Self-criticism – one of the crucial factors for creating a constructive dialogue about the past

Nicolas Moll is historian and lives between Sarajevo and Paris. He worked for two years as deputy director of the Cultural Centre André Malraux in Sarajevo. Today he is working as independent researcher and also as a trainer especially in the field of dealing with the past. He is coordinating the trans-European platform “Memory Lab” (

Interview by: Maja Ručević 

NMoll Photo

You are part of a team working on a trans-European platform for exchange, cooperation and critical understanding of history and remembrance in Europe called Memory Lab. The platform connects Western Europe and the Western Balkans. Tell us something more about it.

The starting point was quite simple: Many persons which are dealing with the past in Western/Central Europe don’t know much about what is going on in this field in the Western Balkans, and vice-versa. This reflects the general gap which continues to exist between South Eastern Europe and the rest of Europe. We wanted to create an opportunity to bring together initiatives from both parts of Europe which are dealing with difficult pasts, so that they can exchange experiences and develop common activities. Since 2010, “Memory Lab” is organizing annual workshops and study trips, in different parts of Europe; last year we have been in Germany, this October we will go to Kosovo and Macedonia to visit different memory sites and to work together. Through “Memory Lab” we aim to contribute to the strengthening of constructive approaches of dealing with difficult pasts and to the development of a shared memory space in Europe where experiences and practices from the Western Balkans are seen as important and valuable than experiences and practices from other European countries.

Can you explain to us precisely what does the concept of dealing with the past means in the post-war society like the one we have in B&H?

Dealing with the past (DwP) is a general term which can have very different meanings. To be silent about the past is one way of DwP, to make ideological statements about the past is another way of DwP, etc. The main question is: How to promote a constructive dealing with the past? A constructive dealing with the past certainly involves: establishing and acknowledging facts, addressing denial, being self-critical, and allowing the expression of a pluralism of memories. There are very different possibilities to deal constructively with the past, and it is in any case a difficult and painful process. Why is it important to look for such constructive approaches? Because the past is anyway there, and it can poison and jeopardize the life of an individual and of a society if you don’t deal with it at all or if you do it in a non-constructive way. A constructive DwP is therefore a way to move on and not to remain stuck in the past. But what does it mean to move on? Is it possible to overcome a trauma? Psychologists will say that a trauma will always continue to exist, and that the aim cannot be to make it disappear, that is mission impossible, but to learn to live with it so that it is not dominating your life. On the level of the society, the challenge concerning the traumatic war memories is not to suppress them, but to find them a place where they can find a certain appeasement which would allow to focus not only on the past but also on the future.

What moves are necessary in order to bring together 3 different voices in a peace and tolerance building process?

I think there are many different ways, but one of the first should be to acknowledge that there are not only three different voices and memories in BiH: There are also many local memories and uncountable individual memories, and also within one ethnic group there can be very different experiences and memories. In Sarajevo for example we have also among Bosniacs at least three different group memories related to 1992-1995: between those who stayed during the siege, those who fled to Sarajevo from the countryside, and those who left the town during the siege and returned later, and the dialogue between these memories is not easy, because each is linked with different difficult, often traumatic experiences. Now, how to bring different memories together? I don’t think there is a scientific method to bring together or into dialogue different memories, this is a political, social and cultural challenge, and each society has to find its own way. And as I already said, it is a very difficult process, with many challenges: How do you for example connect memories but in the same time avoid to equalize everything what happened during the war and fall in the trap that “everybody was the same” or “everything was grey”? How to critically address narratives without falling into the attitude of accusation and blaming which will block any constructive dialogue? – One crucial element for any dialogue is certainly also to be self-critical: entering into a constructive-critical dialogue with others should imply that you first critically address denial and “blind spots” within yourself or within your own political, social or ethnic group.

We are all aware of the fact that our Western Balkans society is still greatly suffering from nationalist ideologies. In what ways the political authorities in the countries of former Yugoslavia should they promote a constructive dialogue about the past? Does it exist at all?

Yes, a constructive dialogue about the past exists on the micro-level, organized by civil society actors: organisations like the Centre for Non-Violent Action, the Catholic Relief Service, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights BiH, Euroclio BiH and others are implementing remarkable activities, bringing for example together war veterans, former camp inmates, young people or history teachers from different towns and different ethnic groups within BiH. The problem is of course that there is nearly no political support from the political authorities: or because most of political parties are interested in keeping up the existing divisions – and the past is an important factor of division -, or because they are afraid to tackle the dominating nationalist interpretations of the past. Nevertheless there have been interesting steps: for example in 2012 representatives of different public authorities from both entities elaborated, together with civil society actors, a proposal for Transitional Justice Strategy for the whole BiH. The document has not been adopted by the Parliament, but it was nevertheless a step forward to have this cooperation and also a common result. At the same time, the non-implementation of the proposed strategy shows: as long as there are no major changes in the political culture in BiH, it will be also very difficult for constructive approaches of dealing with the past to develop in BiH on a larger scale. Does that mean that the current efforts of civil society actors are vain? No, because their initiatives can already contribute to change things on the micro-level. And because their work can help preparing changes which will perhaps occur later, by modifying attitudes of persons and by empowering others.

What is your experience with divided cities?

I have worked a lot for example in Stolac and in Prijedor. Prijedor is a very interesting case for two reasons: First, because there are several organisations of Bosniac survivors of the crimes committed in 1992 which are very active in challenging the general denial, asking for the crimes of 1992 to be publicly acknowledged, and they do this with a big perseverance and a big dignity, without spreading hate speech. Secondly, because since two years, a group of young Serbs from Prijedor is publicly supporting their demands, what is an important example of civic and cross-ethnic solidarity. Concerning Stolac, I was involved in several activities trying to bring together persons from different communities around cultural activities and during which the past was not the main topic. It was a more indirect approach to deal with war legacies, but I think it is important to know that there are some moments which might be more appropriate than others to talk about the past. I have recently also worked with young people from Sarajevo and from East-Sarajevo, in a project called “Memory Walk” organized by the YIHR BiH and the Anne Frank House Amsterdam: At the beginning I was wondering if it was good idea that young people who see each other for the first time should talk about monuments related to the war, but the experience showed that if you do it in a sensitive way, it is possible that young people work on this topic in a very productive way. So my experience shows that it is possible to work on the past in divided communities, but you have to take into consideration each specific local context and with which persons you are working.

Creating memorial centers is still a very sensitive subject. If we know that in B&H some memorials are still being vandalised or that some others, glorifying sentenced war criminals appear by night, where can we look for justice?

Fighting for justice is a constant and often frustrating fight, with many backlashes and with no guarantee of success. And the reality of justice will always be less perfect than the ideal of justice. As one victim of the East-German dictatorship has put it after the German reunification: “We expected justice, and we got the rule of law”.  What does not mean that it isn’t crucial to always fight for more justice. The fight for justice for victims of war crimes includes several levels: trials, in order to punish criminals, but also material reparations for the victims, and also the public acknowledgement of their suffering, for example through monuments. A big problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that many places of suffering remain unmarked, as the former camps in Omarska, Čelebići or Dretelj. Another problem are existing monuments which are glorifying war criminals or collectively blaming another group.  Addressing these problems is part of the constant fight for more justice and for a constructive dealing with the past. One interesting new initiative which contributes to tackle these problems is the activist’s group “Jer se me tiče” (“Because it concerns me”) which has developed new and original approaches concerning memorialization. In 2013 for example, they realized the action “Guerilla Memorial”: in three different towns, Foča (with a mainly Serb population), Bugojno (mainly Croat) and Konjic (mainly Bosniak), the activists put up overnight and simultaneously commemorative plaques for the victims of war crimes in these towns. As expected, the plaques were removed, but through this action the activists showed that they do not accept the current situation and that they are willing to challenge public authorities and their denial of war crimes in BiH, independently from the ethnic background of the perpetrators or of the victims.

When it comes to European integration of Western Balkans, what can you tell us about the cooperation between countries? Are there enough initiatives and projects implementing a solid ground for the remembrance and reconciliation process?

I would distinguish two levels: On the one hand, we have bilateral and multilateral cooperation activities between civil society actors of different parts of the former Yugoslavia. Even if they are not very visible, they are useful little steps in overcoming divisions. The most spectacular initiative has certainly been RECOM, and even if it didn’t achieve its aim (yet) to constitute a regional commission in order to establish facts about the wars in the 1990s, the numerous gatherings and consultations which took place in this framework have been important to raise the awareness and stimulate discussions about existing problems. On the other hand, there are cooperation activities between countries of the former Yugoslavia and EU-countries; for example exchange projects on remembrance between NGOs from Germany, France and the Western Balkans, organized by the French-German Youth Office which is also involved in “Memory Lab”: this cooperation is also important, first in order to overcome the isolation of initiatives from the Balkans, secondly because the presence of persons from other countries can help to make easier a dialogue also between persons from former Yugoslavia. So there are already different activities, but more of them are necessary, and a lot more of coordination between the different already existing initiatives would certainly also be necessary.

You have been working with young population on several projects analysing a wider image of the war crimes and their trials, memorialisation issues in Europe etc. Can you tell us more about that new, post-war generation? In what measure could the war experience have affected them and what kind of interest do they show in this topic?

Different studies have shown that young people, also if they have been born after a war, are also very much affected by the war, through their family and their social environment in general. This is even stronger the case when, as in BiH, the past is still so present and when the society has very much trouble to develop constructive dealing with the past approaches. That’s why it is very important to work also with young people on questions which are related to the past. Is the new post-war generation in BiH especially nationalistic? My experience is more than most young people are disoriented, they don’t really know what to think also about the past. Working with young people can give them tools to not just adopt dominating, mainly ideological patterns about the past, but to develop their own thinking about it. I think it is also important to involve young people in a continuous work, through which they can become motivated to get actively involved to change the society, including its attitudes towards the past. I met a lot of young people in BiH which are very committed and want to change things, and this is great. To change things in BiH we also need that more young people become active; of course, it will never be the case that all young people become active and committed citizens, but this is also not necessary: also very active minorities can be actors of change.

A strong victimization contributes to the disintegration of a country’s identity. Where is B&H currently on this painful path of acknowledging each other victims? Would it be too much to expect to see in Sarajevo one day a Memorial centre dedicated to the victims of all three constitutive people?

One big problem in many post-war societies, not only in BiH, is that each group is often acknowledging exclusively its own victims, and refuses to acknowledge that suffering existed also in other groups and that crimes have been committed by the own group. There can be different reasons for this attitude: purely nationalistic reasons, but also the fear that recognizing the other’s suffering would relativize your own suffering or that this acknowledgement could be misused by nationalists ‘from the other side” to minimize their crimes. Despite the problematic situation, I see also here interesting steps in BiH, as for example the plan of the municipality of Sarajevo to build a monument in Kazani to the Serb civilians who were killed there by Bosniac military groups during the siege of Sarajevo. I hope that the municipality of Sarajevo will soon implement this project, because this would be a symbolically very important step for a self-critical dealing with the past. What about a common Memorial Centar in Sarajevo dedicated to the victims of all three constitutive people? I think it would be important to have a debate about this, about the idea itself and about its possible content and form. Such a project requests the discussion of many questions, for example: Should such a Memorial be dedicated to the victims of all three constitutive people or would it make more sense to dedicate it for example “to all civilian victims of the war in BiH”? Other question: should it be just a monument or a whole Memorial Centar (including for example an exhibition and an educational department)? Building common monuments or Memorials is a tough challenge. I don’t think that such a memorial would be “the” solution. But if such a Memorial is done in an intelligent way, then it could certainly be a very useful step, one among others, in order to foster a constructive dialogue about the past in Sarajevo and in BiH.

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