FRANCO’S CRYPT, Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 – Review by Chris Ball

There is a belief that after the Nationalist’s victory in the Spanish Civil War that Spain suffered a deliberate, collective amnesia, the Spanish for which is olvido. There was a desire to forget the divisions and outrages suffered by both the Nationalists and perhaps more importantly the losing Republicans, not least because many had friends and family on both sides. The memories that were ‘created’ were largely state engineered, with Franco instigating a programme of public monuments and memorials to what he saw as his crusade.  A large part of this book deals with Spain’s move to balance out it’s public record of the war, the desire of many to remember and recover the dead of the losing Republicans, many of whom are buried in unmarked mass graves, and the fabulously rich and varied ways in which artists, biographers, writers and film makers have addressed the effects of the war during and after Franco’s life time.

As a symbol of Franco’s desire to dominate Spain’s collective memory of the war none is more potent than the giant complex located high in the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid from which the book takes it’s title. The Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, the tomb of Franco and many of those who fought beside him nestle in picturesque parklands, part shrine, part brutalist display of military might. Treglown asks what can be done with this increasingly anachronistic landmark, still an occasional Mecca for right wing sympathizers, and whether a national Civil War museum could be set up in an under-used conference centre located there. There is a whole chapter devoted to the successes and failures of various local museums across Spain to honestly and vividly reflect the experiences of the war but as in a lot of the first half of this book it makes for a speculative, rather uninvolving read.

The book begins in a more engaging fashion with a look at the works of various organisations in uncovering mass graves of Republican victims of the war. In some cases the demands are driven by desire for political or personal advancement, but just as often it is simply meeting of minds between the younger generation of the wars victims with their honest interest in the past and the academic and scientific thirst for knowledge and advancement of bodies like the Asocaicon para la Recuperacion de la Memoria Historica (ARMH, Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory).

Rich in social history and with the much needed human detail the first chapter, although sprawling in nature, gives a real sense of the depth of information to be discovered not just by the reader but all of Spain, should they choose to look. This sense of entering a world of fascinating and stimulating discovery is unfortunately very nearly crushed by the following chapters of Part One: Sites and Sights, which deal with hydroelectric dams, monuments, museums, crypts and art produced during Franco’s reign.

It may be a curious and enlightening detour, but the chapter on the effects of Spain’s programme of hydroelectric dam building is unavoidably dry (pun intended). Although in many cases these massive undertakings were a success, many were not and often created ghost towns where the threat of villages being bought out and flooded made entire populations move into cities, only for red tape and shaky business deals prevent the projects ever coming to fruition. For the casually interested reader there is far too much of the minutiae of the industrial subterfuge and political machinations involved and perhaps should have been left for another much more specialized book. One strong example would have been preferable, especially as the following chapters only further sink into overly detailed accounts of people and events which only scholars of Spanish history can be expected to have any knowledge of.

The proceeding chapter on Spanish art created after 1936 is slightly less forbidding and makes a brilliant case for the nation’s art scene having in some ways having benefitted from living under a dictatorship. Of course great art is often at its best when reflecting social unrest and working within strict parameters, whether imposed by the artist or the state, but there is also a sense that Franco did not really feel threatened by the art world, especially one at that time so often creating modern, ambiguous pieces from natural, unthreatening materials. The work of the Basque artist Eduardo Chillida is discussed at some length and perhaps best encapsulates the optimistic yet melancholy soul of much Spanish art at that time. Treglown does here display a passion and great understanding of the art created by the artists who stayed in Spain, rather than the more famous exiles like Picasso, and it is a great shame that the illustrations used in the centre of the book are in black and white and are so few in number.

The book reaches it’s nadir in terms of engaging the casual reader with the chapter on the work of Spain’s Royal Academy of History to produce the Diccionaro biografico espanol, Spain’s dictionary of national biography. The Academy is a slow-moving self-electing body of mainly fusty old geezers, or distinguished professional historians depending on whom you talk to. Instead of being a near definitive dictionary of the great and the good of Spanish society (still only up to the letter ‘H’ as of 2011) it has instead created a political-sectarian row, revealing much about the legacy of Francoism. As enlightening as this may be on some level, Treglown’s use of a constant swarm of references and examples means that every sentence is like being hit over the head with a copy of the Madrid phonebook. I must confess that at the end of this endless list of unfamiliar names, the baffling historical and social motivations of the biographers and the intricacies of Spanish high society I put the book down for about a fortnight, unsure as to whether I would ever finish it.

There is reward and relief for the reader who can persevere through this nigh on indigestible stew as we move into Part Two: Stories and Histories. Both the writer and the reader may actually find themselves on more familiar ground as Treglown turns to film and literary criticism for the second half of the book. Certainly there is a less cramped, sweeping nature to the writing with a winningly passionate and at times amusingly partisan take on Spanish literary fiction and film post 1936. One of the goals of this book, stated inside the cover, is to expose the myth that ‘nothing truthful or imaginatively worthwhile could be said or written or created’ under Franco’s dictatorship. This Treglown certainly manages, even more so here than in the earlier writing on art. Equally, and just as importantly what he also does (as also stated on the inside cover), is to reassert the strength of Spain’s own narratives as displayed through these works when for so long it has been foreign writers and film makers who have dominated the world’s perception of the Spanish Civil War.

Many great and important works by celebrated Spanish writers and directors are discussed and these chapters are potentially brilliant, entertaining and illuminating resources for culture lovers irrespective of any great thirst for understanding of Spain’s history. What then is perhaps most shocking is how so few of these books and films are readily available in English. Take the works of 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Camilo Jose Cela, one of the great first generation novelists of Post-War Spain. Important works of fiction like his debut La familia de Pascual Duarte (Pascal Duarte’s Family), published in 1942, and La Colmera (The Hive) rejected by censors between 1946 and 1950, but eventually published some time after are both almost impossible to buy in England. Cela’s work is fascinating in that it is the work of a lifelong conservative and yet his books are full of brutal depictions of life under the Franco regime, full of squalor and violence they in no way toe any party line or are representative of the pious family values Franco wanted Spain to project. This is true of many of the artworks discussed in that irrespective of the known values and beliefs of the author or director they were often quite free to express dark complex themes, often highly critical of the regime.

Many films were condemned, and certainly some scenes were cut , but very few were outright banned. What this book rightly says is that to imagine that works by right wing pro-Nationalist leaning artists are all ‘bad’, simplistic and dogmatic and that all that was created by pro-Republican’s are worthy and of artistic merit is shown up to be utterly groundless. Treglown is also is very dismissive or films made by foreign directors long after the conflict ended, his one word review of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom– ‘ludicrous’ is particularly telling.There is a whole treasure trove of artistic endeavor to be discovered here and I feel the casual reader will find much here to interest them (as I did), whatever their literary and cinematic taste. I shall not therefore pick on any more individual titles as each one appears to have its own merits and it will benefit the reader to discover those titles themselves and make judgments.The author has certainly succeeded in quashing the received wisdom of Spain being a cultural desert under Franco’s dictatorship, and shown there was always a desire to remember the war, however painful that may have been, especially for those who lived through it. At times this book seems like an attempt to mention by name every one of those people who lived through the war and is in danger of becoming like a necessary but far from engaging recorder of the truth, fit only to gather dust in some university library. However when dry facts are coloured or replaced by passionate defence and eulogy of it’s arts then this book becomes as vivid as modern Spain itself.

Review by Chris Ball for War History Online


Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936
By Jeremy Treglown
Published by Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 978-0374108427

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.