Heidi menneisyydenhallinnasta Prahassa

Heidin puheenvuoro Crimes of the Communist Regimes -seminaarissa:[:]

Contribution of Heidi Hautala, chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee of Human rights

Dear participants of the conference Crimes of the Communist Regimes,

Unfortunately I can’t be present in the conference, because I am on a European Parliament’s fact-finding delegation in Belarus.

Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and almost six years after the accession of post-communist countries to the EU, it is natural to ask the question, how should one deal with the past with the communist states. How should we evaluate the actions of the communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain? For me the point of view is especially human rights and justice.

It is clear that the communist regimes did violate human rights, as the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of 25 January 2006 states. It is not as clear how we should deal with this past.

In my contribution I will touch the question of the power of interpretation, a need for a free and tolerant public debate, the complex issue of transparency and the diverse roles of politicians and researchers in Vergangenheitspolitik.

The question is: who interprets the truth?

The politicians have a great responsibility in interpreting the “truth”. How do we see our past and its consequences to the present? The one who has the power to tell us what is the true state of our society, has the power in politics as well.

I would like to emphasize that assessing this question can’t be made just from a legal point of view. I believe that the historical and political side of the question cannot overemphasized. As said, the interpretation and reconciliation of the past is finally a matter of dispute on whose version about the course of events in history is “right”. It can be described as a contest about the right to speak: who has the right to say, to say what and about whose past.

In German academic discourse there is a concept “Deutungshoheit”, which means the power of interpretation. It is a hegemonic position from where it is possible to dictate the right way to see historical events and give powerful meanings to them. Both the victims and the offenders seek to gain that position and, via that, a justification for their own interpretation of the past.

Even if the dealing with the past does not achieve any ultimate goal, like reconciliation, debate as such is a sign of success.

A Finnish historian, an outstanding 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. The stronger the democracy in the country, the more critical, open and tolerant is its way of dealing with the past.”

All this means, that one group should not claim having the only valid interpretation of the truth, but space should be given for public debate. Even if fully objective interpretations of historical facts are not possible, and objective historical narratives do not exist, academic historians use scientific tools to study the past, and try to be as impartial as possible. Thus, the role of research is crucial in the mastery of history. It is also crucial to understand that research into any course of events in history is unending, ever new layers unfold in the process of science.

What do we then need?

We need a scientific overview of the injustices committed by the communist states. The injustices need to be assessed via an unhindered dialogue in order to search for the best possible solutions. The goal of the process should be a reconciliation within the post-communist societies, and a strengthened European integration across the former East-West divide.

There has to be room for self-criticism of the offenders. The whole goal of the process is to attain a more unified and harmonious society. One criteria of the success of Vergangenheitspolitik is whether the offenders can speak out, and not only in courtrooms.

It is important to note, that the sole fact that somebody has been working in the machinery of a totalitarian regime is not sufficient to make the person guilty. It needs to be defined, how the person was involved and why. The guilty persons should be encouraged to make this enquiry by themselves. The late President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, wisely said: “We can forgive, but we can never forget.”

All in all, we need to have a multifaceted view of the events of the past. Democratic regimes can provide a ground for this. Interpretations of historical facts should not be imposed by means of simple majority decisions by parliaments.

What about transparency?

I understand that there are two different ways to use archives. Some see that the documents should be maximally open to everybody, when others believe that more privacy and data protection must be taken into account.

I belong to those who see some problems with the radical and maximal openness of the data. For example, documents stored by security structures can be misleading, and it may be wise to open the archives first to a group of qualified researchers. Full public access to documents can also be painful for the victims.

All this does not mean that we should not make a genuine effort towards opening up archives, but steps must be taken to ensure that this process is not abused for political witch-hunts.

There should be a clear legal framework for access to documents held in the archives of internal security services, secret police and intelligence agencies. I emphasize that documents must be available in their broad context. An uncritical random based digitalisation of data may not help to understand the complexities of the past.

The access to documents is just a starting point. Analysis and interpretation are then needed for conclusions. This should be done with the help of academic historians and other researchers. This makes the process more responsible and helps in avoiding uncritical tabloid journalism. The politics of the past shall not become instrumentalizing the past for politics.

What is the role of politics?

As said politicians have a big responsibility in interpreting the truth about the past. Politicians can make special decisions in helping the reconciliation with the past. For example when in Switzerland there was a big sensation about the country’s role in the Second World War, it was decided, that all the archives needed would be opened to a foreign group of academic researchers.

Best practices should be shared with other countries. For example Norway and Sweden can give us good examples relating to the opening up of the secret police. The activities of the secret police after the Second World War have been in depth researched. These projects were initiated by parliaments. The victims were by law given access to their own data in the archives.

A good quality debate about reconciling the history transfers to the society via the press and for example via school books. On the other hand, the content of school books can become a matter of fierce political dispute. Civic education should promote critical thinking, not simplified dicotomies.

Politicians can make significant decisions on the basis of initiatives arising from the civil society. In Finland, a book by Elina Sana claimed that there were more Jews delivered to Nazi-Germany in the Second World War than had been earlier estimated. This claim provoked international attention and a big discussion in Finland. Thus, the Finnish government decided to start a project called “Finland, prisoners of war and extraditions 1939-1955”.

What could be the role of European parliament and the European Union?

Whereas a core objective of the European integration process is to ensure respect for fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law in the future, it is an adequate role for the EU to contribute to solidifying and integration of the post-communist societies.

Unfortunately EU has been unable to close up the historical gap between Eastern and Western Europe. How do we then achieve progress in integration in a Europe in which violations of fundamental rights remain unsettled?

Existing platforms such as UN or the Council of Europe should be more used. As for the EU, the resolution of the European Parliament on European Conscience and Totalitarianism from April 2009 has many elements 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.
– The resolution also calls for a Platform of European Memory and Conscience to provide support for networking among national research institutes specialising in the subject of totalitarian history. A pan-European documentation centre for the victims of all totalitarian regimes should be created.
– It also calls for the strengthening of the existing relevant financial instruments with a view to providing support for professional historical research.


I am convinced that the awareness of history is one of the preconditions of avoiding violations of human rights in the future. Societies that neglect the past have no future.

Europe will not be duly united unless it is able to form a common view and understanding of its history through a dialogue.

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.

Judging the past lessons can guide in the present and towards the future. For example the war against terrorism produces serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The European Parliament considers that the member countries are for their part responsible for the CIA prisoner transportations to Guantanamo and for detentions in secret prisons on European soil.

As inevitably the national security services are having more transnational cooperation, who supervises them? Britain’s most senior judges ordered the government to reveal evidence of MI5 complicity in the torture of the British resident Binyam Mohamed. The protection of relations between secret services is not anymore a valid reason to not to publish these files. The citizens have the right to know, and this is also an important form of public scrutiny.

All in all, it has to be guaranteed, that rule of law is followed, not only in the past, but also today. That is why our Subcommittee on Human Rights gives a great attention to further developing international justice and accountability.