Book Review: Historical Dialogue and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities

Elazar Barkan, Constantin Goschler and James E. Waller, eds. Historical Dialogue and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities. New York: Routledge, 2020.

The philosopher Jeff Spinner-Halev observes in his 2012 volume, Enduring Injustice, that the very idea of historical injustice is a modern one, emerging only at the nexus of the idea of progress (so central to liberal philosophy) and the persistent existence of exceptions to that progress that cannot be ignored.[1] One of the most significant strategies for beginning to address these lingering injustices has been the creation of more expansive historical narratives that acknowledge the harm behind specific acts or policies of the past, and thus complicate and contextualize the history of the dominant group. After all, history has frequently been invoked in the name of political extremism, especially the belief in a “golden age” past that can only be resurrected with violence against those who allegedly betrayed that legacy. It might yet be too soon to determine if open dialogue regarding our less-than-golden past, will, in the end, help to heal the rifts that have formed and perhaps prevent future conflict. However, given how heritage can be so easily appropriated for extremist purposes, there is reason enough to consider historical dialogue one of the tools for peacemaking with the greatest potential.

As co-editor Elazar Barkan says in his introduction to Historical Dialogue and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities, “historical dialogue conveys a discourse that engages with the possibility of redress of past political violence and atrocities which takes any number of forms, and is most critical in its impact on culture and identity.” Such dialogue must be based upon empirically verifiable research and engage with participants who belong (or whose ancestors belonged) to the different sides of a conflict. Moreover, contrary to typical nationalistic narratives that imagine a glorious “golden age” in the past, historical dialogue “challenges victors’ narrative [sic] and the clear binary of perpetrator and victim.” Indeed, no group has a historical monopoly upon the roles of perpetrator and victim, and dissolving that binary can allow for a greater representation of human reality, as compared to conflictual myth-making. Historical dialogue is often regarded as a strategy for bringing peoples together after a conflict, but this volume emphasizes its potential for preventing conflict. As co-editor James E. Waller writes, “The strategies available to us for upstream prevention are far more numerous, and much less costly, than the available strategies for midstream prevention once genocide has broken out or, even more so, for downstream prevention for rebuilding after the genocide is over.”

The book is broken into four parts covering: historical commissions, education, museums, and art and visual interventions. Opening the first section, Christoph Cornelissen offers a chapter examining German historical commissions of the last thirty years, while Sigall Horovitz follows with a piece on Israel’s Or Commission, founded to respond to Israeli police violence against Palestinian civilians in October 2000. Both reach similar conclusions about the role of political leadership—namely, that “reconciliation cannot be attained only through the work of one commission and an NGO. It requires the commitment of political elites and the public at large,” as Horovitz puts it. Anna Di Lellio, examining post-conflict Kosovo, emphasizes that historical dialogue is never attempting to reconcile only the directly conflictual groups themselves; the different historiographies of World War II that help to facilitate divergent national memories “define the enemy without but also the enemy within,” including entities such as “the collaborating traitor.” imposing collective thinking on heterogeneous experiences and understandings.” Constantin Goschler closes this section by discussing some of the ambivalences prevalent in the practice of fostering historical dialogue, observing, for example, that historical dialogue may simply not mean the same thing to various nations: “While Germany has been trying to escape from its heritage of xenophobia by eagerly adopting cosmopolitan positions, in East-Central and Eastern Europe anti-cosmopolitism is very much a reaction against the self-imposed internationalism of the Soviet era.”

Two chapters examine issues of historical dialogue in education. Karina V. Korostelina surveys common history textbooks to conclude that “the development of common regional identities, transformation of the perceptions of former enemies toward more positive evaluation, and establishment of new norms of cooperation and mutuality” can “impede processes of dehumanization and devaluation and contribute to the reduction of aggressive intensions toward the others.” Just as historical commissions were heavily dependent upon government entities for their legitimacy and ability to communicate findings to the broader public, so, too, are teachers. However, as Ashley L. Greene observes in her chapter on secondary education in Uganda, by means of “creative pedagogy, discourse, and critical analysis, teachers have the ability to reinterpret political narratives in ways that mitigate risks for future violence, even in the absence of curricular reform and institutionalized mechanisms to address conflict.”

Museums have long been studied as sites of historical dialogue, but the contributors to this volume find a number of shortcomings in museums across the globe. For example, Stefan Berger examines a variety of war museums in contemporary Europe and concludes that “the dominant memory regime in Europe today is cosmopolitan,” a stance that attempts to offer closure rather than open-ended dialogue but proves helpless in confronting the reality that much collective identity is still formed antagonistically. Alexander Karn takes issue with the fact that many museums continue to “pretend that there is only one legitimate reading of the past and that the Museum has unquestionable authority to determine which historical narratives ought to have traction within society.” In a related vein, Falk Pingel, in a survey of military museums, criticizes how many such institutions, in the wake of the Cold War, “often only underwent expansion and technical modernization without a revision of the concept,” so that national politics continues to determine the message conveyed.

As the last section explores, art or other visual interventions can often serve the need for historical dialogue without reliance upon state entities. For example, Kaitlin M. Murphy, on the subject of art photography in post-conflict Guatemala, writes: “In situations in which official mechanisms of dialogue, memorialization, and justice are lacking, the public sphere often remains one of the few places for citizens to be heard and to fight for democracy and reform.” Or as Olivera Simić notes when it comes to historical injustices against women, only a small number of victims ever receive any legal redress, and so interventions within the arts may be the only acknowledgement most victims ever receive. Likewise, in her own chapter on “memory encroachments,” such as the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) that have been installed in many German cities to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, Kerry Whigham asserts that “our daily lives and daily journeys are often marked by a total lack of historicity,” and thus memory encroachments of this kind offer “public interventions that can restore those histories, if only for a moment.”

Historical Dialogue and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities offers an array of excellent studies of historical dialogue in action, examining the conditions necessary to make historical commissions effective, for example, or what interventions may be possible when political leadership opposes any disruptions of still profitable collective narratives. However, the nature of such a diverse collection means that this book is best read in concert with other volumes that can provide a greater critical examination of the philosophy behind historical dialogue, as well as the pitfalls of implementing it. As Spinner-Halev notes, attempting to rectify the collective mistakes of the past was simply not a preoccupation of our forebears, and so we do not have a long tradition of proven successes spanning generations. But we do know how easily history and heritage can be manipulated in order to polarize societies and perpetuate conflict, and thus it is incumbent upon scholars, public historians, artists, and people of goodwill everywhere to develop corrective measures that accurately reflect the reality of our shared existence on this planet and, by so doing, minimize the potential for atrocity in the future. Historical Dialogue and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities offers exactly the sort of analysis that can help to make such interventions a success.

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[1] Spinner-Halev, J. (2012). Enduring Injustice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.