Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936. By Jeremy Treglown. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 320 pp. $30.00.

Seventy-five years after its conclusion, the Spanish Civil War can sometimes seem like a river of blood that led inexorably to the sea of horrors that was World War II. But Spain’s battle was also a devastating conflict in its own right, killing approximately 500,000 people. The war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, pitted the Republicans, loyal to the existing government, against the Nationalists, a rightist rebel coalition led by General Francisco Franco. Franco’s initial coup failed but left the country militarily and politically divided. The Nationalists eventually won, and Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death, in 1975.

The war, so often misunderstood as a mere prelude to World War II, is also frequently miscast as a simple story of good versus evil, a fight between democrats and fascists. In fact, neither side in the struggle could honestly claim the mantle of democracy. Franco, of course, made no such attempt: he was proudly authoritarian. As for the Republicans, although they paid lip service to democratic principles and tried to practice them, their side devolved into disorder and lawlessness during the war, and anarchists and communists came to dominate their ranks.

Nor were the Republicans particularly virtuous from a moral standpoint. As the Nationalists were quick to point out, the Republicans assassinated almost 7,000 priests and nuns and killed roughly 2,500 prison inmates in the 1936 Para­cuellos massacres, a series of organized mass murders during the battle for Madrid. Franco’s forces, of course, committed their own share of atrocities and repression, both during and after the war. Both sides believed they had to be ruthless because most ordinary Spaniards were not that interested in fighting for either side and had to be coerced into doing so through fear and violence. In the first months of the conflict, 120,000 people volunteered to fight for the republic, and the Nationalists rallied some 100,000 volunteers; by the end of the war, the Republicans and the Nationalists had mobilized, largely through conscription, about 1.7 million and 1.2 million men, respectively. These figures suggest that the war involved not two Spains but three: two polarized blocs of true believers and a far larger body of people who just went along -- or were forced to.

The war’s carnage remains indelibly etched into Spanish memory. Tremendous amounts of ink have been spilled discussing and analyzing the war in the last 75 years. Indeed, some Spanish historians claim that the volume of historiography on the civil war comes close to that covering World War II. A small but growing part of this large bibliography studies the memory of the war and its lingering effects on Spanish culture and society. Many of these writings, similar to those on the war itself that have presented it as a straightforward morality tale, take a less-than-nuanced pro-Republican viewpoint, most notably in their portrayals of Francoist Spain as a cultural desert.

It is for precisely this reason that Franco’s Crypt, the latest book by the British literary critic Jeremy Treglown, is so refreshing. In his focus on the surprising richness of Spanish culture since the war, Treglown pushes back against a knee-jerk pro-Republican perspective -- not by apologizing for the Nationalists but simply by abstaining from projecting his own moral stance on the culture of the period. As he writes, “Franco is a bad memory, like a bad dream. But ‘bad memory’ also means forgetfulness and falsification. When Spain’s campaigners for historical memory accuse their opponents and critics of olvido, amnesia, they have themselves often forgotten, or overlooked, or are simply ignorant of, the rich historical deposits in their own culture.”

To explain how the Spanish have come to terms with the war and Franco’s rule, Treglown narrates a series of personal encounters with people and places in contemporary Spain, weaving them together with his examinations of cultural artifacts, including public works, paintings, movies, and novels. His analysis is anything but simplistic. He shows how the day-to-day cultural reality of the Francoist period was much more complex and less planned from above than most portrayals suggest. This cultural richness resulted not, Treglown argues, from benevolence on the part of Franco or his entourage. Rather, it reflected the reality that for Franco, an opportunistic authoritarian eager to get along with the West, governing Spain meant allowing for limited pluralism and making concessions to a population ever more used to a modicum of wealth and freedom.


Treglown begins his journey by introducing readers to the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a group of Spaniards trying to right the wrongs of the war. Its members are sensitive souls who have nevertheless taken on a sometimes macabre task: searching for the remains of bodies to give them a proper burial. Many of those who were killed by the Nationalists during the war and its aftermath still lie in mass graves. In 2000, the association began a nationwide effort to disinter and rebury the bodies. Its task, not surprisingly, has been complicated by politics. When the Socialist Workers’ Party took power in 2004, its leader, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, sought to pass the Law of Historical Memory, condemning the Franco regime and granting certain rights to the descendants of the victims. The law inevitably (and, Treglown argues, intentionally) drew the opposition of the conservative People’s Party, thus making the party appear to be a defender of Francoism. The law was ultimately approved in October 2007.

Of course, when they were in power, Franco and his supporters also politicized the act of commemorating the war -- a fact that becomes apparent in Treglown’s portrait of the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial on the outskirts of Madrid commissioned by Franco and completed in 1959. The memorial includes a Catholic basilica, underscoring the extent to which Catholicism formed a crucial part of the collective imagination of the Nationalists. Franco had cast his military rebellion as a holy crusade, citing the Republicans’ complicity in the assassinations of thousands of clergy members as proof of their godlessness, and he used his alliance with the church to help legitimize his rule.

The strategy worked during the early years of the Franco era. However, over the course of the following decades, Franco’s Catholic allies underwent a profound change. Because their goal was to retain a hold on Spaniards’ hearts and minds, the Spanish church had to take into account the intellectual and emotional attachments that many Spanish felt not only to the war’s winners but also to the losing side. The church’s outreach to Republican sympathizers was strengthened by broader shifts within European Catholicism during the 1950s and 1960s, as the Catholic Church began experimenting with Christian Democratic parties and made overtures to the left. The church also underwent a deep theological renewal during this same period, which led to the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

The end result was a new brand of ecclesiastics and lay Catholics who felt comfortable detaching themselves from Franco’s regime, or even fighting it head-on in a variety of forums, including student movements, intellectual circles, unions, political parties, and the media. During the 1950s and 1960s, a surge of anti-Franco civil-society associations accompanied vast demographic and economic transformations produced in part by waves of Spaniards going to other parts of Europe to work and study, tourists arriving from the rest of Europe, and increasing economic and cultural exchanges of other sorts between Spain and other countries. These developments transformed Spanish universities, factories, and towns -- and in turn loosened the country’s politics.


In the second half of Franco’s Crypt, Treglown finds a parallel to this set of extraordinary economic and social changes, and the little-understood political opening that came with it, in the work of the Spanish artists, filmmakers, and novelists who sought to make sense of the civil war and life under Franco. Just as in the political sphere, where Franco’s rule could not fully repress trends that ultimately led to the restoration of Spanish democracy, the dictator also had trouble snuffing out Spain’s powerful cultural avant-garde. Even when they found themselves pitted against an authoritarian government, Franco-era artists continued to produce work of aesthetic, moral, and emotional complexity.

Referring to Spanish abstract artists such as the sculptor Eduardo Chillida and the painter and sculptor Antoni Tàpies, Treglown writes, “While [they] were affected . . . by the political-historical situation in which they grew up, it didn’t hinder them” -- a statement equally applicable to any number of the writers and filmmakers Treglown profiles. The most celebrated Spanish novelists and directors of the Franco era offered accounts of people’s lives that avoided simple morality plays and partisan games. Most of them refused to take part in fratricidal political fights over the war’s legacy. Instead, they bore witness to the decency, resilience, and cunning of ordinary people recovering from the devastation of war, enduring the postwar years, and later adapting as Spain began to enjoy relative prosperity. In a sense, the most influential Spanish art and culture of the Franco era embraced a nationalism of sorts without necessarily embracing the Nationalists.

Emblematic of this stance was the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Camilo José Cela. During the war, Cela had served in the Nationalist army, and he later worked as a censor for the regime. But in his novels, he eschewed the war’s factionalism. As Treglown writes, Cela’s celebrated 1969 novel San Camilo, 1936 focuses on the first days of the civil war, interpreting the violence and upheaval through the stories of “ordinary people . . . including several who are killed but whose deaths make no headlines.” Cela’s novels did not ignore political events altogether; they just focused on their effects on the common people, each of whom, as Cela put it, carries “a moving little novel stuck to his heart.” The dedication of San Camilo reads as one of the most damning judgments of the Spanish Civil War ever written and demonstrates the sort of unifying, inclusive, and yet chastened nationalism that defines many of the works Treglown describes: “To the conscripts of 1937, all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral.”

Cela’s opposite number, in some ways, was Ramón Sender, another of the novelists analyzed in Franco’s Crypt. Sender was a passionate Republican who saw his wife killed by Nationalist forces during the civil war and was later exiled, first to Mexico and later to the United States. Yet as Treglown highlights, Sender’s memoir, The War in Spain, is “exceptionally alert to the feelings and views of people on the other side.” Treglown cites Sender’s best-known work, the 1953 Requiem for a Spanish Peasant, as another example of the novelist’s “compulsion to cross political boundaries and delve into the emotional as well as moral difficulties they can create.”


In a sense, both Cela and Sender helped establish the conditions for the politics and culture of reconciliation that came to characterize Spain’s transition to democracy following Franco’s death. Spain’s transition cannot be explained just by paying attention to the behavior of political, social, and economic elites in response to Franco’s death. Any account must consider the developments that took place during Franco’s rule itself, including the profound cultural transformations of the period. For the protagonists of the era, the civil war and authoritarianism provided a lesson in reverse -- a “how not to” lesson in political life. It made them inclined to cooperate, to consider others’ demands and criticisms, and to initiate a tradition of moderation that was crucial for the country’s democratic transition.

This was especially true of the children of Francoism, who came of age as student protest politics swept Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s. This group largely hailed from middle-class families that had either supported the government or seen it as a lesser evil. Yet in time, many in this generation turned against the regime and came to see its discourse as a mix of conservative and capitalist platitudes, encouraged by the teachings of an anachronistic church. They thought Francoism gave rise to too many unscrupulous social climbers, rampant corruption, and a world of cultural opportunists.

Despite their disillusionment with Franco’s rule, many in this generation managed to find positions in the lower echelons of the state-sanctioned academy or the public administration, particularly in the economic bureaucracy. From those positions, they helped foster a milieu sympathetic to art and culture. The end result was a society in which repressive policies coexisted with a degree of ambiguity about free expression and in which many cultural critics and political dissidents lived cautiously but quite publicly. In fact, none of the ministers of the first post-Franco socialist government, in the early 1980s, had spent a single night in a Franco government jail. The only exception was Miguel Boyer, who, as finance minister, convinced his fellow Socialists to eschew traditional leftist programs and instead adopt a variant of the conventional, moderate economic policies of the time.

But what such figures lacked in radical bona fides, they made up for in pragmatism. Indeed, the experience of fighting the system while securing a position within it left many Franco-era political figures in the ideal position to lead the country through a democratic transition. They knew how to prepare a left-leaning political and cultural world for an accommodation with a capitalist economy and liberal democratic politics. They were prepared to make the necessary compromises, such as allowing the monarchy to remain an element of Spain’s government, enshrining private property in the constitution, and accepting the fact that educational freedom meant a role in the schools for the church and other private organizations.

For all its progress, today’s Spain is struggling with a grave and prolonged economic crisis, strong separatist movements, and a pervasive lack of trust in the political class. But there seems to be a limit to the intensity of the divisions in Spanish society. Maybe that is a testament to the lasting effects of the Franco generation’s pragmatism and its moderate, unifying, and almost tacit nationalism. In other words, the accommodating, cautious style that Treglown observes has helped keep the country together even in extremely dire straits.

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  • VICTOR PÉREZ-DÍAZ is President of the Madrid-based research center Analistas Socio-Políticos and the author of The Return of Civil Society: The Emergence of Democratic Spain.
  • More By Victor Pérez-Díaz