The historian and the judge

I might have earlier confessed my appreciation for an Italian early modern historian, Carlo Ginzburg. I am a fan of all things Ginzburgian: the tales of radical ideas of Benandanti, or his famous Menocchio; the description of history’s evidential; and a politically inflected book, The Judge and the Historian. Ginzburg writes in the latter book about the trial of a friend. A present day radical, autonomist, intellectual, Adriano Sofri was charged of the crime of murder on the evidence of a self-confessing repentant. A territory that was not unfamiliar to the historian. Confessions of heresy and confessions of political conspiracy are not that far between. And the historian is trained to reconstruct scenes of crime, and belief, turned cold and barren by time. Ginzburg teaches us that the historian can known the mind and practice of the judge intimately and hold justice in contempt.

But what is true of the historian looking into the courtroom, is true of the judge looking out. Baltasar Garzon is the Spanish judge that made headlines when he prosecuted Augusto Pinochet and forced the dictator to a few weeks of uncertainty and embarrassed the Labour government to argue for Pinochet’s save return to Chile. All that Garzon does is controversial. Some of what he does is law. Some is also history. In one of his latest projects he has sought to reopen the wounds of the Spanish Civil war, 70 years past, to reconstruct crimes, but also to reconstruct meanings. For what is at stake is the job of the historian: making the past intelligible, in equal measure close and removed, to examine a story with characters filled with life and humanity but that are no longer living, that are no longer us.