Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Skeletons in the Closet

“If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance.”
- Shakespeare, Richard II

We all have one. Some deep, dark secret locked away out of view where no one will see it. Nations have dirty laundry hidden in a dark corner too, and like people, each has a different way of dealing with their past. Internationally, the need to seek justice, even retribution, for extreme acts of injustice has resulted in the Nuremberg Trials and other international war crime tribunals. On Friday, Poland's last communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, and seven other Soviet-era officials went on trial in Warsaw over the declaration of martial law more than a quarter of a century ago. The trial re-opens old wounds and will surely once again demonstrate how difficult it is to judge the wrongdoings committed under far different circumstances than we can understand today.

In the 90's, the Bulgarian Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, was put on trial for embezzlement rather than political acts such as the imprisonment of thousands of his fellow citizens in camps where several perished and were allegedly tortured. Ramiz Alia, the former Communist leader of Albania, was tried and convicted of abuse of power. In Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were tried in just a few hours by the leaders of an uprising against them in December 1989. The couple was convicted of crimes against the people and summarily shot.

In Chile, a legal battle raged years as the government tried to bring former dictator Augusto Pinochet to justice for crimes his regime committed. Long after he stepped down from power he was shielded from prosecution for thousands of killings and "disappearances" by parliamentary immunity and an amnesty that the military had granted itself. It took a warrant issued by a Spanish judge for him to be arrested on Oct. 16,1998 in London. Pinochet died in prison awaiting trial but his case may have changed the world's perception about the worth of such a fight. He spent 17 months in detention in Britain as he fought extradition back to Chile on health grounds while the criminal cases against him jumped to hundreds. By the time Britain sent Pinochet back to Chile, the myth of his immunity had been shattered. For the last years of his life, Pinochet was dogged by his past. His immunity was stripped in six major cases, ranging from death squads and abductions to the hiding of millions of dollars abroad, and at the time of his death, he was under house arrest. One hundred and nine other agents of his regime have now been convicted of human rights crimes.

While a Spanish judge helped bring justice to the Chilean people, Spain has taken another course in dealing with their own dark past. After nearly 40 years of Franco and fascism during which time 200,000 people were killed in concentration camps, they simply changed the name of the fascist party to the Partido Popular (PP) and continued like nothing happened. Yes, Fraga Iribarne, Minister of the Interior in Franco's fascist regime (in charge of Spain's political police), founded the PP. The party, which has governed Spain for much of the time since Franco's death and led the nation into the 'coalition of the willing' in Iraq, believes that the Franco regime was good for Spain. The last Spanish president, Jose Maria Aznar was himself a member of Franco's fascist party and disobeyed the instructions of the U.N. Human Rights Agency to find the bodies of those who disappeared during the Franco regime (more than 30,000 people).

Over in Italy, we know that things aren't any better. The past isn't only being ignored, it's being repeated, as Berlusconi has formed coalition governments with fascist parties for much of the time since 1994. Mussolini era laws are even being dusted off for the first time in almost 80 years as Berlusconi tries to court the Catholic vote by prosecuting comedians. Here's the catch, maybe Mussolini wasn't so bad, as with all these 'bad' guys, history books are written by the victors: How can something that was praiseworthy at the time they did it, 10, 25, 50 years ago, suddenly become reprehensible now? With Mussolini, he went from hero:
If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism... (Italy) has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison. Hereafter no great nation will be unprovided with an ultimate means of protection against the cancerous growth of Bolshevism. -Winston Churchill (1927)
... to zero, as he was guilty of the only crime that matters, he lost.

So, what of General Jaruzelski? In Poland, officials and police officers from Jaruzelski on down have been put on trial in connection with some 150 deaths -- from the shooting of 44 Gdansk shipyard workers in 1970 to the martial law crackdown against Solidarity. Not one has been convicted as General Jaruzelski has continuously proclaimed his innocence in the deaths. In 1996, a special parliamentary committee absolved him of responsibility for the 1981 killings. This time, prosecutors from the Institute of National Remembrance, a state body that investigates communist-era crimes have charged him and his fellow defendants with "communist crimes," violating the constitution and leading "an organized criminal group of a military nature having as its goal the carrying out of crimes that consisted of the deprivation of freedom through internment." His defence for declaring martial law is that he wanted to avoid a Soviet invasion in reprisal for the Solidarity uprising, as was witnessed in Prague and Budapest in response to similar anti-Soviet uprisings.

How will future generations deal with the wrongs they deem are being committed today? Will there be a witch hunt of those responsible for the illegal war in Iraq and violations of the Geneva Convention similar to the Nazi hunt following World War II? Preparations are already being made, making it possible that one day Cheney, Bush et al. will face a fate similar to that of Saddam Hussein. Who knows how future generations will look back at such human rights violations as Guantanamo Bay. People clearly feel the need for justice, but as Orwell stated, it's best "When tyrants are put to death, it should be by their own subjects; those who are punished by a foreign authority, like Napoleon, are simply made into martyrs and legends."


Troy said...

Luckily you've written this post in English, for if it were written in Spanish, surely you would be attacked from the dark recesses here in Spain and Chile were supporters of the dictators you mention still dwell.

Recently commenting on an English piece written about the recent plan to document all the civil war dead in Spain, I was shocked to encounter vociferous support for the dictator and the nationalist side. The most shocking thing perhaps was that they weren't only Spaniards, but Brits supporting the murderous tyrant. You can see it here:

In the same discussion, one of the supporters claimed that "we cannot judge people from the past with the present moral values." I utterly disagree with this, especially as we are not dealing with things that happened in the 15th century, but things that happened less than 80 years ago.

Crimes against humanity are such whether they are committed now, 100 years ago or tomorrow. What is needed is the will to expose these crimes and persecute them to the full extent of the law. Raising awareness of these things is just what the blogsphere allows us to do. Well done!

Shane said...

Unfortunately people like those commenting on the website you gave often get blinded by politics. You're correct, there are certain crimes that are crimes no matter how you look at it. The problem comes with cases like Jaruzelski, who may have a legitimate claim that what he did, declaring martial law, was done for the greater good. Always a tough call, especially through the mist of time.

econ-infosociety said...

There some incorrect things about Spain in this article. First, it is false that the Popular Party has ruled the country for most years after Franco's death. The CDS (center) ruled Spain from 1977-1982, then PSOE (socialists) in 1982-1996 and 2004-2008. PP governed only 8 years in more than 30 years of democracy (1996-2004).
Second, it is inexact to call Franco "Fascist". This is a simplification and an inaccuracy. Franco was very conservative, catholic, although for some years, he was very close to the fascist movement. At least in the last 20 years of its regime, he was just a conservative dictator that ruled the country with considerable economic and personal freedom.
And third, it is also false that the PP is the successor of the Fascist Party. In fact, the Spanish Fascist Party still exists in Spain. Manuel Fraga was minister with Franco, but after his death he helped with his political impulse to legalize the communist party, to write the constitution and many other democratic efforts. He had the idea of creating a conservative democrat party in Spain, the PP, that would confront in the elections other left democrat parties like the socialists or the communists.
Dear author, with these inaccuracies and lack of knowledge about Spain you lose part of your credit in the article. Anyway, thanks for the article.

Shane said...

Thanks for the info econ. You're right, 8 years doesn't equal most of 30 years, my bad. I lived in Spain in the early 2000's and I guess PP rule just felt like forever. As to the semantics of fascism or extreme conservatism, well, it's a fine line at best. My only real memory of Fraga is that of an incompetent old man who was out hunting during the 'chapapote' incident of the Prestige, and we know how that turned out. Who knew he did some good too! Thanks again.

Troy said...

This is not semantics as you mention Shane, but something much more insidious. What it is, is plain and simple re-branding. A twisting of recent history in an attempt to shine a more positive light into dark and scary corners of the past.

In Italy we are seeing the re-branding of Mussolini at the moment, with Berlusconi saying that he was an alright guy who never sent anyone to internment camps or death, simply on holidays!

Now we have the same thing happening with Franco it seems. To say that the last 20 years of his rule were times of considerable personal freedom is re-branding at its finest. Sure, if you compare these years with the ones where he sent homosexuals, 'reds', gypsies etc to be gassed in German concentration camps, anything can seem like a parade, can't it?

The re-branding continues to say that the PP isn't a continuation of the fascist party. True, there is still a Falange party here in Spain. However the PP is the successor of the Alianza Popular that was actually formed by 7 ex-ministers from the Franco regime when the 'conservative catholic' (to use the re-branded terminology) died. Astute enough politicians to know that the wind certainly wasn't blowing the right way for fascists, Abacadabra, they became democrats who 'helped' legalize the communist party. Welcome to democracy folks, thanks for lending a hand. Give me the Falange any day, as they don't hide behind pretensions and re-branded veneer.