Some Truth, Less Justice: Opening the Archives When Impunity Trumps Atonement
The notion of a transitional society opening the archives of its former repressive régimes is powerfully symbolic. Germany and South Africa have successfully marshaled Nazi, Stasi, Nationalist Party, and SATRC archives in the service of post-authoritarian state formation, motivated by some measure of hard-won social consensus on the new nations’ duty to remember – and atone for – past atrocities. But what about societies in which such a consensus does not exist? Latin America’s “Dirty Wars” of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s — in Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and beyond — corroded social relations already deeply rent by neocolonial class stratification. In contemporary Germany or South Africa, it is blessedly rare for political leaders to defend Nazism or apartheid; conversely, in Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, and elsewhere, hard-right political parties and militaries retained tremendous power in the wake of formal transition, maintaining control of state security archives and hence of the production of historical narratives about the war years. This paper provides an overview of how Latin American activists have struggled to secure the release of Dirty War archives. I focus on the case of Guatemala, and the surprise 2005 discovery of the decaying lost archives of the country’s National Police, to illuminate how Guatemalan activists have adapted international models to their own radically more constrained political and socioeconomic conditions. How a society treats its archives of state terror offers a revealing window into the nature of its democratic transition, or lack thereof. The Guatemalan case — in which workers engaged in the rescue of the police archives regularly invoke Germany’s handling of Stasi records as an ideal to which their own limited possibilities stand in cruel counterpoint — demonstrates how eagerly countries may look to international models for inspiration and assistance, but also how their comparatively reduced political spaces may force them to fashion their own, creative approaches.
Kirsten Weld is the Florence Levy Kay Fellow in Latin American History at Brandeis University. She received her Ph.D. in Latin American History from Yale University in 2010, where her doctoral dissertation, Reading the Politics of History in Guatemala’s National Police Archives, was awarded the University-wide John Addison Porter Prize for the best work of scholarship in any field and the Stephen Vella Prize for combining historical scholarship with a commitment to social justice. Her book manuscript, forthcoming from Duke University Press, is tentatively titled Terror’s Paper Trail: Reckoning With the Archives of Dictatorship. She writes and lectures about the Latin American Cold War, the politics of archives and historical memory, and the contributions of social movements to the production of historical narratives and counter-narratives. Her new projects include a comparison of how Guatemala and a unified Germany have dealt with their respective secret police archives, and a study of Cold War-era Central American political exiles and their involvement in the North American labor movement. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Claudia Weber studied political science, history, and Slavic languages and literatures at Leipzig University, Athens University (Ohio), Kliment Ochridski University in Sofia, and at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. Her PhD dissertation (Leipzig 2003) is on Balkan history and nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. She has taught East European history at Leipzig University and the University of Basel, and is currently a member of the research unit on the history and theory of violence at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. She is the author of Auf der Suche nach der Nation. Erinnerungskultur in Bulgarien 1878-1944 (Lit-Verlag 2006) and has published a number of articles on war memory in the Balkans as well as on violence and Stalinism. Claudia Weber is currently writing a book on ideology and the communication of the Katyń Forest Massacre and Stalinist terror in Europe during the Cold War.