Human minds are hard to read, and the minds of the Swedish Academy members particularly so. Still, most biographers of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) agree that the writer’s early support for the dictatorship of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, voiced several times during the 1970s, effectively killed Borges’ strong candidacy for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the one prize he was always eager to win.
This fact is key in discussions of Borges’ stance on politics and war, which tend to focus on the politics and the war he knew during most of his life: the Cold War, and the myriad dirty wars that Latin America suffered during the era, sparing no single country and eventually hitting Borges’ own Argentina with particular viciousness.
However, the pull of the murky allegiances and unfinished conflicts that developed in Argentina and the region after 1945 has left one significant part of Borges’ wartime experience – the one just prior to the Cold War – in relative darkness: this has unfairly tainted judgements of his politics, and has often provided a twisted and narrow view of the stances that the very anglophile Borges held all his life, often against appalling odds.
The fact that Borges supported the Allied cause during World War II, even as the Argentine government and much of Argentina’s cultured elite openly hoped for a German victory is well known, thanks to an anecdote that Borges frequently told, about his 1945 demotion from the position of library attendant to that of poultry inspector, due to his Allied sympathies.
In a 1963 conversation with his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares, recorded in Bioy’s diaries (published in Spanish, in several editions, from 2001), Borges explained that then-Argentine strongman Juan Perón didn’t really appoint him “inspector” but gave him a commission to do that job without any salary—a detail that perhaps makes the event less amusing, but indicates just badly Perón’s regime wanted to get rid of the Anglophile librarian.
The arguments for this demotion, and the rationale that made Borges the most consistent and fluent anti-Nazi and anti-fascist spokesman of his country, are even less well-known than the poultry anecdote itself. This is largely because Borges was then a fairly obscure writer who paid his bills by selling short articles on matters mainly literary, mainly to obscure magazines.
The most incongruous magazines of these was El Hogar, a Buenos Aires magazine devoted to household issues, targeting upper middle-class housewives, where Borges’ writings frequently appeared next to recipes for criollo cuisine, or detailed analysis of French haute couture. It’s here that Borges had made his position clear to everyone in 1937, one year before the Munich agreement gave most observers an indication of what was to come, by accusing a German publication of having launched a campaign against (all translations in this article are mine) “the Jews, the Pope, the Buddhists, the Masonry, the Theosophists, the Jesuits, communism, Martin Luther, England and the memory of Goethe.”
In December 1940, with the German armies in control of most of Europe, and the United States and the Soviet Union safely out of the war, Borges published a short essay on El Hogar, “Definition of a Germanophile,” in which he launched a heavy broadside against the local pro-Nazis and the Argentine government.
He accused them all of ignoring the likely consequences of a Nazi victory, in their urge to see the United Kingdom defeated and avenge the loss of “certain archipelago more or less Antarctic which relationship with Germany I haven’t grasped yet”–a straightforward reference to the Falkland Islands, over which the U.K. and Argentina would fight a short but intense war in 1982.
It’s hard to believe that Borges’ written opinions caused much of an uproar amid his fellow Buenos Aires literati, no matter how pro-Nazi and anti-British, when published in a magazine such as El Hogar. Perhaps it would have been interesting to conduct a poll among El Hogar’s subscribers, to gauge their reaction to Borges’ heresy against the Argentine sacred belief in the righteousness of their claim over those “more or less Antarctic” islands, a claim that has poisoned relations with the U.K. before and after the war.
But Borges was a bit more than a relatively unimportant writer even then: he was also a proven conversationalist who enjoyed the company of fellow writers, upper-class dilettantes and artists and never avoided a discussion of politics or the arts. He had his share of frustrating exchanges with British-haters and Hitler admirers during the Phoney War period, the subsequent German invasion of France and the subsequent months of uncertainty.
By December 1941, he was writing about the war in the literary monthly Sur, a more prestigious outlet than El Hogar:
“The notion of a German conspiracy to conquer and oppress every country in the world is – I hurry to confess – inescapably banal (…) Le vrai peut quelque fois n’etre pas vraisemblable (in French in the original); what is incredible, true, beyond any argument, is that the Third Reich looks for universal empire, the conquest of the world. I won’t enumerate the countries that they have attacked already and plundered; I don’t wish this page to be infinite. Yesterday, Germanophiles swore that the infamous Hitler didn’t even wish to attack this continent (the Americas); now they justify and sing the praises of his newest hostility. They have applauded the invasion of Norway and Greece, of the Soviet Republics and Holland; I don’t know what joys they will concoct for the day when the fire come to our cities and coasts.”
Continued criticism of the Axis, Germany and their supporters was accompanied in Borges’ wartime writings with frequent expressions of support and love for the U.K., and England in particular. Like many an Anglophile, Borges was not able to avoid the Hitler-Napoleon analogy; he notably deployed it in a 1945 request (in Sur) for resolve against the ‘little Napoleons’ or future eras:
“I think of England as one thinks of somebody beloved, something individual that can’t be replaced. It’s capable of guilty indecisions, atrocious slowness – it tolerates Franco, it tolerates Franco’s branches – but it’s also capable of rectification and contrition, of fighting again – when the shadow of a sword falls over the world – the cyclical battle of Waterloo.”
In his mind, few countries and few peoples could be matched with the English, when measured by their contributions to human culture and civilization. One of those countries was Switzerland. Another one was Israel, broadly understood in his view as the motherland of all Jews, including those in the diaspora.
Anti-semitic Nazi policies were one among many reasons why Borges loathed the Nazi regime, and the fate of the Jews was always a strong factor on his mind and his writings. He certainly didn’t enjoy the indiscriminate German attacks on civilian targets in London either, and twice–in different articles–used the expression “satisfactory burning of London” to define the reason behind pro-German joy in Argentina. When dealing with allegedly pro-Germans in Argentine, he had this to say in his December 1940 article in El Hogar:
“Germanophiles are not friends of Germany. This is not a false statement, not even an exaggeration. I’ve been naive enough to engage in conversation with many Argentine Germanophiles; I’ve tried to talk about Germany and that which is indestructible about Germany; I’ve cited Holderlin, Luther, Schopenhauer (sic) and Leibniz; I’ve seen that the Germanophile knows next to nothing about such names (…) It would appear that the Germanophile is actually an Anglophobe. He perfectly ignores Germany, but will force himself to be enthusiastic about any country that fights England.”
On the same vein and the same article, Borges had little patience with explanations of gross crimes based on ‘root causes.’In a description of a typical conversation with a ‘root cause’ Germanophile, Borges said:
“Invariably, my interlocutor starts by condemning the payment of Versailles (reparations after World War I), forced on Germany in 1919. Invariably, I’ve supported that damning verdict with a text of Wells or Bernard Shaw, who denounced that merciless document in the hour of victory. The Germanophile has never rejected that text. He has claimed that a victor must avoid oppression and revenge. He has claimed that it’s only natural that Germany would wish to dispose of such an insult. I’ve shared his view. Afterwards, just then, the unexplainable has happened. My prodigious interlocutor has reasoned that the old injustice suffered by Germany gives it the authority to destroy in 1940 not only England and France – and why not Italy? – but also Denmark, Holland, Norway: free of any guilt in this injustice. In 1919, Germany was mistreated by its enemies: that all-powerful reason allows it to burn, smash, conquer every nation in Europe and maybe the world… The reasoning is monstrous, as anyone can see (…) I whisper that I will reluctantly accept to pass the morals of Jesus to those of Zarathustra and the Black Ant, but that our rapid conversion will not allow us to feel any pity for the injustice suffered in 1919 by Germany. In that date that he won’t forget, England and France were strong; there’s no other law than the will of the strong; thus, those insulted nations acted very properly in their wish to try and destroy Germany, and we can criticize nothing but their indecision (and even their guilty mercy) in the execution of such plan.”
So, perhaps, many will wonder, does this all mean that Borges would have been a cheer-leader for the sputtering War on Terror, of the kind who would be delighted to be invited to tour the Guantánamo facilities? The answer is obviously tentative, but I imagine that Borges would be skeptical of any enthusiasm for exported democracy.
A good example of this position may be seen in a 1945 article in Sur, in which he pitched the British case against totalitarianism with a spin that appears to contradict assumptions over the role of major powers in the world, saying of England: “I’ll only say that it’s the only country that it’s not infatuated with itself, which doesn’t believe itself to be Utopia or Paradise.”
Later on, Borges was a frequent visitor and admirer of the United States, and his oft-stated doubts over the character of the country (which he found perhaps insufficiently Anglophile) were never as strong as his distaste for its then-enemies.
At the same time, he also managed to remain an admirer of many things German during the ordeal, while rejecting the kind of false association that leads some Muslim converts to join the likes of the Islamic State; in his December 1940 article in El Hogar, Borges built up on his observation over the lack of real German affinities on most pro-Nazis, pencilling this portrait of Argentine Hitlers, which one could apply to modern-day Holy War enthusiasts:
“I always discover that my opponent idolizes Hitler, not despite the fire-bombs and the shocking invasions, the machine guns, the denunciations and perjuries, but because of these habits and these instruments. He’s overjoyed by that which is evil, atrocious (…) It’s not impossible that Hitler has some justification; I know that Germanophiles have none.”