“If a historian does not take sides with the past, he is under suspicion”

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The catalog of horrors of the 20th century it is not limited only to two world wars and the atrocities committed by totalitarian regimes, but rather episodes of ethnic cleansing, utopian revolutions, and colonial and sexual violence they complete a picture not always well analyzed in textbooks. Because that is An indomitable violence. The European 20th century (Criticism, 2020): not only a brainy essay that reviews a host of misdeeds, but a manual of undoubted academic value. His actor, Julian Casanova, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Zaragoza and visiting professor at prestigious European, American and Latin American universities, he cannot hide the teaching tone in his prose and conversation.

The word “indomitable” in the title is striking. Indomitable is something difficult to hold or suppress. Why was it impossible to put a firewall on?

By many factors. We are talking about violence without national borders, race, religion, ideology, gender … and untamed because it has no limits. The rear guard no longer exists, the policies of extermination can be carried out with women and children, the revolution is no longer the promise of an earthly paradise, but it becomes a nightmare. A violence linked to bankruptcies: of the great empires, of certainties around civilization … Unexpected actors appear through paramilitarism, of people who have weapons and had dreamed of destroying the other. And there is no pause: colonialism in the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War in Spain, the bleeding that does not end in 1945 … and that Europe that, far from being democratic, supports dictatorships well into the 20th century. .

“Nothing before 1914 had prepared Europe for what was to happen,” he writes. But in that prosperous and optimistic Europe, violence had spread its seeds. Nobody saw it coming?

The underlying idea in the intellectual and political world is that, since Bismarck, Europe had put an end to the zigzagging nineteenth century, but that was not true when we consider the colonial conflicts or the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time the idea of ​​destroying the rich arises … Did the alarms go off? Yes, but nobody heard them.

In the chapter “A world of privilege, luxury and power” he talks about protests, insurrections and revolts against the aristocracy, royalty, landowners. Is the opening of the spigot that released the subsequent outburst in the class struggle?

I pick up an anecdote told by the Duchess of Sermoneta: a car trip with friends somewhere in central Europe in the summer of 1912. Suddenly, they stop in front of a small building. It’s the border. I have to show the documentation of the car », informs the driver. “I don’t even remember what border it was,” says the Duchess. “In those days all of Europe was our playground.” There are several common threads: the ideology of the race and the nation, everyone wants to be in the cast and nations are divided into healthy and sick – the sick, for example, is the Spain of 98, decadent, unable to maintain the rhythm of the world. Then there is the militarism that is exhibited in the parades, that puts words to the hymns, that connects with the new investigations on weapons, now more deadly. And the class struggle advocated by Marx: the heavens and the earth will open and we will create something different that will liberate humanity. Finally, a very important aspect: how the transition from aristocratic to bourgeois society is not as radical as it seems, but rather has elements of persistence. Which links to the anecdote of the Duchess of Sermoneta.

“In central and eastern Europe there was an inclement atmosphere, a repression that went beyond the gulag. The intellectual left had a hard time understanding it »

Do the two great butcher shops of the first half of the century cover the rest?

I have tried to provide a look at central and eastern Europe not so much as a confrontation between communism and capitalism, but to analyze the inclement atmosphere, the repression that exists beyond the gulag. There was resistance in ’53 (Berlin), ’56 (Budapest) and ’68 (Prague), but it is difficult to demolish the myth that this was an earthly paradise. The European intellectual left had a hard time understanding it. And there are the Spanish, Portuguese and Greek cases, which seem small to us and survive for decades without democracy. The example of our neighbors is even more paradigmatic, because while the other countries lose their dominions, the Portuguese empire continues; the fall of the dictatorship is produced from a coup by the colonial army, something unthinkable in Spain. In short, there are secondary roads that must be studied. That idyllic image of the Dalmatian coast in the 70s transmitted by Tito ends in the early 90s with Dubrovnik bombed. And this happened four days ago.

Has sexual violence been silenced in these episodes?

Definitely. Violence in the 20th century was never dealt with from the perspective of women, and it is much more than rape and prostitution. There is a common thread in the shaved hair: in Ireland before its civil war, in Vienna and Budapest by the Soviets, in the “hairs” of the Franco regime … It is cheap violence that is not included in textbooks.

A little over a year ago we published an interview with the historian David Van Reybrouck in the thread of his book “Congo”, where he denounced the predation and genocides carried out by the colonial powers, facts not always well considered.

Everyone wants to remember the glories, not the crudest parts of their own history. The colonial conflicts are really dark, a story that has not reached teaching, with cases like the Belgian in the Congo or the French in Algeria.

Are there great impunities for reporting?

The three words that marked the history of the disappeared in Argentina – memory, truth and justice – remain unspecified in many cases. There are war criminals who went to their graves without going through a court. There are notable examples, such as ethnic cleansing in Armenia. However, there are great difficulties in reconciling history and memory, in building a post-war consensus.

«Violence in the 20th century was never treated from the perspective of women. This cheap sexual violence is not included in the textbooks »

What do you think of historical revisionism?

History only progresses through review. Another thing is the political revisionism that demolishes statues of characters who were once heroes and are now villains. In the former Yugoslavia, collaborationist Nazis are now considered heroes on the grounds that, in reality, collaborating with Hitler minimized the damage to the nation. Historians are under suspicion because people think that any opinion about the events of the past is respectable and that you have to take sides until you are stained. Critical reading is lacking and simplification is unnecessary. Hobsbawm used to say that historians are the official reminders of what people want to forget.

How about the word “fascist” as a recurring insult these days?

Fascism disappeared in 1945-46. There are reminiscences of Ibero-American and Asian dictatorships, but as a historical phenomenon it was defeated. Today someone is considered a fascist who does not think like you or who has identity feelings. You cannot call Lukashenko a fascist, it will be something else; I do not believe that an ETA militant is a fascist, which does not detract an iota of cruelty and criminality from terrorism. There are authors like Roger Griffin who think that the substratum of fascism comes from the left, part of which now uses the term as an insult to the political rival.

“Sprout” is a buzzword. Are we in danger of a new indomitable violence?

Not while those who should have the weapons have them. The great conquest of Europe is that militarism is legitimized by democracy. I am hopeful that democratic states will be able to maintain a monopoly on violence.

But new enemies always emerge.

In the 21st century, certainties were shattered by the 2008 economic crisis, international terrorism, the crossing of capitalism to the Pacific, the multipolar world, overpopulation in countries like Nigeria, climate change, urban growth, deep inequalities … And, you see, we are now in the middle of a pandemic with unpredictable consequences.

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