Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, July 31, 2006 edition, page S1/5.
Humanity loves to celebrate anniversaries that have had a profound impact on the world. Witness, for example, how the 250th birth anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1750-91) is being commemorated with a plethora of concerts, festivals, exhibits and symposiums. Mozart’s music has a universal appeal. Even children of many nationalities can hum the tune of his 12 variations in C major, also called Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman and popularly known nowadays as “Twinkle, twinkle little star.”
But this year is likewise the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, an event that shook the world, though it is one that is neither ripe as Mozart’s 250th year nor as harmonious as Mozart’s music. It was terrible, brutal and was the prelude to World War II. On July 17, 1936, Spain took the world spotlight when reactionary generals initiated an uprising towards overthrowing the legitimate Republican government. This triggered a civil war that ended in 1939 with the defeat of the Republicans. Sadly, 30 years after the beginning of the Civil War, this tragedy receives scant reflection from a world that has not absorbed its bitter lessons.
It was thus a welcome treat that Instituto Cervantes offered 10 films about the Civil War, which were shown on the five Saturdays of July. Instituto Cervantes said that its presentation of “films depicting the most tragic episode of recent Spanish history” was its way of observing the Civil War’s beginning in July 1936, 70 years ago.
All the films were partisan, but the overwhelming majority, eight of ten, championed the Republican cause. Perhaps to compensate for the dominance of pro-Republican films, Instituto Cervantes began the cycle with a propaganda film produced in 1940 by the apologists of the Francisco Franco dictatorship, titled Sin Novedad en el Alcazar. “Sin novedad” was the code used by the generals in the 1936 rising, and the successful defense of the fortress Alcazar in Toledo from the Republican siege was a big moral boost for the fascists. The cycle ended with another Franco film, Canciones para despues de una guerra (1971), which showed through songs and images the victory and consolidation of Franco’s dictatorship.
But it was the pro-Republican films that stood out in terms of both aesthetics and message. For whom the bell tolls (Spanish title: Por quien doblan las campanas) is the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman and produced in 1943. Hemingway himself was an active supporter of the Republicans, joined by other renowned intellectuals like Pablo Picasso, Miguel Hernandez, Pablo Neruda, George Orwell, and Cecil-Day Lewis.
Some films were true-to-life accounts. One was about the martyrdom of the great poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was assassinated by fascist troops in his hometown of Granada (Lorca, muerte de un poeta, 1987). Another film (Las cajas españolas, 2004) was about the Republicans’ earnest efforts to protect thousands of precious Spanish artworks, including religious objects, from fascist bombardment. With much care and thoroughness, the Republicans moved Spain’s treasures from their home at the Prado museum to various locations within the Republican zone and eventually outside Spain.
La luz prodigiosa (2002) revolved around the identity of a man shot by the fascists, left for dead, but nurtured back to life by an innocent teenaged goatherd. The man, later turned over by the panic-stricken but guilt-ridden goatherd to a convent, survived the Civil War but suffered from a total loss of memory. The movie then posited a counter-factual question: What if this man with the blank memory turned out to be the poet Lorca? The film likewise posited that Lorca, if he survived the war, would have preferred dying to being a living dead under Franco’s repressive regime.
While La luz’s character was associated with a great man that was Lorca, La hora was about the self-sacrifice and courage of a simple, hardly educated man named Manuel who worked as a security guard in the Prado museum. Like the real Lorca, the fictional Manuel was shot by a Falange firing squad for, among other reasons, denying the fascists the possession of a Goya self-portrait that he had to keep safe on behalf of the Republic.
The other films were also about ordinary people who supported or joined the Republican struggle. Ay, Carmela! (1990)—the title, too, of a popular song sung by the Republicans—was the mournful story of a couple who provided entertainment shows to the Republican troops. But on their way to Valencia, a Nationalist column intercepted and captured them. Worse, the fascists forced them to perform a show that was insulting and debasing to an audience of captured Republican soldiers.
Libertarias (1996) highlighted the story of a nun who sought refuge in a whorehouse, which was subsequently raided by an anarchist organization called Free Women. The nun, out of her free will, joined a free women’s fighting platoon, also composed of a whore, a cripple, weavers, and workers. Here was a devout nun who embraced the anarchist cause without abandoning her faith, despite witnessing the savagery of anarchist followers in dealing with the reactionary Church. Libertarias likewise provided an honest account of the struggles within the Republican camp and the strategic and tactical dilemmas faced by the anarchists.
From Tierra y Libertad (1995), much can be learned about the complexities of the civil war and the stark problems that hounded the Republicans and their popular front. Seen from the eye of an idealistic Englishman who joined the international brigade to defend the Republican government, the film portrayed the solidarity of international volunteers with the local militia men and women. The film’s story closely hewed to the personal account of Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia (1952). The film was adequate in showing how intense the debate was among the Republicans on how to conduct the civil war—winning over the liberal bourgeoisie but without sacrificing the basic demands of the workers and peasants, fighting fascism at the same time advancing a social revolution, building a professional army but without killing the initiative of local militias, centralizing authority versus the popular pressure for local autonomy, and so on.
The Spanish civil war was a struggle between good and evil, but it had lots of shades of grey. It was a complex civil war. While the war was primarily a social revolution pitting the progressive, secular and internationalist popular front versus the reactionary, fervently Catholic, and nationalist forces, it was likewise a war of ideologies, in which fascism became the main enemy of bourgeois democracy and communism. At the same time, as historian Anthony Beevor put it, there was “a civil war within the civil war,” that is, the irreconcilable contradictions between bourgeois democracy and communism as well as between totalitarian communism and libertarian communism.
For all its complexity, the Spanish civil war was essentially a struggle between what was just and unjust, between what was right and what was indecent. With prescience, Orwell wrote: “This war, in which I played so ineffectual a part, has left me with memories that are mostly evil, and yet I do not wish that I had missed it. When you have had a glimpse of such disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
Many lessons can still be debated about this civil war—some of them very humiliating such as the opportunism of democratic powers like the United States, the United Kingdom and France that held back their support for the Republicans, which further emboldened Franco Hitler and Mussolini to carry out a ruthless, savage war.
But one basic lesson rings out clear: what is unjust, what is evil will be undone. Franco’s triumph did not lead to the “new Spain” he envisioned. From his death emerged a different new Spain that is democratic, pluralist, tolerant, secular and progressive. And Franco, as exemplified by the dismantling of his images and monuments throughout Spain, has been swept into history’s dustbin.
That should serve as a chilling lesson to present evil rulers reveling in triumphalism. No pasaran! They shall not pass!