We have a significant debt to the victims of communism

Nēla Vinkelmane (Neela Winkelmann) - Čehijas galvaspilsētā Prāgā bāzētās nevalstiskās organizācijas "Eiropas Atmiņas un sirdsapziņas platforma" izpilddirektore. Publicitātes foto
Rudīte Kalpiņa
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Dr. Neela Winkelmann is the managing director of The Platform of European Memory and Conscience, and NGO based in Prague. It unites fourty-three institutions (including the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia) from twenty countries with the goal of educating society about the crimes commited by totalitarian regimes.

Last August Ms. Winkelmann visited Rīga to take part in a conference organized by the Latvian Ministry of Justice – Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 75: Echoes Today and in the opening of the travelling exposition Totalitarianism in Europe. That was when this converstation began.

Why did it take such a long time – more than 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain – for Eastern European countries to broadly grasp and realize the number of victims of the communist terror and to make it public, for example, in this Platform exhibition, which is seen in the Occupation Museum in Riga?

That is truly an important question. Unfortunately, we cannot say even today that the Eastern European countries have fully grasped and realised the number of victims of the Communist terror in the context of the region. It is surprising that it is taking so long to “count the dead”.

The reason is that no comprehensive international justice process took place after the collapse of the Communist dictatorships and that the justice carried out on the national level was insufficient too.

We must not forget that for long decades, the Communists concealed the crimes they committed, as well as any information about them. The documentation of these crimes was classified and top secret material. With the exception of former East Germany, it has taken suprisingly long for most post-Communist countries to make the archives of the secret police and other repressive forces of the dictatorship freely accessible to the public, so that corresponding research and enquiries about the victims of the past atrocities could be carried out. This battle for free access to the archives harbouring information on human rights violations has gone on too long. There are strong forces trying to counteract these efforts even today.

What was lacking since 1989 was political will: at the very beginning, there were active players who prevented a necessary evaluation and public processing of the totalitarian past and the drawing of the logical consequences. Prominent political leaders of the new societies in transition promoted the “thick line behind the past” (Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Václav Klaus or Vladimír Mečiar for example), forcing everybody’s attention forward, away from the past. Transformation of the economy, the establishment of democratic institutions and other political tasks were given priority over the reflection of the crimes of the past. Thus while the fundamental right to justice was denied to countless millions of victims, the former perpetrators made a smooth transition into the new system, oftentimes retaining or receiving influential positions in society, further actively preventing the coming to terms with the crimes of Communism. In Czechoslovakia, the lack of justice was one of the elements which led to what President Václav Havel somewhat inappropriately criticised as the “lousy mood” (“blbá nálada”) in society which set in soon after the Velvet Revolution.

Thus a serious debt accumulated toward the victims who were not sufficiently valued and honoured and the perpetrators who were not punished, even for gravest crimes as defined in international law. As we were establishing the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, we knew that our first international project would be precisely this – an attempt to put together the existing statistics on the victims of the gravest crimes of 20th century totalitarian regimes and the statistics of prosecution of their perpetrators in 12 today’s Member States of the EU. This is how our travelling exhibition Totalitarianism in Europe was created.

We are pleased that this exhibition has been presented with success in 13 major cities in 12 countries over the past two years, including Berlin, The Hague, the European Parliament in Brussels and Ukraine where it opened in Kiev on 21 November 2013 and stayed with our colleagues there and in Lviv during the moving weeks of last winter’s democratic revolution.

Do you think that an understanding of the fact that the crimes of totalitarian regimes are equivalent is finally seen in Europe as well? In the conference could be heard the sacred words: all victims are equal, the victims do not distinguish among each other. How did these different perceptions of history develop in the Western European countries and in Eastern Europe?

I am afraid that that understanding exists only on paper – in some progressive resolutions of the European Parliament for instance. A lot of work lies ahead of us before we can reach an understanding that victims of Communism deserve just as much respect as victims National Socialism or of any other totalitarian or non-democratic system.

But there is a natural process under way and it has a natural reason: for over 40 years the Communist dictatorship successfully concealed and suppressed the truth about the crimes it was committing. Not only did it destroy the natural elites in society – politicians, civil servants, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, self-sustaining farmers, landowners, members of the democratic military, together with their entire families, religious leaders with their communities and others. It managed to conceal the crimes even within the countries themselves – the victims were to disappear from public view, from society and from memory. Be it the prisoners of the regime, be it the people who were deported or killed. You were not supposed to know, you were not taught at school what the regime was doing to its opponents, you were not supposed to speak about such things outside your closest circles because you never knew who would take note and inform on you to the secret police. And so, after the fall of Communism, we did not know the extent of the crimes committed, the numbers of the victims, or even their names. A lot of time has elapsed since then and a lot has been done. We are closer to the truth today. And only after doing the necessary research in our countries can we reach out to our fellow Europeans in the West and tell our story. A story which they have not heard because we lived concealed behind the Iron Curtain which was impermeable both ways.

I am sure and we see it in the results and the positive reception of our work that it is only a question of time until the true history of Communism will become an integral part of European textbooks.

There is a moving monument to the victims of Communism which was erected in Prague after the millennium – a series of human figures with outstretched arms coming down a flight of steps out of a hill. The figure farthest uphill is only a fragment of a human being. The nearer the figures come, the more contours they gain until finally, at the foot of the stairs, a naked man faces you in a gesture of silent remorse – bring us back from oblivion. That is what we owe these people and that is what we are doing in our Platform.

Why is overcoming the past so essential in today’s East European societies? How would you describe the situation in the former Soviet bloc countries and the Baltic states?

All societies which emerge from a dictatorship or a violent conflict need to go through the process of truth finding, justice, reparation and reconciliation in order to heal. These elements are an intrinsic need of the people so that they can begin to trust and embrace the new democratic system. Coming to terms with the past – I like the German term “Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit” – means literally doing systematic and hard, unpleasant work. But it is essential in order to attain a stable society with a solid democratic culture, which safeguards human rights and upholds the rule of law. A stable democratic society can only be established after thorough self-reflection and drawing the proper consequences. Take West Germany for example, after World War II. A lot was done in the de-Nazification process: in several stages the entire society underwent a very deep process of truth finding, justice, reparation and reconciliation, combined with education for the future, making Germany a very stable democratic country in Europe of today.

This homework has not been properly done after the fall of Communism in our region. Even today, 25 years later, we are societies in transition. It is hard for most of our countries, since we did not have an established democratic sister country to reunite with as the East Germans had. This said, the Baltic countries however had a privileged position, being able to rebuild on their independence from pre-World War II times, which meant a clear liberation from the legal order of the former occupant – the Soviet Union. Other countries however, such as the Czech Republic for instance, were not able to create a legal discontinuity with the former Communist regime.

Some say that during the changes of 1989-1991, the Communist perpetrators won. They merely stepped aside a bit, resigned their political hegemony but took over in business, having a head start in the privatisation, and after a few subdued years in the early 90s, when they were not sure whether it was safe enough, they returned back to political and public life.

Importantly, hardly any justice has been done for the crimes of Communism. There are hundreds of thousands of victims of Communism living in the European Union today alongside with innumerable perpetrators from the time of the dictatorship, many of them in prominent and influential positions in society. At the same time, the European Union guarantees the right to justice to its citizens. And justice is not coming. This gap between policy and implementation needs to be dealt with.

Lack of a single information space in Europe is an obstacle to a unified, or at least similar, perception of European history, such as would be understood and accepted by both the West and the East. What can be done now, when we have arrived at that conclusion? What are the possible risks, when there are different perceptions of history?

There will probably always be different subjective historical perspectives, depending on “whose side you were on” during the dictatorship. However, it is important that the perspective of the perpetrators remain marginal, that we achieve a broad democratic consensus on the interpretation that Communism was evil and despicable because it committed the gravest human rights violations. We have achieved this consensus on National Socialism, because the crimes were exposed and the perpetrators judged and sentenced in more or less fair trials. Now we need to expose the crimes of Communism. Then it will be relatively easy to come to the same understanding across Europe and around the world. And we need to use languages which Western Europeans understand.

Our first international publication is a reader for secondary school students anywhere in Europe called Lest We Forget. Memory of Totalitarianism in Europe. It contains life stories of 30 remarkable people from 16 European countries who experienced 1, 2 or 3 totalitarian regimes. We published it with support of the European Commission and the International Visegrad Fund in three languages – English, French and German. It is meeting with considerable interest, also from Western European teachers and learning institutions. I actually see that we do have a working single communication space – the European Union has facilitated the exchange of ideas and information enormously and the language barriers are surmountable.

As for risks: there is always the risk that some countries, like Russia, do not want to face their own history and to deal with their past. Where the courage to face the past is lacking, glorification of the crimes of the past sets in as well as a loss of truthfulness and honesty toward the own people. This further victimizes the victims and prevents reconciliation within society. It represents a major roadblock on the road to democracy as well as a threat that the glorified crimes might be repeated at home or even toward neighbouring countries, as in the case of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Why is it important to digitize and make available archives and documentation of repressive regimes? What is the current state of digitization of these records in Eastern Europe? Does this process in all countries depend on the political will shown at the highest levels of government? What are the tendencies?

When a dictatorship falls, be it in Central and Eastern Europe or in any other part of the world which is in transition, it is extremely important to secure the documentation of the repressive forces, their archives harbouring information on gross human rights violations, so that the truth about the mechanisms of functioning of the dictatorship can be exposed to the broad public and the perpetrators brought to justice. This is essential in order to foster the faith of the citizens in the new, better, fairer, democratic society which will uphold human rights and observes the rule of law. (By the way, scientific research is proving that the sense for fairness and a need for justice is inherent not only in human beings but also, for example, in primates.)

The educative aspect of the study of these archival documents for society is also tremendously important. Through these materials one can learn how the non-democratic system came to power and what methods and means it used to harm and persecute its opponents, intimidate people and stay in power. For a democracy capable of defending itself (“wehrhafte Demokratie,” another German term which is a result of the thorough coming to terms with the National Socialist past in Germany) it is crucial that citizens are educated, knowledgeable of history and vigilant, so that any possible tendencies of regression of democracy toward a non-democratic system can be prevented at the very onset, before it might be too late. When preparing the exhibition Totalitarianism in Europe I had to realise with sadness that although there were many brave people in every country who were ready to fight the totalitarian dictatorships even with weapons, once the regime set in and established the non-democratic rule, they were doomed to failure. Therefore, alert and active citizens are the only possible safeguards who can uphold a strong and stable democracy.

The digitization of the archival materials serves several purposes: first, it enables the protection of the originals from physical degradation which would set in through frequent manipulation by hand. Secondly, it makes sure that documents cannot suddenly “disappear” or get lost – documents which have been digitized are preserved for the future.

Thirdly, it enables a democratisation of the access to the documents. Anybody who is interested should be provided access to digital copies of the documents. The Czech Republic has a liberal law which allows in principle everybody 18 years of age and older, be it a Czech or foreign national, to obtain access to the archives of the former repressive forces of the totalitarian dictatorship. The obligation to protect and withhold sensitive personal information found in the archival documents is transferred to this person, who after agreeing with and signing a set of corresponding rules, is treated as a researcher. The information in the documents is made fully accessible to the researcher. This eliminates the need of anonymising of information in the documents and enables researchers to fully grasp and understand the events and situations covered in the documents.

Finally, a free and democratic access to the records of the dictatorship is the best prevention against any blackmailing of people linked to the past. A blackmailing scenario is simply not possible if the archives are open and information available to the broad public.

There are two institutions which have been frontrunners in the field of digitization of archival documents in Europe – the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Their digitisation departments are equipped with most modern technology, producing thousands and thousands of digitised pages per day. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a worrying development in the Czech Republic lately, where the work of the digitisation department has been impeded by the new management of the Institute, which has announced upcoming layoffs and a significant downsizing of the digitisation department. We can observe a peculiar combination of wills behind this, or rather maybe a momentary lack of political will from government level, to stop this process. To put it in more general terms, of course, if the highest political level supports the full and open access to archives, then the archives will be fully open and accessible.

Obviously, it should be in the interest of all democratic governments to provide free access to the de-classified archives of the former non-democratic regimes, be it just to prove that the democratic political leadership has nothing in common with the past regime and no reason to conceal anything from the past.

The Platform has called for the opening and free access to further archives of former repressive forces in Europe – such as the Communist secret police archives of the former Yugoslavia or the archives of the KGB. We are also asking for a special protection status for such archives harbouring information on gross human rights violations – a status of protected European heritage.

In 2012, the idea could be heard from the participants of the Platform to create a supra-national court to examine the crimes of Communism. What is the success in this process so far? And why is it not possible to do justice at the national level? In the conference you spoke of the need to prosecute people who under the Communist regime committed crimes against other people, pointing out that in Europe today, these crimes are not really considered and that too often the victims are still living alongside their tormentors.

The Platform held an international conference in the European Parliament in Brussels on 5 June 2012 called “Legal Settlement of Communist Crimes” which took place under the auspices of a number of Members of the European Parliament, including the two former Presidents, Messrs Jerzy Buzek and Hans-Gert Pöttering. At the conference, respected legal experts discussed the possibility of prosecuting the gravest crimes of Communism which are not subject to statutory limitations. At the conclusion of the conference, we announced that the Platform would seek the creation of a new supranational institution of justice for these crimes. The Platform has established an International Legal Advisory Team and continues to work on the subject. We will be presenting our results to the public in due time.

This raises the question of collaboration and collaborationism. For example, is there a consensus in the Czech society that cooperation with the criminal regime must also be assessed even today, although there are so many other problems and dilemmas?

When you analyse the roots of many of the problems in Central and Eastern European societies today, you will see that they are linked with the former regime and our insufficient dealing with the past. Take for instance corruption. Why is it so much more wide-spread in our countries today than in Western Europe? It is a consequence of the loss of moral values during the dictatorship. After the dictatorship killed and persecuted perfectly innocent people for no reason at all, things became very relative. It became accepted, for example, that it was fine to steal from the totalitarian state in order to procure yourself a bit of a better life. However, after the regime fell, the new democratic leadership failed to give the crucial signal that the times have changed. People who killed and tortured other people were not prosecuted (or hardly at all). On the contrary, they continued to enjoy public offices, good income and good pensions. The message which the disappointed citizens received was: it was OK to kill people, to imprison innocent citizens and to subject them to physical and psychological violence. The logical extrapolation of this approach is that if it was alright to kill people in the old days, it was and is also alright to steal like in the old days. And people continue to do so. No branch of state came and reinstated the true meanings of the words “good” and “evil.” The morals of society have not been cleansed.

Why it is so important to educate the young generation on these issues?

The answer is in fact very short: So that the horrors of the past do not repeat themselves in any form. Human nature evolves slowly, and there are certain emotions which keep slumbering under the surface in society – fear, hatred, insecurity. Given the appropriate stress conditions, these might erupt again in violence directed against other people. The Platform is observing with serious concern the rise of xenophobic, extremist, nationalist and other intolerant political parties and movements on the political right and left in Europe. This is worrying, especially in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the Russian pressure on the European Union.

What do you think should be done with the former KGB building in Riga, also known as the Corner House? How should it be used in the future?

It should be preserved as a memorial/museum to all the innocent people who suffered within its walls. It is important that the young people and the coming generations have the possibility to see and tangibly experience a place of totalitarian evil, as a warning and a memento. It might also be appropriate to document and record the names of the victims who passed through the building and to display them there.

How was the work of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes politically influenced by the change of governments? What and what kind of events influenced its work and what are the consequences now? What are the possible scenarios of development?

Interestingly, the situation at the Institute does not mirror the changes at government level in the Czech Republic. The trouble with the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes lies in the Act on its establishment. The law has given decisive control power to the Institute Council which is elected by the upper chamber of Parliament, the Senate. This way, the Institute Council reflects the political majority in the Senate, which need not be the same as the political majority in government, because the Czech Senators are elected by direct vote. Between 2010-2014 the Social Democrats had an absolute majority in the Senate. In 2012, the Senate managed to achieve a composition of the Institute Council which can be characterised as predominantly close to the political left.

Since the launch of work of the Institute in 2008, there were two elections to the lower house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, in 2010 and 2013. Both times, in anticipation of an election victory of the political left in the Chamber of Deputies, the Institute Council removed the previously appointed Director prematurely and instated someone who was professionally not apt to be at the helm of an institute of national memory. That the political left did not win the majority in the elections to the Chamber of Deputies either time and that the governments formed in 2010 and 2013 were not on the political left did not matter any more; the damage had been done already.

The situation which the Institute is finding itself in now might therefore be blurred for an observer from the outside. The facts are that the Institute now has its sixth Director, two of which were interim Directors and one of which had to be removed by the Institute Council for plagiarism. The Institute is involved in several court cases, pertaining to the dismissals of 2013 and the quality of the procurement procedure for the latest Director. The current Institute management is in the process of dismantling the state-of-the-art digitization department. And last but not least, in 2013, the Institute appointed five former members of the Communist party of Czechoslovakia to work on the scientific advisory board of the Director and to evaluate the work of the employees, which eventually led to the suspension and cancellation of the Institute’s Membership in the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.

I believe that a return of the Institute to the position which it deserves in Czech society – to that of a respectable institute of national memory which helps in forming the backbone of national self-reflection and identity, would be possible by an amendment to the Act establishing the Institute which would liberate it from political influence-taking.

You have a PhD in molecular biology. How is it that you work with the past: history and memory issues?

Besides my original professional training, which I am grateful for and which taught me very much – I received my Ph.D. from Cornell University in New York – I have strong feelings for my home country. My family on my Czech father’s side belonged to the intellectual elite of the country before the Nazi and Communist totalitarian dictatorships took over. Although he had nothing in common with them, the Communists liked to show off with my grandfather Jaroslav Heyrovsky, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1959 for a discovery he made in 1922. At the same time, the dictatorship thwarted the further intellectual development and work of my grandfather. Science and the furthering of human knowledge essentially require freedom; they cannot thrive in a prison for the body, mind and soul which the Communist dictatorship was. My Grandfather could not travel freely, participate in conferences and meetings, teach abroad or entertain a diverse international group of collaborators and students as he used to before World War II. The access to information, literature and publications was restricted as well, of course. My Grandfather had earned his Ph.D. in London; he lectured in the USA; and his closest collaborator in his 1922 discovery was a Japanese scientist. The Communists sent him to Nasser’s Egypt and Mao’s China in the 1950s; that was all.

I was brought up speaking English at home with my Indian mother and listening to the English broadcasts of the BBC and the Voice of America on short-wave radio in the evening and morning hours, when the stations were not completely jammed by the Soviet Union. My parents taught me not to tell the truth or to tell lies at school in order to fulfil the requirements of the Communist educators.

Already as a child I knew and disliked the feeling of living in a grey world of fear. Being an involved young person, I was there in the front lines of the 1989 student demonstration, which was beaten up by the Communist security forces and which triggered the so-called Velvet Revolution. Since 1989, many people of my generation have been looking up to the pre-World War II Czechoslovak “first republic,” which was the only democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, as an ideal. We would like to be proud of our country, to see it become a full-fledged, advanced democracy, with a functioning rule of law and a good international reputation.

After returning to the Czech Republic in 2005, I started working for independent Senator Martin Mejstřík, former student leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. His main political agenda was coming to terms with the legacy of totalitarianism. I immediately understood that he was right and learned a lot from working with him. We cannot make our country, or Europe for that matter, a better place if the society as a whole does not face the past and deal honestly with the unresolved issues.

The Platform of European Memory and Conscience was established as a result of a chain of events following the Prague Declaration, which was adopted at a conference which I managed for Mr Mejstřík in the Senate in Prague in June 2008.

We got an endorsement for the Platform by the European Parliament in its resolution on European Conscience and Totalitarianism of 2 April 2009, and the Council of the EU during the Hungarian Presidency in June 2011. I was in charge of coordinating the working group on the Platform between 2008-2011 and was elected its Managing Director in 2011.

Does your Platform have the potential to work for the upcoming years? Was the funding initially in 2011 assigned for a three-year period?

The Platform of European Memory and Conscience was established as a non-governmental organisation on 14 October 2011 at an accompanying event of the summit of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrad group in Prague. Prime Ministers Petr Nečas of the Czech Republic, Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Donald Tusk of Poland were present at the signing of our founding documents. The initial seed funding for the first three years of the Platform’s work came from a Strategic grant of the International Visegrad Fund. However, the Platform has been raising and continues to raise funds from other sources as well. The importance of the work of the Platform in educating and increasing awareness of the common European totalitarian legacy is growing by the day in the current difficult political situation in Europe, as discussed earlier. Nowadays, informed decisions are required from national and European leaders in the crisis with Russia. The knowledge of history and of the historical background of events happening in Europe are simply a must in this context.

The proof that our work is very important is provided also by our growing Membership. We started off with 21 Member institutions and organisations from 12 EU Member States in 2011. Three years later, we have 48 Member institutions and organisations from 13 EU Member States, Ukraine, Moldova, Iceland, Canada and the USA – and our general assembly, the Council of Members, does not accept every Membership applicant. Of course, fundraising is our important task and we would be pleased and honoured if other European governments, such as those of the Baltic countries, could support our work. Various models are thinkable, for example sponsoring a collaborator or two in our offices in Prague or Brussels. At any rate, until our goals are achieved, the Platform has a lot of work to do. It is a privilege for me to be able to assist in this process.

Thank you for your time and answers!

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