Estonia – where the past is preserved to protect the future

In Raekoja Plats, Tartu

It’s pouring with rain: and no, I’m not in Scotland, but back in the beautiful city of Tartu, the ancient university town in the centre of the Baltic country of Estonia. I have to admit there’s something reassuring about knowing that heavy rain isn’t just a feature of life back home!

Estonia isn’t a large country geographically. It’s population isn’t large either. Tragically, the number of Estonians still hasn’t caught up with figures from before the Second World War. There are still fewer Estonians today than in the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the Germans, and then by the Russians, and murdered: here or in Siberia, or in all the other places the Soviets chose to destroy the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And for the Estonians that lasted 50 years, until they regained their independence in 1991.

The villa where the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Finland and Russia in 1920

All this is in the past now. But the effects linger. And sometimes that past isn’t so far away. On visits to the DDR, East Germany, when it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, I heard of torture being inflicted on those who wouldn’t follow the ‘party line’. Yet this wasn’t centuries ago. Only a few decades. Democracy is a precious but fragile gift and needs to be nurtured – and sadly all too often fought for.

But today we visited Estonia’s brand new National Archive building where the past is conserved and preserved, both for today and for the future. In these days of fake news and spin doctors we’re as much under the sway of propaganda as any generation before us. Day in and day out we’re fed lies, untruths and deliberate omissions that would have done Goebbels proud. And no matter how much that thought angers you, or you think you couldn’t be fooled like that, the fact remains that manipulation and distortion have become widespread and  more important than truth.

The brand new National Archives of Estonia in Tartu

The majority of our newspapers are owned by billionaires who neither live in the UK nor pay taxes there and whose political agenda certainly doesn’t include telling the truth. But what I find hard to understand is why so many people today don’t question the ‘information’ they’re fed. Don’t ask for evidence, for sources. When I was at school, then unversity, any essay that didn’t include a sound argument would have been deemed unacceptable.

Painstaking conservation work restoring old maps and documents

So when, and why, did so many of us give up questioning the ‘news’ we’re fed? Is it really so much more comfortable to live with fake news than to make the effort to challenge it?

This is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that archives, and libraries too, are of vital importance. They are repositories of facts. Of contemporary accounts. Who said what? Who did what? What was decided and why? And so often the answers to these questions are held in archives. And yes, what is held there can sometimes be the product of ‘to the victor the spoils’, but very often there are other records to balance out the actuality of events.

The criminals of the past are not necessarily those we’d see as criminal today

Propaganda is nothing new. Far from it. How many people happily believe Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, a portrayal which is miles from what actually happened? Or his version of the reign of Richard III? Or just what really went on in Britain’s colonies during the dark days of the British Empire? Or why wealth in Britain can’t be shared out more equally? Or why the NHS can’t be afforded when we have more millionaires and billionaires in the UK than ever before?

It’s so important that we question and ask for proof, otherwise we become as much victims of today’s propaganda as anyone else. It’s not just the foolish that fall for it – even the most intelligent can be victims of their own self-belief. So when in doubt consult the archives.

Marking the founding of the city in 1030

I’m very glad that Estonia is investing so heavily in its past. Not only has the country given its archives a new home, they’ve also just completed a whole new National Museum. The past IS important. Who we are today depends on our past. Where countries stand today depends equally on their past. Archives hold and guard these pasts and we need them more than ever to understand the present and be vigilant about our future.

If there’s one thing we need to hold onto in the face of so much fake news and spin, it’s to ask questions and insist on proper answers. And to teach our children to do the same. Never stop asking questions and, if the answers aren’t forthcoming, know where to find out the truth for ourselves!

National Archives Estonia

 

DDR Museum – the ‘Living History’ of East Germany

Life in the DDR - East Germany - becomes history in a fascinating new museum

Life in the DDR – East Germany – becomes ‘living history’ in this fascinating museum

It’s not often that the immediate past becomes history as quickly as did that of the erstwhile East Germany.  The hated communist regime of the DDR (or GDR or East Germany) vanished almost overnight in 1989.  But now, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, life in the former soviet satellite state is being looked at and explored as never before.  That the regime of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) was a brutal and cruel one is obvious to all, but the majority of East Germany’s citizens were decent human beings living their lives as ‘normally’ as possible despite such difficult circumstances.

The DDR Museum in Berlin does a wonderful job of showing how ordinary people lived. Through familiar, everyday things, it shows how East Germans made the best of a bad job and tried to make life as bearable as possible for themselves and their families.  It also offers remarkable insights into the insidious ways the state attempted to manipulate, bully and threaten its citizens into silent conformity to a regime that was patently unfair, corrupt and inhuman. The propaganda machine rumbled on for 40 years spewing out distortions and half-truths – but most people saw through the lies.  And it was the people of East Germany themselves who finally had the courage to stand up and be counted and who brought down that hated regime.

When we visited last week, I was pleased to see that the positive role of the church has been acknowledged too: the protection it offered to dissenters, the space to be quiet, to think, to articulate peaceful protest against the regime.  The church was not a political party, but neither was it a pawn of the state.  As one of the exhibition boards says: “The SED forced the church onto the margins of society, challenging its existence, symbols and articles of faith. The discrimination against church members in the educational system and the professions was designed to weaken its membership. Nevertheless, the persecution strengthened the church, which then developed into a politicized public space.  Initially a rallying point for small groups, the Protestant Church attracted thousands in the 1980s and provided the starting point for the peaceful revolution.”

The church played an important role in bringing down the communist regime in East Germany

The church played an important role in bringing down the communist regime in East Germany

But one thing in particular really came home to me during our visit.  So much of what we saw there could apply just as easily to Britain today: from the ‘propaganda’ used daily in our newspapers, to the lies and half-truths told by our politicians as they abuse our system to line their own pockets, blatantly ignoring the wishes of the people they were elected to represent.  Democracy is a very, very fragile thing and needs to be carefully guarded and nourished.  Like the people of East Germany back then, we need to be committed to playing our part in the life of our country.  Some things can’t be left to politicians or to those who use money and privilege to abuse power.

“Wir sind das Volk!” – “We are the people!” was the cry that was heard in the streets of East Germany 25 years ago.  It’s a cry that has begun to be heard again in this country and one that needs to continue to be heard loud and clear if Britain is to become a better place for all its people – not just for the few.  We need to re-engage with politics.  We need to have the courage to stand up and be counted.  Without doubt, we could learn a thing or two from the people of the former DDR!

Link to the museum: The DDR Museum in Berlin