Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 3

Memory and
Historical Narratives

Rohee Dasgupta talks about how diverging ideas of history can drive identity-based conflicts.
Different sides in a conflict often hold
different ideas of what the past looked like.

How can these narratives impact conflict, and what can be done to address such deep-seated dynamics?
Different sides in a conflict often hold different ideas of what the past looked like. How can these narratives impact conflict, and what can be done to address such deep-seated dynamics?

The session begins with one of our classmates making a presentation about the former Yugoslavia. He was posted to Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission – though the war had ended, the region was still bitterly divided.

One of the reasons for this was (and is) a divided past. The region was under the control of two empires, the Ottoman (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo) and the Austro-Hungarian (Slovenia and Croatia), which led to three religions sharing a tight-knit space: Catholic, Orthodox and Sunni Islam. The memory of Ottoman occupation in Serbia has never gone away – Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević linked the struggles of contemporary Serbs to those suffered under the Turks hundreds of years ago. Contemporary Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians, groups which mostly practice Islam, were seen as stand-ins for historical oppressors.

Historical grievances, in this case, ended up providing fuel for current atrocities. This dynamic forms the core of today's lecture.

"In ethnic conflicts," says professor Rohee Dasgupta, "us-and-them thinking can create ingroups and outgroups and become a key factor in the appearance of violence." These conflicts are not merely internal matters either – different groups can use history to make territorial claims that diverge from the international consensus. Borders in some cases remain unclear, or homogenous populations move across borders and create issues in neighbouring states. Or, in the worst of cases, ethnic cleansing can escalate to genocide and demand a response of the international community.

In cases like with the former Yugoslavia, historical memory was used to inflame grievances that had entire armies strategically dehumanizing their enemies. This, as we know, makes it easier for perpetrators to victimize 'lesser' human beings and engage in mass violence like the infamous Srebrenica massacre. Not only were ancient Ottoman repressions referenced as motivations for the Balkan wars, but so were the WWII atrocities committed by a Nazi-allied Croatian group called the Ustaše. Even though the Serbs were seen by many as the aggressors in that war (though they certainly have their own narratives about that), they used history to present themselves as victims in need of defense.

This pattern of using past grievances to fuel modern conflicts isn't limited to wars – any marriage counsellor could list the ways that partners use the past to justify current choices. Any HR manager could describe how former office grudges erupt into departmental struggles. While much of the theories discussed in the lecture apply in all these contexts, the sheer violence involved in "memory wars" begs the question: how is it that historical events, some of which occurred centuries ago, spiral out into such brutality?

History and Memory

When we look at the connection between history, memory and conflict, there are a number of key factors we can talk about.
First there's the idea of contested history, which is when competing visions of identity, victimization or the past form the basis of a specific conflict, with one vision often emerging as the victor.
Then there's parallel history, which is when two or more communities live alongside each other, each with their own conception of the past. These groups may never engage with each other and thus these parallel histories can endure for decades.
Another major factor is the role of a community's elites and leaders. Are they creating propaganda? Are they censoring other narratives? Are hate or hate speech being incentivized from the top down?
The state of a nation's borders is also important – do they run through a community's historical lands, dividing them between two states? And will these transnational groups contest these borders in the name of a historical homeland? Will these groups cooperate with each other in the form of militia, paramilitary groups or terrorist cells?
Different groups may have irreconcilable differences, often religious or ethnic in nature, which may lead to conflict over how the nation (or region) should be administered or what laws make most sense.
Different regions can have separate ethnic makeups with histories all their own – this is particularly true with former empires or countries with a high degree of ethnic diversity.
There may also be external factors that exacerbate a given conflict, such as colonial triggers, a rich diaspora with an agenda or religious allies from a neighbouring country.
These are all different sources of conflict, and they can lead to different types of struggle. There may be non-state conflicts between two ethnic groups inside one state. There may be formal civil wars where one group takes up arms against the government, often for control of the capital or for the right to secede. Asymmetrical conflicts involving guerilla warfare or terrorist tactics can emerge when the two sides are not balanced. There may also be what's known as aid and trade conflict, where a given war is fuelled at least in part by foreign aid or support.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing are two tactics that have drawn a lot of attention in the post-Cold-War era, particularly after the violence in Bosnia and Rwanda. An ethnic or religious group, acting in part from motivations to right ancient wrongs or 'cleanse' their historical homeland, may remove another ethnic group from a territory.

Psychologist Vamik Volkan developed the idea of chosen traumas, which are historical memories (often of a great loss) that can come to define a group's identity and sense of place in the world. These can be kept alive by a group for centuries after the event occurred. Examples of chosen traumas include the Holocaust or the destruction of the Temple for the Jewish people, the 1389 Serb loss in Kosovo to the Ottomans, the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Russians or the siege of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) to the Greeks. Chosen traumas arguably play a role in contemporary cultural struggles like those in the United States: the Confederate defeat and the transatlantic slave network can both be classified as such.

While these traumas are not 'chosen' in the sense that the groups affected chose to be or remain traumatized, but that these specific traumas were 'chosen' by the groups to be perpetuated in their collective memory, allowing a certain sense of victimhood (with, at times, a resulting passivity, sense of entitlement or desires for vengeance) to become a cornerstone of group identity. While these traumas can remain dormant for decades, even centuries, they can be activated by current events, leaders, stresses or pressures – when activated, they can become a metaphorical banner under which the group can mobilize itself for political action. Which, at times, results in violence.

Chosen traumas and other related factors can not only spark a conflict, they can impact conflicts already in progress. Two types of conflict discussed in the field are tractable and intractable conflicts – these refer to disputes that are easier or harder to solve, respectively. Intractable conflicts, for example in Colombia, Israel-Palestine or Afghanistan, often involve historical grievances that cycle through activity or dormancy over an extended period of time, which can confuse observers who assumed the conflict was over.

Identity also plays into this, as history can be used to prop up insecure land concepts or collective identities. A particular interpretation of history can form the core of a group's relationship to a region or to surrounding groups, and challenges to this interpretation can result in an existential threat.

Facilitator and researcher Barbara Tint, in her article History, Memory and Intractable Conflict, describes this process at length.

Build the Past, Build the Present

One of the large issues facing peacebuilders, according to Tint, is how to understand what it is about memory, narrative and identity that intensifies conflict so much. If policy makers, researchers and practitioners are able to understand these factors, then perhaps they'll have a better chance at intervening in deep-seated, intractable conflicts more effectively.

This is where conflict studies parts ways somewhat with political science and international relations and approaches psychology: intractable conflicts, as mentioned in last week's class on identity conflict theory, are less about resources we can negotiate over and more about the values and needs that give us a sense of who we are. When these values are threatened, the groups affected can spiral into cycles of destructive behaviour.

A huge problem here is that, even if violence is a strategy meant to respond to threatened values, identities and needs (all of which may be legitimate), it has the tendency to create more instability, more violence and go on to threaten other people's values, needs or identities. Which then leads to more bloodshed should the cycle not be interrupted.
Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in front of the controversial Gazimestan monument (banner photo)
commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman Empire.

Russell Watkins | wikicommons
Tint agrees with other researchers that memory is part of this process, but the mechanics of precisely how aren't fully understood, and so practitioners and politicians operate "with a limited ability to infuse our present interventions with appropriate and relevant connections to how conflict parties have internalized their lived or learned histories." Any intervention will be impacted by how a given community "organizes around" its collective memories, and so ignorance of how this works will only prevent effective interventions.

Understanding just how memory works has created a whole field called memory studies, which was founded by French sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs. One prominent idea in the field is related to constructionism, saying that while the past is indeed the past, our ideas of the past are constructed by people in the present – people who may consciously or unconsciously focus selectively on events that imply certain narratives rather than a comprehensive perspective. This is what's happening when two groups use history to support their claims to a territory: one group may refer to events 500 years ago, while the other group may refer to more recent events.
"The present informs the past and how both individuals and societies select their remembrances as the basis of their current needs, beliefs and goals."
-Barbara Tint
In this way you can get entirely different perspectives on who has a right to administer or live in Kosovo, Crimea, Kashmir, Morocco or other territories.

Leaders are a major factor in constructing a given narrative, activating chosen traumas (or other grievances) by blaming other groups, encouraging nostalgia over lost glory days or selectively interpreting complex historical tragedies. Special interest groups can also advocate for their own interpretations of the past, and they can be motivated by a desire for dignity, resources, justice, recognition, power or to marginalize another group.

But there doesn't necessarily have to be a leader or group who activates context histories using historical narratives – if two groups with parallel histories occupy the same space, they may eventually run into each other all on their own. This is especially true in times of crisis, economic downturn or other moments where resources are made scarce or when existential threats (like war, famine, religious change) occur.

Also, sometimes a historical narrative doesn't have to be activated so much as maintained. This is often done through processes of commemoration, where particular memories are sustained through events, parades, festivals, holidays, monuments and memorials. A very particular kind of conflict emerges when groups start contesting commemorative practices, like in the United States and former Soviet Union with the toppling of monuments or statues.

With both activation and commemoration, memories are selectively transmitted or maintained. There are a number of ways this can happen:
Selective omission
Implication of cause
Blaming enemies & circumstances
Reframing contextual & historical factors
It's in this way, memory scholars claim, that "memory creates reality." When groups selectively choose moments in the past to commemorate, they are also building narratives about what's important, what deserves remembrance and, often, how we should live our lives.

This is what makes conflicts over memory so fierce: it's not just memories that are at stake so much as entire systems of values, emotions and beliefs. Attacking a memorial without contextualizing what you're doing and why can make a population feel like you're attacking their core beliefs and, sometimes, their sense of self or place in the world. This is often received as an existential threat.

In our first lecture we talked about Donald Horowitz's idea of parallel or ranked social groups, which refer to social groups that coexist on equal or hierarchical grounds respectively. In ranked societies, the dominant group often has an official memory narrative that imposes itself on subordinate groups who may remember the past differently. Challenging official narratives means promoting what's called counter-memory, which are memories that don't fit into the sanctioned story. One factor that's important when designing interventions in conflicts where memory plays a role is determining whether there's a counter-memory attacking an official memory in a ranked society, or if there are two parallel groups with competing historical narratives fighting for supremacy.
For Tint, it's important to keep emotion in mind here. Even if a group is activating historical memory in a way that's not seen as appropriate (by facilitators, the international community or other groups), they are often tied to emotions evoked by legitimate needs that feel threatened. This is what contributes to the emotional intensity of identity and ethnic conflicts, as well as to their intractability.

You may have noticed when, while discussing a controversial topic with a friend, there may be moments where reason or facts don't matter – in cases of threatened needs or even trauma, a person's defense mechanisms may come to the fore. Conflict studies theorists claim that this is what happens with groups as well, with consequences spiralling out into violence.
"the human disposition to make sense of experience can 'lead to cognitive and perceptual distortion in identity conflicts, because the desire for certainty often is greater than the capacity for accuracy'"

"homogenous social settings and the presence of cultural amplifiers reinforce these distortions."

"one party's own emotional concerns make it very difficult to accept another's account, especially when their own action may be the root cause of an adversary's feelings and behaviour"

"often operating at a subconscious level, processed threats and deeply-rooted fears can be difficult to talk about or to specify"

"when identity-based demands do become explicit [...] their emotional meaning can cause them to be stated in all-or-nothing, moralistic terms, which makes them difficult to address through the give-and-take of everyday political life"

"how do individuals and groups explain a conflict to themselves and to outsiders? Particularly important are the implicit and explicit assumptions about motives – one's own and those of others – that these stories contain."

"only when the deep-seated threats these stories represent are addressed is a community able to begin to imagine a more peaceful future with its enemies"

"polarizing events whose manifest content involved non-negotiable cultural claims, threats and/or rights that become important because of their connection to core metaphors and group narratives that embody a group's identity"
Marc Howard Ross
Psychocultural Interpretations and Dramas: Identity Dynamics in Ethnic Conflict
This is why, Tint says, negotiation-based approaches like William Ury and Roger Fisher's principled negotiation won't work – the problem isn't just in the facts: it's in people's need for survival, dignity, recognition, autonomy or even acknowledgement. This is why practices like dialogue or techniques like nonviolent communication have evolved to take needs-based approaches into account. Other possible approaches that may be helpful include narrative mediation, developed by John Winslade and Gerald Monk, which actively draw on the different narratives contributing to a conflict.

Intersections of political and psychological interventions are of major interest to practitioners and policy makers, with some examples being more successful than others. The Rwandan Gacaca courts, which combined legal norms with a platform for victims and perpetrators to encounter each others' stories, are one such instance. Those interested in conflict transformation

Memory, Violence and Conflict Transformation

Zooming back out to political interventions in memory-affected conflicts, there are a number of different strategies used.

Campaigns aimed at rebuilding relationships in the wake of war are known as reconciliation, and they form a core pillar of conflict transformation. As compared to conflict cessation, management or resolution, conflict transformation advocates hold that long-term intractable conflicts involve reshaping society to address the deeply-rooted factors that led to the conflict in the first place. Merely separating the two parties (through peacekeeping or the creation of autonomous zones) may not be enough – if the root causes are not addressed, then the conflict may erupt later when grievances are activated once more.

Reconciliation attempts try to transform how groups with violent pasts, competing grievances or parallel histories interact with each other. In some cases, like in South Africa, official campaigns (like the truth and reconciliation commission, or TRC) may involve faith-based language like forgiveness and prayer. This can be an appeal to a common heritage shared by both groups, but it can unintentionally alienate some actors – as when the South African model was exported to contexts involving Islamic populations who may not spiritually respond to ideas like forgiveness like Christians or Jews might.

Reconciliation can also take the form of the construction of a new collective memory, especially in the context of the recently shared experience of war. These can be memorials of the dead, on one or both sides, or museums that keep certain memories alive. In the 21st century these can include virtual memorials, tributes on social media, new types of museums or narratives being passed down within online communities.
As mentioned above, new memorials emerging in the post-conflict phase may just as often lead to division as reconciliation. Certain museums or monuments may engage with one actor's narratives but not the others. Statues and memorials can also commemorate chosen traumas, which often were suffered at the hands of another group (and paint that group as inhuman or monstrous). Digital spaces in particular have been noted as being susceptible to the proliferation of competing narratives or even fake news.

Another factor affecting attempts at reconciliation include post-memory, which describes the 'memories' carried by the following generations. The children of refugees, for example, may be inspired by their parents' experiences to engage in memory and reconciliation. Or they may keep the hatred of the other side alive within their communities. Transgenerational transmission of trauma, Volkan argues, is one of the main ways that chosen traumas survive in the centuries after an event takes place.

Post-memory often lives on within diasporas, which sometimes remember an event differently than members of an ethnic or religious group that stayed in their home country. If a diaspora settles in a wealthy country and is able to gain enough influence to affect matters back home, their historical narratives may end up fuelling foreign policy choices made in their new country concerning their home country. The Tamil and Armenian diasporas are said to have been immensely influential on the conflicts taking place back home.

Planning interventions in a context of competing historical memories, whether between two groups, two generations of one group or among a diaspora, is complex. But peacebuilders have developed a number of different approaches over the years.
One approach is problem-solving, particularly through workshops where members of both sides are invited to take part in dialogue. The initial dialogue stage is often meant to generate enough mutual understanding or recognition to allow for both sides to develop and agree on steps that would benefit both groups and contribute to reconciliation.
The transformative approach is one that tries to look at conflict as something that can be channelled in creative ways. The focus here is not on stopping the conflict or competition, but addressing its destructive expression and thinking of new ways for this conflict to continue. Some successes with this approach were found in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, but only partial success in Israel-Palestine. Kashmir, the divided network of valleys claimed by both Pakistan and India, is one example where the transformative approach has never been able to take root.
The narrative model attempts to address the different perceptions each group has about each other and transform them through the creation of a common history, or at least a history less conducive to conflict. This can include building memorials, adapting history textbooks, investigating networks where hate speech proliferates and exposing each side to the other's stories. Traits shared by a group, such as religion or shared experiences of colonialism, can be points of contact for narrative work.
The restorative model focuses more on abstract factors such as values, morals or processes of validation. Finding common ground with concepts like justice, forgiveness or morality is thought to be a basis for reconciling groups with different narratives or approaches to history.
As described above, partisan leaders can activate chosen traumas or historical grievances – but they can also work towards reconciliation. They can provide models of what it can look like when a person forgives or reconciles without forsaking their identity – Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are prominent examples from the South African context.

Strong leaders are often key for transitional justice, which is a legal process by which a country transitions from a period of war or severe human rights abuses towards a greater degree of democracy. Official structures promoting confessions, acknowledgements and truth-telling can promote reconciliation by recognizing the narratives of the other.

Educational initiatives, formal or informal, can also contribute to ongoing conflicts by teaching the different sides of a parallel or contested history. The point of such resources is less to prove one side right or wrong than to provide an opportunity to understand why a dilemma has developed and to help participants gain an understanding of the nuances involved. Projects like Parallel Histories in the UK do work like this.

But this is where we come to another large cultural divide: whenever an initiative emerges that seeks to "teach the controversy" or explore a particular dilemma, it risks being delegitimized by actors who see the other side as a threat to be defeated. Arguments about whether it is fair to give allegedly dangerous parties a platform emerge and are themselves legitimate. And so it is up to the groups involved to figure out what the risks are in approaching both sides and whether this type of dialogue is likely to contribute to threat, compromise, marginalization, peace or suppression. Perhaps only one thing is certain: these issues will not go away anytime soon.
Rohee Dasgupta teaches conflict studies at St. Paul University; her research interests include identity, cosmopolitanism, security and anthropology.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

Banner photo from wikicommons
Be the first to hear about new content!
Peace research, activism, facilitation - it's all coming.
Sign up to receive an email whenever new Summerpax content becomes available.
Further Reading
History, Memory, and Intractable Conflict
Tint, B. (2010)
Conflict Resolution Quarterly 27 (3)
The Collective Memory Reader
Eds. Olick, J., Vinitzky-Seroussi, V., Levy, D. (2011).
Oxford University Press
Psychocultural Interpretations and Dramas: Identity Dynamics in Ethnic Conflict
Ross, M. (2004)
Political Psychology, 22 (1)
Beyond History and Memory:
New Perspectives in Memory Studies
Tamm, M. (2013).
History Compass, 11, 6, 458-473
National Narratives in a Conflict of Identity
Auerbach, Y. (2010). In: J. Bar-Siman-Tov (Ed.)
Barriers to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 99-134. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem
Institute for Israel Studies
Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir
Kumar, R.
Aleph Books, 2018