History and “La Crisis”: Spain Since Franco

By Richard MaddoxNovember 21, 2013

    Franco’s Crypt by Jeremy Treglown. 337 pages.

    ALL REPORTS indicate that Spain is a mess these days. But you have to be there or be a diligent reader of foreign news to realize the breadth and depth of “la crisis,” which began about five years ago and is likely to persist for several years. Despite the insistence of the Spanish government that corners have been turned, the economic figures continue to be discouraging. The year 2013 will be another period of declining gross domestic product, and overall unemployment will remain around 25 percent, with youth unemployment hovering in the vicinity of 55 percent. Millions feel their lives are on hold, and countless thousands of young people have had to delay plans to marry, establish an independent household, and have children. A large number of their parents may never be employed again, and some elderly family members are being taken from extended care facilities to live with their offspring so that their meager pensions can help support three-generation or four-generation households. The wreckage of the economy is reshaping social relations in ways that are hard to grasp.

    The political realm is in even worse shape. The mainstream center-left Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or PSOE) and, more recently, the rightward-leaning Popular Party (Partido Popular, or PP) have been discredited for their role in fomenting the crisis and for the inadequate austerity policies they have adopted to deal with it. Thanks to their efforts, taxes are up, and services are down. Civil servants have endured salary cuts and have fewer resources to help clients. Then there are the scandals and pervasive corruption. Over a thousand public figures and politicians — ranging from the king’s son-in-law and the former treasurer of the PP to regional governors and village mayors — are under investigation for every imaginable form of shady dealing, including influence-peddling, bribery, and kickbacks. Judicial cases are backed up for years, so many politicians remain in office while under indictment. Public confidence in elected officials is at historically low levels. Moreover, the lack of credibility of the national political parties has helped Catalan, Basque, and other regionalist groups push their demands for referenda on independence. A constitutional crisis is looming, and the possibility that one region or another will break away from Spain is greater than it has been any time in living memory.

    Spanish culture, which has generally been heavily subsidized by both direct and indirect means at every level, has also been much diminished. Indeed, there is hardly a national, regional, or local museum, orchestra, media outlet, or arts initiative that has not seen a drastic cut in support. Although university enrollment has increased with the lack of employment opportunities, the number of university faculty members has been reduced by about 9 percent. And while research funds have been gutted, university fees and costs have risen. Recent PhDs and other highly trained and talented graduates have fled in increasing numbers to countries such as Germany, Britain, and Argentina. In short, if you judge by the numbers and news, Spain, though not as bad as Greece, is about as close to a disaster zone as a highly developed and still rich country can get. It is hardly surprising, then, that in every city and countless towns of Spain, demonstrations and protests organized by unions, unemployed people, reform associations, and interest groups of various kinds occur seemingly without end. In the streets, bars, buses, and metros, you often hear spontaneous polemics, sometimes eloquent and almost always angry, delivered by resentful and frustrated men and women who have had more than they can bear on any particular day.

    In light of the circumstances, the real cause for wonder is why protest has not taken more disruptive, radical, and violent forms. Even though the decibel level is sometimes high, the marches, demonstrations, occupations, and other forms of direct action have generally been remarkably peaceful and well organized. Street life goes on pretty much as always, despite the empty buildings, vacant storefronts, and going-out-of-business signs. When I was in Madrid this past summer, for example, the city seemed to be pretty relaxed. People were clearly spending less money in the bars and cafés, but they also seemed to have more time for conversation and strolling. During prime weekday hours, the bike trails along the Manzanares were full of men and women in their 20s and 30s who, as several of them admitted to me, had more leisure time than they really wanted. Even the usual crush of vehicular traffic seemed more manageable than normal. Although a lot of misery, poverty, and depression were apparent, the sense of solidarity and sympathy for the difficulties of others appeared to be, if by no means universal, then at least widespread and genuine. Why the relative calm in the face of the continuing storm?

    It is not uncommon to hear that Spanish culture and politics have been benefiting (or suffering, depending on the speaker’s politics) from a kind of immunization effect. On this reading, the citizens of Spain remain deeply pessimistic about the future, but their memories of the Franco dictatorship, the past violence associated with the struggles of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and other radical ethnonationalist groups in the Basque country and elsewhere, and the horror and outrage aroused by the al Qaeda–linked Madrid train bombings in 2004, have led the overwhelming majority of them to be unmoved by the politics and rhetoric of both the extreme right and the far left. But this does not take us very far in understanding either the complexity of the responses to the crisis or the range of values, representations, and convictions people actually embrace. As the many activist initiatives of Partido X and other offshoots of the indignados movement of spring 2011 suggest, a broad section of Spanish society wishes for fundamental reform of the political system. The initiatives embody a spectrum of cautiously social democratic elements (“We only want what your grandparents want”) and radical technoprogressive elements (e.g., advocacy of direct digital democracy and online referenda). In this situation, it would be of considerable help to have access to a text that offered a comprehensive treatment of Spanish culture and politics during and after the Franco regime, a text to consult as events unfold.


    For all its merits, Jeremy Treglown’s Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 is not this sort of general cultural history, nor does it claim to be in spite of its broad subtitle. I do not think such a history exists in English. What we have instead are several broader general historical surveys, large numbers of monographs on this or that topic, and a few collections of essays of uneven quality that cover various zones of the cultural landscape, including Treglown’s own turf of historical memory (see, for example, Aurora Morcillo, ed., Memory and Cultural History of the Spanish Civil War, Brill, 2013). This makes Treglown’s more sharply focused account nearly indispensable, even if it is sometimes as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does.

    Treglown deals with the themes of memory and the impact of the Franco regime on Spanish culture through a discussion of the social movement to restore historical memory of the Civil War period, a movement that emerged about a decade ago, and through commentaries on many dozens of artists, historians, filmmakers, and novelists, whose works touch on the theme of memory from the 1940s to the present.

    The title of the book refers to Francisco Franco’s burial site inside the Basilica of the Holy Cross, a massive edifice hewn from the mountainside north of Madrid and not far from El Escorial, the palace and monastery of Phillip II. Presiding over the basilica is a 150-meter-high stone cross that can be seen for miles, and adjacent to it is a Benedictine abbey. This monumental array, which is intended to honor the dead of the Civil War in “the Valley of the Fallen,” is enormous and represents the largest still-existing site of Fascist architecture and art in Europe.

    Treglown visited the site on an important date, November 20, which is the anniversary of the death of Franco in 1975 and also the death of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Falange, who was executed by the Republicans early in the Civil War. Both men are buried in the basilica with thousands of others. Every year, a few of the dwindling remnants of Francoism, along with more numerous younger neonationalists of the far right, gather on this date to pay homage to their heroes, and for a few hours the past seems to weigh heavily on the present. Most days, however, the place is virtually deserted. When I visited the site one summer afternoon a few years ago, there were two or three people wandering around and taking photos. Then suddenly three large buses appeared. One brought Spanish pensioners who were on an outing and who looked around for only a few minutes before leaving. Unusually subdued, none of them seemed comfortable being there. The other two buses were full of mildly curious Japanese tourists.

    Today, nobody really knows what to do with the site. Some on the left want to turn it into a Civil War study and research center and thereby reduce, if not wholly eliminate, its association with fascism. Treglown supports this idea, but the religious and political right generally opposes it. In any case, the crisis has momentarily rendered this issue moot. Few people want to see a large amount of money devoted to the past when so many present needs are being neglected.

    Somewhat similar dynamics seem to pervade the broader and many-stranded social movement associated with the recovery of historical memory, including the effort to restore Civil War archives to their places of origin, the seemingly unending politics of renaming streets and plazas and transforming the monumental arrays of public spaces, and the establishment of museums dedicated to some aspect, often local, of the Second Republic or the war. Treglown is at his best in his discussions of the exhumation and reburial of some of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the war and its aftermath, partly based on his own eyewitness involvement. The difficult and emotionally fraught efforts at reburial are usually undertaken by associations of the descendants of the dead, who hope to restore or reassert the honor and dignity of their families. Especially in small towns and villages, where everyone knows who was on what side in the conflict, this is no small matter.

    Treglown is not naive about the cultural politics of the broader movement, whose major achievement was the passage of the Law of Historical Memory by the then-governing Socialist Party in 2007. The law establishes the legal basis for the reburials and the possibility of material support for them. Partly this legislation was intended to do something to mitigate the cultural effects of the Amnesty Law of 1977, which has prevented people from bringing any of the countless crimes and human rights violations of the Franco regime to full light. But for some of the 2007 law’s sponsors, it often seems that the quest for historical justice has been less important than the political strategy of placing Spanish conservatives into an embarrassing position of apparent opposition to uncovering the truth. As a result, the movement has suffered from a good deal of crude distortion, oversimplification, and “sentimentalization” to the point that Treglown feels obliged to declare that “in trying to identify what’s special about Spain, I soon found that much of it is related to a politically manipulated, culturally amnesiac obsession with ‘memory.’”

    There is certainly ample evidence to be offered in support of this grim judgment, especially from the heyday of these activities, which was roughly 2004 to 2008. Even now, thousands of people remain ardently dedicated to the movement, and some issues receive extensive media coverage. But because of the hostility of the governing party (the PP) to the memory law and because of the urgencies of the current economic crisis, the movement appears to be fragmenting into grassroots, academic, and legal sectors and is not the main arena of cultural and political struggle in the country. Although around election time partisans on both sides do what they can to dramatize their differences, what most stands out these days is not the ideological differences separating the historical left and right, but the investment of both dominant national political parties in saving the teetering liberal political and economic regime that exists today and is struggling to maintain some semblance of democratic legitimacy.

    Treglown’s skepticism and ambivalence about the historical memory movement are consistent with the main argument of his book, which is that politics and ideology, as well as simple ignorance, have conspired to distort knowledge about cultural life and work under the Franco regime. According to Treglown, the opponents of the regime, in their rush to condemn the regime’s many failings and crimes, have painted too black a picture of the epoch’s culture and legacies. He has a point. Particularly during the last years of the dictatorship, Spanish culture tended to be represented in terms of the good (the works of Republican exiles), the bad (the works of regime hacks), and the ugly (the flawed and muted works created in Spain by independent writers and artists who suffered from censorship and suppression). But it was never that simple. Fine films, art, and literature were produced inside Spain during the dictatorship, and there was more tolerance, creative freedom, and honesty about the impact of the war on ordinary life than is commonly thought.

    Treglown repeats this point so often it becomes tedious. After all, it is no secret that authoritarian regimes typically vacillate between periods of limited openness and brutal repression, and that bad circumstances can inspire great art. Yet Treglown devotes remarkably little attention to examining the internal workings of the regime or considering why the authorities were sometimes tolerant, sometimes hostile, and often indifferent to artistic expression that did not directly challenge their rule. Nor does he distinguish much among the quite different attitudes and aims of the regime’s various “families” of monarchists, technocrats, Catholics, the military, and the Falange. The absence of analysis of this kind may make it easier for the book’s critics inside Spain to unfairly dismiss the work as a naive, if unintended, apology for Francoism.


    The second part of Franco’s Crypt has something of the character of a tour of Spanish culture conducted by a well informed if a bit cranky and eccentric guide. Still, what Treglown has to say about the complex textures of politics, history, and memory in his commentaries on most of the specific works he considers is concise, persuasive, often highly illuminating, and well worth the price of admission. His discussion of the vexing figure of Nobel Prize winner Camilo José Cela is a case in point. For decades, Cela appeared to be a dedicated supporter of the Franco regime, but as his later criticism suggests, he was always the classic outsider, a party of himself alone. Cela’s most famous novels are The Family of Pascual Duarte, a powerful if oppressive howl of pain from the devastated countryside, and The Hive, a dissection of boredom and hopelessness set in a postwar Madrid bar. But Treglown rightly gives more attention to Cela’s less read but stunning San Camilo, 1936, which focuses on a handful of Madrileños during the first days of the Civil War, a small group that represents a fair sample of “the people,” in Cela’s terms, “perhaps more than twenty or thirty thousand men, each with his moving little novel stuck to his heart.”

    Treglown also offers a fine discussion about the difficult work of Juan Benet and a younger generation of writers, such as Javier Marías, Javier Cercas, and Antonio Muñoz Molina. Unfortunately, the Basque novelist Bernardo Atxaga and his compelling Obabakoak are not discussed. And while some omissions of important authors are expected in a work of this kind, the absence of any discussion of Juan Goytisolo (or, for that matter, of his brother Luis) is incomprehensible to me. I cannot think of a more exhilarating fictional polemic about history, memory, betrayal, oppression, and rebellion than Count Julian, and this short novel appeared relatively early in Goytisolo’s prolific and fearless career. Would it be a good idea to talk about postwar American fiction without mentioning Thomas Pynchon?

    Treglown’s discussions of art, history, and film are briefer than his commentaries on fiction but are otherwise similar. Painters, sculptors, and others exercised a great deal of artistic freedom during much of the dictatorship, and if they occasionally suffered from the censorship and hostility of authorities, they were also often subsidized in various ways. Their works were presented in exhibitions sponsored, for example, by local officials, by the Council of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Education, and by the Museum of Contemporary Art (a national museum that was founded in 1951 and was the forerunner of today’s Reina Sofía Museum). The Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited works by ardent foreign supporters of the Republican left during the war, such as Henry Moore and even Diego Rivera, and showcased a fine collection of works by Spanish Republicans, including a dozen works by Picasso. As Treglown shows, even though the younger generation of postwar artists — such as Chillida, Tápies, Antonio Saura, and Millares — sometimes openly dissented from the regime, they were able to develop their work in Spain without much difficulty. As Treglown notes, it is debatable how “political” much of their mostly abstract work was, but in any case, none of the major artists discussed by Treglown appear to have been primarily preoccupied with the politics of historical memory.

    Treglown is on firmer ground in a chapter called “History’s Wars.” His discussion of the ideological vicissitudes surrounding the publication of the Spanish biographical dictionary, sponsored by the rather decrepit Royal Academy of History, is a gem. The dictionary’s entry on Franco, for example, is pontifically forgiving and fails to mention much of the dark side of El Caudillo’s distressingly long career. While only a handful of major historians are considered in Treglown’s chapter, the reader gets an accurate sense of the politicized terrain of professional and public history. By way of conclusion, Treglown approvingly discusses Javier Cercas’s Anatomy of a Moment (2009), an account of the attempted coup of February 1981 against the new democratic system. Cercas’s argument is that the past has never been forgotten in Spain. During the transition to democracy, the past was self-consciously ignored and “shelved” by politicians and others in order to avoid a settling of scores and an identification of the new political system with that of the Second Republic. Whether this was the best course to follow is doubtful. Treglown seems to think that it was.

    Treglown’s chapter called “Franco’s Films” opens by quoting the lyrics sung by Penélope Cruz in Pedro Almódovar’s Volver: “I’m afraid of meeting the past which is about to confront my life.” Movie versions of this past are represented by Raza, the film version of Franco’s bloated, self-glorifying, quasi-autobiographical meanderings, and by other works, such as Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, Carlos Saura’s Cousin Angélica, and Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. Other worthy films discussed are likely to be less known to non-Spanish audiences. The commentary on García Berlanga’s Bienvenido, Mister Marshall, a great 1953 comedy about villagers’ responses to visits by a flamenco entrepreneur and American aid officials, is finely appreciative. Like a number of other Spanish films from the postwar period, Mister Marshall does not confront Francoism directly but offers a warmhearted defense of traditional peasant culture along with a critique of both rural backwardness and modernization efforts. The challenges of modernity, especially in its urbanizing consumerist forms, are also a concern of many Spanish films of the 1960s and 1970s. But whether this is owing to the Franco regime’s inconsistent policies of “opening,” to the ineluctable force of the social and economic processes transforming the country, or to the cosmopolitan vision that the best Spanish filmmakers shared with other great European and American directors of the period is left an open question.

    A lack of clarity about this and other such matters is probably the book’s biggest fault, compounded by vague periodization, the lack of a coherent account of the impact of European and global liberalism on Spain, and a virtual absence of regionalism and ethnic nationalism as cultural and political forces. These problems — rather than the author’s probably wise decision not to attempt to fully consider popular culture and media, theater and performing arts, and poetry in his account — are what most limit the usefulness of Franco’s Crypt as a general history of Spanish culture in the post–Civil War period. It is not that Treglown is unaware of the power of external forces, the shifting priorities of authoritarian and democratic governments, or regionalist passions. But instead of analyzing and weighing these forces, he represents them simply as varying contexts for understanding the story of the dictatorship’s influence on representations of the past. This prevents him from effectively describing the failures, successes, and transformative cultural forces and constraints that have been generated by the Europeanization of Spanish liberalism. Compared to these processes of liberalization, the issues of memory and forgetting are not much more than a sideshow.

    What accounts for the absence of a consistent critical approach to contemporary Spanish liberal culture in Treglown’s text? Perhaps Treglown, who is clearly no radical but is writing from within the liberal tradition, believes that it is enough to realize that however serious its problems, the current hegemonic Euroliberal regime is superior in every way to authoritarianism. Few people would argue with that, but it fails to offer much insight into the specific character and diverse forms of contemporary culture, politics, and economics. Indeed, Treglown is remarkably sanguine about the democratic regime that succeeded the dictatorship: “The Transition is both an astonishing fact and a hopeful parable about human survival.” Evidently, members of Spain’s political class are not the only ones who tend to be too complacent about the achievements of the new disposition of power established in the 1970s and early 1980s, the thoroughgoing Europeanization of the country from the 1990s until 2008, and the inept and immensely damaging attempts to deal with the economic crisis of the last few years.

    Yet it is important to note that the book’s weaknesses in this regard by no means reflect the author’s views alone. Treglown clearly writes within the distinguished intellectual tradition of British Hispanic studies. From George Borrow and Richard Ford in the 19th century to Gerald Brenan, Julian Pitt Rivers, and magisterial historians such as J. H. Elliott in the 20th century, one of the presiding questions that has shaped this tradition has been what makes Spain different from other European countries, especially Britain. Treglown himself has written an intellectual biography of V. S. Pritchett, whose book The Spanish Temper is one of the classics of the genre, and Treglown evokes this tradition early in Franco’s Crypt when he says that “Spain still feels different.” The answer to the question of cultural difference has usually been that Spain is distinctive because of its inclination toward the ideological polarization of modernist and traditionalist stances, the enduring force of religion, and an intense personalist ethos centered on family, friendship, honor, and patronage. The emphasis on the complex articulations of memory and history in Franco’s Crypt can thus also be read as a reworking of Hispanist concerns in a way that serves as a counterweight to Paul Preston’s impassioned and singularly dark indictment of Francoism and Spanish conservatism in his recent history of the “Spanish Holocaust” of the 1930s.

    Owing to the prominence of the Hispanist tradition in Britain and to the more mundane realities of tourism — and the steady movement of British retirees to Goytisolo’s “sunnyspain” and young job-seeking Spaniards to greater London — Treglown may hope that his work will attract a modestly sized readership among the educated public in Britain. Such readers will probably be well satisfied with his survey of Spanish novels and films and with his underlying message that Spain today is still a bit different than other countries but not in a way that challenges the core values of commonsense liberalism. Such a readership scarcely exists in the United States, where Spain — if it means anything at all among the general public — means bulls, Barcelona, possibly that painting by Picasso, and also, surprisingly often, tacos. Contemporary US writers aspiring to the popular mantle of a Hemingway or a Michener will likely make little headway in our newfound land of endless distraction. Sadly, in the United States, the audience for Franco’s Crypt will inevitably be a small segment of academia composed largely of hard-to-please professors and grad students, who may wish for a more hardheaded argument about the present in Spain than is to be found in this valuable and engaging book about the presence of the past.


    Richard Maddox is the author of El Castillo and The Best of All Possible Islands.

    LARB Contributor

    Richard Maddox is the author of El Castillo and The Best of All Possible Islands.


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