Digital History Seminar: 20th Century Spain

Monuments and Repression

With the rise of Francisco Franco to power, repression became a daily part of Spanish life. The Franco regime enacted strict rigid laws with strict standards and deadly consequences for those who stood in opposition during the early years of the dictatorship.[1] Repression can take many forms, but perhaps one of the longest lasting and highly visible is the presence of monuments. Spanish citizens saw multiple monuments rise up around their state. Exactly how monuments work as an instrument of repression involves interpreting the message these monuments are meant to convey. It's also important to understand that the same message was not meant to be universally received, as the monuments held a different message to the war's victors and supporters of the new regime.  

Nationwide, monuments were marketed as a tool of remembrance while also being used as a means of repressing Loyalists sentiment and promoting the state's newly desired narrative for the war. It was the regime's desire to construct a publicly acceptable memory of the war that painted Franco's forces as heroic liberators and those loyal to the Republic as a plague.[2] Moreover, the ideas they espoused were now viewed as corrupting forces better left forgotten.
By reminding those loyal to the Republic of the Nationalists victory without giving acknowledgement to the Loyalist losses themselves, spirits already damaged by war could in theory be broken. Loyalists to the Republic and other groups in the conflict against Franco had been defeated militarily. Monuments at the places of their defeat would make sure they did not forget. More importantly, monuments dedicated to the victors would ensure they did not forget who they had lost the war to.

Monuments were often devoted specifically to the dead of the Nationalist side of the war, disregarding the lives lost in defense of the Republic. By choosing to remember the events and tragedies of the war in this manner, the new fascist regime was able to exact control over the public discourse surrounding a shared piece of history. And through their actions both during and after the war, dissent proved to be dangerous.  And statues of Franco himself in were meant to venerate him to a status of near-sainthood following his victory.[3]

The Nationalists were presented as a force which had saved Spain from a tale of corruption and degradation heaped on the shoulders of the Republic. Leftist political ideologies were vilified and calls for self-determination, such as those from the Catalan ethnic group, were made a symbol of a disunity that could only do harm by seeking to divide Spaniards.[4] Naturally, dissent from this narrative still existed. But the political climate was hostile toward it now. A person could privately disagree, but to do so publicly posed a risk to their safety. 
Contrasted with this was the narrative surrounding the Nationalist forces themselves. They were presented as a having "purified" Spain of the ideas of the political left that were to be viewed as dangerous.[5] Like everyone else in Spain, the Nationalist forces had endured sacrifices during the fighting. Monuments were meant to pay homage to their losses by commemorating those who died in the conflict. It is, however, important to note that the monuments were dedicated almost strictly to the Nationalists, excluding the same sacrifices endured by the Republic. The reasoning behind this decision is probably varied. First could a desire to send a message to Republic sympathizers that their losses were not the ones that mattered now- they had lost. At the same time, they served to make the sacrifice of the fascists into something noble, fitting firmly with the "purification" myth. Finally, monuments are a public fixture. They're easily viewed by everyone who passes by them, their messages always conveyed whether a person agrees with them or not. In this sense, they serve to legitimize the power of the regime that put them up. Not only did monuments evoke the ever-present nature of the Franco state, but the its narrative as well. 

Catalonia and Monuments

The political climate in Catalonia prior to the war was far from that Franco would find agreeable. It was a home to some communist organizations, anarchists, socialists, and those who felt the Catalan ethnic group had a right to their own state. Ideas of this nature conflicted with the more socially rigid and politically conservative nature of the regime. They were also disruptive to Franco's message of a unified Spanish people. Catalonia had also fought fiercely against the fascists during the war, and the dictatorship was all too aware that those passions and tensions waited below the surface. The map below displays some of the monuments that can be found in the Catalan region, as well as gives some background to understanding their historical significance. 

Reading the Silence: Monuments and Databases

The above map may look a little geographically one-sided. And there's good reason for that. 

All of the information and photographs concerning the monuments on this map were found within a single database. The Memorial Democràtic de Catalunya has gone through the effort of photographing, researching, and writing about these monuments in the Catalan region. Their entries discuss both the historic significance of the monuments as well as discuss the their current status, if an update needs to be made. The reason this database stands out is that it was the most complete digital collection of Francoist monuments located during the research process. And it raises the question about why other organizations might have done less or at least less thorough compilations. 

One possibility might be that Catalans, as an ethnic group, differentiated themselves from the rest of the Spanish population. For them, life under Franco meant a suppression of their culture. Their own language was discouraged even to the point of not being taught in classrooms.[6] For many Catalans, remaining monuments may still represent a time of repression on every aspect of their culture that differed from the uniform narrative preferred by the Franco regime. Documenting these monuments could be both a form of remembering the hardship and reckoning with it. 

The other possibility is that the rest of Spanish culture at large might have a difficult time confronting so recent of a difficult past. The regime went through a great deal of effort to control the narrative surrounding the war and immediate post-war period. The impact this had on the collective memory surrounding the dictatorship is that it did not give those who lived through it a chance to reconcile with the events as they actually happened. As a consequence, they may be things that that are easier to scrub away and remove rather than truly confront. 

And it's important to note that these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. The real chance exists that both of these go toward explaining the lopsidedness of this map. Both because the people of Catalonia are trying to reconcile with feelings of anger and a decades-long repressive regime, and because other groups may have a reluctant difficulty facing the past of their nation, also inadvertantly brought on by a culture of repression.

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