A little less than half a century ago, my mother pasted on the wall of our home a photograph that had appeared in a Buenos Aires newspaper. The PEN Club was holding its conference, and the photo showed Emil Ludwig giving a report on the persecution of Jews in Germany. In the first row, the French Catholic writer and philosopher Jacques Maritain was sobbing, his head bent, his hands covering his face; Stefan Zweig was comforting him, with one arm around his shoulders.
That image has stayed with me all my life, taking on different meanings, assuming different symbols or roles. I always had it within reach, and when I needed it I used it. I never needed it more than in the secret prisons where I was tortured and interrogated by the Argentine army, four years ago.
Those interrogations were numerous and varied. Some of them were organized with great legal protocol, and directed by a general in full uniform. Some were conducted by teams of torturers. Between the two extremes there were many variations: the questioner who was sympathetic; the shouter; the one who took advantage of a moment when he was alone to whisper that he was not in agreement with what was happening; the generous man who offered to take a message to my family. All of the variations of which state terrorism is capable.
A military intelligence officer was in charge of the investigation, but the experts alternated. One session might be devoted to the Jewish conspiracy, and to my surprise, I would discover that the expert was fluent in Hebrew. Another might be devoted to international politics, and to my contacts abroad, especially with the United States government. There were specialists in finance, mass communications media, regional geopolitics of Latin America, Middle East politics. Almost all of them were of the same type: they had each accumulated a great mass of facts, dates, figures and names in their particular subject. The relationship they would establish between those facts and reality was one of total paranoia.
Every exercise in violence and repression requires its own semantics. Even petty thieves and the great gentlemen of the Cosa Nostra have created a language of their own. Perhaps the most perfect example is the way in which the Nazis referred to the most horrible crime in memory, describing the extermination of the Jewish people as “the final solution to the Jewish problem.”
When I read today of a Soviet citizen denied work for being a dissident, arrested because he has no job, and accused of “hooliganism,” it reminds me of Hermann Goering’s statement during the first year of the Nazi regime, in 1933, when the Jews complained that police were protecting the mobs that vandalized their shops. Goering said: “I refuse to make the police the guardians of Jewish department stores.” The Jews were not asking for the police to protect them, just to stop protecting their attackers. I am reminded too of the current President of Argentina, General Roberto Viola, who refers to the 20,000 men, women and children who have disappeared in the past four years after arrest by security forces as “forever absent,” as though they had simply left without saying goodbye.
There could be several explanations for this peculiar use of language: the need to disguise violence in order to make it psychically more bearable for the murderers themselves; or the need to hide their crimes from others. But from my own experience, I believe it would be a mistake to suppose that these semantics are meant to disguise reality for psychological or political reasons. I believe they are the honest expression of reality as it is lived by the totalitarians of right or left, the terrorists of the opposition or the terrorists of the State, the religious fanatics of the Judeo-Christian tradition or the fundamentalists of the oriental faiths. At no time do they intend to lie. They are describing reality as they perceive it, as they understand it, or as they wish it to be.
The torturer who conducts an interrogation in an Argentine military prison is totally honest with himself. In the same way, a Russian doctor–graduate of an academy of medicine–is honest when he signs a certificate of insanity to imprison a dissident who has proposed that certain modifications be made in Soviet society.
Those who examined and tortured me believed, and still believe, seriously and honestly, in the Zionist-Marxist conspiracy, in the same way that the Soviet experts who questioned Anatoly Scharansky in Moscow believed, and still believe, in the Zionist-capitalist conspiracy. These two inquiries took place at the same time, April 1977, thousands of miles apart, and in the framework of two apparently very different regimes, the Soviet Union and Argentina.
At one of the interrogations to which I was submitted in a clandestine prison, a new specialist appeared. The look of an intellectual, the attitudes of an intellectual; a great reader. Prodigious memory. Of course, his readings had not been devoted to literature, unless it was related to the world strategy of liberalism and Bolshevism that were destined to destroy the society he defended.
I mean that he had naturally not had time to read J.D. Salinger or D.H. Lawrence or Marcel Proust or Thomas Mann. But he had read anti-Semitic literature of every sort: writings linking the Jews with Bolshevism, like Eckart’s “Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin”; the anti-Semitism of the anarchists in the work of Dhuring; or the anti-Semitism of the communists in “The Jewish Question” by Karl Marx. Of course he had read and analyzed much more, especially what he called the subliminal destruction of the “permanent values of our society.” All of the creators of what we may call the culture of our century-from Andree Malraux to Kurt Vonnegut, from Eugene O’Neill to the Beatles-took part in that subliminal destruction.
But although there was no torture at that interrogation, there was an enormous sense of repressed violence. This new specialist’s mission was to discover the significance, the objectives, of a small company I had founded a year earlier, which had been surprisingly successful: it was a publishing firm called Timerman Editores. The director was my son, Hector, who has just received his Masters degree from Columbia University. What was distinctive about the company was that practically all the books it published had been especially commissioned from their authors, and constituted testimonies to contemporary reality. Of course we also published works of other kinds, and I was very sorry that my arrest and the confiscation of my property prevented the publication of “The Sunflower” by Simon Wiesenthal and some conversations with Arthur Miller on the theater.
This company could not have been compared, in importance, to my newspaper, La Opinion. But it became clear–from the level of the interrogation, from the importance they gave to it, from its duration, and especially from the verbal violence and the accusations they framed–that they saw in that publishing company an even greater danger, an even greater threat than in the newspaper, to that society they were defending, that species of Argentine Thousand Year Reich that they wanted to build.
The questioner was convinced that the books could become, or that they already were, something more dangerous than a daily newspaper. And this fact, together with the image of that photograph placed on the wall by my mother, led me to a conclusion. A newspaper may be silenced, confiscated, pressured or won over with threats. If the journalists’ articles are not published, their writing has no importance. Furthermore, if they are not going to be published, they won’t get written in the first place. But books are written, whether or not they are published at the moment or in the place they are written. They have a secure destiny. A manifest destiny. A lasting existence.
I came to another conclusion as well. The man who interrogated me about books was more worried than those who questioned me about my newspaper, because my paper was already in their hands, directed by a general of the Argentine army. But the books I had published might be issued again someday, in Argentina or abroad. And the books my son had commissioned, where were they? Who was writing them at that very moment?
The Argentine press was silenced. The two editors who had made human rights, democracy, the defense of culture and civilized intelligence the basis of their actions, had been obliged to leave Argentina. I live in Israel and Robert Cox, editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, is at Harvard. Some time ago, on a panel in which we both participated in New York, Cox stated that writers now in Argentina were working on books that surely reflected the massacre of the people, the concentration camps, the fate of thousands and thousands of disappeared persons. Cox said that these writers often worked in secret, and concealed their manuscripts in wells and other almost inaccessible places.
I am sure that those are the books of which the expert who examined me was fearful. And I also remembered that the new President of Argentina, General Roberto Viola, once explained that although I was innocent, I could not be set free because the military government would be judged by the book I would surely write.
Looking back we can see that it was not the international press, nor the politicians, nor the diplomats, who first understood, defined and described the Nazi madness. It was the books. Books which one way or another found their way to publication.
And it was books that explained and defined–with more serenity, objectivity and intelligence than the press, the politicians, the diplomats–the paranoia of the Soviet leaders, from Darkness at Noon to A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
From the moment of the military coup in Argentina until the time of my arrest, twelve months passed. I devoted myself to trying to save lives, the few that could be rescued from a regime that felt itself omnipotent and exercised omnipotence with total impunity. There were writers whose lives we tried to save, but I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening with books. The Argentine government never imposed preventive censorship, except during the first twenty-four hours after taking power. It practiced censorship in another way. On the press, it inflicted a kind of biological censorship. One hundred journalists have disappeared in five years of military government. In a field with so few professionals, this was a true form of genocide.
But now I remember, reconstructing the facts, the conversations, the period as well as possible, that even before the disappearance of the journalists, and before some of the newspapers began to have problems (mine was closed for several days for having published an article by a Jesuit priest criticizing state terrorism)–even before all that, there were books that vanished. They were the first victims. They could no longer be found in the bookshops; the publishers didn’t have them; they were removed from the public libraries; they were denounced in the Nazi Argentine press, the magazine Cabildo; or in the pro-Nazi press, the newspaper La Nueva Provincia and the magazine Somos.
So, in the Argentina of 1976-77, the books were the first victims. It was the same in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Books are the first victims, the permanent victims, because they are the primary menace to totalitarian power. At the same time, the persistence and permanence of books makes them the most critical factor in the creation of forces that can and will struggle against irrationalism, paranoia, and state and private terrorism of both right and left.
When the KGB began its campaign of psychological destruction against the dissident writer VIadimir Voinovich, they took advantage of his absence to inform his mother that he had died–and this provoked the old woman’s death. Voinovich wrote directly to Andropov, chief of the KGB: “It is time that you understood that the more you torment a writer, the longer his books will live; they will survive him and survive his persecutors.”
His books will survive and they will be our ultimate hope. It is true that the suffocation of totalitarianism drove to suicide such beloved writers as Sergei Esenin Vladimir Mayakovsky, and then Ernst Toller, Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig. And it is true as well that their books still live, and will continue to live, as Voinovich said.
Totalitarian ideology would like to see each human group, each profession, occupy what it calls “their proper place in the world,” a kind-of order that is synonymous with the suppression of liberties. In recent years, we have seen how this totalitarian order is altered, is split, is frightened when a physicist becomes concerned with the human rights of those who are not physicists–as in the case of Andrei Sakharov; or when a mathematician like Anatoly Scharansky becomes concerned about the right to emigrate of those who are not mathematicians.
I personally have confirmed the extent to which totalitarian regimes are vulnerable to activities which challenge their established order. There can be no doubt that the fact that I was not murdered, and that I was eventually released, was the result of efforts on the part of individuals and organizations who are neither journalists nor Argentines, and who do not accept the system established by the totalitarians of the right or left.
Totalitarian ideology would like publishers to devote themselves only to publishing books, and not to interfere with the administration of the rest of life, the rest of society. If publishers accept this, they will have taken the first step towards ending their freedom to publish. They will continue to publish, but within an order established for them, not by them or with their participation.
The moment publishers or writers agree that the activity they are involved in sets them apart, as an institution, from the destiny of the rest of society, they will have moved toward self-destruction. Often I heard it said among my fellow journalists: “If I want to get involved in politics, I’ll join a political party.” This was the first symptom of the destruction of the journalistic associations in Argentina, of their being anesthetized, because they did not comprehend that the protection of basic liberties is carried out on all levels of society, transcending politics.
The other totalitarian argument is to persuade us that we have nothing to do with problems that occur thousands of miles from our own country. This is another version of the idea of compartmentalizing society, the professions, the nations, the world.
But the participation of all publishers is necessary, possible, and exceptionally useful. It has a publicizing impact; it denudes the image that totalitarian regimes create for themselves and try to sell to others; it creates fear in the ranks of the armies of repression, worried about the ghosts of future courts; and it gives strength and courage to those who dissent.
It is true that in the 1930s Nazism revealed greater imagination in the fields of repression and assassination than democracy did in comprehending the phenomenon of Nazism. It is true that the same thing happened in the thirties and forties with the crimes of Stalinism. And it is true that since World War II the criminal imagination of private and state terrorism has shown itself superior to the democratic imagination.
But now everything has changed. Although the totalitarians and the terrorists may have more imagination a new world movement has arisen, that of human rights. What began as a humanitarian, almost philanthropic activity has turned into a powerful ideology. What was believed to be an activity for sensitive spirits, which would cease without government support has turned into an avalanche of private action.
The Helsinki Accords, designed by governments to dissolve certain blockages in international politics, were immediately taken up by civil organizations, by brave and conscientious individuals, who made them into the first great instrument in the modification of the most hermetic totalitarian society of the twentieth century, Communist society. Current events in Poland would be hard to explain without the activities of the Helsinki groups in previous years.
Now, even under the most rigid conditions of repression and death in the Latin American military dictatorships, human rights organizations continue their work. In the world today one can conceive of no institution of importance, whether of doctors, lawyers, engineers, sailors, miners, teachers, actors, that does not act in some way in the field of human rights. In the shades of Judeo-Christian religious tradition participate, with their own commissions, in the struggle. They have obtained impressive results, and saved thousands of lives.
We should take heart from what has happened in the United States in recent weeks. The inauguration of President Reagan was greeted by the Argentine military with champagne toasts, and their wives adorned themselves with orchids for the numerous celebrations. In their euphoria over the election of a hardline Republican, the Argentine military once again began kidnapping human rights activists. But there was such a strong reaction from the American press, the human rights organizations, individuals and legislators, that they were forced to retreat within a few hours–something that no government had been able to achieve. The underlying principle has been proven by Andrei Sakharov and his friends, and by countless others: the value of democratic ideology is infinitely more powerful in the hands of private organizations than in those of official diplomacy.
American publishers, indeed all artists, writers and thinkers, should be emblems of the role of the creative imagination in the continuing struggle for human rights. We have a singular power, one of the few that have survived so much violence: our relationship with the world of ideas. That is what totalitarianism and terrorism fear the most
We must be fully conscious of the trembling we can cause in some, and the respect we can inspire in others. It is true that those who are part of our world are the first victims. But they are also the last hope.
Editors’ Note: This is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the Association of American Publishers convention in May, 1981.
Originally published in the August 1981 issue of Boston Review