Lamberto Zannier, HCNM: “Conflicts often have to do with the interpretation of history”

Motivated by a natural curiosity and well trained instincts, Lamberto Zannier, High Commissioner for National Minorities at the OSCE, attended the meeting organized around the project Contested Histories in Public Spaces in Oxford, which reviewed several cases of controversial monuments and statues around the world. In this meeting, Mr. Zannier explained the applicability of these cases as a reference point for developing conflict prevention tools and guidelines, where “education is key”, he stressed.

The charming streets of Oxford have some controversial corners. In the historical center of the city, right in front of the prestigious All Souls college, a statue of Cecil Rhodes stands undaunted, in spite of the campaign run by students asking to remove it and not further celebrate his legacy, polemically linked to Britain’s imperialism. Therefore, this city stands as a paradigmatic example of the global phenomenon studied by the Contested Histories in Public Spaces project, which Task Force meeting was held at the same All Souls college thus welcoming more than 20 scholars into a debate about the past and its day to day repercussions.

This project, led by the institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR), in partnership with EUROCLIO and other organizations sharing similar missions, envisions a simple but rather ambitious goal: drawing useful guidelines and recommendations from the global phenomenon of contested statues, monuments and streets names, which are being challenged for their historical legacy, usually related to colonialism, slavery, human rights violations or fascism, among many others. From the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa to the Captain Cook in Australia, from Holocaust memorials in Berlin to statues the Paraguayan dictator in Asunción, many are the cases found around the world -91 and summing up.

Even though this project is still on a development phase, it has attracted interest amongst relevant actors, such as university authorities, parliamentarians, as well as members of the international community. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and its High Commissioner for National Minorities, Lamberto Zannier, who flew from The Hague to the UK to join the discussion.

“The issue of memory politics is an issue that I keep finding as I travel through the area covered by my mandate. There are monuments, there are names of streets and symbols that I constantly find, where the interpretation by different groups differs and the difference of interpretation results in tension”

Lamberto Zannier, OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities.

But how comes that an organization dealing with security issues is interested in the public memory making through statues and monuments? Mr. Lamberto Zannier, in conversation with EUROCLIO, explained that his interest in this topic is tightly related to his mandate, which is primarily focused on conflict-prevention. “My mandate is to avoid or try to prevent tensions within society. Sometimes, I feel I need to dig a little bit more in-depth, and try to find out what is the source of these tensions. Very often this has to do with the interpretation of history”, he said. Awareness of this phenomenon, according to Mr. Zannier, did not come out of the blue. While traveling throughout the OSCE participating states -57 from Europe, Central Asia and North America- the High Commissioner has became aware of how salient this situation is for national communities. “The issue of memory politics is an issue that I keep finding as I travel through the area covered by my mandante. There are monuments, there are names of streets and symbols that I constantly find, where the interpretation by different groups differs and the difference of interpretation results in tension”, Mr. Zannier said, stressing that these dissimilar interpretations,combined with a lack of acknowledgment of the story of the Other, “affect the relationship between groups in society”.

That is how the High Commissioner for National Minorities of the OSCE became interested in looking how issues of this kind have been addressed in different contexts, and what are the lessons that can be retrieved from other cases around the world. In this regard, the mandate of the High Commissioner is matching with the project of Contested Histories in Public Spaces, which aim is to identify and research the decision-making process behind sometimes violent controversies over statues, monuments, and street names. What can a major of a city do when a statue is painted in red? What can a dean of a university do when the name of a hall is covered with pamphlets and banners? What can an activist ask for when a street name is considered offensive? Through practical guidance, the Contested Histories in Public Spaces project is aiming at addressing these questions in order to help future decision-makers and grassroots organizations.

“My job is to advise governments, and put forward an advice that is not only my own personal opinion, but that is based on things that worked before or against processes that resulted in failure. Look! Somebody else has tried this, and it was a disaster, so think twice before you do it, because you might apparently solve the problem tomorrow but then, the day after, you start finding out that you have a larger problem within your society”, said Mr. Zannier, explaining why he has decided to join the working group of this project. “I am exploring, and I do realize that this is a very sensitive issue”.

The role of education

Since its foundation in 1992, EUROCLIO has been raising awareness about the uses (and misuses) of history education for paving the way to a peaceful future. Even though the study of history is usually confined to academia, the role that it plays in the issues our societies are wrestling with today is rather prominent, especially for the emancipation of minority groups and social cohesion.

This situation is also clear for Mr. Zannier, who believes that younger generations are the key for conflict prevention. “If you want to have an integrated society you need to work on the young generations to make sure that people grow inside the society, and the diversity becomes well embedded in the society”, he said. Mr. Zannier also underlined the benefits of a well achieved integration, by which diversity can be at the service of society instead of being a problem. “You can free the government of the problem of dealing with diversity if you put this diversity at the service of the country. Then you really make the society more resilient to potential instabilities”.

Together with his interest to explore issues around history education, the attention paid by Lamberto Zannier to the role of history and memory in conflicts, represents a milestone for the international community. EUROCLIO and the IHJR welcome and appreciate his willingness to address such as sensitive but important topic, and believe that his path should be followed by other key decision makers.

“A Multiperspective Understanding of the Past: The Elephant in the Room of Diverse Societies?”: A Symposium by EUROCLIO, ALF and IHJR

On July 14, more than fifty educators, historians, civil society actors and other interested persons joined EUROCLIO, the Anna Lindh Foundation and the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation in Rotterdam, at the Erasmus University, for the symposium “A Multiperspective Understanding of the Past: The Elephant in the Room of Diverse Societies?”. In the following report, you can read all about the events of this day.

On Friday, July 14, 2017 EUROCLIO convened a symposium in conjunction with the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (the IHJR) and the Anna Lindh Foundation, with support from the Robert Bosch Foundation, and the Konferentie Nederlandse Religieuzen. History educators, public servants, and civil society actors gathered in Rotterdam to learn from one another’s experiences teaching and studying difficult histories in diverse societies through a lense of multiperspectivity. The day opened with remarks by EUROCLIO Director Jonathan Even-Zohar who introduced the topic for the day, the mission of EUROCLIO, and the Anna Lindh Foundation.

First panel session

In the first panel discussion, IHJR Director Dr. Timothy Ryback, National Committee for the 4 and 5 May Representative Niels Weitkamp, and Assistant Professor of Education and Pedagogy at Utrecht University Bjorn Wansink opened a dialogue about dealing with difficult historical legacies in the Netherlands with a global perspective. Dr. Ryback introduced his work for the IHJR on contested monuments and historical artifacts that have been causing controversy over the past few years, bolstered by social media campaigns, global protest movements such as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, and calls for the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols in the United States. It is in this context that he explained sensitive issues in the Netherlands surrounding the colonial legacies represented by the Golden Coach, the subject of his recent article for the New Yorker. Mr. Weitkamp expanded on the issues of contested legacies in the Netherlands with his presentation on the development of commemorations and remembrance of the World Wars in the Netherlands. He touched upon the challenges of crafting a commemorative culture that includes all members of a diverse society in these ceremonies. Professor Wansink closed the panel by offering strategies for using multiperspectivity in history education. His presentation was followed by a lively question and answer session with many new insights thanks to the diversity of experiences and expertise represented by participants of the symposium.

Second panel session

In the second panel session, team members from EUROCLIO’s Dealing with the Past project shared their experiences traveling and completing study visits to schools, civil society organizations, and government agencies in different countries with difficult histories. They then relayed the insights they gained from these visits which have helped them to impact teaching in their own countries. Meena Malhotra from the Peaceworks Organization in India travelled with History Educator Senada Jusic of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Colombia, where they learned about efforts of Colombian history educators and NGOs to approach violence from a perspective of peace, working backwards to see how peace devolved into violence in order to better understand their history and facilitate healing. Olesya Skrypnyk of Ukraine shared insights from her visit to Croatia, where she learned about the difficulties facing Croatians teaching modern history in relation to World War II and the Yugoslav Wars. Khaled El Masri of Lebanon discussed his trip to South Africa, where he learned about the country’s efforts to teach and deal with legacies of Apartheid.

Following the panels and catered lunch, participants chose to attend two out of four practical workshops offered by workshop leaders with experience in the areas of history education, social cohesion, and multiperspectivity.


Stanley Iwema and Melik Keskin led a discussion group on their work for the IHJR Social Cohesion project that brought Armenian and Turkish Youth organizations in the Netherlands together with scholars to discuss the sensitive histories between the two groups. The discussion focused on how this program could be replicated to create a wider impact or in relation to other difficult historical issues that still cause tension in society today.

Ineke Mok and Els Schellekens presented their graphic novel Quaco, Leven in Slaverij, inspired by an 18th century diary. The graphic novel intends to shift away from the typical narrative Dutch students get about slavery as the trade triangle by instead focusing on the life and experiences of a young boy named Quaco. The educational aims of the novel are to combine historical facts with a story that piques students’ interest in the topic.

Karen Polak and representatives from the Anne Frank House presented an interactive site they have developed as a teaching tool for multiperspectivity called “Stories that Move.” Students can explore video stories about other young people who share their experiences with discrimination and prejudice in order to understand and learn about different perspectives.

Antheun Janse led a discussion group on the concept of “Global Citizenship” and how teaching global history can serve to incite students’ interest in national history. He discussed how history ought to answer for students how and why the world is the way it is today.


To conclude the day, the European Commission’s Pavel Tychtl offered some final remarks connecting back to the main topic of the “Elephant” in the room. He suggested that for effective development of mutual understanding and respect, Europe must work to find a balance between distance and proximity to the “zoo” that is European history.

EUROCLIO would like to thank the workshop leaders and speakers for making the day extraordinary with their intriguing contributions. Participants also offered engaging comments and questions, adding invaluable insights and expertise to the day’s atmosphere of exchange and multiperspective learning.

Once again EUROCLIO, The Anna Lindh Foundation, and the IHJR are grateful to the Robert Bosch Foundation and Konferentie Nederlandse Religieuzen for making this event possible.

Click here for a PDF version of this report.

A Multiperspective Understanding of the Past: The Elephant in the Room of Diverse Societies?

Dealing with sensitive histories through intercultural dialogue

Dutch society is diverse, and Dutch citizens express in everyday life their multiple identities and perspectives. However, Dutch society has also seen plenty of controversy when a one-sided view on history and heritage has inflamed public debate. We need to get to the root causes of this kind of conflict, radicalisation and polarisation. Could people's interpretations of the past be one of these root causes?

Whereas every society has its own peculiar struggle with 'dealing with the past', there is an emerging understanding of common challenges.

On the 14th of July, the symposium "The Past: The Elephant in the Room of Diverse Societies?" will bring together views and experiences of civil society activists, including educators, cultural workers, and engaged citizens, from The Netherlands, as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina, India, Lebanon and Ukraine.

What can you expect?

We will start the day with a critical look at Dutch society from the perspective of an outsider and an insider, introducing relevant debates surrounding the Golden Coach and Black Pete controversies. Dr. Timothy Ryback, contributor to The New Yorker and director of the Institute of Historical Justice and Reconciliation, will share his view on the ethics of facing historical legacies of the past. In particular, the discussion will address difficult issues of identity, belonging, and polarisation. It is clear from the public debate in The Netherlands that radically opposing views on these matters challenge social cohesion.

Global perspectives, including those from Colombia, Croatia and South Africa, will be introduced by leading history educators who have traveled across the world to share their experiences and gain new insights. Their personal and professional journeys demonstrate the difficult nature of dealing with the past in divided, post-conflict societies. Often the recent, violent past has directly and immediately impacted their lives. How have they transformed their experiences into a catalyst for positive change?

The afternoon will explore in practical terms how civil society initiatives are finding ways to address sensitive histories for a range of societal purposes, including reconciliation, intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.

We hope to meet you during our symposium and to learn from one another, in the Netherlands and across the world, whether we are frank enough about the elephant in the room.

The symposium is organised by EUROCLIO - European Association of History Educators, the Anna Lindh Foundation Netherlands Network and the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, and the event is made possible by the generosity of the Robert Bosch Foundation and Konferentie Nederlandse Religieuzen.


Date: Friday, 14 July 2017 @ 09.30
Location: Mandeville building Erasmus University
Thomas Morelaan, 3062 PA Rotterdam

There is no fee for this symposium. A lunch will be provided.


09.30 Welcome

10.00 Panel discussion: “Sensitive history in the Netherlands”

11.45 Panel discussion: “Dealing with the past: a global perspective”

13.00 Lunch

14.00 First round of workshops

15.30 Second round of workshops

16.45 Conclusions, reflections and closing remarks

17.30 Drinks

Programme - Symposium 14 July 2017

EUROCLIO Custodian of IHJR Legacy

Following the institutional announcement made by the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR) on 30 April 2016, EUROCLIO is proud to have been designated as custodian of the legacy of the IHJR. The Friends of EUROCLIO Foundation has agreed to keep all records and material of IHJR, including the publications of shared historical narratives.

Board Member of the Friends of EUROCLIO Foundation Erwin Capitain stated: “We are very happy to host the important legacy of the IHJR. That is what partnerships are for.”

The IHJR has been instrumental in bringing together historian from opposing perspectives in amongst others the Balkans, Israel/Palestine and Armenia/Turkey. These and other achievements of the institute are strongly aligned with EUROCLIO’s work on the key issue of Peace and Reconciliation. EUROCLIO’s role as custodian will allow IHJR’s founder Dr Timothy Ryback to explore further opportunities for renewing IHJR’s operations.

For more information on the IHJR legacy, please contact EUROCLIO Director Jonathan Even Zohar or Dr. Timothy Ryback.

Roundtable: How to deal with the Past of the Western Balkans?

On the 11th of January 2013, a roundtable event was set up by EUROCLIO in order to discuss the question of ‘How to deal with the past of the Western Balkans?’. The roundtable was part of a five-day workshop of history educators from Former Yugoslavia with the presence of professional experts Chris Culpin and John Hamer and signifies one of the last phases of the History that Connects programme which seeks to address issues in the sensitive periods in the shared history of the Balkans that were left unaddressed in previous work of the history educators. The project aims to develop through collaborative writing inclusive and multi-perspective ready to use class room teaching material with a focus on the history of the region from 1900-1945.

The roundtable offered people interested in reconciliation and history education the opportunity to attend a discussion with the history educators of Former Yugoslavia and listen to presentations on reconciliation through or with history (education). Speakers were Anna Kiebert, Program Officer at The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR), Saša Obradović, currently a legal adviser of the Embassy of the Republic of Serbia to the Kingdom of The Netherlands and Claske Vos, historian, researcher and teacher at the University of Amsterdam who presented her findings and experiences concerning “A Study of the Regional Heritage Programme in Serbia as a ‘Vehicle of Europeanisation” .