cover image of Impressions from the Tenth European Remembrance Symposium project

    Impressions from the Tenth European Remembrance Symposium

    What is reconciliation? Does it have a common path? What roles have grassroots initiatives played in the processes of reconciliation, within and between nations? 

    These and other questions were posed during the tenth edition of the European Remembrance Symposium. The symposium is an annual project of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, which facilitates the exchange of contacts, experiences and ideas between academics, educators and professionals engaged in culture and NGO sectors dealing with history education and memory politics across Europe. Reconciliation, the theme of this year’s edition, was a particularly timely topic since the meeting took place not only against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, but also in the wake of historic election results in Northern Ireland. These circumstances were on the minds of all participants when they met between 1 and 3 June in Dublin, where the ENRS and its Irish partner, the Glencree Centre for Peace & Reconciliation, co-organised the event. 

    The opening day of the symposium focused on examining past efforts to establish a rapprochement between historically conflicted sides, looking for similarities, differences and lessons to be learned. The first discussion saw representatives of a diverse group of non-governmental actors and diplomats, which included Piotr Cywiński, Monica McWilliams, Markus Meckel and Teodor Meleșcanu, discuss their past experiences of working towards reconciliation at the turn of the 21st century. These valuable first-hand recollections was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Paul Ingendaay with participants Robert Gerwarth, Yaroslav Hrytsak, Howard Varney and Ernest Wyciszkiewicz. It sought to define a theoretical framework for future discussions by deliberating on the concept of reconciliation itself and its different historical models. The first day of the symposium ended with a series of 90-second- long ‘turbopresentations’, during which the representatives of almost 20 institutions presented their past, present and future projects at lightning speed. The second day began with a discussion in which Valérie Rosoux, Juraj Marušiak, Sinéad McCoole and Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik followed up on many of the issues raised the previous day. They offered typologies of violence that necessitate reconciliation processes and explored the different actors who participate in peacebuilding efforts. The shift from the state-level perspective touched on in the morning session was revisited in the second panel of the day. During this session practitioners, such as Beata Drzazga, Barbara Walshe, Tiberiu Ciorba, Weronika Czyżewska-Poncyliusz, Roisin McGlone, Tamara Pomoriški, Marek Szajda and Vesna Teršelič, gave an overview of the educational and social projects they facilitate in the area of reconciliation. The final day of the symposium saw the return to more theoretical discussions. First, a panel of scholars, comprising Sergei Metlev, Donald Bloxham, Peter Shirlow, Emir Suljagić and Tibor Toró, examined the differences between reconciliation processes in Western and Eastern Europe. Following on from that, a round-table discussion, involving Valerie Bistany, Almudena Cruz Yabár, Joanne Fitzpatrick, Karoline Gil, Audrey Whitty and Dariusz Karłowicz, focused on the role sports and art can play in the processes of reconciliation.

    Three days of discussions, both on stage and during coffee breaks, brought opportunities for participants to present their ongoing projects, find new partners and reflect on the state of peacebuilding processes in European and global contexts. The following impressions focus on just some of the many recurring themes of the symposium.

    Charting the roads taken 

    As the title of the symposium presents the image of reconciliation as a long and winding path, much effort was given to charting the roads taken in the past, either to mark the dead ends or offer some guidance for future peacebuilders. Be it speaking from personal experience or in an attempt to historicise the phenomenon, participants pointed out that most of the reconciliation processes of the 20th-century Europe were spearheaded by intellectual networks. Through a long dialogue, aimed at understanding each other's mutually complicated history, comes the a broad repertoire of the reconciliatory narratives and gestures. 

    These, in turn, can be utilised by state actors, when political and social factors are conducive to such efforts. While many participants highlighted the powerful effect that gestures made by heads of state, such as Willy Brandt and Nelson Mandela, had on reconciliation processes, the individual agency of statesmen were combined with larger economic and political developments. Most notably, as it was observed during the symposium, the unfolding of European integration was closely entwined with historical reconciliations, both facilitating them and being facilitated by them. Nevertheless, while common political and economic interests often bring countries together, they do not have to underpin the process of joint reflection on a difficult common past – as illustrated by Korean-Japanese relations. 

    The discussion on state-led diplomatic processes and gestures gave the participants an opportunity to emphasise, sometimes very directly, that formal diplomatic and legal acts, including treaties of peace or friendship, are not the end goal of reconciliation processes. In fact, reflecting on their own involvement in mending the conflicted societies of Northern Ireland and South Africa, Monica McWilliams and Howard Varney cautioned against focusing solely on the political and legal aspects of such formal agreements. Instead these acts are just a starting point for long-term programmes to achieve deep social reconciliation, and as such should set out and communicate a clear strategy for reaching that point. Peacebuilding, as the participants of the symposium repeatedly discussed, is largely about establishing trust. Thus not delivering after making promises of truth and justice can have dire consequences: breaking that trust leads to an emotional backlash and further trauma for affected individuals and communities.

    Diversity of violence, diversity of actors

    Another important conclusion reached by the discussants, who drew on their diverse backgrounds, expertise and experiences, was that there cannot be one roadmap towards reconciliation, as the term itself escapes easy definition. This is not surprising given that the rapprochement examples discussed included the Good Friday Agreement and German-Polish reconciliation. While most of the participants agreed that the fundamental precondition of reconciliation is the willingness of both sides of the conflict to work as partners, the unfolding of the process is highly dependent on context. As Valérie Rosoux pointed out, different kinds of violence – be it international conflict, civil war, colonial violence or genocide – require different approaches when being addressed during the peacebuilding process. This situation can be even further complicated by the fact that many of the conflicts feature multiple types of violence meted out or received by a wide range of social actors.

    Participants also discussed the diversity of institutions that can be involved in reconciliation processes. From ministries to local museums, from community theatres to publishing houses, from student exchange programmes to religious congregations – all have the capacity to build bridges between different communities. The wide network of multiple actors in the peace-seeking dialogue truly speaks to the efforts required to heal the wounds of a troubled history. In fact discussants often appealed for modest approaches to reconciliation, underlining the need for time and patience.

    The multitudes of possible participants, both in the preceding conflict and latter reconciliation processes, gave rise to a different and interesting strand of discussion at the symposium, exploring the question of the appropriate level of state and non-state involvement in bringing about a dialogue between conflicting sides. In particular the role of the state in peace-making processes was imagined very differently by participants of the conference. For example, Piotr Cywiński pointed out that states excel in creating easy-to-use but one-dimensional symbols and memory narratives, but reconciliation requires a polyphony of voices that capture the diverse experiences of past violence. These are better represented by the grassroots efforts of individuals, networks and institutions close to the affected communities. The role of bottom-up initiatives was also highlighted by Valérie Rosoux, who nevertheless posited that despite their key role, these efforts require the state to provide more institutional support if they are to have a lasting effect. At the other end of the spectrum, Emir Suljagić argued that the state is most effective at bringing about a rapprochement within society. As he himself admitted, the Eastern European experience shows that the state can be largely seen as a perpetrator of the past violence, and because of this is responsible for mending social cohesion. 

    Finally, as a member of the audience pointed out during one of the discussions, new communication possibilities opened up by the internet and social media have most likely radically changed the way in which we should approach reconciliation. Indeed, discussants recognised the challenges posed by these new forms of connection, and how they can undermine traditional authorities – be it state or academia – and bring about the increasing fragmentation of the societies and memories. At the same time, the pluralisation of the available narratives echoes some of the participants' call for more polyphonic visions of the complicated past, while the digitalisation of archival materials enables greater democratic access to historical material. Although the role of the historian may be changing, we should continue to fight for the relevance of academic history and not abandon traditional methods. 

    In an attempt to conclude, the participants of the tenth edition of the European Remembrance Symposium repeatedly highlighted that if there is one practice that really helps bring about reconciliation, it is the personal experience of the 'other'. Exchange programmes, for secondary-school pupils, university students and professionals; joint cultural projects; team sports that engage school pupils across ethnic and sectarian divisions; and even intellectual contacts mediated through translated media are all incremental steps on the long and winding path towards peace. The symposium itself, now a decade old, can be seen as one such initiative. Thus, even if those three June days raised more questions than it answered, the opportunities for intellectual dialogue and the exchange of ideas it provided should surely be seen as part of those long but ever-urgent processes of reconciliation. 

    Michał Machalski