Ángel Viñas: “No country can forget its own past forever”

December 8, 2015

Viñas at his home in Brussels. Photo Viñas.

In the fall of 2014, Stanley Payne and Jesús Palacios published a new biography of Francisco Franco. Spanish historian Ángel Viñas, who was finishing up his own book on the dictator, was appalled to find their account riddled with “the most flagrant and, at times, grotesque mistakes, omissions, and misleading interpretations.” This past September, Viñas’s own book came out. Titled La otra cara del Caudillo (“The Caudillo’s Other Side”), it sets out to disprove, in painstakingly documented detail, many of the myths still attached to the dictator—for example, that he was an austere, sober leader. Among other things, Viñas shows that Franco was a cunning and thoroughly corrupt businessman. He came out of the Spanish Civil War not only as a head-of-state, but as a multimillionaire: “He started the war penniless, yet by the end he had 34 million pesetas, more than 400 million in today’s dollars.”

Given the stubborn persistence of neo-Francoist myths, Viñas felt his own book was not enough. This fall, he coordinated a 350-page special issue of the online history journal Hispania Nova in which a dozen historians take on the Payne/Palacios biography. The goal? Nothing less than to unleash a broad professional debate over the interpretative framework of Spain’s recent history, much like the “battle of historians” that shook Germany in the 1980s. In short, a Spanish Historikerstreit.

Your book sets out to deconstruct the myths and distortions that still surround the figure of Franco, much like Herbert Southworth did fifty years ago with El mito de la cruzada de Franco (“The Myth of Franco’s Crusade). What, in your mind, explains the persistence of these myths? What interests—of a political, financial, psychological kind—do they serve?

Viñas: “Well, first of all let me say that I’ve been deconstructing Francoist myths in almost all of my work. I started in 1976 with the myth of the Spanish gold sent to Moscow. I continued in 1979 with the myth of Franco having engineered the 1959 radical turnabout in economic policies which made the growth of the Spanish economy possible. I dealt with the responsibilities involved in the destruction of Gernika as far back as 1977, and in 1981 I wrote about the hidden meaning of the American embrace of Franco. I have recently discovered how the Spanish monarchists prepared for civil war before the military rebellion broke out in 1936 and analyzed Mussolini’s promises on 1 July, 1936 to provide the rebels with military aircraft. I wrote a trilogy to show the importance of international factors in shackling the Republic and encouraging the Fascist dictators to continue and increase their help to Franco. I studied how Franco was able to circumvent the obstacles to receive foreign financing for his war, and so on. Thus I could say that my latest book is but a continuation of a long battle to deal with a highly controversial past on a strictly academic and documentary basis. This work happens to run counter to what I call the Francoist canon of history. 

I was a friend of Southworth. His contributions were exceptional for his time. He had earned a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne but didn’t pursue an academic career. Some considered this demeaning. He was shunned by the (Francoist-influenced) Spanish university. Paul Preston, Helen Graham and myself have done a lot to reintroduce him to a new generation of historians. As for me, I hope that nobody can deny my academic credentials. I became a full professor the year Franco died (1975). My chair was in the equivalent of what Americans would call Political Economy or Institutional Economic History. I am not a stranger to the economic, political and international constraints under which Governments operate. I worked in the IMF and the European Union. I’ve been a diplomat for over 25 years and have done all kinds of diplomatic work, including policy planning, development, political relations, information work, commercial work, and ambassadorial work. When I retired, I took up where Southworth left.

Why is this necessary? Because of the dramatic failure of the Spanish educational system to shed light on our controversial past. And because the successive governments, whether on the left or on the right, have been unwilling to face up to the repressed realities of the past. Amnesia has replaced the search for truth and its teachings.”

Southworth’s main targets were figures like Ricardo de la Cierva. A central target of your book is the recent new biography by Payne and Palacios. What do De la Cierva and Payne-Palacios have in common?

Viñas: “All of them share the major tenets of the Francoist canon. I have attempted to summarize them in my book and in some of the previous ones. There are differences among those authors, however. Technically, Payne has usually presented his arguments in some sort of academic dress heavily influenced by political scientists, usually American. It replaces empirical work. I should note that Payne has never set his foot in any Spanish archives except for a few references to the Archives of the Franco Foundation. His Spanish counterparts aren’t any better. Franco’s biographer Luis Suárez has done some substantial research in those archives only. Their holdings are important but not sufficient. By comparison, I have worked in some 30 archives in Spain and outside Spain. As for Palacios I have nothing to say except that he’s been at pains to hide his past as a spokesman for international affairs of a group of neo-nazis (CEDADE) which has fortunately disappeared.”

Your book and the special issue of Hispania Nova are, in your own words, a conscious attempt to unleash a Spanish Historikerstreit. Why, and why now? Is this moment particularly propitious in your opinion?

Viñas: “A Spanish Historikerstreit has always been an aspiration of mine and has been long overdue. We need it to tell between right and wrong in the profession. It would have an impact on society. Why now? Because in the near future the PP is unlikely to do as it pleases in matters such as denying support to the families of the victims of the Francoist repression, or to stop the opening of archives and official records, or to block initiatives to the contrary. No country can forget its own past forever. All signs point out that the PP will not enjoy an absolute majority in Parliament in 2016.” 

In the past number of years you have coordinated a couple of high-profile collective projects that can be seen as offensives or perhaps rather counter-offensives. Why do you feel it is important to intervene collectively in matters like these?

Viñas: “Well, I can do things where my experience helps me a bit but I am not a superman. Since I have never indulged in ego trips I look for effectiveness. Coordinating others is more useful. Manuel Tuñon de Lara gave the example to my generation. Incidentally, he was another bête noire of Francoist historians.” 

You and others have criticized the current administration’s politics with regard to historical archives. Looking ahead to a possible change of government after the December general elections, are you hopeful things will improve in that regard?

Viñas: “Not necessarily, although I think that there are some signs that things could improve. Certainly, it would be difficult for them to get even worse.” 

The young leader of the fastest growing of Spain’s political parties, the right-wing Ciudadanos, has recently said that, as far as he is concerned, the Spanish transition to democracy succeeded in reconciling all Spaniards and that it is not useful to revisit the years that preceded the death of Franco. Your opinion?

Viñas: “I don’t know what he’s said. If he said that I’d disagree. Nobody can understand the Transition without knowing what the Francoist dictatorship was about. The dictatorship is not understandable without the civil war. If you want to make a cut in the flow of history (something which is by definition absurd) one could start by making it in 1936. The Republic didn’t necessarily lead to civil war. Finally, I firmly deny that the Spaniards are reconciled. With Faulkner I believe that in certain cases the past has some difficulty in passing. Occasionally it’s even not past.”


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