Remembering – To What End?
A conversation About Memory Politics
How come some atrocities of the twentieth century are generally recognised and actively remembered while others are not? Taking the former concentration camp Jasenovac as an example, Zoltán Kékesi and Nicholas Lackenby discuss the dynamics of memory politics and activism and how those affected are still fighting for recognition and, ultimately, catharsis.
Zoltán: I think it would be a good starting point if you could talk about your current research project on Serbia, and especially about how memory activism potentially leads to renewed conflict in the region.
Nicholas: I guess to start with I could take you back to the inception of the project. I was doing fieldwork in Belgrade in February 2021. At this time a feature film premiered on prime-time Serbian television called Dara iz Jasenovca from director Predrag Antonijević. During the Second World War, the Independent State of Croatia, which lasted from 1941 to 1945, enacted racialised, genocidal policies which aimed to rid the country of non-Croatian elements. Jasenovac was a concentration camp where at least 80,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists perished. The film is basically about the experiences of a Serbian girl, Dara, in that camp. To cut a long story short, the film provoked a national media flurry in Serbia. For days after the premiere of the film – which showed quite graphically the happenings at Jasenovca – the media was talking about the significance of explicitly depicting Serbian suffering during the Second World War. Some of my friends seemed quite affected by seeing such gruesome detail on screen. Others refused to watch it, claiming that they didn’t have the emotional reserves to do so. This discourse, this powerful emotional reaction, caught my attention. I was struck by the fact that in the twenty-first century there was such an impassioned national conversation about a film and its content.
Z: It was seen as a revelation.
N: To a certain extent I think it was. Of course, people knew about Jasenovac. I’d heard lots of stories about the camp during my earlier fieldwork, but I don’t think people had much experience of seeing this period brutally depicted on screen. Now, I won’t comment on the merits of the film from a cinematographic perspective, or its more controversial nationalistic, self-victimising agenda. But, as an anthropologist, the fact that it produced such a social effect was intriguing. And so I set about trying to devise an ethnographic project that would look at contemporary Serbian responses to the legacy of the Independent State of Croatia. I was intrigued about the ways in which reconciling with the past could re-enforce ethnic identity. In the context of the former Yugoslavia, this is obviously very significant, given the collapse of that state in the 1990s. So yes, I guess that’s where I’d start: by noting that whilst a quest for knowledge about the past may be very well intentioned and sincere, it can at the same time re-emphasise ethnic boundaries. In local discourse, this is often framed very much as ‘Serbian’ suffering.
Z: And in the Serbian context some people are fighting for recognition for the suffering that has hitherto been unacknowledged and unseen in public. They are memory activists.
N: Yes. I’m simplifying slightly, but it’s true that under Yugoslav socialism discussion around what happened during the time of the Independent State of Croatia the camp was stymied. The standard narrative goes that this was how Tito tried to forge a new state, by masking over the divisions of the past and insisting on a new narrative of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. Now, arguably what this meant was that the catharsis that might come from dealing directly with what happened was shut down. A lot has been written about how, during the 1990s, bones were uncovered and manipulated to Serbian nationalist ends. And, to an extent, I think this uncertainty about the past is still there; the lack of a widely shared narrative around what happened. And so what these memory activists, that is people who lost relatives during the Independent State of Croatia, want is recognition for the Serbian suffering.
Z: Can you talk a little more about how this claim for recognition ignites conflicts in the present?
N: I suppose one way in which it does is by making the ethnic group the unit of suffering, the insistence that people suffered because they were members of a particular group.
Z: So there is a competition?
N: Right, this is part of a global economy of memory politics. One encounters a discourse which goes something like: look, the Jews have their unique account of suffering, the Shoah; Bosniaks have Srebrenica; and we want ‘our’ genocide, ‘our’ shared victimhood. And of course on one level these are really personal stories. People who lost family members want catharsis and to know what happened. At the same time, there is potential that this could actually re-enforce boundaries.
Z: What I find compelling about the case is the way in which these conflicts about memory can be seen as an expression of a much wider and global crisis of memory. When we are talking about memory or memory politics, it is important to see that it is a relatively recent historical construct. The contemporary practice of memory politics really emerged in the 1990s and is intertwined with the promise that remembering and recognising past atrocities can lead to reconciliation in the present. What we see now, globally, is a deep crisis of that concept of memory. Over the past few years, scholars in our field, memory studies, have increasingly discussed the ‘collapse’ of that very regime of memory. Memory politics seems to have failed to fulfill the promise of reconciliation via recognition. This is why I think it’s important not to orientalise the problem – it’s not a problem of Eastern Europe or the former Yugoslavia exclusively. Just think about how in the United States there have been conflicts around memory issues in relation to the Holocaust and the legacy of slavery. Although the US has had a leading role in promoting memory as a tool for recognition and reconciliation, memory in the US has been conflicted and contested and even exclusive in some way. And of course, in the meantime, structural racism persists in the country. What we are facing is really a global phenomenon and a crisis on a large scale. Would you like to comment on that?
N: Yes, I completely agree with your point that this isn’t purely a problem of Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. They’re definitely great ethnographic and historical case studies for thinking through the sort of issues we’re talking about, but the very fact that, say, people are making claims about ‘Serbian suffering’ stems in part from the fact that they see themselves as part of a global economy of victimhood. They’re able to look across at other people’s approaches to suffering. Not only do they do that, but they also use modern technologies to do it: Facebook, Instagram and social media generally are ways in which memory politics are being enacted.
Z: So the political arena within which they articulate their demands for recognition is a global one?
N: Yes, it is absolutely a global one. I suppose one question to you before we move on is whether you think that this memory paradigm has ever worked? Whether it was ever successful? You said that memory politics is a relatively recent construction, and emerged in the 1990s, but today we’re facing a crisis. Do you think that at one moment it did what it set out to do? Or do you think that it’s been on the wrong track all along?
Z: I think the symptoms of failure were visible very early. The major concern of scholars some 15 years ago was how to fix memory competition; how to amend the way memory politics was implemented, in order to avoid competition or conflict and facilitate recognition and mutual understanding. But what we have seen in the last few years I think forces us to realise that the crisis is more deeply political: after 25 years of memory politics we have been witnessing a powerful post- or anti-liberal transnational turn. We have witnessed the emergence of authoritarian political elites and actors and regimes in Western and non-Western societies that categorically deny the values promoted by memory politics in terms of human rights, reconciliation and understanding. So there is a sense of defeat which has come in the last few years of global politics, and which somewhat encouraged scholars to admit failure and ask, like Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc do in their book Beyond Memory, whether “we can really learn from the past” and to think more critically about memory politics and ask “what went wrong”, like Valentina Pisanty does in her Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right.
N: And I suppose the other thing that I could add is that, from an anthropological theoretical perspective, there has been a critique of ‘memory’ as paradigm as well. Anthropologists like David Berliner have questioned the value of memory as concept since at one point it seemed that memory had practically become a synonym for ‘identity’ or even ‘culture.’
Z: Another reason why ‘memory talk’ seems to be running out of steam today is that in our post-2008 world there is a need for fundamental socio-political, as well as environmental, change, and the notion of memory that we inherited from the ’90s is divorced from such a demand for structural change. What it promised was something else: symbolic recognition for past suffering and the creation of “tolerant citizens”. Today, such a notion of memory feels insufficient, even if memory conflicts continue to permeate our political reality. But that is exactly why I think Jasenovac as a case study is so compelling: it allows us to look back at previous stages of commemoration. You mentioned the Tito era. I remember watching a 1945 anti-fascist documentary on the same camp which I found remarkable because first of all it shows how early post-war memory emphasised all victim groups: Serbs, Croatians, Roma and Jews were mentioned explicitly as ‘our people’. The documentary was inclusive in a way that did not force victim groups into competitive positions. I was wondering how much that early post-war paradigm of commemorating war and genocide may be a source of inspiration for the present?
N: That’s a creative way of looking at it because I think that there is something of an implicit consensus that the ‘anti-fascist’ approach to memory is problematic. At least when I was learning about the Holocaust in France, the approach was to go and look at some memorials, and say, look, they didn’t mention that these people were killed explicitly because they were Jews. This was the standard pedagogical approach, the way you learnt about the Holocaust. It was all about how anti-fascism failed to mention the specificity of the fact that Jews were murdered. Similar critiques have also been made about ‘anti-fascism’ in the former Soviet Union. So I enjoy your critique because it’s provocative. But also you say that there may be some seeds for creative thinking about our present.
N: What I’d be interested in asking you is how would you apply the anti-fascist paradigm to some of the memory conflicts we are having outside of Eastern Europe? Because arguably anti-fascism is very much the product of that part of the world. How might we take that inclusive approach and apply it to, say, campus politics in Western Europe?
Z: One thing we may need to do is to reconsider anti-fascism in a larger transnational framework and look at how post-war Western Europe itself was built on the legacy of anti-fascism. Think about Dan Stone’s argument in Goodbye to All That? The Story of Europe Since 1945 that post-war regimes in both Eastern and Western Europe drew on what he calls the ‘anti-fascist consensus’: in the case of Western Europe, a form of capitalism that included some sort of social compromise. The post-war welfare states and parliamentary democracies grew out of some understanding of how the Great Depression helped the spread of fascism. Unlike post-1989 memory politics, anti-fascist memory in the post-war era was intertwined with some sort of promise of social change in both East and West. My proposal is to revisit anti-fascism to see how much it can inspire us to invent a new configuration of memory and social change and develop a new understanding of what memory can do for us in the present.
N: So you are not suggesting getting rid of the memory paradigm altogether but recalibrating it.
Z: Exactly. We need a new understanding of what memory can do politically that is not reduced to ideas of recognition and reconciliation but is able to address the structural problems of our present.
N: The question is whether that is possible with groups of people who feel, rightly or wrongly, that their suffering has not yet been properly recognised. And this is the sticking point. We are sitting in this prestigious university coming from societies that perhaps already had quite advanced debates about memory and established some historical narrative that are broadly agreed upon, and therefore are able to shift this debate onwards to recalibrating the memory paradigm in a far more universalistic way – which I am basically on board with. But it is always worth remembering that some places don’t feel like they have had that first step. Based on my experience and my fieldwork in Serbia this idea of creating a ‘memory culture’ is a relatively new phenomenon. When I have engaged with people who work in museums and other cultural institutions, they are talking about starting a memory culture and in our conversation we are already talking about moving on from that.
Z: But that’s the point. These memory practices were invented in the post-Cold War West and then implemented in other parts of the world, including Eastern Europe. Recent research such as Lea David’s book, The Past Can’t Heal Us, shows that some of the failures of the paradigm come from the very fact that they were implemented without recognising the local context. At the same time, there is a much longer, local history of commemoration in Eastern Europe, as in the case of Jasenovac. To me it seems that it is the disintegration and disappearance of the anti-fascist paradigm that went hand in hand with the renewal of ethnic nationalism and contributed to ethnic conflicts in an era of post-socialism.
N: Certainly whilst Marshal Tito was alive, the strength of that paradigm of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ was, I suppose, by and large pretty successful in keeping together this multi-ethnic federal state. With Tito’s death in 1980 things started to unravel and we all know where it ended up. But it’s interesting to think about what things might have looked like if a shared anti-fascist narrative had been sustained in some way. Having a strong authoritarian figure imposing that on people probably isn’t the way to do it, but I think scholars of the region are increasingly looking to the former Yugoslavia to try and wonder what could be learnt from that system. And I think you see that also in the writings of people like anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee who writes extensively about former socialist Eastern Europe and challenges the ever-increasing equalisation of communism with fascism and tries to think about what we can actually learn from the socialist experience that may be of benefit to our current predicaments.
Z: An embodiment of post-war memory and perhaps the perfect image to end this conversation is the memorial created by Bogdan Bogdanović for the Jasenovac concentration camp in 1966. The name is Stone Flower: with the roots looking towards the victims, it suggests a future grounded in past experiences, but with the crown looking toward the sky, it symbolises, in the artist’s words, “life and freedom”.
David Berliner, “The Abuses of Memory: Reflections on the Memory Boom in Anthropology”, Anthropological Quarterly 78, 1 (2005): 197-211.
Lea David, The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)
Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, “On agonistic memory”, Memory Studies 4 (2016): 390-404.
Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc, Beyond Memory: Can we Really Learn from the Past?, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
Kristen Ghodsee, Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
Zoltán Kékesi and Máté Zombory, “Antifascist memory revisited: Hungarian historical exhibitions in Oświęcim and Paris, 1965”, Memory Studies, 5 (2022): 1087–1104.
Valentina Pisanty, Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right, (New York: Centro Primo Levi Editions, 2021).
Dan Stone, Goodbye to All That? The Story of Europe Since 1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
ZOLTÁN KÉKESI is a cultural historian with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe. His publications include Agents of Liberation. Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Art and Documentary Film (2015) and Memory in Hungarian Fascism: A Cultural History (2023). He works as a Research Fellow at the UCL Centre for Collective Violence, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
NICHOLAS LACKENBY is a social anthropologist with interests in morality, religion, nationalism, and belonging. Regionally, he has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the former Yugoslavia, especially Serbia. His current project – based at UCL Anthropology and funded by the Leverhulme Trust – explores the memorialization of violence committed during the Independent State of Croatia [NDH] (1941-1945).
Editing and standfirst by MARTHE LISSON
Copyediting by ANNA STELLE
Proofreading by CATHERINE STOKES
Lead Image: Denkmal des KZ-Lagers, Jasenovac, 2009, Bern Bartsch, Creative Commons.
Portraits of Zoltán Kékesi and Nicholas Lackenby by Mariam Gomez.