Spain’s His­tor­i­cal Mem­ory

Timeless Travels Magazine - - SPAIN -

Out­side­the pri­vacy of the home, mem­ory of the civil war un­der Franco was a vic­tor’s mem­ory. The con­flict, which be­gan as a right-wing mil­i­tary coup against a le­git­i­mate demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, was cast as a bib­li­cal strug­gle be­tween Catholic Spain and Bol­she­vik an­ar­chy. This di­choto­mous his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive un­der­pinned the dic­ta­tor­ship through­out its four decades.

Above all, it helped le­git­imise Franco’s au­thor­i­tar­ian hold on Spain by dis­miss­ing democ­racy as ut­terly un­work­able in the coun­try. By the time of his death in 1975, he had al­ready cho­sen his suc­ces­sor – King Juan Car­los - to en­sure that it would never re­turn. Very soon, how­ever, it be­came clear that the young monarch had other ideas. He went en­tirely against the Gen­er­al­isimo’s wishes by de­cid­ing to steer Spain to­wards the democ­racy it en­joys to­day.

By 1978, Spain had a new con­sti­tu­tion. If it was passed, how­ever, with­out any sign of a dreaded re­turn to civil war, it did so on the as­sump­tion that any awk­ward ques­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity for the re­pres­sion which char­ac­terised the dic­ta­tor­ship were best left to a later date. This com­pro­mise be­tween the young po­lit­i­cal par­ties of the late 1970s was known as the ‘pact of for­get­ting’. The truce ended with the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment of José Luis Ro­dríguez Za­p­a­tero in 2007. His party passed a ‘His­tor­i­cal Mem­ory Law’ with the stated aim ‘to rec­og­nize and ex­pand rights in favour of those who suf­fered per­se­cu­tion or vi­o­lence, for po­lit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, or re­li­gious be­liefs, dur­ing the Civil War and the Dic­ta­tor­ship’.

Though it sought to cre­ate room for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the law has in­stead been a source of po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion. Op­po­nents claimed that it ran counter to the spirit of the tran­si­tion to democ­racy and threat­ened to open old wounds. The con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment which re­placed Za­p­a­tero stood by its word and com­pletely slashed the His­tor­i­cal Mem­ory Law’s bud­get.

Whilst Spain’s politi­cians strug­gled with the best way to deal with their shared but di­vi­sive past, books about the war con­tin­ued to be pub­lished, films pro­duced, ar­ti­cles writ­ten, and re­search car­ried out. The re-en­act­ments form an im­por­tant part of this col­lec­tive and on­go­ing ef­fort to con­front some of the more un­com­fort­able as­pects of Spain’s his­tory and over­come the temp­ta­tion to re­main silent. The coun­cil of La Fatarella be­lieve the an­nual events are an im­por­tant re­minder not to re­peat the er­rors of the past, a view shared by En­rique Lera of the Aso­ciación Cul­tural Me­mo­ria de Es­paña (ACME), who thinks re-en­act­ments are at a unique ad­van­tage to ‘of­fer the op­por­tu­nity to re­mem­ber what hap­pened, so as never to re­peat it.’

In 2007 the Cata­lan Gov­ern­ment passed its own his­tor­i­cal mem­ory leg­is­la­tion. The re­sult was ‘Memo­rial Demo­cratic’, a con­tro­ver­sial pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion which aims to re­cover the tra­di­tions of free­dom and democ­racy in Cat­alo­nia, which it ar­gues have been sus­pended at var­i­ous points through­out his­tory – and above all, un­der Franco.

facts un­der­stood so that peo­ple might know what hap­pened.’’ Asked if they feel that re-en­act­ments have any­thing unique to con­trib­ute to the re­cov­ery of his­tor­i­cal mem­ory, they replied that they “help to bring his­tory closer to the gen­eral pub­lic in a pleas­ant and sim­ple man­ner which can reach a great num­ber of peo­ple”.

What ex­actly do the re-en­ac­tors want to stop Spaniards from for­get­ting? The re­con­struc­tion of the Bat­tle of the Ebro no doubt helped ‘books from the li­brary come to life’, as Primera Línea put it. Lo­cals who were present that day had a rather unique op­por­tu­nity to see pe­riod uni­forms and equip­ment first hand. But his­tory is more than facts, fig­ures, ranks and uni­forms – it’s ideas, pol­i­tics, and other slip­pery so­cial forces. This awk­ward an­cil­lary has never been clearer than in the case of Span­ish Civil war, where, in Chris­tian’s words, “there were so many dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies, groups of peo­ple fight­ing for their thoughts and free­dom”.

Like many of his friends that day in La Fatarella, Chris­tian finds him­self drawn to the Span­ish Re­pub­lic. The sol­diers which they im­i­tate died for a lost cause. They went un­ac­knowl­edged through­out forty years of dic­ta­tor­ship, and the re-en­act­ments of­fer an over­due op­por­tu­nity to ren­der homage to their des­per­ate fight. Asked why the mem­bers of ACME are so pas­sion­ate about re-en­act­ing, En­rique Lera points to the deep de­sire of its mem­bers to “ren­der homage to those who sac­ri­ficed so much for their ideas, as well as those who were obliged to fight”. In this re­spect, the re-en­ac­tors, like the Gen­er­al­i­tat, are in­tent on re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing the Re­pub­lic. Though some of them oc­ca­sion­ally cross no-man’s-land to make up un­even num­bers in the op­po­site trenches, and a small mi­nor­ity ‘cross-dress’ on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, Chris­tian as­sured me of the deep loy­alty many re-en­ac­tors had to their uni­form. I won­dered how lit­er­ally to take his word that “there are some peo­ple that are quite con­vinced about what they are re-en­act­ing who will de­fend with their lives the way they think, and their uni­form.” De­spite the fine in­ten­tions of many par­tic­i­pants to keep pol­i­tics out of their ac­tiv­i­ties, it’s clear that at­ti­tudes to the Civil War re­main deep and per­sonal.

Fol­low­ing the bat­tle, the two sides saluted each other and made their way over to the wooded area be­hind the Re­pub­li­can trenches. Amongst the trees is a new plaque. It com­mem­o­rates the In­ter­na­tional Bri­gades – ‘the de­fend­ers of lib­erty’.

After a few words from the lo­cal mayor, flow­ers were laid across the mon­u­ment and the as­sem­bled crowd paid their re­spects.

The day’s events had come to a close and all around me Civil War sol­diers flur­ried to and fro pack­ing their equip­ment into the boots of their cars. As I stood wait­ing for my lift back to Barcelona, I took one last look at the stun­ning scenery be­fore me. I im­me­di­ately un­der­stood how Ge­orge Or­well must have felt on his re­turn to Eng­land, the im­pact which the un­dra­matic coun­try­side – “prob­a­bly the sleek­est land­scape in the world” – must have had on him after months of fight­ing up in the moun­tains.

The val­ley which I stood look­ing at still holds se­crets. For ev­ery one per­son who had re-en­acted the bat­tle of the Ebro that day, many hun­dreds died in the ac­tual en­gage­ment in 1938. Though in­for­ma­tive, the day's events couldn’t come close to con­vey­ing the hor­ror of that des­per­ate month­s­long strug­gle: the stony earth blow­ing up on all sides, the Ital­ian planes sent by Mus­solini to strafe the trenches, and the panic and des­per­a­tion all around. Only in the calm after the day’s ex­cite­ment, look­ing over that im­mense val­ley, could I get any­where near to imag­in­ing the grim re­al­ity. Some­one called my name. I got into the car and we drove away.

The re-en­act­ment at La Fatarella is now in its sixth year. I asked Daniel Wil­son how his in­ves­ti­ga­tions were com­ing along in Cat­alo­nia. He told me about his new farm­house in the coun­try­side. “In many re­spects the re­lo­ca­tion to Cat­alo­nia was in­spired by re­search­ing the con­flict and my great un­cle’s role in it. The re­mains of the bat­tle­fields are ev­ery­where…so much of what’s left is hid­den un­der the sur­face”.

In 2018, much still re­mains be­neath the sur­face – but more peo­ple than ever are be­gin­ning to dig deeper.

Above: Terra Alta county land­scape in spring, with flow­ery al­mond trees, olive trees and other cul­tures, and the Serra de Pan­dols moun­tain range in the back­ground (Gan­desa, Tar­rag­ona, Cat­alo­nia, Spain)

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