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.

The judicial model

pinelliOn the 15th of December of 1969 “an anarchist and railway employee named Pino Pinelli dies by falling from the window of the office of Police Superintendent Luigi Calabresi, on the fifth floor of the Milan police headquarters, where he had been detained for three days.” The story is vividly dramatized in Dario Fo, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (part 1, part 2).

Carlo Ginzburg is one of the great masters of history writing. In 1991, the medievalist scholar of witchcraft trials wrote a book about a ongoing court case – The Judge and the Historian. His friend Adriano Sofri, a former leader of the autonomist group Lotta Continua, was on trial as mastermind of the murder in May 1972 of Superintendent Luigi Calabresi. Ginzburg’s book is a lesson on the use of evidence. Reading the transcripts of the trial, and the record of testimonies, Ginzburg reveals contradictions, the interpretative shortcuts of the judge, the lapses of the carabinieri that express their interference, and finally how evidence was weighted and distorted to justify a heavy sentence. One would think that the historian should reconstruct events, urgently tying actions to individual motives. Ginzburg calls it a “judicial model” and rejects it. Unlike the judge, the historian aims at a larger interpretative frame, studying the courtroom drama as “historical experimentation” where evidence, the document, is being actively produced by the interactions of officials, lawyers, witnesses.

The historian shows the judge gets it wrong. The accused were falsely condemned in a new witch hunt. Reading the book more than fifteen years after its publication, I can’t shake a feeling of powerlessness at the indignation of the intellectual. Sofri and his comrades languish in jail, the former is gravely ill. Ginzburg in all his brilliance cannot save the world.