Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Spain and the Civil War, part three

Part one is here and part two is here.

Oh, for an editor! Because I forgot to note last night that there would be another post on Spain today, Steve weighed in with a sharp comment on yesterday's post that anticipates some of the topics in today's:
Levi, you raise some interesting questions but I think there are a few things working against "truth and reconciliation." Briefly, the war in Spain was super-political. That statement may seem obvious but There's a fairly well documented history of the actions of both the right and the left and neither come off particularly well. Next, Spain is flourishing. Supposedly their economy is about to pass Italy's in size. It's completely transformed from the backwater of Europe that it was before the Civil War--really agrarian and highly impoverished. It's a totally different country. These days, with the socialists in power you would think they might be interested in this sort of exercise but they have enough on their plate dealing with immigration, the Basques, and keeping the country growing. With the 70th anniversary of Guernica there's a lot of new scholarship coming out but unfortunately it's still fighting the battles of the 30's and not a pretty sight.
All these points and more come up in Ghosts of Spain: Travels through a Country's Hidden Past (2006), by Giles Tremlett, a Guardian correspondent who has lived in Spain for the past twenty years, watching as Spain recovered from the hangover of fascism and became a full participant in modern Europe. Thought he takes the reader on a fascinating trip throughout contemporary Spain, from its booming economy--especially its growing tourist industry--to changes in sexual mores to politics, the Iraq war, and the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004, he opens with and regularly returns to the legacy of the war.

The book begins with the highly publicized reburial in 2002 of some Republicans who had been assassinated and left in roadside graves by the Falange during the war. The reburial, and the heated public arguments about it, seemed to open the floodgates to larger questions about the war and the buried history of violence on both sides. Tremlett travels the country being a good listener, interviewing veterans and visiting sites of remembrance, learning that the decades of silence have done little to lay the ghosts to rest; the meaning of those years remains in vigorous dispute--even where facts are indisputable--and the wounds are still raw. The silence has been viewed by many as serving everyone, for who wants to learn that a friend or neighbor was a killer when young? Who wants others to know their secrets? As Javier Marias's narrator says in Your Face Tomorrow:
No, I should not tell or hear anything, because I will never be able to prevent it from being repeated or used against me, to ruin me or--worse still--from being repeated and used against those I love, to condemn them.
But of course secrets have a way of coming out, and silence cannot be maintained forever. How Spain will answer the lingering questions about its past--and who will get to answer them--is still up in the air.

In an afterword to the UK edition, Tremlett explains that Spain's current Socialist government is slowly beginning to officially accept that the silence needs to end. A new law has been proposed that would, among other things,
set aside money to do something about Spain's abandoned Civil War and Franco-era archives. They will provide valuable extra material for historians and investigators, who continue to flood the market with work on the period.
But, just as when they were in power for the twenty years after Franco's death, the Socialists are still wary of going too far:
The pact of forgetting, however, remains intact as far as the naming of perpetrators is concerned. The draft law says documents emitted by the committee of experts will "omit any reference to the identity of anyone who took part in the events." There will, in other words, be no individual guilt. The only bad guy will be Franco himself. No one else must be blamed or punished for whatever they did in his name. Francoism, in that respect, remains an abstract thing.
The crimes will be brought to light, but the criminals will be left to their own consciences.

Maybe Steve's right about more information at this point not helping much: Tremlett agrees with him that in recent years, a spate of diametrically opposed histories of the war haven't really improved understanding of the period. At best, they've muddied the waters; at worst, they've inflamed unquenchable old passions. Maybe the majority of Spaniards would rather keep moving into the future, letting the past worry about the past. Maybe they would prefer, even when reburying the unjustly dead, simply to memorialize them and lay them to rest, leaving larger questions of blame and justice to the ages.

I think that impulse might be harder, at least to some extent, for a Brit to understand than for an American--even if we disagree with it. Tremlett seems a bit surprised that the war is still such a charged topic, but an American observer of Spain immediately starts thinking about our own civil war and its aftermath. It ended more than 140 years ago (though I suppose its last overt battles weren't really fought until the civil rights movement), yet in any of a dozen southern states, its legacy is still hotly, if covertly, contested. Any Republican candidate for high office has to at least give a wink and a nod to the idea that the South was right all along, that all we white folks (which can be read as "all we good Americans") would be better off had John Wilkes Booth been there on Inauguration Day in 1861.

Old loyalties die hard--and in a climate where it is assumed that one ought to be ashamed of one's past, resentment and self-righteousness can make a toxic brew. In that context, it's a bit easier to understand if Spain, less than forty years removed from fascism, wants to let troubling questions rest for another generation and instead take satisfaction in its stunning transition to democracy.


  1. Anonymous1:05 PM

    Being ashamed of one's past probably answers your larger question here. Certainly, holding power I would argue that the actors on the right probably have some lingering culpability but that applies mostly to the actions in the post-war climate.

    Standing in the way of truth and reconciliation here is that in the climate of the Civil War the actions of both sides supported anti-democratic ideologies now totally discredited-- no matter what the communists say. Saying "I made people 'disappear' for Franco is really no better or worse than saying "I killed Trotskyites." I'm sure you still have those who support radical ideologies on both sides and still fight the battles of the civil war within Spain. Luckily for them and their compatriots they live in a country where marginal political parties can send a wacked out commie or a jackboot fascist into parliament.

  2. I sometimes think about how that might work here in the United States, how our politics would change if the truly crazy were able to get represented under their own banner (rather than spending the past forty-five years making the Republican banner their own--and, it looks like, destroying it). Would it allow the major parties to become more straightforward and honest? Would the Republicans divest themselves of their racist base and then stop pandering to them? Or would those crazies end up with more power, finding themselves frequently catered to as the final pieces needed to form a governing coalition?

    On your overall point, though, I think you're right: the fact that neither side can point to their old ideologies with honor seems to be a major driver of the continuing silence and underlying rancor.