Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

Denial and blocked societies

Dr Daniel Feierstein

director of the Genocide Studies Centre in Argentina


It is not only possible, but interesting to compare the three cases. But, first of all, let me clarify that I don't agree with the idea to call the genocide in the former Yugoslavia - the genocide in Srebrenica, because Srebrenica was just a case, just a place, a moment in the whole genocide. And it is somehow bizarre, even if some courts did it, from a historical or sociological point of view, even from a legal point of view, to think that the genocide happened only in one place. Genocide is a project, applied to a whole society.

Starting with this idea of a possible comparison between the three cases, I am convinced that the case there is the case of the former Yugoslavia. The project was to destroy the Yugoslavian identity and it was somehow a successful project, because you can see there are no more Yugoslavs. You have now Croats, Serbs or Bosnians, but no more Yugoslavs, which was the main objective of the perpetrators. So, I think that the comparison between the three cases (shows that they) have some communalities and some differences. The main common element in the three cases is the project to transform and reorganize a society through terror. So, the main objective of genocide, of modern genocide in history, is to use the terror, to use the concentration camp system, to use alienation to transform and reorganize social relationships.
First, the case in Nazi Germany was a project of the reorganisation of the German society, first during the 30s, and the European society with the beginning of the war, by using terror as a tool to transform and reorganise a society. In the case of Argentina it was part of a continental project, so it was also a case to transform the Argentinean society, but in the frame of a wider transformation of the whole Latin American society through the national security doctrine. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, I think, there are some differences. It was also a project to transform a society, but not only to transform, but to totally destroy an identity and replace it with a new model of identity. And that’s why I think, to confront the objectives of the genocideers, it is quite important to understand the genocide in the former Yugoslavia as a project to destroy the Yugoslavian identity, by fuelling the nationalisms and destroying this kind of identity and creating new identities, these new nationalist identities in this territory.

I guess that the main element of continuity is the use of terror to transform a society. In the case of Nazism it was not clear enough in the beginning. I used to say that Nazism was a laboratory of the application of terror. During the process, the Nazis were realising how effective terror is to transform a whole society. Particularly, the first moment of Nazism, the moment from 1933 to 1938, was the moment in which the whole territory of Germany was full of concentration camps in which a lot of members of the society were intern, not necessarily killed, but they were intern in concentration camps, they were tortured and submitted to terror. That terror was quite effective to guarantee the obedience and discipline, to spread the lack of trust in the whole society and to inspire the possibilities of betrayal. So that was kind of a laboratory. But after Nazism, there was a lot of work in different places to understand und to use terror as a tool and as an instrument. For example, the project managed by the CIA together with the McGill University in the late 50s and early 60s in the USA and Canada. It was fundamental to develop these new tools just explicitly in the cases of the National Security doctrine, in Latin America and even in Indonesia and other places. At the same time, during the 30s, the 40s and the 50s, terror was also developed in the Eastern Block, particularly during Stalinism, as a very effective tool to transform social behaviour. So, I guess, that’s the main continuity in the processes in the 30s, 40s and then in the 50s and 60s. And this process continued by using new tools in the 90s, for example, the occurrence of systematic rape in the case of the former Yugoslavia as a new tool to transform the society and to spread terror. But as I told you in the previous question, I guess that the main difference was that the project in the former Yugoslavia was even more successful with this idea that it was not only a project to socially and economically reorganize a society and an identity, but a project to totally destroy the previous identity and to replace it with these new identities in small states, trying to develop this nationalist identity as a new identity for the population. That’s the main continuity with some differences and different uses. We have to explore more, because, I guess, the case in the former Yugoslavia is somehow the 21st century use of terror.

We could have seen some other examples, like the intent to destroy the Bolivian state through the same type of nationalism. Luckily it failed because of the reaction of different countries of the region, but I guess, until the 1960s or 1970s, the state was the fundamental tool to oppress the society. But at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, terror is used to destroy the states, particularly pluricultural, plural states. The last element to resist this transformation, this economic transformation is the society. So we have to care very much and to research a lot in the case of the former Yugoslavia. Even if it is the same process, it is clearly different and it is somehow the new model of using terror and genocide to reorganize societies. We have to look deeply into the case of the former Yugoslavia to understand the future and to understand new cases in the 21st century, in Africa, in Asia and even Latin America.

The way to destroy plurality was to kill all minorities, to kill all the different groups and finally to homogenise identity in the modern state. That was the model in modern Turkey, that was the model in Germany and that was the model even in the National Security doctrine. But I think that at the end of the 20th century, the model was not only to destroy the minorities in plural society, but to split, to break the states, to split the different groups and to avoid the possibility of continuity of plural states. When the states have the possibility to put some limits to transnational capital and transnational companies, it is much more effective to break the state and to have five or six or seven or eight little states with no possibility at all to put any kind of limit to the globalisation, to the circulation of goods. For the society it is a kind of awakening. It is clearly weak when the state has no possibility at all to put any kind of limit due to the its size, due to the size of the society. I think it is another kind of use of terror and we have to explore more. The research was focused mainly on the cases in the 60s, 70s, even on Nazism in the 40s, but now I think we have to be more careful and to analyse these new ways of using terror and genocide to transform societies. These are just ideas, but we have to develop these ideas more.

I divided these three moments because any genocide has to be prepared. So you need a moment of ideological preparation of the genocide to create this new model of identity, to put in question the plurality and to create negative otherness in the society. It is possible to find this process in any genocide and even in the case of the former Yugoslavia, even in the last years of the government of Tito, particularly after Tito’s death - this fuelling of different nationalisms, mainly the Serbian nationalism, but not only. There is also the fuelling of other nationalisms and the transformation of the elements of identity, trying to go back to the 14th century and to the myths of the confrontation of the Muslims and the Christians.

In any genocide it is needed to create a new mentality, to create the possibility to understand the other as alien, as dangerous and not as a part of us. Then you have the process of genocide, the material implementation of genocide - the persecution, the torture, the alienation. But in the modern genocide that is not enough. Terror is very effective, but the process in which the terror affects our identity, is a process that happens after the genocide. That is what I used to call the symbolic enactment of genocide or even the post-genocidal societies. It is the moment in which the society tries to memorialise the terror, to memorialise the past. It is the moment in which terror affects identities. It is expectable, it is possible that the terror will affect the identities in some ways, because terror used to be quite effective. But it is not an automatic process. So it is another step and it is very important because it means that we can confront the objectives of the genocide in post-genocidal societies. In Argentina it was quite interesting that the society, after years of impunity and years in which the terror was somehow successful, particularly with the economic crisis in 2001, started to confront with this legacy and tried to revise the identity that was construed during the years of terror.

That’s why it is very important to challenge the ways in which we memorialise the past. I used to say that it is not a question of truth and lie, it is not only a question of remembrance, but the main challenge is how to remember, how do we explain the past. Even if we remember the past condemning the genocide, if we are ratifying this model of the identity of the genocideers, we are somehow legitimising their objectives. For example, with this idea that identities are essential, with this idea that German killed the Jews, we are somehow legitimising the Nazi mentality. What the Nazis believed was that Germans were not Jews, Jews were not Germans or Europeans, they were not Poles or Russians. So when we try to understand, memorialise and remember the past, it is very important what kind of representations, what kind of narrations we are aiming to create. It is quite important also in the case of the former Yugoslavia. Because, except in some groups of young people in the different states, it is difficult to see or to read something that is trying to recover this plural identity. Even in Bosnia and in some processes of condemnation of the genocide, this idea of essential and separate identities continues to be present. This idea that Serbs killed Bosnians, that Serbs killed Croats, or that Croats killed Bosnians. But, you are somehow legitimizing this idea that in that society there were Serbs, Croats, Bosnians or Muslims, but the idea that there were Yugoslavs in that society and that many people, particularly in Bosnia, thought about themselves as Yugoslavs, as plurals, with plural identity, with different elements in themselves, it is absolutely absent. The main objective of the genocide was to delete, destroy and to erase this plural identity. So that’s why this post-genocidal moment is quite important.
A post-genocidal society is the moment in which the society is trying to create a narrative of the past. It could be done in different ways. Usually, the objective of the genocideers is to have a post-genocidal society that ratifies and legitimises the model of identity created through the terror. It is logical that it will happen, but it is not automatic. It is not absolute. So, the societies can confront this model and this is part of the post-genocidal society, this creation of the ways to represent and narrate the past. And that is something the perpetrators of genocide can’t manage. That is interesting. The perpetrators of genocide can kill, they can persecute, they can torture and rape, but the ways in which we will represent the past is something that the society will do. The terror is quite effective. It is possible, as a way to react to terror, that some groups will try to go to this kind of “origins”. It is possible, but not automatic. The main challenge in the post-genocidal society is to confront with these objectives of the perpetrators, to confront the goal of the genocide and to try to create other representations, other ways to narrate the past, other ways to understand the terror and the objectives of terror and other ways to understand our own identity.

It is really difficult to think about different ways of how to do it. Sometimes it is easier to know how not to do it. But I would say that taking this comparative approach, trying to analyse other cases, successful and unsuccessful cases of the creation of these new identities, it is very important, in the process of memorialisation, to put in the front the identities that the people had before the terror. Some processes of memorialisation talk only about the killings, about the terror and torture. I used to say that this kind of process of remembrance can only think about what the perpetrators did with the bodies of the victims. That’s a real danger, because in that process of memorialisation one tends to forget who the victims were. So I think it is very important in any post-genocidal society to try to recover who the victims were, not only what the perpetrators did to the victims, but mainly who the victims were. How did they used to live? What were the ways of their culture? What did they do? So (it is important to) try to recover this identity that was subjected to killing and persecution, not only the bodies, but to try to recover the identity. I think that’s a fundamental step to try to confront the objectives of the perpetrators, not to make an abstract representation of the horror, the killings, the mass graves, the torture and rape, but to try to go beyond horror and to recover the identity of the victims, who they were. And that’s fundamental to understand and to reopen the possibility to think about who we are. This is a problem. Of course, we are plural in our identity, so it is true that there were different identities in the former Yugoslavia and that there was a project during forty years trying to create one identity from these different identities. One plural identity. And it was quite successful in some parts of the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it was less successful in other parts where nationalism was always important.

The project in the 90s was clearly to destroy this plurality and to create these new republics with different nationalisms. I think that reaffirming these differences, the impossibility to live together and the essential differences among different groups, is a way to reaffirm the objectives of the perpetrators. I think there are other models of identity trying to recover this plurality, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, trying to recover the plurality that the society had in the past and even has today. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most pluricultural part, not only of the former Yugoslavia, but even one of the most pluricultural identities in the whole Europe. So it was quite interesting. And that’s why Bosnia was the focus of the killings and the focus of the genocide. The project was precisely to destroy this plurality. I think that is difficult. On one hand, there is the need to confront with pan-serbianism and to recover the Muslim identity. But on the other side, it is interesting to think about what kind of Muslim identity the Bosnian society had before the genocide. It was quite secular. And that’s quite interesting. That plurality was what the project of the genocide wanted to destroy.

Daniel Feierstein, Argentina
is the director of the Center for Genocide Studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero in Argentina. He is the current president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars-IAGS. He is the author of the book “Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas”, first published in Argentina in Spanish (2007); book has been translated into many languages including English (2014). Daniel Feirestein in this book „provides a provocative analysis of the relationship between modernity and state policy through the mechanism of genocidal social practice. A seminal contribution from major scholar in the field.“ (Ernesto Verdeja, University of Notre Dame).