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Interview: How Much Do Western Europeans Know About Communist Crimes?

Do those who idolize Che Guevara or Mao Zedong know how many innocent people were killed in their names?
Do those who idolize Che Guevara or Mao Zedong know how many innocent people were killed in their names?
Twenty institutes from 16 countries are meeting in Prague to discuss ways to raise Europeans' knowledge of communist crimes.

Anders Hjemdahl of the Stockholm-based Institute for Information on the Crimes of Communism talked to RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel about why Western Europeans seem to know so little about the communist past.

RFE/RL: You founded your Institute for Information on the Crimes of Communism in 2006 with the idea that people in Western Europe don't know much about the evils of communism and urgently need to learn more. That might be surprising news for people who grew up under communist regimes and assume people across Europe know what they endured. Let's start with Sweden. Don't people in Sweden already know a great deal about the crimes of communism?

Anders Hjemdahl:
Knowledge of these issues really shouldn't be an issue, especially with several of Sweden's neighboring countries being attacked and occupied by communists for half a century. But, sadly, the knowledge is next to nonexistent, actually.

If you are a young Swede and you care about human rights and liberty, chances are that you will be wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and a badge with a red star and listening to rock bands singing about the revolution. And most likely you will perceive free markets and globalization and capitalism to be unjust and wasteful and brutal and oppressive, with socialism and communism standing for a hope of a brighter future.

We saw Andy Warhol's painting of a smiling Mao Zedong but we know nothing of the tens of millions of people he was responsible for getting murdered.
And during my time in school in Sweden we never learned anything about our neighboring countries on the other side of the Baltic Sea at all, despite the fact these countries lay just a short boat trip away from us. It was like they did not exist at all.

We knew about the war in Vietnam but we never heard about the guerrilla wars in European countries against the communists. And you know, we had seen Andy Warhol's painting of a smiling Mao Zedong but we know nothing of the tens of millions of people he was responsible for getting murdered. And you could find Che Guevara's face on designs everywhere, and you still can, but never the faces of his victims.

RFE/RL: Have concerned groups like yours been able to change this, by getting education about communist crimes into the Swedish school system today?

Well, actually, we have been quite successful, both in pointing out the problem and in creating debate, as well as effecting changes in the educational system, where the teachings of the crimes of communism are now mandatory in the same way as the crimes of National Socialism in Germany are mandatory.

And we kick-started the debate in Sweden in 2007 when we performed a survey of young people's knowledge of communism and recent history and we knew that the numbers were pretty bad but we had no idea of the extent and we wanted the hard facts so the survey was carried out through the entire country.

Ninety percent of the students surveyed had never heard of the gulag, even though five of Sweden's closest neighboring countries were occupied by the communists for half a century. And this 90 percent, this number, could be contrasted with the 95 percent who were well-informed about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.

And 43 percent believed that communist regimes had claimed less than 1 million lives in total worldwide during the last century and one-fifth of those surveyed put the death toll at zero to 10,000. The actual figure is estimated at around 100 million victims, and that could be conservative.

RFE/RL: What about the situation in other parts of Western Europe? What do we know about the level of knowledge about communist crimes in other countries where surveys have been done?

There have been a few surveys, not exactly identical to ours but sort of and those that have been made replicate our results to a large extent. So, the situation is pretty similar. We are now working on a pan-European survey that will provide some solid answers for the first time.

Opposed Parties

RFE/RL: Certainly, lack of information about how little people know about the crimes of communism makes it harder to get governments interested in redressing the problem. But are there other obstacles, too? Are your efforts opposed by communist parties or socialist parties that mistrust your motives and see your efforts as aimed at discrediting them?

For sure. I can start with my own country, Sweden, which was ruled by a socialist government that was completely reliant upon the Communist Party to stay in power for most of the postwar period, almost 50 years. This had a very direct effect upon information, both in the media, which was fully state-controlled, as well as in education, which was also fully state-controlled. So, that goes without saying.

There is also some opposition from the far left, some of it quite vocal. But I consider that inevitable because if you adhere to a utopian ideology which has been so solidly discredited by history as has been communism and socialism, then facts and reality will stay and will be your chief enemies. There is no getting away from them.

RFE/RL: You personally have brought a lot of passion to your efforts. But as a Swede you did not suffer under a communist regime. To what do you trace your own high level of commitment to this cause?

Firstly, I partly grew up in communist Vietnam, where my family spent a lot of time, so let's say that I had an inkling that the story that was being taught in Swedish media and history books was, how should I put it, incomplete.

So, when the Iron Curtain fell, I and my partners started traveling extensively in the countries that had been unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. And while there, history came alive to us in a pretty remarkable way from the people we met in their personal stories and that engaged us at a very deep moral level.

Since we were working as media producers, that's our occupation basically, and our job was telling stories to other people, we thought it was our moral obligation to tell these stories which really mattered, to tell them to people in the West.

RFE/RL: The Prague meeting is part of a process that started in 2008 when prominent European politicians, human rights activists, and victims of communism met in the Czech capital to issue the Prague Declaration, which calls for Europe-wide condemnation of, and education about, the crimes of communism. Now, on October 14, this process will mark a major milestone as the 20 institutions sign a "Platform for European Memory and Conscience." What are some of the key things that the platform calls for?

The platform calls for increased educational efforts, the marking of memorial days for the victims of totalitarianism, both Nazism and communism, and the carrying out of surveys as I mentioned previously, and the opening of secret-police archives and many other activities along those lines.

It's not only to increase awareness of the past but also to safeguard against future recurrences of totalitarianism and antidemocratic movements, because this is an ongoing process, it never ends.

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