Legacies of the Civil War and Francoism: Ethics in Journalism and the Classroom

February 17, 2023

Monument to victims of Francoism at the former San Rafael cemetery in Málaga. Photolanda, CC BY-SA 2.0.

When Cora Cuenca, an ALBA workshop alumna, teaches journalism to undergraduates in Seville, she invites them to consider the Spanish Civil War in personal terms. The legacies of the war, she writes, continue to weigh on Spain: “Education is political. There are no gray areas when dealing with fascism.”

It all started six years ago, when I was a 20-year-old studying Journalism and Filmmaking in Sevilla, a city near my hometown, Córdoba, in the south of Spain. University would soon be over, and I didn’t really know what to do next. Then one day, one of my professors—who would later become my doctoral advisor and friend—spoke in class about the existence of concentration camps in Sevilla. After class, he showed me a map of the province and pointed at a few locations.

During the Civil War (1936-1939) and the subsequent repression—which lasted until the death of the dictator in 1975—Franco and his people designed a network of camps where prisoners were forced to work under extreme conditions. Some died from starvation and exhaustion. Most were interned for political reasons, although it’s better to write “political” in quotes. During these past few years of research, I have spoken to descendants of survivors and many of them say that their grandparents, aunts, parents, uncles, and so on were not really into politics besides maybe having joined a union or having attended a meeting about how to improve workers terrible conditions. But, for almost forty dark years, as the historian Ricard Vinyes put it, everything that didn’t fit into the symbolic universe of the national-Catholic dogma designed by Franco was considered a crime and, often, punished with death.

It is impossible not to think what would happen to us and our loved ones if a similar political (and cultural, economic, demographic, and social) catastrophe occurred. Would we be prosecuted? Tortured? Killed because of our beliefs and core values? Would we kill another human being to defend our lives, everything that we believe in? And what about our friends and family? Would some of them show their true colors and embrace fascism? They wouldn’t necessarily support every measure or step of the new terrorist state, but maybe they’d rather stay quiet under the regime than take action to overthrow it. That might be too high of a price to pay if you’re a parent trying to feed your family.

This is a tiny sample of the questions that I pose to my undergraduate students at the beginning of the semester in a journalism course I teach. Normally, during the first days, the silence that follows these questions becomes heavy, and I can understand why. Of course, they know about Franco, the Civil War, and the horrors it led to. But they might have never thought about all that in personal terms. Yet it is personal. It is emotional. It is something that, whether some political parties like it or not, has shaped the way we exist as a society and behave as a community of people.

Sometimes I wonder if I should be writing in the past tense. On November 8, 2022, the city council of Madrid organized a public ceremony to honor the Foreign Legion, a military force that openly supported Franco and the “golpistas” during 1936’s coup. The reason was the unveiling of a ten-foot statue of a legionario armed with a bayonet and ready to charge. The mayor of the capital, José Luis Martínez Almeida, gave a speech in which he mentioned the founder of La Legión, a close collaborator and friend of Franco, General Millán-Astray.

All differences aside, can we even begin to imagine a ceremony in Berlin to honor Himmler? Symbols are extremely powerful. The fact that Almeida, an alleged “civil servant” who holds a great amount of power, is honoring symbols that involve death and destruction is disturbing, ethically wrong and unfair to all the victims and survivors, specially two weeks after the passing of the new Ley de Memoria Democrática.

As it turns out, there is a connection between the fascist Millán-Astray and higher education. In October 1936, a few months after the coup, fate brought together two very different characters in the auditorium of the University of Salamanca: the founder of La Legión, on one side, and the writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, on the other. Historians haven’t yet agreed on who actually said what on that October 12 almost ninety years ago, but something is clear: while the first represented death and shouted an ode to ignorance (“¡Viva la Muerte! ¡Mueran los intelectuales!”—”Long live death! Death to the intellectuals!”), the second sided with life and intelligence (“Vencer no es convencer”—“To conquer is not to convince”), horrified as he was with the events that unfolded in that ominous year.

It is crucial for Spanish college students to receive an ethically informed and historically accurate education about the Civil War and the dictatorship. Education is political and we must not be naïve to think that Almeida mentioning Millán-Astray during a public ceremony is completely unrelated to what happens in a Spanish college classroom, especially if the students are studying to be journalists. Actions like Almeida’s should not be normalized and should have legal consequences. This way, young people would internalize the fact that there are no gray areas when dealing with fascism.

It’s true that historical memory is part of a complex system of references and inferences, and those relations happen in a mediatic, economic, political, social, religious, and cultural arena, among others. Another interesting example that illustrates these connections happened also in November 2022, a couple of hours before the bones of fascist and murderer general Gonzalo Queipo de Llano were exhumed from the Basílica de la Macarena, in Sevilla.

A journalist from an alt-right online newspaper of ill repute, Okdiario, was covering the exhumation and briefly interviewed a young man called Manuel Pérez, who was leaving the church. In the video, that went viral, you can see that the journalist was expecting him to charge against the government’s decision of removing the bones. Was it because Manuel is a religious person who had just come out from a late mass? Maybe because he was dressed a certain way? The questions of the journalist were biased and tendentious (something that is sadly normalized in the Spanish media), but Manuel displayed a beautiful elegance as he dismantled all his expectations. He argued that the exhumation of Queipo was a matter of justice towards the victims and, when asked if he was a voter of the PSOE (the party who Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s current Prime Minister, belongs to), he declined to answer, because he understood that historical memory and reparation of the dignity of those who were killed can no longer be obscenely weaponized by politicians and the different media, depending which party they favor.

Nonetheless, historical memory in Spain is a politicized issue, and my concern here is not to argue that it should not be. On the contrary. However, if we, as a society, want to show some respect to those who fought and died defending freedom, to those who were killed arbitrarily by a murderous regime, we need to go further. Because, before being political, memory is a matter of human rights, dignity, and justice. Manuel is a journalist who studied at the Faculty of Communication Studies of Sevilla, where I currently work. With his words, he honored more than 45,000 people who were killed by order of Queipo de Llano. Patiently, pedagogically, as Unamuno did.

The only way to build a truthful narrative towards the victims of the war and the repression is through education and information. Because that spark that ignites in a classroom full of students can quickly spread like wildfire. I grew up as an Andalusian kid knowing that Blas Infante was “el padre de la patria andaluza” (the father of our homeland) but finding out that he had been killed by Franco’s soldiers (commanded by Queipo de Llano) and his body thrown into a mass grave took me more years than I’d like to admit. How can we celebrate the life and accomplishments of a person and not talk about how he was viciously murdered by a fascist regime? Or not mention the fact that his bones, along with those of thousands of people, are still unidentified? That is not something they teach you at school in Spain, sometimes not even in high school. We could also talk in class about the foreign men and women who came to Spain voluntarily from around the world with the purpose of fighting for freedom in 1936. Or Spanish people who died in Nazi concentration camps. Or how the political power structures during the dictatorship remained the same thanks to a process which was wrongly called “Transición,” a word that means a “gradual change” that never took place.

Non-profits like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives help to promote these marginalized stories and reach a wider audience. The last online seminar I attended was a carefully designed combination of memory, history, and culture, but also a safe space to share our own experiences as lecturers. Because it has not been properly dealt with on a cultural, but especially, on a political level, the Civil War and everything that came after it is a flammable topic that must be handled with care. There is a great difference between accessing the war through a movie or through an academic paper, but both are useful when focusing on different aspects of this complex conversation. There is an overwhelming volume of cultural artefacts that can be used to access our past, and I, as a teacher, felt lucky to have wise and well-informed people pointing at some of them for me. Paradoxically, I find that teachers are life-long students, so it is important to be present in these spaces where we can improve our knowledge and skills and suggest new ways of facing the subject. It is a win-win situation, both for lecturers and, more importantly, students.

In using pedagogy against fascism, memory and a critical approach to history are fundamental. Students respond to that. After a few weeks of talking about these issues from different perspectives in class, they feel the urge to tell their family’s stories. Those stories make our history as a society, and that is a complex operation that should never be trivialized or simplified. We are witnessing the rise of alt-right parties that support ideas that dwell in the ideological core of some of the worst episodes of our recent past. An adequate education about the Civil War, the dictatorship and the repression are issues that should concern us all, but educators and journalists need to be especially careful and sensitive about the way they handle information. Because the murderer Francisco Franco died in his bed on the 20th of November 1975, and still in 2022, hundreds of people gathered in different churches all around Spain to honor him on that day. Those of us who are privileged enough to have a voice need to use that information to persuade people to be on the right side of history, along with intelligence and life, not ignorance and death. “Vencer no es convencer,” said Unamuno: to conquer is not to convince. But if Spanish journalists and educators honor a code that ultimately is aimed to protect human dignity, we will win by convincing. That is a long and complex process, but it starts in the mind of someone willing to hear or read or watch a story about truth, justice, and restitution.

Cora Cuenca is PhD candidate and lecturer in the Faculty of Communication in the University of Sevilla, where she works on historical memory and representations of the past in the media.