Reconciliation through a history and school book commission – in Croatia and elsewhere

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 40 – June 1998

Originally published here.

“Postwar initiatives can help prevent future policies of revenge, violence and outbursts of repressed traumas. It is possible to develop policies of reconciliation and trust-building and take initiatives which encourage citizens to take steps toward forgiving. One such initiative could be the setting up of history and school book commissions. A truthful approach to history is a vital element in shaping a future together and help the next generations live peacefully in spite of what happened,” says TFF director Jan Oberg.

In societies which have gone through civil wars, one or more parties can choose to be triumphalistic, punishing or humiliating, an option often chosen by winners. They can also decide to be reconciliatory and tolerant and help innocent citizens irrespective of the side to which they belong and thus set an example for the young who will be future leaders. Reconciliation speech can replace hate speech.

This choice depends on the types of atrocities committed, on the configuration between winners and losers, if any. It depends on the personality of leaders and the character of their government. It also depends on their understanding of – and the availability of expertise in – what it takes to provide future generations with the minimum conditions for their living and prospering peacefully together in spite of what happened. And, naturally, on the culture, norms and traditions of the particular war-torn society.

In addition, the so-called international “community” can decide to reward reconciliatory policies with former adversaries or turn the blind eye to ongoing hate policies and triumphalism.

Of particular importance is how individual citizens and governments choose to deal with past events, hurt and mourning – how they learn to live with what happened and why? Trust and ultimately forgiving does not mean forgetting; it means remembering, living with and acknowledging grief, wrongdoings and the hurt done. By “them” for sure, but also by “us.”

For all this, a sense of history is imperative. Our history is part of our identity. In the worst of cases, there will be no shared history, or it will take very long time to develop. History is often used to justify what “we” did and denounce what “they” did. But former adversaries can also establish and share history to some extent: what happened, when, where and why? No side should allow itself to monopolise truth or repress – e.g. through media, school books, or memorials – the versions of history that other groups in the postwar society may have. That will do nothing but lay the ground for future hatred.

Citizens thus have a right to a history that they see as truthful, and a duty to acknowledge that others may see history in a completely different perspective and believe in a different truth.

“Let me take the example of Croatia,” says Oberg. “Croatia should be commended for having set up last year a National Committee for Re-Establishment of Trust throughout the Croatian society. This being said, it has not yet devoted enough administrative and economic resources. Remarkably few committee members selected by the President’s office have any expertise in the relevant socio-psychological dynamics needed and local committee members often have too many other roles and commitments to devote themselves to their committee work.

However, it is also the task of the international community to breed life and energy into this difficult process. As part of its recent Special Report on Education in Croatia, OSCE recently suggested a history commission of Croat and Serb historians, presumably inspired by TFF.”

In December last year TFF suggested two initiatives at a conference held in Budapest for teachers and principals from Eastern Slavonia and sponsored by the Council of Europe and UNTAES and with Croatian Ministry of Education officials present.

 

Moratorium on history teaching until GOOD books exist

Last year the Ministry of Education decided on a moratorium to the effect that the recent history (1989 to 1997) of former Yugoslavia and its constitutive republics should not be taught in the schools of Eastern Slavonia for the next five years. This came in response to criticism by international organisations and the Serb minority of history and other school books with biased, humiliating and pejorative texts, pictures and cultural materials. These books ought not have passed a pedagogical quality control and in addition clearly violated the written norms underlying the work of the National Committee for the Re-Establishment of Trust.

“We suggested, therefore, that this moratorium be extended to all of Croatia,” says Jan Oberg. During its numerous missions, TFF’s conflict-mitigation team has visited so many schools and talked with hundreds of principals, teachers and pupils. They deserve better materials. There is no point in withdrawing such books or tearing out pages from them (as was suggested to repair the damage) in one small region of the country while all other pupils throughout the Croatia will be influenced for the rest of their lives by this type of low-quality works full of hate speech. It cannot possibly lead to reconciliation. This is why we also suggested a history commission that could provide the basis for better school books.”

 

History and school book commission

“We suggested that the government a) asks a small group of the most professional and respected Croatian historians to write the recent history (e.g. 1980 to 1998) as they see it, and b) asks an equally eminent group of Serb historians in Croatia (and possibly other nationalities, too) to write the history as they see it. Next, c) gather an international group of experts on this region and on history and conflict to serve as advisers and consultants to these two groups.

Their tasks should be to review the two versions of the history and identify where the two versions of history are compatible and where they are not. At a series of scientific seminars and debates, the internationals should serve as facilitators and help the historians clrify where they agree, where they agree to disagree and identify why they do so – be it because of different scientific approaches and traditions, because of national belonging or, simply, because truth is full of nuances.

Thus, Croatia would be privileged by having a Croatian version and a Serbian version of contemporary history as well as a mixed version identifying agreements and disagreements. These three versions, perhaps framed or introduced by the internationals and their different views, could be published in an academic edition and one for broader consumption and public dialogue.

Finally, professional pedagogues and perhaps writers/journalists would be asked to take these three histories and transform them into schoolbook texts for various levels of education. When ready, the moratorium should be lifted.

 

There would be several desirable outcomes of such a commission:

• Professional historians would meet across old boundaries and co-operate as professionals; it would help redress the misuse of history on all sides during the war.

• Croatia would be provided with a qualified framework for dealing with its complex and sensitive history – essential for its birth as an independent state.

• By sparking off dialogues in public, in media and schools, the process itself would be a step towards reconciliation in this sadly divided country.

• Pupils and students throughout the country would be taught history in a decent manner, without propaganda and hate.

• They would implicitly learn that history as well as the present can be legitimately viewed in more than one way, that there probably is no single truth and that no one group has the right to impose its own (legitimate) perception on everybody else. It would, in short, be a perfectly pedagogical learning experience.

• The process would offer an opportunity for pluralism, trust-building and mutual understanding by clarifying agreement and disagreement – and help each to live together in respect. That’s what reconciliation is all about.

Of course, such initiatives are not only for Croatia to take. All postwar societies could benefit from such a public history educationand learning experience,” concludes Jan Oberg. “If not done, some people will choose triumphalism and build a bridge not to peace but to perpetuated hate and, eventually, a new war.

We ought to learn this lesson from the dissolution of old Yugoslavia: talk about the past, learn to talk about it while respecting other opinions, let no one impose a single truth and – above all – don’t ever sweep history, memories, and hurt under the carpet.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: