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‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives

Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images
A woman trying to prevent the detention of a young man arrested by police at a protest rally against Argentina’s military dictatorship, Buenos Aires, March 30, 1982

The white supremacists chanting “blood and soil” as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were probably unaware that the leading Nazi ideologue who used the original slogan of Blut und Boden to promote the creation of a German master race was not himself a native German. Richard Walther Darré, who proclaimed the existence of a mystic bond between the German homeland and “racially pure” Germans, was actually born “Ricardo” on the other side of the Atlantic, in Argentina’s prosperous capital, Buenos Aires.

Sent by his German immigrant family to the Heimat for schooling at the age of nine, Darré later specialized in agriculture, the logical choice for someone with an Argentine background at a time when the succulent beef and abundant wheat of Argentina’s pampas made the country renowned as the “breadbasket of the world.” For a while, during the 1920s, he contemplated returning to Buenos Aires to pursue a career in farming, but that was before his writing caught the attention of Adolf Hitler’s rising Nazi Party. His 1930 book A New Nobility of Blood and Soil, in which he proposed applying selective cattle-breeding methods for the procreation of perfect Aryan humans, dazzled the Führer.

As early as 1932, Darré helped the SS leader Heinrich Himmler to set up the Race and Resettlement Office in order to safeguard the “racial purity” of SS officers. Darré’s work also inspired the Nazi Lebensborn (Fount of Life) program that rewarded “unmarried women and girls of good blood” who had children with racially pure SS officers. Hitler was so impressed with the “Blood and Soil” movement that in 1933 he named Darré Germany’s minister for agriculture. Darré held the post until 1942, when his SS file suggests he may have developed mental health problems. (Darré was convicted at the Nuremberg Ministries Trial for expropriating the land of, and reducing to serfdom, hundreds of thousands of Polish and Jewish farmers, and served a prison term; he died of cancer in 1953.)

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Argentine-born Nazi Minister Richard Walter Darré giving an address before the standard of the “Blut und Boden” movement, Goslar, Germany, November 27, 1938

Despite identifying as German, Darré seems to have retained a soft spot for the land of his birth. According to surviving accounts, he authorized the importation of pampas beef for Argentina’s team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and even met with some Argentine athletes. “He was the only one who spoke good Spanish,” his eighty-nine-year-old brother, Alan Darré, told me in an interview in 1997, when I was researching the escape of Nazi criminals to Argentina for my book The Real Odessa. That the crackpot racial theories of Darré’s Blood and Soil movement still resonate in the minds of far-right Americans some ninety years after inspiring Hitler is a worrying reminder of how vulnerable societies are to the racist, totalitarian brain-worm.

To me, this is no mere academic observation. Although I was born in the United States, where my father was posted to the Argentine Embassy, this does not make me a US citizen, since the Fourteenth Amendment excludes the children of foreign diplomats. Yet I grew up as if I were one, pledging allegiance every morning to the flag on the playground of Annunciation School on Massachusetts Avenue. Later, as a young adult in Argentina, I worked for an English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires and reported on the crimes of the bloody military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. As a journalist, I witnessed first the erosion and then the total collapse of democratic norms, and how a ruthless autocracy can mobilize popular fears and resentments to crush its opponents.

A nagging question that first popped into my head while I was a twenty-three-year-old reporter at the Buenos Aires Herald has returned to haunt me lately. What would happen if the US, the country where I was born and spent my childhood, spiraled down the kind of totalitarian vortex I was witnessing in Argentina back then? What if the most regressive elements in society gained the upper hand? Would they also lead a war against an abhorred pluralist democracy? The backlash in the US today against immigrants and refugees, legal abortion, even marriage equality, rekindles uncomfortable memories of the decay of democracy that preceded Argentina’s descent into repression and mass murder.

Subsequently, in my work as a writer, I focused on how hundreds of Nazis and their collaborators escaped to Argentina. This made me painfully aware of how their presence during the thirty years between the end of World War II and the 1976 coup had numbed the moral sense of what was then an affluent, well-educated nation, with disastrous consequences for its people. Argentines’ forced cohabitation with Nazi fugitives resulted, I came to believe, in a normalization of the crimes that the German émigrés had committed. “He came to our country seeking forgiveness,” Argentina’s Cardinal Antonio Caggiano told the press when Israeli operatives captured the Nazi arch-criminal Adolf Eichmann and spirited him out of Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Jerusalem. “Our obligation as Christians is to forgive him for what he’s done.”

Some fifteen years later, Argentina began its own descent into full-blown totalitarianism, and its military embarked on a mass killing program that differed in scale, though not in essence, from the Nazis’: an estimated 30,000 people were made to “disappear” by the dictatorship. The same politicians and religious leaders who had turned a blind eye to the presence of Nazi criminals in Argentina looked away again as blood-soaked generals kneeled to receive their blessings in Buenos Aires Cathedral. Much of my adult life has been haunted by the need to answer the question of how this could have come to pass in Argentina. And how it might come to pass elsewhere.

*

Thanks to my father’s two stints in Washington, I spent nine of my first fourteen years in the US. My memories are a picture postcard of 1950s and 1960s Americana. A former World War II pilot lived across our back alley. I was a patrol boy in high school and earned pocket money delivering newspapers, tossing them from my bike onto neighbors’ front lawns just like the paperboys you see in movies of the era. It would have been difficult to find someone with greater trust than my young self in the American system of values, including the unhelpful American trait of a certain naïveté regarding the world beyond the United States.

My first inkling that a different reality existed came at age fourteen when I landed at St. Conleth’s College, Dublin, when my father was transferred to Argentina’s diplomatic mission in Ireland. Like Argentina, Ireland had been neutral during World War II and afterward provided a refuge to a small contingent of Nazis and collaborators. Among these was my French teacher, Louis Feutren, who fled a prison sentence in France for having served as an SS-Oberscharführer during the war.

Feutren struck terror in the hearts of his students, hurling copybooks at us and swearing in French through the stub of a Gauloise cigarette permanently defying gravity on the edge of his protruding lower lip. Instead of hearing stories of wartime exploits fighting the Nazis from the American pilot across the alley, I was now tutored in French by a former SS officer. It was what I have come to interpret retroactively as my first lesson in normalization.

This normalization of totalitarian undertones accelerated after my family moved back to Argentina when I was nineteen. To make myself better acquainted with Buenos Aires, I would take long walks through the capital. One day, in 1974, I found myself frozen in my steps on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half. In the middle of this avenue rises a tall white obelisk that is the city’s most conspicuous landmark, and in those days a revolving billboard had been suspended around it. Round and round turned the display and inscribed upon it in large blue letters on a plain white background was the slogan “Silence Is Health.”

Still from archive film showing the advertising slogan “El Silencio es salud” (Silence is health), Buenos Aires, circa 1974

With every turn, the billboard schooled Argentines in the total censorship and suppression of free speech that the dictatorship would soon impose. The billboard message was the brainchild of Oscar Ivanissevich, Argentina’s reactionary minister of education, ostensibly to caution motorists against excessive use of the horn. His other mission was an “ideological purge” of Argentina’s universities, which had become a hotbed of student activism. During an earlier ministerial term in 1949, Ivanissevich had led a bitter campaign against the “morbid… perverse… godless” trend of abstract art, recalling the Nazis’ invective against “degenerate” art. During that period, his sister and his nephew were both involved in smuggling Nazis into Argentina.

Ivanissevich’s Orwellian billboard made its appearance just as right-wing violence erupted in the buildup to the military coup. That same year, 1974, Ivanissevich had appointed as rector of Buenos Aires University a well-known admirer of Hitler’s, Alberto Ottalagano, who titled his later autobiography I’m a Fascist, So What? His job was to get rid of the kind of young left-wing protesters who gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel demanding that it be turned into a children’s hospital, and he warmed to the task of persecuting and expelling them. Being singled out by him was more than merely a matter of academic discipline; some fifteen of these students were murdered by right-wing death squads while Ottalagano was rector.

As a partial stranger in my own land, I noticed what those who had already been normalized could not: this was a population habituated to intolerance and violence. Two years later, Ivanissevich’s slogan made a macabre reappearance. In the basement of the dictatorship’s death camp based at the Navy Mechanics School (known as ESMA), where some 5,000 people were exterminated, officers hung two banners along the corridor that opened onto its torture cells. One read “Avenue of Happiness,” the other “Silence Is Health.”

*

To comprehend would-be totalitarians requires understanding their view of themselves as victims. And in a sense, they are victims—of their delusional fear of others, the nebulous, menacing others that haunt their febrile imaginations. This is something I saw repeated in the many interviews I carried out with both the perpetrators of Argentina’s dictatorship and the aging Nazis who had been smuggled to Argentina’s shores three decades earlier. (My interviews with the latter are archived at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.) Their fears were, in both cases, irrational given the unassailable dominance of the military in Argentina and of the Nazis in Germany, but that was of no account to my interviewees.

Because my method was to grant them the respect and patience to which they felt entitled (difficult though that was for me to do), they sometimes seemed briefly to be aware that they had become willing hosts to violent delusions. Getting them to admit that, fully and consciously, was another matter. The chimera of a powerfully malign enemy, responsible for all their perceived ills, made complex, ambiguous realities comprehensible by reducing them to Manichean simplicities. These people were totalitarians not only because they believed in absolute power, but also because their binary thought patterns admitted only total explanations.

Argentina’s military and a large number of like-minded civilians were especially prone to fears of a loosely-defined but existential threat. The youth culture of the 1960s, the sexual revolution, the student protests of the 1970s, all struck alarm in their hearts. That a younger generation would question their strongly-held religious beliefs, challenge their hypocritical sexual mores, and propose alternative political solutions seemed positively blasphemous. The military set out to violently revert these trends and protect Argentina from the rising tide of modernity. To do so, they devised a plan of systematic annihilation that targeted especially young Argentines. It was not just an ideological struggle, but a generational war: about 83 percent of the dictatorship’s estimated 30,000 fatal victims were under thirty-five. (A disproportionate number also were Jewish.)

The leaders of the dictatorship, born in the 1920s, had begun their military careers during World War II in a country that was outwardly neutral but secretly sympathetic to Hitler’s side. To the warped minds of these ultra-nationalists, Hitler was preparing the way for a “New Christian Order,” of which Argentina would form a glorious part. “Hitlerism is, paradoxically, the doorway to Christianity,” proclaimed the anti-Semitic priest Julio Meinvielle, who exerted a strong influence on the military, in his 1940 book Hacía el cristianismo (On the Road to Christianity). Once Hitler had vanquished communism and capitalism, considered equally evil incarnations of godless materialism, the Church could step in and preside over a cleansed world. “That is precisely the great service that unknowingly and unintentionally the Axis is providing the Church,” Meinvielle concluded.

The symbiosis between Church and Army became so strong in Argentina that in 1944 the Virgin Mary was elevated to the rank of general. Military ceremonies celebrating her promotion were held at churches across Argentina. Even in 1950, military officers strained to decorate a larger-than-life statue of the Virgin outside Buenos Aires Cathedral with a general’s sash. Baptized in such waters, the generals who, in the 1970s, would go on to lead the dictatorship claimed to fear, above all, Argentina’s falling to communism. “In response to the corruption, chaos, moral indiscipline, and the real danger of national disintegration in which our country found itself, the Armed Forces assumed political power six months ago to restore the subverted order,” a TV propaganda ad for the junta later proclaimed over the image of a map of Argentina being blown apart.

Such was the paranoia about a Cuban-style takeover that a wide swath of Argentine society received the military’s intervention warmly. In reality, they were as delusional in their fears as the left-wing guerrillas were in their ambitions. For their part, the young rebels’ heads blazed with “from imagination to power” ideas borrowed from the Paris student demonstrations of May 1968. Their threat to the stability of the state never went beyond a few headline-grabbing exploits—the kidnapping of foreign businessmen or the drive-by shooting of military officers. Their insurgency was never a serious threat to the democratic governments of Juan Perón, who died in office in 1974, and his widow Isabel Martínez, who succeeded her husband as president.

With the opportunity provided by the guerrilla movement, the military stepped in, deposing the ineffectual Martínez and proclaiming itself the savior of the nation. The security forces were delighted to be freed from the constraints of legality. With Congress closed and the press muzzled, they quickly organized death squads, accountable to no one. The sight of unmarked but characteristically green Ford Falcon sedans driven at breakneck speed through the streets of Buenos Aires with machine guns pointing out their windows was at first terrifying. Like much else after the coup, the sight soon became so commonplace that it faded out of conscious view.

It was in these years in Argentina that I learned how quickly the veneer of legality can be peeled away from a society. In 1977, a year into the dictatorship, I joined the Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language newspaper that was the only news media outlet reporting on the crimes of the regime. “I had the privilege of speaking out while everyone else kept silent,” says the then-editor of the Herald, Robert Cox, a Briton who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. It was not the fact that he was British or that his newspaper had a limited circulation that allowed Cox to print what the other newspapers would not. It was simply that he could not bring himself to remain silent about the carnage he was witnessing. Unlike so many Argentines, he had not been desensitized by growing up among Nazi fugitives; instead, he had been raised in wartime London among the rubble of buildings destroyed by Hitler’s bombs and rockets.

But there was a price to pay for the privilege Cox speaks of. Returning home from my very first day of work, I saw three plainclothes police officers—unmistakable despite their shoulder-length hair, leather jackets, and bell-bottom trousers—leaving my apartment building carrying a leather satchel from which a spool of recording tape was visible. The secret police had tapped my phone, the building superintendent whispered to me. A green Ford Falcon was parked across my street.

The discreet tipoff from my building’s super was unusual; it was far more common for people to snitch on their neighbors, and this was, of course, encouraged by the military. In December 1979, Cox was forced into exile, along with his Argentine wife and their five Argentine-born children, after he received threats that revealed a detailed knowledge of his family’s daily routines. To this day, the Cox family remains convinced that it was a close acquaintance who provided the dictatorship with the information. The transformation of friends into informers is a defining characteristic of totalitarian regimes.

If you want to know what sustains totalitarian violence in a society, psychology is probably more useful than political analysis. Among the elite, support for the dictatorship was enthusiastic. “It was seen as kind of a social faux pas to talk about ‘desaparecidos’ or what was going on,” says Raymond McKay, a fellow journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald, in Messenger on a White Horse, a 2017 documentary about the newspaper. “It was seen as bad taste because the people didn’t want to know.”

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

Lest there be any doubt of its intention, the dictatorship titled itself the “Process of National Reorganization.” Books were burned. Intellectuals went into exile. Like medieval Inquisitors, the dictatorship proclaimed itself—in fiery speeches that I hear echoed in the conspiracist rants of American populists and nationalists today—to be waging a war to save “Western and Christian civilization” from oblivion. Such a war by definition included the physical annihilation of infected minds, even if they had committed no crime.

Another horrifying characteristic of totalitarianism is how it picks on the weakest elements in society, immigrants and children. The Darré-inspired Lebensborn program seized Aryan-looking children from Nazi-occupied territories, separating them from their parents and raising them as “pure” Germans in Lebensborn homes. In 1970s Argentina, the military devised a similar program. There were a large number of pregnant women among the thousands of young captives in the dictatorship’s death camps. Killing them while carrying their babies was a crime that not even Argentina’s military could bring themselves to commit. Instead, they kept the women alive as human incubators, murdering them after they gave birth and handing their babies to God-fearing military couples to raise as their own. A society that separates children from their parents, for whatever reason, is a society that is already on the path to totalitarianism.

This heinous practice partly inspired Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale. “The generals in Argentina were dumping people out of airplanes,” Atwood said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times last year. “But if it was a pregnant woman, they would wait until she had the baby and then they gave the baby to somebody in their command system. And then they dumped the woman out of the airplane.”

This was the ultimate revenge of fearful older men upon a rebellious younger generation. Not only would they obliterate their perceived enemy, but the children of that enemy would be raised to become the model authority-obeying citizens against whom their biological parents had rebelled. It is estimated that some five hundred babies were taken from their murdered mothers this way, though so far only 128 have been found and identified via DNA testing. Not all of these have accepted reunification with their biological families.

*

For many Argentines, then, the military represented not a subjugation to arbitrary rule, but a release from the frustrations, complexity, and compromises of representative government. A large part of society clasped with joy the extended hand of totalitarian certainty. Life was suddenly simplified by conformity to a single, uncontested power. For those who cherish democracy, it is necessary to comprehend the secret delight with which many greeted its passing. A quick fix to the insurgency seemed infinitely preferable to plodding investigations, piecemeal arrests, and case-by-case lawful trials. Whipped up by the irrational fear of a communist takeover, this impatience won the day. And once Argentina had accepted the necessity for a single, absolute solution, the killing could begin.

That the guerrillas had failed to occupy any territory for any appreciable amount of time was a fact blithely ignored. The delusion prevailed over reality. Argentina’s most famous revolutionary hero, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who had fought alongside Fidel Castro in the real Cuban revolution, had met an ignominious death in the jungles of neighboring Bolivia years earlier without sparking any kind of insurrection. But that did not quell the overwhelming fear that a band of armed revolutionaries might somehow, miraculously, march into Buenos Aires and turn Argentina into a second Cuba. The “conspiranoia” of Argentina’s generals is well illustrated by a report from the US Embassy in Buenos Aires, based on conversations with the military regarding Cox’s forced departure in 1979:

Vicious anti-Semites, these individuals are convinced that Cox is in spirit, and perhaps in fact, Jewish. (He is not.) Many of the recent threats to Cox had overt or implied elements of anti-Semitism. For them, Cox is a symbol of liberalism. To these men, liberalism is the handmaiden of communism and the protector of terrorism. Cox’s spirited defense of human rights convicted him in their eyes of being a liberal.

As the US diplomats well understood, the military’s real war was not against the chimera of a communist threat, but against liberalism. It was a poisonous hatred not unlike that imported by the Nazis who had found safe refuge in Argentina. When I first began researching the Nazi escape to Argentina, I was looking for ways in which their presence could have directly inspired the crimes of the dictatorship. As it turned out, I found no physical point of contact and no evidence of direct ties: there were no aging SS officers torturing young prisoners in Argentina’s dungeons during the 1970s. Each country produces its own type of murderous totalitarians.

What I did discover, though, was that the Nazis’ presence in Argentina normalized their ideology and weakened society’s democratic defenses against the totalitarian ideas they represented. Seeing Nazi flags paraded down the streets of Charlottesville last year, seeing them again in Washington, D.C., this year, makes me realize how different today’s America is from the country where I was born and grew up. It makes me realize how far advanced such a normalization already is in the US.

Uki Goñi
The author, at work, Buenos Aires, December 1982