At Agreement 25, the event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement hosted at Queen’s University Belfast, I watched as the leaders of each major political party in Northern Ireland gathered for a panel discussion. It was mildly ironic as they took their seats next to one another on stage in front of the world. Stormont hasn’t had a sitting government since I moved to Belfast in September. Yet seeing these leaders on stage, engaging in dialogue to commemorate this important anniversary, gave me hope. Some days, it seems like these leaders and their parties still have insurmountable differences. That day, they were able to put them aside to celebrate how far Northern Ireland has come in the past 25 years. To me, this underscores a firm belief in a commitment to peace that might just supersede partisan fighting.
Above: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the “guarantors” of peace, take the stage for a panel discussion at Agreement 25.
The week of 17 April wasn’t exactly the typical week I pictured having when I moved to Northern Ireland in September 2022 to pursue a Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. Yet at the same time, it was also exactly what I had envisioned. I was beyond fortunate to attend two days of Agreement 25, followed by three days of the annual EUROCLIO conference on teaching contested histories in Vilnius, Lithuania. I spent the entire week talking about peace – how to build it, how to maintain it, how fragile it is.
The EUROCLIO conference was all about dialogue and talking about contested histories. I spoke with a lot of teachers and educational practitioners from all over the world about whether it might ever be good practice not to teach histories that are extremely recent and highly controversial.
“Don’t kids deserve the chance to create new narratives that don’t revolve around conflict?” a teacher from the Balkans asked in a workshop.
Her point was that none of her students were born during the 1990s. With no personal memories of the war, shouldn’t they get the chance to start over?
Yes…but also, no. Two days later, I was walking beneath the iron “Arbeit macht frei” gates leading into Auschwitz-Birkenau, about to tour the infamous Nazi death camp that had captured my childhood horror and fascination. I have been fascinated by conflict and peace from a very young age, something I’ve only recently realized I can chalk up to a complicated relationship with my German heritage. Both of my grandmothers were born in the early 1940s in Berlin, and my grandfather’s parents emigrated from Germany in the inter-war period. I grew up surrounded with stories of wartime heroism – a great grandfather who helped hundreds of Jewish people find work in other countries; a cousin who refused to report for compulsory military service and was shot in front of his family. I am extremely proud of these acts of heroism, but what has always nagged at me is what I don’t know. Most of my family lived in Germany through the war, and I fear that there are darker truths that simply aren’t being passed down to future generations for fear of shame or reprisals. We don’t like to talk about the darker parts of our pasts, either collective national pasts or personal pasts. It’s easier to just sweep it under the rug and hope that it gets forgotten as people die and new generations grow up unaware.
However, there is something very dangerous about not engaging in that dialogue. I would have steered clear of using the cliché that “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it” if I hadn’t seen it inscribed in a plaque in the first exhibition barrack in Auschwitz. We have to keep talking about history if we want to continue building a more peaceful world. We must be aware of the warning signs so that we can prevent mass atrocities in the future. One of the best presentations I saw at the EUROCLIO conference was a multi-country project in which students used place-based learning to explore the victims of national socialism in their own countries. The teachers from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Denmark talked about how their students applied what they learned from their project to today’s circumstances, particularly regarding racism. Their findings? We have to keep a historical dialogue alive so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it.
So, I give this charge to students and teachers everywhere: keep talking about history. It is not an easy task, but continued dialogue will enable us to build peace and maintain it for generations to come.