Last week, an Argentine judge launched an investigation into the death of Federico Garcia Lorca. There’s something odd about this picture. Lorca was a poet and playwright of considerable renown and popular appeal, but he wasn’t from Argentina. Further, he died 80 years ago this month.
One of the reasons his case is being investigated by an Argentine rather than a Spanish judge is that the civil war of 1936-39, in the context of which Lorca was summarily executed, purportedly on the outskirts of Granada, remains a fraught period in the Spanish national memory.
In large part that is so because 1939 marked not just an end but a dark new beginning: the triumph of Francisco Franco’s Falangists against the left-leaning political forces that had won a popular mandate in 1936 unleashed a fascist dictatorship that endured for nearly four decades.
While the army of Gen Franco received generous support from fellow European fascists in Italy and Germany, Western democracies chose to look away. Thousands of their citizens, however, decided it would be sheer folly to feign neutrality in the circumstances, and volunteered their services as combatants or auxiliaries in the International Brigades. The American contingent called itself the Lincoln Brigade; back home, its members and supporters were commonly derided as “premature anti-fascists”.
It’s a telling oxymoron. How can anti-fascism ever conceivably be premature? This is not just an academic question. There are echoes of the 1930s in today’s Europe. They are muffled for the moment, but the silencers could come off with little warning.
The Spanish republic would certainly have had a better chance of surviving with assistance from nations such as France, Britain and the US. And it would even have done so had there not been so much internecine strife between the variety of forces ranged in defence of the republic, from socialists and anarchists to rival groups of communists. The Soviet Union was about the only country that aided the republican cause, but the ideology transmitted alongside the weaponry contributed to debilitating divisions between communists loyal to Moscow and any forces suspected of Trotskyist sympathies.
Is the Syrian conflict a 21st-century equivalent of Spain’s civil war?
The question that remains unanswerable after all these years is whether the defeat of fascism in Spain would have dented Adolf Hitler’s ambitions of conquest, although it would undoubtedly have affected the mood in Europe and encouraged greater resistance to Nazism at earlier stages in the broader conflict that broke out in 1939.
Up to half a million lives are estimated to have been lost in the Spanish civil war, and hundreds of thousands more in the repressions that followed Franco’s enthronement as El Caudillo. Spain claimed neutrality during the Second World War, despite surreptitiously assisting the Nazis; as a consequence, Franco not only remained in power for 30 years beyond 1945, but in fact was cherished by the West during the Cold War as a poster boy for anti-communism.
Spain returned to democracy after Franco died in 1975 but, more than 40 years later, his malign legacy has not completely been exorcised — which helps to explain why there is still no national museum dedicated to the civil war, and why it was left to an Argentine judge to take up the case of Lorca, after the excavation in 2009 of a site where he was believed to have been buried yielded no remains.
Deeply admired by fellow poets from Pablo Neruda to Leonard Cohen, Lorca was perhaps the best-known victim of a conflict that was remarkably eloquently chronicled: Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell were among the writers and journalists who offered impassioned first-hand accounts of the struggle. Another war correspondent, Kim Philby, was apparently under instructions from Moscow to assassinate Franco. It has been claimed that the guns briefly fell silent when Paul Robeson visited the front line to sing to republican troops, because the other side also wanted to hear his magnificent voice.
Is the barbaric conflict in Syria today the 21st-century equivalent of the Spanish civil war? Most analogies are ultimately unsatisfactory. The battle lines in Syria are considerably more convoluted, with hardly any of the combatants striving for what could readily be recognised as a just cause. It’s simpler, of course, to draw parallels between Guernica and, say, Aleppo, but then the suffering of innocents on an almost unimaginable scale is an inevitable corollary of modern warfare. The Spanish civil war also sparked a refugee exodus, but perhaps its most obvious resemblance to the bloodletting in the Levant lies in the future, in the sense that Syria too will be haunted by the ghosts of war for generations to come.
The best that can be hoped for is that, unlike Spain in 1936-39, the multidimensional conflict in Syria is not a harbinger of worse to come. But then, the state of the world in the early 21st century serves as a reminder that humankind has proved appallingly inept at imbibing the lessons of history.