Sunday, October 09, 2011

Ghosts of the Past, Politics of the Present in Spain and Italy

On Friday I went to El Valle de los Caídos, Francisco Franco’s massive monument to himself, to Catholicism and in theory, at least, the dead (caídos) of the Spanish Civil War. Its size is impressive, half hidden, half visible for miles around a fitting metaphor for Franco himself. The visibile part (for 40 km) is a 150 m. high cross whose arms are 46 m., supposedly the largest in the world. Hidden from the outside is the basilica cut 260m into the mountain’s solid granite, a tribute to the more than 20,000 workers, mostly the forced labour of Republican prisoners of war who made it.
The magniloquence of the work is mindboggling – under any circumstances, it would have been extraordinary; it is all the more so as Spain in 1940 had been devastated by the civil war and was trying to survive in a Europe which itself had just begun to tear itself apart. The decree starting the works proclaimed it was to be a monument “to perpetuate the memory of those who died in our glorious crusade” and to the “Victory” (the decree is republished without a hint of irony on a Francoist site describing the Valle de los Caídos a “place of peace and reconciliation”). Franco believed that the “crimes” of the Republicans could be “redeemed by work”, a sinister echo of the Auschwitz motto Arbeit macht frei.
He very consciously compared himself to Philip II and his own monument in the nearby El Escorial, built in much more prosperous times. The imagery is mostly Catholic with the mysteries of the rosary adorning the huge entrance crypt and a mosaic day of judgement in the cupola above the altar, but the nave is guarded by four hooded figures on either side, hinting at crusading warrior monks but actually representing the three armed forces and the fascist Falange militia. The founder of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera is buried there on Franco’s orders and when Franco died, he too was buried there.

There is no doubt as to the monument’s message.
For 30 years after Franco’s death in 1975, it stood as a very visible reminder of a past which Spain was uneasily coming to terms with. On Franco’s deathday in November, a few, mostly elderly supporters would come and commemorate the Caudillo but the monument was hardly a focus for a Francoist revival.
Then in 2006, the present government passed the Ley de Memoria Histórica, the law of historical memory one of whose effects was to close the Valle de los Caídos as a “political” monument. The intention was to close it completely but since it contains a church, the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom kept it open. So as we drove into the park surrounding the monument, we had to assure the wardens (state employees) that we were going for the 11 o’ clock mass (a sung mass, by the way, which makes full use of the cavern’s amazing acoustics). No one checks to see that one is praying but there is a certain confusion over what exactly the place is for.
Spain, like so many other places has a problem digesting its past.
By chance, Friday was also Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement for Jews and one way in which human individuals come to terms with their past and make amends to their fellow men for their misdeeds. All societies have some mechanism for dealing with individuals’ past and many are highly institutionalised but we have not yet worked out how to deal with our collective past; most attempts are pretty messy, Italy and Spain particularly so, but in very different ways.
Mussolini’s birthplace, Predappio, is a pleasant little town in Romagna apart from the sale of Fascist souvenirs (until 2009 when it was banned though it continues online) and the pilgrimage to Mussolini’s tomb complete with honour guard. Both the Fascist junk and the paraphernalia around the tomb are or should be illegal since just after the war when antifascist Italy created the crime of apologia del Fascismo (defence of Fascism). But few have been prosecuted for it and no one convicted.
Predappio and the other shrines to a regime that was both murderous and seedy are extremely disagreeable in a western European democracy and in an ideal world should not be there all. But we are not in an ideal world.
Recently two Neapolitan artists suggested closing Mussolini’s crypt but no one seriously suggests using the 1952 law to do so. It would almost certainly create a backlash which would boost fascist nostalgia.
The issues of the memory of Franco and Mussolini are very different. Franco was overall much more canny; he allied himself to the Roman Catholic Church and said he fought in their name while Mussolini was at best a pragmatic supporter of the Church and vice versa. Franco carefully avoided World War II while Mussolini jumped in with both feet… and lost; with the result that Franco died in his bed an old man recognised if not respected by the whole world while Mussolini was killed by partisans and reviled by all but his most diehard supporters.
Despite a massive building programme, there is no monument to Mussolini apart from the few small ones erected in his life time most of which were destroyed immediately after the war. The family chapel in Predappio is no more grandiose than thousands of others across the country.
So all in all, the softly-softly approach to Mussoliniana is probably the right one, politically and morally although the revisionism by some right-wing politicians is distasteful and dangerous. It is not the best solution but it’s probably the least bad.
In contrast, dealing with Franco’s physical legacy or the memory of any fascism with the law is surely a mistake. El Valle de los Caídos is too big to ignore – short of using tons of dynamite, it is going to be there for a long time and it is part of Spanish history and unlike the Mussolini family crypt, it belongs to the Spanish state. The memory of fascism can only be digested with history – an accurate account of the past critically analysed and presented in a way which is understandable to all.
Criminal law can and should be used to address today’s manifestations of fascism – racism, intolerance, political violence and authoritarianism – not to lay 70 year old ghosts.

1 comment:

italpolblog said...

David Colvin gives a very personal picture of both Predappio and el Valle de los Caídos:

I found this edition particularly interesting.
We transited Predappio a couple of years ago in a 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, part of a Rally in the Balkans and Italy. No sign then that the sale of Fascist tat had been banned: quite the contrary. We picked up a model of Musso's Fiat, a present for Roland Deuce, a fellow rallyist naturally known as Il Duce.
I visited El Valle de los Caidos in 1967 when a member of a Foreign Office Delegation engaged in talks with the Spaniards on the future of Gibraltar. We stonewalled for two days, to the evident irritation of the Spanish Delegation led by Fernando Maria Castiella y Maiz who, I seem to recall, fought in the Fascist Blue Division on the Eastern Front in WW2. The Spanish reaction was to impose an inconvenient no-fly zone round Gibraltar which meant that aircraft had to execute a sharp turn over Algeciras Bay in order to get into the airfield. We responded inter alia by deploying Hunter aircraft and I recall complex negotiations with the MOD over their Rules of Engagement. The Hunters were armed with an Aden gun and flew with live ammunition.
I too recall being impressed by the sheer pharaonic scale of the Valle de los Caidos. The idea of 'suppressing' it is surely idle, any more than you can 'suppress' a mountain. I was under the impression that it had been turned into a monument to all the victims of the Civil War which seemed a neat and uncontentious way of settling its future.