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abridged from the article published in
Index On Censorship 5/96 (September, 1996).

by Michael Ignatieff

What does it mean for a nation to come to terms with its past? Do nations, like individuals, have psyches? Can a nation's past make a people ill as we know repressed memories sometimes make people ill? Conversely, can a nation or contending parts of it be reconciled to their past, as individuals can, by replacing myth with fact and lies with truth? Can we speak of nations 'working through' a civil war or an atrocity as we speak of individuals working through a traumatic memory or event?

These are mysterious questions, but they are urgent and practical ones too in the light of the War Crimes Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In both these instances the rhetoric is noble but the rationale unclear. Justice in itself is not a problematic objective, but whether the attainment of justice always contributes to reconciliation is anything but evident. Truth, too, is a good thing; but as the African proverb reminds us, 'truth is not always good to say'.

In South Africa, Archbishop Tutu's Truth Commission is collecting testimony from the victims and perpetrators of apartheid. In Tutu's own words, the aim is 'the promotion of national unity and reconciliation'...'the healing of a traumatised, divided, wounded, polarised people'. Laudable aims but are they coherent? Look at the assumptions he makes: that a nation has one psyche, not many; that the truth is certain, not contestable; and that when it is known by all, it has the capacity to heal and reconcile.

Such articles of faith inspired the truth commissions in Chile, Argentina, Brazil that sought to find out what had happened to the thousands of innocent people killed or tortured by the military juntas during the 1960s and 1970s. The results were ambiguous.

One should distinguish between factual truth and moral truth, between narratives that tell what happened and narratives that attempt to explain why things happened and who is responsible. The truth commissions were more successful in promoting the first than the second. They did succeed in establishing the facts about the disappearance, torture and death of thousands of persons and this allowed relatives and friends the consolation of knowing how the disappeared had met their fate. It says much for the human need for truth that the relatives of victims preferred the moral appeal of magnanimity that so many of them should have preferred the truth to vengeance or even justice. It was sufficient for them to know what happened: they did not need to punish the transgressors in order to put the past behind them.

The record of the truth commissions in Latin America has however disillusioned many of those who believed that shared truth was a precondition of social reconciliation. The military and police apparatus survived the inquisition with their legitimacy undermined but their power intact.

This danger of false reconciliation is real enough but it is possible that disillusion with the truth commission of Latin America goes too far. It was never in their mandate to transform the military and security apparatus any more than it is in Archbishop Tutu's power to do the same in South Africa. Truth is truth; it is not social nor institutional reform. A truth commission cannot overcome a society's division. It can only winnow out the solid core of facts upon which society's arguments with itself should be conducted. But is cannot bring these arguments to a conclusion. All that a truth commission can achieve is to reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse. In Argentina, its work has made it impossible to claim, for example, that the military did not throw half-dead victims into the sea from helicopters.

Truth commissions have the greatest chance of success in societies that have already created a powerful political consensus behind reconciliation, such as in South Africa. In such a context, Tutu's commission has a chance to create a virtuous upward spiral between the disclosure of painful truth and the consolidation of the political consensus that created his commission in the first place.

In places like Yugoslavia where the parties have murdered and tortured each other for years, the prospects for truth, reconciliation and justice are much bleaker. These contexts, however, are instructive because they illustrate everything that is problematic in the relation between truth and reconciliation.

The idea that reconciliation depends on shared truth presumes that shared truth about the past is possible. But truth is related to identity. What you believe to be true depends, in some measure, on who you believe yourself to be. And who you believe yourself to be is mostly defined in terms of who you are not. To be a Serb is first and foremost not to be a Croat or a Muslim. Even people who fought to maintain a moral space between their personal and their national identities are now unable to conceive that one day Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo might share a common version of the history of the conflict. Agreement on a shared chronology of events might be possible but even this is contentious; but it is impossible to imagine the three sides ever agreeing on how to apportion responsibility and moral blame. The truth that matters to people is not factual nor narrative truth but moral or interpretive truth. And this will always be object of dispute in the Balkans.

The problem of a shared truth is also that it does not lie 'in between'. It is not a compromise between two competing versions. Either the siege of Sarajevo was a deliberate attempt to terrorise and subvert a legitimately elected government of an internationally recognised state, or it was a legitimate pre-emptive defence by the Serbs of their homeland from Muslim attack. It cannot be both.

Nor is an acknowledgement of shared suffering equivalent to shared truth. It is relatively easy for both sides to acknowledge each other's pain. Much more difficult, usually impossible in fact, is shared acknowledgement of who bears the lion's share of responsibility.

Aggressors have their own defence against truth, but so do victims. Peoples who believe themselves to be victims of aggression have an understandable incapacity to believe that they also committed atrocities. Myths of innocence and victimhood are a powerful obstacle in the way of confronting unwelcome facts.

It is open to question whether justice or truth actually heals. While it is an article of faith with us that knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, is a condition of psychic health, all societies, including our own, manage to function with only the most precarious purchase on the truth of their own past. A society like Serbia, which allows well-established war criminals to hold public office and prevents them from being extradited to face international tribunals, may be a distasteful place to visit but it is not necessarily a sick society.

When it comes to healing, one is faced with the most mysterious process of all. For what seems apparent in former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and in South Africa is that the past continues to torment because it is not past. These places are not living in a serial order of time, but in a simultaneous one, in which the past and present are a continuous, agglutinated mass of fantasies, distortions, myths and lies. Reporters in the Balkan wars often reported that when they were told atrocity stories they were occasionally uncertain whether these stories had occurred yesterday or in 1941 or in 1841 or in 1441. For the tellers of these stories, yesterday and today were the same. The crimes of the past live on in the present, crying out for retribution.

We know from victims of trauma that this mysterious inner work of the psyche is arduous. At first, the memory of the trauma in question - a car crash, the death of a child or a parent - returns so frequently to the mind that it literally drives the present out of the frame of consciousness. The victim lives in the past and suffers its pain over and over again. With time and reflection and talk, trauma leaves the order of the present and takes its place in the past. As it does so, the pain begins to diminish and what had become a nightmare becomes only a memory. In this slow reinstatement of the order of serial time, the sufferer can be said to come awake and recover the momentum of living.

It is perilous to extrapolate from traumatised individuals to whole societies. It is simply an extravagant metaphor to think of societies coming awake from nightmare. The only coming awake that makes sense to speak of is one by one, individual by individual, in the recesses of their own identities. Nations, properly speaking, cannot be reconciled to other nations, only individuals to individuals. Nonetheless, individuals can be helped to heal and to reconcile by public rituals of atonement.
When Chilean President Patricio Alwyn appeared on television to apologise to the victims of Pinochet's repression, he created the public climate in which a thousand acts of private repentance and apology became possible. He also symbolically cleansed the Chilean state of its association with these crimes. German Chancellor Willy Brandt's gesture of going down on his knees at a death camp had a similarly cathartic effect by officially associating the German state with the process of atonement.
These acts compare strikingly with the behaviour of the political figures responsible for the war in the Balkans. If, instead of writing books niggling at the numbers exterminated at Jasenovac, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia had gone to the site of the most notorious of the Croatian extermination camps and publicly apologised for the crimes committed by the Croation Ustashe against Serbs, gypsies, Jews and partisans, he would have liberated the Croatian present from the hold of the Ustashe past. He would also have increased dramatically the chances of the Serbian minority accepting the legitimacy of an independent Croatian state. Had he lanced the boil of the past, the war of 1991 might not have occurred. He chose not to, of course, because he believed Serbs as guilty of crimes against the Croats. But sometimes, a gesture of atonement is effective precisely because it rises above the crimes done to your own side.

The experience of the war in Yugoslavia makes it difficult to conceive of reconciliation, if it were ever possible, in terms of those clichés 'forgiving and forgetting', 'turning the page', 'putting the past behind us' and so on. The intractable ferocity and scale of the war shows up the hollowness of these clichés for what they are. But reconciliation might eventually be founded on something starker: the democracy of the dead, the equality of all victims, the drastic nullity of all struggles that end in killing and the demonstrable futility of avenging the past in the present.

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