Spain Forgets to Remember Its Past

By Antony Beevor
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Over the past few weeks in the city of Valencia, on Spain's Mediterranean coast, some unresolved history has reemerged, proving once again that all nations remain snagged on their own past.

The city's conservative mayor wants to create a new cemetery over the spot where 5,039 bodies are already buried -- the remains of leftists killed after the Spanish Civil War. More than 26,000 died in Valencia alone. In the eyes of the left, this is an affront to the memory of their fallen comrades, an attempt to pour cement over a political plague pit. A huge row erupted, one that has now reached even the commission of the European Union.

The history and legacy of Spain's pitiless civil war of 1936 to 1939, as I learned while writing and researching a new book on the conflict, still arouse great passion, at times giving rise to more controversy than World War II. Some historians contend that the civil war's international dimensions -- with Joseph Stalin supporting the Republic with weapons and advisers and Adolf Hitler providing air support for the Nationalists -- constituted the opening round of World War II. And in Spain, the war still elicits bitterness and discord -- even today, more than three decades after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, the last of the European dictators to emerge from the period.

That discord is rooted in the very success of Spain's transformation. After Franco died in 1975, all the world admired Spain's move to constitutional monarchy and democracy. But the process required what became known as el pacto de olvido, the pact of forgetting. No generals or torturers stood trial. No truth commissions chronicled Spain's past. The regime died in its bed along with its founder. And therein lay a problem for the left. It never had a chance to overthrow the regime, to take part in Spain's transformation.

Today, the pact of forgetting must be broken, if only so that all Spaniards -- citizens of the most modern and forward-looking nation in the European Union -- can understand how the tragedy came to pass. The worst outcome would be a return to the propagandistic battle lines of the past, those of the "Two Spains," which proved irreconcilable and doomed to mutual destruction.

False international parallels helped radicalize Spain before the civil war. The shadow of the Bolshevik upheaval in Russia made the Spanish right even more intransigent. Meanwhile, the left, including a large part of the Socialist Party, became increasingly vociferous in its calls for revolution. Both sides tried to compare Madrid to the revolutionary Petrograd of 1917. Such misleading comparisons only aggravated the fears that spurred the left and the right to preempt their opponents by seizing power themselves.

Intellectual honesty was the first casualty of moral outrage -- an outrage that became even more acute for the left after the defeat of the Republic in 1939 by Franco and the Nationalists. At the end of the World War II, when Franco's two main allies, Hitler and Benito Mussolini, were defeated, many hoped that the Western allies would enforce free elections in Spain. But the Francoist regime was saved by British neutrality and U.S. support as the new battle lines of the Cold War took shape.

Even today, just as old right-wingers -- the nostálgicos for Francoism -- will not admit to any faults in Franco's crusade, most Socialists still refuse to acknowledge that the left-wing Popular Front government of 1936 was anything but a wholly innocent victim. And this is despite the fact that it had never condemned its own supporters for trying in 1934 to overthrow the previous legally elected government of the right. Some even refuse to accept that the strikes, riots, land seizures and church-burnings contributed to the collapse of law and order in the spring of 1936.

By June of that year, Spain had become ungovernable, so chaotic that the right can argue that a military rising would have had to take place anyway, aimed not at the elected government but at the lack of government. And indeed Franco seized the opportunity to crush democracy. But the irresponsibility of the leftist factions gave him that opportunity. More moderate leaders of the Republic had warned them time and again about the consequences of their actions, but they refused to listen.

After Franco's death, the sense of dissatisfaction and injustice began to develop in Spain only when all threats of military intervention had receded. One can certainly understand the left's resentment. It had been humiliated by the defeat of 1939 and the long years of the dictatorship. Then, after the Socialists reached power for the first time in half a century, they still felt bitter at the cloak of silence over the past. Right-wing victims of left-wing massacres during the war had been buried as martyrs. But the bodies of left-wingers had been left to rot in unmarked graves.

The most recent blow to Spain's national unity had little to do with the civil war, yet those old divisions soon emerged. This came after the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004 -- Spain's

9/11 -- when 191 commuters were killed and more than 400 badly wounded. The shock was traumatic, even for a country long subjected to attacks by the Basque terrorist group ETA, and Spaniards took to the streets in the largest demonstration against terrorism that Europe has seen. ETA, it should be remembered, had always insisted that it was still at war with the Spanish government because the surrender terms agreed to for Basque troops in the civil war had been dishonored.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company