Legacy of the Spanish Civil War

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How do social and political movements employ memories of the past?

On Thursday, Kirsten Weld, an associate professor at Harvard University, gave a talk with the intent of answering this question through the lens of the Spanish Civil War. Her new book, The Spanish Civil War’s Impact and Legacies in Latin America, analyzes the effects of this grand event on the world, but more specifically, on Guatemala and Chile.

A quick recap of the war goes something like this: First, in 1936, leftists and reformists staged a bloodless removal of the Spanish monarchy and created a new democracy. They instituted land reforms and other radical leftist measures seen as communist in the context of the recent Russian revolution. Second, the right-wing of Spanish politics — fascist, monarchists, and clergymen — joined together to form the Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco, to launch a coup in the Spring of 1937.

This led to two years of an ideological civil war. Communists, Republicans, and anarchists fought against fascists, monarchists, and radical Catholics. During this period, the new fascist governments of Germany and Italy sent extensive military aid to Franco. The Republicans were aided by the new Soviet Union, but isolated by the United States, Britain, and France. Finally, in 1939, the Nationalists were victorious over the Republicans and Franco ruled over fascist Catholic Spain for over 40 years.

The heroic and ideological narrative of the war has been evoked again and again as symbols on the side of both anti-fascist and religious anti-communist struggle. Many famous writers have also used the Spanish Civil War as a setting for grand ideological conflict. During the war, Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, a fictionalized account of the grand battle for freedom. Later, George Orwell would write Homage to Catalonia as his personal account of fighting for the Republicans.

The late Senator John McCain would go on to give homage to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer military unit of Americans who fought for the Republicans, in an article titled “Salute to a Communist.” In it he wrote, “And even though men like Mr. Berg [a recently deceased member of the Abraham Lincoln brigade] would identify with a cause, Communism, that inflicted far more misery than it ever alleviated — and rendered human dignity subservient to the state — I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.”

This heroic narrative of the Spanish Civil War has an immense power to evoke ideological fervor, which is why it has been repeatedly called upon in literature and political discourse. Among former colonies of the Spanish empire, this power is even stronger. Social and political movements, particularly in Chile, Guatemala, and Mexico, continue to evoke narratives of struggle from the 1930s. It is interesting that the right and left seem to hold two counterposed histories of the conflict. The left sees it as heroic, doomed to fail, and the last stand against fascism; the right sees it as a successful reassertion of traditional values of family and church over the godless communists who threatened every aspect of life. Both leave out details that they find difficult to fit into their constructed narratives.

But how does this historical conflict continue to impact the political environment in the United States? Since the election of President Trump, the United States has grown increasingly divided over ideology. Many pundits have harkened the new era back to the interwar period, the setting of the Spanish Civil War. Recently some have gone even further.

In particular, Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, wrote an article entitled “The Tragedy of Franco’s Spain.” In it, he asserts that despite the moral righteousness of the Nationalists, Franco’s rule was a tragedy because he “was not a good man.” Dreher is “glad that Franco won the war” because a Republican victory “might easily have meant the Church’s annihilation, as well as the annihilation of much of Spain’s cultural patrimony.” Dreher is a kind of “family values” fundamentalist Catholic who laments the growing tide of secularism that has engulfed the western world. This is clear when Dreher writes, “There is simply no way for Christians to read about what the Left was doing to Spanish Catholics before the civil war, and to believe that the wrong side won that conflict.”

His view is that the Nationalists, who held fascist beliefs, were on the right side of the war because they protected traditional Catholic values. This narrative is growing within the environment of the alt-right which has for a long time used “family values” as a thinly veiled cover to oppose LGBTQ rights.

Religious politics is not new in America, but what we see now is the resurgence of the narrative of authoritarianism linked with traditionalism, spearheaded by fundamentalist religious groups, in opposition to growing leftist, socialist thinking among young Americans. It may not be communists, Republicans, and anarchists against fascists, monarchists, and radical Catholics again, but it seems that the old allegiances didn't die: they merely evolved.