A Middle East researcher shows us the revolutionaries of the past
Sune Haugbølle is using new sources and a large number of interviews with key persons who have so far kept silent about their past to investigate the connections between the Danish and Arab left-wing parties in the 1960s and 70s. The research can help us better understand the contemporary political activists in the Middle East.
When 22-year-old police officer, Jesper Egtved Hansen, was killed by gunshots on the 3 November 1988 in front of the post office on Købmagergade in Copenhagen, it marked the dramatic culmination of the history of the militant left wing in Denmark. The ‘Blekingegade gang’ became synonymous with violent, revolutionary left-wing activism and even today, it still casts dark shadows over political activism on the left. The Blekingegade gang is, together with organisations such as Bader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades, described thoroughly and in detail in both literature, films and research.
»It has become embarrassing to have been engaged in the Palestinian cause in those years, but it is important and exciting that someone now dares to talk about it so that we understand what happened during that period of our history«
However, behind the colourful and dramatic stories about revolutionary terrorist gangs, there is a diverse and complicated group of Danes who were very active on the international left wing but who were less militant – and whose stories have so far never been told.
That is a task that Sune Haugbølle, professor with special responsibilities from Roskilde University, has taken upon himself:
“My research shows that the left wing’s ideas of international cooperation and solidarity changed through their direct connections with movements outside of Europe. We’ve been very focused on radicalisation and the mistakes that were made. By delving deep into the personal stories, we can also understand some of the considerations that people had about entering into this cooperation,” says Sune Haugbølle.
He has based his study on written sources such as from Dansk Solidaritetsbevægelse (The Danish Solidary Movement), Israeli intelligence reports, the socialist Palestinian organisation Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) own records, and he has also spoken with several of the hundreds of Danes who represented the Danish left in the 1960s and 70s. A lot of them have not previously spoken to either journalists or researchers.
According to Sune Haugbølle, the reasons for this silence are partly due to groups such as the Blekingegade gang. The events surrounding the many violent and extremist left wing activists created a stigma that has since made many people keep quiet about their past.
In addition, many have felt guilty due to their associations, and therefore there are many that do not like to talk about it today:
“It has become embarrassing to have been engaged in the Palestinian cause in those years, but it is important and exciting that someone now dares to talk about it so that we understand what happened during that period of our history,” says Sune Haugbølle.
And there was a lot of activity besides that of the Blekingegade gang and the Maoist organisation, Kommunistisk Arbejdskreds (KAK), which were at the core. Hundreds of Danes in this period travelled to Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Jordan to meet with revolutionary groups such as the PFLP and they were successful in getting access to the top ranks of the Arab left.
»We’ve been very focused on radicalisation and the mistakes that were made. By delving deep into the personal stories, we can also understand some of the considerations that people had about entering into this cooperation«
Meetings also took place in Denmark, where Palestinian organisations had representatives. While the Maoists of KAK did not have any issues with supporting and carrying out armed actions, the vast majority of solidarity members declined when offered weapons training, Sune Haugbølle says:
“The extreme left had an ongoing discussion in the 1970s concerning the necessity of revolutionary violence such as, for example, the PFLP’s hijacking of planes. For Venstresocialisterne (a Marxist Danish political party founded in 1967) this question resulted in internal divisions when the leader, Preben Wilhjem, took a stand against the militant faction, Faglig Fællesliste. The same discussions were taking place among the solidarity movements, such as the Palestine committee (Palæstinakomiteen).”
Sune Haugbølle explains that in the 1960s, it became an important issue for parties and movements on the left to have international committees, and this led to new viewpoints:
“Many became part of a network of revolutionary socialists that was both global and very active. In other words, our political culture became globalised via this network. It was a movement that believed it was possible to revolutionise Western societies inspired by the anti-colonial movements in the global south, and they did not view the ruling classes in the West, and particularly in the United States, as protectors of freedom. Rather, they viewed freedom as a process of liberating oneself from oppression – and they believed this struggle could also be imported to Denmark,” explains Sune Haugbølle and describes the unhindered access many of the travelling Danes got:
“People were suddenly having coffee with Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, and here many of them were probably a bit naive. But they were fervent anti-imperialists and viewed Zionism as a supporting pillar of Imperialism, and therefore they also became natural allies of, for example, the PFLP,” Sune Haugbølle continues.