WORLD

A wound that won’t heal

Spaniards are just now talking about their war

MICHAEL PETROU December 5 2005
WORLD

A wound that won’t heal

Spaniards are just now talking about their war

MICHAEL PETROU December 5 2005

A wound that won’t heal

Spaniards are just now talking about their war

MICHAEL PETROU

Last week, Spaniards marked the 30th anniversary of the death of former dictator Francisco Franco, whose regime murdered tens of thousands of political opponents. Six thousand of the dictator’s supporters gathered for a Catholic service at his grave in the Valley of the Fallen, an immense underground basilica carved out of living rock and topped by a soaring 150-m stone cross. The tomb was built by forced labour: Republican prisoners of war, the losers in Spain’s civil war of 1936-1939, who quarried the rock. Many died in the process. Franco’s victims and opponents also marked the dictator’s death last week, with curses, satisfaction that they have outlived him, and with pride that a democracy has replaced his dictatorship.

In Spain, the civil war has almost faded from living memory, but it is still a wound that will not heal. The conflict began as a rightwing military rebellion against the democratically elected Republican government. By the time it was over, between 500,000 and one million Spaniards were dead—many as a result of extra-judicial executions carried out by both sides. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Portugal all sent troops to fight with Franco, and the Soviet Union sent soldiers to fight against him. Some 40,000 volunteers known as the International Brigades also joined the fight against Fascism in Spain, including 1,700 from Canada.

When it was over, all the internationals who had not died in Spain went home. Spaniards were left to live with the aftermath of a brutal war that had turned brothers and neighbours into enemies. “After the war, it was so terrible. People said this can never happen again, and so the solution was not to talk about

it,” says Eduard Selma, a Catalan university professor who grew up in post-civil war Spain. Selma’s wife, Isabel Gaya, says that even after Franco’s death, no one wanted to acknowledge the war. In Spain, this is known as the pacto del olvido, an agreement to forget.

On a recent day, Selma and Gaya are among a small group of Republican supporters who have gathered to commemorate the war and

One group has been working to exhume secret mass graves

to honour Milton Wolff, a 90-year-old American veteran of the International Brigades who has returned to Spain, and to the village of Flix west of Barcelona. Wolff, the last commander of the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the brigades, led an assault on this town 67 years ago and was repulsed. Now, a plaque is to be unveiled here in his honour.

The events have a festive air. Wolff is an impressive man—boisterous, hawk-nosed, well over six feet tall, with a booming Brooklyn accent, a goatee and a shock of white hair. Ernest Hemingway was captivated by Wolff during the war and made him famous in his many reports as a war correspondent in Spain. He was “as brave and as good a soldier as any that commanded battalions at Gettysburg,” Hemingway wrote. “He is alive and unhit by the same hazard that leaves one tall palm tree standing where a hurricane has passed.” Now, decades later, Wolff retorts: “It’s not true that I got in

a drinking contest with Hemingway—because nobody could drink more than that guy.” Then the plaque dedicated to Hemingway, Wolff, and other international volunteers who came to Spain to fight for the republic is revealed. Cameras flash and Spanish television records the events. “Now, more than 67 years later, I am where I wanted to be 67 years ago,” Wolff says. “It does my heart so much good to see so many Spanish young people here, living so well, against Fascism and against war. I’m so happy that you’re so happy. You all look so beautiful, you young people. I hope you never have to carry a gun. Carry flowers.” Wolff steps away from the microphone and embraces Giovanni Pesce, an Italian international brigadier who has also come back to Spain, and Leandre Saun, a Spaniard who fought against Franco and then spent almost a decade in prison after the war. It is a moving moment. But Selma says that few of those watching are actually from the village of Flix. “In small villages, it is even more intense,” he says, referring to the pacto del olvido. “Because here everyone knows what their neighbours and grannies and grandfathers did. It was terrible, and it tore families apart.”

But in Spain, like everywhere, the past won’t stay buried. For the past five years, a group called the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has been working to find and exhume secret mass graves in which executed civilians and prisoners of war were buried. There may never be reconciliation between those who mourn and those who celebrate Franco’s demise. But Spaniards are now beginning to speak openly about their war. “After, there was so much grief and sadness and fear,” Gaya says. “So people didn’t talk about it. It is only in the last five or 10 years that this has happened. And it’s a good thing.” M

THE CZECH REPUBLIC: SLOBS AT THE TOP

The co-author of a new book published in Prague has charged that Czech politicians have abysmal sartorial sense. Ladislav Spacek, a former spokesman for president Václav Havel, asserts that men such as former prime minister Stanislav Gross simply couldn’t put a look together. Gross's misdemeanours included arriving at the site of an explosion dressed in shorts. Spacek says Czech leaders’ poor style sense is a hangover from the hick days of Communism.