Was Dancing Possible During the Fascist Occupation of Yugoslavia?

Was Dancing Possible During the Fascist Occupation of Yugoslavia?

Gal Kirn
The paper focuses on the lesser-known moments of the partisan performances from the Yugoslav liberation struggle by highlighting three points: firstly, all of the analysed performances have survived in the form of photographs by the established contemporaneous partisan photographers Jože Petek and Edi Šelhaus. Secondly, Marta Paulin-Brina, who became the most famous partisan dancer, will be commented on through the prism of the partisan poem “Anthem to Agitprop Theatre” by Janez Kardelj. And thirdly, we will look at the performances of partisan school children that formed a star, a symbol of partisan resistance, and the name ‘Tito’ with their bodies in a snowy field. Despite the political recommendation that partisan photography should be limited to reportage and documentation, the last case studies serve as evidence of peculiar staging and performing for the partisan camera and thus subvert the propagandistic reductionism. These performances were addressing the community-in-resistance, that is, they expressed symbols of the liberation itself, and even anticipated the future ritual performance under the aegis of the Titoist state.
Marta Paulin-Brina; Josip Broz Tito; Yugoslavia; People’s Liberation Struggle; partisan performances; dance; intermediality; photographic archive of the liberation; Anthem to Agitational Theatre.

Partisan Art in the Midst of the Second World War Drama

The horrors of the Second World War helped undermine belief in ‘humanity’ and ‘historical progress’. Why would we, then, entertain any ideas of progressive artistic practices and performances existing at that time? Even if something like that had existed, should we not simply conclude that – paraphrasing Cicero’s “Silent enim lēgēs inter arma” – art in such times was rendered silent? Some research on wartime art and media as propaganda subjugates them to ethnic engineering and aestheticisation of war technology (Benjamin 2003). However, rather than imagining a sort of danse macabre that revisits and performs on a corpse-strewn field, I would like to suggest that precisely rethinking the arts – their existence and experimental nature – in the darkest hour might be the arts’ hardest test. Moreover, does not the existence of liberatory partisan art demonstrate that, even in such times, it was possible to retain human dignity and retrieve ‘humanity’? This essay revisits some case studies of partisan performances by the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Struggle (PLS), the key political and military organisation that waged the struggle against the fascist occupation and local collaborationist regime and formations.1 This text takes a position that the PLS also represents the most exciting political and cultural movement in twentieth-century Balkan history (see also Komelj 2008, Kirn 2019b). Not only did the Yugoslav partisans lead a successful antifascist resistance that liberated the occupied territories, but even during the war they also started a social revolution that expanded the liberated territories and established its own political and cultural infrastructure (Kirn 2019b: 47-65).2 The PLS received its political form on 29 November 1943 in Jajce, when the delegates of People’s Liberation Committees from across Yugoslavia confirmed the decision to constitute revolutionary government and a federal Yugoslavia. This revolutionary political act was internationally recognised by the Allies, days after, at the Tehran conference.3 This intense political process was accompanied by extensive cultural activities that transformed masses of (semi)illiterate workers, peasants, and women, prompting them to start reading, writing and performing poems. The masses became an integral part of the partisan cultural activities, as Miklavž Komelj claimed:

It was not necessary for the masses who spoke up for the first time to formulate revolutionary slogans; they were included in the revolutionary process simply by the very gesture of speaking out. The liberation struggle also brought freedom of expression – that is, to people who had been denied this right before; but they had fought for it and started exerting it. (Komelj 2008: 104-105; my translation – G. K.)

During the war, the cultural field became a democratised space open for the masses and characterised by enthusiasm for the political urgency of liberation. Partisan culture was not simply instrumentalised by the communist elite sending directives from above (no effective central authority existed that could keep the dispersed network of local resistances in check), nor did it sustain pre-war bourgeois autonomy and its institutions, which had once guarded artistic engagement. Quite the opposite; in the impossible circumstances of occupation, when materials to practise the arts and develop cultural infrastructure were extremely scarce, partisan art succeeded in ensuring a rupture with the concepts of both Party control and pre-war bourgeois artistic autonomy (Komelj 2008). The PLS involved a cultural renaissance that was exemplified in the mobile amateur and professional theatre and other groups (Milohnić 2016), 40,000 poems and songs, written mostly by anonymous poets but also by some famous ones (Dedijer 1980), partisan photography, graphic design, paintings, statues and sculptures, performances, dance, exhibitions, and even partisan films (Komelj 2008, Kraševec 1985, Kirn 2020). The PLS triggered a revolutionary process that had tremendous consequences for culture and art. First of all, it transformed the concept of the masses as passive spectators, consumers of propaganda, turning them into “emancipated spectators” (Rancière 2011), that is, spectators who became active participants in the cultural and reflective process. Also, the old concept of cultural space as designated only for the cultural elite was abolished. Partisan art was not an aesthetic ornament of the People’s Liberation Struggle and the resistance but rather a relatively autonomous force that created and performed the symbolic imagery of the resistance and the future of the new Yugoslavia. In a world dominated by weapons of mass destruction, the precarious space of partisan arts and the multiplicity of partisan art formats became “weapons of mass creativity”. The PLS can thus not be envisioned without partisan art or, as I will show, without the desire to depict – in advance – a different and as-yet-nonexistent new world. This was a very different community of Yugoslavia, based on antifascist solidarity and principles of transnational community, which at that time actually existed behind the partisan slogan of “brotherhood and unity”. In this respect, the national aspect of liberation – to emancipate all nations and nationalities from the fascist occupation and the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia – was coupled to a new idea of Yugoslavism and social liberation that entailed building a socialist country after the war (Kirn 2019a).

Despite the ongoing right-wing revisionism that attempts to erase and demonise the partisan and socialist past (Kirn 2019b), we should highlight recent artistic, institutional and academic attempts to retrieve the partisan legacy productively rather than nostalgically. These have included the curatorial collective WHW from Croatia, Liljana Stepančić’s Partisan Print exhibition on Partisan Print at MGLC in Ljubljana, (2004) and the permanent exhibition of partisan art in the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana).4 Furthermore, at the level of the collective public memory, Ana Hoffman (2016) was correct in her argument that partisan songs and their collective singing continues to re-actualise the memory of the partisan past. We could add that the partisan collective memory is also sustained through the most commodified cultural legacy represented in the body of partisan films: the epic spectacles produced in the 1960s and 1970s.

Current critical research into partisan art focuses on poetry (poems and songs), graphic art, photography, and theatre, because of the above-mentioned exhibitions, and the fact that they were documented fairly well in socialist Yugoslavia and there have been some good critical studies. Most notably, Aldo Milohnić’s articles and edited volumes (2015, 2016, 2018) on the Yugoslav partisan theatre covered some of its most exciting moments: from agitational short performances with sketches, puppet theatre, and theatre of the liberation struggle to the silent whispering theatre. For the purposes of the theme of this issue, I will focus on the lesser known moments and formats of partisan performances and offer a novel way of understanding them in an intermedial perspective.

Three points need to be highlighted: first, all the partisan performances that I will analyse have survived in the form of photographs by the established contemporaneous partisan photographers Jože Petek and Edi Šelhaus. Second, Marta Paulin-Brina, who became the most famous partisan dancer, will be commented on through the prism of the partisan poem “Himna agitteatru” [Anthem to Agitprop Theatre] by Janez Kardelj. And third, we will look at performances involving two potent symbols – Tito and the star – by a directed constellation of partisan school children’s bodies. Despite the political recommendation that partisan photography should be limited to reportage and documentation (Brenk 1979), the last case studies serve as an evidence of peculiar staging and performing for the partisan camera that subverts the propagandistic reductionism. These performances were addressing the community-in-resistance, that is, they expressed symbols of the liberation itself, and even anticipated the future ritual performance under the aegis of the Titoist state.

Anthem to Agitational Theatre: Multiplicity of Voices, Images, Performances

Marta Paulin-Brina is a famous name in the history of Yugoslav and Slovenian performing arts. Her initial fame arguably stemmed from her dance performances during the PLS. As a member of the cultural group of the XIV Division of the Slovenian Liberation Army, she was not only in charge of different cultural activities but also actively participated in military combat. One of her answers to the question of how she could dance in front of partisans was that she could find the “correct language of movement only because of the people and the partisan poem, which was understood by everyone” (Paulin-Brina 1975: 25; emphasis in the original). Here, Marta Paulin-Brina is referring to partisan poetry in general rather than to a particular poem (cf. Komelj 2008) – in particular, she refers to the general reception and enthusiasm when reciting poems to and singing songs with people. However, one poem contains prophetic lines and, to a significant degree, describes the novelty and rupture of partisan art. It is entitled “Himna agitteatru” / “Anthem to Agitprop Theatre” (1942), and I would like, in a retrospective reading, to relate it to Marta’s partisan dance, which we can see as an effective materialisation, a performance of the manifesto-like theses from the “Anthem”.

On hearing the word “anthem”, one immediately associates it with a particular melody and words, i.e. with the symbolic representation of one’s own nation-state. From its liturgical origins to the period of national awakening, anthems are seen as an important performative part of the process of creating and recreating an “imagined community” (Anderson 2010) through rituals and various media. Kelen (2014) conducted extensive research into the role and ways in which a particular poem – anthem – results in an ideological effect that weaves together and builds a community. In short, singing in the same space, or in distant spaces, means the coming together of very different members of the community. This performs and enacts the community itself.5 During the Yugoslav liberation struggle, there was no single anthem, but rather a proliferation of diverse anthems (Kirn 2020). Recognising this multiplicity of anthems and partisan voices as well as images, gestures, and performances is essential for understanding their equal weight in contributing to the creation of a new partisan community. The multiplicity of anthems did not follow a single “interpellation” of individuals as “citizen-subjects” into a single “nation-state” under the rule of one person (Tito). Instead, we can trace, read out loud, and listen to the specific encounter between partisan politics and art which demonstrates the fundamental difference between the partisan community and the sovereignist model that is organised around a central authority.6 Partisan anthems imply unity through the multiplicity of subjects, groups, and positions.

In the case of “Anthem to Agitprop Theatre”7, we can speak of a deeply prophetic vision described by Janez Kardelj.8 His central goal was to organise partisan theatre – an ambition thwarted by his early death in 1942. The anthem can be seen as a meditation and an attempt at answering the question of how to engage in partisan art in such impossible circumstances. I argue that this anthem is a crystallisation of the years-long process of cultural activities of a group of six other partisans and cultural workers who organised meetings, recited poems accompanied by a guitar, and performed agit-stories in the villages of Stari Log, Grintovec, and elsewhere (cf. Kraševec 1985: 32). Additionally, this cultural group was preparing to perform some of the first partisan theatre plays, for which the renowned poet Matej Bor contributed his first partisan play Heavy Hour. The group, however, never staged these plays because it was interrupted by the fascist offensive in May 1942.9 All the members of the cultural group except for the poet Ivan Rob died during the ‘Rog Offensive’.10 The Agitprop Theatre, which produced and performed its own theatre plays, was formed a year later. In addition, the Theatre of the People’s Liberation, which was experimenting across the liberated territories in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was very active as of 1943.11 I will argue that this was their anthem in that it drew abundantly from the initial experiences of partisan cultural production and dissemination which heralded the ambitious expectations of what partisan art would then become.

“Himna agitteatru”

Mi vsi smo tu igralci – partizani,
naš dom nikjer, a oder naš povsod.
Borilcem smo tovariši ob strani,
sedaj smo tu, a jutri spet drugod.

Besede naše siti, domišljavi
Gospodi v lozah glave ne vedre.
V teatru svetlem ne, temveč v goščavi
junaku – borcu dvigajo srce.

Zelena hosta nam je zdaj dvorana,
reflektor – mesec ji sije z neba
in nič več nam je priznanje partizana
kot ves aplavz buržujskega sveta.

Kadar zvečer v temo se gozd odeva
in vanj zaveje tajnostni šepet,
takrat skoz noč med skalami odmeva
besede naše svobodni polet!

In dasi v dalji se izgublja glas
kot zvezd utrinek z nočnega neba,
a vendar tisoči pojo iz nas
smo kot utrip ogromnega srca! (Paternu et al. 1998: 257)

“Anthem to Agitprop Theatre”

All of us here are partisan actors,
Our home is nowhere, our stage everywhere.
We are comrades at our fighters’ side,
Now we are here, tomorrow somewhere else.

Our words will not enlighten
The conceited well-fed gentlemen in theatre boxes.
Not under floodlights but in a deep forest
They lift the hearts of fighter heroes.

The green forest is now our auditorium
The moon the floodlight shining in the sky
The recognition by our fellow partisans
Means more than all the applause of the bourgeois world.

When the evening envelops the forest in darkness
And through it a secretive whisper runs,
Then through the night between the rocks
Echoes the free flight of our words!

And even though the voices disappear in the distance
Like shooting stars from the night sky,
Even then a thousand voices sing from within us
We are like the beating of an enormous single heart. (my translation – G.K.)

This poem touches on practically all the major topics that can still be seen as pivotal for the social and aesthetic transformation in any struggle. Its programmatic nature – agitational theatre has an openly propagandistic character – does not exclude the author from profiling “contingent” moments in the cultural process.Everyone can be a partisan actor or artist (contingent agency); “Our home is nowhere – our stage [is] everywhere” [the contingent space of the home and performance]; “Now we are here, tomorrow somewhere else [the mobility of space]; against the audience of the masters/the elite – the applause of the partisan masses (the heterogeneity and openness of the masses against a homogenous bourgeois audience). This contingency, which pins down and explores a further surplus over the war situation does not fall from the sky and would be impossible to conceive of without the liberation struggle. It was the liberation process that made this radical contingency necessary.12

More concretely, the anthem addresses the elementary modality of partisan cultural work, which had to be in constant flux, day and night, in cities as well as villages. At the same time, partisan artists and cultural workers needed to be inventive, conceiving new ‘floodlights’ that become the “moon in the sky” or a small fire in the deep forest, which at night performs an additional dance of/with shadows.13 Furthermore, the anthem conveys a strong farewell message to established institutions, abandoning the bourgeois canon and audience, while partisan artists discover their stage as deterritorialised – as being anywhere. This does not mean that nothing had existed before partisan culture emerged. There were in the PLS prewar artists and communists activists and leaders, who made major contributions to the organisation of cultural campaigns. In the early stages, various established pre-war artists joined the partisans, but in the new conditions they had to significantly alter conventional ideas of how to “do art”. The situation forced them to further experiment with modest means, but with enthusiastic support from the partisans and people. These artists had to “unlearn” much of their previous cultural engagement, and practise the maxim that “our stage is everywhere” in the liberated territories and in the illegal underground. Imagine small events in basements, or those theatre performances that took place in stables with minimal lighting, whispered because the enemy was just a few hundred metres away (Milohnić 2016). This capacity and awareness of the modality and space of intervention relates to another key dimension: the specificity of partisan cultural production and dissemination. Anyone who had the talent or desire to become a partisan cultural worker or artist would be taken on board.

Partisan artists then participated in creating and addressing their new audiences: villagers and fellow partisan fighters. The author of the poem stresses that their recognition mattered more than “all the applause of the bourgeois world.” This was a proper coming together of the masses and the partisans, where established artists, anonymous poets, amateur designers, actors, and singers created a culture of struggle. Lastly and most importantly, the poet concludes the poem by highlighting the silencing and the “disappearing voice” of the partisan resistance. Despite the distance and gradual disappearance of any particular cultural performance, song, or theatre play, the echoes reach out and extend to yet another multiplicity of voices, as “a thousand voices sing” and unite in the “beating” heart of the resistance. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “monument to revolution” (1994) is structured precisely around such echoes and visions bringing together the community-in-resistance, performing and living in the future partisan community:

A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future the persistent sensations that embody the event: the constantly renewed suffering of men and women, their re-created protestations, their constantly resumed struggle. Will this all be in vain because suffering is eternal and revolutions do not survive their victory? But the success of a revolution resides only in itself, precisely in the vibrations, clinches, and openings it gave to men and women at the moment of its making and that composes in itself a monument that is always in the process of becoming, like those tumuli to which each new traveler adds a stone. The victory of a revolution is immanent and consists in the new bonds it installs between people, even if these bonds last no longer than the revolution's fused material and quickly give way to division and betrayal. (Deleuze, Guattari 1994: 176–177)

The Conditions of the (im)Possibility of Marta Paulin-Brina’s Dance: the Partisan Struggle and Poetry

I would like to compare this anthem and its political message to another partisan medium, namely to Marta Paulin-Brina’s dance, and to claim that her partisan performances represent the most striking realisation, materialisation, and re-mediatisation of poetry into dance. Already a modern dancer before the war,14 Marta Paulin-Brina joined a partisan cultural group when invited to perform on a heavily symbolic occasion, the inauguration of the Rab partisan brigade which comprised liberated survivors, among them hundreds of Jews, of the concentration camp on the Italian-occupied island of Rab. The event was fuelled by the symbolism of homecoming and the struggle for freedom after the horrific experiences in the concentration camp. Paulin-Brina struggled with the question of how to dance among partisans on such an occasion, and her self-reflection of the partisan cultural technique explains her dance performance best:

I became a dancer where nature became my stage. Instead of on a wooden stage, I now dance everywhere. The feeling of balance becomes a “problem” again; the muscles work differently, because a leg may search for support either on stones or on soft ground. This was the first thing I noticed. But there was more to this. This immense natural space provides opportunities and calls for the expansion of movement. From restricted motion and gesture in the closed theatre, one can then create a whole march in the open space of a natural stage. This is also how dance movements could become big, clear, and broad – that is, if I wanted to somehow command this enormous space and establish myself in it. I also danced alone. In the process of creation, my co-dancer was perhaps left to his own devices more than all other artists, as he had to react to my thoughts without any external help. Alone with his mind and body, this “something” had to be created. Conventional and unpersuasive ballet “grace” would immediately wither away in nature, it would even become comical. In our case, there was no so-called ballet in the broad sense of the word, but we could speak of dance expression rooted in the liberated ground, with human participation in the historical creation of a nation or a people. It was about the participation in the liberation struggle of people that knew no despair and were aware of their strength and historical mission. Dance calls for a struggle, and in this struggle, it is winning; it unfolds in joy; because of the struggle and constant effort, because of its power and its very historical act. (Paulin-Brina 1975: 25; my translation).

Marta Paulin-Brina dances on the occasion of the oath and foundation of the Rab Brigade, 23 September 1943, Mašun. Photo: Jože Petek. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia.

The strength of Marta and her performance was in the first line drawn from the liberation struggle itself, its historical mission of liberation and determination of the partisans to conduct it (cf. Pristaš 2015). However, how can one dance if one is besieged, occupied, stripped from basic infrastructure? Again, Paulin-Brina gives a lucid answer:

In this dance circle, we could all hold each other’s hands. Ours was a closed circle: in our efforts and in suffering, in the midst of sighs and smiles and laughter – we were closely bound together. When I became a dancer, I found myself standing alone in front of a mass of fighters. I had this awareness of what I could do with my gift for dancing and my weak body, but how I could express that something, that which brought us together, and how would I be able to command this extensive natural space? Suddenly, I felt an immense power in my legs, as I stood up and pushed down hard against the ground of the earth. My hands felt the horizons outlined by the forests and climbed over the peaks of the trees. My dancing did not imitate anything that could be associated with formalistic moves. I rejected almost everything that I had learned during all the years of my dance school training. I searched for a dance expression, original and fresh, which emerged from the human need to move. I found it in the game of balance with dynamic, rhythmical, and voluminous dimensions, in the tension and relaxation. Dance expression was a consequence of my internal engagement. That I found this correct language of movement was only possible because of the people and the partisan poetry, which was understood by everyone. (Paulin-Brina 1975: 25–26; my translation and emphasis)15

Marta Paulin-Brina dances on the occasion of the oath and foundation of the Rab Brigade, 23 September 1943, Mašun. Photo: Jože Petek. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia.

Paulin-Brina’s self-reflection expresses one of the most profound insights into partisan dance and art and I would sum it up in the following way: despite being highly skilled in modern dance techniques, she had to first “unlearn” these techniques and relearn dancing in new conditions and in front of a new audience. Thus, she had to encounter and experience all the unexpected varieties of the landscape while simultaneously carrying a deep awareness of her mission. She was there for the people and because of the people, bearing in mind and body the task of liberation, while also trying to invent new artistic forms and practices. Her performances were a “surplus” from her past engagement as a dancer and a radical consequence of her “internal engagement”.16 Paulin-Brina’s performances could be perceived as a living and performed anthem by means of partisan dance, as she said herself it was partisan poetry that not only accompanied her dance, but made it possible to engage with her thought and with other bodies in the partisan struggle. Her partisan dances expressed very tense and constant movement on the liberated grounds, that were on a deeper level accompanied by the other liberated bodies of partisans in the struggle, in the long march to freedom.

In the final section, I would like to review two examples that announced or gave a sneak preview of the imagery of the new Yugoslavia – of the kind of “performances” that would take place when liberation finally came.

The Performed Icons of the Liberation Struggle and the State in Edi Šelhaus’ Photography

Nowadays, we cannot look at images of Tito and the (red) star without strong (re)mediating effects of the former socialist state’s ideological apparatuses. In Marta Popivoda’s film essay Yugoslavia. How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013) on the public holiday “Relay of Youth” (Štafeta mladosti), one could glimpse the complexity of the internal dynamics and transformation of state imagery as well as the statist instrumentalisation of such imagery. However, Edi Šelhaus was taking photos during the war, when the new Yugoslavia did not yet exist and when both the star and Tito were emblematic figures of the Liberation Struggle rather than the state.17 Tito was a unifying name of the multiplicities of the resistance, not a statesman (cf. Badiou 2005).

Two emblematic photos became famous during and immediately after the Second World War. The first photo displays the most prominent symbol of the partisan struggle: the five-pointed star consisting of people. On a cold winter’s day in Babno Polje in 1944, Edi Šelhaus asked the partisan teacher Nada to organise a small staging of a star. The performance was carried out by the pupils from a partisan school (Fig. 3). As Šelhaus (1982: 46–50) recounts, German planes would often patrol the area. Thus, staying outside and displaying obvious political messages would not only have endangered lives but also exposed the location of the local resistance. A few weeks later, the photo was published in various Allied newspapers.

“Mladina iz Babnega polja je sestavila peterokrako zvezdo. 1945, Babno polje” [The youth from Babno polje formed a five-pointed star, 1945, Babno polje]. Photo by Edi Šelhaus. Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary History, Ljubljana.

It seems that the idea to stage a star on a winter day was highly risky, yet at the same time, it does indeed capture the resilience of the partisan organisation: schools that contributed to the Liberation Struggle, in their own way, were organised in the liberated territories. The image of a star in the middle of a field transcended the fear and was ingrained in people’s memory. The pupils directed by a teacher and a photographer ensured that we received one of the first emblematic performances of the key symbol of the liberation struggle. The performance instilled hope and unity in a divided country ravaged by civil war.18

Edi, Nada, and the partisan schoolchildren repeated the exercise another day and formed the inscription “Tito” with their bodies (Fig. 4). These partisan gestures and symbols succeeded in staging a living monument to the community-in-resistance. After the Second World War, in some regions of Yugoslavia, enormous stones spelling out the name TITO were erected in nature – organised in such a way as to be seen from afar.

“Partizanska učiteljica Nada Vreček je s svojimi učenci v snegu izpisala ime ljubljenega tovariša Tita.” [Partisan teacher Nada Vreček and her students composed the name of their beloved comrade Tito in the snow]. Photo by Edi Šelhaus (winter 1944-45). Image courtesy of the National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia.


The photos raise the question: how did these performances stage the partisan community and the partisan liberation? Did partisan performances and the partisan struggle in general manage to successfully conceive of the collective figure/image of the partisan struggle? Did they succeed in separating it from the individual hero or heroine (ballet dancer), and, politically, from Marshal Tito and the symbol of the star? The analysis above does not give the final answer to these question, as the case studies demonstrate an obvious ambivalence between what could be seen as utopian vitality of a transformed female dancer on the one hand (Marta Paulin-Brina) and the static imagery of a personality/symbol (Tito, the star). What becomes clearer, perhaps, is the fact that the variety and multiplicity of images, gestures, performances, and poems attested to the radical and pivotal character of partisan politics and arts. What was at stake back then was a “partisan rupture” of such magnitude that it can still inspire us in transforming our world, yet again. One of the major partisan lessons is that even in the darkest hour of the previous century, the resistance not only occurred but even prevailed and created an array of emancipatory fragments and framed an alternative world. Let me conclude with words from the diary of a great surrealist, Spanish Civil War combatant and Commander of the First Proletarian Brigade, Koča Popović, who described the unstoppable and indestructible will in the following fashion:

The fewer breaks we took – the more solid and fresh we became,
the worse we fed ourselves – the tougher we became,
the worse we were armed – the more lethal we became
without motorisation – we became faster.
The costlier the deaths among us, the more special and valuable our breathing became. As if all our miseries, efforts, and difficulties condensed in lethal spite; as if all of this transformed into our advantage (Popović 1988).

Gal Kirn
TU Dresden


This publication of this research was financially supported by TU Dresden.


1 The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was occupied in April 1941, while its legal representatives, the government-in-exile, operated from London until the end of the war, and until 1944 relied on the forces of Draža Mihajlović’s Četniks. The only antifascist resistance in occupied Yugoslavia was organised by the People’s Liberation Struggle that was also a key to the foundation of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia after the war. What I refer to as Yugoslavia was, during the Second World War, contested by the fascist occupation regime, local fascist collaborationist apparatus (eg. Independent state of Croatia), the representatives of the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the partisan counter-apparatus that was (re)creating liberated zones across the country. For further details on this constellation see Kirn (2019b: 37-47).

2 In this section I analyse diverse forms of popular, political, and cultural organisations – committees of the People’s Liberation Struggle – that functioned as decentralised agencies across “partisan” Yugoslavia. Despite being led by the General Command of the PLS headed by Tito (confirmed by AVNOJ) and dominated by the Communist Party, most of these organisations had to rely on their own capacities and forces. A specific form of partisan self-governance was put into practice.

3 This autonomous gesture was not warmly welcomed by the Allies at first, since it disturbed the Cold War divisions and zones of interest between the Great powers. However, relations of forces changed as the PLS became a mass organisation that survived a range of fascist offensives during 1943. Soviet, US, and English foreign missions’ reports made it crystal clear that it was the partisans who were solely making the effort in liberation.

4 Permanent collection is called Twentieth Century. Continuities and Ruptures. http://www.mg-lj.si/si/razstave/289/20-stoletje-kontinuitete-in-prelomi/. For a summary of the critical discussions and positions on Yugoslav partisan art, see the edited volume (Habjan and Kirn 2016).

5 For details on the Partisan singing community and its reactivation today, see Hofman (2016).

6 In the more specific context of war, anthems are designed to fuel patriotic feelings, from the marches of armies using drums as they storm the enemy to anthems that relate to specific parts of the army. The American military, for example, has a US Air Force hymn, a US Navy hymn and a US Marine hymn, as well as the general US Army anthem. What the military context of war provides is a well-orchestrated army of corps that directly addresses all of its parts and bodies with proper, adapted musical accompaniment. Anthems represent the military body’s musical politics, which expresses the specific division of labour and the importance of each part of the general army, and of its whole. The metaphor of the conductor and orchestra resonates with the political body being led (i.e. conducted) by the supreme sovereign whom all parts – soldiers and citizens – should obey.

7 As the term suggests, agit-theatre was created in the light of the legacy of the October revolution and early Soviet times, when cultural groups travelled across the countryside and fronts, mobilising, educating, and empowering workers and peasants. The early cultural activities in Yugoslavia were very much in concordance with the Soviet legacy, however, within the partisan struggle, they acquired their own forms and dynamics – an especially strong stamp of political autonomy (for a critique of partisan art as mere propaganda, see also Komelj 2008).

8 His brother was Edvard Kardelj, the famous ideologue of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, and Tito’s right-hand man, who wrote extensively about the theory and practice of self-management.

9 For details, see the online interview and documents at: http://www.Partisantheatre.si/index.php/the-agit-prop-theatre/.

10 The Rog Offensive (Roška ofenziva) was launched by Italian fascists in the spring of 1942 to quell the partisan resistance and defeat their organisation in the liberated territories.

11 See Milohnić (2016) and especially the figures of Vjekoslav Afrić and Žorż Škrigin, who were the main driving force of the early experimental theatre and performances of the People’s Liberation.

12 For details on the concept of partisan surplus, see Chapter 2 in Kirn (2020).

13 There are many examples of how inventive cultural theatre workers were, from designing and creating puppets from various materials (for details about puppet theatre, see Gerlovič 1979) to making clothes for actors in Molière’s plays even from Allied parachutes (Milohnić 2016).

14 She attended the school of modern dance in Ljubljana run by Meta Vidmar who got a licence from the internationally renowned school in Dresden (Mary Wiggman). For details on early modern and partisan dance, especially on Živa Kraigher, another partisan dancer, see Vevar (2017).

15 Marta was deeply inspired by partisan poetry, especially by the outstanding young poet Karel Destovnik-Kajuh (1922-1944), who was her close friend/partner in the XIV division. For half a year, she would dance among the partisans only to lose her toes due to the harsh winter during the partisan march in 1944.

16 Marta Paulin-Brina was not the only dancer among the partisans. There were some ballet dancers in the Theatre of People’s Liberation in Bosnia and Herzegovina; while in the occupied zone in Ljubljana, another woman from the school of modern dance, Živa Kraigher, practised and set up a fixed choreography. She was active at the front while also working on her dance secretly in the studio during the war. In her memoirs, she writes that both the intensity of the partisan experience and the reading of Matej Bor’s poetry collection Previharimo viharje (1942) gave her an idea how to think and practise for her own performance. Kraigher first performed her dance piece as late as in 1953 and entitled Upor/Borba [Resistance/Struggle]. To even consider conceiving a single five-minute performance during the work process that lasted ten years both during and after the liberation would be practically impossible in the current post-Fordist precarious and instantaneous conditions of artistic labour. Kraigher’s performance and her circular movements remained one of the key performances in the history of modern dance of Slovenia/Yugoslavia. For details, see Vevar’s introduction to Kraigher’s work (2017). I thank Bara Kolenc for this reference and highlight Kolenc’s remake of Marta Paulin-Brina’s partisan performance in Brina (2019).

17 For a general overview of resistance photography, see Fabec and Vončina (2005).

18 These symbols will receive major cultural elaborations through the étatisation process in socialist Yugoslavia as of the late 1940s. This is especially true because of the most famous holiday called ‘Štafeta Mladosti ‘(Relay of Youth), which became a platform for the cultural experimentation of staging bodies and words, strengthening unity as well as, paradoxically, ethnic identities. For a visual analysis of this phenomenon, see the film by Popivoda (2013).


Gal Kirn obtained his PhD at the University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia. He has since worked at the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Humboldt University in Berlin, GWZO in Leipzig, the Akademie Schloss Solitude, and at TU Dresden, where he researched Soviet avant-garde and partisan memory. His book Partisan Ruptures was published by Pluto Press (2019), and The Partisan Counter-Archive by De Gruyter (2020). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Cultural History programme at the University of Nova Gorica.


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Suggested Citation

Kirn, Gal. 2020. “Was Dancing Possible During the Fascist Occupation of Yugoslavia?” Yugoslav Performance Art: On the Deferred Production of Knowledge (ed. by Goran Pavlić). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 11. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00011.238.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner’s terms.


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