Silence can be deadly
I’ve been learning more about the Franco regime.
After all, I’m trying to settle here in Spain and I’m a history buff.
But here’s an odd thing. Unlike Santiago de Chile with its superb Museo de la Memoria, focused on the victims of the Augusto Pinochet years, or indeed the ESMA naval centre in Buenos Aires, a former prison and torture camp under Argentinian dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, Madrid doesn’t have a dedicated museum or memorial to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Francisco Franco.
I visited both ESMA and the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos in 2016. I was humbled and profoundly disturbed that such acts, all part of the grand operation right-wing dictators in Latin American connived with the CIA to complete as part of ‘Operation Condor’, were possible in countries where I was embraced with such kindness and warmth.
I was relieved, however, to see the hard work in civil society to seek political and legal redress for the victims of the Chilean and Argentinian dictatorships. As in Berlin in Germany, but unlike in Tokyo, say, both these Latin American capitals – Santiago and Buenos Aires – have strived to reconcile themselves to their dark recent past.
The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, some in vain, and some with genuine hope, still assemble in front of the Presidential Palace each Thursday afternoon, all with a view to raising awareness of their plight, and in an attempt to be reunited with their lost daughters and sons, snatched at birth by Videla’s military henchmen.
Whatever pain they still feel in their hearts, their voices are heard. They have a purpose.
What to do with painful wounds
When societies confront their past, painful memories surface again. Since wounds don’t always heal, and every battle has at least two sides, some are left lamenting what fills the silence as previous opponents speak out about their need for justice. Years of uncomfortable silence give way to truth-seeking and in some cases, new prosecutions. I’m always encouraged by the unrelenting search for former criminals, as we’ve become accustomed to hearing about in cinema, literature and the news. Heard about the work of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre? Do check it out.
As a proud Jew and gay man, I’ve always been so impressed (and sometimes concerned) how elaborate and far-reaching Berlin’s municipal authorities’ work is, to mark and commemorate the deaths of six million Jews in the Holocaust and the countless victims who were disabled, LGBT, trade unionists, Slavs, Roma gypsies, Poles, and black. I’m sometimes concerned because there are so many public memorials, in fact, that I worry future generations will feel suffocated by this history and react quite violently against it, but that’s a blog for another day.
Madrid without its memorials
In Madrid, though, there’s a noticeable lack of public memorials to the Civil War dead, let alone to the innumerable victims of the four-decade long Franco dictatorship.
There’s the cynical and apparently tasteless Valle de los Caídos, which effectively built a shrine to Francoism, and under which the dictator lay buried until Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist government had him exhumed and transported to a family burial plot, north of Madrid.
But it’s meant to be the most dreadful imaginable place to pay one’s respects. Mass graves saw Republicans – the vanquished – tossed in and forced to share the same burial space their oppressors had built to nostalgize the Civil War. Political opponents of Falangism and Franco were forced to build the memorial space in slave-like conditions.
I recently watched 2018 Netflix documentary, ‘El Silencio de Otros‘ (‘The Silence of Others’), co-produced with the support of Spanish director, Pedro Almodóvar, one of the chief artists who shaped Spain’s post-Francoist cultural landscape. It’s a harrowing watch and if you get a chance to view it, do, but please prepare yourself. What’s abundantly clear from the very first minute María Martįn appears on screen – María is a very old woman who keeps a hopeful vigil by the roadside in Castilla la Mancha where her mother was buried in a mass grave – is that silence has reigned for far too long, in Spanish politics since the 1977 ‘Pact of Forgetting’ and across society too.
Complicit or simply human?
In a recent City Lit history of art course with teacher, Mark Stuart-Smith, on art ‘in the shadow of Franco’ (I recommend the course, he also teaches it in the autumn), I learnt about how in the 1950s and 1960s it was very difficult indeed to outright oppose Franco’s regime; The Guardia Civil were not to be reckoned with.
Celebrated artists such as Antoni Tàpies and Manolo Millares were used as convenient puppets, argue some, to help rehabilitate Franco’s Spain in the eyes of Eisenhower and the international community after Fascism had been defeated in Italy and Hitler’s Third Reich. They were complicit, argue others, and could have refused to have their work exhibited at Ibero-American art fairs cynically used by Franco’s culture tsars as propaganda for his morally bankrupt regime.
Picasso certainly wasn’t a fan of artists such as these ‘informalists’ whose work, if it ever touched on the repression their fellow Spaniards, was so understated and cryptic, it was too difficult for mass audiences to tell. But was it easy for him, in comfortable exile in Paris? Easier perhaps than it was for artists like Tàpies who never openly sympathised with Franco’s regime and never asked indeed for a political role. He just wanted to produce art.
The act of forgetting
My point here is that it is very difficult indeed to be open and to protest loudly when living under the most intolerable and oppressive forms of government. I can’t criticise those who remained silent. What I can criticise is those who remain silent now, who still repeat when it’s put to them – as indeed the question gets put to ordinary Madrileños in Puerta de Sol in ‘El Silencio de Otros’, ‘why not remember the victims of the past?’ – “these things are better left in the past”. They take the Pact of Forgetting to heart.
Carlos Menem, who died age 90 this week and was a former – somewhat controversial and colourful – Argentinian President, chose to pardon convicted human rights abusers in an attempt to move Argentina forward and bring about an artificial sense of unity. His plans were later challenged and overturned. Was he right or was he wrong to attempt a national reconciliation of sorts? I think he was wrong.
While there are always valid choices to be made rereading history, analysing historical facts, the reality is that facts can’t be challenged. People either died or they didn’t. They were either murdered or they weren’t.
In this era of so-called ‘fake news’ it feels mightily important to me that the current Spanish administration continue with its efforts to help its people learn from the horrors of the 20th century. This means adapting the school curriculum, continuing to prosecute where criminals can effectively be charged, and encouraging museums and public institutions to openly discuss and remember the country’s recent history.
This need not white-wash the murders of clergy behind Republican lines. History can and indeed must be nuanced. But one mustn’t have to queue at the Prado to view Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to get the only real glimpse in Madrid of the toll the Civil War took on the Spanish people.
Any other way forward – continued attempts to whitewash history, which we see today with the Partido Popular (PP) who ignore or oppose these calls for ‘historic memory’ – risks seeing Spain condemned to repeat its past. Don’t forget populist far-right party, VOX, already in coalition in provinces like Andalusía, and its potential to stir up hate. In 2018-19, they very nearly elected a Mayor very close to where I now live in Almería province (El Elijido).
Francosists still assemble to commemorate the losses of Franco’s Blue Division – Spaniards who fought with Hitler’s forces. I’m sure individual families mourn individual relatives and that’s hardly surprising, but last weekend around 40 or so fascists met in public in Madrid to openly accuse Jews of being Spain’s main problem! Surely incitement to racial and religious hatred laws are being broken?
What can any of us do?
What a miserable post, you might say to yourself. With all this doom and gloom around, he chooses to post something about human rights and genocide?
Well, I’m not here to make any of you any more miserable or morose. There are things we can do, however small, to avoid silence – to avoid the complicity of silence. These might feel small-scale but they can at least give us a sense of agency.
Personally, I’m appalled and upset to hear about the outrageously awful abuse being meted out – the genocide, some claim – to the Uighur people in north western China. Not worse, but still bad, is the silence or relative impotency, I should say, of the UN Human Rights Council on which China sits as one of a cast of disreputable human rights abusing members.
I saw UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres use Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th to state the world must “never again” stand witness to horrific human rights abuses in the same way the world (the Papacy included) stood by between 1933 and 1945. I’m sorry to rain on the United Nations’ parade, but what exactly does a message like this even mean if the UN can’t force China to cease its state-sanctioned programme of sterilising and euthanising the Uighur?
Anyway, here is one simple step you can take, if like me, you think silence and inaction is unconscionable.
There’s a petition on the Change.org website, and if you search the web, there’s many more sites like it.
You might want to take action on other issues, and that’s fine too. I always hear the Palestinian cause needs to be taken more seriously. I don’t disagree, but I’d like to see the Arab League stand in union and defend their fellow Muslims in north western China too.
Whatever the issue, whatever the worrying threat, we can all stand up and make a difference, but sadly many around the world can’t. For them, it’s too late.
Maybe Spanish cities and towns with street names still dedicated to Francoist military figures could have a think about that.