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Introductory Remarks at the Third Annual International Conference

Let me first of all express our gratitude to Lamija Tanovic, Chair of the Bosnian Board, other members of the board, Elma Hodzic and her Humanity in Action staff for inviting us here to hold this Third Humanity in Action International Conference. We are most grateful to our funders who have supported this gathering: the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, the Germeshausen Foundation, the Erste Stiftung and the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

In preparing for this conference I have often been close to tormenting Lamija, Elma, Antje and Phil about some connections that seem to me quite important but all too elusive to them. I kept saying that this conference is special because we will be in Bosnia and focused on Bosnian issues. They would tell me that this was self-evident since almost all the talks and activities would be focused on Bosnian issues. What greater clarification was needed?

I am not sure that I have yet worked out what I mean but I should like to take a few minutes to try to lift the fog of imprecision. It may be that all that I want to emphasize is that we have an unusual opportunity by being here to address multiple tasks: to view and feel this place of recent searing violence and ethnic cleansing; to begin to understand the dimensions of political paralysis and national impotence; and to probe the sources of continuing racial, ethnic and religious separation, suspicions and fears for recurring violence.

This Humanity in Action gathering, in its non-stop meetings and site visits, is not intending to develop policies or give advice. This is not a mini Davos, the gold standard of meetings, nor another boring conference of experts talking to themselves. It is not another conference that could be set in just any location. We are in Bosnia because it presents a set of urgencies that connect us to this country and to our native countries as well. We are here to think about history, multiple cultures, memory, democracy, reconciliation, courage, savagery, despair, hope, the mysteries of identities, mentalities and communities.

Humanity in Action is uniquely interested in linking past and present. We are proud of this educational approach that seems to tip off the tongue so easily that it almost sounds like a slogan. It seems so easy. But being in Bosnia should help us realizes just how complicated it is for each of us as individuals and members of society to access the past, move beyond earlier atrocities, understand their imprint on the present—yet not become prisoners and victims of past events and fixated on a rigid sense of the past.

In this quest for clarification and the desire to share these thoughts with you, let me turn to the ideas of three outstanding contemporary thinkers: Timothy Snyder, an historian at Yale, Bryon Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, and Claude Lanzmann, writer and filmmaker. For me, the three represent different approaches to exploring the past in powerfully educative ways. Snyder, the historian, emphasizes the sanctity of sources and factual accuracy. Stevenson, the activist, confirms the need for just values. And Lanzmann is driven by the power of narrative and associations.

Paull Randt, a Humanity in Action Fellow, now on a Fulbright fellowship in Kazakhstan, suggested that the 2012 Fellows read the conclusion to Timothy Snyder’s recently published history Bloodlands. It is a massive piece of historical inquiry about what happened between 1933 and 1945 in Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. I read both the introduction and conclusion several times and found great difficulty in understanding the thrust of Snyder’s work and the reasons for Paull’s recommendations. Finally, I realized that a particular narrative was not the major point. Instead, Snyder’s seeks to make his readers think critically about history: the purposes to which it is put; the obfuscations that are employed; the difficulties of obtaining sources that form a responsible and accurate rendering of past actions, events and forces; the seductive power of interpretive, misinformed theory over facts, the competitive sanctification of victimization in national identity.

Bloodlands present a horrifying subject that is deeply relevant to the Humanity in Action summer fellowship programs in Western Europe, Poland. Snyder wants his readers to understand what is almost, but not beyond understanding. “During the consolidation,” he writes, “of National Socialism and Stalinism (1933-1938), the joint German-Soviet occupation of Poland (1939-1941), and then the German-Soviet war (1941-1945), mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region.” Fourteen million people died and none of them in combat: they were “all victims of murderous policy [rather] than casualties of war…. Most were women, children, and the aged: none were bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.” (Page viii) Snyder calls the 14 million deaths “political killings,” pursued through deliberate starvation, terror and concentration and extermination camps—in service to ideologies, expansionist drives and the perversion of humane values. Sometimes the Fascists and Communists worked together, mostly against each other through deadly forays of expansion, occupation and retreat.

Dismissing much of the post-war thinking about these catastrophic events, Snyder doesn’t believe that commemoration of losses can have a preventive function. Memorialization, he maintains, is often deliberately subject to misperceptions and exaggerations for nationalistic purposes. Fourteen million civilians died in 12 years at the hands of two totalitarian states. “This a moment,” Snyder writes, “that we have scarcely begun to understand, let alone master. By repeating exaggerated numbers, Europeans release into their culture millions of ghosts of people who never lived….What begins as competitive martyrology can end with martyrological imperialism.” In fact, Snyder states that part of the reason for the Serbs starting the war in Yugoslavia was an exaggeration of losses sustained during the Second World War. “When history is removed,” Snyder writes, “numbers go upward and memories go inward, to all our peril.” P. 406

Ignorance about history or the deliberate distortion of facts when “memories go inward,” is a global phenomenon. I think this especially true for the United States in regard to its history of race. As the 2012 Fellows know, we tasked them with a good bit of reading. One of the assignments was to watch Bryon Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, presented at TED, a fabulous forum for impressive people. His talk was about America’s continuing failure to confront and understand its racist past and currents of prejudice and stereotyping that systematically result today in the incarceration, disenfranchisement and impoverishment of nearly 1/3 of all black males. This is not just a disaster for America’s black and white population; it is a disgrace for the country as a whole.

American society continues to cycle through periods of combating racism and sustaining discrimination. Slavery was followed by the Civil War. Emancipation by Reconstruction. Reconstruction by the imposition of segregation and the Jim Crow system. Legal segregation was destroyed by the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement and Great Society were undermined by private white church schools and white flight from cities and suburbs alike. Today, Obama’s presidency is contested, in large part, by an overwhelmingly white Republican Party and anti-government Tea Party movement. Racial prejudice in America remains an inescapable tension—a source of contested historical meanings that lay, only partially acknowledged and understood, at the very heart of America’s economic, social, political and cultural life.

Stevenson’s talk is a cogent, inspirational plea for Americans to assume values based on justice and identities based on an expansive and inclusive sense of the American community. His challenge is to make people think and feel differently about American history and the need for an equitable American society. But the challenge is universal—across the Atlantic and in Bosnia as well.

The question we face is how do we get ourselves to think differently—to break out of a sense of the past that constricts our views and distorts our understanding of the present. For Synder the task involved the scrupulous examination of historical sources. For Stevenson, the search meant sociological and psychological approaches to identity and vaules. Let me turn finally to Claude Lanzmann whose approach was intuitive and inspirational.

In late winter of 2012, Claude Lanzmann’s autobiography, the Patagonian Hare was published in English. Lanzmann has a terrific history of adventures and friendships including ones with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir. Those connections for some would place Lanzmann in a special field of 20th Century icons. However, his long lasting contribution to intellectual and artistic life in the 20th Century rests more securely on his nine-hour film “Shoah” which he started to work on in 1973 and finished in 1985. Brody reports that a few years into the work, Lanzmann went to Poland. He didn’t think he would learn anything by being there and in fact when he went to the camps he wrote that he “felt nothing.” I thought this was extraordinary. He was making a film, year after year, amassing an agonizing history through interviews with perpetrators and victims. Yet he felt nothing when he actually was visiting the bloodlands. Nothing.

Then something happened. He saw some people walking. He suddenly understood that people 50 years old or older would remember what had happened during the War.

I saw a sign: black lettering on a yellow background that indicated, as though nothing had happened, the name of the village we were approaching: “Treblinka.”…Treblinka became real, the shift from myth to reality took place in a blinding flash, the encounter between a name and a place wiped out everything I had learned, forced me to start again from scratch.”

Imagine: he would start again from scratch because he made connections that he hadn’t known were meaningful before. He thought he knew in advance what his film would be. He felt nothing at the camps but the sparks of connections, meanings and sudden understandings came to him in a flash on the way to Treblinka. Was it an epiphany? Was this a moment of imaginative and creative inspiration? Did everything that he had done suddenly fall into shape and form? One doesn’t know.

I do not expect that we will have epiphanies in Bosnia. But let me suggest that in this special place we all use this opportunity—these three special days of exploration—to think about history, conflict, diversity, tragedy, responsibility, knowledge, international justice, evil, wisdom, stupidity, conflict, action and the force of courage here and in our own countries as well.

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Bosnia-and-herzegovina Bosnia and Herzegovina 2012


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