2007-11-30 Alexander Hirschfelder
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Remember the gulag

Prisoners of gulag building BelomorkanalPrisoners of gulag building Belomorkanal
The Swedish government has sparked a passionate debate over how schools should deal with communism and the Soviet Union. Education Minister Jan Björklund wants to make lessons on communism and evil deeds committed in its name obligatory. Opponents are critical of the government's intention, maintaining that this is exactly how dictatorships like the Soviet Union used to act. Radio Sweden’s Alexander Hirschfelder has more.

Do you know what a "Gulag" is? If you do, you know more than 90 percent of Sweden's pupils. According to research carried out in early May this year, Swedish youngsters know very little of communism and the crimes that have been committed in its name. Almost half of Sweden's students are convinced that no or at least very few people were killed in the Soviet Union because of political reasons. And every fifth young Swede believes that communism is a democratic system.

These devastating figures caused an outcry in Sweden. Nearly everybody agreed that something had to be done about the extreme lack of historical knowledge. The question was - what should be done? Eskil Franck, head of the Living History Forum in Stockholm, an authority that was established in 2003 in order to deal with the Holocaust, received the governmental order to broaden the focus from Nazi crimes to communist crimes - a task Eskil Franck considers necessary regarding the obvious lack of knowledge of communism.

Education Minister Jan BjörklundEducation Minister Jan Björklund
“It was worse than I thought. And I think we have to repair it, in a sense. We have been working very hard to produce knowledge about the Holocaust, now it’s time to produce knowledge about the Gulag for Swedish pupils. I think it’s very much the same type of task as we had concerning the Holocaust. We are dealing with it in the same way, but now it seems like it has a touch of politics, than the question of the Holocaust had.”

A political touch? Indeed. Commentators around the country maintained it was striking that once the new center-right coalition government had come into power they ordered the Living History Forum shift its emphasis from the Holocaust to communism. Are the new ministers in office to fight an ideological battle in order to bring any kind of leftist thinking into discredit? Tensions rose when Education Minister Jan Björklund of the Liberal Party implied that the Living History Forum did not achieve enough when it comes to fulfilling governmental orders. Björklund stated that, since communism was such a wide and important field, the Forum ought to cooperate with other organizations on this matter. But this time Björklund seems to have gone too far. Pure coincidence or not - Sweden's Left Part was the first political power to object to the government's plan to concentrate on communism in general. Until two years ago the party's leader used to refer to himself as a convinced communist but stopped doing so when the public reacted rather negatively to it. Now the Left Party accused the Education Minister of governmental interference. Rossana Dinamarca is a member of "Riksdagen", the Swedish parliament.

”For me it’s very important that we have a free research in Sweden and also that we can depend on the teachers. In this case that they are teaching history. We should not write from the governmental side, what teachers should or should not teach. I think that is dangerous for democracy.”

Some people consider rigid history syllabus for schools quite authoritarianSome people consider rigid history syllabus for schools quite authoritarian
Despite the public outrage already caused by his comments, Education Minister Jan Björklund went a step further and announced that communism was to be set on the agenda of every school. Communist crimes are to be an obligatory subject for every young Swede. Björklund's fellow party member Birgitta Ohlsson, also a member of parliament, explains why the government is determined to focus on communism in history lessons.

”Now we have said that history should be one of the most important subjects in school and of course we need to have guidelines, every single country has to have them. And I think that for most Swedes, it’s so obvious that you need to have information about the Holocaust, why not about the Gulag? And I think we have a lack of knowledge and we need to work with it.”

So, it all sums up to one question: when is a free society more endangered - when its teachers are entitled to teach whatever they want? Or when the government tells the teachers what to do? Sweden's center-right coalition government has already positioned itself on this question. Education Minister Jan Björklund announced that he is intending to change the guidelines for this nation's schools. His reform is expected to come into effect in 2009. The bill is likely to pass parliament due to the government's own majority - to the explicit resentment of opposition politicians like Rossana Dinamarca.

“We should learn something from the Soviet Union. For example that the government should not be influencing what the researcher, for example, or the teacher should teach in school but to really develop a democratic society. No matter what the subject is.”

The first nationwide campaigns dealing with the dark side of communism will start off in March next year. And maybe many young people will finally get to hear what a "Gulag" actually is - the Soviet version of a concentration camp.

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