The Disasters of War

Spain’s Ghosts: The Fight Over the Memories of War

After World War II, most European countries began to confront past atrocities and horrors—except for Spain under the rule of Franco. James McAuley on a new book that explores how the Spanish fight for how to remember or forget that period.

09.02.13 5:15 PM ET

“The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.”

For the beleaguered European states emerging from the rubble of the Second World War, there could scarcely be a more prescient description of what the nation’s “essence” would become than this, proffered by the inimitable Ernest Renan in 1882.

Some 60 years later, in the “zero hour” of 1945, the nations that had gone to war in the most epic conflagration the world has yet seen had little in common save for the urgency with which they sought to forget the unspeakable horrors they had witnessed and wrought. In the shadow of the millions massacred between 1939 and 1945, particularly in the Shoah, postwar national identities were constructed against the shameful recognition of what the late historian Tony Judt called “the crime,” the orchestrated “attempt by one group of Europeans to exterminate every member of another group of Europeans, here on European soil, within still living memory.”

Of course, in many of those nations—Germany, obviously, and France, especially—that initial urge to forget became within a generation a veritable obsession with collective culpability. Memory would propel Europe out of the ashes of Auschwitz, and memory would ensure that it never descended there again.

For one nation, however, 1945 was not at all a moment of reconstruction—of forgetting and then of remembering many things. That nation was Spain, which continued inhabiting Europe’s dark past well into the mid-1970s.

When dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Spain was not at all interested in its neighbors’ introspective atonement, even though the so-called Caudillo had been a fair-weather ally of Hitler’s. As a point of comparison, German schools by then already started requiring lessons on the history of 1933–45, and Chancellor Willy Brandt had famously fallen to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in 1967. In France, the Épuration—the postwar purge—had overseen hundreds of executions for collaboration with the Nazis in the years following liberation, and after 1968, the country’s leaders struggled to confront what Henri Rousso dubbed “le passé qui ne passe pas,” the shameful memory of their government’s willing complicity in deporting some 76,000 Jews.

In Spain, however, the new democratic government passed an Amnesty Law in 1977, just two short years after Franco’s death, forbidding the prosecution of war crimes committed during the regime. The past that does not pass was merely cast aside.  

Of course, things were not so simple. Thirty years later, in 2007, the socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed the Historical Memory Law, whose explicit purpose was to “establish measures in favor of those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the Dictatorship.” The Franco regime was officially condemned; symbols of its dominance were removed from public spaces throughout the country; and the state pledged its assistance in identifying and even exhuming the many victims buried in the regime’s countless mass graves.

The following year, Baltasar Garzón, the activist judge who now heads Julian Assange’s legal counsel, launched an official inquiry into alleged “crimes against humanity” committed by the Franquistas, only to be sanctioned and suspended from the bench in 2010 amid fierce public outcry.

Rousso had it right: le passé qui ne passe pas indeed. 

This is ultimately why Jeremy Treglown’s Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 is such a necessary book: it is the first—at least in English—to investigate Spain’s attempts “in recent years ... to ‘reclaim’ its modern history.”

As Treglown shows, that effort has been nothing short of daunting: the memory question in Spain is as raw as it is politicized, as personal as it is collective, and—above all else—a question fundamentally about dissonance. And the dissonance that characterizes long-suppressed Spanish memory is a product of the uncertainty over what, exactly, there is to remember.

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To his credit, Treglown, a British critic and a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, resists the temptation to vilify only the Franquistas, when the uncomfortable and oft-forgotten reality is that the glamorous, internationally heralded Republicans also deserve at least some blame for wartime brutalities as well.

In the Spanish Civil War, after all, the line between perpetrator and victim was much less clear than it became in the other theaters of the Second World War. Similarly, the Franco regime, as cruel as it was, nevertheless evolved over the years into a government tolerated in Europe and in the international community, garnering U.S. diplomatic recognition in 1953 and U.N. recognition in 1955. Given the absence of a universally accepted narrative explaining the wounds of the past, closure in Spain is next to impossible to achieve.

In one of the more moving sections in Franco’s Crypt, Treglown recounts his journey with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory on an attempted exhumation in 2008, a quest for the remains of one Waldo Ruiz Belmonte, an obscure, entirely apolitical man who for no apparent reason had been captured by Franco’s Falange, shot, and thrown in a nearby ditch in 1939. After all those years, Belmonte’s daughter and family wanted closure, or at least some form of agency over a past they couldn’t control and memories determined for them. That they wouldn’t get; Belmonte’s remains were nowhere to be found, despite all the evidence to suggest where they might be.

“Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936.” By Jeremy Treglown. $30; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 336 pages.

“Feeling like a stranger at a funeral, I moved a little way off, back up the hill,” Treglown writes. “The sun had disappeared some time ago, and once again the women set off for home.” As we watch Belmonte’s family disappear into the sunset, it becomes clear that in Spain, history lives. History is the lifeblood of the present, and history bears the promise of the future at the same time as it carries the chains of the past.

This becomes even clearer in his discussion of Franco’s crypt itself, the Valle de los Caídos—the Valley of the Fallen. Although the 2007 Memory Law prohibits it from celebrating the regime, there is little doubt that the Valle is a shining testament to the achievements of the Falange and the reactionary forces it unleashed in Spain for nearly 40 years. Its existence, in a sense, suggests the continued presence of those forces themselves today.

Again, though, the question the Valle presents is one of dissonance: “Is it a democracy’s job,” Treglown asks, “to protect its citizens from works that embody antidemocratic attitudes?”

Which is of course what makes the memory question so difficult in the first place, especially in Spain. Does coming to terms with the past require the destruction of its effects, tangible or intangible? Can memory liberate the present from the past? Or is it an eternal prison?

Treglown is rather impatient with the latter view. “When Spain passed its memory law, it was already faced with Europe’s steepest increase in unemployment,” he writes of the year 2007. “Today more than ever, digging up the past can seem like a new version of burying your head in the sand.”  

Perhaps. But confronting the ghosts of history takes time—decades, if not centuries. The case of nearly ever other nation in postwar Europe has shown that only when the past is engaged with honesty and without agenda can a nation hope to address the problems of the present. Most other European nations started the process of selectively forgetting, obsessively remembering, and justly assessing their pasts 70 years ago. Spain has only just begun.