Recommendations for the Contribution of Historians to Peacebuilding

The war and post-war period have given rise to mutually exclusive and ideologically motivated interpretations of the past that are based not on scholarship but on nationalism. The currently dominant narratives deepen existing conflicts, undermine efforts to fairly confront the past, and spread fear and hate in order to degrade peace. Cooperation across sectors and across borders is necessary in order to overcome this problem. The main goal of this meeting was to question existing practices and look for possible improvements.

The Round Table is an important place for people who deal with the process of dealing with the past at various levels and using various methodologies to meet and exchange experiences. We believe that the opportunity for historians, journalists and activists to exchange experiences and to speak about their own needs, limitations and the support they expect from others and that they can offer to others is important and necessary for our societies to constructively deal with the past. We recommend organising meetings of this kind or similar meetings and, whenever possible, organising them in cooperation with official institutions (universities, journalists’ associations, etc.).

Description of needs/problems:

Historical revisionism is being utilised to create an atmosphere of continued or new conflict and to lay the groundwork for future violence. Therefore, we believe that pointing out the consequences of such revisionism is an important joint task for historians, activists and journalists.

If historical scholarship ever held a monopoly over the past, it has long since lost it. Still, this does not mean that the role of the historian is without meaning, especially when it comes to what is known as “unwanted history” and the “unpopular victims” of that history. The initiative to address topics pertaining to “unwanted history”, whether by historians or others, is usually taken up by individuals and interested parties. Therefore, establishing a network of historians, journalists and activists is important to increasing their influence in our societies.

The following are a summary rather than an agreed upon set of recommendations. The main differences arose in assessing the situation which gave rise to various recommendations for next steps. The recommendations resulting from the aforementioned different assessments are complementary rather than opposed to each other. On the one hand, there is the opinion that what is necessary is simply amplifying the voice and influence of critical and competent historians. On the other hand, there is a sense that a qualitative difference could be made by establishing structured forms of cooperation by historians across borders and with other important stakeholders who deal with confronting a society with its past.

Recommendation: A structured cooperation of historians, journalists and activists across borders. The assumption is that formal cooperation across borders can contribute to a balanced approach to the interpretation of the past and, through cooperation and communication, can help participants develop the necessary capacities, sensibilities and skills that would remove nationalism from historical interpretation. Cooperation would also contribute to deconstructing the myth that a sense of security, happiness and hope is possible only in an ethnically homogeneous environment that thrives in an atmosphere of fear, distrust and the discrimination of minorities.

Suggestions/ideas for possible forms of cooperation across borders:

  • a regional association of historians that would use a code of professional ethics (similar to those of journalists) to raise their voices against the misuse of historical scholarship. Although historians have some misgivings about a code of ethics, it would give significance to the struggle against ideologically motivated revisionism within the profession.
  • work on a regional, multidisciplinary journal that would deal with the deconstruction of historical myths, narratives and the image of the enemy from various perspectives. Following this, it is necessary to look for ways/strategies to make accessible and to present such multi-perspective and multidisciplinary efforts to a broader audience (web portals, social media, lectures in local communities).
  • establishing an informal space for feedback on publications and textbooks across borders. Opening up this space would contribute to introducing different perspectives into the production of scholarship in otherwise nationally insular academic communities.
  • a multi-ethnic approach across borders to national topics, and documenting these experiences
  • cooperation of historians, journalists and activists on an approach to established facts about a given historical event or person (for example, establishing a channel for ensuring the timely delivery of information to journalists), especially in relation to problematic myths and myths that are falling prey to the process of ideological revisionism

Recommendation: Building capacities for deconstructing ideologically motivated dominant narratives as a key part of constructively dealing with the past:

  • creating an index of taboos and dominant narratives in the context of confronting a society with its own taboos and narratives, but also as an indicator of “critical points” within a given context where work is being done or will be done on peacebuilding. Historians, journalists and activists could work together on creating such an index of taboo topics and dominant narratives and on its presentation.
  • cooperation of historians and activists on preserving sites of memory—the example of peacebuilding set by veterans from BiH, Serbia and Croatia, who were on opposed sides during the war, and their joint actions to mark sites of suffering, as well as the inclusion of journalists, activists and historians in these peace efforts, could be an important step towards understanding the motivations, circumstances and individual actions that lead people into war and also their motivation to work on peacebuilding with former enemies after the war. The experiences of veterans could contribute to a better understanding by historians, journalists and activists of how historical narratives and, more generally, “undigested pasts” can serve as a trigger for conflict in certain contexts. Such meetings of veterans and historians, journalists and activists would indicate a space for possible dialogue and offer an opportunity for understanding the role that the past plays as fuel for our activities in the present and the future.
  • historians who are ready to oppose revisionist tendencies via the media or are already engaged in such efforts need support in the form of training for public appearances so that the historical facts and knowledge that they have can be presented in an effective manner within the given media space

Recommendation: Creating the necessary conditions for establishing inclusive social narratives

It is important to pay attention to the social function of myth as a framework that provides orientation and values for living within a given community. In that sense, it is important to construct a social narrative that emphasises positive social values and a particular vision for the future of a given society. Namely, a narrative that will “replace” the currently dominant social narratives that are based on excluding others and are established in opposition to an “image of the enemy” in a given society. By recalling some positive practices from the far and recent past it is possible to influence established ideas about “ancient hatreds” in Balkan societies. This is a task that goes beyond the Round Table, but one that historians, as well as activists and journalists, can influence.

Historians Wanted for an Unwanted Past