During a research trip to Madrid in April this year, a Spanish friend poked fun at my MA research on Nationalist propagandists in Seville during the Civil War (1936-1939). ‘In Spain,’ he said, ‘the Second Republic [1931-1939] and everything that comes after is still practically journalism’.
His tongue-in-cheek comment referred to what Helen Graham has called Spain’s ‘memory wars’.[i] During the transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, Spanish politicians of all stripes preferred to engage in a ‘pact of forgetting’ or ‘pact of silence’ rather than to pursue a collective reckoning with the crimes of Francoism. Subsequent moves towards such a reckoning have been viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility by some on the Spanish right. The result is that the historical meaning of the Second Republic, the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship is still intensely and very publicly contested.
This summer again saw ‘historical memory’ dominate the headlines, courtesy of the revelation in July that the Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco – an organisation whose ‘primary objective is to promote the memory and works’ of the dictator, to quote its Twitter profile – had been managing visits to the Pazo de Meirás, formerly Franco’s summer residence in his native region of Galicia. The house is owned by the dictator’s descendants but has been designated a ‘site of cultural interest’, obliging the owners to accommodate public visits on at least four days per month.
If the controversy caused by this revelation was not enough, on 31 July the Fundación stated that managing the visits would be ‘an excellent opportunity to show the general public the greatness of … Franco’. These comments in turn led to a fractious interview with the Fundación’s spokesman Jaime Alonso on Thursday 3 August’s edition of the current affairs talk show Al Rojo Vivo. (Excerpts from the interview can be viewed here and here, and includes violent footage).
While Alonso’s bizarre claim that ‘Franco didn’t shoot people’ – based on the specious reasoning that he merely acceded to death sentences passed by the courts—[ii] is refuted by a large and ever-growing body of historical research,[iii] another point which caught my attention was his challenge to the presenter, Cristina Pardo. Alonso demanded of the presenter, ‘Who instituted social security? Who created the public health service? Who … industrialised the country? and made state pensions and paid holidays possible?’
It is not uncommon for Franco’s apologists to make such arguments. A very limited welfare state did exist in Spain before the outbreak of the Civil War, but it is true that – as throughout Western Europe – this expanded somewhat during the decades following the Second World War. None of this is to say that a liberal-democratic regime in Spain would not have presided over economic prosperity and expanded welfare provision, a point which those making arguments similar to Alonso’s conveniently tend to overlook.
Although my MA dissertation did not address the post-war era to which Alonso was referring, this use of social policy and economic prosperity to obscure or minimise the use of terror and physical repression was only too familiar. Nationalist propagandists in Seville often used these themes in apparent attempts to appeal to the city’s generally left-leaning workers. These attempts were, however, so deeply inscribed with the logic of terror and authoritarianism that it is often difficult to separate them.
One of the major social-policy initiatives in Seville at the time was the construction of affordable homes, intended especially for the families of Nationalist soldiers killed or wounded at the front, or families with numerous children and only modest means to support them. These projects allowed Nationalist propagandists to claim to be helping working-class sevillanos, yet the provision of affordable housing specifically to these two groups also shows how social provisions cannot be neatly separated from the authorities’ ideological concerns.
The local Nationalist commander, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, opined that ‘hygienic housing’ would allow workers to ‘fulfil their duties as citizens and as patriots’.[iv] These duties, as defined by Franco’s supporters, implied a stark loss of political agency. Paternalistic social policy pursued, by different means, similar aims to physical repression: the demobilisation of political opposition, and the definition of an apolitical class identity through which Spanish workers could be integrated into the nascent regime in a subordinate position.
Another policy which the Nationalist authorities in Seville used to appeal to the interests of the city’s workers was imposition of price controls on staple foods. Regulating food markets in this way was, of course, a sensible wartime policy. Yet Nationalist propagandists – including Queipo, in his infamous radio broadcasts – repeatedly asserted that this was indicative of the alleged ‘normality’ of life in the Nationalist zone, which protected ordinary Spaniards’ access to food and general prosperity. The frequent publication in the local press of lists of business owners fined for violating these controls was not only a deterrent to others who may be tempted to do the same; they were also intended to demonstrate that the authorities were taking action to defend Seville’s workers.[v]
Of course, stable food prices were only one aspect of Nationalist ‘normality’ which affected working-class Spaniards’ lives. One of the key measures through which the military rebels hoped to impose their vision of economic ‘normality’ at the start of the conflict was an ‘absolute prohibition’ on strike action. Unlike price-hiking merchants, the leaders of striking unions would not be liable for a fine; they could expect to be condemned to death by a summary court martial.[vi] Although Nationalist propagandists during the Civil War claimed – disingenuously –[vii] that their management of the economy prevented working-class sevillanos from being negatively affected by the economic costs of war, this disparity in punishment is demonstrative of how measures such as price controls functioned within a wider discursive framework in which ‘normality’ meant brutal and often deadly repression for many of these workers.
These are just two examples of wartime propaganda which pursued the same goal as Alonso’s comments on Al Rojo Vivo: to justify Francoism in terms of the economic wellbeing of Spain and its people. Yet economic and social policy in Civil-War Seville was comprehensively intertwined with the repressive discourse and practices which underpinned the birth of Franco’s dictatorship. This should not be forgotten, whether in reference to the Civil War or to later Francoism.
Joel Baker is a first-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. His research is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, and examines social housing and infrastructure projects under Spain’s Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930) as expressions of the regime’s ‘anti-political’ populism. You can find him on Twitter at @joelrbaker.
[i] Helen Graham, ‘Coming to Terms with the Past: Spain’s Memory Wars’, History Today 54.5 (2004), pp. 29-31.
[ii] In the immediate post-war period, these were often summary courts martial which tried and found guilty multiple defendants on flimsy evidence in proceedings sometimes lasting mere minutes. Defence lawyers were usually junior military officers who were given little time to prepare by their superiors, who sat as judges. See Peter Anderson, The Francoist Military Trials: Terror and Complicity, 1939-1945 (London, 2010); ‘In the Interests of Justice? Grass-Roots Prosecution and Collaboration in Francoist Military Trials, 1939-1945’, Contemporary European History 18.1 (2009), pp.25-44; ‘Singling Out Victims: Denunciation and Collusion in Post-Civil War Francoist Repression in Spain, 1939-1945’, European History Quarterly 39 (2009), pp. 7-26.
[iii] For a relatively recent synthesis of this research, see Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (London, 2012).
[iv] F.E., 16/3/1937, p. 11.
[v] See, e.g., F.E., 1/2/1938, p. 6.
[vi] See Queipo de Llano’s bando de guerra (declaration of martial law) of 18 July 1936. Auditoría de Guerra de la Segunda División Orgánica y del Ejército del Sur, Bandos y órdenes dictados por el Excmo. Sr. D. Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Sierra, General Jefe de la 2.a División Orgánica y del Ejército del Sur (Seville, 1937), pp. 5-6.
[vii] In fact, ordinary citizens throughout Spain saw their living standards decline drastically during the Civil War as a result of ‘economic repression’, and during the 1940s because the regime’s rationing and autarky policies forced many to accept inflated black-market prices for staple goods in order to survive. See Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco, ‘Hunger and the Consolidation of the Francoist Regime (1939-1951), European History Quarterly 40.3 (2010), pp. 458-483; Hambre de Siglos: Mundo rural y apoyos sociales del franquismo en Andalucía oriental, 1936-1951 (Granada, 2007); Rúben Serém, A Laboratory of Terror. Conspiracy, Coup d’ état and Civil War in Seville, 1936-1939: History and Myth in Francoist Spain (Brighton / Portland / Toronto, 2017), pp. 147-189.