Between World War I and World War II, Europe underwent a shock that would forever change the way we conceive life, the social tolerance of barbarism and, shortly thereafter, our notions of the political subject. Susan Sontag noted that in the Great War of 1914-1918 most of the casualties were military, while by 1945 that trend had been reversed: the millions killed in the Second World War were, above all, civilians, with the Jewish people playing a more fatal role, although not exclusively. In the middle of both conflagrations, the Spanish Civil War marked a turning point in human conflict due to the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people, carried out by means of extremely powerful weaponry and the sophisticated aircraft of the Condor Legion, provided to General Francisco Franco by the Third Reich. Suddenly, war had passed from delimiting very clear military objectives to the mass targeting of people whose relationship with the fighting was limited to mere existence. By the time the last world war ended — the horror of both the Nazi concentration camps and the atomic bomb revealed — Europe, smeared in ruins and blood, could no longer claim to be the cradle of any civilization. The magnitude of the atrocities was simply unspeakable, to the point of leading the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to question the Enlightenment itself, just as María Zambrano and Hannah Arendt would also do in their respective exiles.
What, theoretically endowed with reason, had been capable of engendering such a tremendous monstrosity and taking the human race to the limits of the most absolute degeneration? It did not matter that in the immediately preceding decades, driven by an imperialist frenzy, the civilized continent had perpetrated massacres as merciless as those in the Congo, or the wars in Morocco, masterfully narrated by Arturo Barea. At that time on European soil, all red lines had been crossed and another world order was needed to protect the physical and emotional integrity of the inhabitants of planet Earth — at least on paper. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated over the still-warm corpses of Auschwitz, and the Geneva Conventions concerning the treatment of prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, as well as the civilian population, were significantly expanded. Before the 1950s, International Humanitarian Law had been born, applicable to every corner of the globe; the civilizational promise of not repeating another massacre of such caliber was hoisted aloft — neither against the Jewish people, whose Holocaust blinded Western souls and unleashed the purging of responsibilities in the Nuremberg Trials, nor anyone else.
Shortly afterwards, a good part of the so-called Third World would rise up against the savagery of colonialism. Firstly, in words at the Bandung Conference (1955) and later directly in arms, in favor of a liberation from the yoke of the metropolis that would result, among other processes, in the decolonization of Africa. Inspired by the ideals of human rights, the traditionally subjugated races seemed to cry out that they too were Jews being annihilated. As the 1960s unfolded, all global “natives” achieved the status of human beings, as the theorist Fredric Jameson explained: minorities, external and internal, women, the marginalized of any stripe, the non-white “Other,” all mattered; they were attributed a dignity they had lacked for centuries.
This paradigm, which arose from the ashes of the gas chambers, has strengthened in the collective imagination since then. The implementation of policies of historical memory in different countries, the creation of international tribunals and the rejection of totalitarian logics of government have endowed human rights with a legitimacy that is difficult to dispute, even though violations have continued to occur, from Pinochet’s Chile to Srebrenica. Nevertheless, war has been progressively stripped of its heroic connotations; socially, the victim has been attributed a moral authority unthinkable before fascism; and, generally, it can be said that there are very few who accept the extermination of civilians, regardless of their ethnicity or religious preference. That the streets of many cities around the world have been crowded with demonstrators demanding a ceasefire in Gaza is due to these 75 years of sentimental education of the citizenry in the values exuded by International Humanitarian Law, even without specific legal knowledge: fortunately, its corpus has turned into common sense. Despite this phenomenon, which brings together a series of shared principles, the paradigm of which I speak has been brutally vilified by the United States, and its military — not so much cultural — hegemony prevents a forceful reaction from other governments which, I am sure, viscerally repudiate every bomb that murders or mutilates a Palestinian child.
In this sense, it is worth highlighting the radical break with the current morality that the actions surrounding the so-called “War on Terror” after the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001 represented. Prestigious lawyers such as Alka Pradhan, or philosophers such as Judith Butler, have denounced the implementation of another legal framework by the American superpower that gave rise to the well-known military incursions in Iraq or Afghanistan, or to the creation of the detention center, and later torture center, at Guantanamo Bay. Journalist Karen Greenberg — one of the leading experts on the subject — detailed in her book The Least Worst Place the systematic search for what an official in the George W. Bush administration termed the “legal equivalent of outer space” to avoid any criminal responsibility for the atrocities committed there. What they found, or fabricated, was a prison where the legal guarantees of the U.S. Constitution have no validity since it is on Cuban soil; Cuba has no jurisdiction because the territory was, de facto, taken away from it, and the various United Nations resolutions do not seem to have permeated it either. Once the limbo is served, any connection with those tacit agreements that derived from the Second World War is broken, with radical impunity. Israel — we are told by the media — finds itself sponsored to commit the same strategy: instead of devising a concrete plan whose target is the terrorist group Hamas, it proceeds to the most outlandish butchery, either in the street or inside a hospital.
As in the past, there is no heart that can withstand such demolition of reason, but, unlike in times past, we are now protected by a history of repudiation of barbarity, adoption of legal and ethical codes, of informed sensibility with which to cry out loudly enough. Despite occasional non-compliance we are the heirs to human rights and the Spanish government, which also currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, must stand up to the world to prevent further bloodshed. Our history is at stake, and the memory of the millions of dead on whose bones inalienable guarantees were erected, if we want to continue calling ourselves, despite everything, civilization.