Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

There is by now a well-established conventional view about the eruptions of ethnic hatred in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet empire. This view holds that these are the result of age-old enmities, which were held under control by the various Communist regimes and thus for a time, at least in some places, were barely visible. The hatred was preserved, as it were, in amber or under ice. As the Communist regimes collapsed—the amber broken, the ice melting—the ancient ethnic passions came to life again, perhaps gaining particular new ferocity because of the long period of repression.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, of course, is supposed to be the prime example of this phenomenon. There, in the heart of the Balkans, ethnic and religious animosities go back many centuries, back to the struggles between Latin and Orthodox Christians, and between Christianity and Islam. The three religio-ethnic groups currently engaged in the war over Bosnia derive their national aspirations and indeed their very identities from these old struggles, without which what is now going on in this unhappy territory would make no sense at all. The rival groups are indistinguishable by either race or language, and it is doubtful whether religious beliefs as such have much to do with the antagonism either. None of the three groups shows signs of great religious fervor. The religious affiliations are “markers”: to be “Orthodox” means to be “Serb,” which means not to be “Latin” (“Croat”) or “Muslim” (“Turk,” as that term went earlier in this century). One could almost imagine that, say, hair color would do just as well to mark off one group against another. An outside observer might conclude that all of this bloodshed is completely meaningless, an outbreak of madness-unless, that is, this observer is informed as to the ancient history that, supposedly, explains it all.

How much of this view holds up? As with most conventional theories, this one has some supporting evidence. There can be no doubt about the venerable lineage of the homicidal rivalries in the region. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Muslims had indeed been slaughtering each other with enthusiasm for centuries, and the memory of these massacres was maintained in legends and folk songs. One could say, then, that the hatred was always “at hand.”

But there is also some inconvenient counter-evidence to the theory of frozen hatred. Many reports from two periods point to remarkably amicable relations among the three Bosnian groups. One is the period 1878 to 1918, when the territory was ruled by Austria-Hungary, which was not a notably repressive regime. The other was the period between 1945 and the breakup of Yugoslavia. This is not to say that there were not some nasty prejudices voiced now and then. But the old passions appeared to have been thoroughly tamed—analogously, say, to the antagonism between Southerners and Yankees in twentieth-century America. Perhaps the best evidence for this in the Tito period is the high rate of intermarriage, especially in the cities.

The conventional theory must propose that this amity was “not real,” was “only superficial.” Conversely, the “reality” was the hatred smoldering “underneath,” in the depths of the collective memory. Perhaps. But there is nothing compelling about this interpretation. It assumes a relation between apparent amity and latent hatred somewhat comparable to the relation between the conscious and the unconscious in Freudian psychology. The analogy is unconvincing, and in any case, the assumption invites a counter-theory: The amity and the hatred are equally real; which of the two comes to the fore is subject to political manipulation, which is capable of converting emotions “at hand” into motives for aggressive action. Thus, despite all the archaeology of hatred that Balkan historians are regaling us with, what is going on in Bosnia today can best be understood as an altogether novel phenomenon.

The two conflicting interpretations of the Bosnian situation derive from alternate understandings of history. The first derives from what might be called the ancient curse theory of history. Thus one can explain modern Anglo-Saxon individualism by the landholding arrangements of medieval England, the political systems of Latin America by the constitution of Old Castille, and the Japanese economic miracle by the brand of Confucianism adopted by the samurai caste. The second interpretation comes from what might be called an adult education theory of history. The past counts, to be sure, and there are potent memories. But the past can also be forgotten, and adults are quite capable of striking out in altogether new directions.

The two theories of history can be translated into two discrepant views of the human individual. The first implies a “depth psychology” (not necessarily Freudian), which proposes to explain human actions by the power of memory. However, a very different psychology is possible. It would be skeptical about these alleged “depths” and would hold that human existence is mostly lived “on the surface”; that the realissimum is the superficial world of everyday life, and the rest is dreams, cloudy intuitions, and intimations, with a doubtful status of reality. It follows from this latter psychology that, given certain circumstances, human beings are capable of rapid and radical change. Perhaps the best evidence for this view comes from the annals of religious conversion. Many an ancient curse has been dramatically liquidated on the road to Damascus.

In all likelihood the truth lies somewhere in between. Archaic passions may indeed live on “below the surface,” both for individuals and collectivities. But the arrangements built “on top of” them—that is, the “surfaces” that try to bury the old memories—are no less real for that, and there are social and political institutions to keep this reality going, as there are social and political actions to break it down. Thus it is not difficult to imagine a course of events following the breakup of Yugoslavia that would have led to a very different situation today. The emergence of a different political leadership in Serbia and in Croatia would have been the most likely cause of such a different development. As might even now be the imposition by force of a new “surface”—by the NATO powers taking over the role played by Austria-Hungary in 1878.

I'm not sure that such an alternative view is in the nature of good news. Old memories can be evil, but so can novel actions. Old enemies can become friends, but good neighbors can turn into mass murderers, and both conversions can occur overnight. Santayana was almost certainly wrong with his famous dictum to the effect that those who will not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Human beings are capable of splendid feats of forgetfulness, be it for better or for worse. But one could paraphrase Santayana: Those who want to pretend that their intended actions are fate will remember (or, if necessary, invent) those bits of history that make it seem that way. On balance, I think, this is bad news. In the case of Bosnia, and in many similar situations, a humane outcome would have to be based on a massive loss of historical memory.

Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift