Interview 25 Jun 13

Interview: A Different Kind of Remembrance

Balkan countries need to develop a culture of memorialisation where different ethnic groups recognise others’ suffering as well as their own, says Sarajevo-based researcher Nicolas Moll.

Historian Nicolas Moll | Courtesy of Nicholas Moll

BIRN: Different groups often only want to memorialise their own wartime heroes or their own victims. What are the problems in this?

Nicolas Moll: The overwhelming majority of all monuments in contemporary societies, not only in the Balkans, are commemorating one group, one ethnic, national, social or political group - the group which is currently the dominating one in the society. This is not a problem in itself. But it becomes a problem if this culture of remembrance remains exclusive and is only remembering own heroes and/ or victims, and is never acknowledging the suffering of others.

In post-war societies, the public remembrance is often for a long time focusing just on the own dominating group, and does not acknowledge the crimes which were committed by the own group and the victims of these crimes. It took for example several decades time before Germany started to officially commemorate the Jewish victims of Nazism.

In the Balkans, as in other post-war societies, every group is currently mainly commemorating its own victims and heroes, but there are also encouraging signs of evolution, despite the fact that we are just 15 years after the wars of the 1990s: one example is the project of the municipality of Sarajevo to build a monument in Kazani to the Serb civilians who were killed there by Bosniak paramilitary groups during the siege of Sarajevo.

Several governments in the region have no official records of how many monuments/memorials have been built since the war, or what has been the cost to the public. Is this largely unregulated monument-building a concern?

The situation is different within the Balkans; in Croatia we have for example one type of standardised official monument which is erected for civilian victims of the homeland war, the monument in Ovcara for example belongs to these standardised monuments.  In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we also have some ‘series’ of  standardised monuments, for example in Sarajevo the white commemorative plaques for persons killed by grenades during the siege, but in general the situation is very unregulated.

I am not sure if a more direct state intervention in order to regulate monument-building would be the most appropriate solution, unless it matches democratic standards. As monuments are symbols which are established and visible in the public space, I think the best would be to define mechanisms where monuments are erected as the result of a transparent and democratic discussion and negotiation process involving experts, local stakeholders, victim associations and other civil society actors.

What role do monuments play in nation-building projects?

Monuments are closely linked to contemporary nation-building processes or more generally to group identity-building processes. They are one of the tools of memory politics which different memory entrepreneurs—political and social stakeholders such as governmental structures, political parties, interest groups and intellectuals— use in order to construct collective narratives on the past, with the aim to support the legitimisation of political action, the cementation of group cohesion and the development of a collective identity.

Monuments are therefore often used for specific political purposes. Regarding this, it is important that citizens keep a critical distance towards monuments and always fight for that monuments and memorials don’t become places for ideological statements, but places of reflection, education and discussion.

Can memorials aid or promote reconciliation?

The very big majority of monuments, not only in the Balkans, but in all contemporary societies, are not meant to promote reconciliation, but to promote the remembrance of one specific group. We should not expect too much from monuments. But we could expect that monuments should at least not contribute to make reconciliation and peace-building much more difficult.

Also, if most of war-related monuments are not originally thought of as places of reconciliation, they can nevertheless become such places though their use, for example through visits. Let’s take two examples: when Boris Tadic and Ivo Josipovic visited together Ovcara, in this moment Ovcara became a place of reconciliation, and when Ivo Josipovic went to Ahmici honouring the Bosniak victims which had been killed by Croats in 1993, in this moment also Ahmici became a place of reconciliation.

Nicolas Moll, PhD in contemporary history, is an independent researcher and freelance consultant and trainer in the field of dealing with the past. He has lived in Sarajevo since 2007.

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In Pictures


Post-War Monuments in the Balkans

A photo gallery of statues and memorials across the former Yugoslavia, including tributes to guerrilla fighters, genocide victims, historical heroes, Hollywood actors and even a tin of canned beef.

Monumenti gallery produced in cooperation with forumZFD