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Articles > Does Historical Responsibility Exist?

Does Historical Responsibility Exist?

Manuel Reyes Mate

Following on from his now famous reflections on history, Reyes Mate sets forth here the question of historical responsibility. The twentieth century is beset by terrible events, some of them of such unimaginable evil that reason and judgement seem as if they should remain silent, unable to report on such horror. And the author focuses on those which are particularly disturbing, like for example the Holocaust, but looking back he also dedicates special attention to Spanish America, so deeply and inextricably linked to Spain, and to the history of both. With the help of solid, well-documented arguments, Reyes Mate reveals the fundamental role played by memory, as it is entrusted with the truth of events and even of their very existence, and thus it is being asked to take on epistemic competences which until now were the realm of the Logos. That is to say, a Copernican change has taken place in the use of the concept of memory. How such change has occurred and where it leads us are some of the questions that Reyes Mate attempts to clarify in this article.

1. Every great construction in ethics revolves around a specific axis. In Aristotelian ethics that axis was the concept of virtue; in Kantian ethics, duty; and in contemporary ethics, it is the axis of responsibility. Naturally, there are many types of responsibility. If we are asking about a single one, which is historical, we will have to consider the responsibility that may affect the present generations by virtue of past historical events which involved as much the grandparents or ancestors of those who are calling for responsibility as the grandparents or ancestors of those it is being asked from. That is, the question is whether there are outstanding debts contracted in the past for which the descendants may have to answer.

When faced with such a question, the first thing to be said is that it is a difficult question to justify, but fundamental for a moral conception of contemporary politics. Difficult because the modern mentality - and, therefore, morality and law - has turned its back on the past, and, consequently, reasons have to be invented; and fundamental because if we do not sort out our debts with the past we are exposed to the risk of their eternal repetition.

2. The problem of responsibility. Responsibility is a term very widely used, but very difficult to pin down. We find it in law and in moral philosophy, and that is why we need to turn there in order to examine it. Responsibility in law takes on the figure of the imputatio, which means "to hold somebody accountable for a condemnable action, an offence, that is to say, an action referring to the obligation to do something or to the prohibition not to do something". It is attributing a specific act (in general a reprehensible one) to someone so that they may be held accountable for it. This old legal concept has developed sensationally in present-day law. Now it turns out that we have to "take responsibility" for everything. The striking thing about this multiplication of responsibility is that it is focused almost exclusively on objective compensation, without pausing to study the subject to be compensated. It is enough for the person to pay up. Exaggerating a little, we can say that we are faced with a responsibility without blame. This assessment has the merit of understanding the satisfaction or reparation in a material or even materialistic sense, and not as a public retraction or in a mea culpa confession. Nevertheless, it has the drawback that without a moral subject to relate to, it becomes difficult to deal with those less material aspects that are not solved by material compensation (for example, not being remembered) and neither are consider to be responsibilities those that have no direct relation with the subject (this subject is unaffected by what his grandparents might have done).

Moral philosophy, too, is familiar with the concept of responsibility, for example when Kant speaks of Zurechnungsfähigkeit (accountability): attributing a subject with a reprehensible act for which he has to answer. Here the emphasis is on the role of the subject who puts his morality at risk in taking on the cost of the act committed. In Metaphysics of Morals, he defines attribution as "the trial by means of which someone is considered Urheber (free cause) of an action (Handlung) which from that moment is known as Tat (factum) (Akademie der Wissenschfaten A, 6, 227, Berlin, 1903), that is to say that the responsibility refers to actions of which that person is the author. We are responsible for our acts, for all our acts, but only for them, in other words, only from those arising from our free actions.[1] We are not, therefore, responsible for what we have not done. Let no one call us to account for what our grandparents did.

Certainly, a free, reprehensible action can be considered from two very different points of view: a) forwards, as though following the flow of the events unleashed by that action: you go through a red traffic light, run over a decent man whose salary feeds his family. In order to survive, one of his children becomes a delinquent and ends up being shot dead by a security guard when he is robbing a jeweller's. My responsibility does not expire immediately with the act, but continues to be played out in the chain of events. And b) presently, now: by jumping the lights what I am doing is breaking the law. Therefore I am responsible for that breach of law and deserve to feel the weight of the authority of the law in the form of a sanction.

This double dimension explains the two ethics of responsibility: the Kantian one centred on the violation of moral law; and the Hegelian one, which examines the consequences. The Imperative of Responsibility by Hans Jonas, which measures and explains responsibility depending on the destructive capacity of our actions, in other words, which focuses on the world we will leave to future generations, would be the final episode in this Hegelian view.

What is important to point out is that both types of responsibility, the Kantian and the Hegelian, base responsibility on freedom. We are responsible for what we have done, for everything that we have done, but only for that.

Kant and Hegel are not an exception, but a sample of the way of thinking in modern times. At the basis of everything is freedom or the principle of autonomy. Nothing is as opposed to it as the past, the normative value of the past, or of an authority outside the subject (the other, nature, God), for that reason modernity is post-traditional (Habermas) or of the present (Foucault). When I was speaking earlier of the difficulty represented by rationally justifying a responsibility looking back to the past, I was thinking about modernity. Doing that involves, in effect, defying the authority of the Enlightenment, at least of enlightenment as we have received it. That difficulty is left very clear in the way in which law and justice shield themselves with regard to the past. They are allergic to the past, and for that reason the law has raised the wall of amnesty, pardon, the non-retroactivity of the law, expiry etc., i.e. figures available to push the past into oblivion; not to speak of all those discursive theories of justice which have exchanged justice for freedom.

3. In order to be able to speak about responsibility that looks back to the past, we would have to think about a theory of justice whose axis was the past, that is, a theory of justice that would be above all a response to the injustice committed. For that, justice would have to have an almost strange category or marginal philosophical vocabulary: memory. It is not an unknown term, but it is reserved for some meanings and tasks that have nothing at all to do with what is expected of it now.

Max Horkheimer, the director of the Frankfurt School, sets us on track. He says[2] that the criminal acts that one commits or the unjust suffering one causes another are present to those who suffer them, but in order for them to survive that experience it is necessary to have recourse to a human consciousness that remembers them. Without that memory those events and those experiences become extinguished and then it cannot be said that they took place. Non-remembrance affects the truth and the existence of the event. That is the fate of most of humanity's sufferings.  In order to keep them as being true and existing, we would have to turn to a memory that does not forget, that is to say, divine memory. Without that memory the unjust past dies out and there is no justice that will serve. Having arrived at this point, the Marxist philosopher launches this challenge: Can anyone interested in justice discard the hypothesis of a divine memory? This is the great question in philosophy: how to think about absolute justice without a memory that does not forget anything.

What this text sets out is that without memory there is no justice because non-remembrance attacks, destroys or breaks up the truth and the existence of the injustice. Once the injustice has been erased there is no reason for justice. Naturally that erasing does not mean satisfaction: the injustice has been wiped out not because it has been settled, but because it has been made invisible. Consequently, if someone takes justice seriously, that is to say, they wish to think of universal justice as something that not only deals with big and significant things, but also with small, insignificant ones, that person has to turn to a memory that does not forget, to divine memory. Man knows from experience that mankind moves forward by forgetting, and for that reason injustice is repeated.

4. If we look closely, what is being asked of memory is that it should be a judge in questions of truth and existence, that is, it is attributed with epistemic powers which have been granted to the Logos until now. We trust memory with the truth of events and even their very existence. Memory attains the level of the Logos.

This is new in the West. It is true that philosophy has known memory from ancient times, but with a very different theoretical and practical meaning. For the ancients, in effect, memory was a sensus internus, which is to say a feeling that consisted of bringing past events into awareness in order to make the past experience present in that way. In addition, memory had a restorative or preserving function. There was a reason for it being a traditionalist thing. Memory served to change the past, the usual thing, into a measure of the present. It was the wildcard against any progress, any change, anything new.

However, now it is all about entirely the opposite. It is not only a feeling, not even a moral feeling. Neither is it something private or merely moral. Memory does not consist only of remembering today the despicable murder of a Republican grandfather in the Civil War, whose body was abandoned in some pigsty, in order to save him from that injustice and give him a worthy burial. That would be a private and moral understanding. It is also something more; it is, above all, much more than that: it is a political and epistemic act. Political, in the sense that the memory of the grandfather, killed for being a Republican, questions the legitimacy of Francoism built on a coup against the Republic. And it is epistemic because the eyes of the victim see something about our reality that we would not achieve without that view.

Neither is it a restorative operation. It is not a matter of reproducing the past, but of getting rid of it. Memory points to the past of those who have failed, of the losers, of those who have been left by the wayside of progress, in a word, of the victims of history, and if they are remembered it is to put an end to that logic of history that can only walk over ruins and dead bodies.[3] Memory calls us in order for that history to come to an end, once and for all.

This double mission (epistemic competence and interruption of the present) is a major affair. Horkheimer does not exaggerate when he says that we are facing a great question in philosophy, for to go on in that direction means to challenge an age-old history of the Logos that few have dared to do. Walter Benjamin, a necessary reference for the study of memory, was so aware of its newness that he refrained from referring to it in the usual terms (Gedächtnis or Erinnerung) and was forced to turn to a term in disuse (Eingedenken). If memory is on the side of justice, Logos is on the side of war.[4]

If there has been a Copernican change in the use of the concept of memory, we need to ask how this has come about. In order to make it clearer, we should bear in mind the following remarks:

4.1. Such change is a process that is taking place before our very eyes. The best proof of this is that the victims have become visible. If their invisibility was the expression of oblivion, visibility is the expression of memory. That visibility can be observed in the treatment of terrorism in Spain or in the debate in France about the country's past in slavery and colonialism. If there was a time when the end of terrorism in the Basque Country was thinkable irrespective of the victims, it no longer is; and if there was a time when French republicanism could be presented with the appearance of universality, today, when we know that that republicanism co-existed with the practice of slavery and colonialism, it can no longer claim to be so. Thanks to memory, the victims of terror, as well as the grandparents in servitude, have become present and visible.

With regard to Spain, that memory is overwhelming: a memory as never before of the Civil War; criticism of a transition conceived from the idea of non-remembrance; the presence, as we have said, of the victims in the debate about the end of terrorism etc. The accumulation of misunderstandings that can be observed in the debate in Spain obliges us to be cautious about the future of this wave. The wave in question could be a fashion and so we would find ourselves faced with a new episode of an old story: there is no better way of forgetting than a certain way of remembering. In the end we would be where we always were: attentive to the present and sacrificing in its honour to the past.[5]

4.2. The historical framework of the change was "the era of catastrophe", that is, the period between 1914 and 1945, which covers the two World Wars. The First World War caused a stir in European society which is difficult to imagine today. In the conflagration of war the old dream of a modern Europe was consummated and consumed; it consisted of creating a world based on reason and morality. That, together with the emergence of technology in war and in life, produced the feeling of a dizzying change going nowhere.  Then it became essential to hold on tight to the past, as Kafka said, so that the movement would not spin round and would have direction. The past became the ally of the future (the first big change in memory) as Halbwachs says in his Cadres sociaux de la mémoire (The social framework of memory). The Second World War took care of the rest. Its inhumanity reached such extremes that it was no longer possible to think and turn one's back on the brutality experienced. Then a new Categorical Imperative appeared, not exclusively ethical as it had been in Kant, but metaphysical: it was necessary to think of reality, politics and morality and bear in mind that atrocity (the second change in memory).

4.3. Such is the historical framework of change. To go deeper now into the concept of memory we have to keep in mind the following elements.

4.3.1. The first of these consists of turning to the cultural tradition that knows most about it. I am referring to Israel and, therefore, to the Judeo-Christian culture, long forgotten by the West. Since Europe is inconceivable without Athens and without Jerusalem, Logos and memory. Habermas, hardly suspicious of enlightened weakness, agrees with J.B. Metz that there is no relevant category of the West that does not come from the people of the Covenant.[6]

We could summarise the basis of the Jewish concept of memory with these three theses:

a) Memory is above all a hermeneutic matter, as it consists of considering as highly significant what has been so far granted as insignificant. It is not so much knowledge of the past (although it does not reject that) as an attempt to make visible what history or logos have made invisible, because they considered it to be a minor detail. We are referring to the victims of history, those that Hegel (and with him all the dominant mentality in the West) declared "flowers trampled by the wayside". Let it be understood correctly: flowers that were to be trampled so that history could continue on its triumphant way. Memory is the lawyer of the small print of history.

b) Memory is justice or, rather, a response to injustice. This is the central thesis. We saw reason in Horkheimer: without memory, past injustices are no longer injustices and no longer exist. They are no longer injustices because there will be someone, like Hegel, who will declare that the sufferings of innocents are the necessary price to be paid so that others can live better. And they no longer exist because without memory to keep them up to date, they will only be pure negativity. The spaces or holes in Chillida's sculptures are significant while they are inside a mass of steel or concrete. Without that mass, the space or hole is pure nothingness.

c) Suffering is the condition of all truth. All apparent reality has a hidden history - which is almost always a historia passionis - which forms part of reality. Reality is not all that exists because possibility also forms part of reality: what might have been and was frustrated.

4.3.2. The second element is represented by Auschwitz. It is difficult to envisage the importance of memory today without referring to the greatest event of non-remembrance: Auschwitz. The singularity of Auschwitz, what distinguishes it from other genocides in the past - for example that of the South American Indians by the Spanish - is not the number of dead, nor the perversity of the way of killing, or the condition of the victims ... but it being a project of oblivion. Nothing was to remain. No physical trace for humanity to be able to free itself of its metaphysical traces. The project was carried out and that is why we speak of it as a "crime against humanity", but it could not be completed because Hitler was defeated. There were, then, survivors, and thanks to them we can set up a strategy of memory against the oblivion that all atrocities entail.

Auschwitz is a laboratory of non-remembering. There we can see in its pure state how it works in any crime: how physical death must be accompanied by hermeneutical death in order to gain extinction. Auschwitz does not mean competing in suffering but a better way of getting closer to other forms of injustice. A detailed breakdown of that strategy of memory means making explicit Adorno's categorical imperative, that is, thinking about reality, politics, morality and beauty bearing in mind that atrocity took place in Auschwitz.

4.3.3. The third element in the construction of memory consists of frequenting those authors who, in their own way, have been able to capture that relationship between justice and memory, that is, those who faced up to injustice not from the established concept of justice, but from a fundamental gesture of denouncement. We are speaking of authors who have not conditioned their claim for justice to requirements such as the possibilities of the subject who commits the injustice, the time elapsed or the definition of injustice given by the theory of justice itself.

Exemplary in this sense is the case of the modest community of Dominicans on Hispaniola: of Pedro de Cordoba, of Anton Montesinos, whose work was well understood and developed by Bartolome de las Casas. The structure of the famous sermon is excellent from start to finish. It is articulated around a series of questions which are denouncements of the real situation of the natives: "by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?, on what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dwelled quietly and peacefully in their own lands? Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, not giving them enough to eat or curing them of their ailments?"[7]

Behind those questions lies the experience of slavery, of the illegal violence of the conquest, of inhumane treatment at the hands of the Spanish colonists. It is true that those indignant questions arise from the idea of man that these missionaries have: "are they not men?"[8] Even more, "are you not obliged to love them as yourselves?" But as that idea, which in theory they share with the colonists and political authorities, does not prevent unfair treatment, they are obliged to transcend the common doctrine. The authors of the denouncement are thinking about a sort of anthropology not yet written that will do justice to the incorruptible experience they are experiencing in the Americas: the injustice of the treatment of the Indians. It can be very well observed in Las Casas when he argues with Sepulveda about the rights of the conquest.

Las Casas is not unknown. He is not unknown today and he was not unknown in his time. For that reason I will limit myself to underlining a couple of aspects that are connected with the construction of the concept of historical responsibility.

a) The first affects the procedure of his thought. The point of departure is, as I have already said, the experience of the violent presence of the Spanish in America, characterized by theft, exploitation, insult and death. From the experience before him - and which is expressed by indignation in the face of so much injustice - he proceeds to a forceful argument that makes the reasons for his indignation understandable to others.

At the beginning, he turns to the theological and legal knowledge he shares with his adversaries, proposing an interpretation that will endorse his feeling of indignation with arguments. For that reason he discusses the rights of the conquest with his adversaries one by one: the reach of papal authority and the potestas of the emperor, whether the Indians have the ability to govern themselves, whether the superiority of Western culture can be postulated, whether the rationality of the Indians is of a lower quality than that of the Spaniards, whether there are beings born to obey and others to command ... One by one he breaks down the arguments against and turns the tide in his favour.

Until he comes up against an argument that forces him to admit his adversaries are right: the human sacrifices, the main reason invoked by Sepulveda to justify the war against the Indians. This argument, invoking human solidarity, and therefore obliges to the defence of innocents, has enormous weight because it is shared by many, even by Vitoria himself who sees in the practice "an injury done to others", something rather like a crime against humanity.[9] That practice forces the Church to intervene and also the Christian princes. Las Casas has a hard time, since theological, philosophical and political knowledge is opposed to the moral content of his experience in situ. The situation of the Indians is now unsustainable but if that state of things is legalized, catastrophe is guaranteed. The overwhelming weight of right stands against his moral feelings. What can be done? Las Casas, in an uncommon gesture of intellectual daring goes beyond (maybe we should say transgresses?) venerable established knowledge, and forces himself to discover new arguments. He has to explain better than his adversaries that human sacrifices neither justify military intervention by the King, nor call for the Church's blessing for war.

Let us examine first the responsibility of the Church. According to established doctrine, it would have to intervene against human sacrifice "if the case were to arise that they (unbelievers) injuriously oppressed innocents, if they killed them to immolate them to their gods". Then the Church's participation would be justified, even if it were a matter of subjects beyond ecclesiastical jurisdiction (because they were non-believers), because it was understood that those practices went against natural law and every person is obliged "by natural law to free those who are oppressed and are unjustly sent to their deaths". This theory was shared by Vitoria, although he placed the obligation of going to help those innocents in the chapter of people's rights.

Las Casas, however, has a crystal-clear certainty that the presence of the Spanish has only brought suffering and death to the Indians. It is not known whether they will be able to prevent human sacrifice: what has already been proved is that invasion, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, stalks these lands, together with starvation, plague and war. He is forced to "invent" something against his adversary's rhetoric. In order to neutralize the Church, being forced to intervene in cases of violation of natural law, what Las Casas does is separate the area of competences from the Church. What the Church is interested in is spiritual salvation and that salvation is frustrated while the Indians are being killed before they can be converted (let us not forget that salvation is seen from the classical structure "extra ecclesiam nulla salus"). Las Casas turns the argument around. He defends the fact that the Church should intervene, but to prevent the Indians being killed before they can be converted because once they are dead there is no one left to convert. Bearing in mind that many more die in war than on the sacrificial altar, there is no reason for the Church to accept the justice of the war against the Indians. According to his calculations, the annual number of victims of the Aztec nation was around 30,000 per year, while the Spanish soldiers came to kill 10,000 in a single day. That is, "the Spaniards have sacrificed more people to their beloved goddess, greed, in each year they have been in the Indies than the Indians in a hundred years to their gods"[10]. Appealing to the primordial task of the Church (the salvation of men), and to the reality of the presence of the Spanish (deaths due to greed are far higher than ritual deaths), Las Casas manages to take away the reason for the participation of the Church in the justification of war.

What remains to be discovered is if princes may intervene. Well, neither the Church, nor princes can invoke these reprehensible practices to justify the conquest because it is not a practice contra naturam. The argumentative daring shown by Las Casas challenges all preconceptions. He begins by saying that it is a very widespread practice and was also carried out by the ancestors of the Spanish, because, in reality, such practice is something very natural or, if you prefer, very religious. In effect, the natural thing is for man to offer sacrifices to his gods, and to offer them the best. Given that life is the best, it would be natural for man to offer life to the gods whom he holds as true. Only human law (positive) or divine law can correct that natural tendency. Las Casas says: "within the limits of natural law, that is, where human or divine law ceases to be valid, people must immolate human victims to the true or putative God considered as true". And also: "the fact of sacrificing men, even if they are innocent, when it is done for the well-being of the whole community, is not so contrary to natural reason as if it were something immediately abominable, contrary to the dictates of nature. So this error can have its origins in probable natural reason".[11]

So, if this is so, if we are faced with a practice so deeply rooted in human nature, we cannot expect to extirpate it with the stroke of a pen, with a requerimiento (injunction) or by waging war on them. Las Casas goes even further, since he understands that if the Indians are convinced that those practices are correct "they are not obliged to abandon the religion of their forbears, for they do not understand that doing this (rejecting sacrifices) is better". The conclusion: it serves no purpose to wage war on the Indians for violating natural law. And this holds true for the Church and for the princes.

What is interesting to point out is Las Casas' manner of proceeding: he is so clear about the atrocities occurring because of the conquest that he cannot be content with the wisdom of Salamanca. He has to break open the argument by creating new reasons, venturing down paths that no one has trodden.[12] The response to injustice cannot be one of justice that comes down to the execution of the victims. And such would be the case if the invasion of these lands were considered to be according to law and justice.

The gesture of Las Casas is the more exemplary the weaker the reasons offered may be. It can be argued as to whether his explanation of human sacrifice as something in agreement with natural law is convincing or not. The important thing for him was to weaken the argument of a practice contra naturam to justify the war. He was so convinced that violence was unjust that he could not accept any arguments in its favour. As he recognizes in his Confesionario, everything that has been done in the Indies "was against all natural law and people's law, and also against all divine law... and therefore null and void and with no value or weight in Law".[13] Las Casas' intellectual gesture is a good example of what Adorno would later call "negative dialectic".

b) Not only is the procedure for dealing with the problem of injustice exemplary, but also the extent of it is. When it came to summarising the responsibility of the conquistadors, Las Casas refers to that double responsibility: "It is not only good that they should repent the sins of theft and robbery, but also that of insult, which they especially occasioned to the aforementioned successors or living descendants of those whose tombs they violate, because they diminish the honour and praise of both, living and dead, and cause their memory to be lost. For which reason they are also obliged to give them satisfaction".[14]

There are two types of damages for which to make amends: material theft and spiritual insult. The reparation of goods stolen is a matter well covered in scholastic articles about restitution. Where we need to take pause, however, is at spiritual damages, insult, which is an attack on the good name of the victims. To discredit the Indians by saying they were savages or primitives or incapable or "like children" is the best way to make them invisible and to push them into oblivion. If the conquistadors and their ideologists manage to fix in the present generation and in future generations a collective consciousness that looks down on victims, then they will get everyone to accept the conquest as a humanizing gesture. Naturally there was violence and abuse, but it will always be possible to say that "they truly deserved it as they were dumb beasts" or, paraphrasing Hegel, progress obliges that "some flowers along the wayside will be trampled". That hermeneutic battle is the place where insult is. What is at stake is an interpretation of events that will justify not the practice of war, but the forgetting of the violence that took place. As important as the justification was at the time, that war against the Indians was fair, is the forgetting now of the suffering of the Indians: if this appears as unjustified, the legitimization of war will be seriously questioned. That is why Las Casas insists on the danger that "memory may be lost", that is, it may be lost from sight that those Indians were men, subjects with rights and very capable of managing their own interests. The perverse thing about forgetting is that it fixes in the collective consciousness the image of the incapable, child-like or blood-thirsty Indian.

This memory is so vitally important, in order that "satisfaction may be given", justice can be done, to the victims of the conquest, that Las Casas calls up divine memory in order to protect it against the interpretations of the winners, that is, against forgetting. For that reason, he warns to those who trust in "the cause of the strongest is always the best" (Voltaire), that "of the smallest and most forgotten, God has a very living, fresh memory".[15] It is possible that future generations will know of these events from the history written by the winners. It does not matter, Las Casas ends up saying. In some place - in divine memory - the memory of the defeated is held and that certainty is a threat to the history of the winners. We cannot ignore the relationship between this statement and Horkheimer's thought, with which we began these reflexions. The difference is that, while the agnostic Horkheimer set it out in aporetic terms (philosophy cannot do its job without divine memory but that memory is a non-philosophical category), Las Casas does it in assertive terms (he believes in divine memory). In both, however, the same conviction dwells: without divine memory of injustice we cannot speak about absolute justice. What the theologian and the philosopher have in common is that they centre justice on the destiny of "the smallest and most forgotten".

6. Conclusion

Does historical responsibility exist? Levinas speaks about a structural or ontological responsibility. Man, he says, is not born a moral subject but becomes a human subject thanks to the other, as he becomes responsible for the other. Here we are talking about something slightly different. Historical responsibility does not have a generic other before it, but someone who has been harmed by man. We face the suffering of the other, a suffering that is not natural, but rather the product of an action that man has caused. That man could have been our grandfather, but what we must not lose sight of is that suffering is an injustice. It is the injustice of suffering that calls for historical responsibility that can be understood in two very different ways.

In the first place, as a responsibility that affects the heirs of the past. Descendants of Indians, descendants of conquistadors: we are heirs to a common past, with the difference that some have inherited the fortunes and others the misfortunes. As we know, those differences are the product, at least partly, of a common past, reason why present generations have an acquired responsibility. That historical responsibility is what Garcia Marquez and other Colombian intellectuals invoked when the European Union imposed the requirement of a visa to Colombian nationals: "Latin Americans cannot be treated by Spain as if we were just strangers. Here we have the arms and brains that you need. We are children, or if not children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Spain. And when we are not linked by ties of blood, we are linked by a debt of service: we are the children or grandchildren of the slaves and servants unjustly subjugated by Spain. You cannot add us when it comes to underlining the importance of our language and our culture, and then not include us when it suits you in Europe. Explain to your European associates that you have an obligation towards us, and a historical commitment on which you cannot turn your backs. The cycle of wealth in nations is like the wheel of fortune; it is not right that in days of opulence the door should be slammed in the faces of the poor relations.  Perhaps one day we (in that extremely rich land where you and we both have worked, suffered and enjoyed life) may also have to open the gates to the children of Spain, as has occurred so many times in the past".[16]

But, what about the past generations? Is there a way to repair the material and spiritual harm done to the victims? Max Horkheimer replied to this question, also formulated in the 30's by Walter Benjamin, saying that it was a theological question and that, therefore, it should be left alone. But precisely because it is a theological question, we should not leave it only to theologians. It is the question that became an obsession to the philosopher Benjamin. In the second of his Theses about the concept of history he writes: "we, like every preceding generation, have been given a weak Messianic power over which the past has rights". Each present generation has a power regarding previous generations, a slight Messianic power that we are obliged to activate. It is not a question, as in the previous case, of making reparation for the material damages caused to the grandparents in the persons of their grandchildren, but of making reparation in some way for the injustice done to the grandparents. It is the field of insult Las Casas was referring to. We may lose the historical battle over the legality of the conquest as Las Casas lost it.  For after all, the conquest took place with no regard for his reasons. Sepulveda won. However, we must not lose the hermeneutic battle because the Indians were human beings to whom gratuitous harm was done. Spain built an empire on that violence and for that reason politics should be debt and sorrow. Sorrow and debt are the ways in which we can nowadays exercise that weak Messianic power which Benjamin speaks of: we can restore the good name of the victims and we can affirm that injustice still exists as long as it is not repaired. This is not much, but without that minimum, we cannot even begin to speak of justice.


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[1] "Any accusation is a judgement about an action where that action arises from a person's liberty", in Kant (1988) Lecciones de Etica, (Lessons in Ethics) Crítica, Barcelona, 97-99
[2] The literal text says as follows: "The fearful deed I commit, the suffering I cause, only live on after the instant they occur, thanks to human consciousness which remembers them and they expire with it. So there is no sense in saying that they are still true. They are no longer true, they are no longer real: both are the same thing. Can this be admitted and yet lead a life without God? Such is the problem of philosophy", in M. Horkheimer, 1966, Notes, 1950-1969.
[3] In effect, memory does not concern itself with everything that has happened but with the past that is absent from the present. And that is the past of the defeated. The past of the winners does not call for memory because it is already present in what has taken place. The memory of the defeated is qualitatively different from that of the winners, for that reason their past is celebrated, while that of the losers is commemorated. There is a difference between festivity and memorial. Of the festival, it is hoped that it will endure; of the memorial, that it may save us, that it may inaugurate a future that is not a prolongation of the present.
[4] Among them Franz Rosenzweig and also Enmanuel Levinas. They consider the history of the Logos - von Jonien bis Jena - as an "ontology of war" because it only knows by reducing the plurality of what it is down to a single element, which they call "essence", despising and relegating anything that is not "essential", cf. Reyes Mate (1997) Memoria de Occidente (Memory of the West), Anthropos, Barcelona, 130 et seq.
[5] An indication that we are facing something more than a passing fashion is the reaction to Günter Grass' confession of his Nazi past. It is not his past that bothers us but the fact that it was hidden. If we bear in mind that almost everyone has hidden the Nazi past - including a generation of Spaniards which ended up changing sides and becoming referents of the criticism of Francoism, but without daring to settle its debts with the past - we will understand the novelty of the current reaction, perhaps the result of a new sensitivity regarding the past. See Reyes Mate "El hueso de la cebolla" (The stone in the onion), in El Periódico de Catalunya, 13 September, 2006
[6] Habermas writes in a letter to J.B. Metz that "... our modern concepts of real life, of autonomy, of socialization and individualization, of time and historicity, of finiteness and emancipation, of success and failure, of political praxis, human dignity etc. are absolutely not Greek concepts but owe more to ‘Bundesdenken' than ‘Seinsdenken'". Letter from J. Habermas to J.B. Metz (15 July, 1989)
[7] B. de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, Obras Escogidas II (History of the Indies, Selected Works II), 175, BAE
[8] Beuchot sums up the characteristics of the underlying anthropology: specific unity of all humanity, freedom of mankind, sociability and religiosity, M. Beuchot (1994) Los fundamentos de los derechos humanos en Bartolomé de Las Casas (The foundations of human rights in Bartolome de las Casas), Anthropos, Barcelona, 33 et seq.
[9] Quoted by G. Gutierrez (2003) En busca de los pobres de Jesucristo. El pensamiento de Bartolomé de Las Casas (In search of the por of Jesus Christ. The thought of Bartolome de Las Casas), Cep, Peru, 249.
[10] The argument of Las Casas can be seen in his writings Apología, Obras Completas, 9 (Apology, Complete Works, 9), Alianza Editorial, 1989
[11] The quotations from Las Casas can be found in Apologetica Historia, Selected Works, ed. De Perez de Tudela, III and IV, BAE. 1957-1958.
[12] Las Casas was aware that he was opening up a breach, that he was going down an unprecedented path. In a letter to the Dominicans in Chiapas he admits, not without a certain measure of pride, that "I tried many conclusions which before me no man had ever dared to touch or write, and one of them was that it was not against the law or natural reasoning, ... , to offer up men to God in sacrifice...", in Opusculos, Cartas y Memoriales, from Selected Works, V, BAE, 1957-8
[13] B. de Las Casas, Confesionario (Confessional) in Selected Works, V, 239, BAE
[14] B. de Las Casas, De Thesauris, CSIC, 1958
[15] B. de Las Casas,  Carta al Consejo, (Letter to the Council) in Selected Works, BAE, V, 10
[16] Letter from Colombian intellectuals against Spain's immigration policy (22 March, 2001)

Claves de Razón Práctica, No. 168, December 01, 2006

Translated by Peter J. Hearn

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