Spain’s Historical Memory
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)