This was originally published on 7 February 2017 for the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities Blog |
I sometimes envy those who study safely dead topics: however important swamp drainage in the sixteenth century might have been to those who valued dry feet, it is unlikely to ever lead to a shouting match today.
The same cannot be said of events like the First World War. Never has a conflict been so aggressively memorialised, both in a physical sense and in our collective historical consciousness. A shouting match is never particularly far away, especially if one holds a contrary opinion regarding poppies. Some historical events simply have a resonance in contemporary society – I think of them as living history. Infinitely more fascinating than dead history, but much more capable of biting back.
Pictured: Two very, very different things.
My own field of research, the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), is very much alive. Its continued resonance is in many ways quite surprising. It is understandable that such a bloody conflict still has a great deal of relevance in Spain itself but, like the war itself, fascination with the conflict was never particularly confined by Spain’s borders. To this day the Spanish Civil War remains an emotive historical event throughout the world, even after its geopolitical importance was overshadowed by the Second World War, and its ideological dilemmas rendered obsolete by the end of the Cold War. A key element of this resonance was that this was never purely a Spanish war: tens of thousands of international volunteers chose Spain as the place to fight and die for their beliefs. These volunteers provided a focal point for remembering Spain in dozens of countries throughout the world.
In postwar Eastern Europe, the newly-minted Communist states sought anti-fascist narratives to bolster credibility and the International Brigade volunteers fit the bill nicely. Some Spanish veterans rose to great heights behind the Iron Curtain, most famously Joseph Tito, but also a whole host of important bureaucrats and politicians, especially in East Germany.
Elsewhere in the world, participation in the Spanish Civil War was never a ticket to government office, but was still an emotional bulwark for many on the left. As Stalin’s crimes were revealed, and the Soviet Union’s image tarnished beyond repair in Budapest and Prague, Spain represented a time and place where Communism had lived up to its ideals. It helped that for a long time there were living reminders of the conflict in their midst: many countries had their contingent of International Brigade volunteers to honour and memorialise. Even as the last of them have passed away, their memory has been preserved. In Britain, one can find dozens of small memorials in the cities and towns from whence these volunteers came, and people still attend annual commemorations in their honour.
Why do people still remember Spain with such passion even after the living links have been lost, and the Communist Party long since disbanded? Part of it can be traced to the changing way we view history – the so-called ‘memory boom’ of the past 30 years has created a market for knowledge and commemoration amongst the participants’ descendants. The political memory of the International Brigades has also become less sectarian in recent decades, to the extent that moderate Labour politicians such as Hilary Benn can draw upon their legacy in Parliament – often to the rage of the volunteers’ descendants, who remember that Benn’s ilk barely lifted a finger for Spain at the time.
Even so, interest in Spain transcends that narrow group of true believers and descendants, and much of this interest can be pinned on something else: its artistic legacy. Spain inspired a generation of artists. Hemingway and Orwell both wrote masterpieces which continue to be widely read, and for many provide a first entrée to the bewildering and tragic complexities of the conflict. Picasso, following the conflict from Paris, painted many works in response to the war, most famously Guernica. Contemporary films such as Spanish Earth brought the conflict to screens around the world, providing a great boost to the many solidarity campaigns in the process.
To this day, the Spanish Civil War has proven to be a fruitful source of artistic endeavour. Guillermo del Toro’s haunting film, Pan’s Labyrinth, is an excellent example of what can be achieved using the Spanish Civil War as a canvas. This is not didactic in the fashion of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom – rather, the Civil War is a backdrop, our knowledge of which adds tension and dread, and provides the motives of the adult characters, which to the audience just as to the innocent child Ofelia can otherwise seem inexplicable. Indeed, the very conclusion is ahistorical – the fascist falls, outnumbered and alone, although even then there is little triumph to be found. The violence throughout the film appears both endemic and inevitable, the unavoidable outcome of the setting’s context. Just like the dying Ofelia, Spain’s only refuge from violence is in fantasy, with only the distant hope that eventually the cycle of violence might finally be broken and Spain might move on. While Spain certainly has overcome the violence of its past, it remains doubtful that everyone will completely move on from the Spanish Civil War any time soon.