A Hedgehog in the Civil War: Miguel de Unamuno’s Fascist Error

February 17, 2023

Unamuno in Salamanca, 1936.

Shortly after the 1936 coup, Unamuno surprised many when he publicly expressed his support for the rebellious military. Although he eventually realized he had made a mistake, neither he or his reputation ever fully recovered. What drove him?

The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno was a hedgehog.

When Isaiah Berlin proposed his now classic division of writers and intellectuals into foxes and hedgehogs, he did not think to include the author of Tragic Sense of Life, who lived from 1864 to 1936. Yet he would have been a perfect example.

Hedgehogs, Berlin claimed, have a single Great Idea to defend, and they do so with a singular focus and great energy. Foxes, on the contrary, occupy several ideological positions that may be mutually exclusive, navigating between them but never committing to them fully. The hedgehogs, for Berlin, included figures like Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust. The foxes included Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce. Unamuno was not Berlin’s only omission from the first category. Absent, too, are clear hedgehog intellectuals such as Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci, or Stephan Zweig.

Hedgehogs are driven by what we could call an “intellect-action,” in which the quality and potency of their one Great Idea seeks to inscribe itself in their culture and traverse it. In Unamuno’s case, this intellect-action unfolds intensely through fin-de-siècle Spain and the first half of the twentieth century, from the crisis of 1898—when Spain lost its war to the United States and, with it, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—to the fascist military coup that unleashed the Civil War in 1936. Unamuno’s Great Idea was the need to defend the identity of Spain as a bastion of Western-Christian civilization.

Shortly after the 1936 coup, Unamuno surprised many when he publicly expressed his support for the rebellious military. In retrospect, we can think of the coup as a vector that swept away Unamuno’s intellect, an interference that turned his Republican, anti-fascist/anti-communist enterprise into an unprecedented act of support for Franco’s military who successfully co-opted the philosopher to the point where he donated money to the Rebels’ cause. It was a turning point with major consequences, both for Unamuno and for the antifascist struggle.

Unamuno’s position was surprising because up until that point, he had always maintained a strong anti-militarist and anti-monarchist position. In 1924, at the beginning of the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera—supported by the monarch Alfonso XIII—the philosopher’s intense dissident intellectual activity earned him a long period of exile. He first went to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. He then voluntarily settled in Paris and, later, in the Basque border town of Hendaye. During that seven-year period, he continued to rail against the dictatorial Spanish government with his own brand of phlegmatic rage. He also continued to promote a coherent vision on how to regenerate Spain from its secular ills.

In 1931, with the newly proclaimed Second Republic in place, Unamuno returned from exile. He was received in an apotheosis. We can now say that, at that moment, he reached his zenith as the great organic intellectual of Spain. He took a seat on Salamanca’s City Council and accepted the position of Rector (President) of the University of Salamanca.

In the remaining five years, Unamuno’s hedgehog intellect persisted. He did not hesitate to criticize the Republican regime, holding it responsible for increasing radicalism of anarchists, the newly emerged fascists—institutionalized in 1933 as the Spanish Falange by José Antonio Primo de Rivera—and revolutionary Marxists. Unamuno believed those were ideologies foreign to Spain—they certainly did not did coincide with his Great Idea of Spain as a bulwark of Western-Christian civilization—that intoxicated Republican politics. As it happened, here Unamuno’s ideas intersected to some extent with the program declared by Mola, Franco, and the rest of the military coup plotters of 1936—so much so, that Unamuno felt compelled to side with them. Yet by doing so, Unamuno violated his own ethical maxim of alterutralidad or alter-utrality (a particular variant of the concept of neutrality) that he had been professing for years.

Unamuno’s support of the military rebels lasted from July until October 1936. In August of that year, Republican President Manuel Azaña relieved him from all his posts. In return, the Nationalists quickly reinstated him in the same way “for his fervent adherence and enthusiastic support” given to their cause. Moreover, the National Defense Board entrusted him with the task of the “purification” commission, a political instrument to purge the administration of suspicious teachers. In practice, Unamuno thus became the Nationalists’ inquisitor.

However, the extreme repressive actions of the military, the cause of the disappearance and/or shooting of several of his close friends or teaching colleagues, opened Unamuno’s eyes to the real situation in Spain. He realized that the pack of Africanist generals who carried out the coup were promoting forms of barbarism that had little to do with the Western and Christian civilization he had in mind. From that moment on, Unamuno begins to refer to the conflict as an uncivil war between los hunos y los hotros, in a typical pun: the “ones/Huns and the (h)others,” implying an equivalency between the warring camps as both equally misguided.

On October 12, 1936, the Day of Hispanidad, in an unscheduled, historic speech at the Paraninfo of the University of Salamanca that would quickly acquire mythic proportions but whose precise details remain controversial, he famously told the rebelling generals: venceréis y no convenceréis (you will win but not convince). Directly facing General Millán Astray and his ilk, Unamuno revealed his furious hedgehog intellect in a fiercely anti-militaristic gesture of great rhetorical force and depth.

From that day onwards, Unamuno as a thinker and intellectual found himself in no-man’s land. He had already abandoned the Republic; and now he’d also cut ties with Franco’s coup d’état. Once again removed from all his posts, he was confined to his home in Bordadores street in Salamanca. This second, embittered period of ostracism prompted him to write an impressive intellectual testimony, The Tragic Resentment of Life (El resentimiento trágico de la vida, whose title revisited his classic El sentimiento trágico de la vida from 1912). The text, which lacks any conventional essayistic narrative structure, is a kind of socio-political-philosophical hieroglyphic. Yet it is of great documentary value to understand his hedgehog vision of Spain as a bastion of Western Christian nations.

Overwhelmed by confinement, depression, and the emptiness of the intellectual no-man’s-land he had brought upon himself, Unamuno did not live much longer. On December 31, 1936, he died at his home and was paradoxically honored with a funeral service of fascist liturgy. He was 72.

Unamuno’s trajectory invites us to revisit the role or responsibility of intellectuals in a situation of democratic collapse and political violence. Seeing him, in Berlin’s terms, as a hedgehog intellect is helpful here. Unamuno was an organic intellectual of great stature in fin-de-siècle Spain, prior to the Civil War; and he sought to generate an action-platform from his writings and speeches to move the country from backwardness and European insignificance. Other thinkers such as José Ortega y Gasset seconded him in the project. Yet, as we saw, Unamuno’s fixation on his Great Idea, combined with his erratic intellect, made him fall into totalitarian temptation. For Franco’s military, Unamuno positioned himself as a supporter of the fascism they professed for three months, blinded by the Great Idea of Spain, unique, great and catholic, which they believed had vanished since the crisis of 98, and was threatened by the emergence of a secular and progressive Republican regime.

Unamuno, in other words, was blinded by his own radicalized intellect. When he realized his error and tried to recover his moral authority with a courageous speech, he only managed increase his isolation as he deserted that indispensable platform of democratic regeneration that he had claimed to yearn for, and that would be further delayed by forty years of dictatorship.

Jorge Zirulnik is a psychiatrist and amateur Hispanist. His main field of research is intellectual creativity, with a focus on thinkers and writers under totalitarian regimes. He lives and works in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Translation by Sebastiaan Faber.