Reconciling Histories!?

author: drugi-other
11. July 2018

by Ralf Possekel

Justice & History – Nonviolence – Places of Remembrance – Meeting with War veterans – Reconciliation – Peacebuilding

Conference organised by the Centre for Nonviolent Action (CNA), Sarajevo 15.-17.5.2018

  1. Valuable, meaningful and exciting experiences of 20 years of difficult work of small steps with people from different warring parties accompanied with methodical and conceptual reflexions: As the result of saturated practice, CNA has gained a deeper understanding of reconciliation, then what one would, apart from experts, find in Germany. CNA has achieved much in Bosnia-Herzegovina, less in Croatia and Serbia. It is not by chance so. In Bosnia, people of different backgrounds still live next to each other, they are forced to find a way of dealing with one another. Croats in Croatia and Serbs in Serbia have their war opponents largely out of their states, therefore it appears as the problem of foreign policy.


  1. Thinking of reconciliation in a secular way: In a multi religious country as Bosnia it appears logical, that CNA has developed a concept, which is not based on a religion. It is a challenge of engaging globally: defining reconciliation as political, social and cultural processes, hence in a strictly sociological and political manner. Nenad Vukosavljevic: Reconciliation is a „liberation of socially required and imposed antagonisms”. Consequent multiperspectivity, “rehumanisation” of former enemies, step-by-step trustbuilding through cooperation, community building based on minimal common ground are action fields, opposite of acceptance of socially imposed antagonisms of post-war times. Corresponding sociological and political concepts are therefore interesting. It does not mean that religion plays no role, exactly the opposite: in many contexts it could be a fuel for initiating, justifying and empowering such processes.


  1. Mapping inclusive remembrance: It became very clear that many layers are meant by it: striving towards avoiding that objects of memory in public spaces argue against one another; finding spaces for different memories within wider areas (e.g. as it is in the political center of Berlin) and finally to attempt to jointly pay respect to victims of different war-sides. This can be possible only when following the basic conviction that CNA stands for, unconditional respect of human life, that raises the issue beyond political arguments. May we have the courage to allow multi perspectives of different narratives, although we subscribe to necessity of factual foundation of narratives? It is a tension field that we may not simply resolve either by insisting on established, so-called objective truths, neither through a simple constructivist approach to narratives.


  1. War-veterans as reconciliation media: In Germany this revokes images of old men, but here they are not that old, as war was only 25 years ago. They are a sociologically interesting “peer group” being highly respected in their communities and also by politicians. What is the central discourse here? We ware honorable soldiers and officers we have defended our houses. Sure, seeing it from a German angle, there is a familiar feeling of unease when “honorable soldiers” are being spoken of – didn’t we hear it already, regarding the German Wehrmacht. But, the discourse here evaluates further; yes there were war crimes committed by our comrade combatants. We wish to remember those victims and pay respect to them, we advocate punishment of the responsible ones. That is considerably more than Wehrmacht elite was ever prepared to acknowledge and admit. But who were those war criminals? Individual soldiers and the commanding officers who failed to prevent and punish the deeds. And there were notorious units from Middle East which came to Bosnia and disappeared after the war. Yes, that is an externalisation: basically we were good and we sticked to the rules, but foreign mercenaries and some local criminals were the ones who committed the crimes. But, such discourse does not explain Srebrenica. Unfortunately, we had no time to address these issues of structural crime in more detail, within our discussion with Bosnian war veterans.


  1. Honorable men: Must consequent acknowledgement of war crimes always lead to erasure of the discourse of honorable men and honorable warfare? No, not at all, on the contrary, it allows acknowledgement of crimes to emerge, as crimes cannot be defined as necessary defense. This may certainly be a great achievement of CNA work and the shortcoming of the German debate. Nowadays, it is very difficult and happens rarely that within the German discourse that honorable acts of soldiers and officers of Wehrmacht are ever mentioned – with one exception: the saviour of Jews and helpers of forced labour workers. But, of course there must have been numerous other occasions: acts of protection of humanitarian law, prevention of looting etc. The discourse on honorable actions within a dirty was is unfortunately a must.


  1. Did they have any choice: They were not forcibly mobilized but the social pressure to join the army was present. That is the soldiers perspective. Whether or not is there a discussion with war veterans on the question was there a way to avoid the war – we could not cover within the three days we had available.


  1. Naturally, not everything is achieved with this work and not all spoken out within reflections of it: Reconciliation must not remain the discourse of men only (Diana Francis, Edda Kirleis), it must be more sociable, reconciliation needs safe place otherwise a movement of either side brings danger with it (Natascha Zupan), causes of conflict are often connected with disbalance of resource division, that shouldn’t be forgotten; it gets particularly difficult when there is a great power disbalance (Ponnampalam Narasingham as Singham); reconciliation as the societal process will always remain an impertinence for individuals and much more.


  1. Judicial process is not the holy cow: In many contexts it remains impossible over an imaginable period of time to process all violations. Partial impunity is therefore unfortunately unavoidable, but the question is, who will be persecuted and who will not be? Dealing with the past can and must succeed with deficient prosecution of crimes – should peacebuilding community find a better way of working with human-rights community? Martina Fischer from „Bread for the World“ critically points out to the formula „Right to protect“ (R2P) – „Prevent, protect, rebuild“ should be adopted as an approach.


  1. Learning beyond contexts: Activists from Georgia/Abkhazia, Sri Lanka, Manipur/India were present. Contexts are so different – is it possible at all to learn from one another despite the differences? Overwhelming response to this dilemma is: Yes! Other contexts offer reflection perspectives, e.g.: countries of the global North colonize the South, then they support or incite civil wars and use them for their interests and nowadays they demand reconciliation and transitional justice. Don’t they ever learn something? Martina Fischer described conceptual dilemmas of reconciliation within the peacebuilding context in a very convincing way. Remaining impression is: it makes no sense to search for a concept of transitional justice or reconciliation that all would subscribe to. Starting points here should be: the initiative should be locally rooted and authentic, there is no model to fit all, but the process which needs to be political and genuine, shapeable in various forms. With a politological or sociological understanding of these processes we probably can refrain from using the term “reconciliation”, as other already practice, consciously avoiding it and reframe it to rebuilding of relationships and basic trust for joint cooperation in current and practical terms.


  1. Final words – comparison of challenges across contexts: Solutions are not transferable although challenges are comparable.


–          Define reconciliation primarily in a secular way;

–          „Honorable“ behaviour in a dirty war;

–          „Individual“ and „structural“ war crimes;

–          Inclusive thinking, concepts of memory places, inscriptions, rituals with or without religious forms, with and without politicians;

–          Partial prosecution and thorough reworking;

–          multi-perspective remembrance and undeniable facts;

–          not thoroughly discussed but mentioned: multiperspective remembrance within a context of rising right wing populist discourses in history:

–          Windows of Opportunity as special moments for meaningful interventions in social discourses

–          Self critical concepts of national identity, of heroes and of guilt, being able to discuss achievements and crimes committed

  1. And what remained unspoken: how much money is invested in weapons and how much in this type of work? Are Europeans resources primarily used to secure borders or to create joint army forces, rather than investing in avoiding conflicts, trust building and elimination of conflict causes rooted in unjust distribution of resources?

Ralf Possekel works in Joint Project “Exploring (International) Partnerships in Dealing with the Past“ of the Working Group on Peace and Development (FriEnt) and the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (Stiftung EVZ)





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