Facing the past is necessary

Heidi Hautala spoke on 29th of March in a hearing in the European Parliament on facing the past:

Dear participants of the hearing on “What do Young Europeans know about Totalitarianisms”[:]

Why facing past is still necessary?

I would not use the word still, facing the past is always necessary.The awareness of history is for example one of the key preconditions of avoiding violations of human rights in the present and future. Societies that neglect the past have no future. To achieve this we need an open dialogue that involves different point of views.

Although past experience is never totally equivalent to a present one, learning from the past lessons can guide in the present and towards the future. Victims of crimes can repair their lives only once truth has been told.

But how we should deal with the past?

It is undisputed that the communist regimes violated human rights, as the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of 25 January 2006 states. However, it is not as clear how we should deal with this past. The interpretation and reconciliation of the past is eventually always a matter of debate on whose version on the course of events is “right”.

Power of interpretation

In German academic discourse there is a concept “Deutungshoheit”, which means “the power of interpretation”. It is a hegemonic mandate which allows one to dictate “the right way” to see historical events.

One single group should not claim to have the exclusive right to interpret the truth, but space should be given for open and diverse public debate. As the Finnish historian, a specialist of the history of GDR, Seppo Hentilä has stated: “The societal consensus is not the yardstick for the solidity of democracy. More important is the capability to tolerate differences of opinion and handle them in a non-violent way.

This means we all should be open to hear different stakeholders. A cultural dialogue is vital in positive common understanding of history.

The role of politicians and scientists in Vergangenheitspolitik

This panel consists of MEPs, so I find it important to address the role of politicians in facing the past. As the European Parliament has stated in its resolution of 2 April 2009, no political body or political party should have a monopoly on interpreting history.

Even if objective interpretation of historical facts is very demanding, academic historians can use scientific tools to study the past and thereby try to achieve as objective results as possible. Thus, the role of academic research is crucial in the mastery of history. Researching the past should be directed primarily by impulses from the scientific community. Research should not begin with political orders, but from discussions about what is fundamental for understanding the past.  It is also crucial to understand that research into past events is continuous, as new layers inevitably unfold in the process.

All in all, we politicians are not historians, but our task is to help historians to be successful in researching the past.[1] We should work to keep politicians from using history as a tool. Interpretation of historical facts should never be imposed by simple majority decisions by parliaments.

Montesquieu revisited: separation of powers

It is necessary to distinguish and separate three indispensable elements of historical understanding – the processing of archives and securing public access to them, scientific research in history and civic education. For reconciliation we need all of these three activities separately.

  • 1) Scientific research

We need a comprehensive scientific account of the wrongs to reach a multifaceted view of the events of the past. Data should be scrutinized by many rather than few. These injustices need to be assessed via an unrestrained dialogue in order to find the best possible solutions. The free discourse on research is a precondition to fight prejudice and oppression. In my work in the Subcommittee of Human Rights I daily encounter the problems of freedom of expression.

There has to be also room for self-criticism of the offenders. Cleansing society of representatives of the past regime and understanding the past are two different things.  A dichotomy culprit-victim can be also counterproductive. And by this I don’t mean that the repressing of totalitarianism should be forgotten. As, the late President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, wisely said: “We can forgive, but we can never forget.”

  • 2) Archives: Complex issue of transparency

Access to documents is crucial, but it is just a starting point. Objective and thorough analysis is needed to reach conclusions. Some consider that all of the documentation should be accessible for every person, whereas others believe that access to areas of privacy should be more restricted and data protection fully respected.

I personally belong to those who see some problems with the radical openness of the data. It may be wise to open the archives first to a restricted group of qualified academic and scientific researchers, as the documents stored by security structures can be misleading.

All this does not mean that we should not make a genuine effort towards opening up archives, only that steps must be taken to ensure that this process will not be abused for political witch-hunts. The steps mean a clear legal framework regulating access to documents and the publication of documents in their broad context.

This is all related to the important issue to deal in Member States that is the role of security services today and in the past. For example Britain’s most senior judges ordered the government to reveal evidence of MI5 complicity in the torture of the British resident Binyam Mohammed. The protection of relations between secret services is not anymore a valid reason to not to publish these files.

EU’s role

European parliament in 2009 has highlighted many elements for EU to build on:

– Initiatives for documentation and activities of non-governmental organisations that are actively engaged in researching and collecting documents should be supported financially.

– A Platform of European Memory and Conscience to provide support for networking among national research institutes. A pan-European documentation centre for the victims of all totalitarian regimes should be created.

– The strengthening of the existing relevant financial instruments with a view to providing support for professional historical research.

Also the Commission has pointed out in its recent report on “The memory of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe” that reconciliation requires promoting memory. EU as a facilitator should use its financial programmes in this. The Commission also wisely states that there is no one-size-fits-all model and that justice for victims is important for the successful transition from totalitarianism to democracy.

Open dialogue leads to reconciliation

I hope the Europeans will be successful in carrying out a multifaceted and reconciliatory discussion about the past. Europe will not be duly united unless it is able to form a common view and understanding of its history. To achieve this rule of law has to be followed, not only with regards the events taking place today but with regards the past events.