From the Annual Meeting 2006 column of the November 2005 Perspectives
The Scholars' Initiative: Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies
Gale Stokes, November 2005
Historians have always played a vital role in creating and propagating national myths, and nowhere with more deleterious effect than in the states of the former Yugoslavia. During the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, 1991–95, those narratives became set in concrete as part and parcel of the justifications for the wars and their atrocities. The ability of Yugoslav scholars even to meet with each other, let alone confront the many issues raised by the wars, was almost nil, especially among the Serbs and their many adversaries. Late in the 1990s, Charles Ingrao, professor of history at Purdue University, decided that a constructive way to restore dialogue, perhaps even to encourage a will to live together in the culture at large, would be to bring scholars from the former Yugoslavia and abroad together to work on specific historical questions related to the wars. Despite the skepticism of some of his colleagues, Ingrao dove in, contacting hundreds of scholars in an effort to create a framework for collaborative research. Eventually, approximately 275 scholars from 26 countries, including all eight entities of the former Yugoslavia as well as Albania, were brought into the process. By 2001 they had defined 10 crucial controversies that still divide the region's people, preventing them from reaching common ground (an 11th was added later), and began putting together research teams to investigate each one. Team 6, for example, looked into the wartime "Safe Areas" like Sarajevo and Srebrenica, while Team 9 took up U.S./NATO intervention in Kosovo. Each team was led by two co-leaders, one of whom had to be Serb. Some teams wrote truly collaborative reports, others designated a single individual to draft a report for comment and editing by team members. All reports were guided by strict scholarly standards, not special pleading, and included a commitment to look at every position and the evidence supporting it. After reports had worked their way through the team, they were presented to the entire project for critique—at least one report was turned back completely at this stage. When the reports achieved final form, they were released to the public and became ready for publication in the three volumes that will be the project's written record. These reports are not intended as the final word, but, as Ingrao puts it, as "a down payment on a process." And the results have been not only scholarly. A key element has been the fruitful, ongoing interaction among team members, public officials, and media in almost every former Yugoslav state, as well as in the United States. Not all the hoped-for interactions took place. It was, for example, difficult to get Serbs and Kosovar Albanians to collaborate productively. But with prodding from Ingrao, and helped by financial support from the United States Institute for Peace, the National Endowment for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund, and Purdue University, five team reports have been released so far, four are on the verge of release, and there is hope the last two will be ready by the first of the year.
With the help of travel funds provided by the AHA, several participants from the region will join Ingrao; Thomas Emmert, associate director of the project; and others in discussing the methodology and results of this unique multilateral project during three sessions at the forthcoming AHA meeting in Philadelphia. Additional details will appear in the special annual meeting section in the December issue of Perspectives. The project's web site is www.cla.purdue.edu/si/.
—Gale Stokes is emeritus professor of history at Rice University.