Daniel Hannan: Lorca's skeleton speaks of a new Spain

Roundup: Talking About History

[Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He has written eight books on European policy, speaks French and Spanish and is author of The Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain.]

... Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when he was exactly my age, Lorca was shot by Nationalist sympathisers in Granada, and his body thrown into a mass grave. The reasons for his assassination have never been fully explained. It may have been his Leftist sympathies, or his homosexuality, or it may simply have been a grudge. Until recently, no one much wanted to raise the subject.

Now, though, Lorca's body is to be unearthed, and the story of its exhumation is the story of Spain's recent past. For a long time, the first rule of Spanish society was "Don't mention the war".

It was almost impossible to get Spaniards to talk about what happened between 1936 and 1939: as soon as they sensed that a conversation was tending in that direction, they would deftly change the subject.

I have a Spanish friend, a former MEP whom I know to be from a prominent Nationalist family. We have known each other for 10 years, stayed at each other's houses, chaperoned each other's wives.

But the closest he will come to mentioning his father's sympathies is to say: "My grandfather was a Carlist." (The Carlists were supporters of a pretender to the throne who had fought two earlier civil wars, and who fell in almost to a man behind the Nationalist side in 1936.)

My friend's squeamishness is understandable. The truth is that, during the civil war, Spaniards did unspeakable things to each other. Relatively few died in battle: the front line was a ramshackle, Iberian affair, with ordnance hurled ineffectively back and forth. When the Soviet Union started backing the Republic, a German liaison officer was heard to remark (to Franco's mortification): "This isn't a Spanish war any more: it's a real war."

No, the true abominations took place behind the lines. When territory was captured, units from the victorious side would round up people who were suspected of having voted the "wrong" way. Tens of thousands were executed in cold blood.

As another Spanish friend – this one a socialist – put it to me: "If my grandfather had burned down the church where yours was priest, and if your great-uncle had commanded the firing squad that killed my grandfather, you can see why neither of us would want to raise the subject."

Both sides were bloody, intolerant and authoritarian. Most of us, I suspect, would have wanted to be somewhere in the middle, standing for personal liberty, free elections, property rights, the rule of law. But this option was closed. The few who tried to advocate it – men like the grandfather of former prime minister José María Aznar – were promptly condemned to death by both Left and Right.

Within hours of the insurgency, the Republican Prime Minister telephoned the Nationalist General Mola to seek terms. Mola replied: "You have your followers, and I mine. If we were to strike a deal, we should both be betraying our ideals and our men."

It was true: Spaniards had reached the point where they felt they could settle their differences only by force. To their credit, they have never since tried to shuffle off the blame on to a few ringleaders. They know that the horror that overtook their country had roots in every town, every village.

Spaniards, in short, had good reason to want to bury the whole foul business. The past was left undisturbed, like the communal graves. Until perhaps 10 years ago, if Spaniards wanted to read about the civil war, they generally relied on translations of works by British historians.

Then two things changed. First, the last of the wartime generation, sensing that their end was near, started to unburden themselves. Memoirs and local histories began to appear, and sold in astonishing numbers. Fuller chronicles of the period soon followed. Today, almost every Spanish bookshop has a civil war section...

... Lorca's descendants were initially against his disinterment: like many of their compatriots, they wanted no part in disturbing ghosts. In the end, in Lorca's case as in the nation as a whole, the exhumers got their way. Having had my doubts at first, I am glad of it.

Spaniards are excavating their history with as much reverence as the graves themselves: slowly, patiently and with gentle brushwork. The dead deserve as much: they have suffered enough.

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