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Historical Memory and Historical Narrative in Spain

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“Memory isn’t a duty but a civil right that has to be protected” said historian Richard Vinyes upon the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. The basic right of being able to access an objective historical narrative about one’s own nation is a concept challenging Spain in the post Franco era. Some Spaniards view the Franco period as one of economic prosperity and nationalist pride, whereas others (particularly the people of Catalonia) see the Franco era as one representing suppression of autonomy and culture. Unlike other historical atrocities like the Holocaust which have to the best part created a truthful historical narrative allowing for a subsequent process of grieving (through historical memory), Spain has been inept in achieving this. This inadequate approach to historical memory has manifested into social and political problems preventing the nation from achieving any progress in creating a more cohesive and progressive society. Most notably, historical memory surrounding the Spanish Civil War has made the region of Catalonia feel ‘non’ Spanish, due to the emotional wounds which are still present as the process of grieving has yet to be achieved. This has contributed to the push for Catalan Independence, despite the irrational economic outcomes.

Spain’s approach to remembering its history can be encapsulated by Catalonia’s National Day (La Diada). Whilst the national day doesn’t have particular significance to the Spanish Civil War, it summarizes the dysfunctional relationship between history and celebration, explaining the disconnect between Spain and Catalonia. The national day “bespeaks how a country operates” and the National images associated with that day “affect attitudes and behaviors”, therefore the national day is crucial to shaping this “image making” that people have towards their nation. Foreign Correspondent, Raphael Minder describes Catalonia’s National Day as the day “celebrating a defeat”. It marks the day in which Barcelona fell to Bourbon Ruler King Phillip V in 1714. As a matter of vengeance King Phillip suppressed the Catalan people, removing their parliament and language. The suppression by Phillip V of the Catalan people has set a benchmark of prejudice towards Catalonia. This prejudice has culminated over many years explaining the birth of various ‘radical’ left ideologies throughout Catalonia as well as the causation of the Spanish Civil War. To some extent this prejudice towards Catalonia still exists today. Catalonian citizen Antonio Vancells says “that everything we are fighting for now revolves around the times of 1714.” A national day to any country is one which holds special significance. It represents a day of pride and patriotism for one’s country, however for the people of Catalonia this pride cannot be expressed to its full potential due to the origins and fundamental meaning of the day. This then influences the national images that Catalonian people have towards Spain. The meaning of the day has instead been reclaimed by the Catalonian people and transformed into a day “part carnival, part rally, part protest”. Hundreds of thousands of people gather together to contribute to this protest. The theme of the 2017 Diada was referendum and independence. The National day for Catalonia is one which ultimately sums up Spain’s flawed process of historical memory, however the recapturing of the day allows for this flawed system to be reversed into a movement pushing for change. The divisiveness between Spain and Catalonia is represented no better than on La Diada, where unanimously the Catalan people march for independence.

Fundamentally public history can be defined as “any history applied to the real world”. It aims as Woodrow Wilson believed to “engage, inform, and enhance public life”. By engaging the public audience in their history it creates a more aware society, in which the past can be used to assist in the challenges of the present. Hayden White also offers that history should present a more practical purpose, aiming to be didactic, rather than simply constructing an insignificant narrative. Thus public history, (whether it be statues, museums etc.) is representing the view an organization or government has of the past and the morals which should be applied to today. In Spain, there is an ambiguous historical narrative surrounding the Spanish Civil War represented publicly. Statues and museums, (particularly in Barcelona) are mostly privately funded, and those which are either council or federally funded represent a convoluted narrative of Spanish history, manifesting and enhancing a ‘memory of wounds’ theme preventing social cohesiveness throughout contemporary Spain.

Spain’s use of public history to commemorate the Spanish Civil War can be seen prominently through the Valley of the Fallen. The legacy of the conflict surrounding this site promotes nostalgia to the Franco era and the Nationalist Forces, creating extreme, polarized social divisiveness within contemporary Spain. Labelled by the Independent UK as “Spain’s most controversial visitor site”, the Valley of the Fallen is a mausoleum built under Franco (using Republican prisoners) aiming to commemorate those who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Approximately 34,000 victims of the war are buried within the mausoleum, with only two graves in sight to the general public; Antonio Primo De Rivera, founder of the Falange Española de las JONS, a far right party sympathizing with Fascism. Opposite him is the grave of Fransisco Franco. To the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) the site represents a place of glorification for catholic, traditionalist and far right culture within Spain, promoting nostalgia towards the oppressive far right leaders seen in the 20th century and thus contradicts its goal of achieving genuine reconciliation. The site represents the social dynamics of present day Spain whereby “there are still plenty of Spaniards who would pay good money to spit on the grave of Franco, and there are others who would happily part the 9 euro admission fee to come and lay flowers on the stone that bears his name”. The lack of persistence by modern political parties (until very recently) to change the nature of the site reflects that historical memory at a political level promotes right wing nostalgia corrupting Spain of a progressive historical narrative. The Valley of the Fallen is an outdated site which has created polarized division between left and right, with minimal room to accommodate a socially cohesive middle ground.

A fundamental issue affecting contemporary Spain arising from historical memory is the Catalan Push For Independence. Catalonia throughout modern history has been suppressed on a cultural level by Spain on the premise of creating a unified nation, free from differing regionalistic cultures. The suppression by King Phillip V in 1714 has created a precedent for suppression by future leaders. The Spanish Civil War marks the climax of brutality and divisiveness in Spain, however the failure to properly commemorate these events by offering a process of genuine reconciliation in Catalonia’s public history has culminated into a deeply emotional attachment to the past. Catalonians, particularly those who are descendants or direct victims of the war haven’t yet received a process of reconciliation and the public history in the land surrounding them reflects this.

Catalonia’s failure to achieve legitimate historical memory through public history can be attributed to two reasons. The first being a general unwillingness from those in power to commemorate the past. It is far easier for those in power to avoid the past as the emotional attachment Catalonian’s particularly still have could risk parliamentarians political position, if this emotion is tampered with. Instead, any attempt to use public history to promote historical memory is surprisingly absent on a governmental level, instead most is achieved through private organizations; some of which were organizations linked to fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the Republicans. Secondly, today there is still an unclear historical narrative which again leaves the nation divided. Exactly what and how should the war be commemorated? The following will examine case studies summarizing Catalonia’s historical memory through public history.

An example of Public history influencing contemporary Spain is the Montjuic Castle, the Castle has seen the commemoration of far right wing history justifying the emotional wounds seen in contemporary Spain, particularly Catalonia. Used as a political prison and the execution grounds for Catalan president Lluis Companys during the Civil War the castle holds a prominent position in Catalonia’s use of public history. The castle quite literally overlooks the city and has seen controversy in commemoration of the Civil War. A plaque within the castle recognizes the “heroes and martyrs of the glorious Nationalist movement”, as well as a statue of Franco, only removed in 2008. Historical memory currently highlights conservative, nationalist ideologies which have provided no process of reconciliation and grieving for the victims of the war, contributing to the emotional attachment to the past.

Additionally, the commemoration by Barcelona on their own unique history in the Civil War has created an ambiguous narrative. The lack of direct attempts to achieve genuine inquiries into truth and reconciliation has assisted in creating an emotional wound preventing social progressiveness.

Throughout the course of the Civil War enemy air raids accounted for over 2000 deaths in Barcelona.

42 of those deaths taking place in Plaça De Sant Felip Nari, a church located within the gothic quarter. Here alongside each other sit 2 plaques. The first plaque to be installed by the Barcelona City Council commemorates the victims of the bombing attributing it to the “Francoist Forces”. The second plaque is barely legible and obscured from view but surprisingly adds greater specificity to the nature of the bombing. This time attributing the bombing to the “Italian Forces”. The reason for the change was due to the fact that by mentioning the Italian forces it was initially deemed too provocative towards any Italian tourists visiting the site. The significance of this illustrates Spain’s overall position in remembering its history. An unclear historical narrative leads to an inadequate process of grieving. The truth is unclear and therefore reconciliation is increasingly difficult. Without the truth contemporary Spain simply cannot progress.

The lack of representation of historical memory in museums has been detrimental to advocating and remembering the past. According to the organization of European National Museums (Eunamus), the objective of museums is to “focus on understanding the conditions for using the past in negotiations that re-create citizenship and on the understanding of layers that create territorial belonging”. Research by the organization has also highlighted the theoretical relationship between museums, particularly nationally funded museums in creating/shaping a national identity. Museums according to Lois Silverman assist in the learning process of “affiliation and membership” of a particular identity. Similarly, Unesco states that museums “play an essential role in fostering social cohesion and a sense of collective memory” as well as a way for society to learn the “fundamental principles of dignity, tolerance, and respect for history”. Spain’s use of museums has paradoxically distorted the national historical narrative. There is no nationally funded museum in Spain which directly attempts to memorialize the Spanish Civil War. And to an even broader degree there is no national museum in Spain dedicated to Spain’s national history. Most museums, particularly those which aim to commemorate the Civil War are privately funded and situated in Catalonia. There are no Civil War museums in Madrid. The lack of national museums has led to inconsistencies in Spain’s historical narrative, thus distorting Spain’s history making it increasingly regionaliztic and subjective. The regions of Spain have their own narratives of history which ultimately prevents social cohesiveness. A quintessential example of this can be seen through the Museum d’historia de Catalunya, a museum funded by the Catalan Autonomous Government which aims to create a national identity for the region of Catalonia. Throughout the museum an underlying theme exists which aims to create a separation between Spain and Catalonia. The notion of doing this has not only established a separation between both Catalonia and the rest of Spain, but has also constructed a tension between the people of Catalonia and Spain which has justified unprecedented movements for social change like the Catalan Debate for Independence. By implementing national museums on a more intense scale, direct attempts to create a historical narrative agreed upon by all parties and regions could assist in the country moving forward on a wide array of social issues and tensions.

Spain’s legal obligations towards historical memory have significantly challenged contemporary Spain, seeing it manifesting into diplomatic, political and social tensions. The UN described Spain’s contributions to committing to historical memory on a legal/political level as being “timid”. In 1977 a unanimous yet unwritten ‘Pact of Forgetting’ motion was established. An amnesty law was also implemented ensuring that “there would be no responsibility for the thousands of people that perished during the Civil War”. For Spain to move on from the past paradoxically the nation had to “la desmemoria” (meaning disremember). Whilst seeming rational at the time the process of grieving has not been achieved. The wounds have been covered but not healed. The issues of remembering the past have only been postponed and will always continue to linger unless properly highlighted and dealt with. It is now 80 years since the Civil War and still the people of Spain have not gained justice at a legal level and are still demanding answers. The Socialist Workers Party in 2007 implemented the Historical Memory Law, which aimed to condemn the Franco state in most forms as well as the inquiry into much needed historical archives, and the creation of a truth commission. The partisan nature of the law it has been fairly ineffective in practice due to the constant change of political leadership. At the time of implementation the opposition said that the law would “violate the spirit of the democratic transition and awaken the ghosts of Spain’s bloody past”. The ineffective nature of achieving historical memory on a political/legal level has also affected Spain’s credibility on the international stage. Having always been eager to cement a firm position in the UN the domestic issues of historical memory have affected this. The UN has strongly advised Spain to reverse the amnesty law, which still holds prominence despite the historical memory law. Similarly the issue of unidentified mass graves has also left Spain accountable for a mishandling of achieving historical memory and justice for the victims of the war. As of 2011 a report was undertaken identifying 2,232 mass grave sites with most remaining untouched. The Recovery of Historical Memory Association in Spain have also stated that exhuming graves is difficult due to a lack of funding. Only very recently have graves been exhumed however, the process is slow and there isn’t a supportive politically funded movement. Not only is historical memory surrounding the Civil War severing social unity in the country, but it is also diminishing the credibility of Spain’s diplomatic agenda.

The fragmented approach towards achieving genuine reconciliation and healing through historical memory has shaped Spain in all facets of contemporary life and to an extent has defined who they are as a nation. The nation has seen the development of a variety of social inconsistencies as a result of a distorted historical narrative which is unclear and highly regionalistic. This is also seen on a political level due to the partisan nature of the approaches of historical memory. There is a clear polarization between the nation, which has pushed out room for a cohesive middle ground. This polarization has justified the push for significant change like the Catalan Debate for Independence and most recently the induction of a new Socialist Prime Minister. The victims of the Civil War and the Franco era still have emotional wounds which have not yet been healed creating social tension. Focusing on historical memory to create a truthful and accurate, historical narrative will allow Spain to become more progressive and inclusive, transforming a divided Spain into a cohesive nation.

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Historical Memory And Historical Narrative In Spain. (2019, July 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from
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