Platform of European Memory and Conscience

Politics - November 13, 2021

We are what we remember. Memory is our guide into the future. Therefore we should never forget twentieth century totalitarianism, both national socialism and communism…

For some years, I have been an active member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, on behalf of a research institute in Iceland. The Platform celebrated its tenth anniversary at a conference in Prague on 11–13 November 2021. It was founded in Prague on 14 October 2011 at a ceremony in the Liechtenstein Palace, in the presence of the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Petr Necas, Poland, Donald Tusk, and Hungary, Viktor Orbán. ‘We must not forget the period of totalitarianism when our nations struggled for freedom,’ Necas said on the occasion. The purpose of the Platform is to support cooperation among national research institutes, archives, museums and other organisations, public and private, with a special focus on the history of totalitarian regimes in Europe, in particular communism and national socialism. Former Swedish Member of Parliament Göran Lindblad was the first President of the Platform, and Neela Winkelmann was its first director. At present, Dr. Marek Mutor from Poland serves as President, and Peter Rendek as Director, and the Platform’s headquarters are in Prague.

A Recent Resolution by the European Parliament

On 19 September 2019, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe. It pointed out that

whereas after the defeat of the Nazi regime and the end of the Second World War, some European countries were able to rebuild and embark on a process of reconciliation, while other European countries remained under dictatorships – some under direct Soviet occupation or influence – for half a century and continued to be deprived of freedom, sovereignty, dignity, human rights and socio-economic development; whereas although the crimes of the Nazi regime were evaluated and punished by means of the Nuremberg trials, there is still an urgent need to raise awareness, carry out moral assessments and conduct legal inquiries into the crimes of Stalinism and other dictatorships.

In the Resolution, the European Parliament called on the European Commission ‘to provide effective support for projects of historic memory and remembrance in the Member States and for the activities of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, and to allocate adequate financial resources under the “Europe for Citizens” programme to support commemoration and remembrance of the victims of totalitarianism’.

Translation of the Black Book of Communism

My main contribution to the cause for which the Platform was founded has been threefold. First, in August 2009 my Icelandic translation of the Black Book of Communism was published by the University of Iceland Press. This is a hefty tome of 912 pages in the original French edition of 1997, which came out on the sixtieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Livre noir du communisme, under the editorship of Professor Stéphane Courtois. (The Icelandic edition is 828 pages.) In this seminal work, distinguished French scholars used the material which had then recently become available in former communist countries, mainly in archives, to give a thorough and balanced account of perhaps the most powerful political movement of the twentieth century which managed to conquer one third of the world. The conclusion of the editor, Professor Courtois, was that probably communism had claimed the lives of at least one hundred million people in the last century, and that it fulfilled the criteria set out at the Nuremberg trials of former Nazi leaders for being a criminal political creed.

History of the Icelandic Communist Movement

In translations of the Black Book published in other countries, there are often addenda about the communist movements in those countries. For example, in the German edition there is an article added by civil rights activist Joachim Gauck who later served as President of the Federal Republic. I originally intended to add just such an article on the Icelandic communist movement to the translation, but I soon found out that I had to undertake much original research, not least because Icelandic works already published on the subject were not always sufficiently trustworthy or meticulous. In 2011, the result of my research, Icelandic Communists, 1918–1998 (Islenskir kommunistar 1918–1998), came out in 624 pages. I traced the beginning of the movement back to two Icelandic students in Copenhagen (then still the capital of Iceland, a Danish dependency for centuries) in the autumn of 1918 when they became communists. They entered into contact with an agent of the Bolshevik regime in Russia and received from him funds to attend the 1920 Congress of Comintern, the Communist International, the association of communist Parties, located in Moscow. For some years, Icelandic communists operated within the Social Democratic Party, but on the order of Comintern they founded the Communist Party of Iceland in 1930. One of the two former Copenhagen students, hardline Stalinist Brynjolfur Bjarnason, was the first and only Chairman of the Party, because in 1938 the communists managed to persuade some left-wing Social Democrats to found the Socialist Unity Party which however remained as loyal to Moscow as its forerunner, the Communist Party. Another hardline Stalinist, Einar Olgeirsson, was Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party for most of its lifetime.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union it was revealed that the Socialist Unity Party had received considerable funds from Moscow, mainly to finance its fight on the cultural front, led by hardline Stalinist Kristinn E. Andresson, longtime Director of the influential Left-Wing Book Club (Mal og menning). In 1956, the Socialist Unity Party formed an electoral alliance with left-wing social democrats, the People’s Alliance, and in 1968 the Socialist Unity Party was dissolved, while the People’s Alliance transformed itself from an elector alliance into a political party. It broke all relations with the Kremlin, but campaigned against Iceland’s membership in NATO and adopted a Marxist programme. When the main left-wing parties in Iceland decided to merge in 1998, the People’s Alliance was dissolved. Its ultimate act was a visit by the leadership to Cuba at the invitation of the Cuban Communist Party. The Icelandic delegation wanted to meet Castro, but he did not bother to receive them. Thus, the communist movement of Iceland ended not with a bang, but a whimper, as the poet would say.

Historiography of Anti-Communist Literature

My third contribution to the cause of the Platform was that at the instigation of its Director, Neela Winkelmann, I put together a list of readable and instructive anti-communist books. The Brussels think tank New Direction subsequently asked me to expand the list into a short book, The Voices of the Victims: Notes Toward a Historiography of Anti-Communist Literature, published in 2017. There I gave short summaries of some well-known anti-communist books such as Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, I Chose Freedom by Victor Kravchenko and The God that Failed by six prominent intellectuals, Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, André Gide, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender. I also mentioned some less well-known books such as Bolshevist Russia by Anton Karlgren, and Graves Without Crosses by Arved Viirlaid, as well as more recent works, including Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, Jung Cheng’s and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story, and Frank Dikötter’s trilogy on China under communism.