The Civil War is the central event in the history of the Spanish 20th century. Since that summer of 1936, writers of all kinds, novelists, essayists, and historians have tried to explain its causes and consequences, the most acute conflicts, and the policies that guided them. No period in our history has generated so many bitter (and sterile) books, testimonies, debates, and disputes. But despite all that has been said and written, the majority of Spaniards do not know much about that history nor have they studied it in schools.
The Civil War was manifested in a violent political combat on how to organize society and the State. For Spaniards it has gone down in history for the tremendous violence it generated, but, despite how bloody and destructive it could be, it must also be measured by its international impact, by the interest and mobilization it caused in other countries.
On the international scene, unbalanced by the crisis of democracies and the emergence of communism and fascism, Spain was, until 1936, a marginal, secondary country. Everything changed, however, after the military uprising on July 18, which marks the 85th anniversary today. In a few weeks, the Spanish conflict that had just started was placed at the center of the concerns of the major powers, deeply divided public opinion, generated passions and Spain became the symbol of the struggles between fascism, democracy and communism.
Within that war there were several and different contests. In the first place, a military conflict, started when the coup d’état buried political solutions and put arms in their place. It was also a class war, between different conceptions of the social order, a religious war, between Catholicism and anticlericalism, a war around the idea of the homeland and the nation, and a war of ideas that were then in struggle on the international stage. In short, they crystallized universal battles between owners and workers, Church and State, between obscurantism and modernization, resolved in an international framework unbalanced by the crisis of democracies and the irruption of communism and fascism.
Spain began the 1930s with a republic and ended the decade plunged into a fascist dictatorship. Three years of war were enough for Spanish society to suffer an unprecedented wave of violence and contempt for the lives of others. No matter how much people talk about the violence that preceded the Civil War, to try to justify its outbreak, it is clear that in the history of the Spanish twentieth century there was a before and after the coup d’état of July 1936.
And it was from that moment, and not before, that all the manifestations of violence that Europe had known since the First World War took place, to a great degree: revolutionary, counterrevolutionary, paramilitary, fascist / nationalist, assassinations. massive, especially in the rear, and the bombardment of civilian populations. Of all of them, the most specific and peculiar violence – in a country where there were no Jews or territorial or ethnic conflicts – was derived from the conversion of war into a religious crusade, holy war, and anti-clerical hatred.
That war led to a long postwar period where the victors had the firm will to annihilate the defeated. Captive and unarmed the Reds and without the intervention of the western powers that had defeated the fascism, the Franco dictatorship always remembered the victory in the war, filling Spain with places of memory, and administered a bitter punishment to those who had lost. The churches were filled with plaques commemorating those “fallen by God and the Fatherland.” On the contrary, thousands of those killed by military and fascist terror were never inscribed or remembered with a paltry tombstone. The vanquished were even afraid to claim their dead.
Digging up that past was hard and expensive work. Almost everything that is known today, 85 years after the start of that war, has been the result either of the work of Hispanists, the first to challenge the myths of the Crusade with scientific methods, or of a new generation of professional historians who have arrived. to Spanish universities in the transition and during democracy. With many works and many returns to research we have turned the Civil War and the Franco regime into a privileged object of study in the historiography of contemporary Spain.
The different memories of those events have been crossed with ardor since the nineties, after a long period of political and social indifference towards the cause of the victims of Franco’s repression.
The different memories of those events have been crossed with ardor since the 1990s, after a long period of political and social indifference towards the cause of the victims of Franco’s repression. This change coincided with the importance that the debates on human rights and the memories of war and dictatorship were acquiring at the international level. A part of civil society began to mobilize, associations were created for the recovery of historical memory, graves were opened in search of the dead that were never registered and the descendants of those killed by the Francoists, their grandchildren more than their children, they wondered what had happened, why this story of death and humiliation had been hidden, and who the executioners had been.
But the record of the outrage committed by the rebellious military and by the Franco regime has also reacted, on the other hand, to well-known journalists, right wing propagandists and history buffs, who have taken up the old arguments of Franco’s manipulation: it was The left that with its violence and hatred caused the Civil War and what the right and good people did, with the military coup of July 1936, was to respond to the “popular front terror”. All the complex and well-thought-out explanations of professional historians are thus reduced to two questions: who caused the war and who killed the most and most treacherously. The game of “matching” victims and responsibilities has dominated in recent years most of the representations disclosed in the media and has brought to light a clear confrontation between the narratives and the analysis of historians and the political practices and regards.
The stories and memories of the Civil War and the dictatorship have been manifested in a cultural and political battlefield, of appropriation of symbols, with disputes over streets, memorials and monuments. The Civil War, 85 years later, can and must be debated, with many voices and nuances. It is about explaining the story, not about facing the memory of some to that of others. And that propaganda, forgeries and political statements do not replace reasoned knowledge and historical analysis.
Julian Casanova is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Zaragoza