Art in the Time of Authoritarianism: Spain's Cultural Success under Franco

By Pérez-Díaz, Victor | Foreign Affairs, January/February 2014 | Go to article overview

Art in the Time of Authoritarianism: Spain's Cultural Success under Franco


Pérez-Díaz, Victor, Foreign Affairs


Franco's Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 BY JEREMY TREGLOWN. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 320 pp. $30.00.

Seventy-five years after its conclu- sion, the Spanish Civil War can sometimes seem like a river of blood that led inexorably to the sea of horrors that was World War II. But Spain's battle was also a devastating conflict in its own right, killing approx- imately 500,000 people. The war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, pitted the Republicans, loyal to the existing government, against the Nationalists, a rightist rebel coalition led by General Francisco Franco. Franco's initial coup failed but left the country militarily and politically divided. The Nationalists eventually won, and Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death, in 1975.

The war, so often misunderstood as a mere prelude to World War II, is also frequently miscast as a simple story of good versus evil, a fight between demo- crats and fascists. In fact, neither side in the struggle could honestly claim the mantle of democracy. Franco, of course, made no such attempt: he was proudly authoritarian. As for the Republicans, although they paid lip service to demo- cratic principles and tried to practice them, their side devolved into disorder and lawlessness during the war, and anarchists and communists came to dominate their ranks.

Nor were the Republicans particularly virtuous from a moral standpoint. As the Nationalists were quick to point out, the Republicans assassinated almost 7,000 priests and nuns and killed roughly 2,500 prison inmates in the 1936 Paracuellos massacres, a series of organized mass murders during the battle for Madrid. Franco's forces, of course, committed their own share of atrocities and repres- sion, both during and after the war. Both sides believed they had to be ruthless because most ordinary Spaniards were not that interested in fighting for either side and had to be coerced into doing so through fear and violence. In the first months of the conflict, 120,000 people volunteered to fight for the republic, and the Nationalists rallied some 100,000 volunteers; by the end of the war, the Republicans and the Nationalists had mobilized, largely through conscription, about 1.7 million and 1.2 million men, respectively. These figures suggest that the war involved not two Spains but three: two polarized blocs of true believers and a far larger body of people who just went along-or were forced to.

The war's carnage remains indelibly etched into Spanish memory. Tremendous amounts of ink have been spilled discuss- ing and analyzing the war in the last 75 years. Indeed, some Spanish historians claim that the volume of historiography on the civil war comes close to that covering World War IL A small but growing part of this large bibliography studies the memory of the war and its lingering effects on Spanish culture and society. Many of these writings, similar to those on the war itself that have presented it as a straightforward morality tale, take a less-than-nuanced pro-Republican viewpoint, most notably in their portrayals of Francoist Spain as a cultural desert.

It is for precisely this reason that Franco's Crypt, the latest book by the British literary critic Jeremy Treglown, is so refreshing. In his focus on the surprising richness of Spanish culture since the war, Treglown pushes back against a knee-jerk pro-Republican perspective-not by apologizing for the Nationalists but simply by abstaining from projecting his own moral stance on the culture of the period. As he writes, "Franco is a bad memory, like a bad dream. But 'bad memory' also means forgetfulness and falsification. When Spain's campaigners for historical memory accuse their opponents and critics of olvido, amnesia, they have themselves often forgotten, or over- looked, or are simply ignorant of, the rich historical deposits in their own culture."

To explain how the Spanish have come to terms with the war and Fran- co's rule, Treglown narrates a series of personal encounters with people and places in contemporary Spain, weaving them together with his examinations of cultural artifacts, including public works, paintings, movies, and novels. …

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