“We were only children!”

Rainer Gries, Eva Asboth, Michaela Griesbeck and Christina Krakovsky on the Children of the Balkan Wars.

Magazine > Interview > “We were only children!”

You can still find them all across Europe – members of a generation born into the agony and hopelessness of the socialist societies of the 1980s. Those who grew up in Yugoslavia of the 1980s and early 1990, torn by conflict and crises, can testify first-hand to the horrors of the Balkan Wars. The militant violence that these children and young people endured existentially outweighs any experiences of the social and political upheaval that occurred at that time. They learned to live in a state of emergency day by day during those years – and to survive, both physically and mentally.

The views, attitudes and actions of these young adults will have a crucial social and political impact on society within the next decade. The then minors have now grown up into adults in their thirties. Soon they will have to face elemental challenges with which they must deal in a certain way, political challenges that directly concern all of us across Europe.

Generation In-Between

The Children of the Balkan Wars: Getting to Know a Crucial Generation for Europe
Authors: Eva T. Asboth, Michaela Griesbeck, Christina Krakovsky | Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies, Vienna University, Vienna 2016

In the years to come, members of this generation will be faced with the task of continuing,  intensifying and further shaping – or possibly even initiating – the process of integrating  their countries into Europe, even though the European idea is now met with scepticism  and indifference by many young adults, particularly in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe.

To this end, the Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies at Vienna University has joined forces with partners from Austria, Germany and South-Eastern Europe to study  and accompany this generation that will play such a pivotal role in Europe’s future,  taking a scientific, long-term perspective.

“Generation In-Between” was designed to be  an introductory analysis of the history, psychology and politics of this key generation.

The study findings confirm that those who experienced the Balkan Wars of the nineties  as children or young people are still suffering deeply from these formative experiences of military violence. Furthermore, these results show that the members of this Generation In-Between have a strong need to communicate in public: they want to share their experiences and expectations with the outside world and talk about both the personal and social effects.

This need of the Generation In-Between to talk about their past, present and future was the starting point of a further study, “Generation In-Between. The Children of the Balkan Wars: Prevention Through Communication”, which Jovana Trifunović talked about with Rainer Gries and his team, Eva Asboth, Michaela Griesbeck and Christina Krakovsky.

Few studies have focused on analysing the civic engagement of young people in the post-socialist and post-war contexts of South-Eastern Europe. What prompted you to initiate this study? 

In studying the Generation In-Between we analyse a key generation for the future of Europe. In the next decade after the current crises, it will be up to young adults in their thirties to re-formulate and re-define “Europe”. If “Europe” is not to fail, they must tackle this Herculean task – but will they take on this challenge? Will they engage in political work? Therefore, our basic questions are: how do the members of these age cohorts position themselves in the successor societies of Yugoslavia between East and West, between past and future, between nations and Europe? Can they be encouraged to stand up for their community, their society, their country and for Europe? And if so: how can we guide and advise these young adults along their way?

Would you say that the situation of young people and young adults in South-Eastern Europe differs from that in the rest of Europe?

Absolutely. Those who grew up during the Balkan Wars not only went through a political and societal revolution and transformation but have had to bear the consequences of the wars to this day – personally, socially and politically. They are “children of war” in Europe.

The situation of young people and young adults in South-Eastern Europe is unique, because they are living between two worlds – between the instability they experienced and the expectations to bring their home countries and themselves closer to well-functioning parts of Europe. It is important to contextualise a generation within the political system they grew up in, and to take into account the possibilities, privileges and options that were available – or non-existent, as the case may be. In our case this means a childhood during war and the political instability of the 1990s that still exists today. The postconflict countries in South-Eastern Europe are justifiably labelled as being in transition, which means that from a western point of view they have to catch up with democratic standards.

However, they have their very own history, their very own experiences and, as a result, special competencies, which should also be put to use for the European idea.

You refer to them as the Generation In-Between. They are often described as having a particularly low level of interest in politics and social commitment. Does your study confirm this assumption?

You’re right. It is generally assumed that the members of this generation mistrust politicians, state institutions and social communities. We were interested to find out whether this is actually the case.

In fact, the findings of our study throw a more positive light on these young people. To get an insight into their civic engagement, we were primarily interested in investigating their hidden politics. In that sense, an important result revealed by our study is that we should not carelessly label the Generation In-Between as “apolitical”, as is often the case. Admittedly, they reject the current political system in their countries, which they perceive for the most part as corrupt. However, there is no doubt that they are in fact highly interested in current political affairs, in collaborating with NGOs and civil society activists. Such hidden political actions open up promising avenues for integrating this generation into Europe.

“The children of the nineties were children of war. They learned to hide in cellars and bunkers at the sound of air sirens, and they were there when bombs went off causing destruction in the space of a few seconds.”

What was the main target group of your research?

We were interested in young people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo who have become active of their own accord – whether by launching their own small projects, volunteering or working with an NGO. Our study thus addresses those who engage in social and political activities and takes a closer look into the direct or roundabout paths they have taken. Youth engagement and an interest in civil society are essential for a longterm and sustainable process of democracy building.

We realised that up to now, the great variety of grass-root initiatives and private projects have been overlooked or rarely explored on an academic level. Very few studies have focused on analysing this kind of youth civic engagement in South-Eastern Europe. This was the starting point for our research.

Belgrade 2015 Waterfront Protest

You explored not only the motives for their engagement but also focused on their individual goals?

Yes, we did. We wanted to identify the big questions that concern them. We have detected five main aims that the Generation In-Between engages with and tries to attain with different strategies:

1. Reconciliation is one of the most essential aspects that motivates young people to engage in civic action in South-Eastern Europe. They are aware of the lack of exchange with people from other ex-Yugoslavian countries and are curious whether the stories they have heard from the media and their families about other countries are true. They strive for reconciliation by organising exchange programmes or events and by collecting individual narratives. Through the exchange experience the horizons of others become comprehensible; participants can directly respond to prejudices or other ideas in a protected environment.

2. In line with the idea of reconciliation, young adults are also searching for a sensible and meaningful way to deal with history. Once again it becomes obvious that the educational systems fail to deal with crucial aspects of the historical facts so that many historical occurrences and contexts are not common knowledge. Members of the Generation In-Between, however, engage with the past directly and want to come to terms with past atrocities. This makes it possible, on the one hand, to understand historical facts in general and, on the other hand, to comprehend personal stories. The demand for a shared, common history becomes apparent, a history that takes into account the manifold perspectives of the countries of former Yugoslavia without deliberately distorting or concealing facts.

3. Another concern of young adults is to make issues or perspectives public that are usually passed over in silence by the media or are never mentioned due to a lack of social acceptance. In this context, there is great support for the LGBTQ community as well as for socially disadvantaged people.

4. In a region where the wars and the bad economic conditions still leave visible traces, it is not surprising that young people want to be actively involved in improving these conditions. They use art as a means to achieve this, for example. One of their main concerns in this context is to improve living conditions and to create something beautiful for everyone.

5. Finally, charity work is important to them: they are willing to help – in their nearby area, in the cities and municipalities and wherever it is necessary. For them it is an opportunity to express their social commitment.

What was the main outcome of your study?

One of the most important findings of our study is that these young people want to continue to be active in order to improve society in one form or another – for this purpose some of them even choose to pursue a political career. They believe that reconciliation is worth working for, not least to build up democratic values. And they are willing to share their knowledge and experience in crisis management that could help solve difficulties the EU is currently facing.

It is therefore essential to support small and independent initiatives in the future, because they have the potential to foster further civic engagement.

We must not forget that these young people in the region are “children of the Balkan Wars”: knowing about the history of recent crises and conflicts is very important to them. For this reason initiatives should come from within the Generation In-Between and not from “outside” like external NGOs or donors. In this regard, our interview partners could be valuable first contacts. The young people have the need to carry their own knowledge and competencies, for example in dealing with crises, into the world and to apply them. We should offer them a platform to do so – and we should listen to them.

We have learned that we can learn a great deal from each other.

Michaela Griesbeck, Christina Krakovsky, Rainer Gries und Eva T. Asboth

Univ.-Prof. Dr Rainer Gries, historian and communication scientist, director of the transdisciplinary Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies at the Department of Contemporary History and at the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. Additionally, Rainer Gries has held a professorship in psychological and historical anthropology at the Sigmund Freud Private University Vienna/Berlin/Paris.

MMag. Eva Tamara Asboth, historian, researcher at the transdisciplinary Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies, doctoral candidate in the Department of Contemporary History of the University of Vienna. Research focus: media and war, historical communication research, South-Eastern Europe.

Dr Michaela Griesbeck, social scientist and semiotician, researcher at the transdisciplinary  Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies, lector at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna. Research focus: Communication, mobility, ages of young adults, intercultural communication.

Mag. Christina Krakovsky, communication scientist, researcher at the transdisciplinary Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies, doctoral candidate at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna, board member of the working group for historical communication research (editor of the journal “medien & zeit”). Research focus: participation and articulation in public space, media and Viennese avantgarde, historical communication research, South-Eastern Europe.