The Past is now – Politics of Denial and Dealing with the Past in the Western Balkans (Perspectives No. 10, May 2023)

Perspectives Southeastern Europe is a publication series of the Southeastern Europe offices of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The focus is on Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the foundation has established offices. The new volume titeld The Past is now – Politics of Denial and Dealing with the Past in the Western Balkans was just published today and is now online available. I had the opportunity to contribute with an essay On populism and historical revisionism  at once a (very) brief evaluation of the Public History project Histoire pour la liberté from 2021, coordinated by KROKODIL Belgrade, in partnership with Kliofest Zagreb, UMHIS Sarajevo (History Fest Sarajevo), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and others.

The Belgrade and Sarajevo offices of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, together with our editor Miloš Ćirić, have invited relevant voices to reflect on what was achieved over the past decades in the fields of documentation, memorialization, and processing of recent history. We wanted to learn which actors and factors determine the cultural context, who could deconstruct the hate narratives, how nationalism affects the culture of remembrance in the respective societies, and why the most brutal of experiences did not lead to a better understanding of common history in the region. In this volume, the role of the external actors is also critically questioned: what were Western donors able to achieve? Why has dealing with history never become mainstream despite the efforts of many brave, consistent and professional individuals? Is there even a need for a moratorium on dealing with the past so that new spaces for peaceful coexistence can emerge?

Heinrich Böll Stiftung Sarajevo

(Please find contributions addressing these questions from different angles amongst the colleagues‘ contributions in the volume available here)

I would like to thank the coordinators from Sarajevo and Belgrade for their efforts; special thanks to Miloš Ćirić for his invaluable skill to assist long-winded writers (like me) to reduce a text to less than half of the original length, without losing its main points. After the introduction (next section), you will find the PDF of my contribution. Follow this link to access the complete volume of Perspectives No. 10 / May 2023


Populism and historical revisionism were among the driving forces behind the wars of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia. This context has been meticulously studied by scholars from different disciplines and countries. Nebojša Popov’s edition The Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis (1996) is one of the most important collections on the topic. Yet, the insinuated catharsis remains the key challenge: given today’s rampant revival of revisionist populism worldwide, it is fair to ask which lessons can be drawn from the (post-)Yugoslav experience. For this purpose, a collective of post-Yugoslav and EU-historians came together in the public history project Histoire pour la liberté. Throughout 2021, this EU-funded project enabled a series of lectures and public debates in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Germany. In the following, I will lay out some of the most central questions discussed during the program in order to finally readdress the question of how and why we should learn from the 1990s. 

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