Interviews Birgitta Almgren. Politically Loaded Words
In this interview professor Birgitta Almgren discusses her study on Nazi-German infiltration in Sweden and the offshoots, in Cold War Sweden, of the GDR’s policies. She is now requesting that the Swedish law courts make it possible for her to continue her research by granting her access to the so-called Rosenholz files. In a comment professor Åmark argues for a release of the Stasi-material.
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 24, 2010
A simple Internet search for Birgitta Almgren’s book Inte bara Stasi …: Relationer Sverige–DDR 1949–1990 [Not just Stasi ….: Sweden-GDR Relations 1949–1990] clearly shows that the work has received a type of wide-spread public attention not often granted a research report. Its title appears in editorial columns, in newspapers’ cultural sections, in blogs, and in bookstore catalogues, as well as in private messages, lectures, and debates with the author herself. She tells me, on the winter’s day when we meet at Södertörn University, that she had to refuse many invitations.
Whether she has received the kind of attention she wishes is another matter. Södertörn University no longer offers basic German language instruction. Today, Birgitta Almgren tutors PhD students. She is also the head of a research project financed by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies, “Contact and Conflict: Rhetoric and Politics around the Baltic Sea”. This seems to build on a way of thinking that she developed several years ago, when she gave an interview to the journal Dagens Forskning [Today’s Research]. Language, she explained, was to be used for acquiring knowledge in specific fields, be it engineering, history or music.
“The book Not just Stasi is, after all, built – from beginning to end – around language. But the debate has, for the most part, concentrated on the political issues and the people involved”, she says.
In both democracies and dictatorships, words can, of course, include subtexts and associations, and be invested with contents that are colored by the messenger. But it is probably a privilege peculiar to democracies to be able to unveil hidden meanings of words. A few years ago, Birgitta Almgren wrote a book on German attempts to influence Swedish culture and education during the Nazi era, Drömmen om Norden [The Dream of the Nordic Region].
“An additional book was no part of my original plan. But I was struck by how many of the words used during the Hitler era re-appeared in the GDR: words such as honor, renown, duty, sacrifice.”
The analyses show the power of language, how words both guide and misguide and how positive words such as peace, freedom and democracy are perverted to mean the opposite of what they normally mean.
The first word likely to arrest the reader’s attention occurs in the book’s prelude: die Schokoladenseiten. In East Berlin, a young female guide tells Birgitta Almgren that she feels that visitors only get to see the “chocolate sides” of the GDR. That East German peace demonstrators were bussed to the West was something the guide did not – understandably enough – dare to reveal. It is, among other things, to such people that the book title Not just Stasi refers: people who thought for themselves, independently. They existed, of course, in many different places, including positions of power within the GDR, for instance the church.
But what about all the Swedish teachers who took part in the GDR-sponsored language courses – did they think independently?
“There was, of course, a political message in the instruction. But the teachers were not starry-eyed”, is her opinion. The documents show that they constantly posed critical questions.
One might even be able to say that a teacher who had done some background research could learn a good deal from a course taken in the GDR, aside from the language itself.
Competition between the two German states made this a golden age for stipends for such courses. Of course, this does not mean that many were not curious about a school system that, like GDR’s, claimed to give all children equal opportunities: students were not segregated according to whether they had chosen academic or vocational lines of study. In reality, GDR schools practiced a very strict selection process; certain students were early on singled out for the elite schools. This was something that worried Stellan Arvidson, a Swedish schoolman who held a professorship at the University of Greifswald and one of the GDR’s most faithful adherents. His criticism of the elite schools was brought up even in the GDR’s politburo (the party leadership, in other words the government of the country).
Stellan Arvidson was a social-democratic MP and for many years chaiman of the Swedish Writer’s Union and of the Society of Friendship Sweden–GDR (Vänskapsförbundet Sverige–DDR, 1969–1987). As secretary of an official school commission, set up by the Swedish government after World War II, and as a public debater, he also occasionally took a leading role in sponsoring a new version of Sweden’s own non-segregated school system. Birgitta Almgren has documented that Arvidson and his life-long friend Britta Stenholm invited Swedish and East German ministers to informal discussions in their home in Stockholm. The purpose was, according to Almgren, to exchange experiences and to give the guests from the GDR an opportunity to provide information on East German schools.
There were others who sympathized with the GDR but who had greater reservations concerning the country’s respect for freedom of speech and of art. These included the author Peter Weiss, a German exile in Sweden, to whom Almgren devotes an entire chapter. His view of the GDR was, in many respects, positive, although he embarked on a collision course with the country’s leadership when he asked that his defense of Solzhenitsyn be printed in the party newspaper Neues Deutschland – a demand that could not be met. Nor did the GDR allow the publication of his novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands until after Weiss’s death, in 1983. The East German leaders faced a dilemma. They could claim, as a sympathizer, a world-renowned author – but one who obviously did not wholly adhere to the party line. The problem was not eased by their conclusion, based on the play Trotzki im Exil, that Weiss was, in fact, a Trotskyite. The play’s premier performance was in West Germany’s Düsseldorf, in 1970.
It is an interesting fact that Swedish public opinion, including that of the left and large parts of the Swedish Communist Party (SKP, after 1967 VPK), reacted most strongly when individual GDR citizens were badly treated. The GDR was massively criticized when, for instance, the artist and poet Wolf Biermann was expelled from the country and deprived of his citizenship, when the civil rights activist Rudolf Bahro was jailed, or when people were kept, by the Wall, from traveling abroad.
But other questions, many of them fundamental, Swedish media neither clarified nor discussed; indeed, they may have been little known. For instance, in the book Rapport från Neustadt, DDR [Report from Neustadt, GDR], published in 1969, journalist Hans Axel Holm describes the GDR’s party system. Four parties were represented in Neustadt. The bulk of the representatives came, of course, from the dominant SED (created after the fusion of social-democrats and communists, under communist leadership, in the Soviet Zone in 1946). This division of parties had not changed for the past eleven years, and was determined not through elections but through agreements within the umbrella organization National Front.
What did Stellan Arvidson think about this?
“He was moved by social pathos, and believed fully and firmly in the GDR as a socialist alternative”, is Birgitta Almgren’s opinion.
The documents show that Holm’s book was criticized within the GDR. This was not because the book was found tendentious, but rather because the opposite was true: it reported documents, tape-recorded conversations and lessons.
One can say something similar about Not just Stasi. The documents are at the center of the book; they illuminate many questions. One of these concerns Faust’s pact with Stasi. Rüdiger Bernhardt, professor of literature at the University of Halle, was recruited by Stasi in 1977 as an “informal collaborator” with the obviously equivocal code-name Faust. The Swedish Institute and other Swedish organizations that used his literary services during the 1980s were not aware of this. There were great problems, once, when the Swedish Institute added something to his pre-determined program: a seminar in Rönninge, south of Stockholm, which included the West German Goethe Institute. Bernhardt was not able to participate because he had not received permission for this extra activity from the GDR. After the fall of the Wall, Bernhardt wrote a retrospective article in the Swedish journal Moderna språk [Modern Languages] about literature in the GDR, which was, he wrote, “strictly supervised by the authorities”. In 1993 he was invited as opponent in a dissertation act at Stockholm University; the dissertation’s subject was the author Christa Wolf. Birgit Stolt, professor at the University’s German department, had as vice-chair of the International Association for Germanic Studies received information about his Stasi past, and wanted to change opponent; but Bernhardt was given the benefit of the doubt and was permitted to complete his mission.
The doubts are now resolved, but it is the task of the reader to draw his or her own conclusions; the same applies to the many Stasi documents cited or referred to in the book over more than 500 pages.
“The language reflects, to a large part, the rhetoric of the Cold War”, says Birgitta Almgren.
There seems to have been a struggle between the two German states. Sweden became an important target in the GDR’s propaganda, a bridge between East and West. But it was not until 1972 that Sweden granted the GDR diplomatic status. The Stasi reports deal with the political attitudes towards the GDR within political parties, academic institutions and schools, as well as among prominent individuals in Swedish cultural life. An important part of the effort consisted of exhibitions that allowed the GDR to put itself on the geographical, political, and cultural map. These included the GDR’s “cultural weeks”, for instance, in the mid-Sweden town of Västerås in 1977, when the popular Brecht/Weill singer Gisela May as one of the stars. The Västerås weeks could indeed be used as a case study when it comes to the actions of Swedish authorities, reactions in the press, and the attitude of the general Swedish public, towards the GDR – as well as an indicator of the intentions of the East Germans behind the event. But the fact that Swedish MPs, as well as other politicians and pundits within Sweden’s cultural sphere, were willing to help arrange, and that local county administrations were willing to co-finance these so-called GDR-days, opened an arena to the GDR for its political ambitions and a possibility to attract mass-media attention in a neutral country that was seen as a buffer state between East and West.
In a wider perspective, Not just Stasi also demonstrates how dictatorships work and how an open, democratic country can be infiltrated by the use of systematic strategies. ≈
Note 1: Massive support for Birgitta Almgrens request to read document
A Swedish Administrative Court of Appeal has just turned down Birgitta Almgren’s request, made as a professor at Södertörn University and as leader of a state-financed research project, to be allowed to read documents in the archives of the Swedish security police (Säpo) on Swedish Stasi agents. Her request won massive support from Sweden’s most important newspapers. Swedish Television also aired the case, emphasizing how odd it is that while other countries are opening their archives and facing up to their past, Sweden has chosen to keep such documents secret. Professor Almgren notes that after the end of Hitler’s dictatorship, it took a good many decades before Swedes were ready to acknowledge that Nazism had not been only a German problem. Many, today, are equally reluctant to admit that Stasi can have a history outside the GDR. If we are to fully understand totalitarian ideas and structures, we need written documentation and knowledge. Thanks to the courageous actions of East German citizen activists’, the Stasi archives could be saved; they function as a symbol of the peaceful revolution. This is not a question of condemning actors retrospectively, nor of justification or of distributing blame. Rather, it is question of showing what is actually written in the documents, what significance this could have had at the time, and also, perhaps, of what we can learn from history. Almgren has appealed against the ruling to the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court. ≈
Note 2: Swedish Academy gives Birgitta Almgren personal award
In March 2010, Germanist Birgitta Almgren, who holds a chair at CBEES, Södertörn University, was given a personal award of 100,000 Swedish crowns by the Swedish Academy — the institution that bequeaths the annual Nobel Prize in Literature — for her studies of Nazi-German infiltration in Sweden and of the offshoots, in Cold War Sweden, of the GDR’s policies.
When the award was published, the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary said, in an unusual statement, that he found it “extremely odd that a researcher of Almgren’s high repute was not allowed to complete the important and thorough mapping process by gaining access to the Säpo archives’ information on the fifty or so Swedes who worked for the East German Stasi. In most countries, this request would have been entirely uncontroversial, but not here. The Swedish state’s secretiveness about some aspects of Cold War history is, sadly, constant, irrespective of the political color of the ministry.”
Note 3. Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden has granted certiorari
On April 21, 2010, it was reported that the Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden has granted Birgitta Almgren certiorari. This means that her appeal of the decision of the Administrative Court of Appeal to reject her request for access to the Rosenholz material will be taken up by the Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden. A decision on the substantive question can be expected very soon.
Note 4. No release of Stasi data in Finland
The Supreme Administrative Court in Finland has set aside a decision by the Helsinki Administrative Court that the Finnish Security Police must release the so-called Tiitinen List with data on 18 Finnish citizens who are alleged to have been in contact with agents of Stasi, the security service of the former East Germany. The Court believes that disclosure of the list could jeopardize Finnish national security by making those who collaborate with the security police reluctant to provide information in the future. Nor can it be ruled out that the list of names is still useful for the work of the security police, the court contends.
The list came into the hands of the Finnish security police from Germany in 1990 and is named after its director Seppo Tiitinen. The president of Finland at the time, Mauno Koivisto, decided on Tiitinen’s suggestion that decided nothing would be done with the list.
Note 5. Victory for Södertörn researcher!
On June 24, 2010 Regeringsrätten, Sweden’s Supreme Administrative Court, reached a verdict, marking a victory for Professor Birgitta Almgren’s research. After analyzing German Nazi infiltration of Sweden in Drömmen om Norden [The Dream of the Nordic Region, 2005], her current project, Inte bara Stasi [Not just Stasi…, 2009], which is funded by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies, deals with Sweden and the GDR. Both the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) and the Stockholm Administrative Court of Appeal had rejected Professor Almgren’s request to obtain the classified documents from the GDR’s foreign espionage that the CIA sent to Säpo. The dossier, known as the Rosenholz file, contains information about Swedish agents, unofficial collaborators who signed contracts with the East German security service (Stasi). But the Supreme Administrative Court decision went against Säpo and the Administrative Court of Appeal, reprimanding them while granting her access on condition that she maintain strict confidentiality (chapter 18, § 2 of the Swedish Official Secrets Act 2009:400).
In her petition, Almgren stressed that knowledge of Sweden’s relations with the GDR is of paramount importance and of great public interest, especially with respect to Swedish actions in relation to dictatorships today. It would be regrettable if serious scientific research that can shed light on these relationships were blocked. The European Parliament has adopted a resolution (2./4 2009) in which it criticizes member states for persisting in maintaining classified status for documents after the collapse of the communist countries, and therefore calls on these states to open their archives to researchers. Professor Almgren’s research analyzes how dictatorships work, the role of language in infiltrating an open democratic society – still a highly topical issue today. She has already accessed the documents in Berlin about the German agents who operated in Sweden. She intends to study this material in relation to the Swedish source material. The Rosenholz file will allow researchers to move on to the Stasi dossiers that contain information about payments, rewards, background checks, and personally signed contracts where the agents provide motivation for cooperating with the Stasi.