How important is historical memory in politics? What can we learn about how our past memories are manipulated to change current and future politics? What can we learn from memory entrepreneurs in places like the former Yugoslavia? How did they try to change understandings about the past to influence the future? Doug Becker speaks with Jelena Subotic, Brent Steele, and Brent Sasley about the importance of memory in political settings.

Jelena Subotic is a Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. She is an expert in memory politics and is the author of Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism.

Brent Steele is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. He is an expert in international relations and is the author of Ontological Security in International Relations.

Brent Sasley is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, Arlington. He is an expert in international relations and is the co-author of Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Doug Becker: Jelena Subotic, what exactly motivated your interest in examining the different ways in which Eastern European countries are altering their memory and their history of WWII especially?

Jelena Subotic: Well, my book was motivated in part by developments like those in Poland. I began to observe a pattern of Holocaust revisionism and revisionism of both the history of World War Two and the history of Communism in the post-Communist space. I wanted to investigate why the process of revisionism occurred, what manifestations we can discern, what patterns we can demonstrate, and what are the ways in which states and societies in post-communist Eastern Europe are remembering crimes from both the Holocaust and Communism.

So in my book, I make an argument that states of post-Communist Eastern Europe are dealing with a very deep sense of insecurity about their identity, who they are, what happened to them, what is their past, what is their history, are they the villains or heroes of their past, how do they fit within this new European framework, are they real Europeans. And in making that argument I used the case of Holocaust remembrance in three countries that are the core of my empirical investigation and these countries are Croatia, Serbia, and Lithuania. I specifically wanted to look at countries that are less known in the historiography of the Holocaust, especially the countries of the Balkans and compare them with countries that are more known in the history of the Holocaust such as Lithuania. I also wanted to look at how the different experiences of World War Two in these regions, the different experiences of the Holocaust, the different experiences in Communism impacted how they remember the Holocaust today. So the book goes into detail about what the museums of history are like in these countries today, how they represent their past, how they represent the Holocaust, their own local complicity in the Holocaust, how they represent cases of antisemitism, how that was represented during the Communist era, and then what happened after Communism ended – how these new countries deal with this very problematic and difficult past.

DB: Brent Steele, what exactly is at stake in some of these conversations? Why is a nation’s history and the conception of their own history so important to their conception of themselves and their foreign policy?

Brent Steele: Jelena’s book really demonstrates why and how history matters to the present and the future, so it doesn’t really matter if we are talking about individuals or groups or states, everyone wants continuity and order across time and space. And so that is basically the fundamental assumption of this concept that comes up in Jelena’s book, this concept of ontological security. Ontological security is about the securing of the self through time and space to provide a sense of continuity and order in events. And the problem is that one of the ways we try to do that is to provide routines, but we are also depending upon so many other things that are out of our control. And one of the possibilities for creating a sense of order in the present is to look to the past and to say, ‘Well, this is what we did, this is what we experienced either as an individual or as a group or as a state, and this is what our past was like and this is how we handled it and this is what was done to us then and so we are going to do something similar now’. And what Jelena is showing in her work is that one of the ways to do that is to actually recreate the past so that you can make sense of the present. But the problem is that in that attempt to generate some kind of continuity and order in the present by going back to the past and reinterpreting it, you are really generating lots of problems both in terms of how you are interpreting the past and also the types of stories you are telling about the present. And so I think that is the key aspect that is coming through in the politics that are happening across some of these states and regions.

DB: Brent Sasley, these are some extremely emotional issues. I think what is partly at stake are the reactions of local populations, the way they conceptualise their own history. How emotional are these responses?

Brent Sasley: Well, I would say that emotions or emotional states are pretty critical to this kind of process. We can have a discussion about how much emotions are at the core of ontological security processes. But I think when you have a group of people that identifies as belonging to a particular collective, collective memory is a crucial part of that identity and that sense of belonging. But people do not really like to emphasise traumatic pasts in the sense of any traumas they might have put on others. They are more comfortable recognising traumatic pasts if they have been the victims, because that becomes a vehicle for telling stories about who they are, where they are going, what is happening to them now, what kinds of rights are legitimate for them to promote. I am thinking of, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where both sides often talk about their history of victimhood as a way of informing what they should be allowed to do now.

One of the things that ties members of a group together is their sense of identification with the group itself. And so things that affect the group are seen as affecting the individual even if an individual wasn’t even alive at the time. And so all of these things that Jelena is talking about are things that individuals today find deeply problematic because it raises questions about things they might have done and that is hard to process.

DB: Jelena, one of the themes here is this question of ‘Was I the perpetrator? Or was I the victim?’ How did this play out in Lithuania with regards to Communism?

JS: The main framework within which we can begin to understand these very unusual and problematic practices of Holocaust remembrance in Eastern Europe today is through the prism of Communism…In those countries, Communism completely rearranged public memory. The memory of the Holocaust was completely supressed, in many ways this is the result of the fact that after the Holocaust there were very few Jewish communities in much of this region. But more importantly, Communism narrated the Holocaust exclusively through the prism of the heroic anti-fascist struggle of World War Two and the glorification of the role of the Red Army, and also the victory of Communism against Fascism. So there really was no room for specific individual memorialisation and also for ethnic memorialisation. So there were no memorials or monuments to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, there were many memorials to victims of anti-fascism.

This very long period of frozen Holocaust remembrance slightly thawed at the end of Communism in 1991 and these countries were pressured by the West, mostly in the process of EU accession, to engage and have a dialogue with the Western Holocaust narrative which talks specifically about Jewish suffering and that distinguishes the Holocaust from World War Two. This Western memory of the Holocaust was very alien to Eastern European countries which did not have this experience through the Communist period. Instead, at the end of Communism, what these countries hoped for was not that they would have to talk about the Holocaust, but that the West would now have to talk about the crimes of Communism. So most of their memory emphasis was on how to persuade the West that crimes of Communism were just as heinous as the crimes of the Holocaust, they were more interested in presenting themselves as the victims and they resented deeply the push for them to remember the Holocaust as a distinct event and to talk about their own complicity in the Holocaust.

DB: Brent Sasley, I know you have been critical of the European project, at least as it relates to memory in Eastern Europe. How have Western European countries aided in this understanding of the Holocaust?

Sasley: When Europe was divided between east and west, you got different kinds of ontological security developments on both sides; they see their identities as a little bit different. Obviously the east is under Soviet rule and the west develops differently. When the Soviet Union collapses and the east is struggling to find itself, it meets a western part of the continent that had already had decades to solidify its sense of self and its sense of community and the kinds of things that identified that community as different. And so the west expects the east to suddenly catch up and to abide by their own identity and sense of self including its role in the Holocaust and how they remember it.

The east tries to do this for a little bit, but at some point it becomes clear for significant portions of the population that is not acceptable both for their own sense of who they are but also because you have material changes taking place. You do have economic and social problems in eastern countries and that facilitates the emergence of populist right wing communities and groups trying to win power and then use their position to spread their own ideology. Those two things overlap which I think leads to a challenge to the western European conceptualisation of Holocaust remembering. To the extent that the EU plays some role in that process, I think the western Europeans reacted a little bit unfairly by expecting a rapid adaptation to the European version before these countries had the chance to come to grips with their own past. I think in that sense they perhaps served as enablers of this new memorisation or process of forgetting and remembering certain aspects of the past.

DB: Brent Steele, how much is this driven by a sense of we are going to lose our own identity if we become completely European, or at least allow the Europeans to define what it means to be Serbian, Croat, Lithuanian, Polish and so on.

Steele: As Brexit demonstrates, they are not the only ones who are resisting the idea of a European identity. Jelena brings up the point that the western European countries really haven’t been particularly open about accounting for their own pasts and their own roles in carrying out the Holocaust. I think that would maybe be a way to open up the possibility of what a full reckoning would look like in order to become European for Eastern European countries if western European countries would do that a little bit more. And there is another factor here which I think is important when it comes to any sort of retreat back to old national borders, and that is this broader structural factor of late modernity or globalisation. Everything that is happening around us is happening so quickly, it feels like events are completely out of control, there are particular generations that are older that remember the past in certain ways that have an outsized power in some of these societies, these aging societies. And so they can seek to control a narrative that says, ‘Well, one of the ways in which we can handle this chaos is to go back to the state and borders, sovereign borders as we remember them’. This is happening quite broadly, you are seeing this in the US and the UK as well as in Eastern Europe.

DB: Brent Sasley?

Sasley: I think Brent raised a really good point, which is that the way we remember the Holocaust is a relative thing. If you compare western Europe to Eastern Europe, it looks like the west hast done a much better job of remembering and compensating for what happened. But it is relative: even in western Europe, Germany has done a far better job of coming to grips with its role in its past than places like Italy, France, Britain; even Israel is still struggling with how to remember the Holocaust. And so it is not that western Europe has done a perfect job or has done a better job, it is still struggling with this but the idea is that it started to do something and perhaps in some ways that made it worse because it expected Eastern Europe to then catch up to its only half finished or incomplete version of remembrance.

DB: Jelena, one of the things that is most impressive about your book is the archival research and some of the stories you were able to uncover. How difficult was it to get people to tell their stories and open up old wounds?

JS: It was very clear to me from the beginning that I was going to write a different type of book, the one that really includes people and individual stories. It was very important to me to individualise these histories as much as possible, I did not want to write a clinical narrative that in its own was basically the dehumanisation and the removal of people’s identities. I had a very clear idea that this was going to be the book that had many stories and people and individual vignettes in it. And so I thought about how to do that and I decided to anchor in some ways each chapter around one particular story. It was complex in its own way but at an individual level talked about the horrors of the Holocaust and then also the horrors of forgetting about it. I do talk a little bit about my own family history and that is interesting because I did not write the book after I found out about that history, it was the opposite, I found out that history as I started writing the book so it was a different kind of emotional reckoning. I wanted to put myself in it only to the extent that I thought ethically as a scholar of memory I needed to talk about my own accountability.

But I did not know the extent of the involvement of, for example, my grandfather in the Holocaust. So what I found out as I was researching the role of the Serbian government under Nazi occupation, I discovered that my grandfather was chief of the special police for a couple of months when the occupation started in 1941 and that he was in charge of the entire special police of Belgrade. Under him was a section called Jewish affairs and basically that section reported to him and the job of that section was to register Jews, take away their property, and enforce all the anti-Jewish laws that the occupation put in place. What I discovered reports that he received and that he himself wrote back to the main government where he reports how many Jews were registered, what kind of property was taken, and how those who did not obey the rules were arrested by his unit and given to the Gestapo – it was very hard to read those documents and to see his signature on them and to realise that my own grandfather was a cog in the occupation machine. I had to wrestle with that and I had a lot of concerns about how to present that information so that the book doesn’t become about me or my history – that is not important – but how to contextualise what collaboration is like. So I used the example of my grandfather to talk about the complexity of collaboration and complicity, and for the ethical consequence of my work to talk about what we do with that kind of memory. What is my responsibility as a scholar in discussing memory of my family and memory of others? How do I include the memory of victims in the memory of my own family which did not process to this day the role that my grandfather had and did not understand the extent of his involvement?

DB: How much can we relate these very personal stories to a national experience? How much does the nation have complicity versus individuals?

Steele: We know that the state is transferring to individuals. I mean, in Jelena’s book she explores something that ontological security scholars have been talking about for a while and that is whether we want to justify the move of an individual-level process or not. States are driving towards an ontological security that ultimately is an illusion. Anytime that you do what Jelena calls heavy handed attempts at re-appropriating memory in the present for the purposes of securing the identity of the state, you are ultimately going to lead to insecurity not only for the state but also for individuals. And Jelena brings up Poland and Ukraine, where there are these big pushes happening at the national level but they are also filtering down into rallies and protests, modes of social movement organisation that are imperilling particular groups. And so even if we want to argue that the move towards identity really should stay at the individual level of analysis, these types of things and the processes of collectives seeing themselves as a self happen at the level of states and other groups. And those have huge implications for not just the ontological security of the individuals that are imperilled and that don’t have a space in those moves towards national identity, but they also have huge implications for their physical security as well. And this is not only happening in some of the context that Jelana is looking at, this is also happening elsewhere quite frequently. It is happening in Poland, it is happening in India with Modi’s nationalism, a particular form of Hindu nationalism imperilling other groups.

DB: What about the role of individuals in creating this sense of nationalism? Brent Sasley?

Sasley: I think Brent Steele had it right, that states are simply large collectives, they are just like any other group defined by some set of scripted characteristics, and in the case of states, by a set of legally recognised borders. Unlike any group they have a set of collective memories and a set of ideas that they identify as part of their self-identification. In the case of a state, because typically they have such large populations, what you do have is you have two processes going on. First of all, you do have multiple groups often contesting with each other over whose memories or which memories get to be predominant and how they are remembered, and then also among those groups you typically will have a hegemonic group. In the case of states, it is usually an ethno-national community that founded the state or created the contemporary state and they tend to occupy many of the positions of power that allow them to set these memories and how they are interpreted.

But for a state you also have an authorised leader – and I don’t mean authorised in the sense of necessarily having had internal elections, although in a democracy you might – but you have leaders who are considered to be representatives and spokespeople of the state. And so they can set the boundaries of what is remembered and how it is remembered. When those leaders are replaced you might get other ways of remembering and so you do have this constant process of contestation, but that is because a state like any group is in a constant process of constructing and reconstructing and deconstructing its identity. It doesn’t really end, it kind of keeps going.

When you have groups that disagree or have very different perceptions of the future of the country and what it should look like, leaders can have very different ideas about what those memories should be. And so getting people into power, or people coming to power who have a radically different version of the past and what the future should look like based on that past, individuals can play an important role in memory making. But I would suggest they are still just vehicles. They are representative of a particular kind of idea that happens to now be in a position of power to promote those memories.

DB: Jelena, you describe the memory of appropriation that the Croat government has engaged in since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. You call this ‘memory divergence’, defined as taking the Holocaust and decoupling it from other crimes to making it uniquely Nazi. Is this whitewashing out their collaborations and saying all these crimes were committed by the Nazis so it clears their role in the Holocaust so that they are no longer perpetrators?

JS: Croatia did more than just collaboration. Croatia established its own Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia that was run autonomously and independently from the Nazis with Nazi support, and it was a Nazi ally but it ran administratively completely on its own. And so Croatia during World War Two had a network of its own death camps that were run independently from the Germans’ and that is the real crux of Holocaust memory in Croatia. You can blame the Germans, but the killing was done by the Croats. And so that is a very difficult place to remember and a very difficult thing to process and it makes it different from other countries under occupation – like in Serbia we can talk about collaboration but most of the killing was done by the Germans.

So the memory diversion that I talk about is really the attempt by the contemporary Croatian state to separate the crimes of the Holocaust and say, ‘Yes, these are horrible crimes, but this was a Nazi German thing, Nazis made us do this, from the auxiliary killing and mass atrocity that happened under the same regime, in the same camps, by the same perpetrators against other non-Croat civilians’. They were mostly Serbs but also Roma; almost the entire Roma population of Croatia was killed in the Holocaust, about 25,000 people. Three hundred thousand Serbs were killed by the Croat state, so we are talking about a complete eradication of groups of people that was done by the Ustashe regime and not by the Nazis. In fact, a lot of this auxiliary killing of non-Jews under the shadow of the Holocaust was done by the Ustashe to some annoyance of Germans who kept saying ‘You are wasting your time and bullets on these other groups, we want the Jews killed’.

And so what I discovered is how memory has diverged, where the crimes against the Jews are to some extent recognised, the Croatian government talks about the tragedy of the Holocaust, Zagreb is planning to build a Holocaust museum, but they are narrating that story where the Germans gave all the directives and did all the killing. They are also separating that memory of Jewish suffering from the memory of Serb and Roma suffering which had nothing to do with the Nazis and was an organically Croatian project. And that is because this continues to be a very difficult issue for the remaining Serbs who live in Croatia and it is completely conflated with the more recent memory of the Croatian-Serbian war of the 1990s. So for more recent contemporary political needs, it is simply more useful for Croatia to go through the motions of recognising the Holocaust victims but deflecting that blame to Germany while ignoring its own responsibility and genocidal intent against local Serbs and Roma.

DB: How much is being done to project this idea that Croatia are the good guys versus Serbia as being the bad guys in light of what happened in the 1990s?

JS: That is a critical issue because the way in which Croatia defined its own national identity after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia is as this very pro-European, western, culturally European, politically European state that was destroyed by the aggression from the Serbs. That is the role Croatia worked very hard to present to the EU and it was successful as they are the latest EU member state that joined in 2014. And so this narrative of Croatia being pro-European, being on the good side of history, being allied with the west and being besieged by savages – I mean, if you look at the narrative of Serbs in the Croatian press, it is a very orientalist narrative that the Serbs are these barbarians at the gates. But of course, that is a falsification of Croatia’s World War Two narrative and it is a conflation of what happened in the 1990s because it is absolutely true and Croatia is correct that it was a victim of aggression mostly from Serbia and then also by Serbia arming Serb rebels in Croatia with heavy artillery who then fought against Croatia’s independence. So Croatia has a lot of legitimate reasons to be upset about its story in the 1990s and both the Serbian and Croat-Serbian troops committed atrocities against Croatian civilians. But that is not the entirety of the Croatian story. What Croatia of course refuses to admit are crimes against humanity and war crimes the Croatian army committed against Serbian civilians in the war of the 1990s, but also this really horrendously traumatic history of the independent state of Croatia which was committing genocide against Serbs and perpetrated a complete Holocaust of its Jews. I call this unusable memory: Croatia doesn’t know what to do with its memory and it is trying to come up with various narratives and divergent tactics to deflect the crimes on to a known villain which is the Nazis and hide under the carpet its own very deep complicity.

DB: Brent Steele, with states like Croatia and their desire to join the EU are they defending their sense of self? Are they actually engaging in an aggressive alteration of history so they can tell a much more consistent narrative but it is a consistent narrative that they are presenting to another audience so they can join the EU?

Steele: What an ontological security system is supposed to do is to take the anxiety that is a condition for any of us and the chaos of late-modern life, including states in international relations, and try to reduce it so that it is manageable. And one of the ways in which historically people have handled anxiety is to turn anxiety into fear. So to take that anxiety which is a general sort of unease – but an unknown over what the unease is about – and transfer that to an identifiable object that we can fear. But then that is a way to target and channel anxieties into something that can be managed, that is the object of fear. So the security system then is defending against something ultimately that is really narrow but it is a choice in terms of how to turn that anxiety into something that is definite and a lot of times the definite object is something that nobody really needs to fear but it is constructed as something that needs to be feared.

State societies do this a lot with migrants: they take a sense of anxiety, for instance, economic anxiety or anxiety over the world changing around them and that is something that you cannot necessarily control, and you say, ‘Well, actually the reason why our world right now is so messed up isn’t necessarily because of economics or the culture around us, it is because of these people here’. So you are turning anxiety into fear and you are pointing to the migrant or something else as something that is disturbing. And what Jelena is showing is that the past is something that can be rearranged, diverged, converged, conflated in a way that you can take the past that might generate anxiety, especially if you were involved in some of the things that were really problematic years and years ago, and change it so that you were a victim in the past of an identifiable threat and a victim in the present of an identifiable threat whether it is migrants or something else. And so that is one of the ways in which something that is broad ontological security based out of anxiety and you turn it into something that is rather narrow ontological security obtained by having a definite object that we are supposed to fear.

DB: Brent Sasley, how much of this process has been outlined by political actors who are trying to get something material from these reactions versus this normal response? Is this being manipulated for some purpose or is it just something that is felt and expressed by political communities?

Sasley: I think that is a good question, and I think that is one that scholars who work on emotions often wrestle with. I think that the fear is certainly important, there is a genuine fear that with other groups, they are not like us and therefore they serve as a threat to us. That is how Donald Trump and many of his supporters view immigrants, this is how the right wing Jewish governments in Israel under Netanyahu and Likud view not just Arab citizens of Israel but anyone else who is different as well. But there is a material aspect to it, and that is that these groups feel that their country will not only change but they themselves will lose power and that all of the benefits that come to them from being in a position of power and control – all of that will be gone. That is how they view it, that they will lose. It is almost as if it is a zero-sum game, that if others get to play some role in the shaping of state identity then these hegemonic groups will lose some corresponding amount.

The third aspect, the material aspect also comes in when you think about national policy and state policy. So borders, there are still lots of states that are struggling and trying to define their borders or reshape them in the face of changes or many years of not having had that border finalised. Israel is a good example, Kosovo might be another one. When states are trying to define a hard material border in the faces of efforts to re-change it or resist that border that is a material interest that is connected to that fear.

DB: Jelena, you make an argument that these divergent memories are creating a lack of honesty with what communities have done in the past and you are calling for a memory solidarity. Can we achieve a memory solidarity and if so how will that be managed? Who holds the key to creating the memory that we all agree to at some level?

JS: That is an excellent question, and of course that is very hard, so it is an aspirational idea. What I meant by memory solidarity is not a fixed memory: I don’t think it is a good thing to expect a fixed memory. Things change, historiography changes, archives open up, what we today understand about the Holocaust is very different than what we understood before at the end of Communism and before the Soviet archives opened up and we could finally look into a completely different set of experiences in the Soviet Union.

So I am not asking for a fixed memory that we can all sign off on. What I meant by memory solidarity is simply the idea that we should experience or try to empathise with the memory of others. This idea that groups are much more likely to remember the past in which they are either heroes or victims. And in fact, in the cases that I study, this memory of your own victimisation becomes the foundational block of your narrative identity construction and I think that alone is a cause of great concern, because the memory of your own victimisation shuts off all memory of you in a different role.

So what I ask for is for countries to remember the memory of others and the memories that are not our own and to include in our own accountability and responsibility for the past, the past that is not our own. To focus not only on our own suffering and our own pain but to actually incorporate the memory of those who can no longer speak, because there is nobody to speak on their behalf.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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