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Understanding conflicting historical narratives

Whether conflicts are between or within states, historical narratives and the beliefs that underlie them, where these form an essential foundation of competing claims, can hold peace talks hostage. (For more on how history is used in and affects peace processes, click here.) We use the term ‘historical narrative’ or simply ‘narrative’ here to mean the story or stories that are created and propagated regarding a state’s, a people’s or other population group’s history, including their relations with others. Narratives are closely related to the historiographies they rely on; they are the outcome of selecting events, episodes and developments of the past, strung together with an explanation that serves a purpose in the present. They reveal the beliefs and perceptions of people about their history and are, at the same time, expressions of them that, in turn, impact those beliefs and perceptions. In conflict situations the selectiveness tends to be particularly pronounced. Leaving aside the interpretations parties give to past events, the events they invoke are themselves selected to support their objectives and are often presented isolated spatially and temporally from other events and developments that could potentially shed a different light on or provide different explanations for them.

Loosening the grip historical narratives can have on peace processes is facilitated by an appreciation of the way they have come about, which can be achieved through understanding their historical and present day contexts, including that of their production. We found three ways to contextualize such historical narratives for this purpose to be particularly helpful. 

The first is placing the historical events and developments contained in the narratives used by parties to substantiate their claims in the broader context in which they lived. Doing so enables us to better grasp their true historical nature, unencumbered by current notions, norms and expectations. Using a wide variety of contemporary sources in this process may uncover a diversity of understandings that existed at the time. And taking events and developments out of isolation brings to light the degree of selectiveness that underlies the narratives. All of this will help parties to appreciate the relative validity of each narrative, allowing them – and this is of particular importance to negotiators— to receive new information that is not already contained in the one espoused.

The second is placing narratives and the historiographies they are based on in the context of their production. Awareness of who wrote the histories, for what purposes and how may also help release the hold narratives have on parties/negotiators. An appreciation of the effects of the common practice of writing ‘national’ histories moreover, as well as of our conditioning to think from the perspective of the nation-state paradigm and our use of modern political and legal concepts and terminologies to describe the past all contribute to better understanding and analysis.  Let us elaborate somewhat on this, before concluding with the third context that sheds light on historical narratives.

Histories have been written for purposes of record-keeping, intellectual pursuit and education, but also for the aggrandizement of emperors, kings, military and religious leaders, to justify wars and territorial expansion, to impose religions, to establish civilizational superiority and to promote national cohesion. Throughout history, rulers and other leaders have used the writing and re-writing of history as a means to obtain or enhance legitimacy of their rule and political projects. Such writings at the behest of rulers provide insights into how they and their courts viewed themselves in relation to others and how they wished to be portrayed within their own polity and beyond. The histories that result and the narratives that are produced from these sources clearly need to be read in this light, understanding by whom they were written, the purposes for and the context in which they were produced.

The practice of commissioning or promoting history writing to satisfy specific needs is common today as well. Governments around the world develop and actively propagate historical narratives that serve political purposes, such as nation building but also to buttress territorial and other claims. Likewise, self-determination movements aspiring to statehood or a degree of autonomy develop histories of their people, projecting their aspirations as a political community back in time to demonstrate historical legitimacy.

A common practice is to write ‘national’ histories. These histories tend to be written from the vantage point of today’s nation-states, with their current political configurations and populations, which are projected back in time to produce a history of ‘this nation’, ‘this state’, or ‘this people’. We commonly imagine that the history we are taught is that of the same entity, the same nation, the same people, albeit known perhaps by different names and consisting of somewhat different shapes and sizes. These histories present a linear string of achievements, civilizational or otherwise, which are attributed to a particular entity and its historical leaders. This practice highlights the linkages that connect the past to the present in terms of the current nation-state construct and shows how today’s country is the culmination of something that has existed since the distant past, on essentially the same territory, albeit in some cases interrupted by a period of colonialism or occupation. The process is highly selective, and ignores things that detract or deny the continuity of the present state with the past. In addition, aside from the writing of history per se, the prevalent manner in which we are conditioned to think about the central place and role of the nation-state leads to a status-quo fixation and reduces our ability to engage in conflict analysis outside of this paradigm.

The nation-state approach to history is conditioned in ways that are particularly problematic in relation to intrastate conflicts, as it tends to privilege certain population groups or peoples within the confines of today’s state – principally those that are currently dominant over others who are not. It is not uncommon for non-dominant peoples and minorities to be either retroactively included in the history of the state as if they had always been part of it –albeit as a sub-national category, a property, or a subject people— or to be virtually left out. Such practices can serve to solidify existing power relationships, some of which may be conducive to conflict, but they also affects the way we view and judge conflicts and consequently the manner in which we approach them.

The inclination to think from the perspective of today’s nation-state paradigm may not only limit our ability to imagine solutions to conflicts outside of it, this also impacts our historical analysis, especially when we apply political and legal concepts and terminologies that belong to this specific paradigm to historical periods and places where they do not at all fit. Doing so creates distortions that hinder our appreciation of the distinctiveness of historical experiences. Some usages of current terms to explain the past, in particular ‘sovereignty’, can be problematic because they are so politically loaded. Appreciating how the nature of polities and of relations between them differed from modern statehood and today’s interstate relations, and how rule, and therefore ‘sovereignty,’ were conceived in specific places and contexts in the past is essential for understanding how the invocation of such loaded concepts and their reinterpretation according to modern Westphalian principles (embodied in modern international law) produces irreconcilable narratives that stand in the way of resolving a number of protracted conflicts. For more on the problematic of using modern political and legal concepts and terminologies to describe historical entities and their relations and how this manifests in peace processes, click here. 

And lastly, the third context to take into consideration when analyzing historical narratives presented by parties in peace processes concerns the circumstances in which they were produced.  The narratives in use in many parts of Asia today, for example, are to a large extent based on those that were generated to accompany the tumultuous changes that took place following the imposition of European international law in Asia, which precipitated the transformation of Asian polities into nation-states and the replacement of multiple Asian legal orders by the single Eurocentric one in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Understanding those events and the tensions and conflicts they caused at the time, reveals much about the perceived needs the contemporary historical narratives addressed. In the same light, it is necessary to understand the specific conditions that precipitate the creation or adaptation of narratives today, oftentimes related to current disputes and the perceived need of parties to work backwards from the outcome desired by them to build a winning historical case on the basis of today’s norms and paradigms.

In peace talks the process of contextualizing can disempower the hold narratives have on negotiations and may create space to consider other approaches to satisfy the needs and assuage the fears that underlie the conflict in the first place. In order to address history in peace processes and to understand how irreconcilable narratives developed, Kreddha undertook a multi-year collaborative research project, for which it selected Asia as its case study. An outcome of this project, involving scholars from around the world, is the publication by Chicago University Press of Sacred Mandates; Asian International Relations since Chinggis Khan. For information on the project, the topics discussed and the participating scholars, click here.