Sarajevo Symposium, Closing Remarks

Sep 3, 2014

"We have all got to live with each other. There will be Serbs here in a thousand years, Croats here in a thousand years. We're stuck with each other. We don't have to love each other. This is not a council of brotherhood and unity. We did that. It didn't go so well. It's just a council of deep individual responsibility for ourselves as historical agents in time."

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I have a feeling that I am like an extra serving of dessert. [Laughter] You don't really need this. We've had some wonderful summation remarks so I will try and be brief.

I feel a great gratitude to this institution, to this library. I think, to repeat something that Adam Roberts said, to see the old books, to see the loving care with which they have been restored, was one of those places where you saw the kind of tiny forms of heroism that sustains civilization. Sarajevo gave the world many examples of the heroism that sustained civilization itself. I want to record the emotional impact that it had, I think, for all of us. You don't normally think of book restorers as heroes, but they seem to be heroes and the saving of those books during the siege was a symbol of why this place has a special place in the emotions of everybody who comes here.

It's been a somber day in a way because if you think about why we are here, we are here to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Carnegie Council by Andrew Carnegie, an American billionaire, who believed that you could achieve peace by dialogue among different religious confessions. He founded us four or five months before a war which shattered all of his illusions. So in a sense it's a a centenary of a very somber kind, an encounter with the illusions that made us possible.

And yet, as Joel says, the illusions that we are still here to believe in. We believe in talking, teaching, learning. We believe in books. We believe in dialogue. It seems a puny set of tools faced with guns and violence and hatred, but I think we have to reaffirm it and it's good to come to Sarajevo to reaffirm it.

We are also here to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an act, which is for some members of this community an act of patriotism, and for other members of this community an act of terrorism. As David Rodin said, the difficulty with this is that it is often patriots who assassinate people. They assassinated precisely to serve patriotic and nationalist goals. One of the things we have learned in the 20th century is to be very careful about the use of terrorism as a word. It carries you much further than you want it to.

I don't defend what happened. I think everybody thinks what happened 100 yards away initiated the greatest single tragedy of the 20th century. The greatest single tragedy in the sense that all the others were created by it. As Adam Roberts said, the First World War gave us Versailles, a catastrophic settlement that created the resentments that created the Second World War.

The exterminatory logic of the Third Reich was built on justified resentment at the unfairness of Versailles. The exterminatory logic of the Third Reich was visited on the South Balkans with particular ferocity by its puppets, by its accomplices. You lived the savagery of the exterminatory logic of the Second World War here and, in some sense, the catastrophe of 1992 was a continuation of the Second World War. It's no accident that those who were bombarding you from the hillsides above this town were called Chetniks. They were called Chetniks to replay the language that was used in the Second World War. There's a catastrophic sense in which what started in 1914 went on in 1943 to '45 and then went on from '92 to '95. There's some sense in which we have to understand that chain of historical causation.

The difficulty with those chains of causation is two-fold. First of all, the longer back you trace a heritage of hatred and extermination and bitterness, the more hopeless it seems to change any of it. The deeper the history, the harder it is to change anything. I think we have to refuse that. I think we have to say no to that idea. The more you know the better, simple as that.

The more we know about the historical causation of these hatreds and these bitternesses, the better. It's the only way to come awake from nightmare—knowledge and reason and history. And no the history is not shared, but the task of ordinary Bosnian citizens for the next couple of generations is to fight to have a shared history. Ivo Banac had a wonderful example of that. The Poles and the Germans sitting down and figuring out, "Let's not teach each other's children poison. How about that? That's a good, simple project. Let's make sure our textbooks don't teach each other poison. Okay. We've had enough poison."

The German and Poles are setting a very powerful example for this part of the world. It's very difficult to do that. But unless you fight to a common history, which you can teach to your children, the past is not over. It's a nightmare that you are condemned to repeat.

When Margaret McMillan said and when Adam Roberts said none of these conflicts were inevitable, I think that's very important, as well. We're not trapped by fate here in the Balkans. We're not condemned to repeat. It doesn't have to keep going on. Nothing is inevitable. The catastrosphe of 1914 was not inevitable and the catastrosphe of 1991 to '95 was not inevitable. The catastrophe of 1991 to '95 was not the product of immemorial hatreds seeping up through the ground in some mysterious way and taking nice ordinary, rational cosmopolitans and turning them into murderous nationalist fanatics. That's an inevitability story in which you are all somehow mysterious peopled by fanatic emotions that you cannot control.

We need to refuse all that garbage. We need to put that away. We need to think of ourselves as rational, responsible adults, as agents in historical time and we also—this is a little more difficult—think of the guys in Poli [sp] ?? and Prijedor and in Republika Srpska and in Mostar and in everywhere. That is, think of everybody in the same way we think about ourselves: as responsible historical agents, responsible for what they say, responsible for what they do. We have to refuse all the fantasies that go with the idea of, for example, collective guilt.

The Serbian people are not responsible for the assassination of the archduke. The Serbian people are not responsible collectively for the crimes that their culpable individuals committed. Why do you have a process at The Hague? Why do you have justice at all if it isn't individual justice? Our very idea of justice must be individual otherwise it's not justice at all. It's just revenge. It's just hatred. It's just nightmare.

These are difficult lessons for everybody. The hurt and pain in this city still exists. The sense that you are victims of the collective responsibility of another people is very strong, but you have got to get over it because it diminishes you. That's the point. It puts you permanently in a position of victimhood in which you are the eternally wronged victim of historical fate and are helpless to correct it.

The unintended revenge of believing in the collective guilt of another group is that you end up being imprisoned by the logic of permanent victimhood. Collective guilt deforms them, but it also imprisons you in ways that make it impossible to escape. So, when we say the First World War was not inevitable, what we're saying is that discrete individuals failed the historical responsibility of their hour and moment and the consequences were horrible.

When we say that 1992 was not inevitable, we mean that particular political actors, including your own, including everyone's, failed their historical responsibility and we need to understand that failure and hold individuals responsible for crimes and murders and savagery and bestiality. But if we condemn everybody indiscriminately, we ourselves lose historical agency and responsibility for what we can and must change in our own situation.

These are the very difficult issues that are circling around in this discussion. You have commemorations of a thing like the assassination for a reason, which is to think about what's hard about them. What's painful about them? What's hard to accept about them? What's hard to accept about them is our image of ourselves, to take responsibility for yourself as historical agents in time, and refuse the easy language of victimhood and the easy language of blame. It makes politics impossible.

You have got to live with each other. We have all got to live with each other. Nobody is going anywhere. The Balkans will still be here in a thousand years. There will be Serbs here in a thousand years, Croats here in a thousand years. Those beautiful mosques will be here, God willing, for another thousand years. We're stuck with each other. We don't have to love each other. This is not a council of brotherhood and unity. We did that. It didn't go so well. It's just a council of deep individual responsibility for ourselves as historical agents in time.

Sorry to do a sermon. Canadians always do sermons. You'll forgive me. You can tell me it's all rubbish. That's why I come to Sarajevo to be told it's all rubbish. I love this community deeply. I have learned from it all my life and I hope some of what I have to say is of use to you today.

Thank you very much.

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