LONDON—When it comes to living through fascism Spain provides two lessons for us all. You might want to forget it but you can’t. And instead of delivering success it ends in isolation and decline.
I have one semi-farcical personal experience of how that process showed itself.
It happened in 1961, 22 years after Generalissimo Francisco Franco became the caudillo, the self-appointed absolute leader of Spain, a dictatorship that would last until he died in 1975.
My wife and I had driven across the Spanish border from France on our way to Barcelona. We stopped for lunch at the first major town after the border, Figueres, where we also planned to see the birthplace of Salvador Dalí.
The simple act of crossing the border quickly revealed a lot about Spain under fascism. One was psychological. The Guardia Civil who policed the border were surly and examined all documents and luggage as though interrogating a potential criminal. Another was physical: after the quality of French roads the Spanish roads were crap. The country was decades behind in coping with modern traffic.
The only place in Figueres that looked inviting as a pit stop was a hotel in the center of town. Music and laughter came from the dining room. It was around 2 p.m. and a large wedding party was winding up.
They occupied most of the tables. We were taken to a table at the side of the room by a waiter who seemed to have come from a more formal age than we were used to that required a black coat and starched shirt even in the heat of the day. But he was polite and handed us the menu.
We ordered white asparagus followed by lamb cutlets, and two glasses of the excellent cheap local bubbly, cava.
The last of the wedding party were leaving, having consumed a good deal of cava and full of happy spirits that were otherwise not very apparent in this town.
Just as the asparagus was served there was a small cracking sound from above, followed by a larger one, seeming like a detonation. The white plaster ceiling of the dining room disintegrated. Large pieces of plaster fell where the wedding party had been, smashing into the tables. A slowly enveloping cloud of powdered plaster completed the effects.
Some pieces of plaster were large enough to have seriously maimed anyone at those center tables. We were unharmed, but for a coating of dust that also settled over the asparagus like a condiment.
There was about 30 seconds of silence in which the staff were frozen in place and then, apparently unshaken, they set about removing the plaster from the tables, as if structural failures like this were commonplace.
Our waiter returned and asked if we were ready for the lamb. We beheld his composure with wonder. He began brushing dust from our table and removed the unfinished cava, now clouded like seltzer. We dusted ourselves off and said that we were too shaken to eat.
This perturbed him more than the collapsed ceiling. He spoke quite good English, and was desolated by our lack of appetite. Indeed, he left us feeling feeble, lacking in resilience—a resilience and stoicism that was clearly ingrained in the entire dining room staff.
Too much can be made of metaphors, but this episode did seem to be an apt symbol of Spain under Franco: decrepitude and repression borne with stoicism and a kind of fatalistic resilience. And today, as the shadow of a resurgent totalitarianism looms large again in the world, Spain is demonstrating just how long it can take to shake off the crippling stigma of a tyrant.
Franco was buried in a state mausoleum, itself buried deep in the base of a mountain not far from Madrid. The site, named the Valley of The Fallen, was prepared long before Franco died, with the forced labor of political prisoners. Along with Franco there are mass tombs containing the remains of 33,847 people killed in the Spanish Civil War—from both sides.
Now Spain’s socialist government is preparing to exhume Franco’s body and rebury it in some as yet unspecified but obscure location. The deputy prime minister said, “Democracy is not compatible with a tomb in honor of the memory of Franco.”
Spain has tip-toed away from the trauma of the civil war as it has carefully re-crafted a democracy in which the parties of the left and the right have alternated in power. There was an unspoken pact not to revisit the violent divisions of the past. It was unspoken, but it had a name: the pacto de olvido, pact of forgetting.
In 1977, as the fledgling democracy emerged, an amnesty law was passed that protected Franco’s former henchmen, both civilian and military, from criminal prosecution. There was no equivalent of Germany’s de-Nazification program or of Chile’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission established after the death of General Augusto Pinochet.
As a result of this act of willful amnesia there is no single museum devoted to the history of the civil war and Spanish history between 1936, when the war began, and 1939, when it ended, is a yawning lacuna in the curriculum of Spanish schools.
In some ways the educational value of the Civil War has been a lot more apparent to us than to the Spaniards. For one thing, it produced some ground-breaking literature, beginning with one of the last century’s great American novels, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Hemingway designed a war narrative in which the hero, Robert Jordan, represented supposedly American, not Spanish values. Although Jordan was fighting on the Republican side against the fascists, he was placed in nobility above the factional treacheries of the left as the one who would give his life for the liberal cause—and, this being Hemingway, for the love of a woman.
Senator John McCain was in thrall to this view of war with honor. He liked to quote Jordan’s thematic speech: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” The novel, McCain said, “instructed me to see the world as it is.”
The reality was more complicated than that. Another literary masterwork, this time non-fiction, nailed just how morally confusing the Spanish Civil War was. In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell provides a gut-wrenching account of his own experience fighting with the left, during which he nearly died.
Orwell exposed the cynical exploitation of the war for their own purposes by Germany and Italy supporting Franco and, more controversially, by Soviet Russia, ostensibly supporting the left but actually using the war as cover to liquidate those factions deemed to be unreliable allies of Moscow.
Orwell was so disillusioned with the mendacity of the left’s leaders that his reporting for the British socialist weekly The New Statesman was censored by editors who refused to face the truth: that when it came to monsters there was nothing to choose between Stalin and Hitler. Both used Spain to test their new ideas about how to conduct total war.
The result of that epiphany for Orwell was that it led to his two allegorical masterpieces, Animal Farm and 1984.
Another mark of the significance to us of the Spanish Civil War is that it is the only time a private army of Americans was recruited to fight in a foreign conflict. Hemingway’s character Jordan was modeled on a Californian, Robert Merriman, who led the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, one of two American units fighting with the International Brigade on the Republican side. The other, the George Washington Battalion, was led by African-Americans.
The American units were so badly mauled by Franco’s forces that they combined to survive. Even then, they suffered a casualty rate of 50 percent. Some of Merriman’s fellow officers were captured and executed. Merriman himself disappeared without trace.
One thing that should have been learned from this experience is the shifting meaning of the terms used to define political allegiance.
Even the basic “left” and “right” were without firm boundaries. And each included factions in lethal conflict with each other, as Orwell documented with a deadly precision. Many who fought with the two American units were socialists and communists who on this riven battlefield, if they had any common cause at all, were hopelessly romantic idealists who believed not so much in any ideology as in a resolutely American idea of what constituted good and evil.
Hemingway, in his quasi-biblical prose—“the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for”—extracts the same elegiac note from what was a nasty war in which Orwell was the more reliable moral teacher. The only term of which there was never any doubt of its meaning was fascism. That, at least, never hid its intentions to rule by subjugation and terror.
Spain, sealed off from the advances of the rest of post-war Europe, was a dismal place where basic services were second-rate, and not just the dining room ceilings: the roads with potholes as big as bomb craters, single-pump gas stations serving only one standard government-delivered low octane gas and beaches patrolled by civil guards looking out for banned bikinis. The people were dispirited and increasingly conscious of living in an archaic backwater.
As it turned out, Spanish fascism way outlasted the German and Italian versions, and Franco was the only fascist leader to die in his bed. In the end, beyond the rivers of blood spent to resist it and the humiliation of enduring it, there was an inescapable result: pervasive mediocrity that ensured national failure. (After 70 years the Soviet Union fell for the same reasons.)
In 2011 another socialist government passed the “Historical Memory Law” that slowly began the process of dealing with the lingering physical residue of the war. Many Republican war graves, deliberately left unrecorded, were tracked down and marked. Franco statues were toppled and his name removed from numerous boulevards.
The Spanish Catholic church, which in 1936 had played a key part in urging on Franco’s original military coup against the democratically elected Republican government and was aligned closely with his regime (partly because of the Vatican’s deep aversion to communism) resisted these changes, wanting to keep in place the pact of forgetting.
Many among the older generations felt the same way; towns, villages and families had been so deeply split by the wartime allegiances that forgetting was the only way to find a certain peace of mind.
But Spain is different now. The 500-foot high stone cross atop the mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen has an ineffable whiff of Mussolini-style monumentalism. The pairing of God and tyranny is offensive. There are still problems afflicting the young democracy, the principal one being Catalonian separatism. But nobody is going to war over that.
Spain’s last war was, in a real sense, everybody’s war. It foretold what was to come. But its message continues: In the new uncertainties of Europe—Hungary and Poland yielding to so-called strong men, Austria, Germany, France and the UK flirting with racist populism—Spain is a democratic bastion, and no longer backward in any detail. It has lived through totalitarianism and won’t go back.