Presence of the Past – Urgencies of Today

Presencias del pasados - Urgencias del presente

A report from the International Conference on Memory Work in Buenos Aires,

Argentina 24-26 June 2019

This international dialogue is a continuation of the Mandela Dialogues on Memory Work that were organized jointly by the Global Leadership Academy and Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) in 2013/14 and 2016. Memory work in contexts where oppression, violent conflict or systemic human rights abuses have taken place is a contribution to the making of a just society – one that remembers its pasts, listens to all its voices, and pursues social justice.





From 24 to 26 June, 30 participants from 14 countries gathered in Buenos Aires to continue their dialogue on the question of how to deal with the past and its significance for shaping societies of the present. The event was divided into public parts at the beginning and end and dialogue parts reserved for the participants. A special focus of the meeting was on the experiences of Latin American countries.

The dialogue was organized by the Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights (Centro para la promoción de los derechos humanos) at the Argentine Ministry of Justice in Buenos Aires and by the Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany (Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur). GLAC, The Foundation Rememberance, Responsibilty and Future (EVZ Stiftung), the Senate of Berlin, the German Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Goethe Institute were supporting partners.

the Weight of the past

The international dialogue started with a historic city tour. Several sites that testify Argentina’s dictatorial past and established places of memory had been chosen for the tour such as the ESMA, Parque de la Memoria  and Plaza de Mayo . Participants could get insights into the history of the Argentine military dictatorship and how this past is dealt with today.

The public opening of the dialogue took place after the address of welcome by a representative of the Ministry of Justice, the German Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Mr. Jürgen Mertens, the Director of the Centro para la Promoción de los Derechos humanos, Patricia Tappatà-Valdez, and Anna Kaminsky of the Federal Foundation for the Study of the SED Dictatorship with an introduction by Prof. Manuel-Reyes Mate Ruperez from Madrid. Under the headline "El pasado peso - el peso del pasado" (The past weighs on us - the weight of the past) he explored how history is constructed and how memory is a form for shaping history.

After experiencing violence, people look for ways of processing them and for doing justice; all look for justice, but few are willing to accept the whole truth for it. Often pragmatic ways of dealing with the past are sought and found for the society in question. Pragmatic in the sense that society must continue to function and ways must be found to deal with the damage caused by the crimes of the past. This also means that dominant interpretations of the past gain the upper hand first and minority narratives are incorporated only later.

Significant silences and common memories

On the following day the conference continued with the internal dialogues focusing on three main topics:

  • Justicia y verdad: Justice and Truth
  • The past and it’s “significant silences”
  • Memory work in education

Justice and Truth dealt with questions like: Is there a single truth about the past? Which truth should be concealed? Which unpopular victim groups are kept secret or concealed because they do not fit into the heroic narrative and stand in the way of a "common memory" (memoria común)?

It became clear as the basic consensus of all debates that any state institution or power must be measured by the degree to which it treats its opponents in accordance with the rule of law, even those who seek to destroy the state.

The second session discussed the significance of silences. For many of those persecuted, the memory is very painful and silence about the bad experiences is part of the process. In this context, Adorno's thesis about the concealment of the German majority society with regard to the Nazi crimes was also discussed. In his thesis, he claims that the desire to conceal is strong on the part of the perpetrators, who want to remain silent about their deeds, but also on the part of the victims and their relatives, who do not want to talk about their shame, their humiliation, their experienced powerlessness.

The final session dealt with the role that our way of dealing with the past can play in educational work and with the children of the future. Often, there is also an imperative of remembrance that makes it difficult for the children/non-knowers to form their own opinions.

All participants found the dialogues and debates on topics that are very difficult to deal with in many post-dictatorial or post-violence societies, or which are almost impossible to address, to be important and stimulating. It also became evident how important it was to have an open dialogue process and to be able to deal intensively and without any time pressure with a specific aspect such as the question of educational work.