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Coming to Terms with a Dark Past. How Post-Conflict Societies Deal with History.

Coming to Terms with a Dark Past. How Post-Conflict Societies Deal with History, by Sirkka Ahonen. Frankfurt am Main, New York and Oxford, Peter Lang, 2012. 181 pp. $48.95 US (paper), $48.95 US (e-book).

This book builds upon studies on transitional justice and competing victim-hood to focus on historical specificity and, in so doing, analyze how Finland, South Africa, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have dealt with the challenges posed by post-conflict reconciliation. The selection of these case studies stems from Ahonen's persuasion that each of these countries exemplifies a paradigmatic type of conflict (between classes, racial, and ethnic groups respectively) and can thus provide a unique insight as to the reasons behind long-lasting social divisions, as well as the factors that may ultimately help to overcome them.

The author opens the discussion by drawing attention to the terminology used in the book, stressing that Halbwachs's notion of collective memory should be subsumed under the concept of "social memory" which recognizes the existence of identity needs and helps to separate "us" from "the other." This line of reasoning prompts Ahonen to posit post-conflict societies as likely to break social memory up into stories of guilt and victimhood and to suggest that the narratives articulated by competing groups "tend to be exclusive rather than inclusive" (p. 15). Undoubtedly, this problematic process has the potential to paralyze post-conflict societies, for it can hinder reconstruction and make the peaceful coexistence of plural narratives of the national past unlikely to occur. This becomes painfully evident when one takes into account the ethical dimension inherent in social memory (with moral judgments being placed on the intentions of past actors) and the trans-generational nature of historical justice (with the older generations expecting their descendants to right past wrongs).

The book continues with a reflection on the manner in which the three countries under scrutiny sought to redress past injustices. It highlights the fact that despite choosing rather different approaches--Finland exacted justice on the first post-conflict generation, South Africa opted for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which demonstrated the effectiveness of ubuntu), while Bosnia-Herzegovina left the handling of the perpetrators to the judiciary--none of them succeeded in implementing the right combination of socio-cultural activities that are "necessary for the deconstruction of the myths inherent in public memory" (p. 19). According to Ahonen, this failure is usually the cause of contemporary history wars whose main goal is to challenge the validity of previously accepted symbolic narratives and, in so doing, reshape public memory in a manner that reflects changes in power relations.

In this context, the teaching of history plays a crucial role. Ahonen's study of post-conflict societies does a good job of demonstrating how harmful one-sided versions of a country's past can be. It is this very recognition that in turn explains why attempts to control social memory by means of manipulating school curricula from above have become the target of mounting criticism in so many countries across the world. Partisan narratives are not only believed to be inherently insulting to the memory of the victims, but are also likely to perpetuate the very type of societal divisions that prevent the articulation of a shared interpretation of the national past. The sources examined by Ahonen clearly support this view. In particular, school textbooks are very effective in confirming the existence of a "guilt-and-victimization talk" and in detailing the broad range of tropes used to vilify the enemy or rebut its accusations.

Thus, the main weakness of this book is the fact that, despite the author's efforts, the reader is often left to wonder whether the analysis provided has the depth and reach that one would expect from a text comparing three case-studies as interesting and diverse as the ones examined. Recurring tropes are often discussed in a superficial manner (for example, there are repeated mentions of the Old Testament, yet no real engagement with the episodes cited and how they were relevant for the victimized group or those who believed that a parallel should have been drawn), while claims in connection with the usage of specific terms such as "robbers" or "blood suckers," which are presented as "morally loaded" and influenced by "Marxist theory" (pp. 65-6), rest heavily on supposition, without any elaboration as to whether they might have already been used in pre-1918 Finland. Indeed, one of the book's most worrisome characteristics is its declarative tone, with every statement (such as those commenting on the use of historical analogies in apartheid South Africa) leaving no room for the articulation of alternative interpretations (which is rather odd for a book that repeatedly claims that the adoption of a dialogic approach is likely to lead to reconciliation). Lastly, while there is a clear commitment on Ahonen's part to devoting the same attention to each case study, it is apparent that the text should have been structured in a far less rigid (and overly symmetric) manner, thus enabling the reader to realize that a comparative study should focus as much on divergent experiences as it does on the parallels between them.

Chiara Tedaldi

University College Dublin
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Author:Tedaldi, Chiara
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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