Andrew Graham-Yooll - 8 November 2010
Emilio Eduardo Massera, former Argentine admiral, was the most complex character of the three commanders who ruled Argentina in the 1970s in the most savage and cruel dictatorship in twentieth century Latin America. He was also the most perverse, a conspirator, blackmailer and murderer of his political captives at clandestine detention centres. He was nobody’s friend, he even sent members of his government to their death.
Marguerite Feitlowitz, a US academic who wrote A Lexicon of Terror (OUP 1998), described Massera as “the grand orator of the dictatorship… master of the majestic rhythm, learned tone, and utterly confounding, but captivating, message.” As a young man he had studied philology, and language was a life-long obsession. In one of his speeches as a member of government on “the infidelity of words to their meanings” in ideological warfare, he announced that, “the only safe words are our words,” which may sound surreal, but appeared to set the tone of his absolute intolerance of opponents.
Massera came from immigrant stock and entered the elite naval academy in 1942 to be catapulted into an upper class of Argentine business and landowners. These had always seen in the navy an ally against Peronism, ever since Juan Perón founded the party in 1945. In 1956, as a young officer, aged 31, a year after the overthrow of Perón, Massera was appointed to a lectureship at the naval college, where he returned to teach in 1971. However, his early anti-Peronism was to suffer some editing.