As an historian, journalist, and filmmaker, Osvaldo Bayer considers himself a ‘chronicler with opinions’.footnote1 Such a perspective was decidedly out of fashion when he returned in 1983, at the age of 56, to newly democratic Argentina after years of forced exile in Germany. Despite having several books of national acclaim to his credit, and decades of experience as a journalist between the 1950s and early 1970s, he was spurned by the mainstream newspapers. Meanwhile, the discipline of History, as practiced in his country of birth, had likewise been gutted of progressive political commitment. Once a craft open to militants, a studied air of academic neutrality was now all-pervasive. For a time unemployable, Bayer eventually found a new home in Página/12, the dissident left-wing newspaper established in 1987 by the most important friend in his life, Osvaldo Soriano, a writer and journalist who had also fled to Germany during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976–83)—in which a virulently anti-Communist dictatorship, run by a military junta, was responsible for the death and disappearance of approximately 30,000 trade union and human rights activists, left-wing partisans, and a range of other, unlucky civilians. With a steady platform over the next quarter century in Página/12, Bayer resumed his position among the most important Argentine public intellectuals of the twentieth century.
One way to begin to understand his trajectory as a critical journalist and historian is to set it alongside that of his Latin American contemporaries. Born in the Argentine province of Santa Fe on 18 February 1927, Bayer shares a birth year with Gabriel García Márquez and Rodolfo Walsh. Unlike Bayer, who as a child followed with his father the intricacies of the Spanish Civil War through leftist Argentine newspapers, García Márquez came relatively late to politics, and was most instinctively a novelist. The closest coordinate to Bayer’s journalism in the oeuvre of García Márquez might be News of a Kidnapping, a forensic exploration of Pablo Escobar’s desperate attempt to avert his extradition to the United States through the taking of hostages. But even here, the political context is underplayed compared to Bayer’s work. Still, in the midst of the Cold War, certain parallels in the political instincts of the two men were real enough. Famously, García Márquez formed an intimate friendship with Fidel Castro and vocally lent his prestige to the defence of the Cuban Revolution. Bayer, too, has long admired the social achievements of the revolution, and saw in Che Guevara a romantic, if flawed commitment to human emancipation.
In Osvaldo Bayer Íntimo, a collection of interviews, the work of Rodolfo Walsh is repeatedly singled out as a model of journalistic integrity. ‘What style, what profundity, what a manner of investigation,’ says Bayer. Walsh was ‘without doubt, the best of them all’. Walsh’s influential Operación Masacre (1957) offers an investigative critique of the illegal state execution of Perón’s supporters following a failed attempt to reinstate their leader in 1956. Moving to revolutionary Cuba in 1960, Walsh established, together with Jorge Maretti, the leftist Latin American press agency Prensa Latina. In the early 1970s, he returned to Argentina and joined the urban armed struggle, becoming a leading figure in the Montoneros, a left-wing Peronist guerrilla movement. Having already lost his daughter at the hands of the military regime, Walsh was killed by special forces in 1977—but not before he penned, in the same year, his famous Carta abierta de un escritor a la junta militar [Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta]. Walsh’s Carta abierta is, for Bayer, ‘the most brilliant document that has been written on the dictatorship. It has within it all of his talent, his profundity, his courage, his civic bravery.’ The open letter alone contains all of the ‘truth, the pain, and the indignation’ of that epoch; Walsh will forever be the ‘Borges of the left’.
The writings of Eduardo Galeano, 14 years Bayer’s junior, offer a closer echo of Bayer’s literary style, historical sweep, and political inclination than anything in the work of Márquez or Walsh, although Galeano is never mentioned, even in passing, in Osvaldo Bayer Íntimo. Like Bayer, Galeano was forced into European exile when his native Uruguay, alongside Argentina, shifted to authoritarian rule in the dark days of the 1970s. Galeano’s Las venas abiertas de América Latina (1971), as well as his trilogy, Memoria del Fuego (1986), seek to restore the forgotten political struggles of the marginalized to collective memory, and to explain their tactics and strategies for liberation in light of the military and economic violence that rained down on them from on high. Coincidences in the predilections of the two authors are also evident outside of narrowly focused political reportage and sweeping histories from below—not least, perhaps, in both men’s life-long fanaticism for football, which found literary expression in Galeano’s international history of the sport, El fútbol a sol y sombra [Football in Sun and Shade] (2006), and Bayer’s Fútbol Argentino (1990). García Márquez, Walsh, Galeano and Bayer are constitutive parts of a broader twentieth-century political and literary culture in Latin America which repeatedly produced such figures—what Jean Franco calls the clashing universals of the avant-garde and the political vanguard in the region’s Cold War.
Bayer’s earliest intellectual and political formation can be traced to the predominantly German, middle-class neighbourhood of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, where he was raised, and where he has lived again—in the same, refurbished, family home—since his return from exile. His own family were actually Tyrolean Austrians, changing their name from Payr to Bayer (‘like the aspirin’) upon arrival to Argentina. He quips at one point that by the early 1940s the neighbourhood was 80 per cent Nazi, 15 per cent social democratic, four per cent Bavarian Catholic, and the remainder crazy. He belonged, with his father, to the latter section. His father was a seemingly unaligned libertarian socialist of sorts, to whom Bayer repeatedly attributes his earliest introduction to the ideas of revolutionary freedom. His mother, a devout Catholic, was much more conservative, and features only sparingly in these recollections.
It was his father who brought home the daily newspaper Crítica, which covered the Spanish Civil War from an angle sympathetic to the Republican side. The extent to which this experience of the war from a distance made an impact on Bayer is best reflected in his cyclical return in conversation to General Franco, unfailingly referred to as the ‘assassin of poets’: fusilador de poetas. Richard Turath, whose house the family visited regularly, was one of the neighbourhood crazies. Turath had been an anarchist participant in the short-lived Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Munich during the abortive German Revolution of 1918–19. The revolution’s defeat forced him to flee to Argentina. ‘His stories continue to resonate in my mind,’ Bayer tells Julio Ferrer, his interviewer. ‘He made me realize the nobility of those fighters.’ A voracious reader in childhood, Bayer wound his way through the great Russian novels—Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, most enthusiastically. The rest of his time was spent on the street playing football.
Bayer’s formal university education included a year studying medicine at the University of Buenos Aires, after which he shifted gears to philosophy. But by this time, Peronism had already gripped the country’s institutions, and the university’s philosophy department was run by the movement’s right wing. Bayer was being taught Saint Thomas Aquinas, which seemed a light meal at the time, set against his hunger for Kant, Hegel and Marx. The year was 1951. He decided to move to Germany to study. In the post-war Federal Republic, surviving for a time on little more than two pancakes a day, Bayer joined the Socialist Students’ League. This milieu, with its significant libertarian tendencies, introduced Bayer to the writings of Bakunin and Kropotkin. It was also here that he made his first forays into journalism, writing film criticism for the German daily Die Welt, as well as regular commentary on the German conjuncture for the Argentine magazine Continente. In the same period, Bayer met his life partner, Marlies Joos, who was born in Buenos Aires to German parents. Together they would have four children: Udo, an architect; Christian, a shipbuilding engineer; Stefan, a journalist; and Ana, at first a ballerina, later a painter, as well as an actor in children’s theatre.