España: memory for the future

Fred Halliday
5 October 2006

On the streets of Barcelona on 18 July 2006 - the seventieth anniversary of the Francisco Franco coup of 1936, and the start of the Spanish civil war - all appears as if it were a normal day. The Catalans, in particular, are great commemorators of past wrongs, and committees are already convening to mark the 300th anniversary of the siege of Barcelona in 1713, today a somewhat overstated national holiday.

The Spanish in general are great demonstrators, for almost all and every cause and event, not to mention football match or, on some occasions, alcoholic extravaganza. Yet on this day, one that shaped modern Spain and inflicted so much suffering on this city, on Catalonia and on Spain, no one takes to the streets. There is not a poster, a flag, a bumper sticker, a bottle or brick thrown, to mark the day.

The Museum of the History of Catalonia hosts an exhibition of posters from the civil war. While some of the press do recall the event, and debate a new "law of memory" that will allow relatives to record the deaths of their relatives, ABC, the rightwing daily that had supported Franco during his time in power, says nothing at all. Politicians, and political parties, are in general silent. According to a series of articles in El Mundo, a third of Spaniards, and of all ages, regard the coup as justified. A similar percentage believe what is now the standard rightwing claim, that had Franco not taken power Spain would have fallen under a communist dictatorship.

Spain has not, in terms of public recognition, come to terms with the memory and places of the conflict that ended with Franco's victory in 1939. Barcelona, where tourist operators are quick to set up walking tours that follow the plot of every second-rate and plastic novel written about the city, does not commemorate the sites of the civil war.

No one sitting in the ersatz but pleasant Café Zurich on Plaza Catalunya would know that the Sfera clothing store opposite was once the Hotel Continental where George Orwell stayed; that further along the square, the pockmarks on the Telefonica building, beyond what is now the Hard Rock Café, are a result of the communist-anarchist guns battles that Orwell described in May 1937; or that the huge Bank Banesto bank on the left was once the Hotel Colon, headquarters of the Catalan Communist Party, its façade adorned with huge portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

It was from radio studios in that building that the Communist Party leader Dolores Ibárruri broadcast her famous incendiary speeches. Of the towering republican statue to the unknown soldier, erected just across the pedestrian crossing next to the Café Zurich, there is no trace.

Not just Francoism, but, more importantly, the promotion of mass tourism to Barcelona, have served to cement over the city's radical past. The second most popular tourist site in Barcelona (after the museum of Barca football club), promoted as an emblem of the city in the 1992 Olympics, is the still unfinished and towering church, the Sagrada Familia, conceived by the architect Antonio Gaudi, who died in 1926.

This monstrosity was begun by a conservative Catholic working-class organisation, the Friends of St Joseph, as a deliberate antidote to the socialist and anarchist influence in the city - hence its official name: Museu Del Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Museum of the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family). (By way of some relief, radical visitors to the small chapel on the right of the main entrance may be pleased to note the figure of an anarchist, cast as one of the three temptations of man, throwing a bomb).

By contrast to the mass visits to Sagrada Familia, a favourite above all of Chinese and Japanese visitors to the city, no guidebook on sale on the Ramblas will tell you the whereabouts of the monument to the International Brigades, the foreign volunteers who went to Spain in 1936 and 1937 to defend the republic.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

"America and Arabia after Saddam"
(May 2004)

"Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects"
(March 2005)

"An encounter with Mr X" (March 2005)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005)

"Political killing in the cold war" (August 2005)

"Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'"
(September 2005)

"A transnational umma: myth or reality?" (October 2005)

"The 'Barcelona process': ten years on" (November 2005)

"The United Nations vs the United States" (January 2006)

"Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)

"Iran vs the United States – again" (February 2006)

"Terrorism and delusion" (April 2006)

"The forward march of women halted?"
(May 2006)

"Letter from Ground Zero" (May 2006)

"Finland's moment in the sun" (June 2006)

"A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah"(July 2006)

"In time of war: reason amid rockets"
(August 2006)

"Lebanon, Israel, and the 'greater west Asian crisis'" (August 2006)

"Fidel Castro's legacy: Cuban conversations"
(August 2006)

" Warsaw’s populist twins"
(September 2006)

"The left and the jihad" (September 2006)

The trace of the past

In an extraordinary piece of back-handed recognition, this monument, a construction that seems to evoke struggle and suffering, is set far from the centre of the city, in the suburb of Carmel, half way up a mountain and on a traffic island between two busy carriageways. There is not even a plaque telling anyone when it was erected, or what the monument commemorates. The text of a famous and resonant tribute by Dolores Ibarruri, made when the brigades were finally withdrawn in 1938, is stuck on the back of an air vent.

When I asked some local men sitting on the green nearby what the statue commemorated they replied vaguely para los caidos (for the fallen). "Once a year, people come from America and play loud music", they told me, presumably in some reference to the veterans or descendants of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

During the Franco dictatorship, which lasted till his death in November 1975, 18 July was an official holiday, the day of the "national uprising", and also one of the two days in the year - the other being new year - when salary-earners received the statutory extra month's pay. But with the advent of democracy, 18 July lost any special status.

Anyone on the streets of Barcelona today, and remembering the violent events that marked the civil war here, might think it is all from a very distant past indeed - from the first shootings of "class enemies" and erection of barricades on the Ramblas after 18 July, to the communist and anarchist feudings and purging of suspected enemies of left and right in 1936-1937, described by Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia; then through the days when the anarchists burnt every church in the city except the cathedral and paraded the remains of saints and long-dead bishops along the streets, to the brutal Francoist reoccupation in January 1939 and the seemingly endless years of repression that ensued.

This apparent distance from the civil war is reinforced by the almost complete official silence on what happened in those years. There are still, in parts of Spain, statues and busts of Franco, and squares and streets that bear his name, or that of 18 July, or which commemorate the "blue division", the Spanish who went to fight with the Germans in Russia. Yet there are few places that commemorate the leaders of the republic whose legitimate state Franco overthrew, and none for the anarchist or communist leaders of the anti-fascist war.

In Barcelona, for example, next to the Arc de Triumphe built for the 1889 international fair, there is a square, with a beautiful statue and inscription, commemorating Lluís Companys I Jover, the president of the Generalitat (Catalan government) who was executed in 1940 on Montjiuch Hill, overlooking the city, after being handed back to Franco by the Vichy French. But of Juan Negrin, the moderate socialist prime minister, let alone the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, there is no trace.

The cost of silence

The contrast with other European countries that lived through fascism is striking: when the Social Democratic Party won the 1969 elections in Germany, Willy Brandt declared that this event marked the final defeat of Nazism. The victory of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Party / PSOE) in 1982 marked no such rupture. But the recognition of past struggle and past crimes is not, in any country, an easy question to resolve: nowhere in the world are the politics of memory, victimhood and reconciliation easy or straightforward.

Ireland, Germany, South Africa, Chile, Cambodia offer their own thwarted and partial resolutions. In Spain, the reasons for the long years of silence are, in one sense, self-evident.

First, there was the desire, felt on all sides, to put a terrible period, one that tore families apart and ruined the lives of millions, behind them.

Second, there was the dominance, well after Franco's death, of the official nationalist history of the war - such that it was mainly foreign (indeed, British and Irish) historians who pioneered the study of the civil war from the 1960s onwards - Hugh Thomas, Ronald Fraser, Paul Preston, Ian Gibson, Stanley Payne, Anthony Beevor, as well as American writers such as Gabriel Jackson. One review of a book on the civil war recently began with the words: "It seems that now you do not have to have a foreign name to write about our civil war".

But a major factor in the silence was the nature of the transition in Spain: the post-Franco regime gradually allowed democratisation and, in 1982 the Socialist Party came to power. But the Spanish right, unlike that of Germany or Italy precisely because it was not defeated feels no need to apologise.

Indeed events since 2004 have, if anything, widened the gap again: the wholly unresolved political debate on the 11 March 2004 bombings in Madrid, conflict over the role of religion in society, over migrants, Catalan autonomy, gay marriage, the ETA ceasefire and more have all been used by the right to up the tone of ideological confrontation. To this cocktail is now added anti-Muslim rhetoric: only recently, the former prime minister Josè Maria Aznar declared that the Muslim world should formally apologise for occupying Spain for eight centuries.

It is also important to recall that for most people in Spain, not least those on the left, the process of democratisation was, in its earlier years, by no means assured. The night of the attempted Antonio Tejero coup, on 23 February 1981, is one few will ever forget. If the price of such a transition, of the legalisation of the Communist Party, of a statute of Catalonian autonomy, and the return of all exiles, was not just immunity, but silence, then it was a price that was for many - not least younger people removed from the events of the 1930s - worth paying.

The thaw of memory

Yet there is now some movement, in public consciousness and at the official level, especially since the advent of the PSOE to power in the controversial elections of 14 March 2004. After seven decades of silence, there has now begun to be some more open discussion of that event, of the terrible war that followed, in which all parties were guilty of atrocities, and of the long years of repression that followed the fascist victory of 1939.

For the past few years there has been a policy of locating, and exhuming, the mass graves of Franco's victims during and after the war, which are found all over the country. With most of the country now surveyed, it is estimated that about 90,000 were shot, either during the war itself, or in summary executions thereafter, by the Franco forces. The new law of historical memory is to be introduced by the socialist government to document these crimes, even if it forbids the naming of those responsible for them.

Gradually, as this is technically within the competence of local authorities, the statues of Franco are being removed. The memory law addresses the question of the huge fascist memorial site, the valley of the fallen, built by the forced labour of republican prisoners after the war: this is to remain, but now to commemorate the dead of all sides, and pro-Franco political meetings, long held there on 18 July, are now banned.

But it is here, as the facts do finally emerge and are given official sanction, that other issues arise, ones that may also explain the long, negotiated, as the Spanish say "pacted" and to some degree complicit, silence of all parties in Spain on this matter. While no one doubts that Franco's forces killed many more people in cold blood than did the forces of the republic, there is much on the latter's side that, long denied, may also need to emerge.

The anarchists in Barcelona, in 1936-37 killed several thousand people in summary and often arbitrary executions. The communists, when they came to clash with the anarchists and POUMists, also took their toll, including that of the POUM leader Andreu Nin, who was kidnapped outside the party's headquarters on the Ramblas, the Café Moka, now the Hotel Rivoli, opposite the street where I now work. Nin was taken in a car to Madrid, subjected to a fake trial, and shot.

Against the official orthodoxies of Franco and of the communist movement, alternative left and libertarian narratives have long held sway, notably those derived from Orwell's account. But Orwell's narrative is also open to questioning: he knew little Spanish, downplayed the crimes of the anarchists, and, like many who have turned the Spanish civil war into a utopian tragedy, notably Ken Loach in his Land and Freedom, ignores the political and military realities of the time.

The larger narrative

This opening of debate is not, however, just a matter of the republican side gaining belated justice. It has also provided the opportunity for a new, anti-republican, "revisionism" to arise; its central claim has been that, if Franco had not acted, a communist dictatorship would have emerged. This is, as Ronald Fraser cogently put it in an interview with El Pais, un cuento chino (literally "a Chinese ale"): Fraser showed in his classic work, Blood of Spain (1979) that it was the Franco coup itself which made the communist party, weak in 1936, the force it was.

Other historians, including cold-war polemicists in the United States (see Ronald Radosh and others, ed. Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War) have made much of recently released Soviet material, showing how committed Stalin was to arming and defending the republic. But in the context of the balance of forces in Spain, and of Europe at the time, it is hard to see what they are surprised by. It was the hypocritical abstention of the western democracies that threw Spain to first the communists and then the fascists, and for four decades allowed the Franco dictatorship (and that of Portugal) to survive. The recollection of this hypocrisy too should form part of the record, with all its tragedies.

The republication, in revised form, of works by Paul Preston and Anthony Beevor testifies to the continued interest in the period among the reading public in Spain. For his part, Ronald Fraser has now chosen to match his account of the war with an equally ambitious publication, the fruit of twenty years, on the Spanish experience of the Napoleonic wars. La Maldita Guerra de Espana ("the cursed Spanish war", a quote from Napoleon), itself almost a reconstructed oral history, is now in the bookshop windows of Barcelona; Verso will publish an English translation in 2007, under the title To Die in Spain.

Fraser has with this work drawn a striking comparison across a century and a half between the two bloodiest periods of Spanish history. He is also the first historian, Spanish or other, to produce substantial works on both conflicts. It is perhaps only when the civil war of the 1930s is seen in this larger perspective, as one episode in a longer and often convulsive narrative of Spanish history, accentuated by international factors, that it will be possible to confront what it means for contemporary Spain; and thus for its people to commemorate one of the iconic events of modern world history.

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