Coming to Terms with the Past: Spain's Memory Wars: Helen Graham Reveals the Key Role Historians Are Playing in the Aftermath of Franco's 'Uncivil Peace'

By Graham, Helen | History Today, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Coming to Terms with the Past: Spain's Memory Wars: Helen Graham Reveals the Key Role Historians Are Playing in the Aftermath of Franco's 'Uncivil Peace'


Graham, Helen, History Today


BETWEEN 1936 and 1939 Spanish society was ripped apart in a brutal civil war. It had been unleashed by a military coup supported by those who feared the potential for change opened up by the democratic. Second Republic in 1931. In the aftermath of the coup a dirty war was waged in territory controlled by the army. Civilians collaborated with the military authorities in the mass murder of their compatriots--urban and rural workers, liberal professionals, regional nationalists and intellectuals, all groups identified with the Republic. The Milers, ritually and sadistically, enacted their desire to annihilate not only their human enemies but change itself. The civil war meanwhile escalated into an international conflict. Largely as a result of the military aid provided by Hitler and Mussolini, General Francisco Franco went on to win the war against Spain's fledgling democracy. But although the military conflict was over by April 1st, 1939, what followed cannot be called peace.

Under Franco, state and society were to be remade by the violent exclusion of the defeated. All those who had supported the Republic were demonised as 'anti-Spain'. Placed beyond the nation, they were deemed to be without rights. Tens of thousands were executed, judicially murdered after summary military trials. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children also spent time in prisons, reformatories, concentration camps and labour battalions.

History itself became a weapon in this work of exclusion. Franco legitimised his violent new order by reference to an ultra-conservative reading of Spanish history--one that had, significantly, been challenged under the Republic. He erected a repressive myth of a monolithic Spanish 'nation' born in the fifteenth century with the Catholic Kings, where hierarchy and cultural homogeneity, guaranteed by integrist Catholicism, had generated imperial greatness. Although the empire was gone, metropolitan Spain under Franco would be great again as a bulwark against the Republic's 'sins' of modernity': enlightenment freethinking, the acceptance of levelling change and a tolerance of cultural heterogeneity. Francoist legislation deprived Republican-identified professionals of property' and public employment as well as subjecting them to internal exile. Their children were denied access to university'. The Catholic Church in Spain collaborated by denouncing their Republican parishioners to state tribunals.

Work in 1940s Spain was presented as a way in which the 'sinful' could redeem themselves. Prisoners became slave labourers: 20,000 worked to hew out of sheer rock the basilica known as the Valle de los Caldos (Valley of the Fallen), Franco's monument to his victorious crusade and the winning side in the civil war. Republican labour battalions were also used by the army and hired out to private enterprise. The state agency responsible for overseeing them was called the committee for the redemption of prison sentences through work. Catholic notions of expiation through suffering here permitted extreme economic exploitation. Those most heavily targetted were, unsurprisingly, urban workers--the Republican social constintuency par excellence. They were also the main focus of the regime's drive for 'purification'. For notwithstanding Francoism's Catholic core, it also incorporated elements of social darwinism. The defeated carried the germ of 'anti-nation', a form of degeneracy that, if not cleansed to the last trace, would contaminate the healthy body of Spain. Military psychiatrists experimented on prisoners in search of the 'red gene'. Purification and purging were fundamental concepts in 1940s Spain, as they have usually been in all the barbaric episodes, racial or political, that inhabit Europe's dark mid-twentieth century.

Among the victims of this worldview were the 'lost children' of Francoism. They were the babies and young children who, after being removed from their imprisoned mothers, had their names changed so they could be adopted by regime families. …

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