Long live those statues of Franco

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto, professor of Spanish History at Tufts University, Massachusetts (THE TIMES, 29/07/06):

THE SPANISH CIVIL War divided my family. My uncles were liberal Catholics who fought for the republic — despite distaste for some of their extremist fellow combatants — because they wanted autonomy for their native region. One was shot, another exiled, another imprisoned and subjected to years of victimisation.

By chance, on the front line in Barcelona towards the end of the war, my father, working as a non-combatant on the nationalist side, actually met his brother-in-law, who, as a medical officer, was evacuating wounded republicans. Their eventual reconciliation always seemed imperfect. Another uncle’s widow married a Falangist. Most of the family ostracised her for the rest of her days. All my life, I longed to see respect restored, and hatred transmuted into history. Now, however, the Spanish parliament is worrying old wounds. The Left is calling for the last surviving monuments to the victors of the war to be torn down.

In part, this is an emotionally comprehensible drive for parity: an act of homage to the defeated, who have few memorials. In part, however, it is a vindictive folly — an attempt to warp the historical record and suppress part of the evidence.

Statues are for the birds; they occasionally perform a useful function for a passing seagull. Sometimes they make respectable street furniture. But the worthies depicted tend to pass into obscurity. Some retain their fame or go on inspiring obloquy, despite their portrayals. Most people cannot even identify or recall the subjects of statues they pass daily on their way to work. Tyrants’ memorials, pathetically straining for grandeur, serve as monuments only to vanity. They prompt ridicule or disdain, suspicion or healthy apprehension. In a post-heroic age, the very idea of statues seems out of date. The folly of people who want to go on erecting them is exceeded only by the stupidity of those who want to destroy them.

In Spain, the erection and desecration of statues is a national vice. One of the bleakly humorous drawings that made the Spanish cartoonist Mingote popular in the Sixties showed a bare-toothed, bulging-eyed mob, foaming with frenzy as they stoned and hacked an uninspiringly swaggering monument. The English equivalent of the inscription on the pedestal was “The Glorious Jones” — a name so commonplace as to constitute a kind of anonymity.

Where every mnemonic triggers bloody memories, no memorial is safe. In a land of divided passions, everyone is someone’s enemy. So instead of leaving the monuments of partisans and putschists to gather contempt or guano, or drift into decent obscurity, they send in the demolition gangs.

Every time a statue falls, I weep — not for the person commemorated, whose reputation will stand or fall independently of any statue — but for my fellow countrymen who are too immature to contain their rage. To me, every statue, plaque and arch of triumph is precious as a fragment of the diversity of which all political communities are composed. It is part of the historical record: erasing it is a form of censorship, as evil and ineffective as burning books or twisting the curriculum. Bombast cast in bronze or sculpted in stone does nothing for individual renown, but it does serve to memorialise the conflicts that forge nations and, if rightly understood, to warn us of the mistakes of the past.

For a while, I cherished hopes that Spaniards understood the truth about their Civil War and were prepared to accept it. On both sides, evil allied with idealism. Both sides had their honourably deluded dead. Both were ragbag coalitions of uneasy allies. Neither side was ideologically consistent. Both included cannon-fodder conscripted involuntarily or recruited by false promises. The conflict within the Left — pitting anarchists against communists and Trotskyites against Stalinists — was as wicked and wasteful as all the other conflicts subsumed in the war. “Aren’t we all socialists?” asked George Orwell amid the bullets in Barcelona. It was like asking, “Aren’t we all Christians?” at the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Franco’s regime combined folly and brutality on a scale remarkable even by the common standards of politics, but some people loved it and the love and the hatred are both parts of Spain’s history. To confront the future on the basis of a realistic appreciation of the past, you have to admit those facts. Acceptance of the whole of one’s country’s past, warts and all, is a sign of democratic maturity.

When Franco died, some people coped with the legacy of strife and dictatorship by contrived amnesia, others by evasion. This did not mean — as some Francoists hoped — that the propaganda of the victors was left untouched. Gradually, street names that were part of the temporary bunting of one side’s triumph disappeared, uncontroversially, in favour of historic names. Some statues of Franco were relocated in less conspicuous positions, others left in place, according to local taste. Parties of schoolchildren were taught to respect, without enthusiasm, his surprisingly tasteful tomb. All was part of the transition to democracy.

Now, as the last representatives of the generation that fought the Civil War die out, anxiety is rife for the so-far forgotten victims, and for the retrieval of memories so painful or so divisive that they have been repressed. My cousin made a pilgrimage in search of his grandfather’s grave. Many similar quests for closure have filled bookshelves and the airwaves. One result of these experiences is that generations too young to have fought in the war feel guilty about having missed it. That is no reason for them now to re-enact it symbolically. Only when people embrace the past they hate can they face, frankly and fairly, the legacy it has left behind.