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

How to learn about Srebrenica

Dr Dubravka Stojanovic



The question we are facing is how to learn about Srebrenica. It seems to me that this question can be answered only after we answer two other questions: "Should Srebrenica be taught at all?" and "Why should students learn about Srebrenica?" There’s a huge number of those who say that Srebrenica should not be taught. Their main arguments are that it is too early, that the subject is too painful, that it is controversial and that it would deepen the conflict between the nations, especially Bosniaks and Serbs. The only point with which I agree is that it is a painful subject. I do not think any of the other arguments stand, because I believe it is no longer a controversial issue.

First of all, we have the verdict of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which clearly proved what happened. So there is no more controversy.

The weakest argument is that it is too early, because I have to remind you, the wars in the former Yugoslavia got into the textbooks immediately, almost like reportage. Every new series of textbooks for each new academic year only added what happened in the war the year before. Therefore, the system felt it was important to immediately tell the students how they should feel about these wars. So it is not too early. With regard to deepening the conflict between the nations, I think that is absolutely untrue.

On the contrary, the purpose of teaching this is to overcome these conflicts. I could go on refuting the arguments of those who claim that Srebrenica should not be taught, but I think we shouldn’t waste time on that and should instead move on to the question "Why should Srebrenica be taught," because if we know that, then it should be very easy to answer "How to learn about Srebrenica?"

Thinking about why Srebrenica should be taught, I want to say that for many people school is an abstraction and education is an abstraction, but it is actually something very concrete, something that is aimed at students who are, you won’t believe this, human beings. Students ask questions and they constantly ask their teachers about the recent wars, including Srebrenica. This is a problem for our teachers because they are not trained to answer this question and I believe that it is very important for the school to be the first place to give these answers, for experts to prepare these answers, and that it is very important in a situation where students are bound to search out these answers in very dubious places, internet chatrooms, our media and so on.

This is why I think it’s better to get the answers in school and from their teachers who they trust. I think that schools should play a central role in the process of confronting the past. Now, of course, you could ask "Why do we need the process of confronting the past at all?" I don’t think we need to get into that, it is enough to look at the condition of the former Yugoslav countries, even those that showed promise in solving that conundrum. I believe that those countries are actually held captive by the past and that not even Slovenia, and especially not Croatia, took the crucial step forward, that they are trapped in the past because they did not confront it and they are now rotting in it.

This is why I think it is terribly important to confront the past and I repeat, the school is the best or the first place for this process to begin. I think learning about Srebrenica is terribly important because it would strike at the foundations of our otherwise very poor education system. The people who are preventing this know very well that it would be subversive and it really would be, because it would upset this sedated way of schooling that we have in all the republics.

Let me remind you that no republic has undergone serious education reform and this was of course done so that the entire system would be held back.

If we were to learn about Srebrenica today, that would first mean that we have abandoned the programs for which we entered the war. It would mean that we took the right turn, that we seriously rejected it and are now able to deal with that.

Again, if Srebrenica was taught, this would mean that our education system has changed its purpose. As I often say, our education, especially the teaching of history, is very similar to military boot camp.
It is as if students are being trained for some future wars, and in any case if not wars, trained to become the so called “masses”. Our education is not creating citizens, it is not teaching students to think critically, to think for themselves.

I believe that if we introduced the teaching of Srebrenica in schools, it would be a critical reexamining of the past, which would bring an entirely different attitude towards the present.

Learning about Srebrenica today would, in my opinion, bring a rational approach to the past, and a rational approach to the past means a rational approach to the present and the future, which would also mean that our priorities have changed. This is the crucial thing, and this is what has not happened since the war.

So I think the priorities have remained the same.

I’m speaking of these fantasies about tradition and the past on which we are building the murky present in which we live. And if we were to rationally confront what happened in the past, it would mean that we are ready for a different present and for an actual step towards the future. Now we are slowly approaching the question, "How should one learn about the past?" if we know why it is important. Based on some experience of other countries on how to teach about crimes,

I think there are two good examples. One is the way our Palestinian and Israeli colleagues did it. They wrote a joint history textbook, which has conflicting narratives on each page.

So, on one margin is this major Palestinian narrative, while on the opposite margin there is the Israeli narrative, and between them is an empty space for students to add what they themselves think. This is a very good approach in my opinion and it provides the central outline, the central discourse on what happened.

But again, I think we in the Balkans found a better method, which we applied in our joint books about our common history published in Thessaloniki by the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation. What is important today is that we, all of us together, from Slovenia to Turkey and Cyprus, are working on books about the wars of the 1990s and we are just now working on, among other things, teaching about Srebrenica and teaching about all the wars of the 1990s. So, we are doing just that.

In every historical situation, even the most difficult, you have different views. You have those who disagreed. For example, in Belgrade we had a very strong antiwar movement, which is now completely overlooked and intentionally forgotten. If we were to show, for example, the position of that antiwar movement, we would in fact show that not everyone thought the same, and we would show that in every situation, even such as the genocide in Srebrenica, there was another way out and an option for it not to happen. It is terribly important to show this, because it demonstrates that history is not fate or a natural phenomenon, like a storm that comes along and tramples us down and we can’t do anything about it. On the contrary. We would see that for everything that happened in history there are people who are responsible, that behind every event there was a decision for it to happen that way and not another, that these are not irrational acts, but on the contrary, that it takes a lot of work and logistics for something to happen, and this in itself is a very important lesson about the past.

This is very important, not to relativize an event - what happened cannot be changed - but to prevent future events of this kind, to understand how Srebrenica was possible in a human society and use this knowledge to prevent such events from happening again.

In the end, it is extremely important to understand how propaganda works, showing what people at that time knew or did not know about what happened in Srebrenica, how information began coming out, how the news came late, how the crime was being covered up and how thanks to the effort of people who dissented it slowly began to emerge. I think this lesson about propaganda, about the role of the media is extremely important in learning history because it can teach today’s students how to reject it next time, to recognize propaganda. This is especially important today, when they have the internet and they continually get hundreds of facts each day, and our students are not skilled in understanding this information and are therefore much more prone to misinformation than ever before.

So I think it is terribly important to teach them how to assess the information they get and the school can play a vital role. Learning about Srebrenica today would mean learning that history is not some prescribed truth, that everything should be questioned, that one should have a critical attitude, especially towards their school and towards what the textbooks say, that history offers room for debate, that there are always different views and that this is much more important than some apology to presidents which we should not believe in that much. Those apologies are of no use to us if they are not backed by concrete acts. A concrete act for me would be changing the education system, and to me this would prove that we were really ready to move ahead differently. So I believe that today we desperately need to begin learning about Srebrenica.

Dr Dubravka Stojanovic, Serbia
Born in Belgrade in 1963. Graduated in History from the Faculty of Philosophy, Belgrade, in 1987. Employed as an assistant researcher at the Institute for Modern Serbian History between 1988 and 1996. In 1996 she was appointed to the post of the assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Philosophy, Chair of Contemporary General History. She got her MA degree in 1992 and PhD in 2001. Now she works as associated professor.

She is a vice-president of the History Education Committee, organized by the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in South Eastern Europe based in Thessaloniki. She is consultant of United Nations, working on the issues of history and memory and misuses of history in education. She is a member of the Management Committee of COST action ”In Search of Transcultural Memory in Europe”.

In 2004 she had received the prestigious Belgrade City Award for Social Sciences for the book Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. In 2011 she had received Peace Prize from Belgrade Center for Peace and Democracy for her engagement in reconciliation process through history teaching in South East Europe. In 2012 she had received the price Winning of Freedom for women engaged in human rights activism.

With Prof. Milan Ristovic she edited the book of additional teaching materials for secondary schools “Childhood in the past” which is now in use in 11 countries of South-East Europe. She was the editor of the Serbian edition of four workbooks “Teaching Modern Southeast European History. Alternative Educational Materials”, that were published in 12 languages of the region by the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe in Thessaloniki.

Her field of interest and research are processes of modernization and Europaization in South East Europe, history of ideas, processes s of democratization in Serbia, history of urbanization, history of Belgrade, relation history-memory, presentations of history in history textbooks.

She teaches Global history (1914-2014), Social Phenomena of Contemporary history, Social History of USA


Iskušavanje načela. Srpska Socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (Temptation of Principles. Serbian Social-Democratic Party and Serbian War Aims 1912-1918), Belgrade 1994, p. 213.

Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o ‘Zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije’ (Serbia and Democracy 1903-1914. Historical study on the “Golden Age of Serbian Democracy”), Belgrade 2003.

Modern Serbia 1804/2004. Hronology (co-author), Belgrade 2005.

Srbija 1804-2004. Tri viđenja ili poziv na dijalog (Serbia 1804-2004, Three views or call for dialogue, (co-author), Belgrade 2005.

Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890- 1914 (Cobblestone and Asphalt. Urbanization and Europeization of Belgrade 1890-1914), Belgrade 2008.

Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije  (Oil on Water. Essays on Serbian History of the Present), Belgrade 2010.

Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Bibilioteke XX vek 1971-2011 (Political Biography of Biblioteka XX vek), Belgrade 2011.

Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (Behind the Courtain. Essays in Social History of Serbia 1890-1914)