Spain, eighty years on

It’s eighty years since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, one of the defining events of last century. Since I can’t find it anywhere on the Crikey archive, I thought I’d repost what I wrote ten years ago:

Europe this week marks a momentous anniversary: 70 years ago, Spanish generals rose in a revolt that led to three years of civil war and ultimately the defeat of the elected republican government and the establishment of a fascist dictatorship under Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

The Spanish Civil War polarised opinion worldwide. The Spanish fascists were backed by Hitler and Mussolini, and also by the conservative establishment across much of the western world (Australia’s own BA Santamaria first came to prominence as a supporter of Franco). The republicans were supported by leftists and democrats of various stripes, but also by Stalin’s Soviet Union, which sent some military aid and organised volunteer brigades from around the world to fight in Spain.

It remains divisive today. A poll for Spain’s El Mundo this week found that 30% of Spaniards still believe Franco’s revolt was justified, including fully half of those who vote for the centre-right opposition. Although the restoration of democracy in Spain was based on a tacit agreement to forget the past, the current government has taken steps to revive discussion of the war and rehabilitate the victims of Franco’s rule. As one activist said, “it’s like a psychoanalysis because we have to talk about our past to be a healthy society”.

It’s a discussion that could usefully be repeated in other countries, because there are lessons for both sides of politics from the Spanish experience. The left needs to remember that in an important sense it’s not “the economy, stupid”; what really fires people’s loyalties, what they will fight and die for, is something much deeper. Democracy, progress, secularism, the masses versus the elite – these were the ideals of the left in Spain, and no party can claim to be on the left if it abandons them.

The right in turn has to question why so many of its leaders were able to embrace fascism, just as in more recent times they have supported right-wing dictatorships across the world. If today they wonder why so many people are sceptical, for example, of George W Bush’s claims to be spreading democracy in the Middle East, they should look at their own history, and consider whether the demon of fascism has yet been completely exorcised.

Since then, I’ve lived in Spain for a short period and seen first-hand something of the divisiveness of the issue. With the centre-right back in government for the last five years, attempts to right some of the wrongs of the dictatorship have mostly ground to a halt.

But 2006 was a more innocent era. Although I questioned “whether the demon of fascism has yet been completely exorcised,” I never imagined that we would now be seeing “fascist” used as a serious analytical term to describe powerful politicians in contemporary western democracies – including a major party candidate for president of the United States.

You can argue about the precise applicability of the term, but if we’ve reached the stage where we’re seriously debating how close we are to the 1930s, then it’s clear that we’re already much too close for comfort.

But that just makes it all the more important to appreciate the point I was trying to make. While Franco and his followers were unmistakably fascists, they received the support, tacit or explicit, of the large majority of respectable, middle-class centre-right politicians.

Nigel Farage and Donald Trump have not appeared from nowhere: they have emerged from a political tradition that has a long history of turning a blind eye to the extremists in its midst. (And yes, the left has sometimes done the same.) Having defeated fascism, the democracies promptly forgot its lessons.

We in the west have been rather spoilt for half a century. Most of the time, the question “which side are you on?” in politics hasn’t carried much weight; both sides shared a large area of common ground on the basics of liberal democracy.

But eighty years ago in Spain it was a matter of life or death. It may take all our energies to prevent those times from returning.

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