Letter From Spain

Letter From Spain

The barricades went up in Salamanca on December 30.


The barricades went up in Salamanca on December 30. In this city where Franco set up his first military headquarters, Spain’s Civil War is again being revived, though instead of Toledo or Teruel, the struggle now is over several hundred cartons of documents. Like thousands of other archival containers in Salamanca’s renovated palacio, the boxes are stuffed with papers detailing the activities of leftist political parties and individual Republican supporters–information collected (some would say “stolen”) by Franco’s troops and deposited in what today is the country’s official Civil War archive. But these boxes are a bit different from the rest, for their contents were taken from the famously independent province of Catalonia, and the Catalans want them back.

Salamanca’s mayor, aggressively supported by the opposition Popular Party (PP), refuses to consider the request–despite the recommendation last year from Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s appointed commission of academic, legal and archival experts that the documents be returned–and he vows that the papers will never leave his city. Although the mayor asserts that the metal fences were erected in order to perform renovations on the building, the barricades went up around the archive the day after the commission announced its findings.

For nearly seventy years, Spain has suffered a peculiar version of the eternal return, as its Civil War, finished on the battlefield in April 1939, periodically erupts to be fought again on new fronts–without bloodshed, perhaps, but still with great anguish. After Franco’s regime spent decades enforcing a national amnesia about what happened between 1936 and 1939 and in the years of dictatorship that followed, a public wish to confront Spain’s recent history is now awakening with a fury. Indeed, the so-called Pact of Silence, which effectively curbed open discussion of the past in order to secure the country’s move toward democracy, has over the past few years given way to a chorus of demands to confront that past. The archive debate–which provokes anxieties both about how Franco repressed all Catalan forms of expression and about the broader legacy of his dictatorship–has become one more arena in which to reignite the war.

Volunteer organizations like the Memory Forum (Foro de Memoria) spend weekends searching for and unearthing mass graves of those executed during the war. The Association of Relatives and Friends of the Second Republic Victims of Reprisals by the Franco Regime is filing challenges in court intended not only to clear the names of those persecuted and gain reparations for their descendants but also to render illegitimate the regime’s entire legal system. Bookstores are stocked with works exploring the barbarities of the war and dictatorship, and it seems barely a month passes without the release of a documentary film on the subject.

Although the movement to recover public memory has been gathering speed for several years, the efforts have increased sharply since Zapatero took office last April. At its national congress in the summer of 2004, the Socialist Party agreed to urge all towns led by socialist governments to finally change those street names, like the Avenidas del Generalísimo and Plazas de José Antonio Primo de Rivera, that still celebrate the Franco regime. Zapatero also appointed a commission to recommend ways to acknowledge and compensate the dictatorship’s victims.

Like those initiatives, the campaign to return the Catalan documents has a long history. The Salamanca archive itself dates to the Civil War, when General Franco created the Document Recovery Service to confiscate papers pertaining to individuals or groups “hostile to the National Movement.” Accompanying Nationalist troops at the front line as they advanced throughout Spain, the service’s members seized papers from political parties, trade unions, Masonic lodges–even from theosophical societies–and shipped them to Salamanca to be classified. From Barcelona alone, Franco’s forces transported materials that filled twelve train cars.

Once sorted and organized, the documents–800 tons’ worth–were enlisted to help prosecute suspected enemies of the regime. “This archive of stolen paper,” says Paul Preston, a leading historian of the Spanish Civil War, “became an infrastructural tool of the repression.” Preston points to the Freemasons–roughly 6,000 strong in Spain in 1936–as an example. “By the time Franco’s investigators had trolled through the materials,” he says, “they had produced a file-card index which proved that there were 80,000 Masons–all of whom of course were liable at best to be imprisoned and, at worst, shot.” That index and the rest of the collection officially became the National Civil War Archive in 1979. Catalonia’s attempts to recover its papers date to 1976, the year after Franco’s death, and have surged sporadically ever since.

For the Dignity Commission, a Catalan organization that since 2001 has spearheaded the recovery campaign, the Salamanca archive’s origins demand redress. “Both UNESCO and archival science as a whole maintain that when papers are displaced because of conflict or war, they shall be returned to their place of origin,” says Toni Strubell, one of the organization’s founders.

A policy that could be applied with relative ease to the Dutch and Polish papers captured by Nazis during World War II is more difficult to use in the case of Spain. Many here believe that returning the Catalan documents will initiate the eventual destruction of an important cultural institution. The Royal Academy of History, for example, issued a statement warning that if the Salamanca archive is not protected, there will be “unforeseeable consequences for the stability…of the Documentary Patrimony that the Archive holds in its custody.” To the charge that the Catalan papers were stolen by Franco’s forces in the first place, Julián Lanzarote, Salamanca’s mayor, replies, “There’s no collection in the world that was gathered peacefully. There are Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum. Are we going to return to Mexico all the papers in the Archive of the Indies?”

A dispute over scholarly stewardship does not fully account for the hostility surrounding the Catalan campaign. Both sides agree that the documents can easily be microfilmed or reproduced in digital form, and the Catalan government has even offered to pay to make copies that would remain in Salamanca. But the controversy, which is rooted in the question of who shall retain the originals, underscores the documents’ tremendous symbolic value. The municipal government of Salamanca has collected more than 85,000 signatures protesting the campaign to return the documents, and thousands of Salamancans have gathered in public demonstrations to demand that the papers remain in their city. More striking still is the opposition PP’s indignation. The PP has called the transfer a national outrage, and Aleix Vidal-Quadras, a leading member of the PP in Catalonia, wrote in a recent editorial that the Catalans were motivated by “the bitter wind of destructive revenge.”

But revenge for what? Although Catalonia’s struggle for greater independence from the central state has never become violent, many Catalans–who speak a language distinct from Spanish–share the Basque interest in achieving increased autonomy for their region. To many opponents of the campaign to return the documents, then, the archive petition is part of a struggle for regional autonomy. “Catalonia seems to forget that we are the same country,” says Lanzarote. “Spain is a state. Catalonia is one autonomous region within that state. We are fighting not only for Salamanca but for the defense of the state’s identity.” María Jesus Ruíz, vice president of the regional government of Castille-Leon and, like Lanzarote, a PP member, cautions that transfer of the documents would be “the first stone in the disintegration of the State.”

Advocates of returning the documents, like Strubell, note that with the exception of the PP every party in Catalonia–even those that do not champion greater regional autonomy–supports the Dignity Commission and its recommendations. To refuse to return the documents, in Strubell’s mind, is to refuse to acknowledge Franco’s crimes. “Certain Spaniards and the PP feel that Franco is not an element to be censured, an element to be associated with a bloody dictatorship,” he says. “They feel he was a neutral part of their past, even something to be vaguely proud about.”

How Spaniards understand this particular part of their past seems to be what is at the heart of the document controversy, a dispute exacerbated by the broader recent movement to remember the war and the dictatorship. “It’s a complicated social phenomenon,” says Preston. “The families of the beneficiaries of Franco’s victory don’t think of themselves as particularly right-wing. But they were brought up believing that their parents and grandparents did the right thing, smashing communism and all that. And now they’re being told that these people were little better than Hitler. It makes them very uncomfortable.” The case of the Catalan documents, in Preston’s view, offers Spaniards a safe opportunity to oppose revision of the Francoist past. “If someone says, ‘We’ve discovered a well and thirty people were thrown down it in 1939,’ there’s not much you can do about that. But if the Catalans say, ‘We want our papers back,’ they can all get behind a campaign to save the wonderful Salamanca archive.”

The public debate over the fate of the Catalan documents at times has simulated the acid tone and bitter divisions of the Civil War itself. The last time the polemic erupted with such fury, in 1995, conservative intellectual Gonzalo Torrente Ballester appeared on the balcony of Salamanca’s City Hall to address a crowd of demonstrators protesting Catalan efforts to recover the documents. Using rhetoric the Generalísimo himself might have appreciated, Torrente Ballester declared, “Son vuestros por derecho de conquista!” (“They are yours by right of conquest!”)

Many Spaniards today see the PP’s position on the controversy, and its general unwillingness to pay homage to the victims of Franquismo, as evidence of its tolerance of–if not sympathy for–the former regime. When in November 2004 members of the United Left party presented a petition to change the names of 167 streets in Madrid that still carry names from the Franco era, the PP-controlled municipal government refused. “It’s stupid to erase forty years of history,” Manuel Cobos, the lieutenant mayor, told the press. And recently at Georgetown University, when former prime minister José María Aznar of the PP was asked to condemn Franco’s crimes, he too refused. To those like Strubell, such refusals raise unsettling questions about the nature of Spain’s democracy. “We must remember that Spanish democracy was enabled not only because those favorable to the dictatorship were not held responsible for their crimes, but indeed because they were incorporated into the new power structure that emerged after 1975,” Strubell says. Minister of Culture Carmen Calvó recently echoed these accusations, if in a slightly more diplomatic manner, when she characterized the PP’s attempts to block the documents’ return as “smokescreens for demagogic politics.”

Yet surely Spanish democracy, now twenty-six years old, is strong enough to weather such demagogy. “It’s long enough since there was an attempted coup,” says Preston. “And the Socialist Party feels empowered to do things. What it’s doing is pretty mild, but given the scale of underlying hatred it seems much more dramatic than it is.” Indeed, the inflamed rhetoric that surrounds the debate over the Salamanca archives, along with the many other issues related to the Civil War that have come to occupy Spain’s collective consciousness, obscure the significance of the debates themselves: that they are taking place at all. In a country so long ruled by fear, that change itself is remarkable.

Spain’s Senate took up the debate over the Catalan documents on February 10, and when Calvó reminded her colleagues that “we need to resolve a painful issue that has lasted twenty-five years,” Senator Juan Van-Halen, a political opponent, recalled the disastrous attempts in the early 1930s by the Second Republic–the government against which Franco’s military rose up–to divest the Catholic Church of its ample holdings. He asked, in a pointed reference to one of the Civil War’s causes, “Have you forgotten what happened with the disamortization?” By the end of February, members of the PP were demanding to see records of the government commission’s discussions, and the Ministry of Culture was promising to expand the archive’s holdings in other areas. In this unfinished war, the battles continue.

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