A Papal Apology: the cultural context of a public apology

From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1
From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

Students at Blue Quills Residential School, Alberta, Canada, 1940. From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

 

By Marieke Zoodsma –

 

Not only President Trump took the opportunity of the G7 summit in Italy to meet the highest leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, also met with the pontiff in the Vatican last week where they, according to the Vatican Press Office, talked about themes of integration and reconciliation. That the pope and the Canadian PM discuss such topics during a meeting is not coincidental: the Catholic Church played an important role in the Canadian residential school system that abused indigenous children for over a century. The legacy of this residential school system is one of the major obstacles for reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous communities. Thus, as part of moving forward in the reconciliation process, Trudeau came to Vatican to ask for one thing: an official apology from the Catholic Church.

 

The Canadian residential schools were part of the Indian Act, set up by the Canadian government in the 1880s, and mandated education for indigenous children. This education would take place in boarding schools, away from the children’s homes, and would subject them to forced conversion and abuse. The system was based on the assumption that indigenous spirituality and communities were inferior and unequal, captured in the infamous phrase “to kill the Indian in the child” – a policy that has been argued to constitute cultural genocide. The last residential school closed in 1996.

 

These schools were often set up in partnership with the Church. In the 1930s, some 80 residential schools were operating across the country, of which 44 were run by Roman Catholics, 21 by the Church of England (now the Anglican Church of Canada), 13 by the United Church of Canada, and 2 by Presbyterians. The crucial role of the Church in this schooling system has been thoroughly examined by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where one of the most important outcomes was that a formal papal apology is necessary for genuine reconciliation to move forward (TRC Report – Call to Action paragraph 58). Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized in name of the Canadian government in 2008. From the 1990s onwards, the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches have issued, through a moderate who spoke for the whole Church, a formal apology. One article on the matter of the papal apology read: “Formal apologies have also been made by the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, which also ran some of the schools. The previous pontiff, Pope Benedict, met with survivor of the system Phil Fontaine in 2009, but did not formally apologize. Instead, he shared his ‘sorrow’ and ‘sympathy’.”

 

This is where the interesting twist lies: what does it exactly mean to formally, officially and publicly apologize? Are there certain rules that it should abide by, and are these universally accepted? Many scholars argue that a ‘correct’ apology should consist of several factors: an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the acceptance of responsibility, an expression of remorse, the promise of non-repetition, and the apology needs to be sincere. However, this assumes a check-list approach to political apologies – an approach that can be seen to decontextualize the phenomenon. An apology is a social performance that is aimed to restore a temporarily broken relationship – in the case of political apologies that between the perpetrator state and the victims –, a relationship that is broken through the violation of a shared moral code. This shared moral code (the norms and values of a culture), the social relationship (intergroup contact) that is violated, and the social performance (an apology) are all culturally and situationally grounded concepts. In other words: whether or not an apology can be – or is – successful, depends on the cultural context. Is it even possible for a head of state to sincerely apologize, and what form does this take within different communities? What is the framing of the apology; who is the spokesperson (actor), what is the setting (stage), what are the exact words used (content)?

 

It is intriguing that one of the most powerful and famous apologies that has been offered in our so-called age of apology does not contain any words: the genuflection of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970. The Kniefall of the German chancellor at the memorial for the Jewish Uprising in Warsaw was the first symbolic public representation of German guilt and opened the way for new forms of collective remembrance. It was a gestural social performance that expressed a feeling of remorse, repentance, and acknowledged Germany’s past as a perpetrator. Our guest writer Renate Vink argued in her article: “… what the Warschauer Kniefall teaches is that we cannot simply dismiss the value and potential of such gestures or apologies by merely looking at our current (political) circumstances”. To understand the salient impact of the Kniefall, the cultural meaning attributed to this non-verbal performance needs to be taken into account. Such a gesture might not work in a different situation, with different actors, and in a different culture.

 

The report of the TRC reads: “An official apology constitutes a public admission that acceptable societal norms and values have been violated and that, as a result, civic trust has been broken.” An acknowledgment of past suffering by the highest leader of the Catholic church can be an important driving force for reconciliation on a social and cultural level – once offered to meet the criteria of the Indigenous culture. It is therefore that Trudeau specifically asked the pope to come to Canada to offer his apology in name of the church. Indigenous people document their histories through oral-based tradition, including the official recording of apologies made in order to rectify suffering. If the Vatican is honest and willing to transform its relationship with Canada’s indigenous people and to come to terms with the dark pages of its past, the church must understand and respect the Indigenous people’s own concepts of reconciliation.

 

Film Review: A Good Wife – The Family Life of a War Criminal

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

 

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)


By Koen Kluessien and Marieke Zoodsma 

 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing (moving) images from the wars in the former Yugoslavia are those shot on the so-called Scorpion Tape. The tape is named after the paramilitary unit that produced the video, Škorpioni – who curiously named themselves after their favorite weapon, the Škorpion vz. 61 machine pistol. The Scorpions, founded in 1991, were a Serbian nationalist paramilitary group consisting of several hundred armed groups who were involved in multiple combat operations during the wars. The full-length 2-hour tape depicts the activities of the unit between 1994 and 1995, with the Trnovo murders in July 1995 as its disturbing climax. It shows how members of the unit transport six Bosniak men who were captured after the fall of Srebrenica, physically and mentally abuse them, and finally execute them. In Serbia, where a culture of denial about (Serbia’s involvement in) the war crimes is widespread, the video caused huge commotion after it was made public in 2005 during the trial of Slobodan Milošević, leading to several arrests of those Scorpion members captured on the tape.


So, one might ask, who kept the tape for all these years? Who knew about its existence and why did that person come forward with it after ten years? A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)
, one of the featured films of the Movies that Matter Film Festival 2016 and now On Tour, questions such as these are cleverly intertwined in the storyline. The film shows the family life of one of the members of the Scorpion unit, several years after the war. It is reminiscent of the ordinary life of a mobster that is told in the HBO series The Sopranos, in which the story focuses on the criminal activity of mafioso Tony Soprano but primarily aims to depict the everyday life of his family. This is also the aim of A Good Wife: instead of outlining the life of Serbian paramilitary Vlado (who even has an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano: fat, slightly balding, and with an appearance that breathes authority) it focuses on his wife Milena. The film asks the question what the family members of a paramilitary – or a mobster for that matter – know, and more importantly, want to know.


According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, this paradox of both knowing and not-knowing lies at the heart of the concept of denial (read here Marieke’s article on current day examples of denial and Koen’s article on genocide denial by Serbian politicians). Denial is intrinsically partial as some information is always registered. What is important is what one does with that information. Milena knows her husband was in the military during the war and we see her watching the news about the aftermath of the mass atrocities committed by Serbian units. However, she does not ask him any questions, not even when she sees him getting heavily agitated after watching a human rights activist comment on the war crimes on the television. She has a suspicion but does not have an “enquiring mind”, as Stanley Cohen would call it.


Alienation and demonization are often heard reactions to distance oneself from the cruel actions of perpetrators of mass atrocities. It is easier to see perpetrators of mass violence as intrinsically evil people. They can thereby remain the so-called “Other”; something that stands so far from us that we do not truly have to understand it. A Good Wife excellently depicts the opposite. It provides the audience with a unique insight into the ordinary life of a war criminal, when the violence is over and life turns back to “normal”. Yes, Vlado is easily annoyed, has a bad relationship with his eldest (progressive) daughter, and is still an overt believer of the nationalist Serbian cause – but furthermore comes across as the average husband. We see him buying jewelry for Milena’s birthday, sitting at the head of the dinner table, and going out together with friends. As the film progresses, however, coping techniques cannot hold back his lingering trauma and it starts to affect his family life.


The key scene in the storyline of A Good Wife is the moment when Milena finds a copy of the Scorpion tape in one of her husband’s drawers. Unaware of what the tape actually contains, she turns it on and sees her husband and his comrades commit the above-described crimes. Heavily upset she turns it off. The leading question of the film remains, now that she cannot deny the involvement of her husband in these crimes, what will she do with the evidence?

 

The actual Scorpion tape was found by Nataša Kandić, a human rights activist from Belgrade, who tracked down one of the Scorpion members that was in possession of the tape. There had been twenty copies, but when Slobodan Medić Boca (the commander of the Scorpions) realized that the images could be used against him, he ordered the destruction of the footage. However, one Scorpion who was not present at the executions and did not have good relations with his former comrades made an extra copy and hid it in Bosnia. On the same day, the tape was sent to the Special Prosecutor for War Crimes in Belgrade and to the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY. When the video was played in Serbia, it was the first time Serbia was confronted with a crime committed by Serb forces in Bosnia.

 

Serbian politicians later acknowledged the crime. At that point it seemed like the Serbian “state of denial” was about to change and Serbians would be ready to deal with their past. Indeed, many people still give credit to the tape for “sending shockwaves through society”. Unfortunately, the truth is slightly different. Quickly the discourse changed back to usual statements showing the unwillingness to confront the past. The taped killings were relativized by pointing out crimes committed against Serbs that were still unpunished. When asked why the video had not had more effect, Dejan Anastasijević, a journalist for the newspaper Vreme, responded: “Public opinion [has been] cemented by now – it’s been 10 years. All I can say is that the capability of the human mind of refusing to face unpleasant facts keeps on amazing me”.

 

A Good Wife depicts the family life of a war criminal as if they were your neighbors. Hopefully, it will also prove to be not only a thought provoking film filled with well-written symbolism and moving actors but also a step forward in taking down the wall of denial in Serbia.

 

 

Different Shades of Denial: are the White House and the German far right relativizing the Holocaust?

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

 

January is an important month for those involved in Holocaust remembrance; the 27th of January, the day that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a month in which events are organised that involve Holocaust remembrance or topics related to the crimes of the Nazi regime, such as the Nooit Meer Auschwitz lecture in Amsterdam. It is also a month in which politicians engage in public statements regarding (the commemoration of) the Holocaust and the Second World War. However, it is also in the realm of politics where genocide, be it the Holocaust or any other, can become a dangerously fluid, unclear and undefined concept. Lobbyists, activists, and politicians from all different sides of the political spectrum use the term for their own agenda, thereby often (wilfully?) misinterpreting the facts. I will point out two examples.


At a speech in Dresden
on the 17th of January, Björn Höcke, a politician from the German right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), labelled the Berlin Holocaust memorial a ‘monument of shame’. Höcke, a former history teacher, said; “Until now, our mental state continues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”. General outrage from within as well as outside Germany followed as Höcke was being condemned for his statement as being anti-Semitic and a demagogue. One way or another, it is highly questionable if a political figure should engage in such inflammatory comments on (the remembrance of) a not-so-long-ago history. Perhaps his political agenda guided him otherwise.


The United States White House commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a statement. The statement reads: “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”. Here too the statement was followed by astonishment since it did not include Jews, Judaism or antisemitism. Jonathan Freedlander commented in The Guardian: “The Nazis were broad in their hatred, targeting Roma, gay people and disabled people, as well as socialists, communists and many others. But any full account of that period begins with the recognition that Jews were singled out for total eradication.”. According to professor Deborah Lipstadt, whose story on Holocaust denial is intriguingly depicted in the film Denial, it is a form of classic “softcore denial” of the Holocaust. According to Lipstadt, the statement is not necessarily denying the facts but it minimizes them; arguing that the Jews as a group were not particularly targeted for destruction. This way, the Holocaust is de-Judaized.


Denial comes in many shapes and forms. The deaths in a genocide can for instance be rationalized as a result of an ‘age old conflict’ (as the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić did during the Bosnian war), or the statistics can be questioned or minimized. A common form of denial, especially among lawyers and politicians, is the claim that what is going on is not genocide. It is a definitional argument of which the United States State Department employees were fully aware when they drafted a memo in May 1994 (during the Rwandan genocide) saying; “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something’”. Different actors can deny certain things from having happened, from individual politicians to states – such as Turkey denying the Armenian genocide.


In the described statements, Holocaust denial or not, politicians are venturing out onto a slippery slope. Where the German politician Höcke can be said to trivialize the remembrance of the Holocaust, the United States government is minimizing the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. As with many historical events – and perhaps especially commemorations – the Holocaust is being used for political agendas. Höcke, in the face of the refugee crisis and the recent terrorist attack in Berlin, might want to construct the image of a unified glorious German people to build on a better and brighter future instead of a defeated people with a shameful past. The motives for the United States might be focussed on combating the Jews “special pleading” over the Holocaust.


The sociologist Stanley Cohen offers an interesting perspective in his influential work States of Denial (2001). Trying to answer the question “how could people simultaneously know and not know about certain matters?”, Cohen argues that there seem to be “states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and we don’t know at the same time”. The language that was being used during the extermination process is hereby an important aspect. The euphemisms, or language rules, that were deployed in the extermination process made it possible to deny what was actually happening; “the victims of Nazi atrocities were ‘deported’ to ‘work camps’ for ‘special actions’”. The meaning of the Holocaust is hereby simultaneously literally denied and one can thus claim it did not happen – during but also afterwards the genocide itself.


These language rules that are being used to literally deny and thereby reject the actual meaning of the Holocaust sound awkwardly reminiscent to the “alternative facts” (“falsehoods”, or in other words: denying the truth) of the new Trump administration. And we venture out further on that slippery slope…

 

Srebrenica Remembered: 21 Years Later

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre, July 2015. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

Yesterday, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and others all over the world remembered the genocide that took place in Srebrenica – a small town in Eastern Bosnia – in July 1995. As much as Srebrenica used to be famous for its thermal spa resorts in Yugoslav times, it is now known to the world as the place where one of the worst atrocities after the Second World War in the European mainland has taken place. During those dreadful days, approximately 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the days following the fall of Srebrenica. Under the auspices of an UN peace-force, which was there to protect the large Bosnian Muslim population that sought refuge in and around town, the troops of Ratko Mladić carefully sorted out the men from the women – the men to be executed in the nearby fields or warehouses and the women to be bussed to the Bosnian Muslim safe area around Tuzla.

 

Of the estimated 8.000 victims of the genocide, so far only 6.615 bodies have been identified and buried at the Potočari Memorial Centre. Each year new mass graves are found from which the bodies are exhumed and identified. In case of a positive identification, these victims are traditionally buried by their families during the mass funeral that is part of the commemoration on the 11th of July. This year 127 victims were brought to their final resting place. The fact that this process of searching the lost is already taking over twenty years is not only because of the time-consuming task the exhumation and identification of bodies from mass graves take, but also because many mass graves simply have not been localised yet. As I wrote before, the mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location.

 

Last year, WHN-colleague Koen Kluessien and I visited the commemoration in Srebrenica – during its 20th “anniversary”.  Srebrenica and its surroundings were for a couple of days the stage of an international media circus, with the coffins of the victims and the tears of their families as perfect attributes for clean shots. During last year’s ceremony, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić was chased away by a stone-throwing crowd because he – as well as many other Serbian officials – refused to acknowledge the massacre as genocide. This year, families of the victims demanded that those who deny the nature of the crime were not to be invited at the ceremony. As a result, no official from Belgrade or the Serbian part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) came. Quarrels such as these turn the ceremony each year into a political game.

 

The events that happened in Srebrenica do not only keep a large part of the former Yugoslavia busy, but also those countries that were back then closely involved. Commemorations are being held in the United States, memorial sites are set up in the United Kingdom, law suits are started in the Netherlands against those that are deemed co-responsible, and investigations are conducted to shed more light on those crucial days in July. In March this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced ‘big fish’ Radovan Karadzić to forty years’ imprisonment in Europe’s biggest war crime trial since Nuremberg. The judgement clearly states Karadzić’s direct involvement in the killings:

 

“As the President of the RS [Republika Srpska, MZ] and Supreme Commander of the VRS [Army of the Republika Srpska, MZ], the Accused was the sole person within the RS with the power to intervene to prevent the Bosnian Muslim males from being killed. Yet far from intervening to prevent the killings from taking place at all, the Accused himself ordered that the Bosnian Muslim male detainees who were then being held in Bratunac be transferred elsewhere to be killed; they were then taken to Zvornik and killed.”
Karadzić’ Judgement Summary, 24 March 2016, p. 13

 

Karadzić’s appeal is currently under the jurisdiction of the Mechanism for International Tribunals, the follow-up of both the Yugoslav and the Rwandan tribunals.

 

For the people of Srebrenica, life goes on as a divided town under poor economic and social conditions (Bosnia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world: 42%), with many abandoned skeletons of houses of those who didn’t return. Last year, I asked a restaurant owner – who earned his year income only during the commemoration – about his thoughts on the turmoil, media circus and political games that were being played. He told me: “We can turn Srebrenica into a museum which will only be opened around the 11th of July, that’s fine. But then we have to decide that that is the course we want to take”. That is what is happening now in Srebrenica.

 

“Our Political Frankenstein Constitution” – The Dayton Agreements Twenty Years Later

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords.

 

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords. 14 December 1995

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords – 14 December 1995 – Picture taken by: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Schlumbohm

 

By Marieke Zoodsma

 

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements, which ended the wars in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. It was November 1995 when the peace conference took place in Dayton, Ohio, and where the representatives of the parties to the conflict (see the image above) were coerced by mediators to participate. Coerced, because none of the parties really wanted to participate nor really got what they wanted. The Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, fought for a unified state, while the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats both fought to annex those parts of the Bosnian territory that respectively were believed to belong to Serbia or Croatia. The compromise that was made decided that 49 % of the Bosnian territory remained Serbian (the Republika Srpska) and 51% would belong to the Bosniak-Croat federation – thereby cementing the country’s divisions among ethnic lines, as this infographic shows.

 

Although Dayton did put an end to the fighting in Bosnia, an ‘uneasy cease-fire’ is perhaps a more apt description of the circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. It is ‘a truce’, enforced at a crucial moment by the international community – and the military power of NATO. Or, as Ɖermana Šeta – one of my research respondents in Bosnia – firmly stated, “our main problem is our political Frankenstein constitution”. When I was doing fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013, many of my respondents would refer to this problematic political constitution as being a serious obstacle to the rebuilding of Bosnian society and the reconciliation process. Dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation was often voiced by my respondents. This discontent was exemplified during last year’s protests in many of Bosnia’s greater cities. The official unemployment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina is around forty percent, with over 57% youth unemployment. Shady privatization schemes have left thousands of workers jobless and pensions have dropped while the wages of Bosnia’s many bureaucrats have grown.

 

One of the most obvious explanations for this general dismay with the current state of affairs in Bosnia is the overly bureaucratic political system that is implemented through Dayton. To begin with, Bosnia has a tripartite presidency with each of the three members being from the constituent nations. They are in charge of foreign affairs, diplomatic and military affairs and the budget of state-level institutions. However,  many important subjects such as the educational system, healthcare or police affairs are being decided on at the entity level. Since competing memories of the war and a profound lack of trust still run strong between the three ethnic groups, an elaborate system of political control ensures that each ethnic group has a veto. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ten cantonal governments were created under which 142 municipalities were established. The 3,8 million citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are thereby governed by 168 ministries consisting of 70,000 employees on four governing-levels. Time has shown that this system is not only highly expensive but also completely ineffective for governing.

 

The ineffectiveness of this system for governing is exemplified country’s educational system. In the Republika Srpska, school curricula is decided on at the entity-level and in the Federation, the courses and content offered differ per canton. Which classes are offered, what the content of these classes is, or how it is being taught can therefore vary on one’s geographical location within the country. One of the most devastating effects of this policy, as this article fittingly describes, is the “two schools under one roof” system in the Bosnian-Croat Federation, whereby students of different ethnicity are kept completely separate during their education. Bosniaks enter the school through a different door than the Bosnian Croats, they are taught in different classrooms and receive different curricula – particularly with regards to the wars of the 1990s.

 

For my research into the reconciliation process in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I interviewed a high-school teacher at his school in Sanski Most, northeast Bosnia. During this meeting with him, I asked if he ever talks about the war during his classes. He firmly responded: “No, I do not talk about the war in class. That topic is too sensitive. … You never know how people are going to react”. Since he had just told me that ‘dialogue is the future’ and that it is the only way to ‘give up weapons and avoid violence’, I was confused with his answer. Recognizing his contradictory answers and thus having trouble to find words, the teacher tells me that he does not feel comfortable speaking about the war since he is afraid the students will misunderstand him:

 

Unfortunately the problem is, maybe even in the West, school is not the same as life. So within the walls of the school, some things are losing because you cannot express them as you wish. Maybe outside the school in some sessions, when you do not have to think about some things because there are some laws or some rules. … I had a situation that when you speak about something, that children misinterpreted it. It is too early I think. You speak about something, but every child accepts that a little differently.

 

Commentators praise Dayton for its effectiveness of creating peace in the violent political stalemate that the countries of the former Yugoslavia ended up in. According to British politician Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative of Bosnia; “Dayton was regarded as an outstanding international agreement … and many now look at Syria, and think Dayton might be a model for that war-torn country.” Dayton, in the end, has left Bosnia and Herzegovina in a political, economic and socially divisive malaise. And now, twenty years later, Bosnians want more. After the first steps towards rebuilding their livelihood have been taken, the Bosnians want a functioning country. And yes, European Union membership.