Concordia University

Concordian’s book recognized with fourth major award

Reviewer: Researcher Max Bergholz’s examination of a Balkan massacre ‘has done a major favour to the study of mass violence’
June 7, 2018
By Taylor Tower


Why would neighbours turn on each other, committing unspeakable acts of violence? And how can these shocking acts trigger change in surprising and lasting ways? In Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community, Bergholz confronts the ‘uncomfortable truths’ that begin to explain this behaviour while challenging widely-held beliefs about the link between nationalism and violence.

His multidisciplinary approach to this complex phenomena earned him the prestigious European Studies Book Award from the Council for European Studies at Columbia University, the book’s fourth award since publication in 2016.

Read below for an excerpt from the book’s introduction as well as an interview with Bergholz.

Violence as a Generative Force: Nationalism, Identity, and Memory in a Balkan Community
Excerpt, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community by Max Bergholz

On a September afternoon in 2006, while I was sifting through uncatalogued documents in the Archive of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo, a handful of arresting words on a bundle of tattered blue folders stopped me in my tracks: “Examination of sites of mass executions in the Socialist Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.” The documents inside revealed that in 1983 the then communist authorities ordered a confidential, republic-wide investigation. Its objective was to gather information about all sites where the mass executions of civilians had occurred during the People’s Liberation War, which referred to the years 1941–1945. Several questions framed the investigation: How many civilians were killed in each local community, and where? What were their “nationalities” or “ethnicities”? And had these sites been marked with monuments? Local war veterans affiliated with the communist authorities surveyed each community during the next few years, and then sent the findings to their central organization in Sarajevo for analysis.

Completed in 1985–1986 (but not released publicly), the investigation’s final reports repeatedly mentioned the wartime experience of a largely unknown community: Kulen Vakuf, a small town in a rural region of north-west Bosnia that straddles the Una River, just a few kilometers from the present-day border with Croatia. There, in September 1941, the report said that as many as 2,000 people—men, women, and children “of the Muslim population”—were killed. Who exactly was guilty for their deaths was discussed in a few complicated, unclear sentences. The “Partisans,” who fought under communist leadership during the war, were declared not to have been responsible. Neither was any foreign army, such as the German and Italian forces, which invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April 1941 and dismembered the country. Nor was any role mentioned of “Serb” or “Croat” nationalist forces (i.e., “Chetniks” or “Ustašas”), which historians generally identify as among the main perpetrators of violence against civilians in this part of Europe during 1941–1945. Instead, the report named an amorphous group that has not figured prominently—or even at all—in most wartime histories as perpetrators: the “insurgents” or ustanici, who appeared to have been neighbors of those whom they killed. Yet strangely, in the decades after 1945 the communist authorities did not designate the approximately 2,000 victims in Kulen Vakuf as “Victims of Fascist Terror,” the category created for official civilian war victims. Thus, they were not counted among the region’s wartime dead, and no monument had been built for them. The report said that lack of clarity about what happened in Kulen Vakuf remained an ongoing “political problem.” Solving it—and finally breaking the public silence about the existence of these victims—would require clear and precise answers about the violence of 1941.

“We have to find ways to ‘walk in the shoes’ of our historical subjects,” an interview with Max Bergholz

Historian and writer Mark Thompson said in a review of your book that violence in this region is often ‘over-described’ and ‘under-explained.’ Why do you think that is? What disservice does that do to the region, the people, and the bigger questions posed by historians?

Max Bergholz: Empathy—the willingness to try and walk in the shoes of the people whose history we seek to tell—is something that historians of violence often have difficulty deploying evenly in their work. In the part of Europe I study, this means that those who do the telling of history often have in mind a very clear, almost bi-polar conception of ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ before they even begin their research. And so the reasons for violence do not require much, if any, explanation, since in the minds of those telling the history ‘those people’ have always persecuted and killed ‘our people.’ The result is often a history that is packed full of gruesome depictions of violence without explanation, creating an unchanging portrait in which monolithic groups kill other monolithic groups, or are killed by them.

In my view, this approach is irresponsible not only because it creates flawed histories by telling stories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ but also because it shies away from one of the historian’s primary responsibilities, particularly those who seek to write about extreme violence: to confront a society that has been through such upheavals with ‘uncomfortable truths,’ which can help explain the causes and dynamics of violent conflict.

What responsibility do historians have when researching and writing about violence of this kind? How did you balance your passion and engagement in the subject, and the people involved, with your responsibility as a historian?

MB: We have the responsibility to tell histories of violence without sensationalizing, trivializing, and sentimentalizing human suffering. Instead, we must keep our eyes squarely on the task of explaining how and why people in the past made the choices they did, including those that challenge our deeply-held sensibilities about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Empathy, fluent knowledge of local languages, cultures, histories, and politics, and long-term fieldwork—these elements are essential to do our work in a responsible way, i.e., in a way that respects all the people whose traumatic history we believe we can tell, while simultaneously striving to explain their often shocking and seemingly incomprehensible violent behaviour.

How do you think focusing on one town and one forty-eight hour period helped illuminate your larger questions and ideas? How did starting small help you go bigger?

MB: Telling the story of Kulen Vakuf in 1941 blossomed into a way to do much more than just better explain what took place in a small town during that fateful year. It became, in fact, a means through which to rethink fundamental assumptions about the inter-relationships among ethnicity, nationalism, and violence. By carefully excavating the history of this largely unknown corner of Europe, we discover a compelling way through which to confront a major puzzle at the epicenter of these subjects, both among scholars and among the wider public: Does ethnicity and nationalism lead to violence, as many would assume? Or can violence along perceived ethnic divides actually produce waves of ethnic identification and nationalism? The long journey to tell that intricate story of intimate killing in a small Bosnian town ultimately leads to the very heart of a globally significant challenge: How to explain the causes of intercommunal violence and its effects in multi-ethnic communities?

The story revealed that these acts of violence triggered a host of difficult-to-perceive, yet far-reaching transformations, which the lens of the local community brought into sharp focus. Some people sought to escalate killing along perceived ethnic divides while others sought just as fiercely to restrain it. The upheavals that the local killing wrought thus created new perceptions of ethnicity—of oneself, of supposed ‘brothers,’ and those perceived as ‘others.’ As a consequence, this violence forged new communities, new forms and configurations of power, and new practices of nationalism. The history of this small community was thus one marked by an unexpected burst of locally-executed violence by the few, which functioned as an immensely generative force in transforming the identities, relationships, and lives of the many.

In this way, starting small and maintaining focus at the micro level ultimately opened up much wider horizons for the analysis of fundamental questions of interest to all scholars of violence and nationalism.

Kulen Vakuf, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photo by Max Bergholz Bergholz: Telling the story of Kulen Vakuf in 1941 blossomed into a way to do much more than just better explain what took place in a small town during that fateful year.

Your title, Violence as a Generative Force, gets at your discovery of the myriad ways these events changed identities, relationships, and power structures. Why is it important to look at the aftermath beyond just the incredible trauma?

MB: Studying the aftermath of extreme intercommunal violence is crucial because the societies that emerge after so much intimate killing are fundamentally different. These differences have been underappreciated due to an unhelpful division of labour among historians and other scholars. On one hand, there are those who study violence in its myriad forms, and their work tends to conclude when the violence stops. On the other hand, there are those who study the memory of violence, and post-conflict reconstruction, and their work tends to begin after the violence stops. But the latter cannot be understood without paying close attention to the former, and especially how the experience of violence influences patterns of human belief and action long after the killing stops.

An approach I take in my book is what sociologists would call ‘eventful analysis,’ whereby we examine local conflicts to discern how unexpected events might radically and suddenly transform social relationships. By noting how local incidents can trigger collective ethnic categorization based in traumatic memories and experiences of violence, we can better understand how nationhood can rapidly become a primary lens through which people make sense of unfolding reality. Whether those who seek to fuel instances of sudden nationhood are successful depends on a host of factors like support from relatives and neighbours and the threat of sanctions from the authorities. What remains striking is the degree to which memories of local intercommunal violence, when triggered during moments of conflict, can generate sudden nationhood for decades. These concrete micro-dynamics of how people in local communities actually practice nationalism have historically been understudied and thus underappreciated in the voluminous literature on nationalism.

Do you think this book will inspire more people to look at this region in a different way, to take your approach and apply it to other regions?

MB: I hope that my book can both inspire younger scholars in the region, as well as those working elsewhere in the world, to take a different approach to the research and writing of this region’s history, especially its violent past. It is a part of Europe that, at best, would be considered by most to be of little to no importance to the study of European history. Yet my book was able to win several awards considered to be among the most prestigious in North America. This suggests that micro-level studies of any region, which seek to use very small units to study big questions in innovative and empirically rich ways, can be of use to large numbers of scholars—and not just to ‘area specialists,’ such as those who study the Balkans. The study of an incredibly complex phenomena like violence demands a multidisciplinary approach.

Much of the positive feedback that I have heard has come from scholars who do not work on the Balkans, but rather who study the history of violence in places such as Africa, the United States, and the Middle East. Uğur Ümit Üngor of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who is a historian of violence in Turkey and the wider Middle East, found that my approach and conclusions could be applied to the Syrian catastrophe in examining how multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities can turn against each other. In a book roundtable published in the journal Canadian Slavonic Papers, he wrote that my book had “done a major favour to the study of mass violence in other societies.”

What surprising discoveries did you make during the ten year process of preparing this book?

MB: At the most general level, what I continuously discovered was the importance of being receptive to counter-intuitive findings, and to avoid conflating results with causes of historical phenomena. For a long time now, much of the literature on nationalism and violence has suggested that violence erupts in societies that are deeply and antagonistically divided along ethnic lines and historical memories. Against this perception, my micro-level research confronted me with the idea that identity, nationalism, and memory are often not what caused violence to wreck the lives of so many; instead, far fewer people chose to perpetrate violence, and in so doing they created and recreated highly antagonistic forms of identity, nationalism, and memory.

What are you working on at the moment?

MB: I am currently finalizing the translation of the book for the Bosnian edition, which should be out by mid summer 2018. While a handful of individuals in the region have read the English version, its translation and publication by the major Bosnian publisher Buybook will now bring my telling of this history into the hands of readers not only in Bosnia-Herzegovna, but also in Croatia and Serbia.

This first book left me with a number of questions, some of which I want to explore in future research projects. Why does mass killing happen in some communities, but not in others, despite their similar histories and geographical proximity? To answer this question, I am now researching and writing a history of four local communities in the Independent State of Croatia during 1941. They all had mixed ethnic structures and little history of inter-ethnic violence prior to that year. But their histories diverged sharply during the summer of 1941: two experienced enormous levels of violence, while the others—located close by—remained peaceful. These communities provide excellent sites through which to account for the broader puzzle of subnational variation in inter-ethnic violence.

Learn more about Max Bergholz.

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