The passions stirred by the commemoration and official memorialisation of the Spanish Civil War even today are a reminder of the enduring principle of solidarity
The Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed eighty years ago, on 14 April, 1931, after the monarchy’s supporters lost the elections against the republicans. The Spanish population greeted the proclamation of the republic with serious hopes: not only the lower classes, who expected an improvement in their lives, but also the bourgeoisie. All expected that the Republic would lead Spain into the 20th century, since the Spanish Republic was first and foremost an attempt at modernisation. It extended political and civil rights to those hitherto deprived of them, which meant the increasing of the rights of the working classes, the introduction of public education, and the emancipation of women.
Unfortunately, the Republic had only a short time to carry out these tasks. As is well known, only five years later, in1936, the military rebellion of General Franco pushed Spain into a three-year long bloody civil war, after their coup d’état and hopes for a quick grab of power were foiled. Their victory in 1939 resulted in Franco’s thirty-six-year long dictatorship. The legacy of these tumultuous years is evident today.
The Second Spanish Republic was not born under a friendly star: its international environment was shaped by the 1929 economic crisis and its consequences, as well as by the European advance of the extreme right. Domestically the government, composed mainly of liberal and centre-left parties came into conflict with the most powerful groups of Spanish society. Confrontation was inevitable with three such groups, which were also the strongest supporters of the monarchy: the big landowners, the Catholic Church and the army. The secular policy of the Republic, based on the separation of church and state, the introduction of laic education, of civil marriage and divorce, deprived the church of its privileges in social organisation, education and culture. Moreover, while these groups, together with the monarchists and the newly formed extreme right parties such as the Falange, constituted the Republic’s right-wing opponents, the government also had to contend with those left-wing republicans which demanded more radical reforms: the various workers’ parties, trade unions, especially the anarchists which were particularly strong in Spain, the socialists, and the not yet very numerous communists. However, the government was able to handle – or as the participants called it, ‘brutally repress’ – these groups or their actions.
The general impression that the Spanish Republic was primarily a left-wing system is not far from reality, if we consider that its supporters belonged to the political centre or centre-left and the radical left also supported this form of government. On 14 April, 1931, for the first time oligarchy was replaced with the moderate centre-left. The winner of the elections in February 1936, the Popular Front, was also based on a wide coalition of centre-left and left-wing political parties and trade unions. This coalition was formed because the right-wing government that came to power in 1934 started to reverse the previous reforms, and those supporting the reforms concluded that they could only win together. Such a coalition was obviously inspired by the French example (Léon Blum’s government) as well as by fear of the advance of fascism, but it also shows that during its short life the Spanish Republic functioned as a democratic parliamentary system based on competitive elections and political alliances. And while the Popular Front government enjoyed the support of numerous workers’ parties and trade unions, at this time there was no workers’ party in the government. This blatantly belies the rebels’ propaganda that their coup d’état attempt intended to prevent a revolution and a communist takeover. In fact, it was the coup d’état itself, the following chaos and the temporary collapse of the government that facilitated the momentary success of revolutionary movements (the formation of a kind of “dual power”) as well as the strengthening of the Communist party.
Military coups and dictators appointed by kings had a tradition in Spain, and Franco and his supporters hoped for a similarly quick takeover when they rebelled on 16 July, 1936. This time, however, they faced the opposition of a part of the army and of the guardia civil, as well as the unorganized, but determined, resistance of the population, especially of the organized workers. The coup attempt thus turned into a long and bloody civil war, and what started as a Spanish affair soon acquired international dimensions.
Eighty years later, it is still imperative to mention the shameful behaviour of western democracies during the Spanish Civil War which, under the veil of “non-intervention”, refused all assistance to the republican government that any legitimate government has a right to claim, including the transfer of weapons bought by the government. At the same time, they turned a blind eye to the material and military support offered to Franco and his rebels by Germany and Italy. Only the USSR supported the Spanish Republic, extracting a high price for its help.
Yet in marked contrast with the conduct of their governments, thousands of volunteers flooded Spain from numerous countries to help the Republic’s fight in the International Brigades. Their role was not simply symbolic, limited to the expression of solidarity, but a real and tangible military contribution. This is evident in the three-year long resistance of Madrid, as well as the last desperate republican counter-attack at the Ebro river. Despite all this, the People’s Army, the workers’ militias and the International Brigades could only postpone, but not avoid defeat. On 1 April, 1939 Franco announced his victory and started his thirty-six-year long rule.
Vengeance against republicans was cruel and brutal. Everyone who supported the Republic, or whose sympathy for the republican cause could be assumed based on social status was made a target. Those who managed to cross into France did not generally fare much better: the anonymous refugees, the rank and file soldiers of the People’s Army and of antifascist parties were herded into concentration camps in the south. Later many of them participated in the French resistance, and if captured, ended up in German concentration camps. In vain they hoped that following Germany’s defeat the Allies would also rid Spain of Franco: the western powers did not desire another armed conflict with a non-belligerent party, and as the Cold War developed, in exchange for Franco’s anti-communist stance and his willingness to accommodate American military bases on Spanish territory the United States was ready to ignore the dictatorial nature of his rule.
Even if the international community behaved shamefully during the war, and pretended not to notice what was going on in Spain under Franco’s rule the memory of the Republic and the civil war did not fade amongst artists and intellectuals. For many the Spanish Republic’s fight against fascism signified the ‘last great cause’, as demonstrated by a great number of masterpieces, of which Picasso’s Guernica, Miro’s paintings and Hemingway’s writings are only the best known examples.
But while the civil war became the lyrical conscience of the European left, it was not only Franco’s official Spain dominated by the narrative of a ‘glorious crusade’, but the democratic transition that followed the dictator’s death and is still regarded as an exemplary route to democracy, that was also based on the ‘pact of forgetting’. Legally it took shape in the amnesty law, while socially it was expressed through the silence surrounding the civil war, the repression and the atrocities of the dictatorship.
Republican memory was liberated and officially sanctioned only at the 70th anniversary of the war. José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s socialist government, which came to power in 2004, played a significant role in carving out the historical memory of the Second Republic, its supporters and their heritage. It is expressed in the law quoted at the start of this piece, or in the strongly debated legislation about historical memory (Ley de la Memoria Histórica), which ordered the removal of Francoist memorials and monuments, and assists the identification and reburial of republican dead, the honouring of their memory. Yet the difficulties faced by social movements organised to discover and open mass graves and honour the memory of the victims, or the complications surrounding Judge Baltasar Garzón who took up and assisted their cause, testify to the passions stirred by the war even today. While the conflicts created by the law demonstrate that the memory of the civil war and dictatorship can still divide Spanish society, the reforms implemented during the transition and in the recent past follow the best traditions of the Republic, this time hopefully permanently.
In the light of all this the sometimes tense relations between Spain and the Vatican is unsurprising and was not eased by the beatification of priests killed by republicans in the war. This gives the impression that the Spanish Catholic church, which has not yet apologized for supporting Franco’s rebellion and dictatorship, would prefer to continue to solely remember the victims on Franco’s side, forgetting the bloody crimes committed by Franco and his supporters against republicans, not only during the war, but also in the repression that followed. All this happened with the enthusiastic assistance of the church, while the Republican victims could not even be commemorated. The need to remove Francoist memorials is also a sensitive issue for the church, as commemorative plaques are visible on numerous church walls, listing the names of those who fell “for God and Spain” - that is, in the fight against the Republic.
At the same time, the values of the Spanish Republic are also the values of today’s Europe. In the 2006 book L’homme européen Jorge Semprun draws attention to the constitution of the Second Republic as a potential inspiration for Europe, and, we might add, to any contemporary state committed to freedom, progress and solidarity. Eighty years on, it is fitting to remember this legacy of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.
Get our weekly email