New book traces the public memory and legacy of the civil war in Spain

Issue date: 13 September 2013

Book cover

After the Civil War: Making Memory and Re-making Spain Since 1936

A fascinating new book - After the civil War: Making Memory and Re-making Spain Since 1936

by Associate Professor Michael Richards from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) reassesses the war and the dictatorship, the post-Franco transition to democracy, and the 'history wars' in Spain since the late 1990s.

The Civil War has been the key foundation in Spain of myths, historical consciousness and public history since General Franco's victory in 1939 and his dismantling of the democratic Spanish Republic. The war resulted in approximately 565,000 deaths and was fought not only within communities and on the battlefields from 1936 to 1939, but also through memory and trauma in the decades that followed. Some four decades after the General's death, the history of the war and the subsequent dictatorship remains a cultural and political battleground.

Professor Richards explains, “The book begins by reconstructing the intimate violence of the war, contextualising epic and ideological post-war imagery and narratives by placing them alongside the brutal experiences of flesh-and-blood individuals on both sides. The book then explores decade by decade how the painful events of the conflict and its aftermath have been remembered and publicly constructed from 1939 to the present.”

“The victors' liturgy of memory in the 1940s – expressed through public ceremony, regime-sponsored commemoration, and control of public monuments and memorials - is contrasted with the heavily circumscribed social memory of the defeated. The Cold War of the 1950s helped Franco to consolidate his power, allowing his regime to emphasise that it viewed the war of the 1930s as an anti-communist and anti-atheist crusade. Meanwhile, thousands of the rural poor who had supported the Republic migrated to the cities to escape local divisions, ostracism and hunger.

“One man from rural Granada recalled decades later, the war 'was like a black shadow, a monster that passed over our home and created the situation which obliged us to migrate to Catalonia'. For the sake of survival, public remembering of the politics of the 1930s and of wartime violence was sacrificed. Witnesses who were children in the aftermath of the war, whose testimony is included in the book, speak about the pervasive feeling of insecurity in the people around them, of an ill-defined sensation of fear and humiliation.

“War memories, political power and changing social relations were interwoven in the development of shared ideas about the past and what post-war generations felt they had collectively inherited from the civil war.

“Following Franco's death in 1975 – and in the face of veiled threats from the army and right-wing extremists – there was a broad and largely tacit agreement that a settling of accounts over the past should play no part in democratisation. There was genuine fear that the bloody past might be repeated.”

During the democratic 1980s Spaniards were understandably eager to make up for lost time and the drive for economic, cultural and political modernisation side-lined any concerns about the past. There would be no 'Museum of the Civil War', for example: such a thing was (and remains) inconceivable in a society where the achievement of a unified state was fraught with dangers and sacrifices and national identity remains hugely complicated.

Public perusal of the past, through display of documents and objects, was limited after Franco to a civil war exhibition held in Madrid in 1980, which relied on evocative posters, paintings and drawings, photographs, flags, uniforms and armaments, and coins and stamps: memorabilia which did not merely ignore communal violence but represented wartime daily life drained of any real sense of conflict at all. The aim then was 'closure'; the 'memory boom' since the late 1990s has been largely motivated by a widespread desire to argue that the past is not 'closed'. The unearthing of the buried past has been powerfully symbolised since 2000 by the excavation of wartime burial pits – more than 170 by 2008 - containing the remains of at least 4,000 Republican men and women executed by rebel forces during and after the military coup of July 1936 which began the war.

Professor Richards concludes, “This process has been highly controversial, producing a government-sponsored 'Law of Historical Memory' in 2007 but also a political backlash from those with an interest in forgetting. Mastering the past has therefore proved more problematic in contemporary Spain than the difficult cases of France and Italy – or even Germany – because the legacy of a full-scale internal war, conductedwith few moral or political restraints and fought over the meaning of nation and collective identity, is longer lasting and more intractable than conflicts where hatreds are deflected onto 'foreign' enemies.”

Professor Richards' research was supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Publisher's URL:

Richards, M. (2013) After the civil war: Making memory and re-making Spain since 1936. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521728188

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