(Washington, DC--May 6, 2005) The purpose of history is to produce a comprehensive picture of the past, but "can accurate histories be written about recent events that are, in themselves, controversial?" This question was addressed by Mile Bjelajac, Senior Fellow and Project Director at the Institute for Recent History of Serbia, during a recent RFE/RL briefing.
Bjelajac is one of 260 leading academics from North America, Western Europe, and core areas of the former Yugoslavia who have agreed to participate in "The Scholar's Initiative: Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies 2001-2005," a project organized by Charles Ingrao, Professor of History at Purdue University (http://www.sla.purdue.edu/academic/history/facstaff/
Ingrao/si/scholarsprospectus.htm). This project, funded by the United States Institute for Peace, National Endowment for Democracy, German Marshall Fund-Balkan Trust, and Purdue University Peace Studies Program, aims to "collectively examine key documentary evidence that informs public perceptions of the underlying causes and tragic course of the Yugoslav catastrophe."
As Bjelajac pointed out, objective historical analysis requires primary sources, and a rigorous methodology untainted by ethnic prejudices. Historians need to trace the origins of popular opinions concerning the Yugoslav wars and establish the larger context. "Objectivity is the victim of war," Bjelajac said. Each ethnic group has chosen to highlight a different set of facts, many of which have been distorted or presented out of context, in an effort to justify its actions. The purpose of the current history project is to "resolv[e] the dominant ethnic narratives" and hope to "promote reconciliation" in the region. At the moment, Bjelajac said, "If any student or journalist was to read a text book on Yugoslav history without possessing any prior knowledge on the subject, they will probably become partisan."
A lack of primary sources has made historians reliant on media testimonies, political statements and personal memoirs. The problem, Bjelajac said, is "we have narratives, not scholarly writing." Political hegemony has resulted in intellectual orthodoxy, for "when one side wins politically, it usually wins academically." He noted that the Hague Tribunal has shown great promise as a potential source for documents and other primary material that historians hope will soon be accessible to them.
However, the current reality remains that historians are being stretched in two different directions -- in one direction by their desire to produce accurate, sometimes provocative, academic work and in the other by pressure from the state to keep their work politically correct.
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