Photo: Hanna Mächs.

Conference reports Memory and manipulation. Is anyone’s suffering more important than anyone else’s?

Balkan experts attending the symposium “Memory and Manipulation: Religion as Politics in the Balkans", agree that the war was directed from the top, and that “top-down” is the key to understanding how the war began in the region.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Page 2, Vol 1 2011
Published on on April 11, 2011

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“If you want to start a war, call me. I know all about how it’s done”, says author Slavenka Drakulić with a touch of gallows humor during “Memory and Manipulation: Religion as Politics in the Balkans”, a symposium held in Lund, Sweden, on December 2, 2010.

Balkan experts attending the symposium agree that the war was directed from the top, and that “top-down” is the key to understanding how the war began in the region. Leaders of various stripes were driving separatist movements and fomenting hatred between groups by emphasizing differences and reviving historic wrongs. Religion was exploited as a political weapon to create antagonisms. Historiography was used as a strategy to manipulate the people.

Professor of History Evelina Kelbetcheva, of the American University of Bulgaria in Sofia, emphasizes the gap between a scholarly understanding of history, and public perceptions of history. History is constantly being falsified and revised to fit contemporary needs.

“Some people think there is too much digging into Balkan history and that this opens old wounds and provokes new conflicts. Others believe we talk too little about history. We must spread accurate knowledge in order to understand what happened and why”, says Evelina Kelbetcheva.

“The knowledge that has to be conveyed to the people is how they have allowed themselves to be manipulated by those who believe they have exclusive rights to the interpretation of history”, says Slavenka Drakulić. She stresses that we should not believe that national and ethnic identities are fixed: “A lot of people believe national identity is as unchanging as the color of your eyes. Identity, language, religion: they are all constructions.”

How, then, should the traumatic memories of the people be handled? How can people reconcile with those who have perpetrated crimes against them? And perhaps even more difficult, how can they reconcile themselves to the crimes comitted by their own groups?

Dzenan Sahović, lecturer in political science at Umeå University, believes that there is currently widespread postwar mourning on three levels: the individual, the collective, and the political/national.

 It is hard to see the suffering of others when one’s own is so all-encompassing. When memorials are set up to honor the memory of a vulnerable group victimized in the war, it immediately sparks resentment among other groups, who believe their suffering was the greater. That everyone suffered, but also inflicted suffering, is a truth few people see.

It is for precisely that reason that Dzenan Sahović believes the peace process and reconciliation must be directed from the top down. Conversely, the EU and the UN often insist that peace must be built from the grassroots level. Dzenan Sahović emphasizes that this approach confuses building a democracy and overcoming injustices between groups. Attempts to bring attention to the suffering of various groups are more likely to have the opposite effect: old wounds are reopened and conflicts flare up.

The moderator of the symposium, Sanimir Resić, associate professor of East and Central European Studies and head of the Centre for Languages and Literature at Lund University, sums things up:

“We would probably need at least ten Nelson Mandelas to reach consensus in the Balkans.” ≈


The symposium was the third in a series of three under the title Memory and Manipulation organized by the the Centre for European Studies at Lund university and Citizens without Boundaries, funded by Stiftelsen Framtidens Kultur. Citizens without Boundaries is an association with the purpose of furthering international dialogues between writers, researchers, artists, journalists and committed citizens by means of organizing public talks as well as seminars and symposia. A book based on the three symposia will be published in early 2012 by Makadam förlag.
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