When we talk about the processes of dealing with the past, we must first distinguish between several related and similar and yet different phenomena. When we talk about policies towards the past and policies towards history, we refer to specific public policies the governments of different countries implement to commemorate an event from the past, to pass down the institutional and collective memory and experience and incorporate them into some segment of public education and culture, or in a state protocol, which often has elements of a national ritual or so-called “civil religion”. On the other hand, there is the culture of remembrance, different cultural practices of remembering the recent and distant past which may or may not have an institutional character – in other words, they generally originate and function in a much more spontaneous, more organic way. Memory is invariably more intimate, more emotional and more personal, while history is associated with state institutions and collective narratives that are necessarily detached from everyday life and abstracted from the level of individual human experience.
Thus, in distinguishing between the institutional, personal and societal levels of dealing with the past – or rather, of processing the past (Aufarbeitung in German), it is necessary to be aware of the different levels of dealing with the past. The French historian Pierre Nora establishes a clear distinction between memory (memoria in Greek) on a personal level, and history (historia, in Greek) on a state level. Memory is open, living, intimate. History, on the other hand, is abstracted, depersonalized, institutionalized and codified.
Finally we come to the question of reconciliation, both individual and collective, but also to the question of transitional justice and post-conflict management of the judicial processes of investigating and sanctioning war and post-war crimes and violations of the laws and customs of war.
Personal experiences are invariably heterogeneous and contradictory. And while the associations involved in the initiative for RECOM who work with people on the ground should value these experiences, precisely because they are personal and provide insight into the repercussions of the war on people’s everyday lives, these experiences cannot be generalized. Although contradictory, these memories of different people can help in overcoming the past and turning toward the future on an individual level. However, too much focus on series of meetings and statements of perpetrators and victims, as in the case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, slightly blurs the reality and does not help form a solid enough foundation for the future. The statements of victims, especially of civilian victims, are extraordinarily important in ensuring that the crimes do not fall into oblivion. However, disclosure is not enough. True satisfaction and healing of wounds are possible only if the testimonies, evidence and supporting documents result in police investigations and court proceedings. So the ultimate goal of RECOM should not only be reconciliation and the normalization of relations between post-Yugoslav states (although normalization has long been achieved), but also sending out two important, universally human messages. The first message is that crime does not pay and any hidden crime will sooner or later be discovered. The second message is that war is socially undesirable, as it brings suffering to all in one way or another, with only a very few remaining untouched by it.
Respect for individual experiences, personal stories that deviate from the official historiography, and recognition of human suffering and the suffering of all the militaries involved in the war and of the various sectors of the civilian population affected, is not and can not be a call for a re-definition of the historical roles of the aggressors and the defenders, of the offensive and defensive militaries. The suffering of war is universal, but clearly established causal links and the chronology of events point to the winning and the losing sides, and to the guilty and the innocent. Erasing or mitigating these differences would greatly undermine the efforts to overcome the consequences of the war and would not be a step towards reconciliation but towards keeping us stuck in the wartime past.
We can talk about a greater convergence of opinions on the level of academic debate, but we can hardly expect it at the political level or between citizens – participants in the wars and their victims. Even within the academic context, it is difficult to reduce multiple perspectives on history to a common denominator, let alone in other contexts within which the level of tolerance towards profoundly different views and positions is far lower. Over recent years, the international academic community has achieved a certain level of consensus on the chronology and causal relationships regarding the wars in the former Yugoslavia. However, the realistic and balanced insights gained by our colleagues at the leading international scientific institutions have not yet found an echo in the departments of post-Yugoslav universities. Making progress in academic debates about the wartime past and in overcoming it therefore requires critical self-reflection within each national academic community.
For the foregoing reasons, the common writing of the official history by the victors and the defeated is not and may not be feasible. Consequently, the idea of joint or at least harmonized contemporary history textbooks is illusory and would not contribute to reconciliation.
Then, what would it take to achieve reconciliation at the institutional level? First and foremost, it is necessary to open the archives to enable a true collaboration of forensic experts, anthropologists, historians and political scientists from the successor states of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Without establishing the facts and without well coordinated institutions that would collect the materials, no progress can be made in the process of punishing crimes, reconciliation and peace-building.
Establishing the facts (the number of victims, the order-givers, the perpetrators, the locations where crimes took place) can and must stop the manipulation of the numbers of victims, which is used in different contexts as an instrument of political legitimacy, where victim status is used to justify political action, whether in war or post-war situations. After determining the location of the crimes, all the victims and their families must be enabled to mark the graves of their loved ones in a dignified way. Since the issue of reconciliation and overcoming the past in the former Yugoslavia goes beyond the war-related events of 1990 and often includes reference to earlier historical periods by both the perpetrators and the victims, it is important to coordinate researchers and those who record relevant information, so that they include in the researches archival material pertaining to the previous relevant periods (Second World War, the period of the SFRY and especially the documents possessed by Intelligence Services) in their work. The political will to cooperate and share information with other interested parties (i.e./e.g. countries) is needed on the part of the executive authorities, as they are in possession of the majority of the documentation.
When we speak of reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia, we often encounter low public trust in the judicial and representative institutions (parliaments). RECOM should function as a support for the official institutional channels, not as a substitute. It would be damaging if the public perceived it as a body that is supposed to substitute for the ICTY or to modify the outcome of the trials held before it, and before the national courts to which a certain number of cases falling within the jurisdiction of the ICTY have been referred.
Personally, I see RECOM as a specific supplement and support to national and international judicial processes, and as a corrective which will collect information and put pressure on the police and judicial bodies to investigate crimes that have been ignored, bring persons suspected of having committed these crimes to justice, and provide compensation to victims.
Višeslav Raos, PhD is Senior Teaching Assistant at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Zagreb