Matthew Pritchard asks if Spain will ever get over the 1930s, recalling his own personal connections to the civil war through his wife’s family
LAST month marked the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Spanish Civil War. Don’t worry if you missed it: the event was barely mentioned in the Spanish media. And this, of course, is not all that surprising. Because, although most of the people who actually lived through the conflict are dead or decrepit, the civil war is still a viciously divisive issue in Spain.
You need look no further than recent spats over the law of historical memory or the removal of the remaining statues of Franco to see the truth of this.
Part of the problem is that the Left and the Right today both cling to highly partisan versions of what actually happened during the civil war.
The left-wing version is all Republican democracy, heroism against the odds, International Brigades, la Pasionaria and cries of ‘no pasarán’. The executions, political purges and murders of clergymen are conveniently set aside.
For right-wingers, Franco was a victim of circumstance, a brave champion of Spain, who was forced into action to save the country from the social upheaval brought about by the Second Republic. They forget that the chaos unleashed by Franco’s coup d’etât was infinitely worse.
Flags, songs and symbols from the time are waved around as much for the irritation they cause the ‘other’ side as for their actual meaning.
Details of executions and massacres are thrown back and forth across the political divide in a desperate attempt to prove that two wrongs do make a right.
Even on issues where the two sides could find common ground, the political will to do so is lacking.
Take my local city of Almería where there is a monument to 142 people from the province who, after escaping to France at the end of the civil war, were arrested by the Nazis and died in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Many of these were ordinary Spaniards, murdered by a universally-despised foreign power (Germany) and each May 5 there is an act held to commemorate the dead. Politicians from left-wing parties attend. But right-wing politicians stay away.
The fact that younger generations are a little hazy on the precise details of what happened doesn’t help either. Ideal newspaper in Granada described how the Student’s Union of Andalucía recently wrote an angry letter to a school in the town of Bailén demanding its name be changed from ‘el 19 de Julio’ as it celebrated a date related with fascism.
The bullets and bombs might have stopped but the war did not
The school’s director had to write back politely reminding them the civil war actually began on the 18th of July – the date his school commemorated was that of the Battle of Bailén, a famous Spanish victory over the invading Napoleonic forces.
But why has Spain, unlike most other European countries, failed to put its experiences in the violent first half of the 20th century behind it?
Firstly, Spain’s war was a civil one, with all the horrors that internecine conflict entails. But what really makes Spain’s case different is what occurred afterwards: As with Republican defeat the bullets and bombs stopped; the war did not.
From the moment military action ceased, Franco strove to present himself, in the words of historian Paul Preston, as a “medieval warrior, crusader, defender of the faith and restorer of Spanish national greatness.”
The Franco regime was built upon a panoply of theatrical myths and central to this was the guilt of the Republic: it had been them, not Franco, who plunged the country into war and therefore they should be made to pay.Ghosts of Spain author and Guardian correspondent in Madrid, Giles Tremlett said: “There was a deliberate move to keep the wounds of the civil war alive. Part of this was a constant persecution of anyone who wasn’t openly for Franco.”
Under its infamous Law for the Repression of Freemasonry and Communism the regime encouraged a welter of denunciation that led to hundreds of thousands of people being imprisoned.
My wife’s grandfather was one of them and spent four years in a prison camp after a neighbour denounced him as a communist, despite not actually having fought in the war.
“They didn’t like him because he was a musician,” my mother-in-law told me. “Ironically, he wasn’t interested in politics when he went to prison. But he came out a member of the Communist party.”
This anecdote goes to the very essence of the problem. During the civil war itself, people had little choice as to which side they were on. The country rapidly fragmented into clearly defined zones of influence depending on which side won the initial armed struggle. Many people who had previously been ambivalent to politics found themselves branded Republicans by an accident of geography.
In the Spanish Civil War, pity, rather than truth was the first victim
But it was the repression after the war which caused these attitudes to harden into firmly held beliefs. Once people found themselves the victims of spiteful retribution for their perceived political allegiances, those allegiances often became reality.
What Spain is still struggling to overcome is not three years of civil war: it is three decades worth of resentment and bitterness created by totally unnecessary policies of persecution.
Of course, right wingers point to the fact that had the Republic won, exactly the same would have occurred: repression, executions, imprisonment. Depressingly, they are almost certainly right. In the Spanish Civil War, pity rather than truth was its first victim.
Spanish satirist, Mariano José de Larra, wrote: “Here lies half of Spain. It died of the other half.” Let us hope Spaniards in the 21st century can learn the truth of those words better they did in the 20th century.