Conflicting interpretations of the past

Impacts on contemporary politics

In Southeastern Europe, conflicting interpretations of the past and its influence on the present play an important role in contemporary politics. Challenges to accepted historical truth continue to divide large national groups.

It is common for politicians and others to insist that those living today have a direct connection with, and bear responsibility for, evils committed in the past. Current political debates often center on the linked issues of blame, responsibility and justice. When trying to assess rival arguments there is often noticeable difference in time-scales that different sides invoke, and the intensity of perceptions of injustice.

Another concern is the tendency to claim extended and continuous national and, where feasible, state roots in current or expanded territories.

Bosnia

Serbian accounts highlight the Ottoman Turks conquest of the Balkans from outside the region.

During the Bosnian war and in post-Dayton Bosnia, extreme Serbian nationalists to assert that Bosniaks are the descendants either of invaders of the region, or of natives who betrayed their "true" faith by adopting Islam under Ottoman occupation.

Both arguments turn Bosniaks into "foreigners" in their home republic, and justify Bosnian Serb attempts to reclaim territory for themselves.

Kosovo

In Kosovo, site of the Ottoman victory of 1389, Serbian association of predominantly Muslim Albanians with the Ottoman Turks again serves as justification for a view that they are not the true owners of the land. The complex fact that Albanians fought alongside Serbs in the battle, and also that some Serbs fought on the Turkish side is discounted in favor of a simplistic version of the past, populated only with aggressors and victims.

Croatia

In Croatia, at least under the leadership of Tudjman, nationalist enthusiasm highlighted the autonomous state of Croatia between 1941 and 1944. The fact that the ruling regime of that time, the Ustaša, was a fascist movement, influenced and funded by Mussolini's Italy in the 1930s for his own political purposes, was ignored--as was the regime's participation in the murder of Jews, Romany and Serbs in collaboration with Nazis. The use of symbols from the Ustaša period in Tudjman's Croatia sent a frightening signal to Croatia's Serbs. This has diminished in the post-Tudjman period.

Historical assignment of blame, responsibility and justice

These different ways of viewing the past clearly have an impact on people's interpretations of the recent conflicts in the region. When challenged over the justice of their actions, or the actions of their compatriots, some people immediately seek refuge in historical parallels. Current aggression is presented as legitimate revenge to past victimization.

Recently, a number of scholarly initiatives have sought to reconcile different versions of the past. These include projects at the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in South-Eastern Europe, at http://www.cdsee.org/ , and the Scholars Initiative at http://www.cla.purdue.edu/history/facstaff/Ingrao/si/scholars.htm.