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The Dispute for Memory in Totalitarian Regimes, and in Modern Democracies – Argentina as a Case Study

The Dispute for Memory in Totalitarian Regimes, and
in Modern Democracies - Argentina as a case study
Fernando Miramontes Forattini
A case study of the Argentine dictatorship that seeks to elucidate the best way to use memory as a
historical narrative and its political implications. Should it be active, be it in the service of justice or
oppose its literal form? This is a useful topic for Brazil today.
The defeat in the Malvinas had a high cost to the Argentine dictatorship. Not only monetary, but the
humiliating defeat to the British led to the unsustainability of the dictatorial regime that was already
in a state of collapse. With this historic moment, denunciations of repression and torture began to
appear more openly and, allied to the economic crisis that was damaging the country, led society to
be more attentive to the accusations of disappearances in the country, reflecting on discussions
about historical responsibilities and the political implications for foreseeable future. Initially, the
military junta denied the accusations and went on the offensive by denouncing the families that was
accusing them, while, at the same time, preaching for a so-called "national pacification" - something
that will happen only with its amnesty law enacted by the military itself before leaving power.
The first civilian government will be that of Alfonsín, which despite denouncing torture and accepting
other people's complaints, did little to elucidate and judicialize them (even though it had the merit
of having implemented CONADEP (National Commission on the Disappearance of People) that led to
the creation of the important report Nunca Más. Nevertheless, the “pacification for democracy”
thesis was carried out in his government and was only overthrown when the horrors of the
dictatorship really came to the fore, giving greater emphasis and hegemony to the discourse coming
from organizations linked to the theme of Human Rights and the need for judicialization and
penalization of these crimes.
The great success of this thesis will be to demonstrate that it was not "excesses" from the military,
as the dictatorship wanted to be the narrative, but a systemic and national extermination plan,
requiring a public agenda for punishments for these acts. However, Nunca Más also had its problems.
Among them are Ernesto Sábato's prologues in which he points to state violence as a response to
the violence of the left (the so-called “theory of the two demons”) and that, also, places society as a
complete innocent in face of the crimes of the dictatorship.
Only in its second issue will Nunca Más will hold society as a whole as responsible and, moreover,
will point out a direct relationship between the economic policies of the dictatorship and the
neoliberal economic model, in force at the time in Argentina under the Menem government . This
more critical stance led the Argentine Armed Forces to end their understanding of the laws of Due
Obedience by stating that “it is also the criminal who carry out immoral orders. It is a criminal who
to fulfill an end that he believes as just, employs unjust and immoral means”. Even so, it will continue
This article is a translation from a publication in the Brazilian magazine Leituras da História, in July, 2020.
This is the translated version made by the author.
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with the theory that there was a response to the excess of others, blaming the Armed Forces partially
because it would be doing only what the “collective unconscious” demand in the past a false theory.
We can see that it is not an apology by the military or civiian that supported the regime, but only an
affirmation that they defended something that society wanted in their heart. It is a clear dispute for
the memory of the recent past and a search for moral, economic and political legitimation for the
present and the future - because the economic plans continued to be implemented with the same
neoliberal ideology. The Argentine liberal economic power did not like this connection made by
Nunca Más either. Linking these economic policies with state terrorism, economic inequality and
police repression was the last thing they wanted.
Thus, the past was more present than ever. The disputes over memory found a fertile present in
which different positions sought to reinterpret and re-signify the 1976 dictatorship in the light of the
reality that Argentina experienced in the 1990s. (PEREZ, 2012)
Thus, when it comes to the dispute for memory, one of the essential aspects is, different from what
common sense can point out, not necessarily the dispute for the facts, but for the narrative, for the
theoretical and ideological basis that will guide how we will interpret the facts.
Two demons theory
In this sense, the main discussion at the beginning of what we may commonly call the “Argentine
Truth Commission” (CONADEP), or even its proposals, was about what really happened at that
moment and how to analyze, synthesize and conceptualize: it was a war, genocide, state terrorism
or something different, but still within the National Security Doctrine? Daniel Feierstein (2011) will
say that the discussion at that time revolved mainly around the first three terms. But how to define
precisely what happened in Argentina during the years 1976-1983, for example, and its repercussions
on the role of the State, collective memory and national identity?
It is in this open space that the dispute for memory and narrative will start. The version most
defended by supporters of the coup will be that what happened was a war. These sectors, called
"democratists", advocated that the problem was centered on a tension marked by proportionality
between threats and reactions (it would be the "theory of the two demons"). The threats would be
external, if not in the form of external physical agents, at least in the form of an external communist
ideology that had infiltrated and corrupted citizens, now agents, constituting a threat to the
Argentine State and its “natural vocation” .
On the other hand, we will have the view that what occurred was a true genocide, a version initially
defended by Eduardo Luis Duhalde (creator of the concept of the “terrorist state”), Luís Alberto
Romero and Daniel Feierstein. This view will be used several times to justify the opening of CONADEP
and to judge several cases in Argentine courts on human rights abuses such as La Plaza (2006, 2007
and 2010), Santiago del Estero (2011) and Tucumán (2011) . It is a discourse that is represented by
the defenders of the “two demons” thesis as hyperbolic and that is often taken out of its initial
context, aiming at its trivialization.
Social reorganization
This contextualization made by Duhalde says that there was a genocide during the Argentine
dictatorship, because there was a global project in which the exercise of terror and its diffusion in
the social group was not only a constituent element but also fundamental for the survival of the
dictatorship. The view that Argentina suffered genocide implies that there was a project of social and
national reorganization that sought “the destruction of the social relations of autonomy and
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cooperation and the identity of a society, through the annihilation of a relevant fraction of that
society and the use of terror resulting from annihilation to establish new social relationships and
models of identity ”(FEIERSTEIN, 2011, pp. 575-76).
This characterization as genocide, therefore, goes beyond the binary opposition between
"left / right"; “Subversives / government agents”. It demonstrates that the repression was
not aimed only at said enemies, but also at affecting the social group itself, including the
perpetrators of crimes and their families. Its ultimate goal was to produce effects on society
as a whole, thanks to its ambiguity by not defining who the enemies would be. The thesis
that torture and other condemnable acts were only “excesses” by certain agents falls to the
ground when it is demonstrated that the objective was broader and deeper than the simple
fight against an enemy never really defined. It was not a defensive action, nor reactive to
the so-called “subversive elements” or “radicals”, but, rather, a project that aimed to
dismantle any idea of articulation and social cooperation, to implement the notion of
distrust of the other, individualism and without responsibility ”. For that, terror and
denouncing others were fundamental.
Proof of this argument, is that this project of social reorganization is much earlier, for example, than
the emergence of left-wing armed organizations in Argentina (in Chile, for example, the idea of an
armed left is still strongly contested). It was a project of social reorganization through the use of
terror that did not need these “armed enemies” to exist, because it was being built for years: if the
existence of these armed groups occurred, it was simply something that served as an “excuse” to
justify it. it. Feierstein puts as proof of this statement the fact that this project was put into
implementation in several countries at different times: either in clear situations of civil war (like El
Salvador); in situations with insurgent forces with no capacity for open military combat (Guatemala
or Argentina) and even where there was almost no armed left (Haiti, Chile or Bolivia).
Terrorist state
Finally, we have the theory of the "terrorist state", also created by Eduardo Duhalde in his classic
work (1999), in which he initially proposed as a form of alliance with the concept of genocide, but
which, over time, was disconnected from this concept by human rights entities, academics and
jurists, precisely as a way to detach themselves from the genocide discourse and to be accepted as
less "radical". Originally, the terrorist state would be a corollary of the initial purpose of complete
disarticulation of the population through the indiscriminate extermination of society as a whole, not
just targeting the so called enemies. But, as with the works on Nazism, with the Convention on
Genocide and other related ones, we will have the depoliticization of this concept.
It begins to be depoliticized in the sense that its reappropriation characterized it as just a model of
the state in which only the “human rights violations” actually were carried out by. “The concept of
'Terrorist State' was reappropriated only in terms of the characterization of an operational modality
applied by the State, understanding it as the fundamental origin of the violations” (FEIERSTEIN, 2011,
p. 577).
The new conception, still critical of the regime, empties Duhalde's initial concept, no longer focuses
on the “national” ensemble that the genocide observed, but simply individualizes victims who have
suffered violations of their individual rights. But this is basically the legal difference between crimes
against humanity (indiscriminate actions against individuals in the civilian population) and genocide
(actions discriminated against specific groups of the population). The genocidal practice was, in this
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case, for Duhalde and others, against the Argentine national group and not only against the individual
rights of certain citizens, as it excludes those who suffered repressive actions directly and indirectly
by the State. This political emptying omits the long-drawn-out plan that wanted to disorganize a
society that was beginning to question the status quo by calling for structural reforms.
The construction of the narrative to understand the past and build the future was the first major
obstacle of these Truth Commissions (in all countries that have undergone dictatorships), because
the option for one of these theoretical models of understanding of the recent past would define, for
example , who were the victims and the executioners; what was the final objective of the dictatorship
and its consequences; how to prevent a future coup and, also, how to make the population aware of
what happened, preventing the mystification, exaltation, of perpetrators of genocide, of crimes
against humanity?
A concrete example of the importance of these issues is that the narrative printed in the early years
of the Argentine commission had several essays in which the “war” thesis was prevalent. With this,
the theory of a society subjected to the “two demons” gains so much space that the best known and
published work for the 1984 Nunca Más, adopted this theory. In this case, the so-called “combatants”
do not assume the integral character of victims of human rights abuses by the State, as there was
talk of “war”. An absurd position that, unfortunately, is still shared by many today.
Consequences of these theories
We can, schematically, say that in the case of the theory of "war", for the conservatives side, the
result will be the vision of a complete or partial annihilation of the resistance forces. For the side of
some sectors of the left that unfortunately follow this line, the consequence is the awareness of the
population about some names that will be considered as "war heroes", and not as victims. Finally,
for more “moderate” groups, the consequence will be the almost eradication of those groups
considered as “revolutionaries”, with their presence on the political field extremely weakened.
In the context of the “state terrorism” vision, the consequences would be the delegitimization of the
military in the political role; popular awareness of the antinomy “democracy/dictatorship” and a vital
and rooted concern in society with issues such as human rights. For them, democracy would be
guaranteed and the negative consequences would remain residual within the scope of police
repressive practices, delegitimizing the repressive state and mass arrests and violations.
Finally, in the articulated view between genocide and state terrorism, the consequences would be
more comprehensive and would help to explain contemporary society. The consequences of these
practices would explain, in large part, the individualism and generalized indifference that many Latin
American countries experienced in the late 1980s until the early 2000s, with a strong resumption in
the last years in which revisionist discourses of the dictatorship also appeared. Finally, they
understand that there have been gains with the concern with human rights and with the affirmation
of democracy as a model, but they understand that the non-generalization and depoliticization
orchestrated by the concept of “state terrorism” made these gains unstable and could end up
anytime. This is because both genocide and incomplete denunciation make the next generations
understand the violations as something from the past, not as a plan thought out before and during
the dictatorial period and that nothing prevents it from returning.
Final considerations
There are clearly important questions raised here, not only to understand the past, but also
the present and the future. If, as we have seen, the ontology of memory is the present and
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that it will serve as an identity constructor - individual or collective - both in the way we
understand ourselves at the moment, and in the way we understand the past and have
expectations about the future, it is clear that when we talk about dispute over memory, we
should not understand in the simple common scope of a simplistic view that there is a
dispute over the past. The dispute is political, economic, social and cultural, mainly for the
present and the future, having the past as a base, this being just another scene of struggle.
The aim is to change the understanding, and even data and facts, in favor of a plan in which
certain actors seek to legitimize themselves in different fields of daily life.
But how can we “use” memory actively, combined with a moral at the service of justice, as
Oscar Terán wants? Or, as Todorov wants us to use memory in an exemplary way (as
opposed to the literal form)?
The literal form would be the attempt to recover in its literality, that is, that it does not refer
to anything other than itself. In its most complex movements, this form makes, for example,
a person to remember his torture and how much he suffered, he will link the author of that
torture and establish a link between what he was before torture and what he was. became.
The exemplary form, on the other hand, would be the generalization, the abstraction, of a
singular episode, recovered and generalized from a particular category to broader ones;
using them to understand new situations, using the analogy and drawing an example, a
lesson. This form seeks not only to constitute the subject's identity in relation to the past,
but also to give meaning and cohesion to other memories that we use in our life.
The big difference between them is that the literal form submits the present to the past, which
becomes an insurmountable reality. It keeps the memory just as a "memory" (in the traditional view
of a data gathered), that becomes a popular phenomenon today. The exemplary form allows to use
the past to the present. It seeks to remove certain analogies from the past to apply in the present, in
addition to disconnecting the subject who studies the past from his self to meet the other. The justice
that we seek, therefore, can only come through the use of exemplary memory, because, as in Law,
where the basic requirement of laws is to be general and abstract, it will only be through
generalization that it will be possible to exercise justice.
Exemplary memory generalizes, but in a limited way. It does not make the identity of the facts
disappear, but only relates them to each other, establishing comparisons that make it possible to
highlight the similarities and differences. That is why to preach the inadmissibility of comparison is,
in certain cases, to make history and the search for justice unfavorable. As Todorov says: “everyone
has the right to recover their past, but there is no reason to build a cult of memory through memory;
to sacralize memory is to make it sterile”. (TODOROV, 2000)
We know that the memory of World War II or Latin American dictatorships, for example, is still alive
in collective memory, in ceremonies, studies and museums, but that does not prevent ethnic
cleansing, torture and mass executions from happening in the world. Thus, the best way to
commemorate the end of dictatorships in the Americas, for example, is to see their relations with
the present, to bring studies as exemplary forms, making correlations, and to combat totalitarian
regimes, white coups, repressive and brutal measures adopted by the police. For this, as Terán says,
far from being prisoners of the past, let us put it at the service of the present, by placing memory at
the service of justice.
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Resumo A memória tem sido alvo de estudos recentes que estão inovando ao trazer à tona uma nova concepção sobre o que ela seria e qual o seu papel na formação tanto do indivíduo, quanto do coletivo. Grosso modo, será ela que irá determinar como o indivíduo e o coletivo irão se relacionar com o passado, mediante suas concepções do presente e expectativas sobre o futuro. Consequentemente, teremos grupos com alguma forma de poder que buscarão se utilizar da memória visando forjar o passado, moldar o presente e legitimar ações futuras. Esse é o caso, por exemplo, das discussões surgidas na Argentina (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, 1983-84) durante, e após, o que chamamos, genericamente, de suas Comissões da Verdade. Este artigo visa debater como certas narrativas buscavam se tornar predominantes, visando alterar a memória coletiva e minimizar, ou mesmo extinguir, suas culpas pelos erros e desastres econômicos, sociais e políticos (inclusive a tortura) dos atores responsáveis direta ou indiretamente por eles terem ocorrido. Palavras-chave: Memória; Disputa; Comissão da Verdade.
Sobre conceptos, memorias e identidades: Guerra, genocidio y/o terrorismo de Estado en Argentina
  • Daniel Feierstein
FEIERSTEIN, Daniel. "Sobre conceptos, memorias e identidades: Guerra, genocidio y/o terrorismo de Estado en Argentina" In Politica y Sociedad, vol. 48, n. 3, pp. 571-589, 2011.
Memorias e interpretaciones de la última dictadura militar en Argentina: actualizaciones del pasado y construcción de orden social
  • Laura Perez
  • Acebedo
PEREZ, Laura Acebedo. "Memorias e interpretaciones de la última dictadura militar en Argentina: actualizaciones del pasado y construcción de orden social" In Revista Cambios y Permanencias, n.3, 2012