The Corner

Blast From The Past

There’s an intriguing story in today’s New York Times about Dr. Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s new minister of defense. Her father was an air force general who worked with the Allende government. He died in prison under the Pinochet regime. Appallingly, General Bachelet was tortured, torture that apparently contributed to his death. His daughter too was jailed for a few months and, disgracefully, tortured, “beaten and blindfolded”, herself. To that extent, her new appointment represents a satisfying turn of events, especially as (at least as portrayed by the always suspect New York Times) she appears a rather sympathetic character.

But the past is never straightforward and the Times’ piece contains rather more nuance than might usually be expected from that source. We read that the fact that General Bachelet was required to “work with” (“collaborate” would, I suppose, have been too loaded a word) “Cuban advisers and members of groups advocating armed revolution did nothing to endear him to his fellow officers.” Indeed. Torture, of course, is not exactly unknown in Castro’s Cuba, and we can suppose that any “armed revolution” in Chile would have been far from gentle.

Eventually, Dr. Bachelet’s mother was expelled and “the two women went into exile, first in Australia and then in East Germany.”

Australia, I can understand, but East Germany? The GDR, a grim, gray suburb of the Gulag, a country of barbed wire, political prisoners, and the Berlin Wall, was a curious choice for people (I would imagine) describing themselves as refugees from oppression.

Bachelet’s story is a reminder of the trickiness of history, that most essential of disciplines. Elsewhere in today’s paper, that point is underlined by a story (on a new museum dedicated to the British empire) concluding with this quote from Cicero:

“Not to have knowledge of what happened before you were born is to be condemned to live forever as a child.”

That’s something to remember the next time you read about dumbed-down history teaching.

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