Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Larry Ray (1999) 'Memory, Trauma and Genocidal Nationalism'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 2, <>

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Received: 08/06/99      Accepted: 21/06/99      Published: 30/6/99


Nationalism poses several analytical problems for sociology, since it stands at the intersection of familiar binary conceptual contrasts. It further has the capacity to appear alternatively democratic and violent. This paper examines the conditions for violent nationalism, with particular reference to the Kosovo conflict. It argues that the conditions for potentially genocidal nationalism lie in the apparently routine rituals through which 'nations' are remembered and constructed. Violent nationalism may appear where the transmission of collective identities is infused with mourning and traumatic memory. However, the presence of such forms of memory is not sufficient in themselves to provoke violent nationalism. These are unleashed in the context of state crisis where former loyalties are replaced with highly affective commitment to rectification of imagined historical wrongs.

Ethnic Violence; Kosovo; Memory; Nationalism; Ritual


This paper reflects on the relationships between national formation, memory, trauma and collective violence, with reference to mobilization preceding the conflict in Kosovo. Any discussion of nationalism though, risks getting caught up in problems of definition before it has begun. This is partly because it is an ambiguous and unstable property, often described as 'Janus faced', standing over the passage to modernity 'looking desperately back to the past' (Nairn 1975). It is a hybrid, both presupposing modern communication and organizational technologies yet deriving its raison d'être from nostalgic pathos and longing. This is an issue developed here. But I do not intend to dwell on the question of the essential nature of nationalism. Nations are not, as some would suggest, primordial beings existing from the beginning of time. Nor are they simply arbitrarily constructed, but draw on actually shared cultural forms, notably language and the belief (which may be recent or ancient) in shared history and kinship/ethnicity. Claims to nationhood that have some mobilizing potential are likely to be based in widely held cultural understandings of nationhood. Scotland and Wales are more readily imagined as nations than, say, Kent, despite the latter once existing as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. But given that the potential for national mobilization exists, it can remain latent for long periods. Political support for independence is likely to arise in a specific context provoking mass loss of confidence in a hegemonic state. Then there is the different question of under what circumstances national mobilization becomes violent, exclusive and potentially genocidal? This question will be addressed with reference to the ways in which routine forms of national commemoration and narrative mobilize and release not only deep hostilities but also exterminatory desires.[1]

The genocidal potential of national mobilization has been demonstrated throughout the twentieth century. The Yugoslav civil war in the early 1990s and the current conflict in Kosovo illustrate not only that this most violent of centuries is ending in the manner that most characterised it, but that the veneer of European 'civilization' has once again proven very thin. It is important to note that 'ethnic cleansing' is not an exceptional event occurring only rarely in places like Yugoslavia and the Third Reich, but is part of the usual (though not universal) process through which nations are formed and territorial national-state power consolidated. The genocidal impulse, to rid the sacred national territory (for nations are above all else about sanctification of territory) of problematic minorities, exists within many national discourses and practices. One need not look far for examples of this - the 'exchange of populations' between Greece and Turkey in 1922, the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, and the less often commented upon expulsion of Jews from most Arab countries in 1948; the partition of India; and so on. The present massacres and removals of Kosovars by Serbs itself has many precedents, such as the expulsions of Albanians during the second Serbian-Ottoman war (1877-8).[2] Anderson's seminal work curiously separates national identity (as the stuff of love and poetry) from racism, which is generally directed to the establishment of boundaries within nations (Anderson 1993:141-2). I am not sure that this distinction is tenable. I will suggest that national imagining is often a racialized imagination in which the pathos of Romantic nostalgia can spill into violent exclusion of minorities.

Indeed, the right to 'cleanse' can almost be asserted as an essential part of national formation, in which the hated minority, irrespective of their actual powerlessness and marginalization, are constructed as an occupying force, often as titular representatives of a colonial power.[3] Banners on anti-NATO demonstrations in Belgrade have said, 'Croatia has an ethnically pure homeland - why cannot we?' The reference here of course is to the Croatian ethnic cleansing of Krajina Serbs, in which the international community acquiesced. The principle of 'self-determination' implicitly recognizes ethnic session. Bosnia alone among the former Yugoslav republics embraced the model of a multi-ethnic, pluralist democracy, but despite its ostensible commitment to universalist pluralism, the West found it hard to comprehend self-determination for a people who did not define themselves as a mono-ethnic nation (Calhoun 1997:64-5).

The language of nationalism draws heavily on a discourse of rights that are grounded in traditional claims to space and common identity. This favoured people have a timeless right to this particular territory, which is currently illegitimately occupied by people who do not posess these rights. Such legitimating claims entail a way of remembering the past that constructs a narrative of justice, loss and desire for redemption. Nationalism in other words legitimates itself in terms of the Good Cause, which has been central to twentieth century conflict. It is not just that the twentieth century has seen genocidal conflict, but that it has done so in the name of the Good Cause. Camus (1971) noted that throughout history tyrants have enslaved and murdered millions but the peculiarity of the twentieth century is that massacres and slave camps are justified under the flags of freedom and philanthropy. The victims of violence, in mass executions, death camps, air raids, rapes and evictions are either dispensable (and therefore less-than-human) in the interests of a greater cause, or they are the oppressor against whom 'struggle' is justified. Either way, the alleged right of a people (in the abstract) to 'self-determination' has overridden the rights of people qua individuals to life and security. When the claim to inalienable territory and destiny is linked to specific and incompatible claims to territorial space there is potential for what Renê Girard (1977) calls 'mimetic violence', where the very presence of the other is perceived as incompatible with one's own existence. Again this is a common script for nationalist conflicts. The Northern Ireland civil war has edged towards genocidal conflict at times, with cycles of sectarian killings, where the very identities 'Unionist' and 'Republican' exclude the existence of the other. Competing claims to the exclusive occupation of particular spaces further involve complex historiography that 'demonstrates' the inalienable right of the favoured people to the sacred space. For Serbian nationalism (we will see) the claim to Kosovo is grounded in myths of 'Old Serbia' (Stari Srbija), the birthplace of the Serbs, font of Slavic Christendom and site of the sacrifice of Count Lazar in 1389 (e.g. By contrast, Albanian claims to Kosova regard the historic 'ethnic line' reaching up to Nis and dismiss the idea of 'Old Serbia' as a fabrication legitimating genocide. There is thus a battle of the maps, which attempt to archive each incompatible claim to national ownership ( National identities then involve particular ways of 'remembering' (and forgetting) in which one's own history becomes a traumatic narrative of loss and betrayal.

Memory and ComMemoration

How does the killing and eviction of ethnic minorities come to be viewed by perpetrators as a Good Cause? A parallel situation here could be that depicted in pre-Holocaust Germany by Goldhagen (1997) were a wide and deep culture of antisemitic hatred created conditions for willing participation in mass murder. Certainly there are problems with this thesis (see for example, Finkelstein 1997) and it should be contrasted with Bauman's view (1989) that German antisemitism was not the worst in Europe, and that the Shoah was largely attributable to modernity. Even so, it is reasonable to argue that cultural hatreds can be mobilized in certain conditions where they engage the participation or at least support of significant numbers of people. I will explore this with reference to the reproduction of ethnic discourses through public rituals of commemoration and mourning. The idea of a 'collective memory' can be traced back to Halbwachs (1941/1992) who questioned the assumption that memory of one's own life resides in the individual, since ways in which people remember their past are dependent on their relationship to their community. More recent work (e.g. Connerton 1989:10) has examined the links between collective memory and public rituals. Moreover, as Lury notes (1998:12) it is not only the remembered but also the forgotten that provides the key to 'rewriting the soul'. Again, 'remembering and forgetting are ...locked together in a complicated web as one group's enfranchisement requires another's disenfranchisement' (Watson 1994b:18). In particular the notion of trauma provided the point of entry into the 'psychology of the soul' through which the forgotten could be therapeutically remembered (Hacking 1994). I will suggest that this principle is applicable to collective as well as individual memory and their framing violent discourses.

Public rituals and symbols of commemoration inscribe a collective narrative memory into individual life histories. Narrative emphasis on continuity and development leads to a unity of the self as a project with access to personal and collective memories. After Anderson (1993) we appreciate that national identities are imagined and constructed. Billig (1997) has shown that nationalism does not exist only at exotic and peripheral locations, leaving liberal stable societies untouched. Rather, there is a 'banal nationalism' that is routinely inscribed into the public practice and consciousness of all nation-states. These routine dispositions can be mobilized into 'hot', that is, affectively charged movements. Being a member of a national community often involves taking ownership of a public, historical narrative that typically defines a degree of difference and sense of a nation beleaguered. In her account of travels in pre-war Yugoslavia, Rebecca West quotes her Serbian guide in 'Old Serbia' (Kosovo) in the 1930s:

We will stop at Grachanitsa, the church I told you of on the edge of Kosovo Plain, but I do not think you will understand it, because it is very personal to us Serbs, and that is something you foreigners can never grasp. It is too difficult for you, we are too rough and too deep for your smoothness and your shallowness (West 1982:835).

National identity is public (shared and reinforced through public affirmation and commemoration) yet private to the putative community of those who share the particular imagined historical memory. 'Roughness' (Serbian surovost with connotations also of rudeness and brutality) is contrasted with cosmopolitan superficiality of those who can never participate in the ethnic-cultural community. In this case, where the traditional blessing for the new-born is "Hail, little avenger of Kosovo" (Kaplan 1993:38) one is born with the weight of unexpiated vengeance.

A central means of collective remembrance and reaffirmation of national identity are commemorative ceremonies. For Durkheim these sacred public rituals re-affirmed collective solidarity through a 'collective effervescence'. Commemorative rites, such as ancestor worship, relived the mythical history of ancestors and sustained the vitality of beliefs by rendering them present (Durkheim 1976: 371ff). Although modernity appears to deny credence to the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence, commemorative rituals are dependent on calendrical time that enables the juxtaposition of profane time with the sacred return marked by anniversaries (Connerton 1989:64). Yet the sacredness of public commemoration (such as Remembrance parades) is dependent on a highly ritualized language which is stylised and stereotyped. These invariant sequences of speech acts contrast with speech forms that Habermas describes as the 'linguistification of the sacred', in which the 'spell-binding power of the sacred' is eroded by the collapse of binding worldviews and the argumentative functions of language (Habermas 1989:335-7). Commemorative speech, by contrast, does not admit any interrogation of its discursive properties because its meanings are already coded in canonical monosemic forms (e.g. oaths, blessings, prayers and liturgy) that bring into existence particular attitudes and emotions. The crucial thing here is whether public discourse is a forum for the critical examination of identities or whether it closes off possibilities for such examination. If it is the latter, deep affects can be encoded and transmitted in ways that are not subject to critical scrutiny.

A special case of public commemoration are what Durkheim (1976:404ff) called 'sad celebrations', that is, piacular (expiatory, atoning) rites which fuse mourning and melancholy with sacrifice and violence.[4] Their effect is to generate anger and the need to avenge the dead and discharge collective pain, manifesting in real or ritual violence. Victims are sought outside the group, especially among resident minorities 'not protected by sentiments of sympathy' and women serve more frequently than men as objects of cruellest rites of mourning and as scapegoats. The context for piacular rites is often a social crisis and the pressure to bear witness to sorrow, perplexity or anger. Participants imagine that outside are evil beings whose hostility can be appeased only by suffering. Thus piacular rites involve mourning fasting, weeping, with obligations to slash or tear clothing and flesh, thereby renewing the group to a state of unity preceding misfortune. The more collective sentiments are wounded, as Durkheim suggested, the greater is the violence of the response.

It was a piacular ritual that signalled a crucial point in the escalation of national mobilizations prior to the Yugoslav civil war. This was the Serbian commemoration of battle of Kosovo Polje (Field of Black Birds) in 1389, where the last Serbian prince, Lazar was defeated by the Turkish Sultan Murat. That this defeat is celebrated in Serbian national narrative an a 'holy and honourable sacrifice' illustrates an important point about national mythologies - defeats, because of their affective and sacrificial power, may be more central than faked up glories and imagined pasts of standard national rhetoric. In Serbian legend the sacrifice of Lazar who (according to a Serbian poem) 'chose a heavenly kingdom' was also a sacrifice for Christian Europe, allowing Italy and Germany to survive by holding back the Ottoman advance. According to the Serbian Network, the battle of Kosovo 'made us a great nation. It is our Golgotha; but it is at the same time our moral resurrection' ( Sloboban Milosevic made the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in June 1989 the focal point of his 'anti-bureaucratic revolution' to displace political opponents within the Serbian ruling party. Demonstrations were organized throughout Serbia, Kosovo and Vojvodina, which were among the opening moves in the war. The 'coffin' (with the alleged remains of Lazar) toured every village in Serbia followed by huge black-clad crowds of wailing mourners. Serbian nationalists regard the autonomous province of Kosovo, with an Albanian-Islamic majority population, as lying in the 'in heartland of our nation'. In the meadow of Gazimestan the monument to Lazar expresses vengeful sadness and defeat:

Whosoever is a Serb and of Serbian birth
And who does not come to Kosovo Polje to do battle against the Turks
Let him have neither a male nor a female offspring
Let him have no crop.

In contemporary nationalist symbolism, 'Albanians' in Kosovo and other Islamic minorities elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia, have substituted for 'Turks'. In both the Serbian and Croatian national imaginations, the civil war was a replaying of ancient conflicts of west and east, European and Asiatic, 'civilization' and 'barbarism'. The present genocide in Kosvovo is described as the 'Second Battle for Kosovo' (

Further, a 'recounting the dead' on all sides of the conflict preceded the revolt against the Yugoslav federation. Recent history, especially the German occupation and conflicts between the Croatian Ustashe and Chetniks (Serbian partisans) had left largely suppressed historical memories of mass slaughter. The collapse of Federal and Communist rule was accompanied by the uncovering of (semi) hidden massacres followed by new commemorative funerals, which provided a 'supreme moment for transforming ritual into political theatre' (Hayden 1994:172). Each subsequent antagonist in the civil war could mobilize the unexpiated trauma of suppressed memories. The Communists were mass murderers (of Ustasas and Chetniks); the Croatian (fascist) State of 1941-5, were murderers of Serbs; the Muslims were collaborators with Nazi genocide; while the new Croatian state under Tu_jman diminished the extent of Ustashe genocide thus provoking further trauma-rage. Each collective participant imagined themselves victims of unavenged historical wrongs that could be expiated only through the elimination of the enemy within the newly defined national space.

The ensuing conflict took on proportions of what Girard (1977) calls 'violent contagion' which was exterminatory and unlimited. This arises, in his view, from an unresolved 'sacrificial crisis'. Mimetic desire to acquire the wholeness of the other (which is experienced as a lack or incompleteness of oneself) leads to feud between incompatible rivals. By simultaneously taking the other as a model and obstacle they form 'violent doubles' locked in mutual destruction. Violent doubles are characterised by incommensurable identities - to be X is to fear Y; to be Y is to fear X - locked in a feud in which one's enfranchisement requires another's disenfranchisement. For Girard, mimetic violence - the desire to displace and become identical to the other - underlies all culture and sociality. This is based on the sacrifice, where potentially violent doubles discharge mimetically generated violence onto an arbitrary and innocent victim whom they scapegoat, by attributing to him/her the violence they have just committed. The scapegoat mechanism establishes in-group/out-group differentiations that maintain the communities' structure and cohesion. This sacrificial expulsion is the basis of all social order and ritual through which communities gain control over their violence. Myths bind communities and symbolically discharge rage while disguising the original sacrifice-murder.

This is not the place for a detailed examination of this theory, which is dependent on the validity of a kind of Durkheimian re-writing of Hegel's master-slave dialectic. But it has been applied to the Northern Ireland conflict where the desire of nationalists for united Ireland and of Unionists to preserve the Union cannot both the satisfied. The one excludes the other, yet both share the same space and are destined to be enemies, until the spiral of violent contagion can be broken (Bland 1996). Further, it lends itself to some extent to the analysis of inter-ethnic violence. The collapse of the Yugoslav Federation (like the earlier collapse of Ottoman rule) provoked a sacrificial crisis as previously contained mimetic desire generated multiple violent doubles. Each national minority entered a field of triadic struggle over shared space incommensurable desire for a national homeland. In a triadic pattern minorities struggled with titular states for a national homeland that was the goal of each. The Krajina Serbs, looking to incorporation in a Serbian homeland, resisted Croatia's nationalizing desire, while Milosovic insisted that Croatia could be independent only without Krajina. In Kosovo the Serbian minority, backed by the Serbian army, resists independence and the desire for unity with an Albanian homeland, as we have seen. The conflict in Bosnia was particularly exterminatory because it was a field of multiple doubles - Serb/Croat, Islamic/Serb, Islamic/Croat (Brubacker 1995) each struggling for incommensurable spaces.

Mourning and grief, then, are of particular importance because they constitute the basis for the desire for vengeful justice. Grief and loss may prove to be significant in discourses authorising violent actions. Unresolved grief does not allow accommodation or reconciliation but perpetuates stereotyped repetitions of thought and behaviour. A nostalgic sense of loss may be a powerful discourse in the formation of national/ethnic violence. Thus conflicts become intractable, and an exterminatory violence results from friend/foe enmity in which the very presence of the other sustains yet threatens each identity.

Context of state crisis

What I hope the above reflections suggest is that the potential for violent exclusive nationalism exists in particular forms of public commemoration where the sacred territory is constructed as profaned by the presence of the despised ethnicity, especially where the perpetrator can adopt the language of rights and justice. But not all potentially violent nationalist conflicts erupt into genocide. Whether violence is symbolically discharged (thereby being contained) or is real, is of critical importance, and we need to know how this line gets crossed. Rather than contain violence, the kinds of ritual memory discussed here generate an unstable process of national identity formation, which requires continual affirmation. National identity is not fixed or stable but an unstable hybrid of conflicting passions, as 'scraps, patches and rage of daily life must be repeatedly turned into the signs of a national culture' (Bhabha 1990:297). Maintaining a personal narrative that instantiates and affirms a collective memory, continually suppresses the irredeemably plural nature of modern identities. The more the maintenance of a unisonant self is threatened by the presence of competing identities, the more likely that inner conflicts will take the form of paranoid projections.

The Yugoslav violence occurred in the context of a state crisis, provoked by a complex of domestic and international factors, including hyperinflation in the 1970s, 'structural adjustment' pressures from the World Bank and IMF, and increasing regional differentiation. I would suggest that if mimetic desire produces conflict, rivalry and violence (Girard's thesis) it does so only under certain contingent conditions (Livingstone 1992:140). The legitimation crisis of state institutions is likely to disrupt the regulatory and supportive institutions of civil life, which are necessary for the development of impersonal trust and norms of reciprocity. Communist rule in general was characterized by a situation in which centralized power undermined norms of co-operation by eliminating negotiation from public life and undermining respect for anything other than official positions, which themselves came to be discredited. This contributed to the formation of what Rose (1995) describes as 'hour glass societies', with two largely disparate loops, elite and local informal networks, functioning relatively independently. There then begins a vicious cycle of low legitimacy, low trust, and increasing reliance on clientelistic and informal networks, which create ideal conditions for the reinforcement of particularistic identities. As the crisis intensifies and primary associations are detached from institutional and judicial regulation, the mobilization of collective memories of loss and injury becomes more likely.

Further, the collapse of communism in Europe created a highly unstable situation in which the past was subject to deep and extensive revision. All post-communist countries, to greater or lesser extent, underwent a process of 'lustration' in which the communist past, having been declared illegitimate, was subjected to some attempt at rectification. In some places this took the form of reversion of property rights to pre-1948 owners or their heirs (e.g. Czech Republic and Hungary). Elsewhere it involved some exposure and or punishment of the 'crimes' of communist office-holders (e.g. former DDR and to a lesser extent, Poland). But in Yugoslavia the settling of scores with the communist period involved systematic attempts to re-draw national boundaries and undo the ethnic mix that had been created both in pre-communist Yugoslavia and in the Federation. In all these cases, attempts to 'undo' the past involved deploying essentially nostalgic memories of a past that was pure and unsullied by the realities of life in communist systems. Not only this, but in Yugoslavia third and fourth parties were involved in multiple 'score-setting' which was most apparent in the conflict in Bosnia, involving Muslims, Serbs and Croatians. In Kosovo the conflict may have appeared to be a more simple, bipolar conflict between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars, but the geo-politics of the situation were actually complex. For one thing, the symbolic substitution of Albanian Kosovars for 'Turks/Muslims' evoked a settling of scores not only with the communist but also Ottoman past. The involvement of Russia as a Serb ally against both a 'Greater Albania' and 'NATO aggression' heightened the international stakes and began to point to new post-communist global divisions and alliances.

If this line of analysis is valid, then state crisis can predispose to ensuing violent conflict. But the particular mode of state embedding in social relations combined with a particular mode of disengagement may create conditions in which mimetic violence may occur. This in turn is possible only where there are deep cultural reservoirs of affectively-charged unexpiated resentment against the national other than can be mobilized through the 'recovery' of traumatic memories. I argue in Ray (1996:238-44) that where cultural traditions of ethno-nationalism are present violent national conflict is likely to be provoked when the hegemonic nation state is destabilized by legitimacy crisis (Hroch 1993; Kaldor 1993; Balibar and Wallerstein 1991). The ensuing social dislocation and reaction-formation draws on cultural reserves, solidifies ambiguous identities and activates the 'memory' of nationhood (Habermas 1992; Suny 1990; Smith 1991; Balibar and Wallerstein 1991; Zizek 1990). Uneven development acts as a catalyst where economic grievances are mapped onto ethnic-cultural divisions in a way that allows them to be articulated (Johnston 1994; Hroch 1993). These are most likely to generate a 'successful' national movement where there are dense social networks which transmit national culture (Hroch 1993) in combination with global media (Kaldor 1993).

The generation of the conditions for ethnically based genocide is thus over-determined rather than attributable to any single mechanism. However, I have tried to show that violence does not erupt into social life as some atavistic antisocial force but is embedded in certain kinds of routine social relationships. Modes of commemoration and historically produced identity formation rely on communicative forms that preclude the reflexive examination of identities. In response to social stress, such as state failure, piacular rituals expiate memories of collective injustice. These have the potential to spill over into unlimited violence, which spirals into irreconcilable conflicts. These are likely to be most severe where they involve unmediated mimetic conflicts between similar actors competing for an identical object, such as incompatible national homelands. Because I wanted to focus on the cultural and historical prelude to the Kosovo tragedy, I have not referred to the effects of the NATO bombing campaign. It is possible that this exacerbated the plight of Kosovar Albanians, although in the longer term it may appear differently. But whatever its ultimate effect, and however the post-war fate of Kosovo is determined, the inescapable conditions exist for two further irreconcilable historical memories - in the mass graves of Kosovars and the Serbian civilian casualties.


1The crucial issue here is acceptance or not of difference. The assimilationist position, which sees the solution to ethnic questions in terms of integration and acculturation, shares with exterminatory 'solutions' the desire to establish harmony through the elimiation of difference.

2The instruction given to Serbian soldiers was, "The less Arnavuts (Albanians) and Turks remain with us, the greater will be your contribution to the country". Putting these instructions into practice had familiar results. According to one witness, "In the winter, very cold and frosty, of 1877-1878, I saw people running away, weakly dressed and barefoot, that had abandoned their warm and wealthy rooms ... On the way from Grdelica to Vranje, all the way to Kumanova, on both sides of the road corpses of children and old people could be seen that had died of the cold". (Institute of History 1998:6) Knowledge of Balkan history might have suggested to NATO leaders that Serbian nationalists have in the past used the cover of war to intensify ethnic cleansing.

3This is often the case with communal conflict in the Balkans, where colonial rulers have, over hundreds of years, created potential for manifold identifications of 'oppressor' and 'oppressed'. Islamic groups in particular, such as Bulgarian Turks, Bosnians and Kosovars are constructed as interlopers installed as 'Turkish' titular elites.

4In 'Mourning and Melancholia' (1915) Freud too connected a pathological state of grief with narcissistic aggression. In her account of the subversion of women's grief by authoritarian male powers Mukta (1997) does not consider how the latter may not just suppress lament because of its destabilising potential, but rather mobilize it.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999