Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936 
by Jeremy Treglown.
Vintage, 336 pp., £16.99, March 2015, 978 1 78470 115 4
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On the eve​ of the general strike across southern Europe in November 2012, I joined a few thousand members of the CCOO, Spain’s largest trade union, for a march through Madrid. They set out on the stroke of midnight, intending to shut down any place of business still open; it was made clear to the owners of restaurants and bars that they weren’t to open the next morning. Carrying whistles, horns, flags and spray paint, the marchers paid special attention to banks – they used glue to put ATMs out of action – and the ruling Partido Popular headquarters. They sang songs against the Troika and the PP, telling the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, where he could stick his labour reform laws. A boisterous river of red flowed along the Gran Via and Paseo del Prado. The Spanish right prudently stayed indoors. It was the second general strike of 2012, the first time there had been two in a single year since the 1980s, and following the Indignados moment of 2011, the feeling was that the Spanish left was once again engaging in what its predecessors in the 1930s called ‘revolutionary gymnastics’.

I saw a surprising reminder of another past that night: a small array of stickers on a shop window with General Franco’s face on them. They had been put out by a tiny fascist grouplet called Nudo Patriota Español; alongside Franco’s face they had composed a slogan involving a pun on the huelga general (‘general strike’), swapping the word vuelva (‘return’) for huelga – ‘Return, general!’ Come back, oh fascist dictator. This sort of thing isn’t often seen in Spain. There are a few other tiny far-right pretenders – España 2000, Fuerza Nueva and Democracía Nacional – but there is no Spanish equivalent to Golden Dawn.

There is no substantial neo-fascist street movement in Spain because, it’s commonly thought, the political, bureaucratic and ideological legacy of Francoism lives on in the mainstream of Spanish power. The most visible sign of this is the Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco, led by the general’s daughter, which was established to archive his documents, honour Falangist martyrs and generally make the case for Francoism. The foundation is controversial, but continues to receive government subsidies, including a grant of €83,000 in 2012 to digitise its archive. It is comfortable making interventions in the public arena: recently it sued the sculptor Eugenio Merino for his work Always Franco, which featured a lifesize model of Franco standing in a Coca-Cola-style glass-fronted fridge. The vice president of the Franco Foundation, Jaime Alonso, described it as ‘an offence that no modern civilisation can tolerate’. It lost the case.

There are no laws prohibiting fascist salutes, flags, symbols, demonstrations or songs. In Xátiva, Valencia, the leaders of the youth wing of the PP were caught on film twice in 2013 giving Nazi salutes and posing with Spanish flags with fascist symbols painted on them. In Catalonia, the PP delegate Llanos de Luna took part in a ceremony honouring the Blue Division, a unit of volunteers who served with the Nazis during the Second World War. In Andalusía there is a roadside restaurant called Casa Pepe, stacked from floor to ceiling with Francoist and Falangist flags, pictures and other memorabilia – it even stocks olive oil and cava in bottles stamped with Franco’s image. Reíllo, a village of 130 people in Cuenca, changed the name of its Calle Generalíssimo in 2008 – but in April last year, the new PP mayor changed it back again. ‘I was born in the 1980s, and that is the history of Spain,’ he said, adding that it was no different from having a street named for Isabella of Castile.

Franco had more than thirty years in power to shape his mythology, and to impose it on the generations born under his rule. His Spain, it was said, had come into being through ‘the triumph of the cross’. The Civil War had been inevitable; the Second Republic of 1931-36 wasn’t only a democracy in the wrong hands, it was a failed state. The election of the Popular Front in February 1936 made Spain more susceptible than ever to a Soviet takeover, and the coup launched by Franco from Spanish Morocco was therefore an essential – and unavoidably bloody – intervention. The Civil War had been a defensive crusade against Bolshevism, ‘for God and for the patria’ – the words inscribed on monuments to the Nationalist war dead, as recorded in Michael Richards’s excellent monograph After the Civil War.* The defeated Republican half of Spain was commonly referred to in the press as ‘the Red horde’. Hundreds of thousands of them were killed by Nationalist paramilitaries in a largely planned attempt to wipe out communists, Jews, Muslims, atheists, democrats, freemasons, foreigners, anarchists and homosexuals. It was, in Franco’s words, a ‘glorious crusade’ to save Spain. Richards recounts the words of Admiral Blanco, Franco’s chief of staff, at a ceremony held in 1964 to mark the visit of the papal secretary of state:

[It was] a victory of Spain against the enemies of her independence and of her faith … because the war which the Spanish people had to sustain from 1936 to 1939 was in no sense a civil war, but a war of liberation of the patriotic soil from its domination by a foreign power and, at the same time, a crusade in defence of the Catholic faith which this atheist power sought to eradicate.

Blanco’s speech was delivered at the Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen, a colossal monument to Franco and the war dead, which features the largest memorial cross in the world – it’s 150 metres high – and a giant basilica where Franco and Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange, are buried. In its religious pomp, its sentimentality and its hubris, it is the perfect monument to Francoist myth-making. When work on it began in 1940, Franco declared that it would ‘defy time and forgetfulness’. He got his wish. There are far-right rallies there every year on 20 November, the date of Franco’s death, and it is the site of continual unease and controversy.

Jeremy Treglown’s book Franco’s Crypt is a patchwork of reportage, literary criticism and commentary on art and culture under the dictatorship and historical memory of the period. Treglown visited the Valley of the Fallen during the weekend of an anniversary commemoration. On the Saturday afternoon he saw a ‘rowdy’ drunken mass. On Sunday morning the mood was ‘soberer but more menacing’; there were chants of ‘Viva Franco!’ from the congregation, and Nationalist and Falangist songs, banners and flags inside the basilica. A column of young men in full Falangist uniform marched in formation down the central aisle giving fascist salutes, then stood guard over Primo de Rivera’s tomb.

Treglown sympathised with the elderly abbot in charge of the mass, Don Anselmo, whose unenviable task was to quieten the thugs. He was glad to find Don Anselmo, bipartisan in his approach to Spanish history, preaching that reconciliation must come from both sides. (Franco’s regime stipulated that the word ‘reconciliation’ was not to be used, even by priests; the preferred term was ‘recuperation’.) But you don’t have to look very hard to detect the disingenuousness and partisanship that large parts of the Spanish Church have exhibited for decades. Don Anselmo waved away Spain’s historical memory movement and its quest to give proper burials to Republicans dumped in mass graves. ‘In the Valle de los Caídos,’ he declared (in Treglown’s paraphrase), ‘memory has been alive and well for almost half a century.’ There are those whose memories are honoured with gargantuan monuments, and those who remain buried in an unmarked ditch.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the propagation of crusader mythology was seen as essential to maintaining order and consolidating the new dictatorship. Franco’s victorious army was ordered to focus inwards, to abandon all preparations for foreign wars and to learn tactics of domestic crowd control. Under Franco, history was, in Paul Preston’s words, ‘the continuation of the war by other means’ – in propaganda, school textbooks, church sermons and through monuments, public holidays and other state-sponsored culture. Schoolchildren were compelled to take a course of political education called Formation of the National Spirit, as well as religious education and PE: political parties weren’t to be trusted and faith should be put instead in Spain’s ‘organic democracy’, a natural order expressed not in the decadent liberal institution of parliament but in the family, the workplace and the municipality. They were also inducted into Franco’s paranoid militarism: violent repulsion of the foreign Judaeo-Bolshevik-Masonic conspiracy was, so it was said, a matter of instinct, an innately Spanish characteristic.

Spain, in the Francoist slogan, was ‘one, great and free’. (‘Of course there is one Spain,’ the joke went. ‘If there was another, we’d all be in that one.’) Regional languages and cultures were banned, books in Catalan and Basque burned; even private correspondence, the government warned, was to be written in Castilian. Crucially, the Spanish state was firmly reconnected to the Catholic Church. In place of the fragmented Second Republic, a robust, controlling religious and class hierarchy was restored to Spanish society.

In Franco’s Crypt Treglown is taken up with the idea that Spain after Franco is ‘culturally amnesiac’: that the great art, literature and film made between 1939 and 1975 has been too easily forgotten. Dalí, Miró and Picasso were all content to live and work in Spain under Franco, he points out, in spite of the left’s determination to appropriate them. He also notes the hefty investment the regime made in visual art by funding the National Fine Arts Exhibition of 1960 (although much of the work in it was thematically and formally on-message: Franco wrote some of the programme notes). Alongside portraits of exiled liberal writers like Max Aub, Ramón Sender and Arturo Barea, Treglown cites the Nobel-winning novelist Camilo José Cela, who stayed in Spain and was allowed to produce shocking material that challenged Francoist – especially Christian – values (though his work was sometimes censored). Later in the Franco period, some filmmakers found ways to address the horrors of Spain’s mid-20th century – Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is perhaps the most famous example. Treglown’s revisionism can be a little too enthusiastic, appearing to see little difference between Francoist film censorship and the interventions of the BBFC in the UK, and ‘besides’, censorship was ‘imaginatively stimulating’ and ‘challenged the best talents to produce their strongest work’.

Treglown reminds us what it’s possible to produce, even in a dictatorship, but does not dwell on the fact that those possibilities were largely confined to the upper class and literary elites. To the small extent that anyone had the freedom to speak and think differently, it was often limited to those close enough to the regime to feel able to express their differences. When the repression of the early dictatorship began to subside somewhat in the 1950s, a small dissident intelligentsia emerged, centred on a small number of radical Falangists. These were the upper and middle classes on the winning side, who resented Franco’s drift away from the idea of constructing a ‘purist’ fascist state. Dionisio Ridruejo, Franco’s minister of propaganda from 1938 until 1941, a poet who wrote the Falangist anthem ‘Cara al Sol’, wrote to Franco to condemn him for ‘making a mockery of the Falange’; after spending a few weeks in jail, he was sent into internal exile.

As ever, the loudest messages emanated from the centre. Raza (‘Race’), one of the many films made in the 1940s that depicted Spain’s glorious victory over ‘infidels of various kinds’, as Treglown puts it, was based on a novel Franco himself had written in 1941, a thinly veiled telling of his own life. The film is infused with a belief in Spain’s racial destiny. The heroic José stands in for Franco. His family, an idealised version of Franco’s own, is ripped apart by war and foreign meddling, only to be saved by José, who miraculously survives a Republican firing squad and, inspired by the trinity of Race, God and Family, leads Spain to victory. The film incorporates documentary footage from the Civil War, and when the fictional José leads the Nationalist victory parade at the film’s climax, the sequence is intercut with shots of Franco’s actual victory parade.

When the regime eventually and gradually engaged in a process of apertura in the 1960s, narrowing the censor’s scope and passing more liberal press laws in 1968, it was because Spanish culture and society were already transforming under the pressure of mass tourism, rapid urbanisation, migration and the explosion of consumerism and international cultural exchange – and because the modernisers in Franco’s cabinet had convinced their reluctant and curmudgeonly leader of the need for a more pragmatic authoritarian capitalism: what Franco described in 1968, at the opening of Asturias Airport, as ‘the struggle of markets, the struggle of production’. Even then, much dissident culture had to remain clandestine, and repression persisted, sometimes in unexpected places: Spain’s Eurovision Song Contest candidate in 1968, Joan Manuel Serrat, was forced to withdraw because the regime refused to let him sing in Catalan.

Silence, forgetting and a mythologised official memory defined public culture and popular consciousness after the Civil War, and catharsis did not arrive easily after Franco’s death in 1975. By this point, a good half of the population of Spain had been born under the Caudillo, while the other half were either too young in the 1930s to remember the Civil War, or had spent decades learning to forget it. The 1970s were marked by increasing numbers of strikes and demonstrations, as the Spanish working classes finally found a collective voice again. The powerful remained tight-lipped: there was to be no centrally mandated guilt for what had passed, and no blame either. During the febrile period known as la transición, the architects of Spain’s new democracy passed an Amnesty Law forbidding the investigation of crimes committed during the Civil War and the dictatorship, and alongside it, el pacto del olvido, the Pact of Forgetting. There was to be no equivalent of denazification. No Nuremberg. No trials, public commissions, apologies or public reconciliation.

Defenders of the Pact of Forgetting, Treglown among them, maintain that the compromise between Spain’s political extremes that saw the Francoists and the exiled Communist Party leaders shuffle awkwardly to the centre behind King Juan Carlos was necessary to stave off an ‘ignominous settling of scores’. We will never know. Certainly by the end of the 1970s optimism had begun to sour as the new political settlement came under the threat of collapse, or perhaps even a coup (one was attempted, and rebuffed, in 1981). In a poll in 1978, the year the new constitution was signed, 77 per cent of Spaniards said they were unconditional democrats; by 1980, barely half of them did – the rest had doubts, or wanted the dictatorship back.

When​ Juan Carlos abdicated last year, he was widely credited with having stewarded Spain through these rocky waters. But the transition period still casts its shadow over contemporary politics. The astonishing rise of Podemos this past year is seen by the party’s young intellectual core as a correction to the ‘regime of 78’. Podemos has encouraged voters to trace the seemingly endless litany of corruption scandals in Spanish political life back to the elite which told the country to forget the Civil War and dictatorship and move on. Parts of the transición generation had a vested interest in forgetting; senior members of Franco’s regime not only helped shape the new Spain, but continued to hold office for many years after his death.

One notorious example of this continuity is Manuel Fraga, Franco’s minister of information and tourism in the 1960s and a key figure in the transición, who went on to found the Partido Popular in 1989 and was head of government in Galicia between 1990 and 2005. When Fraga died in 2012 his funeral was attended by Rajoy and the then prince, now King Felipe VI. Fraga defended Franco to the death and was a fierce critic of the historical memory and mass grave excavation movement. ‘There was an amnesty here,’ Fraga said shortly before his death, ‘which means both mutual pardon and mutual forgetting. Amnesty means amnesia.’

Yet Fraga’s amnesia has not affected all Spaniards, to the annoyance of large sections of the Spanish right, and of Treglown too. The problem is not so much that people remember, but what they remember. Treglown is open in his frustration that non-Spaniards overwhelmingly understand the Civil War through Orwell and Hemingway and ‘preposterous’ films like Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. Treglown thinks he detects an intellectually dangerous – and pervasive – ‘anti-Nationalist orthodoxy’. But even if the left wins the battle for hearts and minds, the Spanish right won the war itself with a military coup against an elected government, and for decades afterwards censored, persecuted, exiled, imprisoned and murdered its defeated enemies.

At the turn of this century, a historical memory movement comprising citizens and academics began the massive project of excavating the thousands of mass graves scattered across Spain, dug either during the Civil War or in the bloody reprisals of the 1940s, when the Nationalists continued with widespread extrajudicial punishments, torture and executions – catalogued in horrifying detail in Paul Preston’s landmark book The Spanish Holocaust (2012). Preston estimates that around 200,000 people were killed in this White Terror; about 50,000 were executed by the Republicans in the equivalent Red Terror during the Civil War.

The historical memory movement eventually found support from politicians, but only from one side of the political divide – the ‘two Spains’ that the Amnesty Law had purported to reconcile were still in evidence. In 2007 the centre-left PSOE government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed a Historical Memory Law, formalising and funding some of the work of locating, excavating, identifying and commemorating the dead. The Partido Popular, elected in 2011, took the funds away again. ‘Not a single euro’ would be spent on excavating the mass graves under his rule, Rajoy said. Spaniards must ‘look to the future, and generate neither tension nor division’.

Earlier that year, Zapatero had put together a commission to plan the conversion of the Valley of the Fallen into a site of universal national mourning, commemorating the dead of the Civil War on both sides. There would be a museum and study centre to educate future generations, and Franco’s remains would be removed somewhere less conspicuous. Rajoy, once in power, rejected all the recommendations of the commission: it would be more painful to change the Valley of the Fallen, he argued, than to leave it be. Instead, despite implementing an austerity regime of cuts to jobs and public services, Rajoy found €280,000 to refurbish the mausoleum. Treglown doesn’t mention any of this. Like Rajoy, he calls on people to forget, and to focus on the economy and the future – in a book which is about Spain’s past. He rails against ‘polarised’ commentaries, partisan historians of the left and ‘the memory vogue’: there is, he says, a ‘politically manipulated, culturally amnesiac obsession with “memory”’.

Treglown is right that in the recovery of historical memory, there is a danger that the search for truth and dignity will be obscured by the desire for vengeance; he quotes Javier Cercas: ‘It’s easy to say “fucking bastards, fascists”’ – easy, but not helpful. But Treglown has witnessed work that avoids such traps. He visited the small town of Almedinilla, where a new museum has been built to commemorate the Civil War, and volunteers from historical memory groups organise summer camps for young people, where they record interviews with elderly residents about their early memories; Treglown is rightly impressed with the hard work, sensitivity and creativity of the project, but seems not to recognise that it is precisely these benign, bipartisan oral history projects that are criticised by those calling for Spaniards to ‘focus on the future’.

Amaya Caunedo Domínguez, a historian who worked on the mass graves project before Rajoy shut down the Office of Victims of the Civil War and the Dictatorship in March 2012, told me that without financial or infrastructural support from the state, she had had to leave her own mobile number as a contact point at various excavation sites and town halls. ‘People I have never heard of regularly call me,’ she told me. ‘Do you know about my grandfather?’ they ask, or ‘Do you know where I can find my father’s body?’

The work of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory continues, staffed by volunteers and funded by small private donations – in July last year, four huge Civil War mass graves were dug up on the outskirts of Burgos; as many as four hundred bodies were found. It has become common in some quarters of Spanish society to describe groups like the association as ‘political’. But while unknowable numbers remain in unmarked graves, and the heirs of the political culture that put them there continue to resist public pressure to give them the burial they deserve, how could such groups be anything else?

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Vol. 37 No. 14 · 16 July 2015

I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936 (LRB, 2 July). He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Exhibition (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I support the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.

All this has the merit of being consistent with the attitudes to evidence of Spain’s campaign for ‘historical memory’ at its most amnesiac. A main argument of my book is that it makes no sense to complain that things have been forgotten while ignoring cultural deposits in which they are recorded. It’s positively harmful to encourage such negligence by suggesting, as Hancox and a few others do, that if the records are in some way ‘elite’ there’s no need to bother with them.

As for the idea that today’s Spain is a continuation of the dictatorship by other means, I’m reminded of a story a Russian writer told me about attending a literary congress on human rights with Harold Pinter in the mid-1980s. Abuses, each more hideous than the last, were recounted by people living under some of the worst regimes then in existence. Pinter’s turn came. Thatcher’s Britain was very similar, he explained.

Jeremy Treglown
Ditchley, Oxfordshire

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