Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Today is the 70th anniversary of the failed army coup that triggered the Spanish Civil War; though preliminary conflict began on the 17th, in Spain the 18th is considered the day the war began. There is currently a movement among elements of the Spanish left to "recover historical memory," a phrase that is repeated over and over. The problem is that the historical memory the left wants to recover is partial and one-sided.

Since I am American, I have no axe to grind in favor of either side in that disastrous war that killed half a million, the majority murdered behind the lines by both sides. (Spanish Civil War combat actually wasn't particularly bloody; something like 200,000 died in the fighting at the front, about 100,000 on each side, in nearly three years. Neither side was particularly well-armed, well-trained, or well-organized, though the Nationals were more so than the Republicans.)

There were no good guys in the Spanish Civil War, nothing resembling good guys on either side among the leaders. They were all a bunch of killers who wanted to exterminate the enemy. That is the historical memory that should be recovered. There were no heroes, just killers and victims, and many of the victims had been killers themselves.

La Vanguardia's lead editorial yesterday was sensible and moderate:

...The memory of the Republican and Catalanist victims is being taken advantage of in order to idealize the Republican side and lay down a moral lecture, not only on the past, but also on the present...It is not possible to establish, as it seems that the (Zapatero) administration is attempting on occasion, a canonical and institutional vision of the war without falling into false idealism and Manicheanism...The attempt to reintroduce into today's politics the supposed morel superiority of one of the two sides reopens in the present the tragic wounds of the past.

Note that La Vanguardia is by no means calling for the Civil War to be forgotten. Rather, it is criticizing those who are trying to make political capital today by manipulating the past and calling it "the recovery of historical memory."

However, look at some quotes from the English-language press on the occasion of the anniversary:

From the Guardian:

Spain will mark the 70th anniversary of its devastating civil war tomorrow without official ceremony - in keeping with the so-called "pact of silence" that underpinned the transition to democracy. But as the date approaches, the Socialist-led government is putting the finishing touches to a controversial law intended to help heal the wounds on the losing Republican side. Officials are expected to reveal the text of the Law of Historical Memory on Friday, three days after the anniversary of the July 18 military uprising against the Second Spanish Republic that brought the dictator Francisco Franco to power.

And from the Telegraph:

As Spain re-established democracy in the decades since Franco's death in 1975, there was a tacit agreement among most Spaniards not to dwell on the past or seek to punish those guilty of abuses. The process to break that "pacto de olvido" ("collective pact of forgetting") began with the arrival in 2004 of a socialist government under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose own grandfather was shot by Nationalist troops in the war. This year his government declared "A year of Historical Memory" and has made concerted efforts to collect millions of documents from around the world to shed light on one of the darkest periods in Spanish history. On Friday the government is expected to go a step further when it reveals the text of the Law of Historical Memory, a controversial measure intended to help heal the wounds on the losing Republican side.

See, I don't buy into this "pact of silence" stuff. Spanish TV is full of documentaries, Spanish bookstores are full of books, Spanish newspapers are full of articles, and Spanish politicians are often full of hot air about the Civil War. Like slavery in the United States, the Civil War is the overriding topic in modern Spanish history. Also notice that the Guardian does not mention word one about the civilian victims killed by the Republicans; estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000.

I'll be working on a series of pieces on the Spanish Civil War: the first, which ought to be ready tomorrow, will deal with the months leading up to the attempted coup in an attempt to explain why it happened.

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