Dealing with the Past

In the aftermath of war and armed conflict, societies need to cope with the memory and consequences of past violence. These are profound and manifold: Large groups of the population are traumatized. Formerly opposed groups hold on to contradictory views on past events, which makes it hard for them to live together in peace. Persistent propaganda and conflict-supporting narratives conceal guilt and responsibility by glorifying or victimizing perpetrators. However, if traumatic experience is reproduced, if views and attitudes that have led to the escalation of violence are not reflected upon critically and re-defined in a public manner, there is a high risk that the conflict is kept alive under the surface, ready to escalate anew in the presence of trigger factors.

Learning about the other sides’ grievances and acknowledging injustices, committed by one’s own sides’ representatives are a crucial element of sincere encounters. They can even become stepping stones of reconciliation between former enemies. To achieve sustainable peace, and secure fruitful discussion and reflection about the past between former conflict parties, various methods and approaches have been developed in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. They can be subsumed under the label of “dealing with the past”. These approaches vary profoundly, depending on the conflict analysis as well as target groups, cultural and ideological factors, general circumstances and needs in the conflict region. They range from expert commissions rewriting schoolbooks in a conflict sensitive manner to group therapy for victims to help overcoming trauma.

The Berghof Foundation has been engaging in this context for many years, researching and developing various approaches to dealing with painful pasts in various conflict settings. We are proud to have cooperated with renowned experts. At present, our Caucasus Programme entertains a trilateral process on “Dealing with the Past” in the Georgian-Abkhaz-South Ossetian conflict setting.

Key aspects

  • Dealing with the legacy of a politically or socially violent past is indispensable in conflict transformation and peacebuilding work.
  • Memories of past violence can be transmitted down the lines of generations, and in worst cases serve to justify mobilization for renewed violence even years or decades later.
  • In post-violence settings, it is important to find individual as well as collective, private as well as public ways of working through the consequences of violence in order to reach a robust state of coexistence.
  • Approaches and methodologies for such working through may vary but must be grounded in the culture and context in which they are applied.

  • Cordula Reimann and Ursula König: Collective Trauma and Resilience: Key Concepts in Transforming War-related Identities. 2017. Berghof Handbook Dialogue Series No. 11 - comment. PDF >
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  • Beatrix Austin: Dealing with the Past. Supporting people-centred “working-through” the legacies of violence. 2017. Policy Brief No. 6. PDF >
  • Beatrix Austin & Martina Fischer (Eds.): Transforming War-Related Identities. Individual and Social Approaches to Healing and Dealing with the Past. 2016. Handbook Dialogue Series No. 11 - complete. Hardcopy >
  • Martina Fischer: Transitional Justice. Lessons from the Western Balkans. 2016. Policy Brief No. 5. PDF >
  • Martina Fischer & Olivera Simic (Eds.): Transitional Justice and Reconciliation. Lessons from the Balkans. 2016. London: Routledge. Book >
  • Andrea Zemskov-Zuege: „History Dialogue between Georgians and Abkhaz: How Can Working with the Past Pave New Ways?” In: Politorbis No.60, 2-2015, pp.23-29. link >
  • Martina Fischer & Ljubinka Petrovic-Ziemer (eds.) Dealing with the Past in the Western Balkans. Initiatives for Peacebuilding and Transitional Justice in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. Berghof Report No. 18. Berlin: Berghof Foundation, 2013. Hardcopy >
  • Andrea Zemskov-Zuege: Erinnerung, Geschichtsbilder und zivile Konfliktbearbeitung – Ein Erfahrungsbericht zur Anwendung theoretischer Konzepte in der friedenspädagogischen Praxis. In: Sicherheit und Frieden, 3/2012, 164-170
  • Martina Fischer: Transitional Justice and Reconciliation: Theory and Practice. In: Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation, 2011. PDF >
  • Centro de Investigacióne Regionales de Mesoamerica (Ed.): Guatemala Memoria Viva. Una Historia para Cambiar la Memoria. Presentation, 2009. PDF >
  • Ivana Franovic: Dealing with the Past in the Context of Ethnonationalism. The Case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. Berghof Occasional Paper No. 29, Berlin: Berghof Research Centre, 2008. Hardcopy >
  • Véronique Dudouet, Martina Fischer & Beatrix Schmelzle: Dealing with the Past in Israel-Palestine and the Western Balkans. Storytelling in Conflict: Developing Research and Practice. Berghof Working Paper No. 5, Berlin: Berghof Research Centre, 2008. PDF >
  • Ossama Safa: Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation in the Arab World. The Work of Civil Society Organisations in Lebanon and Morocco. In: Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation, 2007. PDF >
  • Diane Enns: Identity and Victimhood. Questions for Conflict Management Practice. Berghof Occasional Paper 28. Berlin: Berghof Research Centre, 2007. Hardcopy>
  • David Bloomfield: On Good Terms. Clarifying Reconciliation. Berghof Report No. 14. Berlin: Berghof Research Centre, 2006. Hardcopy >
  • Sanela Basic: Bosnian Society on the Path to Justice, Truth and Reconciliation. In: Martina Fischer (ed.): Peacebuilding and Civil Society in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 10 Years After Dayton. Münster: Lit Verlag, 2007 (2nd edition), 357-386. PDF >
  • Natascha Zupan: Facing the Past and Transitional Justice in Countries of Former Yugoslavia. In: Martina Fischer (ed.): Peacebuilding and Civil Society in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 10 Years After Dayton. Münster: Lit Verlag, 2007 (2nd edition), 327-342. PDF >
  • Gunnar Theissen: Supporting Justice, Co-existence and Reconciliation after Armed Conflict: Strategies for Dealing with the Past. In: Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation, 2004. PDF >

We have had the good fortune of working with many amazing people and partner organisations over the years. Among our current partners are:

  • World Without Violence (Sukhum/i)
  • Movement of Abkhaz Mothers for Peace and Social Justice (Sukhum/i)
  • Peace Development Center (Tbilisi)