January 25, 2022

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

According to the terms of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, Republika Srpska made it through, and was given the status of an autonomous entity within the independent state of Bosnia-Herzegovina (the other entity being the state made up of federated cantons).

One is forced to challenge such concerns when analyzing the history of Republika Srpska, the autonomous Bosnian entity at the heart of the existing crisis in Bosnia. Its current leader, Milorad Dodik, has actually intensified dangers that he will create a brand-new military force and withdraw from Bosnia, hence plunging the country and the former Yugoslav region back into armed conflict.



In early November, a report to the United Nations written by Christian Schmidt, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, was dripped to journalism. In it, Schmidt alerted that the country was in danger of breaking down, with a very genuine possibility for a restored civil war waged by armed Serb separatists. In the days after, as news about an approaching hazard of war in Bosnia spread, I received a few media queries asking if I, as a historian of the Balkans, might compose a brief piece explaining the roots of the present crisis.

Karadzic and Mladic failed, and the creators of Republika Srpska were later on convicted in the Hague on charges of crimes against humankind and genocide.

Asking historians to dig deep into such history can feel a bit like sending a scuba-diving team into a tub– but that demand is exactly what politicians do when they mobilize historians to provide specific narratives, a job which some scholars use up, whether from pressure, conviction, or opportunity to be near to power.

But the more I considered postwar Bosnia, the more interested I became in the restrictions of such brief pieces.


How useful is it to attempt to provide deeper historic descriptions of conflicts that have mainly shallow political roots? And while historians tend to excel at fact-checking, is it really the very best– or only– defense that they can wield versus state-sponsored narratives founded on purposeful lies?

I definitely might have drafted such a piece– but I could not shake a sense of unease about the roles that historians are frequently asked to play in such cases.

Today, more than twenty years after the war, Republika Srpska is led by Milorad Dodik, a blustery political leader who portrays himself as the guardian of this wartime legacy. Though initially portrayed as an alternative to Karadzic, Dodik has ended up being adamant in rejecting that the Republika Srpska founders dedicated genocide and claiming that the entity will quickly form its own army, treasury, and other organizations. Russias Putin and Serbias Vučić have welcomed Dodik as a regional ally, condoning his hazards of secession.

Republika Srpska itself is a recent political development. It goes back to 1992, when hardline Bosnian Serb nationalists led by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic took on Yugoslavias dissolution as their opportunity to develop an ethnically pure nation-state. Backed by Slobodan Milosevic and the residues of the Yugoslav National Army, the founders of Republika Srpska pursued their extreme goal with desert, targeting the elimination of non-Serbs (mainly Bosniaks and Croats) from the territory that they took throughout the 3 years of war that followed, from 1992 through 1995.

Dodiks nationalist job likewise involves rewriting and deepening Republika Srpskas history. When one speaks with the extravagantly government-funded Encyclopedia of Republika Srpska– a series of more than a lots volumes was announced, but therefore far just 3 tomes have appeared– one encounters contorted claims that this entity has a long and wonderful previous extending back to the Middle Ages and late antiquity.

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

When challenged with nationalist fabrications of an imaginary past, historians typically turn to a few of their preferred tools: fact-checking and myth-busting. Confronted with misleading claims about 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 important functions of the historical discipline. Historians have the power to expose falsehoods, develop more accurate accounts, and open up a variety of evidence-based approaches to studying the past.

Generally, the type of historical explainer that is sought when a long-ignored place strikes the news– be it Bosnia, Sudan, Nagorno-Karabakh– is a mix of myth-busting and standard info about that land.

However how far can fact-checking correctives truly go when challenged with political programs identified to create their own narratives of the past, however fanciful?

The historic craft inevitably intervenes in and indeed springs from human affairs. This reality leads Arendt to be suspicious of the historian as well as the politician due to the fact that they will be lured to fit their truth– which, after all, was man-made to start with and hence could have been otherwise– into their theory, hence psychologically getting rid of its befuddling contingency..

Faced with powerful forces that are rewording the past, historians need to reconsider their presumptions and position brand-new questions about the relationship in between power and their discipline.


And such disputes exacted a severe toll in postwar Bosnia. The rehabilitation of founded guilty war crooks and relativization of their crimes in the self-governing entity retraumatized victims and survivors families by negating their experiences. By validating previous violence, denialist discourses also made the threats of restored violence more ubiquitous and reputable, especially as Dodik increase speak about producing his own military.

Recognizing these characteristics as issues of power challenges the extensively presumed concept of history as an ideally objective field of inquiry that works finest when it is removed from politics.

He started to conjure up spectral threats of an Islamic conspiracy against the Serbs and Christian Europe while denying that Republika Srpska founders systematically targeted Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the 1990s. In 2017, the Republika Srpska government banned mentor about subjects like the bloody sieges of Sarajevo and Srebrenica in the 1990s.

Our age, rife as it is with denialist projects, opens a chance for a different view: one that accepts historys inherent and multiple political capacities rather of lessens them to the task of safekeeping facts.

Operating in exceptionally different contexts, comparable denial-empowered forces are now ascendant in numerous nations, including the United States. After initiating an ethical panic around the spectre of vital race theory, Republican political leaders in 20 US states have actually recently persuaded their states legislature to prohibit the mentor of dissentious topics in American history.

American historians are scrambling to react to this legislative onslaught, which is in impact tantamount to a state-mandated rejection of foundational elements of American history. In June, 2021, an open letter jointly signed by 135 scholarly associations objected that the clear objective of such laws is to reduce mentor and learning more about the function of racism in the history of the United States. In August 2021, the president of the American Historical Association, Jacqueline Jones, released an engaging essay summarizing the crucial patterns in the history of anti-Black bigotry in the United States, however likewise describing what important race theory is and is not.

International and domestic demonstrations did little to reduce Republika Srpskas offensive. Efforts to engage with proponents of soft rejection, which begin by acknowledging some criminal offenses however challenge the label of genocide, led only to a continual shifting of definitions up until the story of hard denial as soon as again predominated.

That suitable is shared by Hannah Arendt, who remarkably explored how lying and deception work in modern politics, however whose analysis assumed that the pursuit of fact– including the work of fact-checkers and historians– need to eventually be a primarily singular and unbiased venture.

When it comes to Republika Srpska, it is clear that political leaders like Dodik understand the uneasy fact about current events. As just recently as 2007, Dodik himself acknowledged that genocide was dedicated in Srebrenica by the armed forces of Republika Srpska.

To consider politics from the point of view of truth, Arendt argued, indicates to take ones stand outside the political realm. This standpoint is the standpoint of the truthteller, who surrenders his position … if he tries to interfere directly in human affairs and to speak the language of persuasion or of violence..

Moreover, hurrying to disprove denialist claims– lets say by very first naming falsehoods and after that remedying them– runs the risk of acknowledging them as a genuine beginning point for historic analysis instead of a political job intentionally placed outside the empirical structures assumed by the majority of historians.

In turn, Dodiks escalating dangers remained in no little part driven by his refusal to abide by the brand-new genocide rejection law; instead, he asserted, Republika Srpska would look for de facto self-reliance, which would guarantee its flexibility to create a future and previous detached from truths.

The problem ultimately grew so serious that a brand-new law restricting genocide rejection was imposed in July 2021 by Valentin Inzko, the top official in charge of the civilian implementation of the Dayton agreement in Bosnia. Though the law generally banned genocide denial of any sort, it was widely understood to be a long-overdue relocation versus Dodik.

However worthwhile though such fact-checking correctives are, they are no match for political leaders who can pass laws prohibiting teachers from mentor real realities about the past.


What communal and institutional venues could assist combat disinformation and pave the method for more sincere public reckonings with upsetting pasts?

Of what use can expert historians be to society?

Arendt is best to emphasize both the unnerving fragility of truths in addition to their peaceful durability. For this unsafe stress threatening at every turn to move into the realm of lies, she concludes, there is no remedy.

American historians are scrambling to react to this legislative onslaught, which is in effect identical to a state-mandated rejection of foundational elements of American history.

I do not have clear-cut responses to these questions. I believe that broadening the debate around the relationship in between politics and history could put historians in a much better position to combat against the ascendant forces of denial, whether in Bosnia or in the United States.

In the days after, as news about an upcoming risk of war in Bosnia spread, I got a few media queries asking if I, as a historian of the Balkans, might compose a short piece describing the roots of the present crisis.

That just makes the multiple struggles for truth-telling all the more essential. If the ongoing crisis in Bosnia is any guide, it shows that fighting versus resurgent denialist jobs stays a uncertain and dangerous process– and one that should trigger broad critical reflection.

When challenged with nationalist fabrications of an imaginary past, historians frequently turn to some of their preferred tools: fact-checking and myth-busting. Faced with deceptive claims about history, historians excel at pointing out the fallacies, distortions, and ahistorical misunderstandings that underpin such assertions. Historians have the power to expose fallacies, develop more precise accounts, and open up a range of evidence-based approaches to studying the past.