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No Beauty in Defeat

The Spanish Civil War ended 80 years ago today with Franco's victory. But for opponents of Spanish fascism, the brutal repression of popular culture and democracy was only beginning.

Postcards and posters declaring "No pasaràn" in Madrid, Spain in 1936. Wikimedia Commons

André Malraux had called it a “lyrical illusion.” But the fall of Madrid marked the end of the dream. In his novel Man’s Hope, Malraux had told of the moment in which the romantic revolutionaries believed that they could do anything. But after Franco’s troops came, the aesthetic of resistance lingered on only in the idyllic memory of the banner across the Calle Toledo proclaimingNo pasaràn.” Such fine words had found an insuperable enemy in the more prosaic reality of the steel dropped by the German and Italian planes.

April 1 marks eighty years since the end of the Spanish Civil War. The pain and drama of that tragedy have not changed one iota. For this finale was not the end of things, but the next stage in the cultural and political genocide that had begun with the military uprising in 1936. Franco’s victory was but the beginning of the repression of a more advanced Spain that had been taking its first baby steps — the incipient ideas, consciousness, and morality that had provided an illusion of progress to the popular classes, to women, for culture and the arts.

Still today, we are living amid the moral rubble of that defeat. Indeed, the Francoite dictatorship prioritized the elimination of any trace of progressive mores or dissent. For four decades, national-Catholic culture subjugated freedom, literature, theater, critical thought, and educated thinking. Through this effort, the regime introduced the virus of what we call “sociological Francoism,” still today present in wide layers of Spanish society.

The regime’s continuing influence is expressed in the mindset that, notwithstanding the political and cultural genocide, the dictatorship was not so bad, because it brought good levels of economic growth and a Spain of order and security. In this sense, the social-engineering process which began some eighty years ago has proven very successful.

With the triumphal fascist parade through Madrid on March 28, 1939, there immediately began the burial of the voice of the defeated, of the democrats who had fought with such daring to resist the black stain spreading across Republican memory. The national-Catholic jackboots left footprints on the souls of the defeated, ploughing invisible scars on their skins. Despair spread among all those Spaniards who now had to hide their tears from the victors. They could be bitterly certain of the pain that would now be piled onto that of the past. It was a rage stripped of any epic element. For there is nothing heroic about just being able to survive.

Those Who Remained

After Franco’s victory, Madrid became a city of over a million cadavers. A silent and subdued fear won ground: tellingly of the population’s hunger, the pigeons and cats started to disappear. The rosary beads and the yoke and the arrows of the Falangist flag starved the dissenting of any oxygen. Hanging one’s head and stifling one’s thoughts became the everyday existence for all those liable to be considered “anti-Spanish elements.”

There were those who could not bear the stench: the maquis, the guerrilla fighters who took to the mountains to continue the fight against the regime and wait for some Falangist squads or the Guardia Civil to come hunting for them in the woodlands. There were the so-called topos (literally “moles”: those who hid away), of less military ardor and courage, who concealed their fear of being caught in one of the night-time raids, constantly watching themselves. They became “disappeared people” who dug their hideouts behind a trapdoor or within the walls of the kitchen where their wives and children lived.

There were men like Protasio Montalvo, who spent some thirty-eight years hidden in a basement. There were those who spent almost three decades buried alive behind a trapdoor, with a shotgun on hand — if the Falangists came, they would thus be prepared to kill themselves before they were arrested. A human metaphor for the history of the losers: always hidden, alone, silent, in the dark.

This darkness was unbearable even for some of the more humanist Falangists who rapidly lost their illusions, like the poet Luis Felipe Vivanco, weighed down by the error of his rapid support for the Francoite uprising. His sadness stained even the pages of his poetry:

How much more Spanish is our life

And more traditional our monstrosity

Greater the cruelty of the plan

That keeps us in this much-suffered peace.

As for the Spanish right, the victory of April 1, 1939 would harden it in a policy of constant aggression.

Indeed, this attitude has made itself felt in Spanish politics even in recent months, in a concrete and grotesque form. The increasingly unhinged right embodied in the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos, and its far-right excrescence Vox, are direct inheritors of this hostile approach to public life, still today beating their political adversaries over the head with national symbols. For them, anything that stands outside the norm must surely be an enemy.

Those Who Left

March 1939 was the end of the Spain that could have been. The national tale — the real one, not the fascist one — was written in the blood in the best of Spanish society, and the ink of those who could narrate its sorrow from exile. This sentiment was grasped better than anyone by Antonio Machado. Heading from Barcelona to Colliure (France) in December 1938 he expressed a grief-stricken but nonetheless razor-sharp sentiment: “For the strategists, for the politicians, for the historians, all this will be clear: we lost the war. But at a human level I am not so sure: perhaps we won.”

He was right on that count. The words of writers like Miguel Hernández, Federico García Lorca, Luis Cernuda, María Teresa León, and Max Aub would write the collective memory of the just Spain, of the homeland that had been stolen from us with the consent of the United States, Britain, and France.

In the Spanish case, too, there were collaborationist powers who looked the other way during the dictatorship, tarnished the memory of the heroes of the International Brigades, and doomed decent Spaniards to forty years of darkness. This was well-recorded by María Teresa León, the proud and melancholic poet who wore a fantastical military uniform in order to look good at political rallies: “They sacrificed us. We were the Spain with torn clothes and heads held high.”

Those Who Would Not Return

“I will never go back and set foot in that country of shit,” said Federico García Rodríguez, Lorca’s father. As for the son, he could never leave the land that buried him in some unknown place. It was a sorrow shared by those who carried the voice of the victims of the reprisals — those who left never to return. The bitterness of what had been, was no longer, and would never be, brought grief to all those struck by exile.

It is a wish of any exile to return to the yearned-for homeland. This same feeling ran through all those forced to leave as the victorious fascists entered Madrid. But there was to be no return to an idealized Spain, even if they could tread the same streets they had abandoned as the invading troops defiled the last Republican holdout. Max Aub described this heartbreak in 1969, when he was able to walk through lands that had now become strange to him: “I have come, but I have not returned.”

During his visit Aub asked to be taken to the Valley of the Fallen, the mausoleum in honor of Franco standing a few miles from Madrid. His travel companions did not understand why he wanted to visit the site honoring the very dictator who forced him to abandon his homeland, his friends, and family. Aub replied simply: “It’s not to honor him, but those [the Republican prisoners] who died building it.”

The memory kept alive by those who left Spain is still today absent in wide layers of Spanish society. Indeed, many of its leaders cruelly dismiss those who seek historic memory and restitution for Franco’s victims, accusing them of “digging up old bones.” The debate on the need to pay penance for what began rotting on April 1, 1939 remains a live issue in Spanish public life. The heirs to the political culture that won the war continue to reject an even symbolic recognition of the worst crimes perpetrated in twentieth-century Spain. Still now, they keep winning by erasing our memories. They fake pride in order to hide their shame.

In April 1939, a Spain that brought up its citizens through schooling, arts, and literatures was buried by a rancid Catholic traditionalism and the savage repression of all that was different. Eighty years have passed, and still today the Right want to deny us of our identity, of what reminds us of what could have been and wasn’t. Luis Cernuda provided an antidote to this forgetting when he paid tribute to the International Brigades who lost their lives so that we would not lose ours: “Remember it, and remind others, when you are disgusted of human baseness and angered by human harshness: This man alone, this act alone, this faith alone. Remember it and remind others.”