In mid-November I traveled from Kosovo to Göttingen, Germany. I
had not visited Germany in 21 years. I was invited to Göttingen
to give a talk for the
Society for Threatened Peoples (Gesellschaft für bedrohte
Völker). The Society, several decades old, is an admirable human
rights institution, and it stood up for the preservation of
Bosnia-Herzegovina, against atrocities, when the going was very
rough. It still does so. So I was honored to be invited - and
the flight from Prishtina to Frankfurt was quite convenient.
Göttingen is a charming university town. Around a thousand years
old, it has an impressive history as a center of intellectual
achievement, especially in science and philosophy. Max Planck,
Heinrich Heine, Max Weber, and Arthur Schopenhauer all lived
there; so did the Brothers Grimm.
Coming from southeastern Europe, you can't help but be struck by
the clean streets, the orderliness, and the atmosphere of
comfort reminiscent of an affluent suburb. In a posting on
Facebook, I remarked that:
--The trains are as clean as people's living rooms.
--There are street signs bearing the name of each street.
--There is toilet paper available in every restroom.
--Old things are well-preserved.
I was given a tour of this most pleasant town by Jasna and Laure,
friendly and helpful staff of the Society for Threatened
Peoples. Buildings made of stone, and others with exposed-beam
construction, along with a Gothic church or two, lined a
circular pattern of roads on the inner part of the old town. I
was shown into a public hall built in 1270, adorned on the
inside with murals of peasants with scythes and dancing gentry.
In the center of this neighborhood stood a fountain with a
statue of a girl, the "Gänseliesel" holding a pet goose and a
basket of flowers. Postgraduate students, upon finishing their
doctorates, traditionally come to the square and kiss the
Gänseliesel. This supposedly makes her the most kisséd girl in
the world (because there are so many PhDs in Göttingen, I
Göttingen's history goes back to feudal times when rulers like
Otto the Child, Otto the Mild, and Otto the Evil, took turns
with the likes of Albert II the Fat and Otto the One-Eyed to
build fortifications around the town and to do battle with other
cities for regional power.
During World War II Göttingen suffered much less damage from
bombing than many German cities; apparently the Allies and
Germany had an informal understanding that the Allies would not
bomb Heidelberg and Göttingen, in return for German bombers
steering clear of Cambridge and Oxford.
Jasna and Laure guided me to the home of the Society for
Threatened Peoples, where they showed me around the two-story
building and its numerous area offices. I met an Iraqi Kurd who
was working with a Kosovar Albanian in the Middle East section,
a room stacked with books and magazines. The hallway walls were
lined with artwork and photos from situations worldwide where
human rights campaigns are ongoing. One wall displayed several
dozen issues of the Society's periodical, "Pogrom." I also met
several staff and friends who were, like Jasna, from Bosnia. I
rested up and prepared for my talk the next day.
Display of Pogrom magazine covers at
the offices of Society for Threatened Peoples
The talk went well. Around forty people showed up, and I'd guess
that half of them were from the former Yugoslavia. Most were
former refugees from Bosnia now long since settled in Germany -
some living there twenty years already. There were also Roma and
Bosniaks from Kosovo, Bosniaks from the Sandak, and a Torbe
from Debar, Macedonia.
Having just spent a couple of months in Bosnia, that's
what I discussed the most, and the content of my talk was
similar to that of my recent series of reports. After an
overview of the political situation (describing the Dayton
straitjacket) and a description of the economic situation, I
talked about the domestic politicians and the role of the
international community. RS President Dodik says
"Bosnia-Herzegovina makes me sick." The "anti-nationalist,"
"social-democrat," and above all autocrat Zlatko Lagumdija
makes historic deals with reactionaries, profiteers, and
separatists. And the international officials have pretty much -
effectively, if not rhetorically - turned their backs on Bosnia
for a half-dozen years. Meanwhile, large foreign companies are
moving in and plundering the country.
I discussed the activist movement, touching on five or six local
organizations with whom I had met and which I felt were positive
actors on the scene. Asked by the organizers to address routes
for change, I advocated some obvious things: simplify the
Bosnian government; remove corrupt officials; ban war criminals
in politics; ban hate speech; pressure the Bosnian government to
cooperate with the international community; and promote a change
of the Dayton constitution.
What's less obvious is how to bring about these desired changes.
For my taste part of the answer, as always, lies in support of
the grassroots movement for change in Bosnia. In my recent
reports I introduced a number of organizations and described
their campaigns and struggles. Even in the period since I was in
Bosnia, and even though it is winter, these campaigns have
picked up. I have more recently mentioned the March 1st
Coalition (for example, in my
tenth report), and I was glad to be able to talk about this
campaign with people in Germany, as a concrete campaign in which
they could participate. And among other things, I noted that the
entire catalogue of changes needed has to be considered a
long-term struggle, with no easy fixes on the horizon.
My presentation was being translated into German, but as much as
anything else, I was talking to what I felt was a representative
group from the Bosnian diaspora in Germany. These are the people
who activists from Prijedor, for example, reach out to, who
could offer critical assistance in making change happen in
Bosnia. My impression is that people want to help, that they
care with all their soul; indeed many people in the diaspora
have already been helping and participating in crucial ways. I
hope that the time is coming when they can make an even greater
Afterwards we had an informal gathering and I met some of the
local Bosnians. There was a family from near Banja Luka with
their daughter, 18, who was born in Germany. She spoke better
English than Bosnian, and told me that once, when she entered
into a math class, she encountered a teacher who had been in the
army in Prizren, Kosovo. He said to her, "You have no business
being here. Why don't you and your family go back home and solve
your own problems, instead of coming here and taking our jobs
and our money?" Later, when he saw that she was an excellent
student, he changed his mind about her.
The gathering lasted congenially into the late evening; at one
point some of us even sang some Bosnian sevdalinke.
Backing up a bit, here's something that happened when I arrived
in Göttingen. Landing at the train station from Frankfurt, I was
met by Jasna and Laure, and they immediately took me to a
pleasant restaurant by a lake in the countryside. There we had a
fish dinner, together Tilman Zülch, general secretary of the
Society for Threatened Peoples.
In the late 1960s Tilman, a human rights activist, founded an
advocacy group to call attention to the genocide taking place in
Biafra at that time. In 1970 he founded the Society for
Threatened Peoples. Since then, the Society has focused on the
defense of minority and indigenous rights. It holds consultative
status at the UN Economic and Social Council, as well as
participatory status in the Council of Europe.
In the 1990s the Society devoted much attention to Bosnia and
later to Kosovo. Other concerns of the Society are the Kurds and
the Roma - it sent Paul Polansky (whom I quoted in my last
posting) to Kosovo to research and advocate for that country's
Roma population. The Society has offices in Germany, one in the
Kurdish area of Iraq, one in Bosnia, and several in other parts
As we were talking about Bosnia and various other human rights
problems, Tilman used the word "Vergangenheitsbewältigung,"
and checked to see if I knew what it meant. I didn't, and I
asked Jasna to write down the eight-syllable word so that I
could study and comprehend it.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung means "coming to terms with (bewältigung)
the past (Vergangenheit)." I hadn't known the word, but to a
significant extent, the meaning is something that I have been
focusing on in Bosnia and in my reports, especially in this
recent visit. That is why it was "love at first sight" for me
when I learned the word.
When I talk about "memory" - in the context of Bosnia, the US,
or anywhere else - I see the process of coming to terms with the
past as an integral part of justice. Protecting and calling upon
memory in the service of justice involves satisfaction of the
following needs: to acknowledge war crimes and crimes against
humanity that have been committed; to apprehend and legally
process the perpetrators; to establish restitution for the
crimes; and, one hopes, to hear a sincere apology from the
These are some components of justice. Add to that, in the case
of Bosnia, the need for detailed descriptions of the crimes to
the extent of the location of mass graves, leading to the
discovery and identification of the missing. And just as
important in the Bosnian struggle for justice is the ongoing
struggle to refute the war atrocity deniers, as well as the
freedom, in Bosnia, to remember those crimes at the places they
There's more to Vergangenheitsbewältigung. For the Germans it
has meant coming to terms with the past collectively.
That collective response to the past implies recognition of a
nation's participation in the past. Germany has done much work
in this regard.
During my stay in Bosnia, Hikmet Karčić called my attention to
the writings of Karl Jaspers, the prominent 20th-century
German psychiatrist and philosopher. Shortly after World War II,
in his book The Question of German Guilt, Jaspers
addressed the responsibility of Germany as a nation for the war
crimes and atrocities that had been committed. In examining the
question of guilt, he identified "criminal guilt" as
distinguished from "political guilt," the latter being the more
widespread phenomenon, in which people are implicated by virtue
of being citizens. Jaspers considered that all citizens of a
state are in some way involved in the political conduct of that
state, and given that, all citizens somehow experience the
consequences of that state's policies.
In principle, the response to the commission of a crime is
punishment. But that axiom does not work in the case of
collective political responsibility for massive crimes, because
collective punishment is not only wrong; it is another crime.
But once the crimes have been committed, and to the extent that
there has been collective involvement in the crimes, then that
population has the moral obligation to own up to its
participation in the crimes and to participate in rectification
of the damage done. As Americans we all have this responsibility
after the genocide of the Native Americans and after slavery,
just to name two items from the long list of US-sponsored crimes
In this vein, an American friend commented to me that the
Germans have done better with these things than the Americans,
at least to the extent that you see anti-racism posters mounted
prominently in some parts of Germany. People who go around in
the US wearing t-shirts with anti-racist messages tend to be
looked on as oddballs.
Anti-racism poster in Göttingen
This discussion came about after I posted on Facebook a photo I
had taken of such an anti-racist poster in Göttingen. This
posting prompted quite a correspondence, starting with a
clarification of the meaning of "Vergangenheitsbewältigung." I
had interpreted it as "confronting the past," a direct
translation of the corresponding Bosnian phrase (suočavanje s
proloću). I was quickly corrected by several people who
made it clear to me that in the German expression, it's a matter
of "dealing with the past," "coming to terms with the past," or
"coping with the past." That's a more accurate translation, but
I'm still partial to the Bosnian phrase, because of the
connotation of the process as nothing less than a struggle.
This is a struggle that people in all the former republics of
Yugoslavia must go through to the extent that any of them were
responsible for war crimes; and it's clear that that's a large
Here's an excerpt from the Facebook discussion of "Vergangenheitsbewältigung."
--Holger: "'Coping with the past' or 'process of coming to terms
with the past' are two more possible translations. There is a
lot of past to cope with in Germany, so a special word is
required to describe it."
--Jeff: ".even though (or perhaps because) the Germans have a
more spectacular recent past in that regard than we do, in many
ways they are much more actively engaged in an open discussion
calling Neo-Nazi exactly what they are and are trying to figure
out how to raise their kids so that it is addressed on a
societal level. We seem to have resigned ourselves to enduring
these nonsensical terms that equate the exact same thing with
patriotism and then have to hear about 'post-racial society'
which we clearly aren't."
PL: "In Germany, there's been a real confrontation with the past
(ok, somehow that phrase still feels right)...and we haven't had
that in the US. We learn about the genocide of the Native
Americans even in elementary school, and about the slavery too -
but we haven't really confronted it. No apology, no reparations,
no real self-examination on a national scale. Only the
occasional Clintonesque apology (Guatemala, Japanese
internment). If that confrontation were to happen, I bet it
would bring a halt to our ongoing exportation of mass murder,
our addiction to violence, our militarism."
Holger: "The real confrontation with the past happened in
West-Germany in the late 60s, when the generation born in the
40s really wanted to know what their parents involvement was
with the Nazi system. Why didn't they act against it? Why
couldn't they? Or could they? This was a painful process
happening in many families. It has led to a situation where
nothing that happened in the past is glorified anymore in
Germany. The crimes of the Nazis have just overshadowed
everything.Patriotism has become a negative word in the German
language. A politician publicly announcing to be proud to be
German would have to resign (as has happened). Yes, Germans are
very sensitive about this.
."And here is an example of what Germans mean when they talk
about 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung'. There used to be a myth that
the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, was fighting a clean war
like any other army and that the war crimes were only committed
by the SS and other Nazi special forces. This was a very
convenient excuse for the generation of ex-Wehrmacht soldiers.
This myth was destroyed by the exhibition
Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of
Annihilation, 1941-1944. The introductory text says it all."
Hessie, whom I quoted in an
earlier report, touched on the relationship between war
trauma and examining the past: "Wherever it has happened, all
those traumas will not just disappear, neither in the
consequences for those persons themselves nor will they
disappear with their death; they will affect the next generation
and even more generations. And in a perverse way this will lead
some to switch from being victims to persecutors, as [trauma]
nourishes revenge, as long as the role of victims is not changed
by themselves actively taking control of the consequences of
what happened to them.
"I mention that we managed to function; that doesn't mean to
live really, as part of our energy is bound up on keeping those
traumas from disturbing our functioning. The effects of those
more-or-less hidden traumas on our health are visible on many
levels as well, through psychosomatic influences, not to mention
through the widespread, so-called illnesses of civilization.
"For me dealing with the past is not the same as facing it or
confronting it. First you develop some way that you are no
longer disturbed by it. Facing it is the next step, if you can
manage to do so. You cannot force someone to do it, as there is
a risk of a total destruction. I remember the effect on one
person of my generation who couldn't cope with life when she was
forced to face the fact that her father had been an architect of
the concentration camps. She committed suicide. Confronting the
past is the next step, wherein you make changes to actively do
something about the consequences of past history."
At a certain point during our lunch, with no preface, Tilman
began to talk about his own traumatic childhood experience. He
described his family's flight from the Sudetenland in 1945, as
Soviet troops were advancing upon that part of Czechoslovakia.
Tilman's family was part of the ethnic German population of that
country, inhabiting the western perimeters that bordered along
Germany and Austria. They, along with well over three million
other Sudeten Germans, were expelled from Czechoslovakia and
driven into Germany.
[note - it has been pointed out to me that it is accurate to say
"Soviet troops" rather than "Russians," as there were many
nations gathered in that political and military alliance, not
just the Russians. I have left "Russians" in place where it is a
Tilman was about seven years old at that time. He said, "There
were nine people in a wagon, it could hold no more. Thousands of
people were fleeing in the snow and they had 850 kilometers to
go. There were cannons booming in the background, as the
Russians were catching up. There was a man carting an older
woman in a wheelbarrow."
Tilman spoke with grim irony about the specter of the man and
the wheelbarrow, which I experienced as a metaphor for the slim
hope of the fleeing refugees for arriving alive in dreadful
conditions. At one point the coach bearing Tilman's family
turned off the main road in order to escape the oncoming troops.
They came to a crossroad where they encountered a couple of
wounded soldiers, who informed them that they were heading
straight for the front line. They turned back. In the end,
Tilman said, only about 40% of the people in this column of
refugees made it to Germany alive. And along the way, some 240
women were raped by the Russians.
I have long been aware that millions of Germans were displaced
after the war. I had heard the figure of twelve million driven
out of Poland, Czechoslovakia, northern Yugoslavia including
Vojvodina, Hungary, Romania, and other parts of Eastern Europe.
A number of German friends and acquaintances of mine were
descended from people who had been expelled the east after the
war. But I had not thought about the ramifications of this
expulsion in human terms. Tilman's words began to bring this
home to me.
Tilman mentioned that "fourteen million people were expelled
from eastern Germany." I was confused. I asked him about this.
He said, "You're confusing eastern Germany with central
Germany." He meant that what we knew of until 1989 as East
Germany had, before World War II, been the central part of
Germany, which also encompassed a significant amount of
territory that was taken over by Poland after the war. So there
were Germans who lived in eastern Germany (now part of Poland)
who were German citizens, and then there were ethnic Germans who
were citizens of other countries in Eastern Europe. Most of
these populations were expelled.
In the course of the conversation and afterwards I was rather
shocked by all this as I learned more details about the
starvation, rape, and massacres that were perpetrated upon the
displaced Germans. In the Baltic Sea the Soviets torpedoed and
sank two ships bearing escaping Germans. In that attack at least
ten thousand people, including thousands of civilians, were
killed. The British Air Force likewise bombed and strafed ships
carrying fleeing Germans, along the way mistakenly bombing two
ships that the Germans had loaded with Jewish concentration camp
Chaos reigned in larges swaths of Eastern Europe after the war.
Figures on displaced and expelled Germans vary between twelve
and fourteen million, and the expulsion is characterized as the
largest European population movement in modern times. The
displacement took place in phases, first with flight organized
by the Nazis where they were still in control, but aware of
imminent defeat. After the defeat, many local Germans were
placed in provisional internment camps. More Germans then fled
out of fear, during a time when unorganized revenge attacks were
widespread. Thousands of Germans were killed in these attacks,
and hundreds of thousands more fled.
Finally, there was a period lasting until 1950, in which
organized expulsions took place, including Saxon communities
dating back many centuries. German communities were driven out
in expulsions planned by the "host" countries, with the approval
of the victorious Allies. And one of the most dreadful parts of
this story is that of the children, thousands of whom were
orphans or were separated from their families in the chaos.
Large numbers of these children died before having the chance to
arrive to a place of refuge.
Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin agreed that the borders of
Poland would be moved to the west, giving the eastern portion of
Poland to the Ukraine (and thus to the Soviet Union), and the
eastern portion of Germany to Poland. In a speech before the
British House of Commons in late 1944, referring to the removal
of the Germans, he said, "For expulsion is the method which,
insofar as we have been able to see, will be the most
satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of
populations to cause endless trouble as in Alsace-Lorraine. A
clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed at the prospect of
the disentanglement of population, nor am I alarmed by these
large transferences, which are more possible than they were
before through modern conditions." (quote from p. 110 of Fires
of Hatred; Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe, by
Norman N. Naimark.)
I hate to think what measure of uprooting, murder, rape, and
torment it would have taken to alarm Winston Churchill.
Karl Jaspers is described as having "opposed totalitarian
despotism ... or a regime that regarded humans as mere
instruments of science or ideological goals." We know about
Stalin; it seems that Churchill too regarded humans as mere
I recalled what my friend Hessie had told me back in Sarajevo: After
World War II, "in world opinion, it was not permissible
to acknowledge that Germans, not even those who were children,
had suffered, and to some extent that is still the case." For a
few weeks, again on the Internet, I corresponded with some
friends about these issues. I will share here some of the
information I received.
Hessie: "I heard a lot about the tragedy of those expelled
Germans after WWII and I met many of them... This matter of the
expelled is a story more or less little spoken of. There were
many children on this terrible route to the western areas; they
were placed in centres to protect them from bombing in the
cities. Many got killed or lost on the way; many very young
children did not even know their names when they arrived, and
not all of their identities could determined. There were hours
and hours of broadcasting in the years after WWII in Germany,
with people asking if anyone had seen or met a person they were
missing. You could see flyers all over as well with such
questions about missing soldiers, especially those who had been
war prisoners of the Russians.
"To me it was a trick of the writing of history that the DDR
[East Germany], which before WWII had been central Germany, came
to be called East Germany. I had the impression that somehow
this was to make people forget the former eastern part of
"I think that relinquishing those territories to other
countries was justified - but in doing so, those who were
expelled not only physically lost their homelands but as far as
I can see, in the memories of the younger generation this switch
also worked successfully. Those who were expelled, if ever they
speak about it, constantly face this misinterpretation, and
somehow this creates another obstacle to speaking about what
"[Regarding the numbers of expelled Germans], there are many
different numbers and it depends which countries were included
that decided to expel Germans, how many were killed before
leaving, how many arrived in the western or DDR part of Germany.
There was so much chaos that I doubt it is possible to have
really reliable numbers. Some of those who left didn't arrive,
but some children survived, joining up with families they met on
their way. There is a case that if I remember well, two brothers
met for the first time again in the nineties, as one of them had
been brought up by a Polish family.
"One thing is clear: there was an enormous mass of people
hungry, freezing, exhausted wandering from east to west, without
any organisation or help; those who were expelled were even
being attacked by airplanes, and many died in the bombing of
Dresden. Some survived the way one of my classmates did, under a
heap of dead people, thus protected from the burning phosphor.
"[Regarding the subsequent recording of these events] I don't
know that this was really done in Western Germany. Even in the
books now on the market about those first bad years after WWII,
those who were expelled are simply not mentioned. Somehow
everybody seems to remember only the time when it started to
become better, the Wirtschaftswunder. The time in between seems
to be a time of collective forgetting. The expelled hadn't been
welcome at all. Arriving with just the clothes they were
wearing, they had to use everything from those who were required
to take them into their houses.
"I guess this topic of the expelled ones wasn't that interesting
for our writers; they wrote a lot about other topics, all the
atrocities against the Jews, and about soldiers who returned but
did not find their families, or learned that they [the soldiers]
had been declared dead and their wives had married again. I
never saw a serious book about the expelled. In my opinion the
problem was, and may still be, that this tragedy had been deemed
to be accepted because of all the atrocities done by Germans
during Nazi time, and writing about this would show suffering
and we had no right to have suffered."
Holger: "What you describe happened to most families in eastern
Germany. My mom's family fled from [.] before the Red Army got
there. She then endured the battle of Berlin in a basement,
witnessing the arrival of the Soviet troops. This is not the
right place to tell you what happened in those days, but for the
next two years after the war there was no food. My mom never
spent much time in school.
"Why is it not politically correct to talk about this trauma?
Because at the same time, it was the end of fascism. Officially
Germany was liberated by the Allies, including the Soviets. It
ended a period that was much worse than the suffering of the
German population at the end of the war. That my mom and my
grandmother didn't feel liberated is a sticky issue.
"It is also not politically correct to feel sad about the
homeland that was lost. These thoughts had to be swept under the
carpet to be accepted again as a nation and also as a
pre-condition for German reunification in 1990. Germany has
committed to maintain all Soviet war memorials in the country.
What happened to the civilians in those days remains private."
The office complex inhabited by the Society for Threatened
Peoples is located in a building named after Victor Gollancz, a
British Jew who was a leftist before World War II, a publisher,
and a human rights activist. Early in the war he became very
distressed about the fate of the Jews under the Nazi regime, and
he was one of the first to predict the eventual murder of six
million Jews. A prolific commentator, he wrote about German
guilt in a pamphlet titled "What Buchenwald Really Means."
There, he concluded that not all Germans were guilty, recalling
the thousands who had been persecuted because of their
opposition to Nazism, and thousands more who were simply
terrorized into compliance or inaction. In the early postwar
period he advocated for the humane treatment of German
civilians, a cause for which he actively campaigned for several
Meanwhile, during the war Gollancz had become a promoter of the
Zionist colonization of Palestine as well. But during the 1948
war that resulted in the creation of Israel, he campaigned to
alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians who were under
Gollancz, then, took positions according to his principle of
defending the underdog, regardless of whether his positions were
going to make him popular. I see how this characteristic
resonates with Tilman Zülch and the Society for Threatened
Peoples, many of whose staff are, like Tilman, themselves
personally familiar with displacement.
So why am I going on about Germany and things German, long ago
and far from Bosnia?
It's not that I have more sympathy for the Germans than for
anyone else. I have brought up this history of their massive
expulsion because I see it as yet another crime unaddressed. The
expulsion strikes me as a form of collective punishment against
the Germans, and there were few like Gollancz to speak out
against it. Now that history is buried - not forgotten by the
survivors and their descendants, but hidden to the world. I
marvel at the strength of the survivors to have picked up and
carried on without turning their injuries into a grievance that
caused further great damage, as generally happens.
I bring up the case of the German expulsion because it reminds
me of similar situations. Half the population of
Bosnia-Herzegovina, more two million people, were displaced.
Nearly a million Albanians were displaced in Kosovo, as were
most of the Roma and a large part of the Kosovo Serb community
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) uses the
words of Euripides, 431 BCE, to describe the state of being a
refugee or asylum-seeker: "There is no greater sorrow on earth
than the loss of one's native land."
So I have written of these things out of an impulse to revolt
against the practice of expulsion regardless of when and where
it happens; no population should be subjected to uprooting. Such
treatment is objectionable regardless of what crimes may be
pinned on a population or on its leaders. Pretty much everyone
in former Yugoslavia has had bad leaders in recent decades, but
that does not justify the mistreatment that so many civilians
Meanwhile, it is normal for people to be obsessed with their own
victimization as something that is dearer than that of anyone
else. For these people it is difficult to acknowledge the
suffering of their "enemy," and equally difficult to avoid
equating revenge with justice.
It was Hessie who said to me, back in Sarajevo, that "being a
perpetual victim means that you will always be expecting to
receive something from someone." She elaborated by saying that a
person who remains stuck in the role of the victim is not only
disempowered, but also runs the risk of being transformed into a
persecutor. Fixation on one's victimhood tends to justify any
behavior; it is not uncommon for victims to squander their
"moral capital." Hessie further pointed out that a person who
has been victimized and overcomes her feeling of victimization
is particularly well-placed to empathize with other victims and
to help them through their recovery from trauma.
Given the calamity that befell some of my ancestors in World War
II, I have been lucky to escape that trap myself. I don't
advocate forgetting history by any means, nor forgiveness,
particularly; that is entirely a personal matter. But it is
ultimately the duty of the victim to reach beyond his or her
individual story in order to recognize the suffering of other
people on all sides. Many people I know in Bosnia-Herzegovina,
intelligent activists and others, have done so. They are waiting
for their gestures to be reciprocated. While one must never
cease to demand justice, those who are not prepared to
acknowledge the humanity in others remain susceptible to
manipulation by the same demagogues who led them into the
destruction of their country in the first place.
Thus another side of Vergangenheitsbewältigung can see erstwhile
victims coming to terms with their history and renouncing
revenge. Anger at one's mistreatment is justified; transforming
that anger into productive work is urgent.
All this is not to imply that everyone is equal in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo, in former Yugoslavia, or
elsewhere. I am comfortable with the term "aggression" as it is
used to describe the initiation and prosecution of the
conflicts, and the balance of force was at times so unequal that
said conflicts could not be accurately termed a "war." But when
the smoke clears and the dust settles, still it is necessary to
take leave of recriminations at some point, enough to take the
side of the next group that is being persecuted, a la Gollancz
and, one hopes, to cut short the cycle of retribution.
I wish to believe that most of the activists with whom I've been
in contact in the former Yugoslavia have assimilated this
lesson. So I don't worry too much about their opinion, nor that
of anyone else, when I take the side of the Roma or Serbs if
they are being mistreated by the Albanians in Kosovo, or when I
take the side of the Croats or Serbs if they are being
mistreated by Bosniaks in Bosnia. Any position that falls short
of this is simply irresponsible.
It happens that it is the consideration anew of the story of the
expelled Germans that brings this position into new clarity for
When I consider the torments visited upon those millions of
Germans, and more recently upon the Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs,
Albanians, and Roma, I have an overwhelming feeling that humans
are just fodder for some historical meat grinder. What pulls me
out of that depressing thought is my acquaintance with those
people who, to the best of their ability, continue to struggle
for justice against the odds. They not only know right from
wrong; they believe that things can be made better through that
So here, finally winding up this series of reports, I remember
and thank a few of those brave activists for their fight and for
what they have taught me and what they have shared with me, and
I wish them all power and strength in their continued work:
Damir Arsenijević, Danijel Senkić, Darjan Bilić,
Draana Lepir, Draen Crnomat, Dafer Buzoli,
Edin Ramulić, Emin Mahmutović,
Emir Hodić, Emir Suljagić, Emsuda
Kadriu, Ervin Blaević vabo,
Fadil Banjanović Bracika, Gordan Isabegović, Hasan Hadić, Hasan
Nuhanović, Hikmet Karčić, Mirsad
Duratović, Nedim Jahić, Nerin Dizdar,
Reuf Bajrović, Satko Mujagić, Senad Subaić, Staa Zajović,
ani Rifati, Vahid Kanlić, Zulfo
(This list is, of course, far from complete and I apologize to
those I have omitted.)
I also thank Roger Lippman for patiently proofreading all my
And thank you for reading them.