The Sacred Dead

Helen Graham

  • Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley Payne and Jesús Palacios
    Wisconsin, 632 pp, £27.95, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 299 30210 8

In one of the best documentaries about present-day Spain’s intractable history wars, two Swedish filmmakers visit the Valley of the Fallen, the mausoleum Franco had built outside Madrid to commemorate his victory in the Civil War.[*] They are accompanied by 86-year-old Andrés Iniesta, who became a political prisoner in 1939 when he was 17, spent nearly twenty years in prison and was one of the 20,000 forced labourers who built the mausoleum. The filmmakers wanted him to meet the abbot, chosen by Franco in 1958 and still in post in 2007. But staff at the ticket kiosk asked him to pay – the mausoleum’s upkeep is partly dependent on public funds – and he was furious. ‘You can’t charge me! I built it! This is my place! How dare you try to charge me!’ (In the end one of the filmmakers paid for his ticket.) Later in the documentary, when the filmmakers asked the abbot about the cost of Francoism, the abbot categorically denied the regime’s involvement in mass killings and the terror the postwar dictatorship imposed on large swathes of Spain’s civilian population, reducing to a Manichean parable complicated issues of social and economic change. In reality the Civil War was fought over what kind of country post-imperial Spain could be, how it would pay its way and who would have a voice in its politics. The abbot’s time-locked tirade brings echoing down the years the social critic Mariano José de Larra’s despairing cry that, for Spain, ‘days’ – as in decades or even centuries – ‘do not pass.’ The abbot’s utterances belong to mythology, not history, but the fact that such views still inhabit both church and state, and find a positive response in considerable sectors of Spanish society, is a reminder of the transformation wrought by Francoism in its first decade, ideologically reinforced by the dictatorship throughout its remaining forty years, and producing effects which haven’t dissipated in the forty years since.

The course was set in July 1936 when Franco and other officers in Spain’s colonial army, angered by the young republic’s efforts to achieve a measure of social levelling, staged a coup. They miscalculated the degree of resistance their coup would face in an already democratising society and had to be rescued from looming failure by Hitler and Mussolini. The Axis arsenals enabled a technologically sophisticated total war to be waged that included the unprecedented aerial bombardment of Republican-held cities – this war is the one that is generally remembered. But there was another war already taking place – a subterranean, civilian-on-civilian war of extreme violence. In military-held areas vigilantes killed those they saw as embodying the threat of social change: progressive professionals, Republican schoolteachers and ‘new’ women, as well as unionised workers or landless labourers who were benefiting from Republican land reform. In areas slowly being reconstituted as Republican, the killings targeted those perceived as representing forces hostile to change: priests, army officers, landowners or estate bailiffs. Often the motives were local and individual. The killings were carried out much more thoroughly and efficiently in the military-held zone, precisely because there ‘cleansing’ violence had from the start been driven and co-ordinated by army command. This off-battlefield war became the forcing house of Francoism as a modern and mass-mobilising movement, one that had evolved beyond recognition from the old regime coalition that launched the coup. The foot soldiers of the new Francoism were Catholic conservatives (notably, though not exclusively, from the north-central interior) who, through the crucible of war, came to believe in a sacred nation-state as a cause worth dying – and killing – for. After Axis firepower gifted Franco military victory early in 1939, it was this mass base that the dictatorship mobilised to eliminate the ‘enemy within’.

The story of that enemy, of the dictatorship’s victims, is increasingly well known abroad. Many thousands were executed after 1939, including Iniesta’s father, who had been the socialist mayor of a small town; up to a million men, women and children were sent to jails and work camps, as Iniesta was, or suffered other forms of preventive detention and punishment. But still far less known outside Spain is the other side of that story: how Franco achieved this mass repression by encouraging his new social base to denounce their Republican neighbours to state military tribunals. Tens of thousands responded, acting out of a combination of political conviction, grief at wartime losses, social prejudice, opportunism and fear. Key in this social complicity was the Francoist state’s appropriation of one special category of the extrajudicial dead: the civilians who had been killed behind the lines in ‘barbarous’ Republican territory. They were cast as the sacred dead, martyred for the nation, in whose name the dictatorship spoke and acted. Their bodies were exhumed in the 1940s, given ceremonial reburial and celebrated as representing the ‘eternal values’ of the Francoist state, their reburial placing them at Francoism’s foundations. These dead, the abbot’s father among them, were lauded for nearly forty years by a dictatorship determined to protect itself by ensuring the permanent ideological mobilisation of its supporters. Even today, in spite of the immense contribution of a civic memory movement aimed at dignifying Republican victims and integrating them into Spain’s public memory, it is these ‘martyred’ dead who remain a political problem precisely because they have never left myth, never entered history.

The problem in Spain hasn’t, then, been the Civil War itself – not even the dirty war away from the battlefields – so much as what Franco made of the war afterwards. The brutal novelty of this was for a long time obscured by the view of Franco as an old-fashioned autocrat, and the overlapping and probably more long-lasting, quasi-racist reading of his regime as an opéra bouffe dictatorship. The continuing quirks of Western representations allowed Francoism to hide in plain sight – a modern dictatorship, based on permanent ultranationalist mobilisation, demanding of its followers the endless reiteration of past divisions, ensuring that they remained ever present, with devastating consequences for the future.

It may seem far-fetched to argue that so much lasting damage was done by the strategy adopted by a dictatorship which ended so long ago. But it isn’t if we bear in mind two factors. First, that while Francoism managed to absorb huge economic and social change, there was no corresponding modification of the fundamentalism of its political class, or its many supporters. Second, that when Spain’s democratic transition came in the late 1970s, triggered by world economic recession and ‘overseen’ by the army, the deal negotiated by Francoist politicians and the democratic opposition left in place the bulk of state employees (civil servants, judiciary and security forces) while the opposition’s base in anti-Franco social movements from neighbourhood associations to the newly legalised trade unions was being eroded by the economic crisis. The result of all this has been that at no time since the transition has there been any challenge to either the political culture of Francoism or the unspoken assumptions of its enduring social base. So too the old politics of fear have continued to operate – not least in the gagging by judges (using fines and imprisonment) of those seeking to discuss the past. The ruling Popular Party, the constitutional beneficiary of Francoism, obviously has no interest in opening things up, especially when corruption and clientelism constitute the stuff of its daily politics. The centre-left PSOE has never seen much mileage in confronting the past either, notwithstanding its 2007 memory law, which has proved a blunt instrument for the dictatorship’s victims in their search for recognition and restitution. Both parties have always shown a strong distrust of civil society which is itself an enduring effect of Franco’s rule.

Spanish society today contains groups with widely differing memories of the period: those whose families were badly treated by Franco who want this acknowledged in order to achieve a measure of private closure and public justice; those who are still fearful (whether or not their families suffered directly); those who are indifferent (again, whether or not their families suffered directly); those who are ignorant of or who have repressed the knowledge of their families’ pasts as victims or perpetrators. Then there are the urban and provincial middling classes, more or less affluent constituencies for whom, irrespective of the past, an encounter with the real nature of Francoism would clash with their comfortable acceptance of the refurbished nationalist myth of his rule. According to their ‘articles of faith’ Franco was a guarantor of stability and economic growth whose ideology was founded in the idea of the sacred dead – conservative nationalism has latterly added ‘ETA’s victims’ to this category. Regional nationalism complicates the picture somewhat here. Nevertheless, the parallel between the current (mis)use of the victims of ETA and those earlier martyrs of Franco’s new Spain is striking. What Spain’s right wants today is an assurance that society can be a mirror of itself, and that it doesn’t need to take any notice of the discomfiting world of change both inside Spain and beyond its borders.

It is for such a readership – and its equivalents outside Spain – that Stanley Payne and Jesús Palacios appear to be writing. For them, the killing and repression of the decade that began in 1936 were just an operational side effect of Franco’s ‘conventional’ war, and were soon over. The brief chapter on ‘Franco and the Nationalist Repression’ largely ignores recent historiography to suggest, disingenuously, that there was really not much of a pattern to Franco’s repression. Similarly, the dalliance with Hitler was solely a matter of old-fashioned territorial temptation, and state violence inside Spain after 1939 just a little local difficulty with the marginal and maladapted (‘communists’). Here the authors avoid any analysis of broader historical change which might upset or complicate their vignettes of Franco as the bringer of order. All discussion of social and political conflict in 1930s Spain fits this rubric, while Payne and Palacios fast forward to talk up the 1960s, reproducing a eulogy to ‘apolitical’ economic growth reminiscent of Franco’s own technocrat ministers, who combined extreme social and political conservatism (they were members of Opus Dei) with a naive faith that trickle-down consumerism would be the key to a post-political future. The terror and torture in which the Franco state still dealt is airbrushed out of this biography, just as it has been from other conservative popular histories of Franco appearing in English. We get no new economic material or arguments on Franco’s policies in the 1960s, just a deferential impression of him as the captain at the helm – which isn’t so far from the undergraduate perennial that Franco was a ‘good thing’ because he brought the benefits of mass tourism to Spain, as if he was personally responsible for the climate, or the European economic boom. But for all this, Payne and Palacios astutely avoid hagiography, which would have undercut their declared intention of providing ‘objective and balanced’ coverage. Theirs are new objectivities for populist times.

In some ways Spain’s current history wars are reminiscent of the German Historikerstreit of the 1980s, when conservative historians sought to extract a usable past from Nazism. Spain’s equivalents also declare that the blame for bad things done by Franco lies elsewhere. International Bolshevism/Stalin, while not entirely relinquished as a scapegoat, no longer occupies centre stage, and Payne and Palacios recycle (along with much else) the Franco regime’s own explanation: the Spanish Republic was not a democracy anyway. The history wars in Spain involve the state and the historical profession: there is archival censorship (through the closure of public archives or selective admittance to them), and revisionist historians are on the publishing offensive: the entry on Franco and Francoism in the Spanish Royal Academy of History’s official dictionary of biography omits even the fact of dictatorship. If there are occasional reminders that not everyone sees Francoism as so harmless (an Argentinian judge has demanded the extradition of high-ranking officials from the late dictatorship), the Popular Party resolutely ignores all calls from other countries urging it to deal with the unfinished business of the repression (legal and economic redress or a census of the disappeared). Media censorship is also present, even if no longer enshrined in law: documentaries dealing with the past – whether made inside or outside Spain, including the one I mentioned – have failed repeatedly to find any mainstream TV channel prepared to broadcast them.

Francoism as a formal dictatorship is long gone, dispatched by the economic and political interests it served. But what lives on, aside from those same interests, is a particular sociological configuration of power which has never been truly challenged, above all not in its overweening sense of a quasi-hereditary right to rule. This exists today in its most unadulterated form in the Popular Party’s stronghold of Madrid, where politics has retreated into a time warp that reflects the establishment’s desire to keep politics as a concern of the old ‘families’ and their historic if now vestigial social base. It remains to be seen whether Podemos, the anti-establishment party born of the multi-form, socially radical street protest movement of 2011, can break into the closed political system in this year’s general election. Podemos is strategically intelligent and very media savvy, and its anti-corruption and anti-austerity message, plus its support for participatory democracy, sees it currently riding high in the polls. For the moment, though, it’s possible for the established parties to ignore many of the social constituencies produced by the past half-century of migration and urban change. Given the impoverishment of participatory democracy the Popular Party has overseen in recent years, it’s often hard to tell it apart from its Francoist predecessors, whose object was also to restrict and disable civil society. The Popular Party has been given a new alibi by the economic recession but the script is still familiar. The fog surrounding Francoism shows little sign of clearing, and, needless to say, will not be helped by Payne and Palacios’s manipulative and partial biography. Spain in the 21st century is, as it was in the 1930s, a touchstone of Europe’s anxieties.

[*] Mari Carmen España: The End of Silence directed by Martin Jönssen and Pontus Hjorthén (2008).