Jonila Godole: Young Generation to Make the Difference in the Confrontation with the Past

A discussion with Luljeta Progni for Mapo Magazine, No. 46, December 2017

All the myths for the rehabilitation of Communism have just one aim: hiding its true criminal face.

The walls which Albanian society has raised so as not to allow the period of the dictatorship to be seen clearly, ‘shared suffering and shared guilt’, the slogans which delegitimise the cause and the deliberate forgetting of the elite of 27 years. Albania’s challenges in its confrontation with the past

‘Ask your grandfather and he will tell the painful truth of the history that you won’t have heard or read in school textbooks.’ This is a summary of the mission for confronting the past in a country like Albania that has been hesitating to start such a process for 27 years. ‘Ask your Grandparents’ is an ambitious project from IDMC, initiated by the Institute’s Director, Jonila Godole.

She took on the task of contributing to shedding light on the Communist past. Her experience as a journalist encouraged her to overcome the not insignificant challenges she met in this process. She started with young people – high school students who would make a difference in facing up to the past.

Grandparents are a symbol, a reference point for the generations who survived the Communist regime in Albania. This idea was born when Godole came across a painful truth through the auditoriums of the journalism faculty where she works. It was there that she concluded that the students were completely indifferent, and that their indifference was fed by the gaping holes in the school curriculum, and by the silence of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

‘Through the ‘Ask your grandparents’ creative competition we wanted to offer them the opportunity to confront history and the experience of their family and to gather original evidence from eyewitnesses. Grandparents are a symbol for the points of reference of the generations which survived the Communist regime in Albania,’ says Godole, encouraged by the fact that the competition gained an extraordinary following from high school students aged 15-19.

A few days ago the second edition of the ‘Memory Days’ initiative came to a close. It included very important activities which offered some kind of re-remembering of the crimes of Communism. Jonila feels proud of the achievements of these three years, but tells of the important challenges which prevent Albanian society from confronting its past. There is injustice in the way that history is told.

‘In many schools which we managed to visit, young people told us that they had periodic meetings with war veterans, but that they had never met a former political prisoner from their region. This is an unacceptable situation, evoking one side of history and denying the other.’

The challenges in this process of confronting the past are extraordinary but not impossible. ‘We are still at the beginning of this marathon and it will be a long road. How to work together to reduce the different opinions relating to our past?

History is not black or white. I am aware that this will be a long and painful process. And it can be achieved through a more distant confrontation with the past: technical and scientific, based on facts and figures, and not on empty polemics.’

In an interview for Mapo magazine, Jonila shares her experience in the difficult process of confronting the past, talks about the reasons why it is still so difficult, makes comparison with other countries such as East Germany, and discusses the challenges which continue to be so difficult and which will be in the future too.

‘Whoever controls the past controls the future. Whoever controls the present controls the past,’ is a quote by George Orwell that you are sure to have come across. What significance do you think this quotation has for the history of transition in Albania?

Orwell said this bearing in mind that whoever (deliberately) erases facts about the past risks creating a certain version of history through propaganda. Given that human memory can extend through time until a few generations later, whoever has control of the past can within a short time fabricate whatever kind of history to be sold as the truth to the generations who come after.

Communism claimed absolute truth and in the name of truth ruled like God over life, death, law and justice. Until now in Albania whoever had power in their hands also had the opportunity to manipulate history, to highlight some moments and to black out others, depending on the political agenda.

Some years ago you started a difficult and pretty delicate process of confrontation with the Communist past. You’ve undoubtedly encountered huge obstacles from the beginning. Can you tell us the details of this process and particularly the walls which have been put up to stop this process of confronting a dark phase of our history?

Our society raised walls so as not to shed light on the period of the dictatorship, because if we are going to do this we need to start with ourselves. To clarify who were the main people responsible for drafting policy which led not only to the economic destruction of the ‘socialist state’ but also to serious crimes against humanity. Repression, imprisonment and violent oppression of alternative opinion, especially in the years from 1940 to 1950, blunted resistance against the system, but we cannot just hide behind this argument. A dictatorship can’t continue so long if it doesn’t have support from its people. The spies, investigators and judges of the time were not aliens, but real people.

They were turned into murderers and persecutors because their selfish interests matched the interests of the Communist ideology to have total control over the individual, over history, over religion. Among them there were certainly sadists, but the regime needed them. When we discuss this subject in the meetings the IDMC holds around the country, the argument which dominates is that our capitalism since 1990 has produced more injustice than Communism.

People forget quickly! They forget that after the establishment of the Communist regime it was the unprivileged, poor part of the population which seemed to experience positive improvements, especially in the villages. But it wasn’t long before collectivisation was embraced and land was taken which has still not been completely returned! They forget that part of the population took up the positions (and usurped the homes!) of those who were penalised as enemies of the system, most of all those who were educated abroad.

They forget that Communism planted fear in the soul of every Albanian and a lack of trust in people, in the state and in the law – distortions which will require much time to reduce. All the myths for the rehabilitation of Communism have just one aim: hiding its true criminal face.

The crimes of Communism stayed forgotten for the first twenty years of Albania’s transition. They were almost never spoken of. Was that deliberate or is it a delay that can be justified with good reasons?

27 years is not long in the memory of a nation to bring to light a period that was as dark in Albanian history as was Communism. There are many reasons for our delay: the political elite were not changed with the new pluralist elections, so that their continuation and the usurpation of the pluralist political scene by the darlings of the nomenclature marked the beginning of the end of the confrontation with the period of the dictatorship.

Some attempts to raise this issue with a loud voice in parliament and to return dignity to the victims degenerated with the well-known phrase ‘shared suffering and shared guilt’ by delegitimising the whole cause of unjust persecution of a part of society. This formulation released from responsibility the persecutors, the passive and active supporters of the dictatorship and all society. On the other hand, divisions within the group of those formerly persecuted politically means that they didn’t function at all as a strong pressure group against the political class who, because of insufficient facts couldn’t penalise those responsible for crimes against humanity, but they topped it all with trials for the abuse of flour and sugar.

The damage that the Communist regime caused to its political opponents and their families over several generations is unquantifiable and cannot be repaid even with the most lavish monetary reparations. Thus our confrontation with the rehabilitation of the victims is above all moral; there cannot be confrontation with the past from the point of view of the persecutors!

Likewise, the attempt to reduce our Communism to the consequences of the psychopathy of one person is deliberate, because it thus hides the involvement of others, the accumulation of power for each person who climbed the steps in the staff hierarchy. On the other hand they lived with the risk that they would become a long-term part of the ‘sect’ or would be eliminated through the ongoing cleansing which aimed at the creation of a staff entirely convinced of the omnipotence of the One.

Another aspect which has made more difficult the confrontation with the past is the taboo surrounding the opening of the Sigurimi files which has been greatly trumpeted since the 1990s as if they would contain the magic key for decoding the truth about the dictatorship. While the files were awaited we didn’t deal with shedding light on history; we didn’t deal with the victims whose number was reducing every day; we didn’t deal with the reasons and those responsible. The opening of the files is of course a positive step which must be supported, even though it is late.

During the public reading of the Musine Kokalari file during the 2017 Memory Days, the public learned that during 38 years of persecution, in prison and internment, she was under the surveillance of more than 27 Sigurimi collaborators who followed her every step as an ‘enemy of the people’. In general they were uneducated people who fed the hatred against every intellectual educated outside Albania at that time. So the files were one of the links in a long chain for shedding light on the history of Albanian Communism; they were drafted and written by those loyal to the system and they offer information about its repressive mechanisms, from the point of view of the persecutor and not of the victim.

There is undoubtedly a great difference between the way that we as Albanians approach the history of Communism and how the Germans approach this part of history. Can you identify some of the differences?

Germany has long experience in the area of confrontation with the Nazi past, but also with the dictatorship that was established in East Germany (the DDR) after the war. The confrontation with the crimes of Nazism through the Nuremberg trials immediately after the Second World War began through the commitment of the international powers. For society itself some decades were needed for a full catharsis, for guilt and responsibility to be accepted and to draw up an inspiring culture of memory for all.

On the other hand, the process of confronting the Communist past in East Germany was made possible by the legal state of West Germany which enabled the cleansing of the administration of former secret service collaborators and other officers of the regime. This was achieved to a certain extent in Poland, but clearly failed in other countries of Eastern Europe. I don’t know how confrontation with the dictatorship in East Germany would have been managed if there hadn’t been the union of Germany in October 1990. Maybe it would have emerged even on its own, but the experience from the East shows that Communist regimes have difficulty in returning to democratic structures overnight.

This process is difficult and needs time. One society might reflect more quickly; another, like Albania, will need at least two decades more. And the repression and crimes committed in the name of Communism and later in the name of the building of Albanian socialism are incomparable with the experience of other countries – with the exception of Romania in some ways: imprisonment for over 30 years, execution without trial, banishment of families to work camps and in internment for over forty years. Instead of honouring them for their sacrifices, we have forgotten these people.

In Germany there isn’t a primary school child who hasn’t heard of the Holocaust. Throughout the country are museums and memorials to the historical memory of the two dictatorships they lived under. Not only that but honour is shown to the well-known opponents of the Communist regime in East Germany through important state posts, as in the case of the last former President Joachim Gauck or Roland Jahn, the current director of the Authority for the opening of the Stasi files. You can make your own comparison with the reality in Albania.

I’m sure you’ve come across some very painful stories in this process. Is there any you would single out?

I have to say that it is one thing to know in theory that great injustices were committed, and it is something else to read or to hear them from the evidence of people who experienced them. If the crimes of the dictatorship were made public and were broadcast on screens at least once a week I am certain that the adoration and nostalgia for that time would markedly reduce. The stories of persecution can’t compete for first prize with one another. Each of them is dramatic in its own way. The sufferings of women in internment, after the imprisonment of the men of the family, and their sacrifices to bring up and feed their children with work and dignity in those conditions have still not been given the attention they deserve. The mass deaths of children in the Tepelena extermination camp, their forced burial on the banks of the river so that their bones would be lost, and together with them, the traces of the crime against them – these are a dark stain which will have light cast on it very soon.

“Ask your Grandparents” is one of the more interesting details of your project on the process of confrontation with the Communist past. Can you tell us the details of this project? How do high school students learn these stories?

From my work with journalism students I was aware of their lack of interest in the events of the past. Their indifference was fed by the gaping holes in the school curriculum, by the silence of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations; so it’s not the fault of young people that they are uninformed or misinformed. Through the ‘Ask your Grandparents’ creative competition we wanted to offer them the opportunity to confront the history and the experience of their families, and to gather original evidence from eyewitnesses.

Grandparents are a symbol, a reference point for the generations who survived the Communist regime in Albania. The fact that this year too the competition had an excellent following from high school students aged 15 to 19 (you can follow it on shows that something has moved at least a little. The quality of their work has risen year on year, and so has the level of their analysis of human rights violations, the loss of hope and of freedom, the ban on religion, and the imprisonment of an entire country and its isolation from the world. This is the generation who will make the difference in the confrontation with the past and it needs our help, and motivation and inclusion in as many projects and awareness-raising activities as possible, for meetings with contemporary eyewitnesses, confrontation with historical documents and facts rather than the historical trivia that they are forced to learn and hear in school and in the media.

You have organised many activities, mainly for young people, for some years now. How aware are they of the Communist past?

In many schools which we have managed to visit, the young people tell us that they have periodic meetings with war veterans, but that they have never met a former political prisoner from their region, This is an unacceptable situation, the evocation of one side of history and the denial of another side. How are young people to know history when their textbooks talk about ‘the investments of the socialist state’ in new roads, electrification, education, and employment, but there is no analysis of the fact that these investments and developments were used ideologically in order to legitimise the system?! Imagine in Germany the motorways that were built in Hitler’s time being treated as ‘investments’ in the values of Nazism. My fear is that we might raise generations who will in the future remember that Berisha, Meta or Rama took part in the war, brought both Communism and democracy; that Ramiz Alia was a close friend of Enver Hoxha but a good man because of his moderate views in his last years; that Hoxha himself was a foolish old man who meant no harm, but did what he could!

Of course young people may not consider it a priority to know about a past that they don’t know, but as a society we must motivate them to do so. We who lived through the dictatorship know that even a democratic state does not offer a guarantee against totalitarian projects which the time and the context can nurture.

It is really this that I am aiming for in the work that I have been doing for years in the area of memory – reflecting on the dictatorship so that it cannot return, in other forms. It would be good to have more support for this from policymaking agencies such as the Ministry of Education, and for its priorities in this field not to remain only on paper.

For example, one priority ought to be ongoing training of history teachers on the way that the past should be dealt with in lessons, which aspects to choose, how to make students more interested in the subject and the issues, how to use archive documents in lessons, how to engage students across the country in discussions and interviews with eyewitnesses who are still alive and want to talk, and many other things. If we want to reach young people we have to go through teachers; they are the key to success or failure in this process.

What are the challenges in the process of confrontation with the Communist past, in relation to awareness of the public, in particular the young?

The process of confronting the past is a marathon, where you have to pace yourself carefully if you’re going to go the distance. We are still at the beginning of this marathon and the road will be long. How to work together to reduce the difference in opinions on our past? History is not black or white. I am aware that this will be a long and painful process. And it can be achieved through a more distant confrontation with the past: technical and scientific, based on facts and figures, and not on empty polemic. And through an increased transparency in the work of the official authorities for memory or in long-term policies which are adopted by the government and state institutions. Only transparency through facts can show the true face of the dictatorship, not to bring to light the absolute truth, but to encourage witnesses and the contemporary evidence to take an active role in confrontation with the past.

On the other hand it requires a greater engagement from interest groups, from the media and journalists and, above all, from long-term state policies. The reality shows that so far the work to shed light on the past is mainly supported by international institutions, who have not only put the area of memory on their agenda but have forced it also into Albanian politics. Reinforcing in this way the fact that our bitter past is a part of the history of Europe and should be dealt with as such. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation was one of the first initiators of this important debate within the country and abroad.

They were joined by OSCE and other actors who have increased in recent years, and all of them together have been promoters of those small number of changes which have been seen in the last year, such as establishing the Files Authority, the opening of a new museum in Tirana in a site of memory such as the House of Leaves, or the opening of the works at the Spaç prison in order to turn it into a museum. Our state representatives have sometimes felt obliged to give the green light and have trumpeted these as their own successes.

But the danger is that hiding behind some positive policies on memory, and monopolising them, we can neglect the shedding of light on what really happened up until 1990, and any analysis of it. And in the end, the process of moving on from Communism will still be far-off if the political forces do not come together on this mission, if they don’t establish a joint commission made up of people from parliament, independent experts from the academic world and civil society, to analyse objectively how the process has gone so far, and the responsibilities and tasks for the future.

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