From Emotional Integration of Imagined Community Toward the Empathy through Individual Memories: The Case of Croatian Memories Archive

30 minutes

Even if it is only individuals who remember, it is usually group membership that provides individuals with materials for memory. Groups can produce, in individuals, memories of events they have never actually “experienced,” thus producing emotional pangs and forming imagined communities. This emotional integration through places of memory and commemoration practices is especially strong in postwar societies where many of the “living carriers and communicators of experience” might nourish an interest in culturally codifying their memories and passing on their “wounded memory” across generations. At the same time theories of reconciliation as well as memory studies acknowledge the enormous difficulties of transforming the memory of war and violence into an integrated dynamic and plural culture of memory that could be shared beyond the cognitive boundaries of former adversary groups. What gets officially remembered through public memory institutions and heritage sites is therefore a one-sided authorized version of history of war and violence, which ignores and puts under the carpet all the surpluses of meanings and memories.

This paper aims to explore a case of the Croatian Memories Archive as the model of creating a multi-vocal and pluralist heritage of wars and violence in 1990s in Croatia in a way that challenges and disrupts dominant historical narrative and authorizes collective memory. Croatian public memory narrative in relation to the conflicts in the 1990s positions the Homeland war as the event of the national liberation and independence from the former Yugoslavia, while simultaneously negating the atrocities against Bosnian and Serbian civilians committed by the Croats. Official memorialization and commemoration practices have been among the most prominent mechanisms for nation-building and therefore could not serve as a mechanism of transitional justice, inter-ethnic dialogue, and legal recognition of victims. Implemented by human rights and peace NGO Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past as contribution to victims’ rights, reconciliation and dialogue around wars, the Croatian Memories Archive is an exemplary case of how a civil society actor, who does not see its work as related to heritage field, succeeded in creating a pluralist, dialogical, and inclusive digital collection, which no official museum was able to do. 

The online archive relies on the oral history method and provides 450 stories of individual memories of past traumatic events and ways in which wars and violence affect individual lives of victims, bystanders, and perpetrators. The archive is based on the principle that individual voice and individual memory matter as a human process of giving account of oneself, one’s life and conditions, which needs to be heard within the public space and gain political value. Much different from community participation attempts in heritage management that end up in participative consumerism, here the citizens of diverse backgrounds were the ones actually creating a pluralist collection of war heritage, each individual being a master of his/her own oral history and the choice of objects that associate him/her to the story.

This method gives faces and emotions to events, showing personal suffering to influence the empathy toward members of the conflicting social groups. The idea behind having the right to tell personal experiences and having a public space where this can be seen and heard carries the hope that personal and particular war experiences can have universalizing effects as a way toward “recognizing common destiny,” empathy and interpersonal understanding among the victims. Instead of a static one-sided integration through the official culture of memory, this archive uses poly-vocality and dissonance of a multitude of personal experiences to form inclusive dynamic and pluralist heritage of wars and culture of memory.

Center for Museology and Heritology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade