more advertised attraction nearby. To be honest, nobody checked my ticket once by the entrance to the bunker, which at a first glance can be confused with a backyard deposit (it is really not much celebrated as an attraction). Anyway, I came across a Serbian-speaking small guided group on my visit, so there must be chance of getting inside like that, enjoying some better explanation. Visiting alone may take 15 minutes. A little info on the site of the Fortress, here.

Marshal Tito’s Mausoleum and Memorabilia Museum

This installation lies to the back of the older building of the Museum of Yugoslavia, dating from Tito’s era and currently closed for renovation (2020). The neighborhood is very nice, with buildings of many embassies. The mausoleum and the annexed museum are part of a nice ensemble, surrounded by a garden. A very modern entrance hall with shop and services has been prepared at the entrance.

The burial place of Marshal Tito is in a greenhouse-like building, pretty nice and peaceful. The tomb is definitely plain and not bombastic, nothing you would expect from a dictator. Tito’s wife is buried nearby.

To the sides of the building you can find a well designed exhibition including personal belongings of Tito, parts of his office furniture, as well as pictures – including a magnified one with dignitaries attending his funeral ceremony in 1980.

A small excerpt of the huge collection of scepters, a traditional gift offered to Tito by every group or local society on his domestic visits, can be visioned here. Some of these are really nicely crafted, some are funny – some are really kitschy and caricatural.

A second part of the installation is hosted in a small, separate building. Here an incredible collection of gifts, personal belongings, photographs, authentic papers from the fund of the Museum of History about momentous events in Yugoslavian history, autographs and scepters can be found.

Of special interest are the official portraits – often signed – of presidents, dignitaries, kings and queens from various ages and from all over the world. This collection witnesses the relative popularity of Marshal Tito in the West, even though NATO forces never trusted him fully – the missile defense system placed in northeastern Italy in the 1960s and 1970s is a clear memory of that (see this post).

Similar to Ceausescu’s house in Bucharest (see here), the items on display make for a very vivid memory of Marshal Tito life and actions, and really bring back the man from history. Really an evoking place those interested in the Cold War can’t miss out!

Visiting

This attraction can be easily reached by car, a few minutes from central Belgrade, in a nice and safe neighborhood (see map). The local name is ‘Kuca Cveca’. As a branch of the Museum of Yugoslavia, it is modernly managed and has been recently revamped, making the visit enjoyable and interesting. For those with an interest in the Cold War era or Tito’s life and legacy, a visit to this site may easily take 1-1.5 hours on a self-guided basis, despite the place being relatively small and easy to tour. Guided tours are possible as well, info on the official website (in English) here.

Genex Tower

An internationally known piece of contemporary architecture, this strange looking massive skyscraper can be clearly spotted from the fortressof Belgrade, looking west towards ‘Nikola Tesla’ airport. It was built between 1977 and 1980, and is made of two bodies connected at the top through an elevated platform.

The name Genex Tower comes from the legacy Genex company, a large tour operator from the Yugoslavian era, operating even an independent airline, Aviogenex, flying mainly touristic routes conveying visitors from western Europe to the beautiful coast of Dalmatia. This openness of Yugoslavia to western tourism has been an uncommon characteristic in the panorama of communist-led countries. Overt trade relations with the West contributed to a higher standard of living of Yugoslav population, compared to the USSR-controlled Eastern Bloc neighbors.

The tower is today partly a relic. The half once hosting the offices of Genex and its subsidiaries is mostly empty, even though not abandoned – there is a porter apparently living there, and willing to answer your questions on the history of the place! Going beyond the entry hall is not possible, but the hall itself deserves a glance – built with style, it is much more pleasant than the outside of the building!

The atmosphere is really evocative of the Cold War era. Like other buildings – mainly hotels – in former Yugoslavia, the style of the interior somehow recalls the old-fashioned luxury of some older James Bond movie setting!

The residential part is still inhabited as a high-rise condominium. The entrance is via a small door, but despite the derelict appearance of the small square ahead of the building, it looks normally cared for.

The circular platform on top of the tower used to host a panorama restaurant, today long gone.

The view of the platform from between the two main bodies from the base makes for a peculiar photographic set – as a matter of fact, professional photographers were taking pictures  from that spot for a fashion review!

Visiting

The tower can be reached by car, a few minutes north of the city center. This is basically a non-public building, so while visiting is not possible, the open, unfenced premises at the base of the tower allow walking freely around the tower. The neighborhood is densely populated and safe, despite the base of the tower not looking good, due to disrepair. Parking opportunities all around. A walk around the base may take 15 minutes. If you like to get inside the hall of the largely unused (as of 2020) commercial building, you may also have a chat with the porter about the history of the place. The visit won’t be much longer, anyway.

Avala Tower

This tower is located south of Belgrade, and is a vantage point for observing the town and the countryside around. The original tower was completed between 1961 and 1964, entering the world’s top-ten list of tallest buildings at the height of the Cold War era. That tower was targeted by NATO bombing in 1999 and destroyed. It was rebuilt between 2007 and 2009, mostly identical to the original design.

It is today a renowned tourist attraction. A remarkable engineering and design masterpiece, the tower boasts an uncommon three-leg base, giving a shape well fitting in the years of the space age when it was designed – despite the inspiration being reportedly from a three-legged Serbian traditional chair.

The platform on top can be reached via a fast elevator. Strange massive condominiums in the southern outskirts of Belgrade can be clearly spotted from here, but the most striking feature is the wild countryside surrounding Belgrade, really a spot in the green.

Not far from the tower, the interesting Monument to the Unknown Soldier from the 1930s is a remarkable national shrine from the years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Visiting

The Avala Tower can be reached by car in about 45 minutes from central Belgrade – mainly due to traffic, since it is not geographically far (see map). Parking on site. The place is managed as a modern large scale attraction, website here.

The Monument to the Unknown Soldier is open 24/7, a quick and interesting detour from the tower, with a dedicated small parking close to a fashionable ‘old-Europe’ vintage hotel. Explanatory panels nearby.

Ruins of the Ministry of Defense

The building of the ministry of defense was targeted during a bombing raid in April 1999, and severely damaged. An administrative building right in today’s administrative district of downtown Belgrade, it has been left mostly untouched for years now, as a memento of the war against the NATO alliance.

Two buildings can be seen cross the street. Part of the corresponding blocks are still in use, and for safety reasons portions of the damaged buildings have been finally demolished in recent years. More and more plans to convert this very central area to something else have been elaborated, as memory of the troubled 1990s is slowly fading.

Visiting

The place can be reached easily with a walk from the historical and shopping districts of Belgrade (see map). The buildings are inaccessible, and can be seen from the outside. A 5 minutes stop along your walk may suffice to check this item.

STASI Prisons and Headquarters in Berlin and the GDR

Heading to Berlin or the former GDR? Looking for traces of the Cold War open for a visit?

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Among the most unequivocal signs of the oppressive communist dictatorship in the former German Democratic Republic – ‘GDR’ or ‘DDR’ in German – are probably the many buildings once operated by the STASI, the German cousin of the well-known Soviet KGB.

Being a state security service by its very name – STASI stands for ‘STAat SIcherheit’, or state security -, this organization was responsible for the capillary control over the behavior of the citizens of the GDR, to the aim of counteracting any threat to the communist rule. It was mainly composed of a para-military staff and of an extensive network of informers – so extensive that actually about 1 out of 180 in Eastern Germany worked for the STASI, while by comparison in the USSR 1 out of 595 worked for the KGB. The main goal of this agency was keeping the statu quo, hence any suspect behavior of East-German citizens, deemed subversive with respect to the communist rule, was reported, investigated and usually suppressed.

People found guilty of acts against the State – i.e. against the communist government – were often sentenced to years of imprisonment. This meant that prisons and camps flourished in the GDR, as people got arrested and at least kept for interrogation just for having received western newspapers or having colored their rooms with posters of American pop singers. How the STASI came to know of similar ‘violations’ was by means of informers, who triggered secret investigations carried out with ‘James Bond gear’, like cameras and microphones hidden in coat buttons and bags. Microphones and cameras were also usually installed in the walls, chandeliers and doors of the houses of suspected subjects.

This huge institution was among the most feared and hated – as well as expensive to run – in the GDR, and soon after the reopening of the border and the demolition of the wall in Berlin in 1989 many of its buildings were occupied by the population. To deny responsibility in the unfair trial, imprisonment and confinement of many citizens, the staff of the STASI began ‘burning’ its archives immediately, but they were so extensive that this rapidly turned out to be impossible. The STASI was disbanded among the first governmental agencies of the GDR in the early months of 1990, even before the two halves of Germany were merged. Finally the archives were made publicly available during the process of the German reunification. Many people came to know they had been carefully observed and spied in every movement during their everyday life.

Today, some of the most prominent buildings once operated by the STASI are open to the public and represent an interesting and worrying memento of this chapter of the history of Germany. The following photographs are from some such sites I visited in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

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STASI Headquarters, Berlin-Lichtenberg

The headquarters of the STASI occupied an extensive citadel composed of many big, multi-storey buildings. Like the KGB, the tasks of the STASI weren’t limited to internal state security, but also to border protection – a very serious business in Eastern Germany, as you can see from another page of this site dedicated to the German inner border – and espionage activities abroad. The various directorates occupied their respective buildings in the citadel. The place is in a semi-peripheral district of former East Berlin named Lichtenberg.

The main building hosts a museum of central relevance on the topic, where you can find much data about the history and the impressive size of this agency, as well as spy gear – for instance mimetic microphones for listening to conversations in private houses. The stories of some of the victims of the communist surveillance machine are also reported. Envelope-opening devices and rags for preserving the odor of those arrested for watchdogs are displayed in showcases.

Probably the highlight of the museum is the apartment and office of Erich Mielke, the director of the STASI from 1957 – well before the wall was erected in Berlin – up to the dissolution of the GDR. Many original directional offices have been preserved and nowadays can be visited.

The place is very evocative and retains much of the disturbing ‘GDR atmosphere’, typical to this and other similar installations. The number of visitors is much lower than close to Checkpoint Charlie and the DDR museum near the Berliner Dom, which are mostly cheesy tourist attractions with comparatively little content. On the contrary, in this museum you can still easily perceive the commitment of the GDR goverment towards its own survival, and the proportion of the oppressive apparatus that was created to this aim – here you clearly understand the STASI was a serious business and changed the life of many people.

After visiting the museum in the central building you may have a look around to the exterior of other buildings in the citadel, today mostly unused, abandoned or partially occupied by private businesses – I guess the place still retains for many people a very negative aura.

Getting there and moving around

Today the citadel can be reached very conveniently by car or with the U5 (between the stops Magdalenen Strasse and Frankfurter Allee). The museum is fairly modern and well presented, but as of 2015 when I visited the ticket could be paid only cash and some explanations were in German only. Inside the museum there is no air conditioning, and it can be very hot and uncomfortable in summer. Parking is not a problem in front of the main entrance or nearby. Website here.

STASI Prison and Restricted Area, Berlin-Hohenschönhausen

The second largest quarters of the STASI are located in yet another outer district of former East Berlin. Old photographs of the area clearly show that this part of the town was interdicted to visitors not connected with the business of the STASI – there used to be fences and gates all around, cutting some of the roads entering the district. Besides some directorates and administrative buildings, this citadel hosted a prison and a labor camp. The former was the main STASI prison in East Berlin, and those who were arrested on account of suspect activities against the State were usually carried here, where they had to withstand interrogations.

This place is really grim and appalling. It looks like the staff of the prison had just left. Everything from what you see to the smell of the cells, offices and interrogation rooms is totally evocative of the original GDR atmosphere.

The STASI became the owner of the place in 1951, after the Soviets, who had managed the occupied territory directly after the German capitulation in 1945, left control of many administrative functions following the creation of the GDR. Under the Soviet rule, in the years of Stalin between 1945 and 1951, a labor camp was set up here and the main building of the prison – a former canteen for Nazi staff – opened for business. More than 20’000 people passed through this installation between 1945 and 1951, many of them on their way to deportation to the USSR.

Under the control of the STASI, the camp was dedicated to non-political prisoners, where the prison, enlarged in more instances as the STASI citadel was growing up, was for the ‘enemies of the State’. More than 20’000 people were imprisoned here between 1951 and 1990.

The place can be visited only on guided tours, offered on a regular basis also in English. Following the tour you can see various imprisonment cells. The worst – and really inhumane – from the times of the Soviets are in the basement of the main building, with no windows and no ventilation, where many people were crushed together waiting for interrogation or deportation.