The transition from tyranny to freedom is far more difficult when people who must learn to make free decisions do not know their real history. When Nazi Germany was occupied by Allied forces at the end of World War II, all official documents were brought to a central location and made available to everyone, from scholars to simple citizens. Any falsification of the Nazi past proved impossible because documentary history was at hand. The same applies to the operations of the East German intelligence service, the STASI, during the Communist period. STASI archives are open, and the real history of Communist Germany is now being written.
As Anne Applebaum has shown in her book Gulag, when historical facts are suppressed full freedom is more difficult to achieve. Professor and writer Kanan Makiya has collected millions of documents from Saddam Hussein’s regime and is organizing a museum/archive that will enable the world at large, and Iraqis in particular, to discover the details of the oppression that gripped Iraq for so many years.
Anne Applebaum, Washington Post
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Michael A. Ledeen, AEI
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Kanan Makiya, Iraqi National Congress
Saving Iraqi History
The transition from tyranny to freedom is far more difficult when people who must learn to make free decisions do not know their real history. When Allied forces occupied Nazi Germany at the end of World War II, all official documents were brought to a central location and made available to everyone, from scholars to simple citizens. Any falsification of the Nazi past proved impossible because documentary history was at hand. The same applies to the operations of the East German intelligence service, the STASI, during the Communist period. STASI archives are open, and the real history of Communist Germany is now being written. As Anne Applebaum has shown in her book Gulag, when historical facts are suppressed, full freedom is more difficult to achieve. Professor and author Kanan Makiya has collected millions of documents from Saddam Hussein's regime and is organizing a museum/archive that will enable the world at large, and Iraqis in particular, to discover the details of the oppression that gripped Iraq for so many years. Experts gathered at a January 14 AEI event to discuss the importance of making Iraqi historical documents available to the future of democracy in Iraq.
Michael A. Ledeen
Michael A. Ledeen stressed the importance of historical remembrance for the present and future of Iraq. He explained that historical documents enhance the political and social memory of a country, drawing upon his prior experience with the archives of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Ledeen underlined the vital role of free access to historical documents for the development of a viable democracy in any country. The improper handling of the newly found Iraqi archives, he argued, could offer opportunities for manipulation of past evidence for present ideological and political purposes, which occurred in Italy under the communist government. There, he explained, the fascist archives remained undisclosed for years, and the communist regime took advantage of the situation, playing with people's fear and their lack of proper historical memory. Any anticommunist sentiment or persons had been conveniently dealt with by being labeled "fascist" or "pro-fascist."
Anne Applebaum shared the challenging experience of working with the Soviet archives during her research for her book Gulag: A History. She described the attitude of the authorities as unnecessarily protective and hindering deeper inquiry. Overcoming such opposition, however, enables historically aware citizens to avoid repeating the political and economic disasters of the past century in the Soviet Union and Russia.
Applebaum uncovered dangerous ignorance of the fact that Russian prisons in 1998 remained terrifying fossils of the Stalinist era. She gave a vivid description of the crowded cells, the lack of ventilation, and the laundry hanging from the ceilings. Although Russian prison officials blamed the conditions on a lack of funding, they displayed surprising contentment with the status quo and contempt for reform.
Current Russian politics indicate that "gulag" memoirs do not seem to haunt anyone, claimed Applebaum. No one in Russia seems to be cognizant of the parallels between the Russian invasion of Chechnya in the twenty-first century and the German invasion of Poland in the twentieth century, and she charged this lack of recognition to the presence of former KGB officers in President Vladimir Putin's administration.
In conclusion, Applebaum contended that it is critical for the new regime in Iraq to open its archives and to spur historical awareness in Iraq, as well as in the greater Middle East. The American sensibility to historical memory, as well as the decision of the coalition forces about the future of the Iraqi archives, remains crucial to the development of an Iraqi democracy. In fact, she warned, if the Iraqi archives are not opened in a timely manner, the nation risks a totalitarian return to power.
Iraqi National Council, Brandeis University, Harvard University
Kanan Makiya outlined the goals of the Iraq Memory Foundation, including the preservation of records detailing the workings and the crimes of the Baathist government-a totalitarian regime he likened to fascism and communism.
The Iraq Memory Foundation can help Iraqis formulate a more self-critical and less self-inclined view of the Arab world and of Iraq's role in it, even as it emerges from pan-Arabism. Makiya explained that since the records at hand are unique (they are of Iraqi people by Iraqi people), the records would allow the Iraqi people to observe themselves and become more historically aware during this crucial period of change rather than delaying this perspective for a period of many years, as in other post-totalitarian regimes.
That process, Makiya offered, would be connected to the next underlying goal of the Iraq Memory Foundation-an institution unique in that part of the world-to create a wider project on democracy in the Middle East.
Makiya noted that the project had already been criticized by representatives of dictatorships in the region, including Syrian Foreign minister Farouk Al-Shara and the Arab League secretary-general Amr Mahmoud Moussa, who condemned the project for having been created "under Zionist influences."
The Iraq Memory Project can also empower the Iraqi people with proper historical remembrance. The former Baathist regime, he argued, left behind an incredible paper trail of its inner workings with the 200-300 million archival pages full of astonishing detail. A project of this magnitude, Makiya asserted, has the power to change Middle Eastern studies as similar projects changed the nature of Soviet and Russian studies and of all other past dictatorial regimes that had opened their archives.
Makiya responded to several major questions regarding the Iraq Memory Foundation project. It was suggested that the Iraqi people might not want to be reminded of the horror and defeat of the past as they enter a turbulent future, but Makiya responded that the archives would differ from one generation to the next and that it would be only proper to give all generations the right to create historical awareness and remembrance.
One critic feared that the singling out of Baathist atrocities against the Iraqi people might lead some to forget the injustice and violence which had come from the outside (e.g., international sanctions). Makiya rejected the argument as "a recipe for complete inaction and complete forgetfulness" about the external and internal crimes and injustices committed on Iraq.
One questioner asked if the task of rebuilding and reconstructing Iraq might require a certain amount of forgetting. While Makiya recognized a degree of truthfulness in the question, he commented that since the extent of remembering in that region had been very low, the opening of the archives in Iraq would not prove traumatizing.
Makiya concluded by addressing the practical problems the Iraq Memory Foundation faces, including the lack of understanding on the part of the coalition administration as to the crucial role that archival preservation plays in democracy-building. Makiya characterized the current document search as targeting only papers dealing with WMDs. Thus, he regretted, the part of the archives dealing with that part of the Baathist regime have been held completely sealed from archivists so far. Another sensitive issue the Iraq Memory Foundation confronts is the disclosure of the thousands of names-both victims and tyrants-involved in the past regime. Disclosing those names, Makiya argued, while "blood is still fresh, [and] atrocities are still present," could bring many political and ideological issues to the surface during a time when they are still difficult to resolve.
AEI research assistant Assia Dosseva prepared this summary.