Farewell to Franco?

"Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense." -- attributed to Mark Twain

The Socialist government's 2005 proposal of a "Law of Historical Memory" has been a sharp poke in the myths of both sides in Spain's great Civil War of 1936-39. This is because the war and its aftermath are remembered in diametrically opposite ways by Right and Left, and because each has huge emotional and even economic investments in its version.

It's easy to see why the emotions are so involved; it's impossible to remain indifferent after looking at the photographs of combat, destruction and suffering, or the posters of the Republic (which had the best artists) or of its enemies the Nationals, or listening to radio recordings (hysterical sermons, tense bulletins, impassioned speeches) or the marches or folk songs given new, revolutionary or nationalist lyrics ("Ay, Manuela", "Los cuatro muleros/generales", etc.).

For the Falangists of the 30s and 40s and their contemporary defenders, the war against the Republic was a Crusade that saved Christian Spain from Godless Communism, and those who opposed it deserved whatever punishment they suffered. All their guys were heroes, all their fallen "martyrs."

For defenders and sympathizers of the Republic, the heroes and heroines were all on their side, defending democratic legality with the support of other heroes from all over the world in the International Brigades. Together they expanded, liberalized and de-ideologized education, extended medical service to those who had never had it, opened the vote and elective office to women, empowered trade unions and civic associations in an intense and active democracy, and made possible a great cultural flowering in drama, poetry and all the other arts. In this view, the Franco dictatorship was inhumane and antihuman, and any resistance, whether by words or bombs, was more than justified.

The two great myths were constructed to solace the survivors and descendants on both sides, ways to "make sense" of real events that were complicated and contradictory. The truth, as usual, makes less "sense": heroes viewed from another angle -- or at another moment in their history -- become monsters, and glittering ideals turn into caricatures of themselves. The Falangist Nationalists killed many more Spaniards than their foes, and did so with the aid of German Nazi and Italian Fascist troops and arms and Muslim Moorish infantry, making their "nationalism" suspect. Also, their denial of basic civil freedoms and even of food to the needy makes their version of Christianity hard to defend. But the Left also committed outrages, including the massacring of prisoners during the Falangist siege of Madrid (far fewer than the other side, but still indefensible), and arrests and killings by one leftist faction against another -- not everyone defending the Republic was a Republican, that is, a true believer in the institutions of a democratic republic.

Until Franco's death in 1976, Republican exiles in Mexico, Russia and other countries and other sympathizers constructed their memorials mainly out of words, building a library of novels, stories, plays and tracts. Those supporters of the Republic who had remained in Spain and survived hunger, imprisonment of close relatives and other humiliations, including many widows, were so traumatized that they tended to keep their memories to themselves, too ashamed or frightened to tell their grandchildren what they had seen and suffered.

The Falangist myth was much more solidly constructed. Its "historical memory" was implanted in Spain by school texts, obligatory hymn-singing in class, the renaming of streets for Falangist generals, heroic statues of Franco, and, especially, the enormous monument outside Madrid known as the "Valle de los Caídos" ("Valley of the Fallen"), constructed by Franco's prisoners of war, and dedicated to "...perpetuating the memory of the fallen of our glorious Crusade," according to the 1940 decree of its founding. And there lie the tombs of Generalísimo Francisco Franco and the founder of the Falange (Franco's fascist party), José Antonio Primo de Rivera (1903-1936), attracting commemorative ceremonies of present-day falangistas, complete with the stiff-armed salute.

Then, after the sweeping Socialist Party electoral victory in in 1982, some town governments began to commemorate Republican and other leftist heroes by putting their names on a few streets and parks. And some of the grandchildren began digging for information in archives of the dictatorship, struggling for access with curators who opened them only reluctantly and partially, and only to those who could demonstrate a personal connection to the papers sought. And with the aid of elderly peasants who now felt empowered to speak, they also began digging into the ground, uncovering unmarked mass graves of school teachers, trade-union members, town officials of the Republican period, poets and others -- even priests, killed by the Falangists for feeding or hiding suspected Republicans.

Even today the Right, including the Catholic hierarchy, wants only its own martyrs remembered, conveniently forgetting those priests slaughtered by Franco's people. And sectors of the Left will not be satisfied by anything less than thorough condemnation of the Falangist mutiny and dictatorship it established, the annulment of all summary trials that condemned opponents of Franco to prison or death, and compensation for the dictatorship's victims and their descendants -- pensions and indemnities that will run into millions of euros.

So it was an important and rather surprising achievement this week when the Socialists and other left parties gained the support of even the opposition Popular Party (which includes Franco's political heirs and other rightists) for parliament to approve legislation to open all the archives to any researcher (as in other European countries), increase indemnizations to Republican veterans and their heirs, permit the children and grandchildren of exiles to opt for Spanish nationality (which should benefit many in Latin America), and -- of greatest symbolic importance -- to redefine the Valle de los Caídos as "a memorial to all the fallen in the Civil War and to those who suffered repression" in the following years. The place will need some serious design reforms. A hammer-and-sickle beside the huge cross may be too much to ask, and a Socialist Party fist with a rose could hardly compete with either of those images. Or better yet: Just pull down the cross -- which in Spain has become a partisan banner -- and set up a representation of Spain's now-democratic constitution.

Photo, top: A crane removes the statue of Francisco Franco from the main entry to the General Military Academy of Zaragoza- EFE, from El País, 24/08/2006.

Photo, side: El Valle de los Caídos, from Falange web forum


Anonymous said...

Excellent Essay!

Anonymous said...

Since this is a about literature and society let me remind us the spanish civil war is very well served in literature. To English reading readers probably the best known is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a pretty good description of guerilla military action from the viewpoint of one participant in Hemingway's usual minimal, macho style. Another account with lots of detailed action of many kinds, is André Malraux’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/André_Malraux) L’espoir (Called Man’s Hope in English). It gives a moving account the internecine strife among the republicans, particularly between the CP and other elements. Malraux was a pilot for the republicans and there is a lot of stuff about air warfare of the time, although a pilot friend of mine read it recently and was skeptical of its verisimilitude in places. George Orwell gives a lucid, journalist account in Homage to Catalonia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homage_to_Catalonia). My current favorite is Antonio Muñoz Molina’s recent novel Sepharad (http://www.ralphmag.org/CR/sepharad.html). Like Geoff’s essay it deals with the current repercussions in Spanish society and by extension all of the suffering in Europe arising from the displacements of war and of totalitarianisms. It is a reflective novel, somewhat in the manner of W. G. Sebald (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._G._Sebald), and long on dark meditation and short on overall plot.

Baltasar Lotroyo said...

Thanks for the literary reminders. I'll put Sepharad on my "to read" list. Also, before writing a future essay on Catalonia's present-day issues, internally & with what Catalan nationalists call "Spain" (meaning the rest of the country but especially Madrid), I should re-read Orwell, to how well he spotted enduring conflicts.