A lesson from other countries. The past can be a dangerous and unpredictable place

Northern Ireland is not the only place grappling with the problem of the disappeared, one of the starkest proxy issues for the whole horror of the Troubles. About 30,000 people were “disappeared” in Argentina during the junta years of the 1970s and 80s and 130,137 victims of Franco went missing during the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. In these countries too, these are not dead historical facts; they still have potency today. In several countries, the past is being relived. It would be useful to examine the different reasons why, before we embark on any grand inquiry of our own. Much investigation has gone into the process of inquiry, not enough into why we might do it. The results in other countries are not always encouraging. In Argentina the mothers of the desaparecidos played an important part in the downfall of the regime.
Spain was different; there was a conscious culture of forgetting which produced the evolution to democracy. Disinterring the bones of Lorca, surely a fitting subject for one of his own plays, is awakening fears of reviving old hatreds and even of destabilising the country, almost 70 years after his murder. In Argentina the quest for justice goes on. In Spain, where the dead on both sides ran into millions a 1977 amnesty is now the target for those who seek justice. Socialist Prime Minister Zapatero’s proposal for a Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory has aroused fierce controversy, either for being too feeble, or for existing at all.

In Germany,more than 60 years on revived memories before the wartime generation finally dies out will not shake the Federal Republic, so completely was the war tradition burned out of them in the cataclysm of revenge and rape in 1944-45, as told in English by Anthony Beevor and now in a German movie. Incredibly thousands of women now grandmothers kept silent about what had befallen them. If Germans need an explanation and many do, they need only to turn to the detailed accounts in Soviet and other archives of the incredible level of brutality carried out by the ordinary German soldier not just the SS in the invasion of the Soviet Union. And yet today, it’s fair to say the deep scars have healed in that relationship, after almost thirty million dead.

Austria is a different case again. Was she a victim of Nazism or a co-conspirator? They like to have it both ways. It is in this quiet pastoral country that echoes of the Nazi past have been loudest, as we saw last week at the funeral of that disturbing character Jorg Haider. For too many Austrians (not all and not the State) remembering is about excusing the past.

So Remembering is an unpredictable exercise. .It can revive the dark passions of the past as much as exorcise them. Justice I suggest is unattainable. I end as I began. What is all for?. Is the Northern Ireland community able to give itself a sensible and agreed answer?

  • jackdutch

    we don’t need an inquiry to discover who did the disappearing in n.i. – everyone knows who did it, or rather ordered it (since he never actually got his own hands dirty)!

  • Brian,

    Sounds like you’d support Roy Foster’s (deliberately?) provocative argument some years ago for theraputic forgetting. Is this so?

  • Dave

    The pursuit of ‘truth and justice’ in the aftermath of NI’s ‘troubles’ is more problematical because its principle troublemakers (with the exception of the pro-state loyalist paramilitaries) are now part of the political establishment. Naturally, that establishment has a vested interest in suppressing any process that would have the inevitable outcome of focusing public attention on their role in inflicting unmitigated misery on the people whom they now govern. People would find it more difficult to integrate the organisers of sectarian murder gangs and bellicose bigots who incite hate crimes into the political process if they were made cognisant of the horror of their crimes by way of public testimony and such. They can’t, of course, state that such is the reason why no Truth Commission (forget about the ‘justice’ part because the vested interests will ensure that they are granted extensive immunity) has been established, so they merely go through the motions of feigning interest in establishing one, all the while undermining it. The public are complicit in this process. They elected these people and they have a vested interest in not being reminded of how misguided they were. Likewise, the British government has gone to great lengths to conceal the nature of its role in controlling the organisers of NI’s sectarian murder gangs and what purpose such control served, establishing shambolic entities such as the Inquiries Act which have the ulterior purpose of concealing the truth rather than the claimed purpose of exposing it. So, if the truth is not obtainable, it’s only because it’s not politically expedient to obtain it. Beyond that, the people of NI really don’t give a rat’s ass about the victims of the violence beyond it being a opportunity to feel contempt for the other tribe. If they did, they’d be on the streets campaigning for them rather than wishing that they’d suffer in silence so that they don’t have to feel guilty about supporting a process that was designed to reward their victimisers.

  • Pete Baker
  • Tochais Si­orai­

    The NI troubles were a far greyer conflict than any of those mentioned above where we can mostly see a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side. Even in Spain and Argentina there are relatively few apologists for the Falangists and the Generals.
    There is no consensus on the good guys in NI were and there is no consensus as to the root cause of the conflict thus where would such an investigation/enquiry go?

    I think we shouln’t lose the run of ourselves comparing NI during the troubles or indeed Ireland at any point in the twentieth century with any of the countries mentioned above. It is a complete indulgence, there is simply no comparison whatsoever. You would have to go back to the 17th century to find a comparison with the scale of horrors visited upon these places as a result of war in Ireland.

  • RepublicanStones

    Tochais everything can be compared. One may even compare an apple to an orange. The word your looking for is equivalence. Having said that, I take your point.

  • Brian Walker

    Garibaldi, “Therapauetic forgetting” has to be a option.” I swing to that side but….there are so many strands and motives to the past, we need to thrash them out, after the great and good have pronounced. Here are some factors in the rethink.

    Conspiracy theorists. Whatever the disclosures they will always be with us. Some will be justified.

    Disillusion. In many cases I can’t see what heavily redacted ( blacked out) police files will tell us. Leaving them unredacted is rightly legally impossible, a denial of basic justice and perhaps physically dangerous.

    Parity of disclosure. There are many official files over the 30-40 years. Yes I favour disclosure. The paramilitaries kept few files. Will they play ball on disclosure? A very tall order. Adams suggests yes for the IRA on the disappeared but that’s a drop in the ocean. However its possible, through case-matching.

    Dealing with collusion at last. The Bloody Sunday precedent is a disaster, too long, too grossly expensive (McGuinness – all we needed was an apology). The Finucane running sore and the wider issues remain. It opens up into the whole issue of informers/informants call them what you will.. Much of this is in the dubious category of “everybody knows” rightly or wrongly and there’s a natural itch to get to the deep bottom of “the dirty war.” On the official side there would be benefits in clearing the air. Call me naive, I don’t understand why prevarication runs so deep. We have regime change of a sort already; the war is over. The “national security” arguments are largely if not entirely defunct; they could be managed. Issues of individual justice and revenge remain. How would the “guilty” be protected? There are bad precedents as well as good ones!

    Transparency. I don’t see how the whole subject could be limited to private disclosure. If it is, it will be innately unsatisfactory by any standards and anyway run into the redaction problem of disillusion above.

    Justice. It can’t work without a de facto amnesty. Hey, we’ve got one already haven’t you noticed? No one will now be prosecuted for any scheduled offence committed before April 98. Denials are just politics. Admitting this would be an advance towards honesty in itself but yes, controversial. I don’t see how any without-penalty exercise can be mounted without an amnesty – no point in using weasel words when that’s what you mean.

    On balance, I would favour private disclosure of redacted police files, with the health warning that they won’t disclose much, risking further disillusion and leaving many victims in a worse place than they are already.

    Second, I would think hard about the option of leaving the complex pattern of narrative to a loosely run Commission of contemporary historians and other analysts set up after a wide public debate involving London, Belfast and Dublin on special arrangements for freedom of information. The governments and the paramilitaries would all be required to sign up. Great analytical and oral interviewing skills would be required.(interesting job, come to think of it). The commission would blow the whistle on defaulters and reserved positions under the ground rules.

    This is an unashamed elitist approach, it fails to satisfy the demands of the militant public inquirers ( but face it, they will never get their way anyway). I can’t see any other realistic approach. After disclosures, the public debates will doubtless rage case by case, issue by issue among those who feel so inclined.

    Five years? Looking at German and other precedents much longer but with perhaps declining public impact – until the commission comes across a corker.

  • Harry Flashman

    Anyone who believes there was a simple “black and white” or “good guy versus bad guy” situation in the Spanish Civil War clearly knows sweet Fanny Adams about what went on in that war.

  • Brian Walker

    Pete, might not the examples of Poland, and the other ex- Communist countries be actually trickier than NI? (Though note the ambiguities over motives in the great German movie The Lives of Others. The story can be repeated everywhere else in the East). The secret state was just that, secret. Greater disclosure may be necessary to achieve public integrity. The secret state wasn’t our main problem, was it? The ex-terrorists and their supporters are in power, as are ex-colluders with loyalist violence. Denial like Adams’s is an irritation, almost a joke. We know who they are and what they were. What people seem to require is the purgative of confession. While I would quite welcome that, to show perhaps that the war is not continuing by other means, I think I’d be even more interested in the composite narrative. But then again, I personally could live without it. Others may differ but I wonder how many?

  • Brian,

    Have to head out but I’ll come back to this tomorrow. Very interesting points you make. Just quickly on eastern Europe, the Poles in particular need to face up to their complicity in the holocaust. The socialist countries, hugely imperfect as they were, were a lot better in most places than what had gone before or than the likely aggressive nationalist alternative.

  • “Justice I suggest is unattainable.”

    and so is truth, Brian. Also, it’s likely that many folks were driven by perception rather than by facts.

  • Steve

    In Canada

    Therapeutic forgetfulness has worked wonders for the white community. We are never taught about the many dirty deals we made with the natives especially the ones we didn’t honour.

    It hasn’t worked so well for the natives but since they were the ones wronged I supose it is a lot harder for them to forget therapeutically

    In nIreland both sides see themselves as the wronged ones so I don’t see too much chance of anyone forgetting too much

    Perhaps a truth and reconciliation commision would work because it would require both communities to confront the dirty deeds done on their behalf

    The only way I see it working for the nationalist community is if the government owned up to their role

    and that will never happen

  • Harry Flashman

    “The socialist countries, hugely imperfect as they were, were a lot better in most places than what had gone before or than the likely aggressive nationalist alternative.”

    Maybe so, and that would be a bloody big “maybe” (the Czechs? The Estonians? And indeed the Poles for all their faults?), but surely that is not comparing like with like.

    East Germany might have been quite a bit of an improvement on what went before but it was still dreadful in comparison with its liberal democratic neighbour. Italy might have been a bit unpleasant under Mussolini but thankfully for the wellbeing of our Italian friends they opted for liberal democracy rather than Communist totalitarianism (or “socialism” to use Gari’s euphemism).

    So too all the nations of NATO and indeed the “neutral” nations of western Europe, no matter how bad their past, no matter how flawed their systems of government, they were still light years better than living under Marxist tyranny.

    Just ask the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Latvians, Georgians and Lithuanians if you doubt this, only people who have never experienced the dread terror of living under Stalinist oppression can flippantly dismiss it as just another imperfect form of government, not so bad really considering the options.

    I never saw machine gun posts, mine fields, snarling guard dogs, concrete walls and barbed wire being used to prevent people escaping from the West.

  • Brian Walker

    and Harry, re the thread, your point is…?

  • Harry Flashman

    Oh I’m sorry Brian, I didn’t realise the thread police were out in force in this thread, rigidly enforcing thread discipline as opposed to all the other threads here which seem to allow the discussion to wander where it will.

    Please accept my apologies.

    Fine, you want strict adherence to the thread? Ok, so why do all the “truth and justice” campaigns invariably demand exposure of crimes committed by opponents of Marxism, when it seems the crimes of the Left should simply be forgotten about and brushed under the carpet?

    So it is that the Spanish judge Balthasar wants to arrest Pinochet but not Castro, he wants to exhume the victims of Franco but isn’t too keen to discuss the Spanish mass graves filled by victims of the Communists. We are told that of all the ghastly, horrific, homicidal, psychopathic, tribal, cannibalistic, anarchic, genocidal regimes that afflicted the misfortunate continent of Africa in the past half century apparently the only one worthy of a truth and justice tribunal was probably the least awful, that which ruled South Africa.

    People look with positive equanimity to the prospect of China becoming a superpower equal to the US despite the fact that the same party which slaughtered almost a hundred million Chinese men, women and children still holds absolute power in that nation but curiously enough unlike Spain or Argentina hasn’t found the time to set up a navel gazing truth and reconciliation committee.

    So in actual fact my post to which you object is extremely relevant; already a mere nineteen years after their popular overthrow, the ‘progressives’ of the west are assiduously airbrushing history; the “socialist” governments of eastern and central Europe weren’t all that bad you know, forget all that nonsense you heard about gulags and the Lubianka and Hungary in 1956 and Prague in ’68, the nice Communists weren’t any different to the western governments, maybe we could think again about the benefits of Communism, eh?

    I hope you can see my “point” now Brian, and I look forward to you being as strict on other posters.

  • Dave

    Brian, is there a possibility that your inability to fathom why any victim of violence requires either truth or justice is related to your status as a non-victim? This process should be about the needs of the victims and not something that is dependent upon the idiosyncrasies or political expediencies of the non-victims.

    Statements such as “We know who they are and what they were” as designed to create the misleading impression that the truth is already disclosed and that, ergo, any additional truth-recovery process is redundant. Those proffering this argument usually follow it up by adding “and an expensive waste of the taxpayers’ money – just like the Bloody Sunday Inquiry – that would be better spent of schools and hospitals, etc.” The truth, however, is far from disclosed, being very carefully concealed by those who have much to hide. We know that the State sponsored terrorism, conspiring with pro-state and anti-state sectarian murder gangs to murder its own citizens but we don’t know the extent of this collusion and what purpose it actually served. Clearly, it is in the public interest that the citizens should be fully aware of the covert methods that their State has of conspiring to murder them. It is clearly not in the State’s interest that the people should be so informed, hence the desire of the State to conceal such information from them.

    So there is one reason why you as a non-victim should be interested in a process that is primarily to the benefit of the actual victims – 4000 lost lives, tens of thousands physically maimed and tens of thousands more emotionally maimed.

  • John 45

    Re: the 130137 Franco dissapeared during the Spanish Civil War. Remember also the 130137 Communist disappeared during the Spanish Civil War.

  • jackdutch

    to brian walker: you actually call for the producted of ‘redacted’ police files. you call yourself a journalist and you embrace censorship??!!@@@

  • Brian Walker

    jackdutch Redaction is what we’re getting not what I’m calling for and even journalists are allowed to support human rights for people named in police files.

    Dave, you misunderstand. We know the provenance of Sinn Fein ministers; I’d hoped it was obvious I was not referring to individual justice. And yes, I doubt if justice is attainable in most cases at this distance. If justice is feasible, I don’t see how incriminating details can be publicly disclosed without permission and even then – unless it goes to trial. I do not believe that will happen. I may be wrong. And if it goes to trial I fail to see the point of a trial without penalty – that too is a denial of justice.
    I’m not working to some ideal; I’m trying to find a basis of reality.

    harry flashman, my question was genuine,I thought you were making a implied point I hadn’t grasped. Be my guest, go ahead, with sarcasm if you must. I tend to agree with you re life under Stalinism and even after, even if you if you belonged to the ethnic majority..

    For the many ethnic minorities in the post-1918 E and C European settlement, life which began hard for them became a nightmare with their forcible removal or annihilation first under Hitler, then under Stalin. The brutal post 1945 shift westwards of the Polish and German frontiers achieved fairly homogeneous states at very high cost. But we benefit today. The aggravating issues of frontiers and minorities that led to WW2 are all but closed.

    Was life better in Poland etc 1918 to 39 for ethnic Poles (not Polish Jews)? Certainly, they were free for the first time in centuries and relatively prosperous. Allowing for some further improvements in living standards post 1950, I would think to pre-1939ers were still better off, not only because of post-war rickety Polish Communism but because they were living with the brutal and brutalising effects of the war. Pace Garton Ash who may still be be right, I can at least understand why Poles want to go easy on the Communist past. At least few died in that era, unlike its immediate predecessors
    ( although i met at least one who was murdered, Father Jerzy Popieluszko). Well now, it’s been my turn to wander from the point…

  • Brian Walker

    PS I said “few died” in post war Poland. Just in case someone picks me up, I haven’t forgotten the immediate post war to 1948 era and the brief uprisings in 1956 and 1970 before Solidarity in 1980, which I observed. But compared to 1914 – 22 and the horrors of 1939-45, the numbers were small.

  • jackdutch

    to brian walker: excuse me, this is what you actually wrote, just a few posts above this: ‘On balance, I would favour private disclosure of redacted police files, with the health warning that they won’t disclose much, risking further disillusion and leaving many victims in a worse place than they are already’ – that sounds to me pretty clear and unequivocal – in fact on a second reading it’s even worse, you would favour ‘private’ disclosure of such censored files so that even the blacked out nothingness you would ‘favour’ would stay hidden from public view. and then you cover your offence by adding that they wouldn’t be of much use to anyone! so why ‘favour’ such a course in the first place? pathetic! shameful!

  • Harry Flashman

    I have no doubt that the ethnic Germans who were forced from their homes in East Prussia and in the Sudeten areas of Czecholoslakia in 1945 must have suffered greatly, no doubt the pain of loss lingers still among the families so roughly dispossessed.

    However in all the claims to my sympathy from oppressed peoples around the globe I hope I am not judged too severely for admitting theirs is not a very high priority.