Film made to honour Miguel de Unamuno’s heroic speech against Spain’s General Franco

As The Island of Wind honouring one of Spain’s great intellectuals hits cinema screens, Joe Duggan recalls the day Miguel de Unamuno bravely defied Franco

LAST UPDATED: 26 Oct, 2016 @ 13:12
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miguel_unamuno2IT’S October 12, 1936 – Columbus Day – and Spain’s top brass are gathered in the great hall of Salamanca University – within a hundred yards of Franco’s headquarters – to hear its 72-year-old Dean deliver his National Day address.

Miguel de Unamuno is a great orator, known to be outspoken. But he is considered to be a Franco supporter so nothing untoward is expected, especially on this day, in front of such an audience.

The chamber is packed with Blue Shirt fascists and eminent professors seated on crimson-covered divans, wearing silk gowns and mortarboards topped with tassels in red, yellow, light and dark blue, denoting Law, Medicine, Letters and Science.

Among the crowd is General Franco’s wife, Dona Carmen Polo, and el caudillo’s sadistic henchman, the one-armed, one-eyed General Millan Astray.

Outside, the three-month-old Spanish Civil War rages on. Inside, the atmosphere is taut.
“Viva la Muerte!” — Long Live Death!”, General Astray shouts, his grotesque mutilations and black eye patch lending a sinister appearance as he damns Spain’s Republicans.
Ranks of stiff-armed fascist salutes and cries of ‘Franco, Franco’ fill the room.
All eyes turn towards Unamuno as he slowly rises…

Dauntingly articulate, the Basque-born author, philosopher, playwright, poet and professor of Greek was the central figure in Spain’s intellectual life at that time.

His political beliefs had already landed him in hot water in 1924, when the dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera overthrew the government and Unamuno published articles criticising the new regime.

His punishment was exile to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands – the Island of Wind in Manuel Menchón’s new film, screening at Spanish cinemas this autumn – where he remained until the dictator was toppled.

miguel-de-unamunoBy 1936, Spain’s deep political and social divisions had fractured into all-out conflict. Unamuno had initially supported Franco’s July military uprising. But three months on, he had become sickened with the slaughter it had unleashed.

The audience assembled at the University of Salamanca that October morning knew nothing of this change of heart. Most had come to praise the war’s chief architect, General Franco.

All eyes turned to Unamuno as he began to speak.

“All of you are hanging on my words,” he said. “At times, to be silent is to lie. For silence can be interpreted as acquiescence.

“I want, however, to comment on the speech — to give it that name — of General Millán Astray.

“Just now, I heard a necrophilic and senseless cry, ‘Long live Death!’ This outlandish paradox is repellent to me.

“General Millan Astray is a cripple. Let it be said without any slighting undertone. He is a war invalid. So was Cervantes. But extremes do not make the rule: they escape it.

Unfortunately, there are all too many cripples in Spain now. And soon, there will be even more of them if God does not come to our aid.

“It pains me to think that General Millán Astray should dictate the pattern of mass psychology.

“That would be appalling. A cripple who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes — a man, not a superman, virile and complete, in spite of his mutilations — a cripple, I said, who lacks that loftiness of mind, is wont to seek ominous relief in causing mutilation around him.

unamuno5“Because he is unpopular, General Millán Astray would like to create Spain anew — a negative creation — in his own image and likeness. And for that reason he wishes to see Spain crippled, as he unwittingly made clear.”

The room listened in stunned silence to this astonishing verbal assault. But the glowering Astray could restrain himself no longer. ‘DEATH TO INTELLECTUALS!! DOWN WITH INTELLIGENCE’” he yelled.

Others, incensed at Unamuno’s defiance, piled in. “Down with false intellectuals! Traitors!’ shouted José Maria Pemán, a right-wing journalist from Cadiz.

Arguments broke out in the audience. Academics formed a protective shield round Unamuno. Blue Shirt guards rallied alongside the humiliated Astray.

Unamuno continued.

“This is the temple of intellect and I am its high priest!” It is you who are profaning its sacred precincts.

“I have always, whatever the proverb may say, been a prophet in my own land.

“You will win, but you will not convince. You will win, because you possess more than enough brute force, but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade.

Franco
Franco

And in order to persuade you would need what you lack — reason and right in the struggle.

“I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain. I have finished.”

It was a remarkable oration. Unamuno was quickly led from the room by fellow professor, Don Esteban Madruga. On his other arm, an ashen-faced Carmen Polo do Franco left in stunned silence.

News soon found its way to Franco, who wanted Unamuno shot for his insolence. But fears his execution would spark international outrage led to him being placed under house arrest.

The Salamanca speech was Unamuno’s last public address. He died of a haemorrhage on New Year’s Eve, 1936.

But 80 years on, the courage of his words stand as testament to the might of reason.



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30 COMMENTS

  1. General Astray began his speech by saying “that half of all Spaniards are criminals and high-traitors.” By ‘half of all Spaniards’ he means the followers of the legal Spanish government. “The Basque country and Catalonia are cancer ulcers in the body of the nation. Fascism would cut into the living flesh like a resolute doctor. And since healthy flesh is the earth, and the sick flesh is the people that dwell upon it, Fascism and the army will obliterate the people, and will re-establish the earth as the sacred good of the nation.”
    Unamuno replied that he himself was born in Basque Bilbao. “And the bishop is a Catalan, whether he likes to hear that or not.”
    See my description on “http://www.andalusien360.de/magazin/besondere-ereignisse-im-spanischen-buergerkrieg” (in German).

    • This confrontation by Unamuno against the obscenity of Millán Astray, Franco, fascism is one of the best images to illustrate the perversity of Spanish politics, still relevant today. Think of Rajoy, Margallo and other PP caricatures with totalist, corrupt minds who pretend to understand ethical democratic principles.

  2. The whole tragedy of the fall of republican Spain led inevitably to WW11 and all that has followed since. The elite of France and Britain were frightened for their future and did everything they could to bring down the Spanish republic. They succeeded and pumped amphetamine into the arteries of Hitler and Mussolini.

    If the republic had survived then quite soon both Germany and Italy would have collapsed financially and we have a toatally different world today.

    Unamuno sadly was a freak – a brave, intelligent man who was not prepared to flush his self respect and dignity down the toilet unlike so many academics and politicians before and since.

    I always say to the French – where is the next Danton and who will butcher the next Robespierre. So I say now where is the next Unamuno because Spain desperately needs such a man.

    • I agree with your comentary with the exception of your assertion about the bankrupt of Germany and Italy.

      Germany would have the aid of Chamberlain, that let Hitler to invade Checoslovaquia and to grab his gold reserves and the weapons factory Skoda.

      Itally would have any economic problem in the case that the spanish republic would continue existing.

  3. Both men, Unamuno and Astray were great achievers, one in the academy and the other in the military. It is arguable to look for a confrontation when there was none. Unfortunately Unamuno died at a short term after Columbus day from unclarified causes, because of sadness at seeing spanish drift, who knows. Tough times for everyone involved.

    • Only in the perverse sense that butchering thousands is a ‘great achievement’ can one put Millán Astray on the same page as Miguel de Unamuno. The measure is in the moral courage, not just the rank.

      • Astray did not participate in the civil war in the military as he had health issues. His achivements were in the Philippines and Morocco. Anyway, if it is your liking to include him among your hated ones be my guest.

        • Yes, Astray’s barbaric ‘achievements’ were directed at against Moroccans and Filipinos during those people’s rebellion against colonial domination.

          • What is a soldier supposed to do, as far as I understand to follow orders or else… So so sorry you are antimilitary, in a way so do I but be real.

  4. As the old song by Donovan/Buffy Sainte Marie says-
    “He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame
    His orders come from far away no more
    They come from him and you and me
    And brothers can’t you see
    This is not the way we put an end to war”

  5. José Millán Astray was a sociopath, cocaine addict, and fanatic deeply conditioned by the same historical Imperial Catholic familial nescience that created Primo de Rivera, Franco, Falangists and current PP operatives and who knows how many others.
    Falangist and imperial apologists, repeating mephitic words of that tradition still demonstrate their incapacity to accept that it was and is they, themselves, who are the traitors against their own government and humanity. That Franco’s and Astray’s monstrous notions of morality and governance were the embodied ideals of a ‘true Spanish citizen’ has been rejected by moral and educated people everywhere, denounced as a perversion of humane understanding.
    Ironically, Millán Astray embodies his own tyranical metaphor: “Fascism, the healer of Spain, will know how to exterminate them, cutting into the live flesh, like a determined surgeon free from false sentimentalism.”
    Ironic, because Astray, is the half-blind surgeon in his metaphor. He mutilated his own body, both self and nation, – the destruction, too, as Unamuno reminds, of the General’s soul.
    Astray’s disfigured image well represents the state of Spanish politics and the political culture of every nation that Spain’s Imperialist religious cult has touched – from Spanish populations, to the Philippines to Colombia. And their disciples live on….

    • Nice diatribe, you could go on with the Empire, opium wars and Nelson maiming. Can´t see why you focus solely on Astray´s suurroundings, same and shame everywhere.

    • The fanatism of your speech,not has nothing to envidy to the diatribes of the more furibund falangists.

      But I think that you are right in the sense that we the spaniards suffer historically the tendence for to kill our country fellows that not share our values.

      In my opinion that is not an inheritance of the fascism. I think that it started with the napoleonic ocupation, and affected to many Spaniards without regarding their ideology. The criminal brutalities commited in the Civil War, are soft compared with the aberrations happened in the Carlist Wars.The more brutal mass murderer of the civil war was a nursery child, compared with Cabrera.

      But i don´t observe precedents of this before the napoleonic war. Probably Its due that since that moment the religion was sustituited by the political ideals,and i think that this is a typical characteristic of the spaniard soul that have not been “exported” to the colonies.

  6. I see you are in a row, keep on with, opium wars, US and India´s independence. Astray´s father was the protégé of Montero Rios the one with legal responsabilities concerning Phillipines and Cuba´s independence, just for clarification.

      • I fail to see any apology from my side stated, as deserved of merit or lack thereof as Unamuno . I wonder what you see in Astray behavior different from others in the military, iluminate me.

        • Perverse enjoyment of attack and maiming, as opposed to grasping the tragedy of taking lives in defense, is the difference. ‘Apologists’ signifies those who would distort history to pretend the barbarism was somehow justifies by ‘special circumstances’ – in the present case adherence to discredited political concepts and falangist religious dogma. Ironically, ‘apologists’ don’t apologize for their misunderstanding or ignorance, but carry on within their narrow worldviews.

          • Besides, when attacking and maiming after your words, was under command of the republic and monarchy , when Franco he was retired. I understand my statements mean no apology since you have not proven the validity of your argument.

          • I do not think that Millan Astray would found any perverse pleausre in atacking and maiming.

            He created a cult of the death in combat, not to the maiming. This cult was aimed for certain military unity.

            His mutilations were the result of reiterated important injures in combat for his exposition to the enemy bullets, he was afortunate for to not be dead as outcome of his bravery and his abnegation.

            In my opinion , probably he was a good man but a terrible politician.

          • Anselmo -A “cult of the death in combat…aimed for certain military unity” is itself the perversion. One of the enduring psychological questions is how people can come home after a day of killing and maiming, kiss their children and wives and go to sleep, all in a day’s work. To do that one must be able to compartmentalize emotions, that is to say, to be a sociopath.
            I would refer you to Arthur Koestler’s ‘The Spanish Testament’ for his first-hand account of how that affected him in Franco’s death prison.

  7. Perhaps an Inca with modern galleons and guns could make a trip – looking for a palace in the sun. Destroy all the crap building, wipe out all the Catholic priests and destroy their churches and make the Spanish speak a superior Inca language – it could be good, very good.

  8. So then, your problem is with Franco and you are proyecting it on Astray. As far as I Know they were comrades but ultimately they fell out. You are mixing up everything, falange, Franco, carlism, compartimentalization of the mind, Inca empire as the other bloke said…Would it not be better if we stick to a subject and explore and finish it before going to the next? or the strategy is keeping the mind buzzy so that no idea shall arise?

    • A penchant for hierarchical totalist political systems and violence is what ties all these historical and cultural phenomena together.

  9. Those who seek the truth shine a light into the dark places where the forces of darkness crawl and spew their filth hoping to destroy the light. Ultimately the dark ones never succeed because they are a prisoner of their own insanity which turns and eats itself.

  10. Chas
    Probably your calification for Millan-Astray as sociopath would be right (war is evil), but I do not agree with your apreciation . Probably you´ll agree with me that it is a fact that he was a man that lived according with his preachings.

    I´ll try to find the “Spanish Testament”. thank you

    • Anselmo – “a man that lived according with his preachings” Many depots did and do. Good thinkers and good people have the strength and insight to change their ‘preachings’ when morality gives good reason.

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