Franco’s Crypt

It can sometimes seem that the Spanish Civil War is an event in English history as much as in Spanish history. Of course, this is an illusion: it was the Spanish who saw their country torn apart, from 1936 to 1939, in a bitter struggle between Left-leaning Republicans and the fascist Nationalists led by Francisco Franco, the eventual victor. The English were just bystanders, except for those few thousand who volunteered to fight, mostly on the Republican side. But they were exceptionally articulate and involved bystanders. English writers produced a number of classic books and poems about the conflict, including George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and W. H. Auden’s “Spain.” For England’s Left, and America’s, too (witness Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls), the Spanish Civil War was not just a domestic fight but the first eruption of the world struggle against fascism. After all, Soviet Russia intervened on the side of the Republic, while Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy helped Franco, as if in a preview of the Second World War. The fate of Spain was the fate of Europe and the world in miniature — which made the victory of fascism there a frightening portent.

Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936, by the English man of letters Jeremy Treglown, can be seen as the latest installment in this long-running fascination with Spain and its war. Yet Treglown, who lives part of each year in Spain, starts out by acknowledging that he approaches the subject as an outsider. “While English speakers may use Spanish Civil War as a compound adjective,” he writes, “war is a noun, what it refers to is a fact, and in this instance the facts, however hard to understand and interpret, had most of their effects in Spain and on Spanish people.” Indeed, Franco’s Crypt could be described as an act of respectful eavesdropping on the discussions Spanish people are still having about the meaning of the Civil War — discussions carried out not just in the press but in works of fiction and films and even architectural projects.

After triumphing in 1939, Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. In the following years, Spain successfully committed itself to parliamentary democracy for the first time in its long history. Today, it seems as “normal” a Western European country as France or Italy — beset by economic problems but secure in its democratic institutions. But as Treglown explains, the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship continue to loom very large in Spanish politics and culture.

After all, he points out, “everyone between roughly forty and their mid-seventies today who was born in Spain was born under Franco, most of them went to school during his regime, and almost every man over sixty served in his armed forces.” And the younger, post-Franco generation is putting increased pressure on its elders, wanting to learn the truth about the atrocities of the war and the repression that followed. The result is a kind of Spanish version of the German “struggle to overcome the past,” the confrontation with Nazism that dominated German culture in the 1960s and after.

One vivid manifestation of this impulse, Treglown shows, is the current vogue for exhuming Republican victims of the Civil War. That conflict featured atrocities on both sides — notoriously, the Republicans killed thousands of priests — but Franco’s mass killings had been hidden or euphemized away under his regime. When democracy came in the late 1970s, there was a general agreement to forget the grievances of the past, in the name of reconciliation in the future. But now that amnesty is giving way to a new desire to find out exactly what happened to the Republican dead, many of whom were slaughtered and tossed into mass graves.

A shoestring organization called ARMH, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, has provided the impetus for these exhumations, using DNA testing to try to give a name to every corpse. In 2008, Treglown observed one of these digs in action, as researchers used radar to try to locate the line of a trench where, local memory had it, a number of bodies were buried. The episode is an anticlimax — nothing is found except a few old bullets — but this disappointment suits Treglown’s purposes, since he is rather skeptical of the value of such digging. “To a detached observer,” he writes, “there is something futile about going in search of bodies buried seventy years ago.” He quotes Spanish writers who argue that “the memory vogue has been exaggerated by the media, that it is in danger of opening old wounds, and that it distracts from more urgent problems such as the environment and the economy…. Today more than ever, digging up the past can seem like a new version of burying your head in the sand.”

Treglown suggests that such digging is unnecessary, because so many relics of the Franco regime can be seen above the ground. One of the dictator’s favorite projects was dam building, which greatly improved the state of Spanish agriculture and electricity — though at the cost, often, of flooding small towns out of existence. This infrastructure, Treglown points out, helped to underpin the economic growth of the post-Franco period: “Big public works are easier to undertake in authoritarian regimes than in those where public consultation is the norm.” It is one of many examples of how the past lives on into the present, in ways the present doesn’t like to acknowledge.

The supreme example of an embarrassing relic, however, is the crypt that gives Treglown his title. Franco is buried in “the biggest, most religiose war memorial in the world,” the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, outside of Madrid. This church complex includes a park and a 150-meter-tall cross, visible for miles; the church itself is built underground, in the side of a mountain. In its grandiose blend of military and religious themes, the building is an apt symbol of Franco’s dictatorship — “the most imposing piece of fascist landscape art and architecture still in active use anywhere” —  and it remains a pilgrimage site for neo-fascists. As long as it stands, there is no danger of Spain forgetting its past.

The second half of Franco’s Crypt is less engaging than the first. It amounts to a long syllabus of Franco- and post-Franco-era novels and films, heavy on plot description and light on critical context. Treglown’s purpose here is primarily to show that, even during the Franco years, it was possible for Spanish writers to criticize the regime and express dissent. Camilo José Cela, the Nobel laureate, was actually a censor in the Franco regime, yet in his fiction he “laments the indiscriminacy of war and particularly its failure to change anything,” in contrast with the fascist glamorization of the Civil War. Even moviemakers could slip subversive themes into their work, though no such thing could be expected from Raza, the propaganda film based on a novel written by Franco himself.

Most of the writers and films Treglown writes about are little known outside Spain, and many of the books have never even been translated. This makes the second half of Franco’s Crypt at once frustrating — too many descriptions of books tend to blur together — and tantalizing, giving the reader a whole reading list’s worth of authors to explore. Even for those who don’t intend to devote the next year of their reading to Spain, Franco’s Crypt is a fascinating study of the kind of cultural politics that play so large a role in every society, including our own.