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What use is fact-checking against fact-free politics?

In early November, a report to the United Nations written by Christian Schmidt, the upper representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, was leaked to the press. In it, Schmidt warned that the country was in danger of falling apart, with a ‘very real’ prospect for a renewed starchy war waged by armed Serb separatists. In the days after, as news well-nigh an impending threat of war in Bosnia spread, I received a few media inquiries asking if I, as a historian of the Balkans, could write a short piece explaining the roots of the current crisis.

I certainly could have drafted such a piece – but I couldn’t shake a sense of unease well-nigh the roles that historians are often asked to play in such cases.

Typically, the kind of historical ‘explainer’ that is sought when a long-ignored place hits the news – be it Bosnia, Sudan, Nagorno-Karabakh – is a mix of myth-busting and vital information well-nigh that land.

But the increasingly I thought well-nigh postwar Bosnia, the increasingly interested I became in the limitations of such short pieces.

How useful is it to try to provide ‘deeper’ historical explanations of conflicts that have largely shallow political roots? And while historians tend to excel at fact-checking, is it really the weightier – or only – defense that they can wield versus state-sponsored narratives founded on deliberate lies?

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One is forced to confront such questions when examining the history of Republika Srpska, the voluntary Bosnian entity at the heart of the current slipperiness in Bosnia. Its current leader, Milorad Dodik, has escalated threats that he will create a new military gravity and secede from Bosnia, thus plunging the country and the former Yugoslav region when into armed conflict.

Republika Srpska itself is a recent political creation. It dates when to 1992, when hardline Bosnian Serb nationalists led by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic seized on Yugoslavia’s dissolution as their endangerment to establish an ethnically pure nation-state. Backed by Slobodan Milosevic and the remnants of the Yugoslav National Army, the founders of Republika Srpska pursued their radical aim with abandon, targeting the suppuration of non-Serbs (primarily Bosniaks and Croats) from the territory that they seized during the three years of war that followed, from 1992 through 1995.

Karadzic and Mladic failed, and the founders of Republika Srpska were later convicted in the Hague on charges of crimes versus humanity and genocide.

But equal to the terms of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, Republika Srpska survived, and was given the status of an voluntary entity within the self-sustaining state of Bosnia-Herzegovina (the other entity stuff the state well-balanced of federated cantons).

Today, increasingly than twenty years without the war, Republika Srpska is led by Milorad Dodik, a blustery politician who portrays himself as the guardian of this wartime legacy. Though initially portrayed as an volitional to Karadzic, Dodik has wilt willful in denying that the Republika Srpska founders single-minded genocide and ultimatum that the entity will soon form its own army, treasury, and other institutions. Russia’s Putin and Serbia’s Vučić have embraced Dodik as a regional ally, varnishing his threats of secession.

Milorad Dodik kissing the flag of Republika Srpska at the Republic Day parade in Banja Luka in 2018. Photo from Wikipedia.

Dodik’s nationalist project moreover entails rewriting and ‘deepening’ Republika Srpska’s history. When one consults the lavishly government-funded ‘Encyclopedia of Republika Srpska’ – a series of increasingly than a dozen volumes was announced, but thus far only three tomes have appeared – one encounters contorted claims that this entity has a long and glorious past stretching when to the Middle Ages and late antiquity.

Asking historians to dig deep into such history can finger a bit like sending a scuba-diving team into a bathtub – but that demand is precisely what politicians do when they mobilize historians to replenish particular narratives, a task which some scholars take up, whether from pressure, conviction, or opportunity to be tropical to power.

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When confronted with nationalist fabrications of an imaginary past, historians often turn to some of their favourite tools: fact-checking and myth-busting. Faced with misleading claims well-nigh history, historians excel at pointing out the fallacies, distortions, and ahistorical misunderstandings that underpin such assertions. This kind of work remains one of the most valuable functions of the historical discipline. Historians have the power to expose falsehoods, establish increasingly well-judged accounts, and unshut up a variety of evidence-based approaches to studying the past.

But how far can fact-checking correctives really go when confronted with political regimes unswayable to create their own narratives of the past, however fanciful?

In the specimen of Republika Srpska, it is well-spoken that politicians like Dodik know the uncomfortable truth well-nigh recent events. As recently as 2007, Dodik himself undisputed that ‘genocide was single-minded in Srebrenica’ by the armed forces of Republika Srpska.

Shortly afterwards, Dodik decided that whipping up nationalist pride largest served his political ambitions. He began to invoke spectral threats of an Islamic conspiracy versus ‘the Serbs’ and ‘Christian Europe’ while denying that Republika Srpska founders systematically targeted Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the 1990s. ‘There was no genocide’ became the refrain that Dodik repeated in printing conferences and rallies year without year. In 2017, the Republika Srpska government vetoed teaching well-nigh subjects like the underdone sieges of Sarajevo and Srebrenica in the 1990s.

International and domestic protests did little to curtail Republika Srpska’s offensive. Efforts to engage with proponents of ‘soft denial’, which uncork by supporting some crimes but dispute the label of genocide, led only to a continual shifting of definitions until the narrative of ‘hard denial’ once then predominated.

And such debates exacted a harsh toll in postwar Bosnia. The rehabilitation of convicted war criminals and relativization of their crimes in the voluntary entity retraumatized survivors and victims’ families by negating their experiences. By justifying past violence, denialist discourses moreover made the threats of renewed violence increasingly suppositious and ubiquitous, expressly as Dodik ramped up talk well-nigh creating his own military.

The problem sooner grew so severe that a new law prohibiting genocide withholding was imposed in July 2021 by Valentin Inzko, the top official in tuition of the starchy implementation of the Dayton try-on in Bosnia. Though the law often vetoed genocide withholding of any sort, it was widely understood to be a long-overdue move versus Dodik.

In turn, Dodik’s escalating threats were in no small part driven by his refusal to comply with the new genocide withholding law; instead, he asserted, Republika Srpska would seek de facto independence, which would guarantee its self-rule to create a past and future uninfluenced from facts.

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Though operating in profoundly variegated contexts, similar denial-empowered forces are now reigning in many countries, including the United States. Without instigating a moral panic virtually the spectre of ‘critical race theory’, Republican politicians in 20 US states have recently persuaded their state’s legislature to ban the teaching of ‘divisive subjects’ in American history.

American historians are scrambling to respond to this legislative onslaught, which is in effect tantamount to a state-mandated withholding of foundational aspects of American history. In June, 2021, an unshut letter jointly signed by 135 scholarly associations protested that the well-spoken goal of such laws ‘is to suppress teaching and learning well-nigh the role of racism in the history of the United States’. In August 2021, the president of the American Historical Association, Jacqueline Jones, published a compelling essay summarizing the key patterns in the history of anti-Black racism in the United States, but moreover explaining what hair-trigger race theory is and is not.

But worthy though such fact-checking correctives are, they are no match for politicians who can pass laws banning teachers from teaching true facts well-nigh the past.

Moreover, rushing to disprove denialist claims – let’s say by first naming falsehoods and then correcting them – runs the risk of recognizing them as a legitimate starting point for historical wringer rather than a political project deliberately positioned outside the empirical foundations unsupportable by most historians.

Recognizing these dynamics as problems of power challenges the widely unsupportable notion of history as an ideally impartial field of inquiry that works weightier when it is uninfluenced from politics.

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That platonic is shared by Hannah Arendt, who brilliantly explored how lying and charade work in modern politics, but whose wringer unsupportable that the pursuit of truth – including the work of historians and fact-checkers – should ultimately be an impartial and mostly solitary venture.

‘To squint upon politics from the perspective of truth,’ Arendt argued, ‘means to take one’s stand outside the political realm. This standpoint is the standpoint of the truthteller, who forfeits his position … if he tries to interfere directly in human wires and to speak the language of persuasion or of violence.’

But the historical craft inevitably intervenes in and indeed springs from human affairs. This fact leads Arendt to be suspicious of ‘the historian as well as the politician’ considering ‘they will be tempted to fit their reality – which, without all, was man-made to uncork with and thus could have been otherwise – into their theory, thus mentally getting rid of its disconcerting contingency.’

Our age, rife as it is with denialist projects, opens an opportunity for a variegated view: one that embraces history’s inherent and multiple political potentials instead of minimizes them to the task of safekeeping facts.

Faced with powerful forces that are rewriting the past, historians should rethink their assumptions and pose new questions well-nigh the relationship between power and their discipline.

What communal and institutional venues could help fight disinformation and pave the way for increasingly honest public reckonings with unsettling pasts?

Of what use can professional historians be to society?

I don’t have translucent answers to these questions. But I think that expanding the debate virtually the relationship between politics and history could put historians in a largest position to fight versus the reigning forces of denial, whether in Bosnia or in the United States.

Arendt is right to emphasize both the unnerving fragility of facts as well as their quiet resilience. For this dangerous tension threatening at every turn to slide into the realm of lies, she concludes, ‘there is no remedy’.

But that only makes the multiple struggles for truth-telling all the increasingly necessary. If the ongoing slipperiness in Bosnia is any guide, it shows that fighting versus resurgent denialist projects remains a risky and unsettled process – and one that should prompt wholesale hair-trigger reflection.

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The lives and deaths of Georgi Markov

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