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Draft version of my talk at the ICA Section for archives of parliaments and political parties» conference in Oslo 23 – 25 Octobter is publish as a page here at depotdrengen – please click link above. Feel free to comment!

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I have written and spoken about the Norwegian War Children’s situation on several occasions (see for instance the article “Memory, Archives and Justice“ on this site). Here’s a short summary: The Norwegian War Children are the 10-12.000 individuals that were born between 1941 and 1945 with Norwegian mothers and German fathers. During the first decade after World War II, these children and their mothers were subject to harassment and discrimination by Norwegian society in general. A research project organised by the Norwegian Research Council in 1998 concluded that the “War Children” as a group had been victimized and illegally deprived of some of their civilian rights.  

In 2004, the Norwegian Government issued a White Paper that proposed a system of reparation to War Children who had experienced infringement and persecution in neighbourhoods, at school or by public officials. The size of the compensation was to be made dependent on the documentation that each individual might bring forth. If an individual could document “grave suffering, loss or damage”, she or he could get between NOK 20.000 and NOK 200.000. When such documentation couldn’t be found, a compensation of maximum NOK 20.000 might be given dependent on individual statements that made it credible that the person in question had been subject to harassment. The Storting (the Norwegian parliament) approved this proposal in 2005.  

The problematic thing about this system is that the authors of the White Paper did not define the concept «documentation”. In comparable cases documentation usually is synonymous with archival evidence, i.e. public records. In this case, however, it was very unlikely that such archival evidence existed. Even the authors of the White Paper did acknowledge this.   

And there is absolutely no doubt that the archival evidence of the War Children’s individual histories is defective and unreliable. There are mainly two reasons for this: Most of the war children who needed help did not get it, because the public and the school and child care authorities usually did not act when war children suffered mobbing and harassment. Secondly, when the authorities did act and the children were moved to children’s homes, these actions were documented in a way we today would consider defective, or they were not documented at all. Eventually, some of the archives that were created have been lost or destroyed, due to poor records management or even to hide someone’s acts.  

This has led to situation where the archives usually are silent about the “War Children’s” individual histories. The children did not create their own archives, and their memories are not regarded as documentary evidence. What remains is an overwhelming archival silence. 

And this silence continues.  

In 2006, 585 individual War Children applied for compensation. Only 19% of these were given compensations that exceeded NOK 20.000. 77% got NOK 20.000 or less. The last 4% were refused. In other words: Less than 1/5 of the applicants were able to provide any evidence of their pasts. But most disturbing is the fact that merely 5% of the War Children applied for compensation last year. Of course, this number will increase when the results for 2007 are made public. Even so, the most probable outcome seems to be that only a minority of the War Children will apply.  

This begs for an analysis, and I will return to this issue next year. At the time being, it suffices to say that the lack of archival evidence might be one important reason.                             

The other Version

mars 6, 2007

According to a report in the Norwegian daily Klassekampen on Tuesday 6 March, the individuals that have been given access to their secret surveillance records will be asked to send “supplementary information” to the Secret Police Archives, which will be added to their files. The time limit for this is two months. Klassekampen quotes Kjell Horn of the Organisation against Political Surveillance (OPO) saying that people should use this opportunity to provide their own versions of what is recorded in their files. “The most important thing is to comment on records that obviously are wrong,” he says, adding that the OPO will offer assistance to individuals that need help to write down their versions. He criticizes the authorities for setting a time limit that in practice will prevent a lot of people from participating.  

Norwegian historian Lars Borgersrud has initiated the project “The other Version” to collect documentation about how people did experience the political surveillance of the post-WW2 decades. He says to Klassekampen that he thinks that an organised action will be necessary to mobilise a vast number of people to present their stories. Borgersrud emphasizes that if people don’t give their versions, the police’s version will prevail. “Then the police’s story will decide if a restaurant visit was just that or a meeting with a KGB agent,” he says.  

This invitation to individuals to rectify their surveillance records is a result of a long-lasting debate on political surveillance in Norway (see my blog The unbearable Truth). When people that had been subject to political surveillance were granted access to their files, there was an outburst of criticism stating that the records were inaccurate and deceitful. After discussing whether incorrect records should be removed or supplemented, the Storting passed a law grating individuals that have been given access to their secret surveillance records the right to supplement these. This is the occasion I know of, that people formally have been given the right to rectify an archive. And it is about time. 

But this is not sufficient. As I stated in my previous blog on this issue, real justice will not win through until the people who have been subject to political surveillance get access to all the documents in their files and the full story of this injustice has been disclosed.  

Of maps and fishermen

januar 12, 2007

150 years ago Eilert Sundt, the great pioneering Norwegian social scientist, visited the parish of Haram on the Norwegian west coast: On this trip he witnessed how the fishermen navigated their boats using the traditional system of méd (leading lines): 

“There is for example a mountain on one on the Haram isles, which is called Skulen, and when one is on a certain area of the ocean this mountain hides another mountain, farther in on the Mainland, which is called Hildre-hesten (the Hildre-horse); if one travels along the land towards the North, then the Horse little by little will come into sight beyond Skulen, and then one says: The Horse fine (when the head of the Horse just has become visible), the Horse coarse, the first part of the Horse, the second part of the Horse, the saddle of the Horse is clear of Skulen etc, and by each of these sightings one knows where one is on the route between South and North; if at the same time one has a méd on the other side one will as well know where one is in the direction from the land or between East and West; thus the experienced man will know, that to avoid this or that reef, he cannot sail any further in this direction, but must veer off to another. Thus, a pilot is able to steer his boat between breakers and dangers, scarcely looking at the dangerous items close by, but more certainly and more often fixes his eyes on the land and the distant mountain heights far way.           

What if these landmarks cannot be seen because of snowfall, fog, and darkness of night? Then there will always be danger afoot; but in that case it will be decisive to use one’s ears; because many of those reefs and skerries are recognisable by their ring and rumble, differing according to the rocks’ outstretched or steep shapes, a difference that also must be judged by the direction of the wind or more precisely the waves”.     

Eilert Sundt’s narrative tells us about an indigenous map of the seawaters in Haram. This map represented a communal accumulated knowledge of the fishermen in this area, an archive in Derrida’s sense: traces of events, inscribed on an external substrate. This archive must have been drawn from myriads of such traces: good catches, accidents, shipwrecks and other incidents that taught the fishermen where they should and should not sail in these waters. And this archive was kept as an oral tradition, conveyed from one generation to the next.  

Like other maps this map had been created with a purpose. In a pre-industrial costal society like Haram, this purpose was survival, to find food and income on the fishing grounds and to sail safely to and fro. Consequently, the knowledge about underwater landscapes, sea currents and the fish’s migrations, had been selected through generations and the map had been constructed to serve the immediate needs of the society.     

Modern navigational charts are made for a more confined purpose: navigation. These charts are founded on a different knowledge, the scientific measurements of the ocean floors, made by or on behalf of the state as an element in the making of authoritative cartographical series. Map historian J. B. Harley characterises the development of such authoritative maps as means to control a landscape in order to support the expansion of a social system. When modern navigational charts eventually replaced the indigenous maps of Haram, this also signified the end of the mode of production that Eilert Sundt had witnessed in the 1850s.   

A Christmas Story

desember 26, 2006

«(—) according to the parish register Elias Larsen Kant quite correctly was born Hegre in Øvre Stjørdalen parish, on November 30 1867 on the farm Ingstad by parents LappLars Larson and wife Maria Sofia Jonsdaughter, but he has no right of municipal domicile here, as neither of his parents by the time of his birth had any right of municipal domicile in Hegre. In fact, his parents were wandering, and according to the account of the previous farm-wife on Ingstad , which she, and other people may confirm as the truth, they came one evening to Ingstad and then during the night the Lapp’s wife became ill and gave birth to a son, whom on January 5 was christened in Hegre church and given the name Elias. Thereafter the parents went away bringing the child with them.»

This account of the birth of a child in 1867 is quoted from a letter from the Hegre Poor Commission, and it may serve as an introduction to one of my archival passions: the stories. Archives may be about evidence and accountability, but for me it is the stories that make archives magical. Sometimes while you are working with an archive, human beings will appear from among the documents, bringing with them stories of love, loss, happiness, distress or just daily chores. When this happens, it makes up for lengthy hours leafing through seemingly lifeless paper.

The story of Elias Larsen Kant is one of these, and it did survive only by chance. In June 2000, while doing field work in Ullensvang municipality in Western Norway, I became aware of a small black chest in the municipal repository. It was locked, but being an archivist, I forced it open. Inside I found the archive of the Ullensvang Poor Commission, dating from the 1790s to the 1920s. Some months later, while arranging the documents, I discovered a thick envelope among the account receipts from 1903. Inside this envelope was the Elias Larsen Kant story.

On 12 October 1900, a woman and her two daughters come to the Poor Commission chairman in Ullensvang, asking for relief. She tells him that her husband, Elias Larsen Kant, has gone away and that she does not know where he is. The Poor Commission takes care of the family for three months, spending 110 kroner on their subsistence, until she and her children leave for another destination. Elias Larsen Kant does not have any municipal domicile in Ullensvang, and therefore the Poor Commission can claim 2/3 of their expenses refunded from his home municipality. This sets off a process that is going to last for more than three and a half years, involving a dozen other municipalities and creating more than 80 documents. In these documents we can trace Elias Larsen Kant’s life from his birth until he disappears from our sight while working as at the construction of the Bergen railroad in 1903. We can find accounts of his hardships as a foster child, his work as reindeer shepherd in different parts of the country, his accordion skills or his participation in a cross-country skiing race.

The initial purpose of this case was to provide evidence of Elias Larsen Kant’s municipal domicile. This purpose has made the documents striking examples of archival bias. In their letters, all the Poor Commissions did their best to escape the refund payments, trying to «prove» that Elias Larsen Kant had no right of domicile in their municipalities. To achieve such right, a person had to live in a municipality for two consecutive years. It is no surprise then, that several municipalities admitted that he had been living there for one year and nine, ten or even eleven months, but never for two full years.

Today, these documents are about memory. They tell us stories about a human being living in a society that no longer exists. Not one of the 80 documents in this file was written by Elias Larsen Kant himself; they are all written by public officials, by men with power, telling their versions of stories about his life.   

It impossible to read these texts, the accounts of Elias Larsen Kant’s life as they are told in these documents, separated from their contexts. An archive’s contexts are infinite. There are the contexts of its creation (such as the creator’s missions, functions, values, purposes for making the documents etc), the contexts of its archiving (in this case, the archiving of the Elias Larsen Kant file in the account receipts series and not in the correspondence series tells a significant story). the contexts of its preservation (which, as this example shows, very often may be a question of chance), the contexts of its appraisal (why some documents are considered to be of archival value while other are not), the contexts of its arrangement and description (because of my previous experience I knew that municipal domicile files could be found in Poor Commission’s account receipt series and was actually looking for such files and to list them in the inventory; another person could have left them unnoticed), the contexts of our readings and interpretations (my reading of racial prejudice in some of the Kant documents may be characteristic of the dominant present cultural Norwegian discourse, fifty or more years ago the readings would have been different). Also, as the above examples may suggest, there are no sharp boundaries between texts and contexts. And we archivists are parts of these contexts.

Archives are never neutral. Neither are archivists. We are in a position where we can decide what should be known to the public. We can let the stories of people like Elias Larsen Kant remain buried among the account receipts, or we can decide to use our archival power to disclose such stories about the marginalised and make the invisible visible. 

As I see it, this is what makes the stories more important than the evidence.

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).