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How to teach about Srebrenica?

Historia est patria mea

Should we teach about Srebrenica? Is it possible to teach about Srebrenica? These two questions are crucial when we consider the purpose and the type of education in the countries of former Yugoslavia, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The purpose – because, here, the aim of education, and especially history education, is still not acquiring knowledge, but rather, creating a national identity and historical consciousness of a community. The type – because education, and especially history education, still does not stimulate critical thinking, but negates it instead.

Despite the constant talk of education reform since the end of Yugoslav wars, the reform has never actually started in the successor states of former Yugoslavia. Some adjustments have been made, such as the so-called “harmonisation” with “Europe”, but there has never been an in-depth examination of the role and the meaning of education. And this is not a result of the usual inefficiency of our respective administrations. On the contrary, it is an expression of what these systems are, their very core encased firmly in the ruins of the former country. These systems, pretending not to be what they really are, are built on strong foundations set in the ideology which is an amalgamation of all the ideas through which the old elites preserve their monopoly of power. And then, on top of that, there are nationalism and social egalitarianism, anti-modernism and traditionalism, collectivism and rejection of any change. There is left and there is right. But before all and above all, in the root of these systems lies authoritarianism. These systems without a system and the ideology with an excess of seemingly disparate ideas are there to protect the very essence of politics, which allows no compromise and which holds everything together.

Why is teaching about Srebrenica subversive?

Teaching about Srebrenica threatens precisely this essence. And this is why it is subversive. And unacceptable. Because, if teaching about Srebrenica was possible, that would mean that nationalism is not the be all and end all of our political orders. It would be a sign that the system is down, and that schools no longer produce its future leaders and consumers, but autonomous individuals prepared to see the world around them for what it really is. An opportunity would then present itself to cultivate individuals with critical thinking skills who are perceived as a strength and not a weakness of a society. The inherited patriarchal concept in which a teacher is seen as the strict father and a textbook as a scripture would collapse. Students would learn to ask questions and not just mechanically answer them. The windows would open and fresh air would come into the stuffy, damp schools. It would also mean the end of the politics of war of the nineties and the start of examining their causes. It would be a sign that priorities have changed – development would replace fantasies of bright future founded on sacred past. And that is the key: the past would become a place for critical questioning and critical confrontation instead of the identity pantry from which each government takes what suits it and pushes that which is not in its favour into the deep darkness.

Ancestral timeline

Those who criticize the idea of teaching about Srebrenica usually argue: it is too early. They also invoke the (in)famous historical distance, as a cover to all those running from something. They also say that without examining the archives, which will only be possible in some 30 years, nothing must be said. It is a deliberate misconstruction. It is a manipulation, because Srebrenica was placed in textbooks by its architects almost at the moment the crime was committed. Therefore – it has always been in textbooks, so the distance has never been a problem. The real question is – why is it there?

Indeed, the Yugoslav wars had been entering history textbooks since their very beginning. It is indicative that history textbooks in Croatia were changed in 1992, in Serbia in 1993 and in Bosnia in 1994. What does this bizarre chronology tells us? It unequivocally demonstrates that, in the midst of military operations and committing crimes, governments had the time and the money to also act in the “field of past” and that it was one of political priorities at the time. Everything was changed then – both the old and the new past, both the middle ages and the modern times. It was necessary to adapt the past to the present, to create a historical context in which the unbearable present would seem an entirely normal and logical product of history. A new historical legitimacy had to be lent to the new governments and new events, the history timeline had to be created for the new states, and the leaders had to be afforded desirable historical ancestors.

The present had to be explained as well. And not so much for the sake of the present. More for the sake of the future. More because the images of the ongoing events were uploaded onto the hard drives of children’s brains to leave their imprint forever, to shape their future opinion of the war that marked their childhood. By bringing the war events and personal interpretations directly into history teaching, the creators of wars sought to cement their explanation and justification of the war, to impose their sick vision as a historical logic. It is a crime with a delayed effect, a trust deed for the future. This is why the regimes which instigated and fought the wars imposed their interpretation of the cause, the course and the meaning of wars into teaching history thus depriving the debate on historical distance of any meaning before it could even start. Historical distance, therefore, is not an argument. Quite the opposite.

Unlearning confrontation with the past

Although there are many examples in the countries around the world where a long time had to pass before controversial events were introduced in the curricula, the arguments in favour of teaching about the present or the recent past are strong. These arguments are ingrained in the very nature of school itself, which, in spite of what our ministries wish for, is made up of living, breathing people. To be more precise – it is made up of living, breathing children. And children have this unpleasant habit of asking questions, even when they are not supposed to. And they do. Especially about the most recent and most sensitive events. They need an authority, such as a teacher, to explain these events to them, to help them reflect on them. And this is where problems begin. Teachers have two options – either to forbid asking questions or to proffer their own interpretations, which is extremely dangerous in the majority of cases. This is yet another reason why the interpretation of such important, sensitive events should be in the hands of experts. Or, to be more precise, why the approach to the teaching of traumatic events should be based on purposely developed didactic methods. Moreover, teaching about recent past is important because school should be a significant participant in the process of facing the past. Almost 20 years that have passed following the end of the armed conflicts have been spent in attempts not to confront the past. However, it has become clear that new, thriving societies cannot be created without first overcoming the traumas that eradicated the previous ones. It has become obvious that the attempts to avoid confrontation with the past only ensure further decay and that moving forward is impossible without disinfecting the old wounds first.

Slovenia and Croatia, the former Yugoslav republics that went through the transition in a seemingly more successful way, also prove this point. There too the old pus is still alive, stopping them from moving forward. It has become clear that post-Yugoslav societies and countries have failed in finding solutions for their problems, largely because they did not want to examine how they found themselves in those problems in the first place. Nobody had a desire to question the ideological paradigm that brought them where they are today. No government has dared to point the finger at the root of the fantasies which led to this endless stumbling through the dark. And it was obvious that the vital step forward cannot be made without a clear look into the past.

That crucially important look into the past cannot be made without the help of the education system. Only when cataract is removed from the eyes of education, can we expect the new generations to have a clearer view. Many examples prove this clearly, Germany being the most prominent one. It was only when the question of German accountability was posed systemically through the education system and when the excursions to the places of mass executions started taking place, that the public awareness could be shifted forward. It was only then that teaching/learning could lead to the adopted way of thinking.

How do we agree on the truth?

Let us see where we stand at the moment. We said that Srebrenica is already in the curricula anyway. We said that it should be there, but not like it is now. So, how then? What to teach? Do we know what exactly happened there? Has what happened there been determined using scientific methods? Is there a single truth about that or any other event? Can Serbs or Bosniacs get to that truth? How would they agree on what the truth is? By voting, outvoting, consensus? Hardly. The comparative analysis of textbooks that was conducted in the South-eastern Europe (www.cdsee.org) showed that there are huge differences in the interpretation of historical events and phenomena. Even those which are not even remotely as complicated or as emotionally intense as the ones related to the latest Yugoslav wars. Everyone needs their own interpretation, everyone seeks what is called national identity through this interpretation. Whether a war will be labelled a liberation war or an aggression, a just or an unjust war, depends solely on the present needs of the current regime and the society and only vaguely reflects the events that occurred in the past. After all, every past event is extremely complex, it provides elements for different interpretations and arguments for often entirely conflicting viewpoints. In addition, there is little knowledge attained using reliable and scientific methods. The underdeveloped domestic scientific methods have not yielded concrete data, which could be easily checked, verified and be definite. How then can we teach about something so sensitive and controversial such as the genocide in Srebrenica? How do we do it without it causing controversy, conflicts or without it becoming a new argument in favour of old nationalistic ideologies?

Firstly, we can go back to the beginning of this text and once again ask the question of the purpose of education. And what is even more important – why do we need to teach about Srebrenica? Should we accept the contemporary pedagogical approach that the purpose of education is creating free, self-aware citizens, who gain skills through education, for example, learning to read, understand and critically process a text, then teaching about Srebrenica may be the most important part of education. Precisely because this issue is so sensitive and so controversial. That is exactly why it would be extremely important to realize, first of all, that there is no one simple truth, but that understanding an event is always full of nuances, always different depending on the perspective, always pluralistic. And that is the essence – teaching about Srebrenica would help teach plurality, it would help teach that it is not only natural but also necessary to have different opinions and that the job of a true educational system is to teach how these opinions can be discussed, how to present arguments, ask questions, consider “the others“, and to understand. This is our only possible corrective on our way to becoming better people.

Valuable examples

In the previous projects whose aim was to achieve better understanding of the common past through history curricula, where history would have a reconciliatory role and cease to be one of the main factors of confrontation, two interesting and valuable solutions were used. One is the common Palestinian-Israeli textbook (Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine, eds. Sa mi Adwan, Dan Bar-On, Eyal Na veh, New York 2012), in which two narratives, two completely different perspectives of events are represented in two parallel columns, while a third, empty column, is left in the middle for students to fill, writing about their own perception of the relevant events. The same approach could be applied in the case of Yugoslav wars because all sides have their own strong narrative about what caused the wars, about their course and about individual events. Therefore, introducing those parallel narratives would be of utmost importance as it would provide students with the already established perspective of both sides, firmly laid down and very different frameworks for understanding events, which would demonstrate how greatly the interpretations differ. This way students would be exposed to the other side’s perspective, they would learn how it is possible to see one event from completely different angles and how each event in the past always gets interpreted differently within a single, and across different, societies, just as today’s political issues can be viewed in a completely different way. This is an important, almost therapeutic lesson, because every society has a tendency to believe that in the past there was only one interpretation of events, although we are aware of the plurality of the opinion on the present. This is why it is important to teach that the past was also plural, and that therefore the current teaching about it should be plural as well. It is particularly important in post-conflict societies (if our societies fall into that category at all) to show that there is a conflict of memories, that the “others” have their point of view and that, even when we cannot possibly agree with it, it is important to accept that a different point of view is possible and hear its arguments. This in itself is already the beginning of a dialogue, beginning of understanding, getting to know other people, and even accepting the idea that a different opinion is legitimate. Such a step is an enormous lesson on teaching about tolerance, plurality, but, even more so, about ourselves. Because being aware of other interpretations makes our views more flexible, more open, more complex, and softer. And this is precisely what the creators of our education policies fear. Understanding the “other” is still seen as a weakness.

Another approach can be found in the common textbooks specifically designed for the countries of South-eastern Europe (Teaching Modern Southeast European History. Alternative Educational materials, ed. Christina Kouluri, Thessaloniki, 2005, published in 9 languages of the region, www.cdsee.org) using the multiperspectival method. These textbooks present events through historical sources, texts or illustrations from the time in which they occurred, thus showing students how different sides saw certain events and how much their understanding differs. This way students are shown that even at the moment an event is happening its interpretations depend on the perspective it is viewed from and how, with the passage of time, these positions drift apart further. An important lesson is learned as to what an event seemed like to its contemporaries, what they knew about it, what explanation was given as to its cause. This lesson on the relation between the past and the present is also very valuable, because it shows motives and emotions of the contemporaries and introduces arguments which are today forgotten, and which explain the viewpoints of the participants. Such presentation of the past is important because it allows for opening up a discussion in the class, to study arguments of different sides, to cross-reference the data they cited and thus to recognize the complexity of each historical situation. This type of education enables us to reach the point when learning about the past no longer means memorising “one truth”, but questioning each argument and understanding the complexity of each political moment. History stops being a result of conspiracy or force of nature destroying everything before it and becomes an open space for discussion and constant questioning. The team of historians who wrote these textbooks has already prepared the next phase of the project which would also include the wars of the nineties.

Lesson on responsibility and democracy

If the events in Srebrenica get presented through such a method, it would mean including different types and levels of historical sources. The first part of the lesson would have to provide the number of the killed, the information on the remains of victims found so far and the researched information on victims and their biographical data. In the second part, the historical sources would be cross-referenced, primarily the newspaper articles, which would illustrate all the differences in the information on the same events given in the Bosnian and Serbian press. This would primarily reveal when the information about Srebrenica were published for the first time in Serbia and how laboured and slow the process from complete denial, through acceptance with justifications to the beginning of confronting the past ran. That would be of tremendous importance, especially for Serbian students, who would learn about attempts of hiding the truth and manipulating the public. This approach would first acquaint the students with the fact that events have been presented differently by different sides from the beginning, they would gain an insight as to how the contemporaries understood these events and which version of the events they believed in. This is very important because the students are shown that the interpretations of an event are independent form the event itself, thus teaching them critical reading which, in turn, enables students to evaluate their sources, primarily the press. Such approach does not relativize the crimes, it shows that it is very important how crimes are interpreted and that interpretations have more effect on the public than the bare facts. Crimes are undeniable, but the attitude towards them is what determines today’s societies and what can contribute to questioning the causes leading to them. That which happened cannot be changed, but our understanding of it can.

Once this is accomplished, samples of documents demonstrating different views of these events should be made available. This would be especially important for the Serbian side, as it would also show the reactions of the Serbian anti-war circles who opposed the politics of war and condemned the crimes. Such didactic approach would introduce an unambiguous awareness of the plurality of society; awareness that there have always been different viewpoints and that this means that a responsibility can be concretely apportioned for a particular course of events. Namely, if such plurality is not taught in history classes, then it appears that history is a predetermined, metaphysical course that exists apart from people and that people cannot influence it. If, on the other hand, the existence of different opinions is shown, we demonstrate that every historic situation has several possible outcomes, that they are not predetermined and that certain circles make decisions as to which road will be taken. It would be an important lesson in responsibility and democracy.

The third part should be dedicated to remembrance as well as the testimonies in the Hague, thus individualising the relationship with victims and developing empathy for their suffering. The last part should contain extracts from court verdicts, such as those rendered by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which established these crimes as a genocide, as well as those by the International Criminal Court.

A chance for History

If this method were to be applied in presenting Yugoslav wars in textbooks used in the countries that participated in them, it would also mean that the new basis would be created for facing those wars as well as for a complete change in the way we teach about the past. The prescribed truth which is only memorised and precludes asking questions would be gone, and the understanding of the past would be based on different perspectives and arguments. This encounter with a different perspective would be painful, it would provoke resistance, run into contempt, even denial of the need to know what the others think. However, in conflict or post-conflict societies that step is necessary, for it leads to finally noticing the others, to recognising their legitimacy and opens up the possibility of a debate. Teaching about pain would then replace the statesmen’s empty apologies, and schools would become places of nurturing autonomous opinion instead of being an ideological pulpit as they have been and still are today. And history? History would get a chance to transform from being an instrument in the preparation for war into a critical discipline helping the nation to grow up, rub its eyes, notice the world around it and start creating a far-off, democratic society.

Translated by Antonela Glavinic

Školegijum, No 7, March 2014

Peščanik.net, 07.05.2014.

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Dubravka Stojanović, istoričarka, magistrirala 1992 („Srpska socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918“), doktorirala 2001 („Evropski demokratski uzori kod srpske političke i intelektualne elite 1903-1914“) na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu. Od 1988. do 1996. radi u Institutu za noviju istoriju Srbije, pa prelazi na Odeljenje za istoriju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, gde 2008. postaje vanredna, a 2016. redovna profesorka na katedri za Opštu savremenu istoriju. U saradnji sa Centrom za antiratne akcije 1993. radi na projektu analize udžbenika. Sa Milanom Ristovićem piše i uređuje školske dodatne nastavne materijale „Detinjstvo u prošlosti“, nastale u saradnji istoričara svih zemalja Balkana, koji su objavljeni na 11 jezika regiona. Kao potpredsednica Komiteta za edukaciju Centra za demokratiju i pomirenje u Jugoistočnoj Evropi iz Soluna, urednica je srpskog izdanja 6 istorijskih čitanki za srednje škole. Dobitnica je odlikovanja Nacionalnog reda za zasluge u rangu viteza Republike Francuske. Knjige: Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socijaldemokratija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (1994), Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o “zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije” (2003, 2019) – Nagrada grada Beograda za društvene i humanističke nauke za 2003; Srbija 1804-2004 (sa M. Jovanovićem i Lj. Dimićem, 2005), Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (2008), Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije (2010), Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek (2011), Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (2013), Rađanje globalnog sveta 1880-2015. Vanevropski svet u savremenom dobu (2015) i Populism the Serbian Way (2017).

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