Bel­grade Mil­i­tary His­tory Mu­seum


Mak­ing up a small cor­ner of the very large grounds of Bel­grade Fortress, the BMHM is very much a tale of two parts. The first is the mu­seum it­self, which is pro­fes­sion­ally run and spread over two sto­ries of an im­pos­ing stone struc­ture, oc­cu­py­ing space within the in­ner walls of the im­pres­sive de­fen­sive com­plex that used to guard the con­flu­ence of the Danube and Sava rivers. The sec­ond, well, we’ll come to that in due course.

Vis­i­tors en­ter the foyer of the mu­seum proper and stroll through chrono­log­i­cally ar­ranged dis­plays de­tail­ing around 2,100 years of re­gional war­fare, start­ing with the Elyr­ian peo­ples and end­ing with the U.S.-led NATO at­tacks in 1999. Through­out the tour, there’s no sense that you have to con­form to a care­fully sched­uled and or­ches­trated pro­gram — this is no Dis­ney-es­que mi­cro-man­aged show, un­like some other big-name ex­hibits in other coun­tries. In­stead, the vis­i­tor can pick their way at a very leisurely ca­dence, which echoes the pace of life out­side.

The first few dis­plays are a lit­tle scant, due to the com­par­a­tive scarcity of ar­ti­facts dat­ing back over two mil­len­nia. The mu­seum quickly picks up the pace, how­ever, with hun­dreds of ex­am­ples of me­dieval weaponry used by the var­i­ous war­ring fac­tions who in­vaded, held ter­ri­tory, and got kicked out over the cen­turies. As the cross­roads of three ma­jor re­li­gions and nu­mer­ous em­pires, this re­gion has seen more than its share of bloody con­flicts, the af­ter­math of which is still be­ing dealt with to­day. Space doesn’t al­low us to even scratch the sur­face of the area’s his­tory, but if you’re in­ter­ested, then Misha Glenny’s mag­is­te­rial, The Balkans: Na­tion­al­ism, War & the Great Pow­ers, 1804-1999 is a good place to start.

Much space is given to the dozen or so Serb up­ris­ings against the oc­cu­py­ing Turk­ish pow­ers, who in­vaded in the 15th cen­tury and hung around un­til the First World War. For al­most 500 years, the Serbs at­tempted to throw off the Ot­toman yoke with var­i­ous de­grees of suc­cess, while other oc­cu­pants of the Balkans made ac­com­mo­da­tions to live un­der rule from Con­stantino­ple. They were fi­nally tri­umphant dur­ing the early years of the 20th cen­tury, align­ing them­selves with the Bri­tish, among oth­ers.

The ex­ploits of the young Josip Broz Tito are also cov­ered in de­tail, as well as those of the par­ti­sans he led against Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing WWII. Much is made of the Croat Us­tasha col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Ger­mans, per­haps in jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the post-war marginal­iza­tion of the Croat and Bos­niak peo­ples in the Serb-dom­i­nated Yu­goslavia that both pre­dated WWII, and fol­lowed it. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the part where Tito’s par­ti­san se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus ex­e­cuted up to 100,000 po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents in the years fol­low­ing their vic­tory is skipped.

As part of this large dis­play, there are nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of Mausers with bul­let holes in their bar­rels, as well as a few mor­tars and can­non that suf­fered ei­ther breech fail­ures or pre­ma­ture war­head det­o­na­tion. Ouch. For stu­dents of Eu­ro­pean small arms de­sign, the early

part of the 20th cen­tury is com­pre­hen­sively dealt with, and there are plenty of ma­chine guns from Ital­ian, French, Czech, Ger­man, and Bri­tish man­u­fac­tur­ers on dis­play, some of which are rel­a­tive rar­i­ties.

There’s a com­par­a­tively large dis­play cov­er­ing the Yu­goslav con­tri­bu­tion to the UN peace­keep­ing ef­forts in the Siniai Penin­sula dur­ing 1956, the first such United Na­tions boon­dog­gle, though as­suredly not the last. The ef­fort to in­volve the UN was spear­headed by Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Dag­mar Ham­mer­skold of Nor­way, whose plane crashed in 1961 in what is now Zam­bia, one day af­ter the sur­ren­der of the Ir­ish con­tin­gent in Jadotville, and was prob­a­bly shot down by a French CM. 170 Mag­is­ter pi­loted by a Bel­gian who’d flown for the Brits in WWII. A con­vo­luted and shady episode in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, in­deed.

As a side note, the state of Yu­goslavia had been a mem­ber of the UN since its for­ma­tion in 1945, and was never part of the Soviet Union, hav­ing cho­sen to beat its own path. Tito and Stalin had a bit of a fall­ing out over Yu­goslavia’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment pro­gram, which re­sulted in the lat­ter dis­patch­ing hit­men to take care of busi­ness. Tito re­sponded with a let­ter, which read, “Stop send­ing peo­ple to kill me. We’ve al­ready cap­tured five of them, one of them with a bomb and an­other with a ri­fle. If you don’t stop send­ing killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a sec­ond.” The at­tempts ceased.

Fol­low­ing Tito’s death in 1980, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore in­ter­nal di­vi­sions and ex­ter­nal ten­sions placed the coun­try on its merry way to breakup and civil war, a pe­riod to which only lip ser­vice is paid in the fi­nal dis­plays of the mu­seum, de­spite it cost­ing the lives of around 140,000 of its cit­i­zens between 1991 to ’95. There’s about 25 feet of glass case, be­hind which are some of the weapons cap­tured from the other par­tic­i­pants in the con­flict, in­clud­ing a MAC11, com­plete with suppressor. The last cou­ple of cases deal with the USA’s in­volve­ment in the re­gion, in­clud­ing the 1999 air cam­paign and the lesser­known covert op­er­a­tions by “oth­ers” in 1998, which re­sulted in the cap­ture of sev­eral pieces of kit, in­clud­ing SIG STG90 as­sault ri­fles, a Bar­rett .50 cal, lap­top, and re­mote det­o­na­tors.

There’s a chunk from the fuse­lage of the F117 stealth fighter pi­loted by Lt.

Col Dale Zelko, shot down 5 miles west of Bel­grade on March 27, 1999 by a mod­i­fied SA-3 Goa mis­sile. His sub­se­quent res­cue by the crew of an MH-53 Pave Low was one of the most chal­leng­ing com­bat search-and-res­cue op­er­a­tions in re­cent his­tory, and a tes­ta­ment to the train­ing and pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the per­son­nel in­volved.

Now, about that sec­ond part of our story ... Out­side the well-groomed dis­plays of the mu­seum build­ing lies a col­lec­tion of larger pieces, grouped for the most part in­side the dead space between the outer fortress walls and the sanc­tum within. In this moat lies one of the most com­pre­hen­sive as­sort­ments of WWI field ar­tillery we’ve ever come across, to­gether with a few of the most sig­nif­i­cant mile­stones of ar­mor de­vel­op­ment. Panz­ers 1-5 are there for your pe­rusal, with­out any bar­ri­ers or hin­drance to you putting paws on them, along with the most sig­nif­i­cant tank of WWI, the French Re­nault FT, which sub­se­quently be­came Amer­ica’s first tank also.

The hands-on as­pect of the ar­ti­facts on show is one of the things that dis­tin­guish this col­lec­tion from most in the U.S or any­where else, for that mat­ter. In­stead of handrails and warn­ing signs ev­ery­where, there’s no im­pedi- ment for the vis­i­tor to clam­ber all over the bat­tle­ments, and there are some pretty de­cent drops from the top of the walls to the pit below. If you’re vis­it­ing with kids, you may want to keep them on a short leash. There’s a sense of ne­glect and decay per­vad­ing the out­side dis­plays, though the staff ob­vi­ously try their best with a lim­ited bud­get — de­spite this be­ing a po­ten­tial jewel of a mu­seum in the heart of the na­tion’s cap­i­tal city, there’s trash ev­ery­where.

The up­side to this some­what sad state of af­fairs is that for the de­ter­mined pil­grim there’s a “choose your own ad­ven­ture” vibe to the venue. Take a good flash­light and you can ex­plore tun­nels and cav­erns within the fort that at one time were locked down tighter than a gnat’s chuff, but nowa­days are avail­able to any­one will­ing to wade past the first few yards of dis­carded wa­ter bot­tles, fast food wrap­pers, and soiled un­der­wear.

It’s a trip worth tak­ing, and if you want to make it even more worth­while, time your visit to co­in­cide with the Bel­grade Beer Fest in Au­gust. Lo­cated in green space in the new part of the city on the banks of the Danube, it’s a five-day ex­trav­a­ganza of li­ba­tions, grilled meat, and mu­sic, which is free to en­ter, and def­i­nitely gets the RE­COIL thumbs up.

A com­pen­dium of early 20th cen­tury hand­guns. Clock­wise from top: C96, Ar­tillery Luger, Roth Steyr, Steyr Hahn, Rast & Gasser, C96.

Cold War-era Yu­goslav Army kit, in­clud­ing Sag­ger brief­case and RPG2

F117 de­tri­tus from Lt. Col. Zelko’s air­craft.

Round ball holes in the fortress gates in­di­cate that yes, this place has seen quite a bit of his­tory.

Un­able to read muchSer­bian, we had ab­so­lutely no idea what this was, apartfrom lethal.

The Queen of No Man’s Land, in 8mm Mauser.

Oop­sie. 60mm pre­ma­ture ini­ti­a­tion.

SA7 Grail (top) and SA16 Gim­let (bot­tom) used against NATO air­craft in 1999, along with a chunk of F16

Pri­vate Car­pen­ter to the white cour­tesy phone, we’ve found your Beretta.

Anti-tank weapon test tar­get. Sh*tworks, yo.

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