Gazimestan, 1989. In front of about one million Serbians, then–president Slobodan Milošević delivered a momentous speech to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. That speech was not only meant to remember the legendary battle of 1389, Serbia´s founding myth, but for Milošević to also recall the Serbians’ traumatic collective experience: the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Serbs during World War II. The forces set in motion by such victimhood rhetoric influenced Serbia´s ruthless conduct in the Yugoslav Wars a few years later.

International politics are driven by many forces both between and within states, but one particular factor has been underestimated for so long: collective trauma. In his book published in 2022 entitled From the Ashes of History: Collective Trauma and the Making of International Politics, Adam B. Lerner shows by compelling empirical case studies the magnitude of collective trauma. His examples include Israel´s foreign policy in the wake of the Holocaust, India ́s experience under British colonialism, as well as the troublesome impact of post-traumatic stress disorder of returning soldiers in US politics. Lerner’s argument: World politics is driven by the lasting experience of mass violence. Lerner adds with his theory of collective trauma a new but intriguing perspective to current international theory.

However, collective trauma is much more than the sum of all individuals suffering from trauma in a certain group. It can be described “as a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society. Aside from the horrific loss of life, collective trauma is also a crisis of meaning.” This definition draws from social psychology and reveals a deeper dimension into the realm of trauma studies. In the context of Milošević, his Gazimestan speech is much more than merely a propaganda tool to influence the masses, but also points to the Serbians’ history of collective trauma.

A major component of collective trauma is its influence on the identity of nations and states. Most often, the identity of a nation constitutes its behavior in the international system. One example is Israel: In the early 1960s, the young nation faced the growing threat of hostile neighboring countries. While the possibility of armed conflict with its Arab neighbors loomed, Israel pursued the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main orchestrators of the Holocaust.

These concurrent events had the effect of both reinforcing the experience of Israel as a brutally victimized nation, as well as highlighting the regional security threats faced by Israel. The trial attracted massive media coverage domestically and abroad with profound consequences: the intense debate surrounding the trial sparked a process that cemented the legacies of World War II as an integral part of Israeli identity. This collective identity unified the nation of Israel and helped shape its complex relationships with its occasionally hostile neighbors. By 1967, Israel perceived Arab nations, especially Egypt, as a serious threat to its national security. The tensions escalated into open conflict, known today as the Six-Day War. Prior to the war, the Israeli side portrayed their main opponent, Egypt and its president Abdel Nasser, as resurgent Nazis. After the Eichmann Trial, the memory of the Holocaust as a genuinely collectivized experience was still fresh in the minds of many people in Israel. As a result, a regime such as then president Abdel Nasser in Egypt was perceived as not only as a threat to Israel’s national security, but also evoke memories of the Jewish survival and comparisons to Nazi Germany. This has led some scholars to dub Israel as a prime example of “victimhood nationalism.”

Only fifteen years after World War II, and home to many Holocaust survivors, it could be argued that Israel’s politics was destined to incorporate this collective trauma into its national identity. However, this phenomenon is not limited to Israel.

One case in Asia also echoes the consequences of World War II. It is well-known in diplomatic circles that the deplorable crimes committed by imperial Japan over its neighbors during WWII occupation still overshadow its modern-day relations with South Korea and China, and the briefly but brutally occupied Philippines. Under the Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1941 to 1945, an estimated one million Filipinos starved to death or died in the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. The horrific Battle of Manila between the American and Japanese forces finally ended the occupation, but the harrowing effects of the destruction and the resulting massive loss of life of one hundred thousand Filipino civilian casualties occurred in a little over a month, an event that majorly shaped Filipinos national identity and psyche.

While Filipino-Japanese relations have mostly recovered, the Filipino national identity is still occasionally influenced by the past experience of mass violence. In 2022, an educational reform bill was adopted by the Philippine House of Representatives, which provides for the inclusion in the education curriculum of topics pertaining to the Filipino guerilla movement against the Japanese occupation. The objective was to build an “intensified sense of patriotism, nationalism, and the respect for rule of law.”

When seen through the lens of collective trauma, many developments in national and international politics become more comprehensible and tangible. The concept, as imperfect as it is may not be “the” answer in understanding the complex nuances of the international system but what it does is it offers an insightful and yet underestimated perspective into certain dynamics in world politics. This angle offers a valuable contribution to an overly Rationalist or Realist approach in international relations theory.

Seeing events on the world stage from this angle can also help to bring reconciliation between nations. The acknowledgment and mourning of all victims can bring together both victim and perpetrator, in most cases sharing both roles. A poem by the Japanese artist and atomic bomb survivor Sadako Kurihara echoes the shared losses by the Philippines and Japan during WWII: “Say ‘Hiroshima’, and hear of women and children in Manila thrown into trenches, doused with gasoline, and burned alive.”

To deploy the spirit of shared grief and taking responsibility for atrocities, something that will foster lasting peace in the international system, nations with troubled pasts ought to reflect on their collective traumas and integrate it into their national identity. This can help to alleviate the tremendous impact of mass violence on states and their behavior.


Written by Kilian Dvorak-Stocker; Edited by Shaira Rabi 

Photo credit to: Michael Tyler