Civil War Still Haunts Spanish Politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

Antonio Feros, writing for the NYT (March 20, 2004):

While rescue crews were still picking through the rubble from the devastating explosions in Madrid last week, Spanish commentators were already making comparisons, not to 9/11, not to other terrorist attacks that had occurred in Europe over the last couple of decades but to the unrest in 1934 through 1936, the bloody period preceding the bitter Spanish Civil War.

Some on the left, for example, warned that Jose Maria Aznar's ruling center-right Popular Party was using the tactics of the Francoists and preparing a coup d'etat to prevent the Socialist Party from winning Sunday's national election. Later, critics on the right claimed that the Socialists had used illegal, antidemocratic tactics to win the vote -- as the left was accused of doing before and during the civil war. Thousands of Popular Party supporters chanted,"This is a robbery" in Madrid last Sunday night, after the results had been announced.

Regardless of the accuracy of such rumors, the fact that a 70-year-old conflict should so quickly come to mind indicates just how deeply ingrained the civil war is in the collective memory of the country and how it continues to have a profound influence on the ways Spaniards speak about national politics...

...Just this last Wednesday, during a press conference to present his new film, Pedro Almodovar, the celebrated Spanish director, referred to rumors that blamed the Popular Party government for"planning a coup d'etat on Saturday night to prevent the victory of the Socialists."

That the civil war should remain a searing political reference point more than 25 years after democracy was established is not as odd as may at first seem. Some of Spain's main political parties, including the Socialist, the Communist and some nationalist parties, played substantial roles before and during the civil war, and analysts believe that their ideologies, tactics and goals have not changed substantially since then.

The Popular Party did not exist during the civil war, but it was originally founded in the late 1970's by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, a minister of Francisco Franco during the 1960's; and on occasion it has been regarded as the offspring of Francoist ideology and tactics. Therefore, to understand the real intentions of each political party, the argument goes, one must look at what happened before and during the civil war.

Yet just what happened during that period -- when 300,000 people died in action, 400,000 were forced into exile and another 400,000 were imprisoned by Francoists during and after the war -- has become the subject of increasingly bitter dispute.

Pio Moa, a journalist and historian, is probably the best known of the recent crop of revisionists. His several books on the Republic (1931-1936) and the civil war have been enormously popular."Los Mitos de la Guerra Civil" ("The Myths of the Civil War"), published last year, sold more than 100,000 copies in a few months. In it Mr. Moa systematically questions the main thesis accepted by a majority of Spanish historians: that Franco overthrew the democratically elected government. In the words of Stanley Payne, a historian at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Mr. Moa disputes"the notion that leftist politics under the Republic were inherently democratic and constitutionalist and the idea that the civil war was the product of a long-standing conspiracy by wealthy reactionaries rather than a desperate response to stop a revolutionary process that had largely destroyed constitutional government."

In addition, Mr. Moa maintains that Franco's victory saved Spain from the trauma of revolution and territorial fragmentation, and that his regime -- supported by a majority of Spaniards -- helped modernize Spain and provided the conditions on which to build today's democratic system.

To many of his critics, Mr. Moa's accounts are based more on political than historiographical considerations. They say his real target is not other academics but the Socialist Party. Enrique Moradiellos, a historian at the University of Extremadura, wrote in an e-mail message on Monday that Mr. Moa's account is mainly a recycling of the Francoist interpretation of the Republic and the civil war, and that his real intention is to present the Socialist Party as an extreme leftist party with a natural tendency to use a revolutionary strategy against democratically elected governments...

...Using history for political purposes is, of course, common all over the globe. And the attempt to control the story of this period is similar to what is happening elsewhere in Europe. In Italy, since the election of a center-right coalition, there has been a growing movement to rehabilitate the reputation of Fascism under Mussolini. In Germany, an increasing number of books, television series and newspaper articles have detailed the suffering of the German civilians during World War II and questioned the morality of some of the Allied attacks.

But many historians in Spain are still troubled by the trend toward using history as a weapon in political debates."The use of the civil war to interpret the present is very dangerous," Mr. Moradiellos warns."And I am afraid that if we continue to do this we might provoke a radicalization of the political situation that could bring unwanted results."

comments powered by Disqus