On this Thanksgiving holiday, Eric Gordy takes a look at collective memory and historical truth in the United States and Serbia. What do we mean when we use terms like “collective memory” and “confrontation with the past”? The first term is the older one, usually traced to the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who postulated that shared memories are linked to group, and especially to national, identities. Pierre Nora made the additional step of linking shared memory to political power, and speaking of ways in which memories are maintained by being linked to institutions – calendars, monuments, obligatory elements of education, and the like. It is worth noting, though, that although figures like Halbwachs and Nora linked memory to power, their approach is not critical. They saw public memory as a set of mechanisms to construct and shape national identity, and as an instrument for the affirmation of the state (or other political power) that is engaged in memory work. Power plays a role, but not justice, or even always historical truth.
It will probably come across as obvious to note that this is not the whole story. In the week this little essay is being written, people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving, a foundational holiday of national identity. Every American schoolchild knows the basic story: in 1620, a band of hardy religious fanatics with funny hats and poor farming skills bumped their boat into a rock and decided to live in the place and name it after a nice spot in Devon. They quickly found that they could not feed themselves, so the folks from the indigenous population made a dinner party for them and taught them all about the tasty local foodstuffs.
Fewer schoolchildren know that almost every element of the story is untrue: Plymouth was the third or fourth place the Pilgrims made their settlement, there is no record of a rock anywhere in the literature until 1771. The feast that is celebrated was probably one of six that took place each year in the Wampanoag ritual cycle. Even fewer children will be encouraged to think of the holiday as marking the beginning of three centuries of mass exile and genocide, or to consider the political reasons that made it opportune for the commemoration to be declared a national holiday in 1863. Local people, but not many others, will know about the local counter-commemorations that have been taking place at Plymouth every year since 1970.
Moving from the feast and the affirmation to interrogating the elements of the story is the shift from “collective memory” to “confrontation with the past.” The idea is simple: people have a good reason to want to know whether the memories they share are accurate or complete, and whether the identities they are offered are deserving of affirmation – or do they demand some balance, some recognitions, some apologies? It is a little bit general, but not completely inaccurate, to say that the recipe for “confrontation with the past” is to take a portion of memory and add a little justice.
But what is this good for, and why should collective memories be messed with? Some people might read that passage about Thanksgiving above and conclude that I am anti-American. But I am not even a little bit anti-American. Rather, I am as American as can be, I like jazz and barbecue and luxuriously soft toilet paper (not all at the same time). The difference has to do with how citizenship – participation in the collective that makes the memory – is conceived. An authoritarian vision of citizenship means pumping up the myth and regarding any challenge to it as a threat. Democratic citizenship means taking part in responsibility for the life of the community, including what its members remember, what the community thinks of itself, and what responsibilities need to be met to other communities. Can I be moralistic for a moment? Democratic citizenship does not mean being apologetic about you “are,” it means being unapologetic about the desire to make that identity consistent with being a decent human being.
So let’s move the story to the Balkans, to Serbia in particular. And let’s start it with an observation that belongs not to me but to the political scientist Chip Gagnon: when the powerful states evaluate democracy in the less powerful ones, they apply standards that they never apply to themselves. Authoritarian citizenship may be fine (useful even!) at home, but we want democratic citizenship abroad. And we are disappointed when we do not see it – even if outside actors contribute to creating conditions that make it nearly impossible.
That is not to say that uses of the recent past and its conflicts do not look fairly awful right now in Serbia. Two instances of moronic behaviour by sport fans (amplified by grandstanding politicians) has got very close to bringing about conflicts with Albania and Turkey, while an international tribunal’s strange decision to unilaterally release a sociopath has got high-ranking officials exchanging nastinesses daily. We could jump to the conclusion that an excess of memory is softening everyone’s hard drives, but let’s step back a second and see what is going on.
ICTY and internationals: making it difficult to do what is difficult to begin with
When the cycle of wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia finally ended, and the regimes associated with the wars finally got pushed out of power, expectations were high. People spoke of promoting “reconciliation” (the “re” in that word has always looked a little troubling), of rebuilding societies on peaceful democratic lines, of eliminating the possibility that authoritarian and violence could reemerge. International actors came more frequently to voice demands, without specifying what they meant, that the states of the region would “confront” or “break with” the past. Looking back fifteen years, many of the goals from the beginning of the period look both recklessly unachievable and hopelessly naïve.
All that ambitious rhetoric was never matched by action. A new set of elites came in that had never decisively defeated the old ones, and never felt secure in their position. Many of them were compromised enough – the international strategy of producing a “spring” relies heavily on turning regime loyalists into palace coupsters – that discrediting the immediate past also meant discrediting themselves. Instead, there was a transfer of responsibility. Afraid of the consequences of producing their own narratives or engaging with cultural, religious and educational institutions, the incoming elites reduced their activity to hoping that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) would resolve all of the questions (reserving for themselves the right to question those resolutions). Afraid of raising the stakes or destabilizing their new partners, the internationals reduced their demands to sending people and documents to ICTY. Everyone colluded in avoiding doing the job and hoping ICTY would do it instead.
Even if it were a perfect legal institution, which it is not, ICTY never had the capacity to intervene in dialogues about the construction of public memory. It was a site where professional lawyers engaged in arcane exchanges, and it communicated with the publics of the region even less than it was able to do. And since it was not a perfect institution it made decisions that hardened rhetorical lines in the states of the region rather than opening them. Its strange series of acquittals from 2013 onward led people to argue in 2014 what they had been arguing since the Tribunal’s founding in 1993: that it was unprofessional, unaccountable, undependable, and depending on who was speaking, irredeemably biased against Noble Nation X, Y or Z.
As a result, domestically less has been done than could have been done, and much of that is becoming undone. The genuine achievements of ICTY have not been communicated to the public, while its failures are amplified to everybody. This has had the effect of making people feel, years after violent conflict has ended, that they are still fighting some kind of essential war. But what war?
The opposite of memory
The opposite of memory is not forgetting. The opposite of memory is incoherence. The past is replayed in a way that enhances narratives of victimisation, and that reasserts the point that the Nation was always right/on the right side. But what is visible in all of these displays is a stunning lack of clarity regarding what the Nation has been right about.
Exhibit #1 is a fellow mentioned a bit earlier, the recently released Vojislav Šešelj. His marathon trial dragged on for 11 years after his voluntary surrender in 2003, and now appears to have ended without a verdict and with a Tribunal desperately hoping that they will not be required to deliver one. Even Šešelj gets something right one or two times, as he did in his declaration that in releasing him without consulting the parties to the case the judges “wanted to get rid of me” (who wouldn’t?). But it is worth pointing to the sources of irresolution in his case: his media strategy was sadistic exhibitionism, and his defence strategy was witness tampering.
Šešelj’s exhibitionism became the stuff of folk legend, ranging from the perverse spectacle of the grossly obese defendant on hunger strike to compel ICTY not to require him to be represented by a lawyer, to the burlesque sight of him reading aloud his letter demanding oral sex from an indulgent presiding judge. It scored him some points with his target audience in Serbia, made up of people unconcerned with the charges against him but certain that ICTY represented a conspiracy against the national essence. The witness tampering was rather more serious. Aside from publishing the names of protected witnesses in his frequent book-length assemblages of documents, no fewer than eleven witnesses who had given evidence in his case returned later to recant their testimony. As ICTY judge Mandiaye Niang noted in his dissent to the order to release Šešelj, there were no guarantees to assure that witness tampering would not continue.
But what did Šešelj do once he returned? He rejoined the political battle, but in a highly unusual way. His primary targets were his former associates, now the president and prime minister of Serbia, who he insulted in oncological language. He proceeded to insult Croats in ichthyological language. But what became apparent in his discourse was the absence of a target. He congratulated Chetniks for demolishing Vukovar.He called for the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Clearly this was a person lashing out in search of the attention of anyone who would listen (for whatever reason, plenty of people have been listening).
There are few better mirrors than Šešelj of the incoherence of official discourse that moves, as the moment affords, from critique of “Greater Albania” to Cyrillic building plaques in Vukovar to hardware stores in London. Memory in all these cases is unattached to an object – which leads us to our next example.
Exhibit #2 is the most elaborately organised public event in recent years. On 16 October (not 20 October, the date on which the liberation is commemorated), officials put on a military parade to commemorate the liberation of Belgrade in 1944. The pretext for changing the date is as indicative as the abandonment of the tradition: a visit by the Russian president Vladimir Putin. The event, marking a joint military operation by Yugoslav Partisans and the Soviet army, was recast in the light of friendship between Russia and Serbia (countries which did not participate in the conflict). It was preceded by a long debate over how much the symbolism of Chetnik forces – who the Partisans defeated – should be highlighted in the ceremony.
The internal contradictions of the parade were summarised best by the historian Radina Vučetić, who noted in an interview: “We now have a completely paradoxical situation in which the anti-Europeans are for the European Union, the homophobes are for organising the Pride parade, Chetnik dukes are suddenly for European-style antifascism rather than our quasi-antifascism which wants to equate the Partisan and Chetnik movements. The same people who used to talk about 20 October 1944 as an occupation are now celebrating it. I can picture their misfortune now how on 16 October, they watch a parade of Partisan symbols and symbols of socialist Yugoslavia, and listen to Partisan songs, while in one pocket they firmly grip a rusty spoon and in the other a Chetnik badge.”
The set of contradictions was capped off by the Serbian government, as homage to the former KGB colonel Putin, unveiling a monument to the deposed Russian czar Nikolai II Romanov. This is collective memory epitomised in collective ignorance of who was who and who was where.
Exhibit #3 follows on the confusion that marks the commemoration of World War II (with collateral damage to the Russian revolution): there exists in fact no coherent commemoration of the wars of the 1990s. The closest effort is visible in a decorative addition to a recent skyscraper project, which sought design ideas for “a memorial to victims of war and defenders of the Fatherland, 1990-1999.” The idea of commemorating participants on all sides together with their victims represents a compromise that other politicians have attempted – from Franjo Tuđman in Croatia to Francisco Franco in Spain and, arguably, Ronald Reagan in Bitburg.
As Lea David observes: “The participants in the war do not have a clear master narrative because they are not succeeding in unifying all of the wars into one ‘metawar’. . . in the first place, there does not exist even a minimal consensus about what ‘has to be’ remembered, and in the second place, different groups continually attempt to legitimate their own narratives and have them included in collective memory.”
The result is a policy of memorialization that looks very much like the public efforts to determine a context for understanding the recent past—confused, overly broad, with ongoing disputes about which event means what according to what criteria.
Why does this matter?
Lack of clarity about identity and the past is not a new feature in the politics in the region, notwithstanding the popular stereotype of the Balkans as suffused by some kind of mystical nationalism. Like the patched-up plumbing leaks in a university building, the unresolved absences in collective memory have a way of popping up at unexpected places in strange forms.
A good case can be made that many of the grievances that fed the violence of the 1990s derive from the failure to generate an accurate account of the experience of the previous period of massive-scale violence in the Balkans, the Second World War. When they came to power, the Partisans generated a self-serving narrative according to which they delivered a massive defeat to the German military (there wasn’t much of one in the area) while also bringing about a social revolution (they didn’t). At the same time they tried to quiet discussion of crimes, except to the degree that they could be used to discredit potential nationalist opponents or generate claims for reparations. As the war receded further into the past and the holes in the story became more apparent, not too much effort was put into patching them.
One of the ways that ongoing lack of clarity about WWII has been visible is in competitive remembrance and monumentalisation. The historian Vjeran Pavlaković has been tracing monuments in the region – how they are conceived, how they are altered and vandalised, how one monument answers an earlier one – for several years. What emerges from his hundreds of pictures is that there exists a set of dogmatic frames of memory, each of which functions as the property of an identifiable group. What also emerges is that these groups are not in dialogue with one another or in search of reliable answers (unless you count the dialogue that takes place through instruments like spray paint).
Another way that lack of clarity becomes visible is through what Freud might have called the Return of the Lampooned. Nearly everybody is familiar with the Communists’ preferred way of communicating their interpretation of WWII history, the Partisan-cowboy film (described by lots of people, but nobody has done it as thoroughly as Radina Vučetić in her book Koka kola socijalizam). The peak of the genre developed the sterotypes most fully: Veljko Bulajić’s 1969 costume drama The Battle of the Neretva featured Orson Welles as the hirsute, unpredictable Chetnik. Other films developed the image of the
straight-edged, imperious Ustasha. The movie spoke of power: the power of a film director to get the military to blow stuff up for him, the power of Yugoslavia to bring in major international stars to be their bad guys. But it also spoke of style, and of the two defeated movements as embodied by the equally rejected extremes of slovenly dishevelment and obsessive-compulsive order.
The Partisan epics were not only popular – for many people they constituted the only source of knowledge about elements of the WWII experience that were not taught. So when war started again in 1991, and paramilitaries started searching for a visual code to define their new identities, they found them in the previous generation’s films. A new group of violent enthusiasts who wanted to play as Ustashe and Chetniks went into the fray disguised as the actors who played them in the Partisan films. The elaborately produced ignorance of one period became the negative dogma of a later one.
But there is probably a more permanent consequence of things not being known with certainty, and that is that of all of the available beliefs, there is a strong motivation to choose the most convenient one. Under political conditions where the competition for attention is won by the most miserable, that means amplifying the victim fetish. Ask somebody in the region how many victims there were in WWII, or following the capture of Srebrenica, or of forced displacement from Croatia or Kosovo, and the high or low number you get as a reply will tell you everything you need to know about their politics. The identities and legitimacy of states and political movements is invested in the high or low number, which explains why, strangely, there is so little interest in discovering whether these numbers are right or wrong. Confusion and lack of clarity can be a source of amusement, sure. But they can also be sources of new conflict, all the more so the less they are understood. Do you wonder why football fans might be provoked to riot by portraits of Ismail Qemali and Isa Boletini? Boletini might be thought of as a legitimate object of contriversy, but more likely it is because football fans saw the portraits of the two (who died in 1919 and 1916, respectively), did not know who they were, and assumed the worst.
Why might it not matter?
All of the preceding might lead a reader to conclude that there is no serious engagement with the past in Serbia. Unless people in that country are in some way fundamentally different from people in every other country on the planet, that is probably not the case. More likely what is happening is that people are asking questions as they come up with them, finding out what they can, and that at some point the emerging generation will be coming forward, as emerging generations always do, with its sets of questions for the previous one. What may be unique is that all of this is happening without the engagement of institutions – political, cultural, religious, educational – that could make the whole process much easier and provide some type of direction.
There is some interesting new research by Jelena Obradović-Wochnik that explores the discussions, the shared understandings, and the silences about the violence of the recent past in Serbia. One assumption she proceeds from is that the converstations that matter do not take place from a podium, but in families, among friends, in informal situations. The conversations she finds are ones that reach for an interpretation and a meaning without an answer prepared in advance. An analogous study in neighbouring Bosnia-Hercegovina by Azra Hromadžić looks at high school students finding their own paths to dialogue and reconciliation, and discovering the limitations on these processes, in an environment that officially discourages it.
What these new and innovative explorations of the subject might be telling us is that the process of finding an approach to the past is happening, but – surprise! – not in the ways that lawyers and politicians predicted they would happen. Political leaderships may not provide much of a source of hope, but when they ever done that?
Things don’t always happen the way they have been planned or predicted. Often this means that they are messy. Generally it means they are slow. Sometimes it means that they are nevertheless okay. Or at least not necessarily as bad as they seem at the moment.
All stills are from the US version of Veljko Bulajić’s 1969 partisan film Battle of Neretva.
Take a look at Eric Gordy’s latest book, Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Miloševic Serbia