Dictatorships, memory and history



In Brazil today, the exercise of memory shows that no matter how many freedoms are conquered, they will never be conquered enough

The return to the Brazilian public scene of authoritarian and social-Darwinist ideas takes us back to an old discussion about the relationship between memory and history: memory, on the one hand, originated in oral sources; historiography, on the other hand, based on written documents analyzed by those who did not necessarily live through the historical experience. Gradually, the idea that history and memory connect and complement each other was established. We could add that when, fearing the judgment of History, agents of violent practices carried out in authoritarian regimes hide and destroy documents, as was the case of Nazi criminals in Europe and torturers and prosecutors of the exceptional regime in Brazil, memory is more than a complement – ​​it becomes an essential instrument for History itself. The testimony of those who lived through this past is essential to restore what happened so that historians can, in turn, try to explain analytically why this happened.

The contribution of memory to History can be represented in different ways. Among the key metaphors evoked to express the works of remembrance[I], there are references to architecture – memory would be like a construction, composed of reports and images. There is also mention of archeology: memory would proceed to an excavation of more or less deep layers of past experiences. It is also common to use the metaphor of cartography: to remember would be to review the spaces traveled in the past to better map and choose the paths of the present. “There is no collective memory that does not happen in a spatial context”, says Halbwachs[ii]. “Memories bloom in places,” adds writer Siri Hustvedt[iii], returning to the scholastics of the thirteenth century: memories need location to work. Mental places facilitate the retention of memories and mirror a conception of reality. This explains why there are outstanding places of memory today to mirror the democratic project. Facilities where torture practices were concentrated during the 1964-1985 dictatorship, for example, are duly marked to confront those who promote oblivion, celebrate dictatorships and worship inhumanity.

The absence of memory work in schools and the silencing of the dictatorship's crimes led us to this kind of truncated democracy that we know today, favoring the emergence in public opinion of a portion - it must be recognized - proto-fascist, which, for many , has been fed from ignorance and the exploitation of ignorance. But it is also necessary to remember that, in addition to forgetting the arbitrariness of the exceptional regime, a job of masking the facts was actively developed, not only in the military, but also outside it.

In this regard, it is worth reviewing an episode promoting historical falsification that took place at the height of the dictatorship's repressive action. At Colégio Pedro II, in Rio de Janeiro, the general director – then appointed by the regime – promoted, in 1970 and 1973, two writing contests, posters and hymns aimed at rewarding students in tune with the prevailing ideology[iv]. The Ordinance of March 31, 1970 said: “Considering that the interest of analyzing the benefits provided to the Country by the Revolution of March 31, 1964 must be awakened among youth; considering that it is opportune and healthy to induce young students to prepare works on the 1964 Revolution, decides to institute a contest among the members of the student body, the main prize of which will consist of a round trip to Manaus, with all expenses paid to the students. authors of the best works on the ´Revolution of March 31, 1964 and its benefits`”[v]. The Judging Committee was made up of members of the Armed Forces designated by the Minister of the Army. Altogether, in the two competitions, the works of 77 students were awarded, with the essays being published in full in two volumes edited by the College itself. In addition to the trip to Manaus – said “to learn about military actions in the jungle” – one of the contests provided cash prizes.

The winning essays, in addition to containing reproductions of pieces of official propaganda extolling “national security” and government works, brought clear indications of the distance between the regime's preaching and the evidence of the facts. They stated, for example, that “the growing popularity of the Medici Government, already noted by some analysts in the international press, emanates not only from the recovery of the prestige of the executive branch or the reestablished dignity of the presidential figure, but from the very process of re-educating the people. ”; or: “we would be involved in total chaos, if it weren’t for the redemptive March Revolution of 1964, which ended a long period of demagogic, subversive and subservient practices, as inspired (sic), many times, by traditionally enemy nations of democracies.”; or else: it is “extraordinary in Brazil today the union that we feel in all classes, imbued with the same ideal. Differences were fully resolved; today the ideal of one is that of all, regardless of color, creed, position…”[vi]. Among the hymns composed for the contest (according to established norms, “the melody could be a march or a song, but with an epic nature”)[vii], there was a “Musical greeting to Admiral Rademaker” (“Benvindo Augusto Vice-President…”) and an anti-poetic metaphor of the “Girl Revolution” (“Everything was going very wrong until the girl ended the carnival…) [viii]

Through interviews carried out forty-five years later with a dozen of the students awarded in the aforementioned competitions, it was possible to collect some elements of the memory of that experience. There were several justifications for the participation of the interviewees in the contests: some claimed to have participated in them for utilitarian reasons (“I wanted to go to the Amazon!”; or, “the Free Trade Zone at the time was an interesting business from the point of view of buying jeans”), without – then, as today – believing in the fairness of the regime they praised in their essays. Others claimed to have participated in the competitions because they believed in the justice of the regime at the time, although they believe today that they were, at the time, deceived or deceived; a former student claimed to have participated in them because, then as today, he believed in the fairness of the exception regime.

Support from the parents themselves sometimes weighed heavily: “My father was a lawyer for the military and I asked him to help me, to give me some ideas. We wrote the paper and he corrected it”. But the ability of those young people to question the propaganda material was, in fact, limited: “Each year that the 'Revolution' celebrated its anniversary, there was a flood of material in the press itself. It was more or less on top of what I based myself on. I got the information do what happened.” Despite this belief in the veracity of the official discourse, this same interviewee recognizes that it would not have been possible for anyone to participate in the contest if they had written that the country was living under a dictatorship: “Anyone who does not agree, would not expose themselves that way, writing to criticize. He would have no chance of winning and would still attract unwanted eyes.” Another award-winning contestant states that “everything was very confusing, without taking into account the opinions of the Brazilian people, who had no right to defend an education where the student could question the teacher, put forward their ideas, because we should not accept everything that is imposed. It is important to have our ideas and be able to defend them”. As another informant completed, because they were very young, some students would not have been able to relate the competition to the exception regime that Brazil was experiencing: “I believe that we would have a more critical view of these competitions and their real objective, if at the time we had more age".

It was through this type of “spontaneous collaboration”, in the words of the Director of the institution, that “the youth showed that they would not allow international adventurers and Bolsheviks to carry out their macabre purpose of demoralizing them”[ix]. The contest thus integrated a kind of pedagogy of lack of intelligence, which transformed education into a rite destined to inhibit criticism and spread the authoritarian motto that “here, no questions are asked”.

This example of the dissemination of historical falsification shows that, in addition to exercising repressive violence and censorship, exceptional regimes strive to disqualify their opponents and ideologically capture their potential critics, indicating that State terror is not capable, by itself , to completely eliminate critical thinking. It should be recognized, on the other hand, that also in contexts in which formal freedoms prevail, such as today, the conditions for the production and circulation of reflective thought are not totally free of constraints and threats.

As Hustvedt states: “memory only bestows its gifts when shaken by something from the present”[X]. The living presence of a neo-fascist ideology in the country today is an alert to shake our memory. For it is visible the convergence that today takes shape between, on the one hand, the values ​​of a neoliberal project – which extols social-Darwinist competition, which produces and justifies inequalities as inherent to competition and, on the other hand, an offensive discrimination that authoritarian subjects opened wide in relation to the dispossessed and the different. Reconstructing a fair memory – faithful to the experience of those who have and have had, throughout history, their dignity and their rights disrespected is an important step towards stopping the reproduction of racism and inequalities.

In the Greek myth of the invention of writing by the gods, the god Theuth boasted that writing would be a saving resource for memory and knowledge.[xi]. King Thamus contested it, claiming that writing could, on the contrary, lead men to neglect their memory, as they could start to rely excessively on written texts, instead of recording living memories in their own souls. We know that all the appreciation we have for books and documents as written records of memory and knowledge must be accompanied by a stimulus for their preservation, given the threats of their possible destruction. But we also know that these printed records must always be exposed to discussion and interpretation, so that one can revisit and, as Thamus thought, engrave living memories in minds, feeding and updating, as we are called to do today, the struggles in defense of public liberties. The thought of La Boétie, already in the XNUMXth century, warned that “no matter how profound the loss of freedom is, it is never lost enough; you never end up losing her”[xii]. Contrary to what La Boétie postulated, in Brazil today, the exercise of memory shows that no matter how many freedoms are conquered, they will never be conquered enough.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR-UFRJ).


[i] Fernanda Arêas Peixoto. “Urban drifts, memory and literary composition”. redouble, n. 13, year 5, 2014, pp.29-34;

[ii]  Maurice Halbwachs, collective memory, ed. Vertices, Sao Paulo, 1990.

[iii]  Siri Hustvedt, The trembling woman, Cia das Letras, São Paulo, 2011, p. 97.

[iv] This episode is described in greater detail in H. Acselrad, “Education and the Misadventures of Brainstorming”, Revista brasileira, year VI, n. 91, April-May-June 2017, p. 153-160, Rio de Janeiro.

[v] Colégio Pedro II, A. Revolution of 1964 judged by students of 1970, Rio de Janeiro, 1970, p. 13.

[vi]  Peter II College, The Revolution and the Youth, Rio de Janeiro, 1973. pp. 33, 47 and 68.

[vii]  Colégio Pedro II, op. cit., 1973, p.22.

[viii]  Colégio Pedro II, op. cit., 1973, p 323 and 303.

[ix] Colégio Pedro II, op. cit., 1973, p.11.

[X] Siri Hustvedt, op. cit.

[xi] Werner Jaeger, Paideia, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1956.

[xii] Pierre Clastres, “Freedom, bad encounter, unnamable”, in Etienne La Boetie - Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Ed. Brasiliense, Sao Paulo, 1982.

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