Embracing Human Rights
This dissertation shifts our understanding of 1970s human rights activism from a minimalist politics of salvation to a maximalist commitment to kindred spirits. Scholars see the 1970s as the time when the internationalist dreams of the 1960s disappeared to be supplanted by the salvation of a few over the transformation of the root causes of society's ills. By contrast, this dissertation examines West German activism on behalf of Latin Americans chaffing under military rule in the 1970s as a campaign of international political solidarity by different means. Faced with an environment hostile to transnational solidarity at home and abroad, West Germans of varying political doctrines and Christian confessions, as well as exiles from Latin America, embraced a common language of human rights as they pursued their political agendas. Its neutralist and humanitarian overtones made "human rights" discourses appealing to activists with diverging political goals. This dissertation reinterprets human rights activism as a continuation of internationalist commitments at a time when the foundations for transnational solidarity eroded. Grassroots embrace of human rights occurred during a tense state of securitization provoked by left-wing terrorism in West Germany. With the West German state increasingly unwilling to stand up for human rights on the international stage, especially for leftist victims, or accept them as refugees, grassroots solidarity activists were compelled to embrace a discourse that the state would accept. The Chilean and Argentinean cases--the most prominent instances of state-perpetrated abuses in 1970s Latin America--prompted leftists, left liberals, trade unionists, and Christians to advocate for the admission of political refugees and the imposition of economic embargoes and sanctions. Chilean and Argentinean exiles advocated for political change in their countries, but were forced to utilize human rights rhetoric to escape the stigma accorded to left-wing politics. Conservatives embraced human rights argumentation against the military regime in Chile when the wave of repression reached their political partners of the Christian Democratic Party in Chile. Lacking similar partners in Argentina, West German Christian Democracy did not demonstrate interest in conditions there. The West German government responded to grassroots advocacy with a minimalist vision for human rights protection that emphasized private negotiations on behalf of select individuals, which was abhorrent to many grassroots activists. The embrace of human rights by grassroots activists occurred in a highly contested process of political defeats and realignments. It was not a turn to a new utopia. Drawing on research in state and civil society repositories in Europe and the Americas, as well as oral interviews, this dissertation offers a window into transnational political activism between West Germany and Latin America in the 1970s. It shows how activists from the left and the right, as well as government officials, arrived at different definitions of human rights and diverging strategies for protecting them.