Book Review: Memory and Cultural History of the Spanish Civil War

December 3, 2016

Morcillo_CoverAurora Morcillo, one of the liveliest young historians on the contemporary Spanish landscape, has enriched our understanding of Francoism through a focus on gender and cultural history. In this wonderful collection, she brings together 16 essays that offer a variety of approaches to the recovery of Spanish memory of the civil war and the dictatorship in the tragically-disrupted lives of defeated Republicans and among Franco’s backers. What are the effects of state and local violence on individuals, whether victims or perpetrators? And how do those traumatic experiences carry over into family and generational memory? Rather than from Madrid and Barcelona, the angle in these essays is from Spain’s periphery, including Andalusia, the Basque countries, and North Africa; and the authors are finely attuned to the voices of the marginalized, particularly women and children. (The detailed information the contributors’ published research serves as a bibliographical guide to new Spanish memory studies.)

The collection begins with three essays on the institutional realms of memory. Antonio Cazorla-Sánchez leads off with an examination on Italian historiography of Fascism and war for the light it may shed on Spain’s contemporary “crisis of memory.” While the workings of Mediterranean dictatorships have much in common, however, the parallels suggested between Spanish and Italian memory politics are not entirely convincing. In Spain’s case, an important external factor in the attention to Spanish war victims has been the effect of new discourses on international human rights. (Indeed, ALBA and its supporters have been stout backers of initiatives in Spain and Latin America to raise in the courts and before the UNHRC the rights of victims’ families to uncover the truth about the deaths of family members.)

The angle in these essays is from Spain’s periphery, and the authors are finely attuned to the voices of the marginalized.

Alex Bueno brings a critical eye to the Valle de Los Caídos, Franco’s mausoleum to the Nationalist fallen whose construction took 20 years of blood, sweat and tears of Republican prisoners. Whether and how should the edifice be recast into a national memorial for all Spanish war victims?

Drawing on Andalusian data, Fernando Martinez López and Miguel Gómez Oliver show that economic repression was at the heart of the draconian 1939 Law of Political Responsibilities that became the legislative structure for Franco’s military dictatorship. They meticulously track the ways in which, by “force and law,” franquista authorities “massively transferred property” from the defeated Republicans to the new Franco state and its loyal supporters.

The ten essays that follow deal with gender, domesticity, the violence of repression and forgetting, and various autobiographical testimonies. Carefully theorized, they span literature, politics, cinema, the domestic arts, and the fraught but universal domain of family intimacy. In a fascinating study of the twentieth century history of “the ideal of the Spanish male,” Nerea Aresti traces its representation from Primo De Rivera’s 1920s efforts to reframe a “national masculinity” to the pious descriptions of the masculinity and fatherhood of Franco’s martyrs. An interesting juxtaposition to Aresti essay are the studies by Miren Llona on the female ideal in the Basque country and Deirdre Finnerty’s analysis, through novels and female testimony, of the durability of the idea of Republican motherhood. In the former, we see the transformation of the Basque woman in wartime, at first as the female miliciana and later refigured into the heroic Basque women of the villages, strongly patriotic and keenly aware of the responsibility to pass on Basque culture and the language. Even during the hard years of the Franco repression there were courageous female Republicans who instilled in their daughters a belief in the importance of civic life and female equality. In a fine essay on Spanish domestic ideology and women’s skills such as sewing, Paula de la Cruz-Fernández argues that these qualities learnt and plied in the intimate domestic spaces are also part of nation building. Mary Ann Dellinger returns to the biography of La Pasionaria, undoubtedly the most famous Spanish woman during the civil war, to examine the dense mythmaking that has surrounded her and that has come to overshadow the life of the woman herself. 

Óscar Rodríguez Barreira provides a powerful evocation of the Auxilio Social in wartime, examining the organization’s impressive statistics of feeding and sheltering the needy, but also their ambivalent reception by the desperate recipients of their largesse, to show how women’s social service carried out “totalitarian social action.”

Among several essays on memoir, Victoria Enders offers the narrative of the very elderly “Chelo,” who reflects on her lifelong commitment to the Falange, after her fiancé’s death in the civil war. As in her pioneering studies of the Sección Femenina, she allows her subjects to reflect on the past without the interruptions of the opinionated interviewer.

In the final section, Geoff Jensen examines the evolution of Spanish perceptions of Morocco and Arab Islamism, elegantly showing how public perception and Spanish attitudes towards Islam and North Africa are complex, contradictory and spliced with a dynamic mix of military orientalism: a powerful reminder that in these cross-cultural relations Spanish convictions about the nature of the Other reveal more about the beliefs of the observer than they do about the subject.

Judith Keene teaches history at the University of Sydney.