Historical memory 4 – Manifestations of Historical Memory in Spain

by Dick Edelstein

In this last of four essays on historical memory, I consider some of the guises under which this topic arises in Spain, the conflicts that exist between the need to remember and the need to forget, and those that crop up when different groups appeal to the right to remember. I previously discussed the issue of public access to archival data on Spanish Civil War casualties and victims. For two decades Spain has been on the leading edge of a wave of concern over historical memory: how social groups and nations construct and identify with particular narratives about historical periods or events.

Following Franco’s death, the main Spanish political parties negotiated the Pacto del Olvido, an agreement that was formalized in the Ley de Amnistía, which freed political prisoners but also protected those who had committed crimes during the Civil War and the subsequent Francoist regime. In 2007, the Ley de Memoria Histórica provided a new legal framework for investigating the human rights violations that fell under the amnesty and for identifying individuals buried in unmarked mass graves. Some conservatives considered that this legislation violated the spirit of the earlier pact.

The governing Spanish Socialist Party is now providing funding for the activities covered by the Ley de Memoria Histórica, which had been blocked since 2011 by the right-wing Partido Popular. The government is also drafting a more ambitious act to deal with the legacy of the Civil War and the dictatorship. Its objectives include funding the exhumation and DNA identification of casualties and victims, investigating past crimes, and educating children about the Civil War.

As with most discussions on human rights issues, the notion of historical memory is an entangled one since the rights of any particular group may impinge on the perceived rights of others. For example, some individuals seeking to block publication of details about their forebears’ lives have received protection from the Spanish courts. As a leading element in the movement to explore historical memory, Spain embodies the conflicts that arise as different groups pursue their agendas.

Let us look closer at some of these conflictive situations. In Spain and elsewhere, the right and left often disagree over issues relating to historical memory. We have seen how liberal elements of Spanish society advocate the exhumation and identification of casualties and victims buried in mass graves and demand justice for those families, while right-wing groups oppose those measures and the investigation of crimes committed during the war and its aftermath. However, when the question arises of leniency and social reinsertion for ex-ETA prisoners, the same right-wing groups stir up the wrath of victims’ families although many of these prisoners have publicly renounced violence and disassociated themselves from ETA, and El País reports they have now abandoned the celebrations they formerly held whenever one of them left prison in order to avoid offending victims’ families.

Concern for historical justice crops up in various guises. I previously discussed the invisibility of historical Irish women writers, and the same issue is receiving attention in Spain. A 2018 article by Lorena Maldonado in the online Spanish newspaper El Español following the death of poet Pablo García Baena featured a detailed report on machismo in Spanish poetry, past and present. One focus of her story was the eclipsing of historical Spanish women poets, as in the case of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, whose fame in her lifetime was notably greater than that of her partner, Gustavo Bécquer. Yet he features prominently in the Spanish literary canon that shapes the understanding of young students, while Avellaneda has become invisible, although in her time she attracted comments such as “That woman is quite a man”. Contemporary poet Félix de Azúa does not conceal his patronizing attitude towards the women fighting to apply the 2007 Ley de Igualdad to the composition of the Real Academia Española, with only eight of forty-six seats occupied by women. Known for his erudite command of poetic language, De Azúa called the women feminazis.

La caravana de las escritoras del 98 is a project organized by the literary magazine La Gran Belleza with the support of the Spanish Ministry of Culture to showcase the work of female writers of the celebrated Generación del 98. The organizers assert that these forgotten women were just as important as emblematic male writers such as poet Antonio Machado or dramatist and novelist Ramón del Valle-Inclán. The history of this brilliant period in Spanish literature has been written by men, and those once famous women writers have become invisible. But the caravana has already begun travelling to their places of birth to celebrate their literary achievements and call for their reputations to be restored in the annals of literature. In May 2021, La Vanguardia reported that the writers expected to be so honored include Carmen de Burgos, Belén de Sárraga, María de Maeztu, Carmen Baroja, Sofía Casanova, and finally, Regina de Lamo, whose tribute was held last May in Úbeda.

While I have room to consider just a few of the manifestations of historical memory reverberating in the Spanish zeitgeist, the dramatic twists in the history of the Iberian Peninsula demand careful scrutiny to interpret events that impact our times, and it would be impossible to do them all justice. Spain was the first and last Roman province, and later was under Arab rule for some thirty generations, from the 8th through the 15th century. Late fifteenth century courtiers, envious of the power wielded by Jews who lent money to the spendthrift king, demanded that these citizens be expelled. When this occurred in 1492, the courtiers suggested, along with the Jews, why not throw out the Muslims – the only people having the knowledge to maintain the irrigation works that kept Spain’s lush gardens from becoming deserts. Finally, the king let his associates drive sheep north to Santander for transport to England, turning Spain’s interior into a dust bowl.

Lost agricultural opportunities spurred on forces wanting to conquer new territories, and our appreciation of the ensuing Latin American conquest is now a central issue, with activists demanding re-siting or removal of statues that shape our view of those events. The Spanish Inquisition, founded in 1478 and popularized by Monty Python was liquidated by the Catholic church only in 1834. Citizens accused by their neighbors of being sub rosa Jews or Muslims or of having been seen avoiding eating pork did not fare well since the inquisitors applied their exquisitely crafted torture devices to decide the case. Citizens tried in this manner were deemed innocent if they died like normal men and women.

Those events have a present impact as they shape the way our society views Jews and Muslims today. As Damascus-ruled Arab forces approached the Iberian Peninsula, they converted the North African Berber population to Islam and used the converts as troops to help conquer and administer Spanish territories. Our Moroccan neighbors to the south are our congenial distant cousins although for some reason we treat them in a despicable fashion.

The current conjuncture demands conscientious reappraisal of the byways of history to help us deal with global problems such as climate change and economic inequality. Since history has been written mainly by those who exercised hegemony, it is not a closed book: new scholarship, new technology, and new viewpoints can all help us excavate the past as we hurtle towards an uncertain future, with the vanquished, the ignored and the marginalized now more than ever pressing to strike a fair balance.