P r e s s I n f o # 40 June 24, 1998
Reconciliation Through a History and School Book Commission
- in Croatia and Elsewhere
"Postwar initiatives can help prevent future policies of revenge, violence
and outbursts of repressed traumas. It is possible to develop policies of
reconciliation and trust-building and take initiatives which encourage
citizens to take steps toward forgiving. One such initiative could be the
setting up of history and school book commissions. A truthful approach to
history is a vital element in shaping a future together and help the next
generations live peacefully in spite of what happened," says TFF director
In societies which have gone through civil wars, one or more parties can
choose to be triumphalistic, punishing or humiliating, an option often
chosen by winners. They can also decide to be reconciliatory and tolerant
and help innocent citizens irrespective of the side to which they belong
and thus set an example for the young who will be future leaders.
Reconciliation speech can replace hate speech.
This choice depends on the types of atrocities committed, on the
configuration between winners and losers, if any. It depends on the
personality of leaders and the character of their government. It also
depends on their understanding of - and the availability of expertise in -
what it takes to provide future generations with the minimum conditions for
their living and prospering peacefully together in spite of what happened.
And, naturally, on the culture, norms and traditions of the particular
In addition, the so-called international "community" can decide to reward
reconciliatory policies with former adversaries or turn the blind eye to
ongoing hate policies and triumphalism.
Of particular importance is how individual citizens and governments choose
to deal with past events, hurt and mourning - how they learn to live with
what happened and why? Trust and ultimately forgiving does not mean
forgetting; it means remembering, living with and acknowledging grief,
wrongdoings and the hurt done. By "them" for sure, but also by "us."
For all this, a sense of history is imperative. Our history is part of our
identity. In the worst of cases, there will be no shared history, or it
will take very long time to develop. History is often used to justify what
"we" did and denounce what "they" did. But former adversaries can also
establish and share history to some extent: what happened, when, where and
why? No side should allow itself to monopolise truth or repress - e.g.
through media, school books, or memorials - the versions of history that
other groups in the postwar society may have. That will do nothing but lay
the ground for future hatred.
Citizens thus have a right to a history that they see as truthful, and a
duty to acknowledge that others may see history in a completely different
perspective and believe in a different truth.
"Let me take the example of Croatia," says Oberg. "Croatia should be
commended for having set up last year a National Committee for
Re-Establishment of Trust throughout the Croatian society. This being said,
it has not yet devoted enough administrative and economic resources.
Remarkably few committee members selected by the President's office have
any expertise in the relevant socio-psychological dynamics needed and local
committee members often have too many other roles and commitments to devote
themselves to their committee work.
However, it is also the task of the international community to breed life
and energy into this difficult process. As part of its recent Special
Report on Education in Croatia, OSCE recently suggested a history
commission of Croat and Serb historians, presumably inspired by TFF."
In December last year TFF suggested two initiatives at a conference held in
Budapest for teachers and principals from Eastern Slavonia and sponsored by
the Council of Europe and UNTAES and with Croatian Ministry of Education
MORATORIUM ON HISTORY TEACHING UNTIL GOOD BOOKS EXIST
Last year the Ministry of Education decided on a moratorium to the effect
that the recent history (1989 to 1997) of former Yugoslavia and its
constitutive republics should not be taught in the schools of Eastern
Slavonia for the next five years. This came in response to criticism by
international organisations and the Serb minority of history and other
school books with biased, humiliating and pejorative texts, pictures and
cultural materials. These books ought not have passed a pedagogical quality
control and in addition clearly violated the written norms underlying the
work of the National Committee for the Re-Establishment of Trust.
"We suggested, therefore, that this moratorium be extended to all of
Croatia," says Jan Oberg. During its numerous missions, TFF's
conflict-mitigation team has visited so many schools and talked with
hundreds of principals, teachers and pupils. They deserve better materials.
There is no point in withdrawing such books or tearing out pages from them
(as was suggested to repair the damage) in one small region of the country
while all other pupils throughout the Croatia will be influenced for the
rest of their lives by this type of low-quality works full of hate speech.
It cannot possibly lead to reconciliation. This is why we also suggested a
history commission that could provide the basis for better school books."
A HISTORY AND SCHOOL BOOK COMMISSION
"We suggested that the government a) asks a small group of the most
professional and respected Croatian historians to write the recent history
(e.g. 1980 to 1998) as they see it, and b) asks an equally eminent group of
Serb historians in Croatia (and possibly other nationalities, too) to write
the history as they see it. Next, c) gather an international group of
experts on this region and on history and conflict to serve as advisers and
consultants to these two groups.
Their tasks should be to review the two versions of the history and
identify where the two versions of history are compatible and where they
are not. At a series of scientific seminars and debates, the
internationals should serve as facilitators and help the historians clrify
where they agree, where they agree to disagree and identify why they do so
- be it because of different scientific approaches and traditions, because
of national belonging or, simply, because truth is full of nuances.
Thus, Croatia would be privileged by having a Croatian version and a
Serbian version of contemporary history as well as a mixed version
identifying agreements and disagreements. These three versions, perhaps
framed or introduced by the internationals and their different views, could
be published in an academic edition and one for broader consumption and
Finally, professional pedagogues and perhaps writers/journalists would be
asked to take these three histories and transform them into schoolbook
texts for various levels of education. When ready, the moratorium should be
There would be several desirable outcomes of such a commission:
* Professional historians would meet across old boundaries and co-operate
as professionals; it would help redress the misuse of history on all sides
during the war.
* Croatia would be provided with a qualified framework for dealing with its
complex and sensitive history - essential for its birth as an independent
* By sparking off dialogues in public, in media and schools, the process
itself would be a step towards reconciliation in this sadly divided
* Pupils and students throughout the country would be taught history in a
decent manner, without propaganda and hate.
* They would implicitly learn that history as well as the present can be
legitimately viewed in more than one way, that there probably is no single
truth and that no one group has the right to impose its own (legitimate)
perception on everybody else. It would, in short, be a perfectly
pedagogical learning experience.
* The process would offer an opportunity for pluralism, trust-building and
mutual understanding by clarifying agreement and disagreement - and help
each to live together in respect. That's what reconciliation is all about.
Of course, such initiatives are not only for Croatia to take. All postwar
societies could benefit from such a public history educationand learning
experience," concludes Jan Oberg. "If not done, some people will choose
triumphalism and build a bridge not to peace but to perpetuated hate and,
eventually, a new war.
We ought to learn this lesson from the dissolution of old Yugoslavia: talk
about the past, learn to talk about it while respecting other opinions, let
no one impose a single truth and - above all - don't ever sweep history,
memories, and hurt under the carpet."
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Dr. Jan Oberg
Director, head of the TFF Conflict-Mitigation team
to the Balkans and Georgia
T F F
Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone +46-46-145909 (0900-1100)