Our task is to work with the difficult moments of the past through such a lens of the future in which the risk of repetition of social disasters would be minimized. We understand working through the past as a rational analysis of reasons and nature of tragic events, which have an influence on the present and memory-bound social practices. We distinguish history and memory and recognise that memory often is emotional and non-rational.
Working through the past supposes a joint effort of understanding, which includes open public discussions as well as a practical process of comprehension of the system of values that shape our perception of the world.
We see that in the past several decades most significant breakthroughs on working through the past took place in the field of art. Art is a maximally productive field. Therefore, we invite everyone who want to assemble the puzzle of the project of the future through the medium of memory to venture into this field.
Contemporary art launches discussions and a process of joint search. Our project is not about art, but about a shared gesture of enquiry and search for answers.
Working through the past takes place not only and not even as much in the academic sphere, but first and foremost in the field of memory. After the Second World War, the word “past” became the primary word of reference used to describe the future. Tragedies, which the humankind was plunged into in the twentieth century, were based on the recognition that it is possible to see one group of people as less deserving of a life in dignity than others; and that it is also possible to consider people guilty of belonging to a certain category.
Dehumanisation became the basis for catastrophes — for this reason the values of life and human dignity were laid at the foundation of a new image of the world. This image of the world, one of the foundations of which was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, is based exactly on these values. The value frame of our project is formed around the recognition of the highest value of life and dignity.
The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century created value hierarchies, which placed superhuman phenomena (nation, race, party) above human dignity. We have seen the catastrophic consequences of these projects.
We know that if this has happened once it may as well happen again. Memory gives us the courage to know what a human being is capable of if he or she believes in the phantom superhuman force in charge of life in this world. Memory can become the medium through which we build a project of the future focused on human rights.
In the field of memory no one can claim the role of a demiurge. When someone is convinced that they have an exclusive right to guide others to a single correct version of truth, they take on the role of a deity. The foundation of such projects lies in seeing other people as inferior, incapable of working through their past independently. This same dehumanising lens, which sees the human being as an instrument, lay at the foundation of totalitarian projects. We are ready to enter a conversation and understand that our readiness may be met with rejection.
We may not like the way others see things, but we recognize their right to their own interpretation of past events. We are ready to listen to arguments, not to dehumanizing rhetoric. We recognize that our approaches to working with the past may not be accepted by all. We are ready to explain our positions to those who are ready to talk to us.
Through the human rights lens, we can ask questions about the nature of interrelations between a person and the past and about the responsibility for past events. Precisely the way people see these relationships often becomes a source of conflicts: by identifying himself/ herself with the representatives of his/her community who lived in the past, a person can experience pride or shame as well as accuse representatives of other communities of committing crimes against “him/ her”. Self-identification with large collectives is the basis for the perceptions about friendship or hate between different nations or states.
In our understanding of the nature of large social communities we base ourselves upon the constructivist approach, which builds on an understanding of a creative and dynamic development of these communities through interdependent collective action. The constructivist approach does not presume the existence of a genetic or “mental” unity of all representatives of a single nation, state or class.
Our point of departure is a distinction between the understandings of guilt and responsibility. A person can only be guilty of those acts, which she or he has committed himself or herself (or for criminal inaction), but not for her or his group belonging. A person cannot be accused of actions, which they did not commit, even more so, for actions that happened before they were born.
Attempts to put blame on people living in the present for the acts committed by someone in the past contradict the basic principles of justice and intersect with the concept of “collective guilt”, which was used by totalitarian regimes to dehumanise those, whom they marked as enemies: any member of a group regardless of his or her actions was recognised as guilty.
When defining our understanding of responsibility, we follow Victor Frankl: “Having responsibility makes up the dignity of a human being, the dignity of each individual human being.” Having said this, it is obvious that a human being is free to enter into a collective identity. To understand how an individual is included into collective memory it is helpful to look at the line of reasoning by Karl Jaspers about his own relationship with a community, which he considered himself to be a part of.
If we recognise that responsibility is the virtue of every individual human being and are aware that an individual can identify with a community, then we have to ask ourselves a question: Can we ignore the moments in the past which were unpleasant for our community, justifying this by our personal lack of involvement in them?
A catastrophe which has already occurred once serves as a warning for the fact that something similar may happen again. One of the ways to prevent such recurrences is by working through the past, calling a crime a crime and confirming our readiness to counter recurrences of such crimes in any new form. In this way working through the genocidal past necessary leads to resistance to genocide in any form, not only the one in which it has already happened. For this reason, the responsibility for working through the past and preservation of memory lies on the shoulders of any person, who takes on a certain collective identity. If a contemporary human being rejects working through the past, while understanding that recurrence of a crime always remains possible, he or she facilitates opening up the gates for its return.
There is no collective guilt, however it is possible to distinguish between responsibility for preservation of memory and responsibility for working through the past. Accepting a collective identity is an individual decision. An emotional feeling of pride or shame for members of your own community might have different consequences — people can either shut their eyes to everything bad or see the world with eyes wide open. Following Adorno, we can claim that “it is a matter of the way in which the past is called up and made present: whether one stops at sheer reproach, or whether one endures the horror through a certain strength that comprehends even the incomprehensible”.
If the subject at hand is belonging to a large collective (for example, a state), one’s disposition towards the value of human dignity begs a question about preservation of the memory of those whose descendants for various reasons no longer live on this territory. Sometimes people who lived on the same streets and shores as us have no one who could remember them. Sometimes we don’t even know their names — don’t know anything about them but the fact of their death. Our humanity consists in supporting and preserving this memory and not in searching for some external people who may be deemed responsible.
One of the main consequences of having lived in a totalitarian space is the rejection of the understanding of the importance of the gesture of self-definition. Our project is about including working with memory into the experience of everyone.
Why? We are convinced that the manipulative function of the past can only be deweaponised by entering into a relationship with the past and building a personal connection to the past events.
Memory is a territory of shared responsibility, and not a space for self-realisation of those in power. Memory is about what each and every person does within his or her personal life project.
Here it is important to look at the reflection of Paul Riceaur, who writes that dissensus regarding the past can only exist under the conditions of democracy. Our goal is not to broadcast our own scheme of understanding of history, but to involve people into a process of a shared search, which will nudge them towards readiness to develop their own position, recognize their own mistakes, complement their view of the world with arguments from others. Creation of such a space of responsible discussions expands the space of action of civil society, which in fact is our goal.
A conversation supposes the existence of different visions — speaking within only one lens is pointless.
Memory is a powerful catalyst for enmity and war. Through memory wars contemporary conflicts are construed as historical. Past grudges push people towards murder and hate today. In 1995 in the Bosnian Srebrenica members of one group killed others, explaining it by what had happened in 1348. Many actions that take place today are provoked by resentment — a wish to avenge one or another event in the past. After serious conflicts one of the most important questions is how to make life together possible.
There are examples of reconciliation between countries — as a rule, they occur after a mutual recognition of guilt. There are examples of healing the wounds of the social body through the work of Truth and reconciliation commissions. The practice of social reconciliation in this context was developed in South Africa in order to create a possibility to live together after the fall of the apartheid regime.
One of the goals of our project is to search for possible paths for reconciliation in society within the context of collective memory. “Memories” cannot be reconciled, only people can reconcile.
What does reconciliation in the field of memory mean? It is not an attempt to appear “above the conflict”, to silence traumas and crimes, “to stop stirring up the past”. The policy of silencing only postpones the conflict, which is bound to burst out eventually.
Reconciliation is not forgiveness for the past crimes. Reconciliation is a joint process of talking through what has happened and readiness to counter the recurrence of the crime. Moreover, reconciliation is possible only after a crime is recognised as a crime.
The fact that reconciliation and forgiveness are not identical becomes obvious when one thinks about who has the right to forgive. Only a person against whom the evil was committed can complete an act of forgiveness, as, for example, Eva Kor did. In the same way as we do not carry personal responsibility for someone else’s actions, we do not have authority to forgive for the crimes that have not been committed against us. For those who think about the past, there is a process of working through the past — work towards reconciliation in the context of the past.
Past events do not come to us unmediated — they are represented through a conscious effort. Art works with representation of reality through the means of imagination. An academic historian works to reconstruct the events of the past from the chaos of available data. Academic and artistic imaginations — are processes that reflect each other and test each other for strength.
The trauma of the catastrophes of the teleological projects of the 20th century, the short-lived optimism of the idea of the “end of history”, and a complete focus on the past through a lens tuned to search for heritage — all of this delineates the space for intense questioning about the future. Not in the context of a rigid historical scheme, but through a careful and uncertain search for a foothold. This is our point of departure.