This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Štambuk, M., Biruški, D. C., Kapović, I. (2022). Deeds, not words: Understanding intergroup apology and forgiveness from different sides of conflict. Journal of Peace Psychology, 28(3), 397-405. https://doi.org/10.1037/pac0000622
In the context of focus groups with ethnic Croats and Serbs in Croatia, decades after the Homeland War (or Croatian War of Independence) of the early 1990s:
- Participants from both ethnic groups wanted their victimhood to be recognized, and, though both groups acknowledged that their respective in-group members committed crimes during the war, they were reluctant to discuss accountability for in-group members.
- Apology was understood as taking place on the interpersonal level, thus intergroup apology—like political leaders apologizing for past crimes—would appear insincere or irrelevant.
- Forgiveness was seen as a desirable outcome and understood as “peaceful coexistence…without explicitly verbalizing seeking and granting forgiveness,” and as largely taking place on the interpersonal level rather than the intergroup level.
- Formal apologies and forgiveness might not be necessary to build peaceful, intergroup relationships between ethnic Serbs and Croats, but the “exchange of mutual social gestures showing readiness for contact and moving on with everyday living” are meaningful.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- When formally apologizing for past crimes, perpetrators—be the national government(s) or others—must demonstrate sincerity in their apologies in ways that make sense in context. That said, one powerful way to demonstrate sincerity is to use language that specifies the past harms committed and identifies actions that will be taken to remediate these harms, like reparations.
In a “post-conflict” setting, perpetrator apologies and forgiveness granted by victims are often thought to be important elements of the peacebuilding process. Yet, there is limited research on what the “apology-forgiveness cycle” looks like in practice and what these terms mean to communities torn apart by war. Marina Štambuk, Dinka Čorkalo Biruški, and Iva Kapović investigate how different community members “understand intergroup apology and forgiveness and its relevance for the peaceful future in postconflict ethnically mixed communities” in Croatia. The authors study this dynamic between ethnic Serbs and Croats decades after the “Homeland War” (also known as the Croatian War of Independence), which took place in the early 1990s. They find that formal apologies and forgiveness might not be necessary to build peaceful relationships within mixed ethnic group communities in Croatia; instead, the “exchange of mutual social gestures showing readiness for contact and moving on with everyday living” are more meaningful ways to rebuild at this stage of the “post-conflict” recovery.
The authors conducted several focus groups in two cities located in Croatia: Knin and Vukovar. These cities were selected due to their ethnic make-up and historical significance during the war. The population in Knin was 82% Serb prior to the war and represents an example of Serb victimhood wherein thousands of Serbs were killed and displaced following Croatian military victory in 1994. Several decades later, ethnic Serbs make up 23% of the population of Knin. In Vukovar, the population was more ethnically mixed—47% ethnic Croats and 32% ethnic Serbs—and represents an example of Croat victimhood. The Yugoslav Army and Serb paramilitaries besieged the city early in 1991, expelled and killed the non-Serb population, and remained in control until 1997. Today, the population is still ethnically mixed but with reported broken social ties between Serb and Croat communities.
A group’s claim to victimhood is an important factor in studying intergroup apology and forgiveness. In intergroup reconciliation processes, “perpetrators seek to restore their moral image while victims seek to regain their social power” by granting or withholding forgiveness—empowering victims both to control the perpetrators’ rehabilitation and to “hold on to the unique psychological resource of the victimhood status.” Victimhood status enables groups to “sustain ingroup cohesion and loyalty, gain solidarity from third parties, and divert attention from the past wrongdoings of the ingroup,” and thus tensions may grow among groups competing for victimhood status. Additionally, intergroup forgiveness creates a unique dynamic between direct victims, or those who suffered personal losses, and indirect victims, or those who did not personally suffer but are members of the targeted group. Direct victims are more “motivated to forgive,” to “[let] go of the pain and anger” they hold from their past trauma, whereas indirect victims are motivated to hold on to victimhood status, “making them less prone to forgive.”
Ethnic background and claims to victimhood informed how participants were selected for the focus groups in each city. The authors categorized participants by ethnic background, sex, age, and victimhood status (whether they were direct victims of violence during the war). In total, 65 individuals participated in the focus groups.
All participants acknowledged that both Serbs and Croats committed crimes during the war but were reluctant to discuss accountability for members of their own ethnic group. All participants also wanted their victimization to be acknowledged. They did not believe in intergroup apology—unless it were important to direct victims of the war—and, instead, understood apology “as an individual act happening at the interpersonal intimate level.” Further, both Serb and Croat participants felt that an “apology from people who did not participate in the war does not make sense and that only an apology offered by those who committed crimes may have some relevance for those who suffered.” Apologies could be offered symbolically, but having political leaders apologize for crimes felt insincere or irrelevant, thereby not influencing intergroup relations.
All participants agreed that forgiveness was important and desirable, but there were considerable differences between Serb and Croat participants on the preconditions for apology and forgiveness. In general, Croat participants felt that it was important for Serbs “to take responsibility, accept the guilt for instigating the war and crimes committed, and to help [with] finding the missing persons.” Serbs, however, expressed a desire for Croats “to accept them as equal citizens, to not discriminate [against] them, and to show readiness for coexistence.”
The authors conclude that because the war is still highly contested, “it is not surprising that intergroup apology and forgiveness easily reach gridlock…and are mainly rejected as useless and with no purpose for everyday life.” Generally, forgiveness was understood as “peaceful coexistence…without explicitly verbalizing seeking and granting forgiveness,” and as largely taking place on the interpersonal level expressed by, for instance, “saying hello on the streets, congratulating [one another at] religious events or drinking coffee together again.”
Formal apology in a post-war context is incredibly contentious. As this research notes, perpetrators want their moral image to be restored and victims want their trauma to be recognized before they can “move on” from the past. It is ultimately a question of power—who decides when it’s appropriate to “move on” from the past?—and politics—who is responsible for past crimes, and will they be held accountable? No acknowledgement of past crimes impedes the rehabilitation of society after mass violence, potentially re-igniting grievances that contributed to violence in the first place. But punishment carries its own risks, especially if a whole group is collectively punished for the misdeeds of a few of its members—thereby creating new grievances and stoking further violent conflict.
National governments often assume the responsibility of apologizing for war crimes, even if the individuals in power had little to nothing to do with the past. In the case of Croatia, apologies by politicians appeared meaningless and insincere to research participants. Yet, there are some cases where apologies from national governments are welcomed by victims. For example, in 1988 the United States passed the Civil Liberties Act that offered a formal apology and paid $20,000 in compensation to survivors of Japanese internment during WWII. In this case, survivors and their family members campaigned for an acknowledgment of the past and for redress. Congress responded by investigating the legacy of the camps and advancing a bi-partisan plan to address past wrong-doings by the U.S. government.
Apologies for past complicity in war crimes is not only the purview of national governments. In another example from WWII, Japanese company Mitsubishi Materials formally apologized in 2018 for the forced labor of American prisoners of war (POWs). In this case, while the company did not offer any specific actions or redress, current-day executives met in private with American POWs to acknowledge the harsh and inhumane treatment they suffered and expressed deep remorse for what happened. The sincerity of their apology was effectively communicated, according to one POW interviewed by NPR. Here, specific language naming past harms, even without naming actions to pair with the apology, conveyed sincerity.
Although these two examples of institutional apology may have helped facilitate healing in these contexts, this research suggests that institutional apologies may not always be the right approach. Context matters, and peacebuilding practitioners must remember to be attentive to the needs expressed by local communities in their search for reconciliation and healing after violent conflict. In mixed ethnic cities like in Croatia, fear or concern around what others believe about the war is significant to relations among different ethnic communities. How is it possible to apologize to or forgive another person who might fundamentally believe that members of your ethnic group (or you specifically) deserve punishment or don’t belong in the country? Sometimes the more constructive way forward entails acts of co-existence that, over time, help to alleviate fears without directly addressing the issues at the core of conflict resolution. [KC]
Continued Reading and Listening
Tasevski, O. (2020, August 25). ‘Hey, let’s forget that’: No US apology for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Diplomat. Retrieved January 25, 2024, from https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/hey-lets-forget-that-no-us-apology-for-the-atomic-bombings-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/
Warner, G. (2018, June 13). A case study in how to apologize for a war crime. NPR. Retrieved January 25, 2024, from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/13/619447126/a-case-study-in-how-to-apologize-for-a-war-crime
Baldwin, M., White, M. H., & Sullivan, D. (2017). Nostalgia for America’s past can buffer collective guilt. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48(4), 433-446. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2348
Wohl, M. J. A., & Branscombe, N. R. (2008). Remembering historical victimization: Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(6), 988–1006. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118
Post-Conflict Research Center: https://p-crc.org/
Healing Foundation: https://healingfoundation.org.au/
Keywords: managing conflicts without violence, violent conflict
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons