Historical narratives, the perpetuation of trauma, and the work of Vamık Volkan

Reuven Firestone

The subject of conflicting historical narratives is not merely a topic of academic interest. Competing narratives between communities can and do cause mass violence of great and abiding horror. A classic example is the Srebrenica genocide in which Serbs “saw fourteenth-century Ottomans" when they engaged in the mass slaughter of twentieth-century Bosnian Slavs. At some very deep level. Serbs involved in the massacres were engaging in vengeful retribution for the loss of the Serbian kingdom to Ottoman Muslims at the Battle of Kosovo 500 years earlier. One scholar treating the dangers associated with historical narrative and communal trauma is Dr Vamik Volkan, who studied the ways in which national or community trauma can be eternalized and maintained through the preservation of particularist narratives for generations in latent state, only to erupt into mass violence when conditions are ripe. The experience of communal trauma can be maintained and perpetuated through commemorative rituals and the formulation of particular types of historical narrative. But it need not be. This paper will analyse the work of Volkan in order to consider four aspects of the phenomenon:

  • 1. The ways in which communal trauma can influence historical perspective and encourage the formulation of highly problematic communal narratives.
  • 2. The ways in which communal trauma is preserved and perpetuated in the memory of victimized communities through historical narrative and commemorative practice.
  • 3. The ways in which the memory of communal trauma can then be activated to motivate mass violence against innocent victims.
  • 4. The ways in which unresolved anxiety and tension brought about by communal trauma preserved by historical narrative can (a) be perpetuated and later discharged through violence, or alternatively (b) be reduced and even relieved through constructive processes that thwart the release of violence.

When children get into a schoolyard fight, they always seem to offer the same excuse: "He hit me first!" It seems obvious that one child began swinging before the other. Is it simply childhood invention that we are observing in these blame-the-other scenarios, or may there be something deeper behind the inevitable contradictory claim?

Let’s consider a typical playground battle between two children. One of them certainly swung the first punch. Let’s call the puncher Child A. But perhaps Child B pushed Child A before he began swinging, and perhaps Child A called Child B names or purloined his lunch before Child B pushed him. And that behaviour too, may have been triggered by something else that Child B did to Child A the day before. One question of interest when trying to determine "who started it” is, how far back into history can one (or should one) go when probing the origin of a conflict. This is a major issue when considering the problem of conflicting narratives. How far back must one go in the search for truth?

It is also possible that Child A did nothing intentionally to provoke Child B. He may have done nothing "wrong” according to his personal playbook of behaviours. Nevertheless, it could be perceived as an injustice by Child B.

Who is guilty of starting the conflict? Who is guilty of escalating it?

These are natural questions and are quite reasonable. But of greater importance for this conference even in relation to a childish schoolyard fight, and in fact for all cases of violence, is the deeper background. What in an individual’s history might trigger, sanction, enable or even encourage recourse to violence in settling a perceived hurt or injustice? Mistreatment from an abusive parent can trigger a response in a child that directs violence outward onto another. Many other possible triggers can prompt acts of violence.

A corollary exists between individual and communal violence, and this observation has triggered various social scientists to look into it in the past few decades. One researcher, Vamik Vblkan, has applied psychoanalytic theory to mass violence undertaken by large groups.11 use Vblkan's term "large group violence” rather than "mass violence” because I am concerned with issues of large group identity that are associated with the release of violence by large groups. In what follows I will consider the work of Volkan in relation to communal perceptions of grievance, victimization, and humiliation that are often at the core of large groups' recourse to engage in mass violence.

I will not try to determine whether any side is "at fault” as I did in my brief example of the playground incident. It is, of course, possible that one side is entirely victimized. Two examples immediately come to mind from my personal frame of reference: the genocide of Jews and the genocide of Sinti and Roma peoples in mid-twentieth-century Europe. I know that one could cite other such cases of innocence, and I have no intention to exclude them. But for the purpose of this chapter, I am not concerned with the determination of guilt or innocence. I am, rather, interested in considering how communities that have suffered trauma and depredation can absorb the pain and humiliation of suffering and retain them for generations, only to release them onto another community (or communities) in a way that not only can cause horrific harm but can move forward the cycle of violence without resolution in a maimer that will cause even more suffering as history unfolds. I am also interested in examining methods that may remove or at least reduce the sense of suffering, humiliation, and grievance of a victimized community to a manageable level that can avoid or even put an end to the perpemation of violence.

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