Review – Federico Finchelstein. Fascismo, liturgia e imaginario: El mito del general Uriburu y la Argentina nacionalista. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002.

“La historia del mito de Uriburu es la historia de un fracaso. Los nacionalistas no fracasaron en su propósito de que la figura de Uriburu se convirtiese en su mito fundador sino que fracasaron en conseguir que esa identidad colectiva progresivamente aceptada por todos pudiera expresar la realidad de un movimiento nacionalista unificado.”

(“The story of the myth of Uriburu is the story of a failure. The nationalists did not fail in their aim to set up the image of Uriburu as a foundational myth; their failure lay in their inability to translate that collective identity, gradually acknowledged by all, into a unified nationalist movement.”)

Federico Finchelstein

In Fascismo, liturgia e imaginario, Federico Finchelstein argues that the many and diverse nationalist groups in Argentina in the 1930s (and beyond) were linked less by a formal and universal ideology than by a shared repertory of political and cultural practices and symbols, foremost among which was veneration of General José Félix Uriburu, whose afterlife proved of far more consequence than his actual life, and the September Revolution of 1930, which he led. This is, according to the author, the story of a failure: beyond Uriburu’s basic failure to turn his revolution into a viable political program, the various nationalist organizations in 1930s Argentina failed to coalesce around an established dogma, a situation which persisted throughout the 20th century. Nevertheless, the Uriburu myth, foundational to Argentine nationalist thought and practice, provided the theoretical underpinnings of the political pandemonium that defined the next half-century, culminating in the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (Process of National Reorganization), which held violent sway in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

General José Félix Uriburu led the coup that toppled Hipólito Yrigoyen on September 6, 1930, and instituted Argentina’s first 20th-century dictatorship. Two years later, Uriburu was dead, succeeded by Agustín P. Justo, and the nationalists who had followed him into rebellion were left “political orphans.” From its brief moment of officialdom, Argentine nationalism receded once again into the ocean of Argentine social and political theory. Now though, thanks to Uriburu’s brief moment of glory, they had tasted power (and blood), and they were no longer willing to remain mere proponents of disembodied doctrine. The nationalist press, which had preceded and supported the 1930 coup, would thereafter be complemented by nationalist action, defined by a liturgical politics that created an inextricable link between the Catholic church and the nationalist movement, sacralizing the political violence central to the movement and firing the Argentine nationalist imagination with assurances of political resurgence to come.

Observers in the 1930s, especially after the death of General Uriburu, were divided on the question of historiographical integrity. On the one hand, nationalist groups, encouraged by the success–although brief–of the “revolution,” saw in its imposition an inflection point comparable to the victories of San Martín at San Lorenzo and Justo José de Urquiza at Caseros, two key moments in the Argentine march toward freedom and independence. Two years after the fact, they already had entered the September Revolution into the annals of heroism and projected that perception onto future generations of historians. Meanwhile, those on the opposite side(s) of the aisle insisted that the moment was still too fresh in the collective memory, too recent to begin making such historical judgments, let alone indulging in the logical leap into the minds of scholars to come. However, this idealized vision of what amounted to a coup d’état served to legitimize the genre; to, the nationalists it had not been an attack on the democratic processes of a free people, but a blow struck against the tyranny of the masses in the name of Argentine national honor. As such, it paved the way for repeated use of the military option throughout the 20th century.

Linked to the perceived heroism of the moment is the perceived heroism of those who participated in its realization. Finchelstein understands the Uriburu myth as an extended exercise in projection: the violence that characterized Argentine nationalist action after the end of Uriburu’s administration was modeled intentionally on the violence that accompanied its establishment. The “martyrs of September,” if somewhat lacking in definition in terms of pedigree or merit–as demonstrated by the story of the author’s great-grandfather in the preface–served as exemplars of honor and patriotism, as well as symbols of Uriburu’s own virility and dedication, to the men who took part both in the systematic torture of political opponents–yet another persistent 20th-century practice debuted by the general’s followers–and in the street warfare between nationalist gangs and supposed communist or socialist groups. As the author notes, “death in action and in the leader’s name amplified the symbolic dimensions of the [Uriburu] myth to the highest degree” (93; my translation). In essence, this sacralization of violence created an army of believers prepared to suffer, but more significantly to do, anything in the name of Uriburu and the nationalist cause. Violence was thus rendered “beautiful and sublime,” the quintessentially ethical response in the face of anti-Argentine aggression.

Veneration of the leader and martyrs of the September Revolution was objectified through a dual process of spatial representation–the renaming of cities, streets, and highways in honor of General Uriburu and September 6–and sacralization of those spaces through ritual and performance. Finchelstein elsewhere refers to the “vernacular” Argentine nationalism as “clérico-fascista” [clerical-fascist], referring to the strong identification of the nationalist movement with the Catholic church, and vice versa (Finchelstein, La Argentina fascista, 2008). The second chapter of Fascismo, liturgia e imaginario is dedicated to an extended analysis of the formally religious ceremony underpinning the formation and growth of the Uriburu myth, such as the widespread celebration of Masses in his name. In the fifth chapter, the author explores the civil religion that grew up around the general’s memory. There was a distinct messianic element to this formulation: the gatherings and marches offered purification, a rededication to the nationalist cause and a washing away of the social contaminants picked up from contact with non-believers; the streets and highways became a sort of secular “Way of the Cross,” to be traveled on the special days associated with the general, in triumph and in death, both of which became symbols of sacrifice and righteousness to his followers.

All of this, insists Finchelstein, was by way of objectifying the postulates of the Uriburu myth, of turning theory into experience, thereby anchoring it in reality in a way that the mere spoken or written word could not. Museum exhibits, housing artifacts associated with General Uriburu, served to historicize (or in some regards, to de-historicize) the man and his place in the Argentine story. They exalted his past, reified his influence in the present, and promised his followers a place in the future. His tomb in La Recoleta cemetery and the monument to the “martyrs” erected outside the cemetery gates offered places of embodied collective memory: to gather there was to reaffirm one’s stance vis-à-vis Uriburu and his imagined political program, and against everyone else. Given the fractured nature of the nationalist movement in the 1930s, these moments of joint veneration were essential to its long-term survival.

Nationalist civil religion in the 1930s had its icons as well as its shrines; according to the author, the dead general’s image was everywhere, his portrait presiding over official gatherings and private dinner tables across the nation. His voice was still heard, as recordings of his speeches in September 1930 were pressed and mailed to the faithful–and the not so faithful–as a reminder of those fateful days and their implications for present and future behaviors of Uriburu’s followers. Even his gestures and his posture were studied and imitated–although Finchelstein points out that these memories were often more idealized than real–in an effort to reproduce the leader’s supposed strength and resolve. On that note, there is an odd contradiction between admiration of the man’s “archetypical masculinity” and the dewy romanticism with which some of his male followers recalled his “humid and tender eyes,” capable of transmitting either kindness or fiery darts, depending on the situation; the latter carries almost erotic undertones, and expresses the sexual element in the nationalist appreciation of the myth–the virility in the masculinity, which casts in another light completely the symbolic stature of Uriburu’s sword, which becomes a representation at once martial and phallic, the sign of a “real man.”

The 1930s were, in the author’s eyes, the key moment in the history of Argentine nationalism. It was during this time that nationalist thought became radicalized, both encouraged by the fleeting political success of Uriburu the man and spurred to further action by the persistence of Uriburu the myth. Their mythical backstory, however, proved itself a double-edged sword: on one hand, its shared nature distracted from the absence of cohesion within and between the multitude of nationalist organizations that sprang up during the years following the general’s death; on the other, its single-minded devotion to a dead leader prevented the emergence of new leadership among the living. Instead of drawing the different groups together under one new banner, it ultimately effectively guaranteed its ongoing acephalous state.

To Finchelstein, this failure to flourish is how Argentine nationalism, ironically, found its teeth. Since they could not pull together as a self-sufficient political movement, the nationalists began to seek alliances that would advance their cause, ultimately turning to the “Church-Armed Forces binomial” as the most viable option. The course of the Argentine 20th century hinges on this fact: Uriburu, who was both a committed Catholic and a dedicated soldier, provided a point of contact between the ecclesiastical-military entente on the one hand, and the nationalists as representatives of Uriburu–whom they considered the ultimate champion of both–on the other. From here, the die was cast: while the Uriburu myth as a foundational conception of nationalist identity began to die out toward the end of the 1930s, as a linchpin it persisted–perhaps still persists–the violence it inspired threading its way forward through time until the street wars of the 1930s morphed into the systematic, Church-sponsored political repression of the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional of the late ’70s-early ’80s.

©2021 – Vance Woods