Changing the Past In Our Heads
Beatrix Austin invites us to think about how the past continues to define the present. And about what we can do to change that.
"The Berghof Foundation," our speaker, Beatrix Austin, says, "does work from mediation to training to peace education." Our organizers prefaced our session today by saying Beatrix is going to link two of the main threads going through our sessions: memory/narratives and peace work/conflict management.

Berghof does a lot of similar work to the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, where I participated in my first summer school of the season. The language is similar: creating space for dialogue, working through stories. Making sure everyone is heard.

"Over the years," she says, "we've come again and again to the issue of the past." Especially when it comes to shaping our ideas of what the present and future mean – this is something we've been talking about quite a lot. How WWII has shaped East Europe, for example, both then and now. How policies today are justified by grievances from seventy years ago. How we drag ghosts above ground and put them to work for the cause.

But some of the most powerful work Berghof does, the most person-centered work, is with stories and the ways we connect them together. We'll be doing exercises related to this.

The first one is a question: what does your name mean? Is there any kind of association or story that goes along with it?

It might seem a bit trite to start, but in certain conflict zones Beatrix has worked in she's found that, sometimes, people's names reveal where their families were from or some important part of their history. Or of their traditions, religion, culture. This can humanize someone from the start. It's a glorified icebreaker. And, we're told, this works.

How much hope lies in our names, she asks, and how much generational burden?

This goes into a session on what it means to deal with the past – what associations do we have with the phrase? Do we think of it as a problem to be solved and put aside? Is it a negative thing that just needs 'being dealt' with? How do we construct what we carry with us in memory? And then how to go about it is a big deal, because some ways of dealing with the past can be conflict-fuelling.

For example, there was an American session she was at where there were groups of German and Jewish young people. For many of the young Germans the Second World War was something that felt far away, not really connected to their lives and choices today. They wondered: is it possible to move on? The other group of young people were somewhat not very on board with that. Each one, we're reminded, experiences the past in a different way: the group of Jewish people felt the reality of the war still in a practical way, and how either side brought it up could resurrect certain tensions and bring them back into the room. So questions need to be asked: how long ago was the past? How long ago was the war, really? How heavy is the burden of responsibility on third or fourth generations? Is it okay to let go and become normal again?

For her, being a practitioner and facilitator is a hybrid role: she's been in the business for fourteen years, and she's concerned with both the process of conflict transformation as well as the theory behind it. There's a lot of work out there on helping individuals, groups or societies heal and move on from violent pasts, and Berghof's come up with a few propositions about how they understand the connection between conflict and the past:
In most long-term frozen conflicts around the world, having a past with social and political violence can form conflict-perpetuating narratives and identities focused on victimhood
Breaking cycles of protracted violence requires a transformation of the underlying conflict(s)
In order to transform conflict, addressing the past is necessary
Addressing the past requires a mix of approaches over the long term: bottom-up/top-down, state/non-state, private/public, truth/justice/healing
Changing narratives requires telling (and hearing) new stories

Being able to hear new narratives requires intra-group work, empathy and empowering role models
Working through the legacies of a violent past poses new challenges for every generation
Emotionally demanding stuff. It means we have to challenge and confront our own stories, whether in our societies or even just among our families. How much silence has there been in our lives? What doesn't get talked about?

She remarks that on the surface level this seems like child's play: telling stories. Listening. But it happens to go to the foundation of who you think you are. Unreconciled issues from past violence never disappear by default – this's something one of her colleagues said once, and she keeps it with her.

This goes very much back to the idea of narratives: what is it you think of the world? Where do you fit in it? Are there any blind spots? Are you in conflict with someone with another narrative? Today, for me, I think to conflicts in the places I live. Not just in Russia (though there are more than enough there) but Canada too. North America. All the dust kicked into the atmosphere since Trump's election. The way we see ourselves: liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, religious or secular. How entrenched certain viewpoints have become. Beatrix tells us that the more escalated a conflict becomes, the narrower the narratives get. Less and less becomes acceptable in public discourse. It all sounds very familiar, and I'm still processing how to respond.

And now, she says, let's define some terms.
Dealing With The Past
For Beatrix, this doesn't have a negative connotation. It's an umbrella term covering the ways we transmit the past. In a conflicts the past usually present and can play out in positive or negatives ways. The good news is that we get to shape this – the better we work through the past, the better we can shape how the past shapes us.
Transitional Justice
This has its anchor in the human rights movement and became prominent in the 1980's. Often brought up in the context of transitioning from authoritarian regimes to democracies – think in the former Yugoslavia, South Africa or Rwanda. It often refers to legal processes and conjures images of court proceedings, justice reforms, abetting, etc. But it's broadened considerably in light of Truth and Reconciliation movements (particularly in South Africa), and there's more recognition that legal proceedings don't capture the full reality of the injustice that happened. Critics say that if you just fix the system, then you put a lot of burden on the people who experienced violence. Because society's left in a vacuum when it comes to how we talk about what happened, and what people want now. There's momentum currently to include victim-centered initiatives, a recognition of the need for storytelling and public debate, but it's still working to take hold.
A second paradigm for dealing with conflict, and it's also under heavy debate. It's an attempt to deal with horrendous violence in order to live a full life again. There's a thought that four things are necessary: there's a need for justice, for truth, for peace, and ultimately for mercy. And this is the part that's key to this approach: in involves forgiveness. It has a very religious ring to it. But it's also difficult – maybe someone was expelled from their village and, when they come back, they still live beside the neighbour who killed their cousin. How am I supposed to forgive or move on, they might ask. Maybe it's too much to expect someone to forgive, to reconcile. Because when you talk about needing a bit of mercy, it's admitting that there's always some bit that is irreconcilable. It can't be made right. In this line of thought, if you want to work through the past in order to live well again, then you need a certain capacity to let things go. To find peace in something that'll never be returned to you.
Transformative Justice
This is a newer term that has a focus on an aspect that gets sidelined in the above two debates: the need for change and social justice in society. It proposes that we need to create a just society now, and through doing this we can address or make amends for much of the violence in the past. It's more about fairness as a standard and less about forgiveness. It also emphasizes political systems and making sure there's access to livelihood opportunities. Think local ownership and bottom-up approaches.
And through this all she returns to the problem of victimhood. It's true that victimhood narratives can narrow the kinds of conversations we can have. They can distort the past and promote conflict-generating narratives. They can start an arms-race of competing victimhoods. Different stories of victimization can exist within one nation or community yet still never meet – there are fewer and fewer points of contact, and cultural isolation sets in. This doesn't help with processing the past in a full way.

But it's equally true that victimization has indeed happened. People have been traumatized. Victimized. And while we need to be on guard against the ways victimhoods can be used, a response won't be complete until it addresses the reality of lived suffering. Or at least tries to.

I think, again, to North American culture wars. To how people in the former Soviet Union of Yugoslavia describe their pasts, their presents.

And what about you? How does dealing with the past touch you, both as an individual and as a member of society? What kinds of narratives have you been told? What narratives, if challenged, would shake who you are? Who tells your narratives, what do the tell, and where are they told?

All of this has an effect on the possibility of transforming a conflict. In their work, Berghof believes (and has seen) the shifting of conflict-supporting narratives to peace-supporting narratives. Obviously trauma needs to be addressed and that could take up its own workshop, its own weekend. Observation and anecdotal evidence suggests that traumas get passed on through generations but we still don't know how it happens and under what circumstances. There are people trying to understand this. There are people trying to understand a lot of things.