May 22, 2013
The man who would be Hitler
Charleston, South Carolina — Hitler did not die in his bunker in Berlin at the end of World War II. Years later, he was alive and well, living in Argentina as Jorge Rafael Videla. In his second life he became a dictator again, lost another war, was imprisoned, released and then imprisoned once more. At the age of 86 and in the relative comfort of a cell that resembles a room in a cheap bed-and-breakfast in England, he decided to tell ALL. He had nothing to lose because he had been convicted and condemned to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity — mass murder, torture, stealing babies and the like.
Videla’s story is told in nine interviews he gave to Ceferino Reato, a journalist above reproach, which appear in Disposición final, just published by Sudamericana at 99 pesos. (On-line readers can get it for U$S 11.99 on their iPads or Kindles.)
I associate Videla with Hitler because I think that the two dictators share the same obsession with mass murder and I also think that if Hitler could have been interviewed, he would have justified his crimes in the same way that Videla does in his answers to Reato’s questions. Hitler’s “Final Solution” for the Jews and other human beings who did not match up to Nazi standards is very similar to Videla’s “Disposición Final” of the 7,000 to 8,000 people that the military dictatorship marked for elimination and proceeded to kill, disposing of their bodies like trash.
I also associate Videla with Hitler because Reato’s response to criticism that he should not have interviewed a mass murderer is that, as a journalist, he would have also jumped at the chance of interviewing Hitler, the Devil and God, if the opportuntity arose. Reato demolishes the arguments of interviewer Osvaldo Quiroga on this matter in this video: http://www.youtube.com /watch?v=ypj20WD9K-k
I found myself agreeing with Quiroga in his expression of horror at Videla’s statement to Reato: “I don’t regret anything and I sleep very well every night.
Videla did tell Reato that he has “a weight on my soul and I would like to make a contribution, to take responsibility in a way that could help society understand what happened and to make things easier on officers with lower rank than myself.” This explanation of Videla’a decision to confess that he ordered the murder of 7,000 to 8,000 people does not convince me. As Reato infers, Videla’s decision to admit to the killings was made after Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was re-elected with a solid majority last October. Videla and other military officers who are serving sentences or are on trial for crimes against humanity hoped that former provisional president Eduardo Duhalde would be elected. Duhalde said he would end the trials and promised he would grant a general amnesty.
I see a tactic behind Videla’s confession. He has nothing to lose now, but by admitting responsibility for all the crimes committed while he was Army commander and later de facto president, he has put a spanner in the works for trial judges who have to include him among all the accused who are currently on trial.
Videla’s account of the holocaust he unleashed on Argentina is notable for his lack of human decency and the coldblooded manner in which he tells his story:
“Say there were about 7,000 or 8,000 people who had to die in order to win the war against subversion,” he told Reato. “We couldn’t [openly] execute them, but we also couldn’t bring them to justice.
“There was no other solution. We agreed that there was a price to pay to win the war and we needed to keep it quiet so that the country wouldn’t see what was happening.”
It is beyond human understanding that, like Hitler and company, Videla and his fellow officers never thought about what they would do with the bodies of the people they killed until after the killing machine was rolling. Thus the horror encapsulated in the terrifying word desaparecido (a person who has “disappeared”) came about. Again there is the similarity to Nazi methods, in this case the “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) decree authorizing the Gestapo to make people “vanish in the night and fog.”
Responding to Reato, Videla indicates that he regrets that the word desaparecido branded the military dictatorship. “In every war, there’s a list of casualties, killings and disappearances, people whose whereabouts are unknown.” But the word “became an all-encompassing term, referring to something dark that we wanted to keep hidden, a mysterious thing. And it isn’t. It’s a lamentable result of war.”
The other atrocity that characterized the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional is only half admitted by Videla. He denied that the military dictatorship “systematically” stole the children of “disappeared” (murdered) parents, but admitted that children were placed with supporters of the military government as “an act of charity.”
I have not yet been able to fully digest Disposición Final. It is disagreeable to read, despite the pleasure I took in Reato’s limpid prose, but I do know that his deconstruction of Videla’s role in the darkest years of Argentine history has lasting value. This is a book for all times because it confirms the universality of all brutal dictatorships that justify mass murder. He has placed the Proceso (another word with a Nazi ring to it) in context and allowed Videla to paint a self-portrait. The role of cold-blooded killer that Videla assumed for Reato, while also claiming that God held his hand throughout the uneven slaughter and approved, is not the man I thought I knew. That is a disturbing thought.
I hope to return to this remarkable book to find out more about the man who could be Hitler for a future column.