Coming to Terms with a Dark Past examines the social memory of post-conflict societies. The balance between victims and victors plays out in three different case studies: the Finnish Civil War after the First World War, the decades long racial conflict in South African during Apartheid, and Bosnia-Herzegovina after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Both sides used guilt and victimization to justify their views while class, racial and ethnic divisions affected how each “national community” uses “historical perspective to make sense of their ordeal and ... rebuild a functional society.” Ahonen's study emerges out of a change in the perception of history after the rise of public history and “history from below,” which has transformed the history of post-conflict societies from one of amoral triumphalism to a morally infused histories reflecting on the victims of these conflicts. The result is that “civil society [becomes] engaged in history wars” between victims and perpetrators using monuments, commemoration rituals and public education to shape social memory.
The work reviews the history of each region's conflict and outlines the social divisions that emerged afterwards. Finland was split between the Whites and Reds, in South Africa Africans came to govern in place of their former oppressors the Afrikaners, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims all struggled to live together after the war. Reconciliation was a difficult process as contested narratives shaped their post-conflict experiences. Both winners and losers used historic representations of guilt and victimhood to justify the construction and transformation of social memory. South Africa was the most successful at reconciling the two sides with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while Bosnia-Herzegovina had the most trouble.
Ahonen argues that a lack of multiperspectivity in the Balkan state impeded understanding the victimization of the different perspectives. Ultimately it is realization that all of society suffers as victims of an internal conflict which leads to successful reconciliation. As Ahonen concludes, “instead of being persuaded from above to identify with an official grand narrative, 'history from below' let the separated groups bring their authentic experiences into the open and hence start a constructive dialogue.”
Ahonen's work outlines the impact of history and memory on society. She links the diversification of historical narratives by historians, and their examination of “limited identities,” to the process of using history to give voice to the victims of conflicts. At the same time, the increasing self-reflection of democratic societies made it possible for victims to have their voices heard. With these insights, the book becomes a fascinating glimpse as how democratic societies have been able to react and negotiate the consequence of divisive conflicts. Though not always successful in the post-conflict societies she examines, Ahonen demonstrates the practical (and extremely worthwhile) consequences of the “history from below” and its inclusion of different voices into public memory.