Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Auto da Fé

A court in Barcelona has ordered that a number of books be burnt, apparently for being written by Hitler and his henchmen. The symbolism of this would seem to have escaped them.

There is more background to this case than I can dig up, and all the links I have found are in Spanish, but the essentials of the case are these: a man called Pedro Varela who runs a bookshop in Barcelona has been jailed for selling Mein Kampf. He is not a pleasant character. The world would be a better place if he took a more relaxed attitude to diversity in his fellow man (and if he learnt a bit more history) but to lock him up for it seems a bit much. He doesn't appear to have practised or incited violence, and he is convicted only of spreading genocidal ideas, which refers again to the selling of books.

One important point in this is that the Supreme Court declared that Holocaust denial was not a criminal offence, though they took years to make the decision. On the other hand, the Law of Historic Memory brought out by Zapatero's government is a blatant attempt to legislate the truth, which is not a good sign in a democracy.

The exact reason for the destruction of the books is not clear from the article. There is a possiblility of some other motive than they themselves are illegal (there is a reference to his 'haber editado y distribuido en España sin autorización de sus titulares' which I find opaque- specifically the last two words), but the order for destruction only applies to the books related to the case, and the case is about spreading hate, not copyright or anything like that.

I don't defend Nazi ideas, neo or palaeo, as I don't defend communist ideas and the exaltation of leftwing tyrants, and I don't defend the spokesmen of the Basque terrorist movement. But I do defend the right of the people who hold them to exist, to think and speak, for the entirely selfish reason that if their right to do so is not respected, how long will mine be? And also because I like arguing with them. If it weren't for such stupid, unpleasant peoplr, how would I get to think that I'm good and clever?

(More for my own reference than the readers, I link also to this short article with a very long comments thread in which the 'home team' defends its heroes by shouting abuse and threats at those who disagree with them. Despite a few intelligent contributions, it descends into a slanging match between totalitarians who have made no attempt to listen to each other, and would just love to have the power to switch the other side off.)


Vincent said...

Well, it is the land of the Spanish Inquisition, after all. Have you seen Goya’s Ghost?--an excellent film.

My own species of conservatism is able to be rather reassured by this story, as it shows the Spanish still have the same cruel repressive fire in their veins, and haven’t sold out to the forces of whatever. I wonder if Pedro Varela was “put to the question”?

CIngram said...

I like the idea of certainty in the defence of one's idea, even to the point of 'putting someone to the question'. The trouble, as I said, is that you never know who could be next, and until I am named head of the Dominican order (which isn't likely in the near future) persecution is just a knock on the door away. My Spanish blog is considerably more forthright than this one, and names names.*

Also, I fear that the sentence against Pedro Varela has nothing to do with that ancient fire, and is in fact a direct result of 'selling out to the forces of whatever.'

*My targets are mostly stupid politicians, bureaucrats and media commentators with idiotic or repressive ideas. So far no one has noticed me. You can't even get good persecution these days.

No, I haven't seen Goya's Ghost. I'll add it to the list.

Millán Mozota said...

I do agree with the general sense of your post (no book/idea is to be burnt).

But I absolutely do not agree with the idea that "Law of Historic Memory" is to re-write history: that just nosense or disinformation.
The law was actually made to create a legal context for the families of the civilians (and some military) gunned and buried in pits and trenches outside the cities and villages, mainly in the period 1936-1940. Spanish laws (until the arrival of the refered Law) did not allow to un-bury and move those remains into both a christian or "no-religious" graveyard. Neither was possible to place a plaque or small monument for those dead people (while the "heros" from the National Army they had monuments all around.. and i mean all around... on every neighbourhood of every town).
That was a huge propagandistic aberration that had to be corrected. The origin of such unfairness is a "too mild in some aspects" Transition to Democracy, when politicians feared to awake the ghosts of the the civil war, areasing at least some of the simbology of the dictatorship.
But (at least i think that) time has come to the grandchildren of those gunned down and hidden in the outskirts of cities and villages to get rid of that socialstigma and bring their ancestor to the right place (in the context of our spanish funeral culture): That is, a grave in a graveyard; not a long forgotten pit in nowhere, like they were rabid dogs.
As a secondary question (and that is probably what you have heard about) that Law created an general context for diferent administrations to facilitate changing the names of streets, squares and other places. The basic idea here was an empiric and demonstrable fact: the winner side of the spanish civil war had a HUGE percentaje of the spanish toponimic changed in a few years after civil war. Basically, as a mean of propaganda. So the idea was to recover most of the historically older, more variate, and more accurate names of places, while opening some spaces to give honor to the other "heros". You know, the ones from the democratically elected republican Spain.

Millán Mozota said...

And well, im just curious about something: why have you written "Auto da fé"? I think that is portuguese language, but couldn't say for sure. Not the spanish spelling, anyway.

CIngram said...

Thanks for your considered comment, and for taking my scribblings more seriously than they probably deserve to be.

In response, let me say that, although my remark about the Law of Historic Memory appears to be a frivolous aside, it is in fact relevant to the subject, and my knowledge of it is not based on hearsay or disinformation, but on a close following of the debate at the time and a careful reading of the draught and final versions of the law itself. (Note to self: I will stick very carefully to the point raised, as the subject is so vast and so difficult to discuss in an informed, neutral fashion.)

Disclaimers/declarations of interest: My family is not from Spain, had no involvement in the Civil War, and when the transition took place I was young boy living in another country. My wife’s family, on the other hand, were landowners trapped in a Republican sector, and half of them were murdered by the blood-thirsty local militia, and their property stolen. They got the land back, but the killers were never brought to justice, and the bodies never found. It wasn’t only one side that suffered

While I am broadly of the political right, I am more concerned with freedom and prosperity, for which democracy is probably a prerequisite, and transparency and accountability in government certainly are.

The Nationalists won the Civil War and were therefore in a position to hide their own wrongdoing while highlighting and avenging that of the Republicans and their supporters. That this was a great wrong, about which many people still living have very bitter feelings and a deep sense of injustice, goes without saying (actually it probably doesn’t go without saying, which is why I’ve said it explicitly). At the time of the transition it was decided that to attempt to address and redress many of the crimes of the dictatorship was less important than the search for a free and stable form of government. There was no reason why Spain should have passed from dictatorship to democracy in 1975. Many countries have, in the last thirty-odd years, had the chance to free themselves from tyrannical governments. We have seen across Eastern Europe, South America and Africa how some succeeded and others have simply been taken over by other tyrants. We are seeing now in North Africa and the Middle East another group of countries which have created for themselves the same opportunity. Some will, I hope, achieve their aims. Others, I fear, will fail. Spain, that is, the people, the political groups and the more charismatic and influential leaders were able to create a new Spain. They could easily have failed, and they all knew that they had to offer concessions, and that a major concession was to forget much of the past, however painful it might be.

It was surely the right decision, and has led to the existence of this free, peaceful and prosperous nation that we are both lucky enough to live in. But, I repeat, it could easily have been very different.

CIngram said...

[Continued- too long for a single comment]

It has long been clear that democracy in Spain is stable and proof against all kinds of attack. It is certainly not threatened by some boat-rocking by those who want the past to be remembered as it was. And if the truth can be examined and acknowledged without injury to the country, then it is just that it should now be examined.

The reason I dislike the Ley de Memoria Histórica is that everything about it was political. The moment chosen to revisit the crimes of the dictatorship was politically determined; the language of the Proyecto is highly emotive, very unlegalistic, there are general references to the right to individual memories and personal experience, but specific mentions are always to elements of the Republican side. The members of the International Brigades are singled out on page 1 for the privilege of unconditional nationality. But they were not fighting against fascist tyranny, they were, by the personal testimony of many of them, and the propaganda which recruited them, idealists fighting for communism. One could say they were tragically misled, but that doesn't make them heroes. The División Azul are not feted in this way. I could go on.

The Law could, perhaps, have been what it was billed as, a final chance to recognise the wrongs of the past, and to right them as far as possible, while some of those who suffered are still alive. It could, perhaps, have united the country, except the extremists from both ends of the spectrum who have no interest in democracy or understanding. But it was a mess. And yes, the Partido Popular is as much to blame for playing political games with it as were the Socialists. If they’d worked together they might have got it right.

With regard to Auto-da-Fé, it seems to be the most common form in English. Why we prefer the Portuguese form I couldn’t say. I used the title because, although the Inquisition burnt heretical books as well as people, I was thinking specifically of Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung, in the final scene of which the main character burns his library down around him (for reasons I’m not sure I understood). The original translator into English gave it the title of Auto-da-Fé, in that form, and subsequent translations and discussions in English have respected it.

If you’ve got this far, thanks again for your remarks. By the way, your QSL card is on its way.

Millán Mozota said...

I can see that you have some very reasonable points there. My own family was also quite conservative and they got trapped inside republican territory that became "red" (meaning Communist Party-controlled) during the war. No member of the family was killed then, but some of the men just got barely alive from the "checa".
And, on the other hand, another branch of the family was on the "maquis" just after the war. Some men were shot down by the Guardia Civil (fair fight as long as i know), but some women suffered illegal and cruel agressions, perpetrated by the troopers.
Back to the present, i think it was a "necessary-lesser evil" that some issues were not adressed at the time of Transition. But there's not excuse for us if we dont adress those issues 30 years after Franco's death.
Also, i beg you to understand that -as an archaeologist- I have seen, throught my colleagues, how difficult was in Spain to make investigations about "fosas comunes" (mass burials?), and to excavate them, just in order to return those bones to their families.
Then, besides the obvious political/ideological biases, from my point of view the Law were're talking about made those processes easier (not for all the cases, anyway).
As a comparative example, i can tell you that we (spanish archaeo/anthropo plp interested in those issues) have quite envy of argentinian laws and initiatives about their very own "fosas comunes". Being their our internal unrest much more recent, argentinians were able to build a reasonably good context for the "recovering teams" to work, and a world-wide respected organization known as the EAAF.

As a second point, i'm not sure if you really understand how broad was the presence of dictatorship simbolism all around our lives (I can point that i was born the year of Francos death, but most of my live i've seen that simbolism all around). While i did not find it particularly offensive, is has to be admitted that those plaques and monuments of "Franquismo" they were... everywere. To the point that, some years after the refered Law passed, the simbolism is still quite present in many places (even as that Law motivated the change of the name of many public spaces -quite usually, it was a return to the original, history-long names).

I'm still fighting to understand your QSL initiative. My father was an active "Radioaficionado" for many years, and i have a vague idea of what a QSL was, but, well, i'm not sure it makes sense in the internet.

CIngram said...

If you looked at the post I linked to, you will have seen that I was a 'radioaficionado' and I miss those days, which the Internet has made obsolete. My idea probably doesn't make much sense in this medium, but it's a bit of fun, and for me, a bit of nostalgia.

It is late and I can't respond to the rest your points until tomorrow, but I look forward to continuing this conversation, and to learning from it.