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The unbearable Truth

desember 14, 2006

1. “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory,” Jacques Derrida wrote in Archive Fever. A recent book by Thor E Thorsen may be a good example of the significance of this statement. Thorsen’s book Mappene (The Files) shows how the Norwegian Labour Party in the post-war era used its political power to initiate wide-ranging secret surveillance of a large group of Norwegian citizens. Detailed information about individuals was collected, systematised and archived – made ready for use. Their power was also used to launch an intensive campaign to discredit the left wing opposition in Norway, first and foremost the communists. As a result of this, the memory of the communists’ major contributions to the working class struggle for justice and to the struggle against the Nazi occupation was removed from the official national narratives.       

2. Thorsen’s book is no scholarly treatise; it is rather a personal archive. The author has put together his own memories and reflections, interviews with people who have been subject to surveillance and excerpts of documents from surveillance files. Thorsen’s book gives his personal opinion – and does not pretend to do otherwise.  

3. It is now more than ten years ago that the Lund Commission’s report was made public. This report documented extensive illegal surveillance of people with actual (or suspected) connections with the Norwegian Communist Party, the Socialist Peoples Party, the Workers’ Communist Party, the Socialist Left Party and organisations like no to Nuclear Weapons and solidarity movements with Vietnam and Palestine. The report also revealed close and illegal collaboration between the secret services and leading circles in the Labour Party. As a result of the Lund report and the subsequent public debate, the Storting in 1999 approved a temporary law, giving individuals that had been subject to illegal surveillance access to their own files. When the closing date expired on 31.12.2002, more than 13 000 individuals had applied for such access.  

4. Thorsen’s book is important because gives us direct access to documents and stories that demonstrate the scale and consequences of the political surveillance and persecution, especially between 1948 and the early 60s. It shows us a system that may be characterised as “political apartheid”, where people were systemically watched, harassed and blacklisted because of their political convictions. The persecution of communists was consequent and efficient, and no consideration was made for family or children. Thorsen’s book invites us to meet some of these individuals and listen to their stories.               

5. One night at the end of the 1950s I was standing outside together with some older neighbours, looking for satellites in the sky. We spotted one, and one of the men wondered if it was Soviet Russian or American. “It must be Russian, because it moves so fast,” one of the other men said. After that night he has rumoured to be a communist.   

6. The marginalisation of communists may also be seen as a integrated part of the Norwegian post-war policy for cultural unification of the population: Ethnic groups like the Samí and Romani were subject to determined campaigns of “norwegianisation”, while the War Children and their mothers were bullied by society’s condemnation and scorn. The great narrative of the Welfare State had little room for oppositional voices.  

7. Individuals who have been given access to their surveillance files have discovered that the files are incomplete. Text has been erased and whole documents have been withheld. The right of access does not include information about other persons or details that may expose the surveillance agents. For the period after 25.11.1977 the right of access only applies to documentation of unlawful surveillance.     So if you have been under lawful surveillance later than 1977 you’ll get the same answer as if you haven’t been watched at all: You have no file. So the right of access is selective. It provides no answers to the vital questions about how the surveillance was carried out, who did the job or how the collected material was used. The protection of those who initiated, organised and carried out this work is still being regarded as more important than the rights of those who were victims.     

8. German archivist Hans Booms once wrote that history is important because it is a medium for illuminating human existence, a means of gaining a clearer understanding of human action as an element of our reconciliation with the present and as a necessary criterion for our blueprint for the future. If we ever are going to achieve a sufficient understanding the history of the political surveillance in the post-war era, it is necessary to get access to the complete archives of the secret services, and not only to some incomplete personal files. This is the only way to get to know the processes that took place and the decision that were made. Without this knowledge it will be impossible to reconcile with this part of our recent past.      

9. Derrida wrote in Archive Fever that «effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation». Measured by this criterion, the Norwegian democracy still has some clearly visible shortcomings.  

(A Norwegian version of this book review was published in the journal Bok og bibliotek no. 6/2006, http://www.abm-utvikling.no/publisert/BOB/2006/0606/bok-sanninga.html).      

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