Spain: The Civil War is still an open wound
18 July 2011
75 years after Franco's coup against the young Spanish republic and the start of a bloody civil war, Spain has yet to write a definitive and undisputed history of the period. For El Pais, part of the right still cultivates a selective forgetfulness.
The traumas of the era between 1929 and 1945 have caused serious problems in historical memory, and not just in the historiography, of all the countries affected by those times. Commemorating the start of the Spanish Civil War 75 years ago in July is the first thing worth noting. The particularly tragic form in which our country lived through that war bears out the saying “Spain is different”.
But as was true for Germany with the imposition of Nazism, for Poland and Austria in suffering invasion, and for France in continuous turmoil until there came its own turn to be invaded, each country lived through the epoch in different ways. The 1930s were stamped by the seemingly unstoppable rise of national fascisms in Europe, and that was decisive for the course of the crisis here in Spain, which was brought to an end by the interminable military dictatorship that so many of us knew so well.
The outcome specific to Spain is the deeply gloomy situation today in our coming to terms with the past. After a few earlier starts in which, one way or another, the countries affected healed their wounds by turning to simplified accounts that could get out from under the shadow of a past that was still very close – e.g. by absolving the German people of responsibility for Nazism or by advancing the image of a France or an Italy unanimously resistant to fascism – it's time to look at what happened in all its complexity.
Spain, unfortunately, is different
That complexity is reflected in France in films such as Lucien Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien or Marcel Ophuls’ Le chagrin et le pitié, not to mention Mitterrand’s dirty laundry later; in Germany, in books like Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, and in Italy by recognising the 1943-45 period as a genuine civil war between resistants and followers of Mussolini under occupation. Once a true historical image was established, sometimes following bitter controversies like those that divided German historians, there followed a relative peace, presided over in each case by endorsements of those glimmers of democracy that did survive in those cruel years.
In Spain, this is not happening. Discreetly, the Law of Historical Memory gives the guarantee of the state to restore a balance that had been denied to the democrats, in recognising their role in this tragic story, with a very specific emphasis on those who were killed and buried in unmarked mass graves. Through a detailed study of the repression under Franco, which had been planned beforehand and went on for decades, leaving tens of thousands dead (which confirms the idea of a genocide), the descendants continued to attempt to recover the remains of victims of the "surgical operation" that Franco had declared in November 1935. What was missing from that effort was any acknowledgement of Ian Gibson's suggestion: that the truth and the pain of the war were borne by all and for all.
A more serious consequence is that broad swathes of our political right, brandishing moreover the idea of a reconciliation among Spaniards opposed to the Law of Historical Memory, have been able once again to bring out the arguments for the legitimacy of Franco's military uprising. Garzón (the investigator pushing for exhumations of mass graves) was demonised and his subsequent indictment celebrated on behalf of a vision of 1936 that has been brought consciously into line with that of the victors. Of the different fascisms in Europe, of what happened in Germany or Austria, of what that political right proposed and promoted – not a word. Here indeed, when it comes to the democratic right of Europe, Spain, unfortunately, is different.
Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer