Book excerpt

Franco's Crypt

Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936

Jeremy Treglown

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Bad Memory
Ignacio Ruiz Vara is a security guard in Málaga, on the southern coast of Spain. He grew up there, as did his father and grandfather. There’s plenty of work these days for people in his business, especially looking after second homes and holiday developments, augmented now by building projects abandoned “until the economy picks up.” His own duties changed for a time, though, in 2007, when he volunteered to help take charge of San Rafael cemetery, a sixteen-acre sprawl on the west side of the town. This was once the place where Málaga’s poor, los humildes, were buried—originally well outside the old town, in the middle of farmland mainly given over to sweet potatoes. Now the area, on the way to the huge tourist airport, is part industrial, part social housing and blocks of flats. A small chapel with a lamp hanging off its corner was demolished to make way for a wider road. Much of the original cemetery wall has fallen down, and been replaced with high temporary fencing. A single-story gatehouse still stands, and here Ignacio had his base. The cemetery gates are kept locked.
The reason Ignacio volunteered, and the reason the cemetery needed a security guard in the first place, is that among its dead were more than four thousand people—mostly men but also women and children—executed without trial between 1936 and 1955: the period of Spain’s civil war and of the long, grim first phase of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Almost all were in fosas comunes, “mass graves.” Now their bones were being dug up, put into separate boxes, and prepared for DNA testing. No one knew how long the job would take, or even how many fosas—let alone how many bodies—were still to be found. It was organized very systematically, under the direction of a senior archaeologist, Sebastián Fernández. The project, locally based but loosely connected to a national program, was being paid for jointly by the town, the region of Andalucía, and the University of Málaga, where Fernández heads the humanities faculty. “Once all the exhumations are finished,” Ignacio told me, “the whole area will be turned into a park. In the middle will be a memorial carrying the names of everyone who can possibly be named.”1
For several years, all Spain has been searching for its disappeared. They are everywhere—in every region, in every kind of terrain. Families who stayed silent for decades have been urged, often by the victims’ grandchildren or great-grandchildren, to say what they suspect, or know, or saw. Politics has played its part. Under a law passed in 2007, when the socialist party PSOE2 was in power, anyone who can produce reasonable evidence of the existence of a mass grave is entitled to help in excavating it. The dotted map of likely sites, between the Basque country and Andalucía, Castilla-León and Valencia, makes the peninsula look like the face of a child with chicken pox.
One of the skeletons in Málaga belongs to Ignacio’s paternal grandfather, Diego Ruiz Schacht. Ignacio isn’t superstitious; he doesn’t imagine, he said, that Diego’s spirit haunts the cemetery, or is anywhere, in fact, but he is proud of his grandfather and showed me a picture of him that he carries in his wallet. Diego was a prodemocracy lieutenant in the Guardia Civil, well known for his resistance to corruption. Within the force, he had set up a multiparty group to police the police, and this may have been why he was picked for elimination.
The family had already seen a lot of changes before Diego was eliminated. Miguel Primo de Rivera’s military dictatorship, which had taken over Spain in 1923, collapsed after seven years. The king abdicated, and in 1931 a democratically elected government was installed—Spain’s first. It commanded the loyalty of working people and liberal intellectuals but was weakened by internal divisions, by questions about the legitimacy of the electoral process, by the apparent impossibility of solving the country’s economic difficulties, and by left-wing extremism of a kind that gave encouragement to its equivalent on the right. The Falange, Spain’s fascist party, was founded soon after, under the leadership of the charismatic José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator. In July 1936, Francisco Franco, a career soldier who had come to prominence in the army’s struggle to hang on to “Spanish” Morocco, took part in a kind of colonial invasion in reverse, against the home country. The military uprising—justified, it was argued, by the government’s manifest inability to protect sections of its own people, especially in the Church—had the support of most of Spain’s disproportionately large number of army officers and of the middle and upper classes, of almost all the still-powerful bishops, and of the mostly Catholic peasant population in Castilla la Vieja and Galicia. While Britain and France prevaricated over whether to back the Spanish government, the coup gained immediate aid, including troops and weapons, from Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin came in on the Republican side. Often called the Second World War’s dress rehearsal, the Spanish Civil War may be better seen as its first act.
Franco’s soldiers were a mix of hardened Spanish legionaries and North African mercenaries, quickly reinforced in the Málaga region by rebel troops based on the mainland and Fascist Italian motorized columns with light tanks. The port of Málaga was bombed from the air, shelled from the sea, then invaded by land. The extent of the casualties among fleeing civilians horrified even hardened observers, the writers Arthur Koestler and Franz Borkenau among them.3 Afterward, the rebels undertook a long purge of suspected Republican sympathizers—just as, in other areas, the Republicans were doing with suspected Nationalists, particularly priests—which continued into the 1940s under the notorious local prosecutor Carlos Arias Navarro, “the Butcher of Málaga.” Diego’s turn came in March 1937, when he was picked up at home in the middle of town. His son, Ignacio’s father, was seven at the time and is still unable to say much about that period without crying, but the scene was often described to the young Ignacio by his grandmother, who lived to be ninety-nine, and also by a friend’s voluble grandfather, who was in the same Guardia company as Diego. It’s generally said that victims were shot against the cemetery wall by the light from the chapel, but Ignacio takes a practical view: “The place is very big. It’s a long way to carry a lot of dead bodies. I think they were mostly shot inside, beside the graves.”
*   *   *
I went to the San Rafael cemetery because I was trying to make more sense of Spain—today’s Spain as well as that of 1936. I had traveled all over the country, where I live for part of every year in a remote mountain finca that through the centuries has seen more bad times than good. The region and its inhabitants keep their secrets. Asked about events when she was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, a normally talkative, friendly woman on the next farm closed her face and said, “No sé,” “I don’t know.” This was during a matanza, the December butchering of a pig that has been brought up in the yard, a procedure carried out by a couple dozen family and friends, old and young, who, within a day, efficiently turn the at first cheerful, then noisily indignant, then struggling, cumbersome, terrified animal into a tidy arrangement of joints, offal, and hanging sausages. Something about this struck me as resembling what must have happened in places such as San Rafael in 1936—the orderliness of the process, its unsentimentality.
Understanding Spain, though, is less a matter of seeing that its culture has been violent and cruel—which has often been said and anyway is true of most cultures, one way or another—than of recognizing more hidden respects in which the country and its component regions, for all their absorption into and enthusiastic collaborations with “Europe,” remain distinctive. These are partly a twentieth-century matter. Even if you set aside eight centuries of Islamic rule in Spain between A.D. 711 and 1492—a longer period than the one that has passed since it ended—and ignore the subsequent expulsions of Muslims and Jews and the ferocious expansion into America, Spain still feels different. Is it because, there, the wrong side won the Second World War? Was the cultural impact of the dictatorship as severe as that of Nazism? How is it remembered and what are its aftereffects?
Long after Hitler and Mussolini were dead, the regime they helped establish in Spain continued. Everyone between roughly forty and their mid-seventies today who was born in Spain was born under Franco, most of them went to school during his regime, and almost every man over sixty served in his armed forces. Buildings and infrastructure are part of his legacy, too: the creation of the monstrous crypt in which he is buried at the head of many of his troops, with its surrounding memorial park called the Valle de los Caídos, “Valley of the Fallen,” was supervised by him personally, and other grandiose public edifices and sprawling municipal apartment blocks that went up in the 1950s and ’60s are due to him. So also, more obliquely, is the fact that so much of the older urban architecture survives: while parts of Spain were bombed and shelled during the civil war, neutrality in 1939–45 saved it from the urban obliterations visited on other European countries. Meanwhile, the water that irrigates the fields and comes out of the tap in your hotel is as likely as not a long-term result of the dictator’s program of dam building; the electricity that lights the street, of his hydroelectric schemes. And then there is his legacy in the arts: painting, novels, films.
Told that the topic of this book was to be Franco’s influence on Spanish culture, more than one inquirer joked that a postcard might cover it. Such attitudes aren’t solely a matter of ignorance. An English speaker asked to name countries colonized by the Americans and British in the twentieth century would be unlikely to think of Spain, yet if you ask Anglophone people what book or film they most associate with the Spanish Civil War, the answer is usually For Whom the Bell Tolls or Casablanca or Homage to Catalonia. In 1980, Penguin published an anthology of Spanish Civil War Verse which, as was pointed out by the Mexican-born poet and editor Michael Schmidt, was written entirely in English (and for the most part not very well): “It seems rash … to produce a national anthology out of so essentially international a series of events.”4 International involvement has indeed been crucial to Spain’s modern history, and the part played by foreigners in the civil war was substantial and often honorable. No overall account of the period would be adequate that didn’t mention facts such as the death of Felicia Browne, an English painter who volunteered on the Republican side and was shot in Aragón during an attempt to blow up a Nationalist munitions train; or the support given to the Nationalists by the South African poet and war correspondent Roy Campbell. Yet La Guerra de España, or La Guerra Civil Española, was, as its Spanish names asserts, Spain’s own war, and in recent years the country has begun to “reclaim” its modern history. How it is doing so, and particularly the complex role played in the process by ideas about “historical memory,” are among the subjects of this book. Novels such as Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis and Almudena Grandes’s The Frozen Heart have in different ways reminded their international audience that while English speakers may use Spanish Civil War as a compound adjective, war is a noun, what it refers to is a fact, and in this instance the facts, however hard to understand and interpret, had most of their effects in Spain and on Spanish people. The conservative Nobel Prize–winning writer Camilo José Cela made this point forcibly when he dedicated one of his books “To the conscripts of 1937, all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral.”5
The novel those words introduce is one of many great works produced in Spain during as well as after the dictatorship that explore and embody what the civil war and the long dictatorship that followed were like. Yet these works were largely ignored abroad. People in other countries had concerns of their own, especially during and immediately after 1939–45, but a kind of political censoriousness was involved, too, not easy to distinguish in practice from censorship. Many Spanish intellectuals who were in danger from, or simply hated the idea of, the Franco regime moved out, especially to Latin America and France. Their own work, like that of the Soviet and East European dissidents who soon followed them, attracted foreign attention (though it wasn’t much noticed that the two groups were escaping mutually opposed ideologies). In this situation, anything produced by people who had stayed behind in Spain was thought suspect, and relatively little of it found its way abroad. Until Franco’s death there was, after all, a Spanish Republican government in exile, based in Mexico and widely recognized as the legitimate government of Spain. Mario Vargas Llosa has confessed that as a young man in Peru in the 1950s he read nothing by contemporary Spanish writers living in the Iberian Peninsula “because of a prejudice as widespread in the Latin America of those years as it was unjust: everything published over there reeked of fustiness, [the] sacristy, and Francoism.”6
This book describes some of what was ignored as a result of the fastidiousness Vargas Llosa speaks of: not least a whole library of books and films written and made under Franco that provide intimate, often subversive revelations about the war and what came after. The book also shows how some Spanish officials and patrons, though conservative in politics, actively helped good artists of all kinds continue to work as they wanted to. All this was part of the foundations of “cultural memory,” but memory in this sense of the word has become distorted over the past half century—roughly the period since Pierre Nora published the results of a group project conducted in France under the title Les lieux de mémoire, “Sites of Memory.” Fertile though the idea has proven, the problems with it, especially in its more diluted forms, are manyfold. They include sentimental politicization, escapism, complacency, and ignorance, and even after these are discounted, you’re left with questions: Doesn’t forgetting have cultural value, just as it does psychological value? Surely memory is notoriously unreliable? What about the mutations involved in generational change? (I remember some of what my parents and grandparents told me about the Second World War, but in passing it on to my children and grandchildren, I have to speak to their knowledge and preoccupations, and out of my own. What matters to us has changed and keeps changing.) In trying to identify what’s special about Spain, I soon found that much of it is related to a politically manipulated, culturally amnesiac obsession with “memory.”
So Spanish culture and memory are a diverse and continually evolving set of phenomena. Some novels written during the regime and about it, like some films, didn’t appear until after the dictator’s death in 1975, an event that in turn led to yet more recountings, each with its own new emphasis. In the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of our own, a generation that had grown used to the globalization of high culture and to national democracy began excavations that included the literal digging up of mass graves, a project related to similar ones in many other parts of the world. All this overlapped with another global phenomenon: mass tourism. It’s eerie to consider that the fosas comunes and other physical relics of the war and the dictatorship—among them Franco’s crypt in the mountains north of Madrid—were passed over by some of the first tourists speeding to the southern coast—tourists who brought money to the impoverished Francoist regime, whose expectations increasingly shaped and helped soften its policies, and on whom the country still depends for its economic survival.
*   *   *
Going to the cemetery at San Rafael was part of a series of inquisitive wanderings on my part, and while some were geographical, others were mental: reading Spanish novels and histories, watching Spanish films, looking at Spanish works of art, and pondering what they seemed to say. Human productions reveal things their makers don’t intend, Franco himself among them in his self-fantasizing novel Raza and the film based on it, and in the aggressive-defensive architecture of the Valley of the Fallen. Political systems, too, bad or good, contain the elements of their own destruction and replacement. Spain today, despite economic and social difficulties of kinds that it shares with most of its still-privileged region, is ruled by a reasonably secure, responsive parliamentary democracy. It feels, in other words, like other parts of western Europe; and yet it doesn’t. Its particular system emerged in the 1970s and ’80s from a determination that things should be unlike they had been for the previous three and a half decades. The dictatorship itself had been a reaction against prior arrangements and had some positive consequences. Opinion polls in Spain consistently suggest a significant, though decreasing, level of approval for the Franco regime.7 This is found more in the old than the young—though the anecdotes of some parents of teenagers suggest that José Antonio Primo de Rivera may be gaining a new kind of appeal among the young—but democracy must involve a respect for people’s views regardless of their age, and the dismissive argument that the older generation was educated under Franco, while true, is counterbalanced by the fact that the young were educated after his death in 1975, a turning point whose implications their parents and grandparents, too, have had almost forty years to get used to.
The extent to which studies of twentieth-century Spanish history and culture are polarized has so often been commented on that it’s important to be clear that there are exceptions, some of which I discuss. Still, the general point made by Eric Hobsbawm and others remains true, that “in creating the world’s memory of the Spanish civil war, the pen, the brush and the camera wielded on behalf of the defeated have proved mightier than the sword and the power of those who won.”8 To take just one example, a recent collection of essays about the cultural consequences of Francoism, published by a university press, begins with an admission—or is it a boast?—by the two editors that they are not interested in hearing anything favorable about the regime, that, as they put it, as far as the anti-Nationalist orthodoxy is concerned, their work “departs from a decidedly critical stance.”9 It’s not only just but satisfying to condemn past evils from the safety of the present, but given some of what has been and is still being done in the name of Western democracy, there’s a touch of hypocrisy in the process, and we learn more from trying sympathetically to understand the past, however bad it was, than from simply putting what we think we know of it under our own moral template. Very many people have reason to remember bad things about the civil war and the dictatorship: to them, Franco is a bad memory, like a bad dream. But “bad memory” also means forgetfulness and falsification. When Spain’s campaigners for historical memory accuse their opponents and critics of olvido, amnesia, they have themselves often forgotten, or overlooked, or are simply ignorant of, the rich historical deposits in their own culture that are my subject.

Copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Treglown

Jeremy Treglown is a British writer and critic who spends part of every year in Spain and has written about the country for Granta and other magazines. His previous books include biographies of Roald Dahl, Henry Green (which won the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award), and V. S. Pritchett (which was short-listed for the Whitbread Biography Award and the Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize). Formerly the editor of The Times Literary Supplement and a fellow of the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, he has taught at Oxford, University College London, Princeton, and the University of Warwick, and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review.