For anyone of my generation, the 11th of September is always a sad anniversary. And this year, in France at least, lots of people are commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the overthrow of the democratic government of Salvador Allende by the Chilean Army, on 11 September 1973.
It was hardly the first brutal military coup, nor would it be the last. But there was always something gratuitously nasty and vicious about the whole episode, as though Pinochet and his foreign backers had actually set out to be knowingly provocative and consciously evil, realising that they could get away with everything and anything. There are the faded black and white images of the coup; thousands murdered or disappeared, thousands more imprisoned and tortured, exiles hunted down and killed, all carried out by a military whose uniforms (and many of whose practices) were inspired by the Third Reich. There was the gratuitous, sadistic violence; the story of the poet and singer Victor Jara, whose hands were smashed before he was murdered, as guards sneeringly demanded that he play his guitar. All to crush a peaceful political movement whose leaders believed in democracy (Allende had appointed Pinochet to his post). There was the indifference of the United States to even trying to hide the role it had played (Mr Kissinger, it is believed, still dines out on witty anecdotes from the episode). There was the smirking self-congratulation of the right-wing media (one of the Economist‘s unfinest unfinest hours). And above all there was the defence of the regime, throughout the grim 1970s and 1980s by western governments, as a valued friend and good ally in the Global War on Communism. It sets your teeth on edge, even now.,
But perhaps the real importance of 11 September 1973 is that it was the end of the widespread belief of the 1960s that real social and economic change could be achieved by peaceful means through the ballot box. The message of the coup, and one reason, perhaps, for its needless, sadistic brutality, was the message from Power that Enough is Enough. The changes since 1945 had gone on quite long enough thank you, and now it was time to start putting things in order, and, indeed, into reverse. From that moment on, it became much more difficult to believe that peace and love would always win in the end. For some years now, it has been impossible. Those in search of change turned their backs on the traditions of 1960s, and took up violence instead, not just in Latin America, but in Europe and the Middle East as well. You can reproach the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Group for many things, but not for misunderstanding the lesson of 11 September 1973.