The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
When General Franco died in November 1975, he was convinced that his regime would continue after him, that ‘everything is tied down and well tied down’ (todo está atado y bien atado). Yet within three years, Spain had – surprisingly peacefully – been transformed into a democracy. This transition, however, demanded a huge sacrifice from the victims of Francoism, asking them to set aside their grievances and sign up to el pacto del olvido, the pact of forgetting. Fearful of sliding back into dictatorship, Spaniards kept the pact, though two generations later the consensus has essentially broken down. Grandchildren of the victims, far removed from the years of civil war and dictatorship, are proving to be less restrained than their parents and are demanding answers. For them, difficult and painful memories, like the thousands of unmarked graves by Spanish roadsides, are something to be unearthed, not forgotten.
Unsurprisingly, efforts to establish the truth behind the murder and persecution of thousands of victims has encountered considerable resistance from certain quarters in Spain. Consequently, battles over very different historical interpretations, the so-called ‘memory wars’, are currently being heatedly fought out within Spanish culture and society. It is onto this battlefield that Sebastiaan Faber, co-editor of ALBA’s excellent magazine, The Volunteer, and author of Anglo-American Hispanists of the Spanish Civil War has bravely ventured.
Laid out in five main sections, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War is an attempt to find answers to three key questions: How have fiction and photography shaped memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the civil war, the dictatorship and the transition and, finally, how have media producers and academics engaged with the process of ensuring that Spain progresses as a unified functioning democracy?
Sebastiaan begins an erudite, wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion with a re-examination of the work and impact of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim), and the great Catalan photographer Agustí Centells. He amply demonstrates how the meaning of an image changed dramatically during the war, depending on its use and its context within a photographic montage. However, the author is no doubt correct when he argues that fascinating though they are, the images are unlikely to actually change historians’ view of the civil war.
The second section of the book tackles the central theme of historical memory and the conflicting narratives that exist in Spain, the argument between the value of recovering historical memory and the dangers of reopening of old wounds. As the author states, witnesses to the past, including historians, can also be witnesses in a trial of Francoism. Books such as Paul Preston’s Spanish Holocaust certainly provide ample evidence for the prosecution.
Alongside Helen Graham, Angel Viñas, Gabriel Jackson, and Pablo Sánchez León, Paul Preston appears in the third section, an examination of how current historians are interpreting, or ‘reframing’ the past. As you’d expect from this stellar collection of voices, there’s much of interest here. Angel Viñas is in typically bombastic form and I enjoyed Helen Graham’s optimistic assertion that history ‘is the ultimate antidote to any kind of over-simplification.’ While all historians choose the stories they want to write about, that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from doing so fairly and – relatively – objectively.
After a discussion of the contribution of three Spanish intellectuals, the book’s final section examines the role of fiction. It concludes with a look at some of the work of Javier Cercas, who has been widely translated into English. Cercas offers good advice, noting that ‘the first thing to do when reading a novel is to distrust the narrator.’ The same could be said of history itself, of course, where the eminent E.H. Carr famously advised students to ‘study the historian before you begin to study the facts.’
This book should prove to be of great interest to anyone interested in the history of (the history of) Spain and provides ample evidence that artists and writers are not neutral bystanders in these contemporary ‘memory wars’. It also asks intelligent questions of historians and academics: What is their role in all of this? Should they just comment from afar? Or should they positively engage? Sebastiaan Faber’s involvement with the Contratiempo collective and the open-access Universidad del Barrio in Madrid show his views clearly enough and will, I suspect, chime with many members of the IBMT. As the author states, ‘fields like history and politics are not just too important to leave to the experts; they are fields that should be of interest to everyone because they are everyone’s concern.’
This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 2:2018, pp. 19-20.
Helen Graham’s latest monograph, The War and its Shadow, is not an introductory text to the Spanish Civil War, nor is it an easy read. While only 150 pages long, the text’s richness and complexity, the scope and ambition, the intelligence and sheer breadth of knowledge contained within make it both thought-provoking and challenging. Important and timely too. One of the major issues currently facing the International Brigade Memorial Trust is how to explain to a contemporary audience the significance of a war which was fought in Spain over seventy years ago. This book provides detailed evidence of the enduring relevance of the Spanish Civil War and the thirty-five years of malevolent and vengeful dictatorship which followed.
In structure, the book comprises a number of essays, implicitly divided into three main sections. In the first, the author discusses the legacy of the First World War, which saw the mortal wounding of many European ancien regimes but not, as yet, their destruction. During what was essentially becoming a European civil war, nationalist movements fought to reassert what they believed to be their natural right to rule. The second section examines the notion of the volunteers (originally raised in her inaugural professorial lecture) for the Spanish Republic as ‘border-crossers’. For Helen Graham, many of the International Brigaders were, to use her rather elegant expression, ‘the stormy petrels of social change’, members of a vanguard fighting for ‘cosmopolitan cultural modernity’. The third, final section of the book is a passionate essay on contemporary Spain, the enduring legacy of Francoism and the current battles to control historical memory.
The book provides a trenchant demolition of some of the more enduring myths of the Franco dictatorship. As the author points out, the Spanish Civil War was the first battle of a war ‘waged predominantly on civilians’ and there is no shortage of evidence that murder and rape were used deliberately as a weapon to break down resistance. As the leader of the military rebels, General Emilio Mola declared, they were determined to eliminate ‘without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do.’ This included not just members of the ‘left’ and members of some imaginary ‘judeo-masonic conspiracy’, but any representatives of progress and modernity: teachers, trade unionists, homosexuals and ‘modern women’ too, as the accounts in chapter three of the viciousness visited on the Barayón family make only too clear.
Like Paul Preston’s acclaimed Spanish Holocaust, Helen Graham’s The War and its Shadow reiterates that Franco’s dictatorship was not ‘softer’ than those of Hitler and Stalin, remarking pointedly on a persisting lack of awareness of the vast number of ‘extra and quasi-judicial’ killings enacted by the Franco regime between 1936 and 1975. The chapter on Franco’s prisons is particularly harrowing. ‘All Spain is a prison’ wrote Marcos Ana, as Franco’s regime set about ‘teaching the defeated the meaning of their defeat’. As evidence of the truly repugnant nature of Franco’s Spain, the author reminds us that even Heinrich Himmler was shocked by the extent of judicial murder when he visited Spain in October 1940 (though admitting that his main concern may have been the wastage of potential slave labour). The book explains how the victimisation continued within the prisons, with ‘the rape/sexual assault of women prisoners was systematically perpetrated with impunity by the servants of the Franco regime’, and children removed from what were considered to be ‘unfit’ mothers.
The book concludes with a rather depressing, though no doubt accurate, assessment of the situation in contemporary Spain, which finds the conservative Partido Popular in power during a time of severe financial crisis. Attempts to recuperate historical memory are becoming increasing difficult, as court cases are launched against those – however prominent – involved in investigating the crimes of the Franco regime. As the author explains, while there have been many positive changes in Spain since the death of Franco, ‘many of its most damaging effects endure within the constitutional polity.’ Clearly much of Spain remains in shadow and the task of dismantling the Francoist structure has some way to go.
This review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter 34, January 2013, pp. 24-5.
On Friday 14 September 2012 I joined Paul Preston and Lydia Syson, the author of the teen novel, A World Between Us, to discuss fact and fiction in the writings on the Spanish Civil War as part of the literary festival held in the glorious surroundings of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock.
Th panel was expertly chaired by cultural historian Christopher Cook, director of the BBC documentary, Return to the Battlefields, which followed a group of British International Brigade veterans as they returned to Spain – many for the first time – in 1985. He clearly knew what he was about and asked a number of interesting and searching questions.
Unfortunately, I inadvertently blotted my copybook by revealing the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls during an explantion of how I had first became interested in the subject. Apologies to anyone whose reading was spoiled! After the customary book-signing we discovered that sitting among the audience was the first four minute miler, Sir Roger Banister. He bought a copy of Lydia’s book, which was rather nice.
Thanks to all involved – particularly the well-informed and enthusiastic audience – for a successful and enjoyable event.
On Saturday 28 April, Richard joined Professor Paul Preston and Professor Helen Graham for Guernica 75. Organised by Mercedes Camino of Lancaster University, the event was a discussion of the International Brigades, Guernica and the Spanish Civil War.
Speaking to a full house, Richard drew upon his forthcoming book, Unlikely Warriors, to talk about Manchester volunteers and their roads to Spain while Paul and Helen followed with lectures using material from their critically acclaimed new books, The Spanish Holocaust and The War and Its Shadow.