‘A heartless craft’: Spain’s history wars

Jeremy Treglown

Jeremy Treglown


Spain is ‘among the most amnesiac countries in Europe’. The words are those of a Catalonian member of the Spanish parliament, Joan Herrera, but the sentiment is shared by numerous other politicians and draws on claims made, with more or less subtle inflection, by historians. During the mid-1970s transition from a thirty-five-year dictatorship to democracy, the pressures of change arguably made it not only desirable but necessary to forget the recent past. Whether or not Spain is as exceptional in this respect as its internal critics claim, what the Spanish call their pacto de olvido (agreement to forget, or overlook) has, in the view of today’s centre-left prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his allies, gone on far too long. Whereas the Spanish have enthusiastically acted on international agreements regarding crimes against humanity, most famously in the case of Augusto Pinochet, sentences passed under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship still stand. Meanwhile, although the history curricula of schools in many western European countries, including Britain and Germany, provide a heavy – some say disproportionate – emphasis on the 1930s and ’40s, Spanish children are still taught little about the period. Historians who have worked outside Spain and returned to jobs in their own country find their students more ignorant of the period than those they were teaching abroad.

Public debate about all this has been focused, lately, on a set of government proposals under the umbrella title of a Law of Historical Memory. The bill was first published in September 2006 and since then has been in a process of more or less continuous redrafting, in response to heated interventions not only by professional politicians but also constitutional lawyers, cultural historians and artists. Much of what has been proposed deals with practical matters affecting people who were directly involved in the civil war – increased pensions, medical assistance and compensation. But it also includes clauses requiring local administrations to help identify and excavate mass graves; provision for improved maintenance of and access to archival materials (including military documents) concerning the civil war and the Franco regime; and – in the original version – establishing a council made up of five distinguished social scientists, charged with reconsidering sentences passed under Franco ‘according to the principles and constitutional values that prevail today’. This last was abandoned in April 2007. Another proposal, that every physical monument to the dictatorship should be removed, was ditched in January.

Parliamentary opposition has been strongest, of course, on the right, which threatened to boycott – and so make unworkable – the revisionist tribunal and which argues that even discussion of the proposals undermines the process of reconciliation that began with the transition to democracy. This isn’t as exaggerated a claim as it may sound. Late in 2006, socialists on the city council of Salamanca tried and failed to overturn a 1936 resolution of the same council by which its most celebrated member, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, was expelled. Unamuno, who was rector of the University of Salamanca, had denounced the Nationalist general José Millán Astray in public and to his face. A secret meeting of the council resolved that he was guilty of antipatriotic behaviour and of lacking ‘collective morality’. Whatever differences of opinion there may be today about Unamuno’s work, few would question the idealism and the courage with which he opposed violence. But while the proposal to get a bad old vote reversed seemed fair enough at first glance, it was in fact mischievous: a politically motivated attempt to wrong-foot the conservative Partido Popular, which controls Salamanca council. To some, this is the real motive behind the Law of Historical Memory. They are wrong about that but surely right to object to the idea of revising past sentences according to current norms: what has either history or memory got to do with it? Even for those who accept that such revision is desirable, there are crucial legal difficulties in Spain resulting from the fact that its transition to democracy – unlike Germany’s – was a gradual process, involving the continuation of many institutions and laws.

The Unamuno case not only reignited bitter old feuds but contributed to a spurious impression that the divisions of the late 1930s are essentially unchanged – a flame eagerly fanned by journalists. Many people feel that the iniquities perpetrated by both sides in the civil war have been adequately rehearsed. This is a point of view more easily held abroad, perhaps, than in Spain, where, until the mid 1970s, the expression of opinions sympathetic to the Republic was outlawed by Francoist censorship. Foreigners, by contrast, generally agree that the Spanish civil war is unique in that its story is much more the victims’ than the victors’. This is the view not only of mildly revisionist foreign historians such as Antony Beevor, but of those who overtly side with the Republic. Eric Hobsbawm, for example, recently wrote that ‘in creating the world’s memory of the Spanish civil war, the pen, the brush and the camera wielded on behalf of the defeated have proved mightier than the sword and the power of those who won’. Few causes have so united members of the western intelligentsia with each other, let alone with working-class activists, or have been so well aired and over so long a period.

Even within Spain, some argue that the pacto de olvido never really existed. Among them are people who have made eminent careers out of studying and writing about political violence. Santos Juliá, Professor of Social History and Political Thought at UNED (Spain’s Open University), points out that as early as 1956 students taking part in protests against the regime ‘rejected the lies imposed by the civil war victors, and wanted history to be left in the hands of historians, rather than used as a weapon’. The project of identifying the graves of the disappeared was begun within a very short time of Franco’s death in 1975. By 1980, lists of victims were being published. To Juliá the issue is not one of history, which has been getting on with its work, but of psychology: the wish to make amends.

Cultural amnesia isn’t what most strikes anyone who follows Spanish fiction – or even just browses in Spanish bookshops. Recently, novelists have found a subject and an approach not only in the war itself but in the processes of history and memory, and arguments concerning them. Javier Cercas’s bestseller Soldiers of Salamis (2001), for example, is a lightly dramatized account of the author’s researches into the writer and Falangist (fascist) ideologue Rafael Sánchez Mazas, who escaped a Republican firing squad in 1939 and – according to his own account – while in hiding immediately afterwards, was left undisturbed by a Republican soldier who had spotted him. In trying to track down that soldier, as well as Mazas himself, Cercas imparts as much about the complexities of both the civil war and its historiography as many professional historians have done. Other books with similar concerns have proliferated in Spain, though not all have been translated into English. The most beautifully written is Los girasoles ciegos (The Blind Sunflowers, 2004), the sole fictional work of a charismatic radical, Alberto Méndez, who died the year it was published. His thematically and historically related episodes – united, too, by stylistic precision and plangency – imagine some painful human dilemmas in the war’s immediate aftermath. A pregnant Republican, on the run with her partner, dies giving birth; the father does his best to keep the infant and himself alive. Another fugitive tries to stay silent in a cupboard while he overhears his wife being sexually blackmailed by a monk who teaches at their son’s school. Through a range of narrative perspectives, including those of people trying to make sense of fragmentary pieces of evidence, Méndez explores the elusiveness of historical truth without capitulating to moral relativism. His main concern, though, is mourning. It becomes as clear to his readers as it was to the author of the book’s epigraph, the poet Carlos Piera, that ‘the work of grief … is entirely independent of whether or not there is reconciliation or forgiveness … In Spain, there has been no completion of grieving, which is, among other things, the public recognition that something is tragic and, above all, that it is irreparable.’

A more ironic approach is adopted in Veinte años y un día (Twenty Years and A Day, 2003), the only book written in Spanish, rather than French, by the redoubtable octogenarian Jorge Semprún, who escaped to France at the end of the civil war, joined the French resistance, survived imprisonment by the Nazis in Buchenwald and was active in the exiled Spanish Communist Party. The book’s starting point is some research being done by a fictional American historian of Spanish-Jewish descent called Michael Leidson. In 1956, Leidson finds himself taking part in a reminiscential lunch in Madrid with Ernest Hemingway and others, among them an ex-Falangist bullfighter. Conversation turns to an incident early in the civil war, when the younger son of a powerful landowner was shot by local people. Every year, including this one, the incident is commemoratively re-enacted by the family and their neighbours. The novel explores what has happened over the twenty years since the war began: to those at the lunch party, to the family they talk about, to the memories of all of them and to the commemorative ceremony itself, in which the local farm labourers no longer want to take part (‘It’s time to forget,’ they say). It vividly conveys some of the tensions of 1950s Spain, a country in which historical memory has gone underground, partly into radical anti-Francoist activism, partly into investigations by government agents. In all this, individuals’ memories are deeply undependable – but so, too, are even the most robust-seeming procedures for uncovering the past: torture, for example. If the Franco regime can’t bludgeon the truth out of people, what hope does Leidson have of putting together a reliable factual narrative? About halfway through, Semprún’s novel begins to get lost in a maze of Buñuel-ish sexual obsessions; but the first 150 pages are unique in the penetration with which they treat some of the more emotive issues Spain has faced in recent decades.

While the postmodernist interest in historical relativism is a new emphasis, more straightforward novels about the civil war and its aftermath appeared even in the earliest days. Because of censorship, many of these, along with the first politically balanced histories of the civil war, were written and published outside Spain; Arturo Barea’s lightly fictionalized autobiographical trilogy The Forging of a Rebel (1941–6) is deservedly among the best known. With the transition to democracy, they began to appear in Spain itself, along with a new wave of books exploring the recent past from a younger generation’s perspectives. Juan Goytisolo, for example, was a child when his father was imprisoned by the Republicans and his mother killed in the first Nationalist air raid on Barcelona. The exile forced on him by circumstances and, later, by his opposition to Franco became a permanent way of life, first in France, now in Morocco. It’s unsurprising, then, that much of his work challenges the internal, Francoist version of Spain’s history and national character. Not all such opposition, though, has come from abroad. Remarkably, given the censorship, some of the strongest took the form of films made and distributed in Franco’s Spain.

The director Luis García Berlanga, in particular, managed as early as the 1950s and ’60s to satirize the regime in the Gogol-esque light comedy Bienvenido Mr Marshall (Welcome Mr Marshall, 1952) and the darkly hilarious but, in the end, agonizing El Verdugo (The Executioner, 1963). After Franco’s death, Spain’s heavily subsidized film industry was quick to respond to the new climate. The civil war became as frequent a theme as the Second World War is still in American and British movies. And while many films on the subject are relatively straightforward narratives of danger and suspense, memory had by the 1970s already become a common motif in Spanish cinema, notably in Carlos Saura’s La prima Angelica (Cousin Angelica, 1973) and Antonio Mercero’s La Guerra de papa (Daddy’s War, 1977).

A particularly interesting trajectory has been followed by Basilio Martín Patino, from well balanced, vivid documentaries made when Franco was still alive and when Patino was in his forties, to several absorbing fictions about commemoration and identity. Los paraísos perdidos (Lost Paradises, 1985) concerns a woman whose father, a Republican intellectual, has died in exile, and who returns to the family home to sort out his books and papers. While dealing with encounters with old friends, particularly a former lover, she’s also deciding how best to commemorate her father. She hopes to set up a foundation in his memory and there’s a particularly vivid scene at the local government offices where she is fobbed off by the charming, harassed, duplicitous young mayor: a brilliant cameo.

Given the sheer volume, then, as well as the quality of narratives – historical, fictional, cinematic – examining Francoism which appeared either during the caudillo’s lifetime or in the decade following his death, why should ‘historical memory’ be an issue in Spain, all these decades on?

It’s a global phenomenon, of course: one which the American social scientist John Torpey argues is a substitute for the utopian politics in which we have lost faith. No longer able to dream of a better future, we put such moral energy as we have into trying to repair the past. The historian Roy Foster has written with valuable firmness about the inadequacy, as well as the selectiveness, of reparations politics in the case of Ireland, situating the topic both in its historiographical context (the influence of Pierre Nora’s work Lieux de Mémoire, 1984) and its current cultural one: Christians in Jerusalem in 1999 apologizing for the Crusades, Queen Elizabeth II apologizing to the Maoris, and so on. Like Santos Juliá, Foster sees the impulse as essentially psychological, an attempt to assuage guilt. ‘After the oversimplifications and illogical pieties that surround the business of “memory” these days,’ he writes, ‘it is hard to disagree with a suggestion from the Irish literary critic Edna Longley …: “for politicians, the next step should be to erect a monument to Amnesia and forget where they put it”.’

Looking at the past, in a literal sense, can be especially painful in Spain: painful and hard to avoid. War memorials are an obvious example. Plaques listing ‘our glorious fallen’ are found, of course, in the town squares and village churches of many European countries. To foreigners, finding such monuments in Spain doesn’t seem odd. But there, the names recorded are those of only half the fallen: people who died – in the formulation which incenses Republican sympathizers – ‘for God and Spain’, fighting, that is, against the elected Republican government and for the rebel party which, by another verbal conjuring trick, claimed the adjective ‘Nationalist’. The writer Rafael Torres has spoken powerfully about this division. From the day the civil war ended, Torres insists, Franco remorselessly divided Spain into winners and losers, and its dead into two corresponding parties: those whose names are engraved on the fronts of buildings and in churches, ‘and on the other side, the unnamed, those buried in common graves under spadefuls of oblivion’. This form of apartheid is still being perpetuated by the Catholic Church through its busy programme of beatifying Nationalist ‘martyrs’, as distinct from those in the other camp. The press makes its own contribution. Some daily newspapers, for example, still carry lengthy memorial announcements not only for the recently dead but for people killed in the civil war, usually by the Republicans: Hipólito Montero González, for example, a second lieutenant in the Guardia Civil, who, according to one of these advertisements (in El Mundo), was held in ‘one of the worst and most bloody prisons in Red Madrid, from where he was taken with fifty-two of his brother soldiers to the wall of the east cemetery, where, without having been found guilty of any offence, he was vilely murdered’; or three men of the Ruiz de Pedrosa family, ‘shot in a cowardly fashion by the Red Hordes without previous trial, after being dragged out of the model prison in Paracuellos del Jarama. Their bodies have never been recovered and lie in a common grave with those of 7,000 other innocents.’ (This figure rose to 8,000 in another announcement on the same page. The reality – bad enough – was about a quarter of that number.)

To anti-Francoist Spaniards, particularly the descendants of Republicans who – like Zapatero’s own paternal grandfather – were killed by Francoists, such affronts are to be found everywhere. In recent years some of the more flagrant of them have been removed: the once-omnipresent equestrian statues of General Franco have almost all been put into cold storage and many streets named after him and his generals redesignated. But you get an idea of the depth of the divisions involved if you attend a strange, even sinister ritual which takes place every year on 20 November in a gloomily grand modern temple close to the Escorial, high in the Guadarrama mountains, a short drive from Madrid.

By a powerful and ironic coincidence, 20 November is the date of the death not only of Franco in 1975 but also, much earlier, of the leader of the Falangist movement, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, killed by his Republican captors in 1936. There are good reasons for thinking that Franco had an opportunity to save José Antonio’s life but that, with the ruthlessness over potential rivals that helped to bring him to power and keep him there, he deliberately botched it. Subsequently, however, he contributed to José Antonio’s apotheosis as chief martyr of ‘Nationalism’, having his body dug up and reburied in the cathedral of imperial Spain, the Escorial.

This was only the first stage in José Antonio’s post-mortem ascent. From the earliest days after victory, Franco planned – among many other celebrations and revenges – to make the biggest, most religiose war memorial in the world. It stands in a spectacular park in the Guadarramas. At its highest point rises a massive stone cross. Beneath the cross on one side is an enclosed area, something between a plaza and a parade ground, flanked by a Benedictine abbey and a choir school. For a time it was also the campus of a Francoist school of social science. On the other side is a vast esplanade giving a view over miles of surrounding countryside. The two areas are joined by what is not so much a crypt as an underground cathedral, tunnelled into the mountain: the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen. Most of those reinterred there fought for what Franco and his allies described as ‘the crusade’. Much later, he was persuaded to admit the remains of some Republicans, as long as it could be shown that they were Catholics. But there has never been any mistaking which side the place celebrates. Least in doubt on this score were those who excavated and built it between 1941 and 1959, most of whom were political prisoners.

Once the cruciform basilica was complete, the remains of José Antonio were moved yet again. His tomb is on the nave side of the transept, between the congregation and the high altar. Opposite, between altar and choir, lies Franco himself, the only person in the building to have died of old age.


The Falange still has a powerful allure for some Spaniards. Its members quickly became the Nationalists’ hard men, the regime using their near-uncontrollability as a powerful threat. But in its original form – much of it articulated by Rafael Sánchez Mazas – the movement was philosophically inclined, artistic as well as religious, its patriotism inflected by a strong sense of history. Some of these associations, I suppose, were in the mind of a serious young monk whom I watched standing in silence beside José Antonio’s flower-covered memorial slab on the morning of 20 November 2006.

It was a Monday and on Mondays the Valle de los Caídos is closed to the public. Whether out of mere adherence to routine, or as a way of heading off a continuation of the neo-fascist demonstrations which had filled the basilica on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, the main doors of the church were shut. Several miles away, at the entrance to the park from the main road, cars full of blue-shirted men and women, flags hanging out of their windows, were being turned away by implacable guardias. Inside, though, monks and choirboys gathered in the wide, flower-filled abbey cloister before descending through a series of damp, sloping tunnels joined by a lift, into the mountain. The other end of this burrow opens into the north side of the basilica’s chancel. Two outsiders followed the procession: a young man on a religious retreat, and I. We were both staying in the abbey, in my case as a paying guest. In the windowless basilica, we formed the entire congregation for the service of the day, which, though held in private, was a full sung requiem mass for Franco’s anniversary.

It was the only calm ceremony of its kind. The basilica is open at weekends and masses are held there every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. Both services were packed that weekend: Christmas at St Paul’s Cathedral or the cathedral of St John the Divine in New York would be a fair comparison. (St John the Divine is often said to be the longest church in the world, at 186 metres, but Franco’s crypt, though much narrower, runs to 260 metres.) The Saturday mass was a rowdy, jostling affair, some of the participants the worse for drink. On Sunday morning, the abbot brought things under control, but only just.

The Valle de los Caídos is linked to the Fundación Nacional de Francisco Franco, a body presided over by Franco’s formidable daughter, Carmen Franco Polo, Duchess of Franco. The foundation’s stated aims are to spread knowledge about Franco in his ‘human, political and military dimensions’ and about the achievements of his regime. Among its activities is the organization of the anniversary commemorations. In the government’s draft proposals about historical memory, the valley has a section to itself. Article 18 would require the place to be run ‘strictly along the lines applicable to places of worship and public cemeteries’. It would prohibit, everywhere in the valley, ‘acts of a political character and celebrations of the civil war, its leaders, and of Francoism’. It would also oblige the Franco foundation to include among its objectives ‘honouring the memory of everyone who died as a result of the civil war and of the political repression which followed it, with the aim of deepening an understanding of this historical period and the celebration of peace and democratic values’. In 2006, the foundation accordingly ruled that, for the first time, flags, military-style uniforms and other pre-democratic insignia would not be allowed in. Despite a heavy police presence at the gate, though, and airport-style security at the main door, scores of people dressed in the Falange uniform of navy blue trousers and shirt with a red tassel, black boots, leather belt and beret, paraded at both services: aggressively on the Saturday, with more discipline the next morning. Most were men of all ages but there were also uniformed women and small boys. Several carried banners and, at the Sunday morning mass, these stood in the front rows of the nave, having peremptorily ejected the elderly citizens sitting there. The result was that everyone sitting further back was prevented from seeing the high altar by a line of Nationalist flags.

During the Sunday service, a uniformed column moved slowly down the central aisle in pairs and took turns to stand at the corners of José Antonio’s tomb. The rotation was organized by a young man at the front. Four uniformed people would fall in behind the previous honour guard, which gave a fascist salute, turned and marched towards the back of the line. The new guard stepped forward, saluted and took its turn at the tomb. As the ritual proceeded, some old men and women in the congregation, not in uniform, offered to take part. Despite, or rather because of, the smirks of the uniformed youth there was a poignancy about these Francoist survivors, not least because they were so small in stature. Even more than in most countries, the young in Spain tower head and shoulders above working-class people of their grandparents’ generation.

Outside the basilica after both of the weekend masses, old anthems and chants – ‘Viva Franco!’ and ‘España una, grande y libre!’ – were loud, along with cheerful roars of ‘Za-pa-tero, hi-jo de puta’ (son of a whore) and other current slogans. As the Sunday service began, though, there was a crucial showdown inside. The elderly abbot, Dom Anselmo Álvarez, broke away from the procession to the high altar and walked over alone to the big, uniformed men lined up facing it. There was an urgent-seeming conversation. I learned afterwards that Dom Anselmo was telling them that their demonstration had to be silent: no chants, no singing. They argued with him. Several others joined in until more than a dozen surrounded him: a threatening sight, with their rolled-up sleeves and bull necks. They beckoned over some of the oldest men in uniform, as if trying to match the abbot’s authority. Dom Anselmo kept shaking his head. Eventually, with a pantomime of reluctance and injured pride, the neo-Falangists gave way and the service continued. The congregation, its older members long habituated to such collisions, was expressionless.

The abbot’s dignified if belated action was a clear response to the mood that lies behind the government’s proposals. So, too, was his sermon, which – to the annoyance of right-wing commentators – made no mention either of Franco or of José Antonio. Quoting Isaiah’s words about the Lord’s house being established in the top of the mountains, Dom Anselmo said that the cross above the basilica is a symbol of peace and reconciliation. The dead being remembered today, whether buried there or anywhere else in Spain, no longer belong to any side. To God, there are no losers or winners. His message is: live in harmony, get over your rivalries. The abbot went further: ‘Leave this place in peace: let it go on being a space for peace and spirituality.’

There was much more, including a highly debatable defence of the use of political prisoners in the construction of the place. (They were paid, the abbot said; they also earned remission of sentence; above all, they were free to choose whether or not to work on the project. In today’s open Spanish society, perhaps only a monk could get away with calling that freedom.) He defended the religious values embodied in the valley and attacked the secularization of contemporary society, saying that in this respect as in others, reconciliation has to be a two-way process. And he directly addressed the issue of recuperating historical memory, arguing that in the Valle de los Caídos, memory has been alive and well for almost half a century. (Dom Anselmo, along with several other of the monks there, joined the community while Franco was still alive.) We can’t wipe away what has happened, pretending we got here from nowhere. Much of this was what anyone would have expected. But the abbot’s pointed refusal to mention the old regime and his insistence on a bipartisan approach to history, modest enough in cold print, came across as a powerful reproach to the massed uniforms and flags, not to speak of what went on outside the basilica: the parade-ground drill, the football-crowd roars, the sight of some of the burlier men racing off afterwards in a black Hummer.

I talked to Dom Anselmo after the weekend. He rightly fears that the Law of Historical Memory represents, among much else, an attack on the abbey, part of a wider attack on Spain’s still deeply entrenched ecclesiastical power. In the choir school of his abbey, lay people now far outnumber monks as teachers. But the church has managed to hold on to the teaching of ‘Citizenship’ in state schools despite the government’s attempts – overwhelmingly supported by public opinion – to hand the subject over to lay teachers. Tussles between church and state are a well established aspect of Spanish history and one of the advantages of electoral democracies, from the point of view of long-lived institutions, is that their governments come and go. Dom Anselmo didn’t say this, or not in so many words, but some of what he did say showed that he and his supporters are playing a long game. He is a shy-seeming, intelligent, quietly passionate man, treated by the schoolboys as a favourite uncle while communicating unmistakable authority in the abbey’s chapel and silent dining room. He can also be as shrewd as one would expect of someone in his position. They had considered moving the monastery away from its present site, he volunteered disarmingly, but everyone wanted them to stay: it was regarded as central to the place. Besides, what was all this talk about monuments? Most European cathedrals and public places are full of statues, many of them to objectionable people. ‘When I show deputations around the Valle de los Caídos, I say to them, “Do you see any statues?” They are dumbfounded. There are none.’

Literally speaking, he’s right. There is no effigy either of Franco or of anyone else – though among the basilica’s adornments are some muscle-bound expressionist figures in granite representing different branches of the armed forces. The point is that the whole place is a monument. From the imposing entrance gates, via four massive, unfinished columns quarried in the sixteenth-century reign of Spain’s emperor-king Carlos I and moved to the valley by Franco, across a long viaduct up to the basilica, its colonnaded abbey and the cross visible from Madrid, it’s surely the most imposing piece of fascist landscape art and architecture still in use anywhere. Even the light fittings in the abbey entrance-hall echo the Falangist symbol of a yoke and arrows. A guidebook to the site mentions that there was an early plan to include a military base there, a notion still evident in the final design, which represents what the author calls ‘the last link in the chain of great temples to which the alliance between Church and conservative bourgeoisie gave rise from the mid-nineteenth century, and of military-nationalist monuments of the same period’. To a lay eye, it resembles something not unlike a bunker.


Could the Valle de los Caídos just be left alone, as the abbot pleaded? More than one of the monks pointed out to me that the demonstrations, which they seem genuinely to deplore, happen only once a year. For the rest of the time, the abbey carries on its quiet work of prayer, study and teaching; the basilica acts as a parish church for the surrounding area; tourists come and go, though in diminishing numbers; and the wooded hills and valley provide Madrileños with a spectacular picnic destination. It is, after all, part of Spain’s ‘Patrimonio Nacional’. But herein lies part of the problem. Should a place supported by public funds be allowed to continue representing a disgraced regime? And, if not, what can be done with it?

There are difficult questions behind these ones, to do with representation, interpretation and the role of the state. Put in the simplest terms: Is it a democracy’s job to protect its citizens from works which embody anti-democratic attitudes? If so, how can it differentiate that process from fascist censorship ostensibly aimed at saving people from corrupting influences? Isn’t it better – more pragmatic, as well as more democratic – to trust people to form their own judgements?

Such issues involve not only buildings and memorials but all the arts; and it’s arguable that the greater the work, the more complicated are the processes of judgement involved. While Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ speaks unambiguously of the horror of violence, there is no reliable way of summarizing the painting’s meaning in strict relation to its ostensible subject. The early films of both Berlanga and Saura were interpreted in their time sometimes as essentially ‘patriotic’, sometimes as outrageously critical of Francoism. (Today, Spanish opinion is similarly divided about Pedro Almodóvar, whose work both satirizes and elegizes the traditional values of domestic Spain. What is Volver about, after all, if not that staple of Spanish culture, the suffering, loving, all-providing mother?)

Good art doesn’t communicate simple messages, a point made forcibly by Juan Goytisolo at a conference last year in Madrid on the role of intellectuals in the civil war. Goytisolo warned not only against reading fictional work from any single perspective, including as a form of moral or social corrective, but also against simplistic views of the war itself. Serious research is still needed into the period, he said, but ‘legislating about memory seems to me both unnecessary and dangerous’. He quoted Timothy Garton Ash, who, in the context of David Irving’s arrest in Austria, argued that the law there against Holocaust denial is wrong and potentially opens the doors to an infinitude of retrospective legislation. The romantic intellectual polarizations of the 1930s concerning Spain have given way, Goytisolo argued, to the recognition of ‘a rainbow of reasons and motives’. He instanced a new book by the hispanist Elena de la Souchère, who, as a young Republican volunteer on the Madrid front, went to Barcelona and was entrusted by two Basque leaders who were friends of her father’s with a mission to help Basque priests escape in disguise from the anarchists. The book provided, Goytisolo said, ‘a new and original facet in this thousand-faceted prism’.

Arguments like this have long surrounded the work of the novelist Camilo José Cela (1916–2002), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989. Cela served in the ranks of Franco’s army during the civil war and was wounded. He subsequently worked, among other jobs, as a censor. In 1957, at the height of anti-Francoist activity by radical intellectuals and students, he became the youngest member of the Spanish Royal Academy. He was made a marquis. This is not a c.v. which easily ingratiates him to the more ideologically inflexible of Republican sympathizers.

Another way of summarizing Cela’s life, though, is to say that he was an outsider, a troublesomely sensitive, truthful man, an admirer of Joyce and of earlier writers who found inspiration in populous cities – especially, in Spain, Benito Pérez Galdós. A law student in Madrid in the mid 1930s, he was inevitably caught up in the war and survived as best he could. The reader and future novelist in him, meanwhile, found the experience painfully enriching through what he learned about ‘ordinary’ Spanish people and their situation. Working along parallel lines to Beckett and Camus, Genet and Tournier, Cela began to write about life seen, as often as not, from the points of view of people impoverished financially, imaginatively, experientially; people, too, whose understanding of the world is more sexual than political. His bleak first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, was published in 1942, the same year as Camus’s The Outsider, and has some resemblances to it, particularly the unexplained violence and seeming amorality of its central figure. To many readers, these characteristics accurately reflect the brutal socio-political context from which the book emerged. Although originally published in Spain, it was quickly banned there.

From Pascual Duarte’s intense focus on one character, Cela turned to a cast of hundreds in The Hive, different versions of which were rejected by the censors between 1946 and 1950 before he offered it successfully to a publisher in Argentina. Set in Madrid in 1943 – a time when some its characters are beginning to fear that Hitler may not win the war after all – the novel richly imagines the interlocking existences of people to most of whom politics and religion mean little or nothing, whereas the elusive and beautifully depicted compulsions of appetite and, especially, sex are all-important.

Though less well known and less widely translated than Pascual Duarte or The Hive, his most powerful book is the experimental and sometimes shocking San Camilo, 1936. It was published in Madrid in 1969, while Franco was still in power, but did not appear in English until 1991 and then not from a trade press. The hectic, reiterative, sparsely punctuated and unparagraphed narrative is set in Madrid in the first days of what was to become the civil war, days of assassinations and counter-assassinations and of a failed coup. People who have come to dominate Spanish history books make occasional appearances: the socialist Lieutenant José Castillo Sería, for example, murdered by Falangist gunmen, and the conservative parliamentarian José Calvo Sotelo, killed in turn by Castillo’s fellow-officers. But the focus is on ordinary people, both real and fictional, including several who are killed but whose deaths make no headlines: some prostitutes; a man running through the streets trying to find a midwife. Historical events, the narrator says, are always credited to some powerful individual, rather than to ‘the people … perhaps more than twenty or thirty thousand men, each with his moving little novel stuck to his heart’. Most of the story is set in one or other of a range of brothels and ‘houses of assignation’ in the centre of Madrid, including one known as the League of Nations, ‘because there they’ve got everything, Moors, Germans, Belgians, Frenchwomen, Portuguese, everything’. The brothel is to San Camilo what the café is to The Hive, and, like Cela’s earlier novels, this one repeatedly insists on the coexistence of the trivial with the historically important: a fly in someone’s coffee with Sotelo’s assassination; the early days of war with what’s happening in the Tour de France.

Meanwhile, the text often broadens out in a philosophizing way. Cela laments the indiscriminacy of war and particularly its failure to change anything (‘they kill priests, they kill Andalusian peasants or they kill schoolteachers, it depends on who’s doing the killing, but finally …. everything stays the same only with more people dead’). He points out the confusions which underlie war’s simplistic polarities: the fact that a republican may have conservative sympathies more in tune with the ideas of this or that individual among the internally divided fascists (Cela’s word) than with the supposed position of the similarly faction-ridden government. And among its juxtapositions and elisions are the frequent passages in which the voices of ideological brashness are answered by those of vacillation and muddle, as in a scene between a former leftist turned reactionary named Cándido Modrego and his neighbour Olegario Murciego:

things are turning ugly Don Olegario, we must return to the Inquisition and torture of our ancestors, there’s no other way, you see how people act up as soon as they get a little confidence, what we need here is an iron fist in the name of the cross and the sword, anything else is just the way to our downfall, yes maybe, I think you’re wrong, I mean not a hundred percent right, but maybe you are right Modrego, who knows, I can’t say, maybe they’re all right and this really is going to be some mess, Cándido Modrego and Don Olegario smoke butts, there are lots of them in the bicarbonate boxes, there are at least three boxes full to overflowing. At 3 a.m. the president charges Martínez Barrio with the mission of forming a cabinet …

Above all, the novel grieves for Spain, gazing at a graveyard full of flowers of all colours, ignoring the shouts of ‘Viva la república!’ and ‘Viva España!’ because ‘it is no use being too enthusiastic when melancholy nests in the heart’.

The civil war is as meaningless to Cela as the First World War was to the poets on both sides. San Camilo, 1936 is dedicated

To the conscripts of 1937, all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral.

Among its themes which have become more resonant with the passing of time is the choice between memory and forgetting. ‘No one knows whether it is better to remember or to forget,’ the text says at one point, ‘memory is sad and forgetting on the other hand usually repairs and heals.’ A little later, the point is put more caustically: ‘the best thing is to go to the whorehouse and forget’. At one level such statements seem straightforward enough and in tune with Cela’s concerns elsewhere with the immediate and the empirical. But as the violence mounts and some of the book’s characters are killed, the vantage point shifts: ‘people don’t usually attach much importance to memory and finally it crashes against a wall of impassive dead men, accusing dead men … people usually do not believe that memory acts as a ballast and keeps feeling on an even keel.’ The whole book, in the end, is a puzzled, angry act of commemoration, or a collection of such acts. And its claims not to be that, its impulsive rejections of memory, are an intensifying trope, a mourner’s refusal to mourn.

The complexities of Cela’s astonishing novel, its self-contradictions, its lurches between high intensity and moments of casual-seeming cynicism, are part of what make it so powerful and true. ‘Historically true’, one is tempted to say, if for no other reason than that San Camilo, 1936 distils the experiences and feelings of someone who lived through the events described. But if we didn’t independently know that Cela fought on the Francoist side, there would be no way of telling from the book – any more than we can tell from Shakespeare’s plays what his religious affiliation was, if any. San Camilo, 1936 is a law of historical memory unto itself, strengthened rather than weakened by the interpretative demands it makes. And, very close to the end, it delivers its own verdict on attempts to ameliorate what has already passed: ‘history is not a charitable form of knowledge but a heartless craft, it is useless to try to change it.’

All this points to one reason why the Spanish government’s proposals have met so much intellectual and artistic opposition; why Republican sympathizers as well as conservative politicians are concerned that, far from achieving resolution, the Law of Historical Memory could get in the way of a long-established and continuing set of complex negotiations – personal, artistic, social, political – with the past. But surely a phenomenon like the Valle de los Caídos is a separate case: an unambiguous celebration of military values, as well as of the Francoist victory. What is there to interpret about it?

Even the most blatant memorials lose their historical resonance with the passing of time. Few French tourists in London care, or even notice, what Waterloo Station once stood for in terms of Anglo-French relations. As for the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, it took a German writer living in late-twentieth-century England, W.G. Sebald, not only to give it back its original associations with a Napoleonic victory, but to place them within the entire bloody context of European conflict. As many artists have shown, imaginative contemplation of a historical outrage can educate later generations in what Primo Levi called ‘the nature of the offence’. The most interesting suggestion about the Valle de los Caídos is that it should house a museum and study centre devoted to the civil war. The idea is readily practicable. Without any loss of room for the normal number of worshippers at the heart of the crypt, much of the basilica could be used as exhibition space. (The porch alone would comfortably accommodate the entire – though admittedly very inadequate – museum of the civil war in Salamanca.) There is also the long, atmospheric set of tunnels between basilica and abbey. A still more obvious site is the handsome building on the far side of the abbey plaza. Now an under-used conference centre, it once housed Franco’s centre for social studies, which, according to Dom Anselmo Álvarez, trained some of the people who negotiated the transition to democracy. What could be more appropriate than to turn it into a civil war research centre?

Among other things, such a centre could assist one of the more scholarly aims of the Law of Historical Memory, which concerns acquisition and care of archival materials, and improved access to them. It could also help coordinate and monitor the proliferating regional activities concerned with excavating mass graves. The abbey should have a role in all this. Whatever the merits of separating religion and state, the church played an all-too-powerful part in the civil war, providing not only much of the support for Franco but plenty of the war’s victims, including priests and other church people who took the Republican side. Most of the monks I met are clever, well-educated and good-hearted men, young as well as old. Involving them in a major work of impartial commemoration would be of symbolic as well as practical value. The fiftieth anniversary of the basilica’s completion falls in 2009. If a start were made now, the occasion could be turned into one very different in character from those which have hitherto defined the Valle de los Caídos.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 28 Autumn 2007