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A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 November 2009


A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood emerges as a major theme in the ethos of conflict of societies involved in intractable conflict and is a fundamental part of the collective memory of the conflict. This sense is defined as a mindset shared by group members that results from a perceived intentional harm with severe consequences, inflicted on the collective by another group. This harm is viewed as undeserved, unjust and immoral, and one that the group could not prevent. The article analyses the nature of the self-perceived collective sense of victimhood in the conflict, its antecedents, the functions that it fulfils for the society and the consequences that result from this view.

War victims
Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 2009

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The authors would like to thank Johanna Vollhardt, Sabina Čehajić-Clancy, Dinka Corkalo Biruski, Yechiel Klar and Dario Spini for their helpful comments on the earlier draft of the present paper.


1 Intractable conflicts, in which the parties involved invest substantial material and non-material resources and which last at least 25 years, are characterized as being total, protracted, violent, central, and perceived as being unsolvable and of zero-sum nature. See Bar-Tal, D., ‘Sociopsychological foundations of intractable conflicts’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 50, 2007, pp. 14301453-a.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 We recognize that in almost every intergroup conflict at least one side experiences a sense of collective victimhood and that in many of them both sides have this sense. The present paper focuses on intractable conflicts, in which both sides always experience a sense of collective victimhood.

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4 D. Corkalo Biruski and S. Penic (in preparation), ‘Facing trauma, facing the enemy: War trauma, group identity, collective guilt and outgroup attitudes’, in D. Spini, D. Corkalo Biruski, G. Elcheroth and M. Vasovic (eds), Facing Massive Violence and Social Change: Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia; J.D. Frank, Sanity and Survival: Psychological Aspects of War and Peace, Vintage: New York, 1967; H.C. Kelman, ‘Social-psychological dimensions of international conflict’, in I.W. Zartman (ed), Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques (revised edition), United States Institute of Peace Press: Washington, DC, 2007, pp. 61–107; J. Mack, ‘The Enemy System’, 1990, in V. Volkan, J. Demtrios and J. Montville (eds), The Psychodynamics of International Relationships, Vol. I: Concepts and Theories, pp. 83–95, Lexington, MA; V. Volkan, Blood Lines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1997.

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23 See Strobl, above note 13.

24 In this conception we focus only on a sense of self-perceived collective victimhood that results from behaviour of another group or groups.

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28 D. Bar-Tal, Shared Beliefs in a Society: Social Psychological Analysis, Sage: Thousands Oaks, CA, 2000; D.M. Mackie, T. Devos and E.R. Smith, From Prejudice to Intergroup Emotions: Differentiated Reactions to Social Groups, Psychology Press: New York, 2002.

29 M.H. Davis, Empathy: A social psychological approach, Hawthorne: New York, 1994.

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31 Societal beliefs are defined as shared cognitions by the society members that address themes and issues with which the society members are particularly preoccupied, and which contribute to their sense of uniqueness, see D. Bar-Tal, above note 28.

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43 See B. Anzulovic, above note 39.

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46 We do not claim that this mindset has to be shared by all the group members. We assume that at the height of an intractable conflict it is shared by the great majority of group members, but over time, when the peace process begins and continues, the sharing may be significantly diminished.

47 Sewell Chan, ‘Iranian Leader, Calling Introductory Remarks Insulting, Addresses Columbia’, New York Times, 25 September 2007.

48 Ethos of conflict, defined as the configuration of central societal beliefs that provide a particular dominant orientation to a society experiencing prolonged intractable conflict (see D. Bar-Tal, above note 28). It has been proposed that in the context of intractable conflict, such an ethos evolves with eight themes (see D. Bar-Tal, Societal beliefs in times of intractable conflict: The Israeli case, International Journal of Conflict Management, 9, 1998, pp. 22–50; and D. Bar-Tal, above note 1), as follows: societal beliefs about the justness of one's own goals first of all outline the goals in conflict, indicate their crucial importance and provide explanations and rationales for them. Societal beliefs about security stress the importance of personal safety and national survival, and outline the conditions for their achievement. Societal beliefs of a positive collective self-image concern the ethnocentric tendency to attribute positive traits, values and behaviour to one's own society. Societal beliefs about one's own victimization concern self-presentation as a victim, especially in the context of the intractable conflict. Societal beliefs about the delegitimization of the opponent are beliefs that deny the adversary's humanity. Societal beliefs about patriotism generate attachment to the country and society by propagating loyalty, love, care and sacrifice. Societal beliefs about unity refer to the importance of ignoring internal conflicts and disagreements during intractable conflict in order to join forces in the face of the external threat. Finally, societal beliefs about peace refer to peace as the ultimate desire of the society.

49 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 1.

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109 Ha'aretz, 29 April 1973.

110 See D. Bar-Tal, above note 1.

111 See S. Čehajić and R. Brown, above note 97.

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115 Lickel, B., Miller, N., Stenstrom, D.M., Denson, T. and Schmader, T., ‘Vicarious retribution: The role of collective blame in intergroup aggression’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 10, 2006, pp. 372390.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

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117 See E. Staub, above note 45.

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119 See R. Ramanathapillai, above note 59.

120 M. Mamdani, When victims become killers: Colonialism, nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2001, p. 34.

121 See J. Chaitin and S. Steinberg, above note 84; J. Vollhardt, above note 56.

122 See V. Vollhardt, above note 56.

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