Legal Frames of Memory. Transitional Justice in Central and Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

Warsaw, 27-29 November 2013

The "Genealogies of Memory" project-started by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity in 2011-aims to facilitate academic exchange among international scholars interested in studying social and cultural memory in Central and Eastern Europe.1 Through organizing a series of conferences and seminars, the project attempts to defining the specificity of Central and Eastern European memory by discussing the changes in remembrance that have been taking place in the region throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. It also addresses the possible application of this research into the global field of memory studies. The first "Genealogies of Memory" conference, held in 2011, was focused on the critical examination of theories and methods developed in Eastern and Western scholarship to study memory process in Central and Eastern Europe. The 2012 conference sought to explore memory phenomena in a regional-rather than national-perspective. Experiences of war and mass violence of Central and Eastern Europe were compared with those of Southern Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.2

This year's conference discussed the complex relationships between memory and law, as well as concepts of justice with reference to post-communist transformations.3 As the conference conveners-Malgorzata Pakier (Museum of the History of Polish Jews), Stanislaw Tyszka (University of Warsaw), and Jiri Pfibáñ (University of Cardiff)-explained, after the collapse of communism, the legal system, which is one of the multiple modes of shaping collective memories in modern societies, played an important role in coming to terms with the past in the region. On one hand, for the state, it served as a powerful instrument to inform collective memory and identity and, on the other, it became a battleground for different, often conflicting, visions of the past put forward by various institutions, groups and individuals. Notably, however, different countries in the region employed different legal measures which reflected their historical legacies.

The symbolic dimension of law in post-communist societies has been, to a large extent, neglected by scholars of memory. The aim of the conference was to approach law as one of the possible social frameworks of memory within which examples of post-communist transformations can be studied. The conference addressed the intersection of legal discourses and other domains of social life as well as discussed various concepts of justice articulated in historical works, civil society initiatives, and media texts. It brought together distinguished academics as well as early career scholarshistorians, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers of law-and practitioners of memory, journalists, and educators. Over the course of three days, thirty papers-organized into seven panels-were presented, creating a space for discussing a number of problems such as the national and regional specificities of transitional justice, the restorative and retributive aspects of justice, the role of lustration and accessing the past through the archives, and courts' educational role in writing history.

The keynote lecture, entitled "Justifying Atrocities: Contested Victims," and delivered by Elazar Barkan-a scholar in human rights and conflict resolution and head of Human Rights Concentration at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs-critically examined the political impact of the notion of victimhood in the process of creating a historical dialogue in conflict resolution. The presentation started with Barkan's observations about the proliferation of claims of victimhood in the 20th century. In pointing to the blurring of the lines between the victim and the perpetrator, the speaker discussed the instance of a contested victimhood which informs identity building processes and is endowed with a strong mobilizing power to instigate further conflicts. Therefore, contrary to popular interpretations, victimhood should not be viewed as an emblem of morality, but a form of political agency, legitimacy, and capital. …