The Benefit of Being a Victim

In December 1995 the guns in Bosnia-Herzegovina fell silent. At this point 100.000 people were killed and over two million displaced. Expulsion and murder as well as intra-ethnic homogenization efforts forced the inhabitants of the former Yugoslav republic to declare themselves as Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs and therewith as mutual enemies. And even more: Ethnicity became the only relevant aspect of their identity. Until today, twenty years after the end of war, hardly anything has changed. The “Dayton-Agreement” was successful in ending the physical violence, but it has also created one of the most complicated, ethnically divided and therefore instable political system worldwide. Actually, the present situation in BiH is often described—by using Clausewitz’ famous characterization of war upside down—as an extension of war by political means. The construction of personal identity is to a large extent still affected by the identification with the ethnic in-group, which is typically perceived as the central victim of war.

Ruins of a wall overgrown with grass
Photo: Ana Mijić

Self-victimization is an evident strategy to maintain a positive self-perception in the light of the postwar challenges, since it creates a sense of differentiation and superiority. All responsibility is typically passed on to the ethnic others and the violence of the in-group towards the out-group is usually legitimized by referring to its irreducibly defensive characteristic. In this context being a victim has hardly anything to do with weakness. Quite the reverse, victimhood is connected with power. It is politically beneficial: Victims are morally privileged, they generally have all the sympathies and are able to reject any responsibility by referring to their suffering. Self-victimization indeed stabilizes a positive self-image, since it strengthens the ‘group-charisma’, but self-victimization does not guarantee that others recognize this identity. Particularly among the three ‘constitutive nations’ in BiH such a recognition could not be expected since all of them perceive themselves as a central victim of war. However, due to the social and spatial closeness of the conflict parties, people are not able to avoid the realities of the (ethnic) others. A hermeneutical analysis of interviews conducted in BiH shows, that people in BiH implement specific strategies in order to defend their particular ‘truth’ about the past.

Moral Alchemy

Self-victimization is characterized by the dichotomy of victim and perpetrator. However, in the light of the continuous confrontation with conflicting perceptions of reality, the explanation that members of the ethnic out-group were just perpetrators is hardly sustainable. To solve this problem people are questioning the truth or the truthfulness of the alternative narration. The dichotomy of victim and perpetrator becomes a dichotomy of true victimhood on the one side and a created, constructed or invented victimhood on the other. The process within which this happens was labeled by Robert K. Merton most aptly as “moral alchemy”: “Through a faultlessly bisymmetrical prejudice, ethnic and racial out-groups get it coming and going. The systematic condemnation of the out-grouper continues largely irrespective of what he does. More: through a freakish exercise of capricious judicial logic, the victim is punished for the crime. Superficial appearances notwithstanding, prejudice and discrimination aimed at the out-group are not a result of what the out-group does, but are rooted deep in the structure of our society and the social psychology of its members. To understand how this happens, we must examine the moral alchemy through which the in-group readily transmutes virtue into vice and vice into virtue, as the occasion may demand.”

Double Relativization as Identity-Stabilizer

Occasionally people recognize that members of their ethnic in-group could have committed (war) crimes. It would stand to reason that such a recognition supports a no longer idealized we-image. But what is actually happening is the effort to relativize in-group crimes by comparing them to out-group atrocities. This double relativization—i.e., the relativization of one’s own we-ideal, which itself is relativized—in the end supports the stabilization of the we-ideal.

Subjectification of War

When Tito died, when Yugoslavia fell apart, this damned war came and did what it did: it made us all enemies.(Interview 2)

Many interviewees describe the war not as something made by humans. They characterize it rather as something that abolished and antagonized the ‘innocent’ human beings. The war is seen as an event completely independent from human action—like a natural disaster—or even as an active subject. War can thus not be seen as a matter of ethical considerations and no responsibility has to be attributed to human action. The social function of this interpretation pattern is obvious: By subjectifying the war, people not only distance their own ethnic group from any responsible action and protect their own we-ideal. Furthermore the same possibility is offered to the respective ethnic out-group. It seems to be quite reasonable to assume that the subjectifying of war could be seen as the lowest common denominator on which the parties can agree on.

Silencing War in Interethnic Encounters

Due to pragmatic considerations the knowledge about war is often not mobilized at all in interethnic communication. Silencing the war for the benefit of the normalization process seems to be quite reasonable—at least prima facie. However, a second glance shows that this strategy eventually supports a reproduction of ethnic boundaries and makes them even denser since silencing is not to be equated with forgetting. Actually, people are not able to forget not at least due to the fact that the remembrance of the in-group’s suffering is a constitutive part of the ethnic narrative. And when conversations about the reality of the past only take place among like-minded people, it could be expected that this reality will be engraved in stone. Against this backdrop it is quite obvious why it is the conflict and not the avoidance of it that contributes to a destruction of ethnic boundaries and the integration of the Bosnian society. In the end, silence is just one further weapon within the aforementioned continuation of war by political means.

Ana Mijic
© David Bogner

Ana Mijić studied sociology and political sciences (international relations/peace and conflict studies) at the University of Tübingen. Currently she has a postdoc position at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna. Her research interest covers culture and knowledge, identity and ethnicity as well as social and symbolic boundaries.  

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