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Michael Richards: From war culture to civil society: Francoism, social change, and memories of the Spanish Civil War


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Michael Richards:

From war culture to civil society: Francoism, social change, and memories of the Spanish Civil War


  1. Subjectivity and memories of civil war

In her moving account of Catalan Civil War exiles in Nazi prison camps, the author Montserrat Roig, speaks about her own inspiration found in the wartime letters of the Republican Pere Vives i Clavé who died in Mauthausen in October 1941 as a result of a Nazi doctors’ experiment involving an injection of petrol into the heart. She also talks of the novel about life in the camp by Vives’ friend Joaquim Amat-Piniella which was left unpublished for years because the Franco censors considered that it ‘lacked objectivity’. Reflecting a belief in the necessarily intimate relation between subjectivity and historical memory, she writes, ‘I believe that it was precisely his urge to be objective, balanced, to find a harmony between a diseased memory (‘la memoria enferma’) and understanding of a crazed world (‘un mundo trastornado’), that killed Joaquim Amat-Piniella for a second time in the summer of 1974’.1

Historical information gleaned from the study of memory is essentially of two types. First, memory reveals positive facts about past events and about the experience of those events, be they wars, revolutions, or everyday realities in ‘times of normality’. Second, and more important, it tells us how recollections of events are acquired and subsequently altered in the constant forming and re-forming of identities. Memory is shaped by our changing surroundings and the way we interpret them. Certain methodological issues arise from this. Whatever the period in question, the time-frame of memory stretches from the ‘moment’ events take place until the day memories are recalled and articulated. Thus, an important part of the historical interest in memory is the dynamic relationship between events and subsequent other facts. The relationship between the habitual and the exceptional is an example that is rich in clues about how memory works. The ambiguities of acquisition, retention and retrieval are complicated once memories are expressed through language.2 ‘Silence’ was the appropriate metaphor often used to describe the sense of repression in the Spanish post-war years. But in everyday life the official discourse was likely to be distorted or subverted. Irony was a conduit for a popular counterpoint to the public monopoly of martial language.3 It could be said to have kept alive a flicker of civil culture (and memory), but the overwhelming sense was one of silencing.

Collective and individual ways of explaining or dealing with traumatic events, in particular, focus the psychological and methodological dilemmas. How is the unexpressable to be expressed? Trauma is inherently about memory and forgetting. Awful experiences, especially of loss, are impossible to forget because they are beyond normal human comprehension or existing schemata and cannot be assimilated into personal and collective narratives. The horrific experience of internment in wartime extermination camps is only the most obvious and dreadful example from twentieth-century Europe.4

Memory is shaped by the nature of the events remembered. The relationship between remembering traumatic events, politically, culturally and psychologically, and ‘forgetting’ them is part of our collective framework of understanding the past and communicating about the future. The Spanish conflict of the 1930s had major social implications and was an important, though never uniform, focus of memory (and forgetting). The war became a battlefield of memories as both sides drew on the conflict as a source of political and moral lessons. It became the founding myth of Franco’s state, defining ‘the nation’ and its ‘destiny’. War memories, naturally selective, were also the focus of post-1939 political divisions of the political left (‘the defeated’). The post-war Republican recriminations, mostly conducted in exile, may have contributed to the dilution of the folk memory and culture of Spanish Republicanism, anarchism and socialism, though the destruction of this heritage owed considerably more to the post-war purge by the Francoist authorities and exile itself. In the end, memory of the war became a haunting presence during the peaceful transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.

Many of the issues that are key to looking at the Spanish Civil War and memory are the same as those encountered in analysis of memories of Vichy France, or Fascist Italy, or, indeed, Nazi Germany. Several other European societies experienced something similar to a ‘civil war’ during the era of the world wars. In Spain, as elsewhere, the relationship between war and post-war is at the heart of collective memories of the twentieth century. How is trauma dealt with in a context of ‘normalisation’ and unprecedented economic development? Do memories of war shape responses to re-building and ‘making peace’? Memories of violence, terror and loss seem inevitably to be part of everyday features of life (and ‘development’), as suggested in post-war attitudes towards work (sacrifice), family (morals, guilt and generational conflict), and even housing (migration at any cost).

Memories of these several European ‘civil wars’ were later repressed in many senses.5 This ‘repression’ was made easier precisely because national events (related to long-standing patterns of social relations and rhythms of life) became incrusted in the global ideological conflict. Part of the recent gradual process of historical ‘normalization’ of these conflictive European conjunctures has been precisely the study of every-day life, the shaping of popular perceptions, behavior, beliefs, and forms of social relations.6 Such a framework, in part based on the methodological insights of participant observation, (though in practice this is usually not identical to the ethnographic technique), could usefully be incorporated into historical practice in relation to contemporary Spain.7

There can be little doubt about the trauma of the Spanish Civil War and the dense traces of painful memory it left. It has been calculated that there were some 350,000 deaths during the Civil War period of 1936-1939 in Spain in excess of the number that might have been expected had there been no war. A disturbingly high proportion of these were deaths away from the battlefield.8 An additional 214,000 excess mortalities have been calculated for the period 1940-42, as a result of hunger, disease and political repression related to the conflict, though the real effects may have been worse still.9 Probably around 500,000 people fled into exile at the end of the war.10 At the end of 1939, according to government statistics, there were more than 270,000 held in the regime's prisons from where political executions took place and where punishment beatings, starvation and lethal epidemics were commonplace.11 Thousands of others were forced into imprisonment in France after fleeing the Nationalist armies.12 Substantial numbers of Spanish Republicans fought in the French resistance and many were returned to face a firing squad as Germany occupied France in 1940, or were interned in Nazi concentration camps as 'stateless' enemies. Between six and seven thousand republicans from Spain were to die in the extermination camp of Mauthausen. The latent or delayed memory of the felt quality of such experiences, typical of trauma, or ‘memoria enferma’, is evidenced in emotional breakdown during re-telling and recollection of shocking events.13

A connection can thus be made between two ways of understanding memories of the Spanish Civil War which have been relatively little developed historiographically. These two areas are subjectivity and social history.14 The marginalization of civil society in the early post-war decades means that Spanish memories need all the more to be explored as both sociological and psychological (collective and individual). The point of departure is the hypothesis that memory, collective and individual, is always embedded in social change (in the broadest sense) as well as political change. In order to show this it is necessary to look closely at the subjective: the felt effects of war and repression at a personal level and their expression by individuals and groups. The relationship of state and society and of the public and the private is therefore key to understanding Spanish post-war collective memories.


(2) The Francoist liturgy of memory

Out of the wartime rhetoric and the sources of its ideological justification, its imagery, and mentality, a concerted attempt was made in the post-war period to disseminate the inherent values of the Nationalist élites, as a continuation of the Francoist ‘Crusade’.15 In Franco’s Spain this meant the sacralization of politics and of memory through consecrating heroes (principally Franco himself) and martyrs (José Antonio Primo de Rivera, José Calvo Sotelo), constructing symbols (the flag of red and gold – ‘Spanish blood and earth’ , the Alcázar of Toledo – ‘steadfastness’, ‘virility’, ‘sacrifice’) and celebrating anniversaries (18 July, 2 May, Saints’ Days16). An ideological community coalesced around a state narration of triumph, aiming to inoculate society against forgetting or deviations. In this interpretation Spain was incarnated as a quasi-person, a unique and permanent being, whose ‘organic continuity’ reached back to the Catholic Reconquista of Spain from the Moors and the Jews culminating in the 15th century. The ‘spirit of 1936’ depended on perpetuating the story of the ‘unvarying constants’ of Spain’s ‘being’: her ‘sense’ and ‘direction’. The Civil War was used by Nationalist ideologues to deny any truth to the leyenda negra (‘black legend’) associated with Spain’s inquisitorial past. According to the Francoist view, there never had been a ‘progressive Spain’ (good) and a ‘traditional Spain’ (bad), as liberals claimed, but simply the ‘Anti-Spain’ and the ‘eternal Spain’. This was the simple totalitarian duality portrayed in many school texts of the post-war era. It is not surprising that many Spanish children grew up believing that ‘la guerra de España’ was fought by Spaniards against foreigners.17 The ‘real’ historian, the officials claimed, had to be more than an aseptic and impassive exhibitor of the successive political hegemonies of the mythical ‘Two Spains’. The relativism, as it was seen, of the ‘Two Spains’ thesis was cancelled out by the ‘Crusade’, which, by definition, signified an irreducible opposition between ‘the nation’ (‘one Spain’) and ‘others’.

This remained true into the 1960s for substantial sections of the Francoist élite, especially within the army, which responded aggressively to ‘modernizers’ who wished ‘to forget’.18 The unity of blood spilt in common could be an effective social agglutinative and this could be read, by some, as the meaning of the Fundamental Principles of the Movement as promulgated by Franco in May 1958.19 But a divisive sense of ‘oblivion’ (olvido) was deliberately being cultivated, at the same time, as a weapon to negate Spain’s historical identity. In reality, the gaining of Francoist hegemony in post-Civil War Spain was problematic since power was defined by the victory of one part of society (albeit of relatively multifarious political and social background) over another. Although the so-called ‘Fundamental Laws of the State’ did not explicitly distinguish between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, this concession was compromised by the doubtful proposition that this ‘constitutional evolution’ amounted to the formation of ‘a nation’.20 Grander symbols, like the monumental temple and crypt of the Valle de los Caídos, a kind of pantheon of the 'Crusade', similarly never became a genuinely national focus of memory. Real social issues could not be covered over by myths and mysticism, though, by contrast, they became quite successfully ‘buried’ by socio-economic change in the 1960s.21

Gradual ‘forgetting’ was assisted by the fragmentation of the Nationalist wartime coalition into various communities of memory rather than a single monolithic memory of victory and conquest. The example of the ‘bunker’ mentality within the army has already been mentioned. Another which has recently been researched with impressive results is that of Carlism in Navarre and the Basque Country. The complex and uneasy relationship between local traditions, competing identities, clientalist networks, and patterns of social modernization by the 1930s, meant that Carlism, once the war was over, rarely presented the Franco state with unqualified support or an unambiguous or usable collective memory.22 Another were the ‘mandos’ (leading cadres) of the Sección Femenina (SF - women’s section of the state party), of whom there were some 15,000 at national and local level. The SF leadership certainly worked to keep alive memories of wartime sacrifices, particularly that of Falangist martyrs killed in action or executed who were in many cases relatives of particular mandos. The SF also gave unqualified public loyalty to Franco, a gesture which has obviously gendered connotations. But the extensive political and social tasks given to the women of the SF involved them in very active roles, something that contradicted the official discourse about the public passivity of the ideal woman. The messages that activists conveyed to women, while giving advice on child health to working class families, for example, could not always be controlled by other (male) authorities like Churchmen.23 Idealist Falangists, many of them from the pre-war days, (‘Camisas Viejas’ or ‘Old Shirts’), could be seen as a particular ‘warrior community’, with its own set of memories. Contradictions within each of these ‘communities’ abounded. Amongst Nationalist veteran brotherhoods, including falangistas, volunteering, rather than conscription, was an important part of the currency of community loyalty and reward, for example, provoking internal divisions. The junior officers, or lieutenants (alféreces provisionales), taken on by the Nationalist army during the Civil War, tended to be more politicised than others and therefore more socially radical and more hard-line in relation to the fate of memories.24 Even in this case, however, there were important gradations and divisions.25 It is significant that the power of most of these groups, with the exception of the army itself in a monolithic sense, was considerably reduced by the 1950s.

The gradual ‘negation’ of the ‘old’ Francoist memory was sponsored by individuals with state influence. This challenge celebrated the achievement of peace and security rather than the triumph of 1936-39 as such, and avoided conjuring up wartime effigies even as Franco himself frequently resorted to justificatory horror stories. The ‘modernizers’ relied on memory principally to illustrate the alleged ‘chaos’ of the pre-war Republican years in contrast to the post-war ‘peace of Franco’. This was part of the demystification of the Civil War which recognized that its resonance to bind together successive generations was fast diminishing.

Rationalized ‘forgetting’, a product of social and generational (or ‘biological’) change, was echoed by the state and exemplified in the liberalizing activities of, for example, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Minister of Information and Tourism from 1962 to 1969, who became a symbol of the ‘new openness’ or ‘apertura’ in the mid-1960s. The concentration on ‘peace’ and even of reconciliation, as in Fraga’s organization of the celebrations of the ’25 años de paz’ in 1964, was partly a recognition that social harmony was a pre-requisite of successful economic development and of international geo-political pressures.26 By 1970, one of Fraga’s lieutenants was able to declare that ‘(economic) development and demythologization….. produce citizens (who are) enormously sensitized (‘sensibilizados’) to the value of peace and respectful of divergent attitudes’.27 Fraga’s attempt to rationalize memory rested on a realization of social change and on recognition of historical realities. It played down the mythical time of the hitherto official discourse, which had deliberately discarded the ‘liberal-Masonic-heterodox’ nineteenth century, in favor of what he called ‘real sociology’.28 In significant speeches given in Pontevedra and Oviedo in March 1958, for example, shortly before the declaration of the Fundamental Principles, he resolutely demonstrated that Spain had become modern in the early nineteenth century, (making a sociological rather than symbolic claim on 1808), a transition that had to be embraced 150 years later. With an ironic jab at the epic or heroic version of Francoist memory, he placed reform of historic memory at the center of modernization: ‘The process that was initiated with the French invasion (1808) is certainly not gratifying (grato); but this is no reason to avoid facing up to it. It is more agreeable, of course, to study the glorious times of the Catholic Monarchs; but the historian or the theorist of the social sciences cannot be so selective (…..) Here we will hardly be talking about the religious problem; we will leave the history of the heterodoxes to Menéndez Pelayo and that of the secret societies to Don Vicente de la Fuente’.29

How does this discourse relate to the interests of Francoism’s more humble social and political constituency or audience? In modern societies the contest to shape the meaning of ‘the nation’, partly through memory, is ever present and on-going, but it becomes urgent in times of war. This struggle to control memory takes place within what we might tentatively call a ‘war culture’.30 The remembered or reconstructed experience of the war is cultural in the sense that it attempts to give meaning to the war. Remembering, in the beginning, is part of survival, since war entails human loss, violence, forced migration and exile. Memory, after inter-state wars, has the potential to re-connect political cultures, times, places, family and generations, and, in this sense is an essential part of cultural demobilization. But after civil wars this never easy process is much more difficult. In this case, the war as a collective effort is only officially remembered as far as those who considered themselves ‘triumphant’ are concerned. Effectively, the rhetoric of the state granted an exclusive right to patriotic sentiments, self-justification, a sense of community, and a sense of sacrifice to the victors.31 While redemption of the Nationalist sacrifice was facilitated with the aid of the state, the Republican war effort and social revolution was depicted exclusively as a problem of public order and ‘a crime’. This ‘sin’, rather than sacrifice, could only be redeemed through punishment.32 Within a mental structure of repentance and expiation, work, hard labor, was enshrined as the inevitable means of redemption.33 It can be assumed that ‘republican mourning’, although rather a clumsy term which would not have been used in the post-war period, was consequently mostly very private. Privately submerging mourning within ‘forgetting’ was inevitably less psychologically painful for those who had supported the Republic, though it may have increased psychological harm in the long run.

Given the exclusivity of public memory, it is evident that an important part of the war culture in Spain was felt as a culture of repression as far as the defeated are concerned. The Republican war effort is denied expression, representation and public ritualization. This is essentially a continuation of the war through symbolic violence. Unlike the experience of veterans in a national war against an external enemy, there is no ‘homecoming’ in Spain in 1939 except for the heroes of the Nationalist cause, expressed, perhaps, in the message of the triumphalist Francoist poster that declared ‘Spain has arrived’. Republicans would wait until after 1975 for a sort of ‘homecoming’ and even then part of the tacit agreement to ‘forget the past’ was that this be ‘silent’, individualized and atomized.34

The concept of sacrifice is united to memory in cultures of war. Perhaps this is even more the case in a Catholic context where the lives (and deaths) of ‘martyrs’ are recalled as witness.35 A vast edifice was built upon the collective (though contested) memory of the Catholic family of martyrs and saints and the ideals they invoked and exemplified. Ritualized public devotions, like the open-air Masses that accompanied the occupation of towns and cities, were a continuation, either directly or indirectly, of the myth of the providential victory. They implicitly reaffirmed the dominance of social élites linked to the victory and to Francoism since their representatives figured prominently in the ritual. At the same time, popular devotion to local patrons was usually tolerated because they were seen as demonstrations of virtuous religiosity or piety.36 Although the resonance of religious meditation on the war and sublimation through victory diminished with time, in order to redeem the sacrifice, moral and political constraints were imposed on the whole of society. In war cultures, sacrifice at the front and in the rearguard is perpetuated as a rhetoric of discipline and austerity in the post-war context.37 This is the case in Spain in the instance of post-war employment, both in public and private sectors, and in war and widows pensions, where ex-combatants were favored by state legislation.38 Sacrifice was redeemed through religious sublimation, but also at the cost of repressing ‘the defeated’. Ultimately, as in other war cultures, sacrifice would eventually be rewarded materially with improvements in state social insurance and sickness benefits, though this was also partly motivated by the exigencies of modernization.39 The repressive environment eased, not only for political reasons, but because of social-cultural change. But the exclusive acknowledgment of only ‘Francoist’ sacrifice made the dismantling of wartime mentalities problematic.

(3) Memory and social change

The first memories of children recalling the initial days of the war in the summer of 1936 are invariably dominated by disturbing visual images. These were particularly of spectacular revolutionary gestures, like the burning of churches and their sacred relics, (destruction of the past), and of the desperation of adults, parents and family, in recitation of the Rosary, away from the parish church, or taking communion from priests in hiding. Soon these images would be lodged in the mind beside memories of Republican prisoners in chains and of execution squads. Neurological science can nowadays begin to explain why memory often deals in pictures, but understanding these images (and, ultimately forgetting them) is a cultural-psychological process.

Those who gave testimony in the 1960s and 1970s about the war often emphasized that the post-war was more devastating than the war itself, an important point about memory of civil wars in general. The human mind remembers desperate hunger and extreme cold very clearly.40 There may be long-lasting physical effects: defective physical growth of 1940s working class children was a reminder of the consequences of the war.41 But the psychological pressure of hunger can, with time, usually be dealt with. The loss of a mother painfully and permanently reshapes an individual’s world, however.42

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