First Victims, Last Hope
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
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
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
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
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
An excerpt from a speech delivered at the Association of American Publishers convention in May, 1981.