The hard work of remembering and debating

The Guardian tells us Spain has not faced and struggled with its fascist past the way other countries have – that Franco distorted that history for 40 years and then Spain just carried on in the same direction.

Even some of Vázquez’s friends are unsympathetic to his quest for documents. “I’ve got friends in Madrid who say, ‘What’s the point? Just leave it’,” he says, but he has no intention of doing that, believing that Spain has a long way to go before its accounts with the civil war are settled.

He reserves particular ire for the memorial of the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen). It was claimed by Franco that this grandiose basilica, crypt and monument – built near Madrid, in part by Republican prisoners, and inaugurated in 1959 – would represent a “national act of atonement”. Franco himself is buried there.

Dominated by a giant cross and built at the behest of the dictator, who devoted his life to cleansing Spain of godless Marxists, the Valle de los Caídos has never come close to being a site of national reconciliation. A few weeks ago, in a historic ruling, a judge ruled that the remains of two Republican victims of summary executions could be exhumed and reburied in “dignified” fashion somewhere else. “That place is a scandal,” says Vázquez. “It is simply a fascist memorial. It’s unacceptable.”

Another father in the Fossar group has reluctantly come alone. Sergio Lobo wanted to bring his 12-year-old daughter, Candela, but she backed out. “She says they’re not teaching her about this at school. She doesn’t feel like she understands enough,” he says. (Candela is not alone: a major survey a few years ago found that 69% of 14-to 17-year-old respondents said they had received little or no information about the civil war.)

The history of slavery and Jim Crow used to be very inadequately taught in US schools. Imagine how bad the teaching must have been, to make Gone With the Wind so popular as novel and then movie – not to mention Birth of a Nation. Spain should turn away from that example.

Two things torment Lobo: the disappearance without trace of his grandfather and the sense that his daughter’s generation will grow up in ignorance of the bloody times that claimed his life. “Why haven’t we done what other countries have done?” he asks. “Why haven’t we done what Germany did and performed the hard work of remembering and debating? Why don’t the schools do more? I try with Candela, but it’s very difficult.

“The fact it is left to an Englishman to take guided tours of this place tells you something. We have just stuck a bandage on top of the wound and forgotten about it. It won’t do. Here in Catalonia all the talk is about independence from Spain. Yes, that’s all well and good. But first things first. I fear that my daughter will not be able to tell her daughter about what the civil war really was.”

There is no museum in all of Spain devoted to the Civil War.

“It is pretty astonishing,” says Paul Preston, the eminent British historian of 20th-century Spain, “that there isn’t a museum that tries to give the whole picture and represent all the sides to the civil war.” Preston sits on the international board of the Association of the International Museum of the Civil War (Amigce) which has formally asked Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, to provide a suitable building for such a museum. The project, which would be self-funding and non-profit, has the support of the Orwell Society in Britain and the relatives of International Brigaders around the world. It has also received a remarkable letter of support from the National Socialism Documentation Centre in Cologne, the largest regional memorial site for the victims of Nazi Germany.

But Spain is not Germany. The legacy of the past is more contested and considerably more complicated. “It is still so Manichean in Spain,” says Preston. “It’s still very much ‘those not with us are against us’. And there are still a lot of people who think Franco was wonderful.”

There are still a lot of people who think Hitler was wonderful. There are still fascists everywhere.

Abroad the Spanish Republicans’ doomed struggle against Franco and the fascist powers of Germany and Italy was commemorated in the work of writers such as Orwell, André Malraux, Ernest Hemingway and Victor Serge. The world remembers a noble fight to safeguard a fledgling democracy from the fascist menace of Franco, backed by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

But during the decades of the Franco dictatorship, a counter-version of history was prosecuted with ferocious energy, one in which Nationalist soldiers stepped in to save old Catholic Spain from the alien, hostile forces of atheism and communism. “Spain suffered 40 years of national brainwashing and terror,” says Preston. “The aim of that war had been to destroy as many Republicans as possible. And under the Franco regime you saw the institutionalisation of his victory.”

Yes, well, Hitler and Mussolini and Quisling all lost and were killed. Franco survived and stayed in power, and in the Cold War he became an ally of the quondam Allies. That’s one of our shames.

Over the past decade or so, the new spirit of inquiry has generated an outpouring of books, films and documentaries about the civil war. In the former battlefields of Aragón, Catalonia and Castile, searches conducted by Emilio Silva’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, founded in 2000, have led to the recovery of the remains of nearly 2,000 victims of Francoist killings. Like the fictional narrator of Soldiers of Salamis, Silva went looking for the past, beginning with the location and exhumation of the remains of his own grandfather from a ditch in north-west Spain. His work helped to launch a memory movement, focused on reclaiming the lives erased from the history books during the Franco era.

Then, in 2007, the Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, went far beyond what his predecessors were willing to risk in the 80s and 90s. Though opposed by the conservative Popular party, Zapatero passed a Law of Historical Memory – a kind of legislative riposte to the pacto de olvido. The new law formally condemned the Franco regime, gave recognition to victims on both sides and offered support to their relatives. It also decreed that overtly Francoist symbols were to be removed from public buildings and spaces.

Ah now what does that sound like? The move to get rid of Confederate flags and other monuments in the US. We do have so much in common…

Nearly 10 years on, that last injunction is still the source of bitter controversy. In December, Manuela Carmena, the new mayor of Madrid and the first leftwing incumbent of that post for 24 years, announced that 30 street names in the capital with a connection to Franco were to be changed. Amid fierce resistance, it still hasn’t happened. There are still, it seems, two Spains when it comes to re-examining the civil war.

Nevertheless, according to Faber, something fundamental has changed. “The old argument that Spain is different from other countries in how it deals with issues like the mass graves no longer holds. Even rightwing parties no longer feel they can be on the wrong side of history. I talked to Silva recently and he said he feels that the ‘commonsense’ view has shifted. Before, the feedback over exhumations would be about misgivings over stirring up the past. That kind of blowback isn’t happening any more.”

Now if we can just manage not to elect a fascist president in the US…

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