Flora Hastings

Kings in the Alhambra, Tanks in Barcelona

by Flora Hastings

The latest independence referendum in Catalonia has been declared illegal and central government has offered the region a simple choice; abandon the plans for the referendum or lose all their budgetary powers. This battle for Catalonian independence is among the latest in a long history of cultural struggles in Spain, where individual cultural, religious and ethnic groups find themselves at odds with authorities wishing to impose a monolithic, centralised vision of Spanish history. 

Decapitating history in Barcelona.

Judging by the decapitation of the late Spanish dictator last October, the past is still contentious between Spain and Catalonia. The assailant, and Francos head, was never found. The headless statue remained stationed outside El Borns Cultural Centre of Memory, housing 18th century archeological remains from Barcelona. The centres objective: “to promote the memory and reflection of local and national events.

Francos caste-iron silhouette atop his horse, stood close to the door leading to the hundreds of Catalan artefacts uncovered 27 years ago. The ceramics and metal-work evidence Catalonias artisan history. The fragments disrupt Francos myth of Spain having a unified national identity. Under the dictators 36 year rule, Catalonias cultural identity was strangled.

Cultural difference was erased in the many distinct areas of Spain, namely the Catalonian and Basque regions. Catalan was banned, spoken largely only in closed quarters, while ancient Catalan traditions, from Correfoc to Els Castells, were made illegal. Camp Nou, Barcelona’s football stadium, was one of the only places where Catalonians could speak their language. Even now, the crowds at the games are peppered with independence flags.

To see the placing of the two statues of Franco so close to the centres doors as a provocative statement is only my reading. The figures were part of an exhibition entitled, Franco: Victory, Republic and Impunity in Urban Spaces. Their stated purpose was to encourage a re-interpretation of Spains Francoist history.

During the Spanish Civil war of 1936-9, Francos Nationalists forcefully took power from the Republican party, ending the countrys democratic rule. The death toll proliferated when Franco invited Hitler to test his bombs on Republican civilians. Barcelona was the centre of Catalonias historically Republican population.

The citys current mayor, Ada Colau, gained her political experience in street protests and city activism, not in parliament. Barcelona has a long history of revolutionary anarchism, further evidenced by the controversy of the exhibitions gesture. Civilians passing through El Born would have parents who were on the Nationalist or Republican side during the regime, with these divisions still kept alive in many families. 

The responses to the statues materialised not in introspective meditations but in physical acts of violence: the decapitation, the eggs and graffiti decorating his body like farcical war-ribbons, the pig-head placed on the severed neck. A Catalonian, whose family had been Republican under Franco, had to be restrained when he tried to punch a worker installing the statue. The figures were removed after only 48 hours of their showing.

On October 1, the Regional Catalan government will hold a de facto independence referendum whose results could see an immediate split from Spain, despite a lack of national government sanctioning. The question on the draft legislations is simple: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state that is independent from Spain?”

Many Catalonians want independence not simply to re-affirm their separateness and explore their recent history without the censorship of central government, but to distance themselves from the way that this past still lingers within Spains current government, the conservative Christian-Democratic Partido Popular (PP), which was founded by a former minister under Franco’s regime. This past haunts the party, sewing historical devisions that the PP have not addressed, and leading to efforts to control the way this past is remembered. 

The ‘Pact of Forgetting’.

The PP is not the pioneer of Spains historic stitching up of the past – rather, it’s a faithful heir. This official approach to the past began in 1977, with the passing of the ‘Pact of Forgetting’, to facilitate the move into a fledging democracy. This law made it illegal to persecute any of Francos officials. Investigation or official condemnation of their crimes were also prohibited, unlike the rest of Europe whos fallen dictatorships saw extensive trials. As a result of this law, still in place today, the way that the history of the regime and civil war can be officially taught is highly controlled in state syllabuses.

The current Spanish governments website echoes the centralised version of the nations historical memory, claiming that the transition to democracy in the 1970s showed that “all the wounds from the civil war had been healed”. History textbooks today still refuse to indict Francos Nationalists for shedding more blood than the Republicans, stating that both sides are equally culpable. 

In a graveyard far off there is a corpse, who has moaned for three years.

The Pact has more tangible effects than how history is recalled. The law limits the allowance of families to exhume the mass graves within Spain where their relatives are buried. Federico Garcia Lorca, a renowned Spanish poet rumoured to be one of artist Salvador Dalis lovers, lies beneath the countrys soil. Killed by a firing squad in 1939, Lorca was buried in a mass grave, alongside thousands of other Republicans. Since 2008, Baltasar Garzon, one of Spains most renowned jurists, has unsuccessfully called for a repeal of the Pact three times. Garzon had tried to call for the exhumation of 19 graves, one which may have hidden the poet.

Fiscal controls over historical memory.

The PPs support of this law, which they claim prevents groups with historical Nationalist and Republican roots from re-sewing divisions, embodies their desire to protect the memory of Francoist Spain. This desire manifests through the wider measures the party takes to limit the self-scrutinising excavation of history. The PP have little political incentive to disturb the allegedly still waters of Spains historical memory.

Conservative values consolidated under Francos regime survived its collapse. To this day, public institutions lean heavily on Castilian language and culture, traditional Catholic church values and the symbolic power of the monarchy – values which play well with the party’s  large conservative votership.

Manuel Fragas role as senator of the PP until 2011 was a prologue to the partys multiplying efforts to protect the legacy of the Francoist past. Fraga was the Tourism and Foreign Affairs minister under Franco. He ordered the execution of the Communist leader Julian Grimau by gun shot. After Francos death, he earned the epithet ¡La calle es mía! (The streets are mine), due to his ardent repression of street protests through police violence. When he died in 2012, the El Pais newspaper awkwardly proffered the following take: He was famous for his seemingly endless energy” – delicately skirting around his violent past and keeping to his political achievements of the 21st century. Their retelling of Fragas history, through euphemisms and polite omissions, reflects the governments own approach. In 2009, the European Parliament wanted to include Francoism as part of their day recalling European totalitarianism. The PP refused to join the discussions, while the Conservative Spanish MEP, Jaime Mayor Oreja claimed that “it would be historically foolish” to disrupt the fabled peace of Spains transition to democracy. The pasts physical remnants are also guarded. Public funds still pay for the maintenance of The Valley of the Fallen – a vast mausoleum in Madrid that houses Francos body with a public mass each year held to commemorate his death.

In 2004, José Zapateros left-wing government stood to challenge. With less stake than the PP in their detoxification of public memories of the Franco regime, the party took the first legal steps to begin dredging up the crimes of the countrys past. Zapatero introduced The Historical Memory law in 2006.  For the first time, the law funded the exhumation of mass graves of Republicans, awarded rights to Francos victims and removed hundreds of Francoist monuments. The law also allowed for Spains different regions to advance their own understanding of history in school textbooks, shattering the centralised version of previous education administrations.

However, with the PP elected to power in 2011, the need for such a law was openly denied by its leader, Mariano Rajoy. The past was back in the hands of the right. I would eliminate all the articles in the historical memory law that mention using public funds to recover the past. I wouldnt give even a single euro of public funds for that, he told Spanish media, following his election as president. Withdrawing all government funding to the program was one of the first things he did in his ascent to power in 2011; the offices involved were closed.

Spain’s unstable foundations.

The PPs control over the way history is remembered, should be read in the wider context of their handling over how Spains national identity is understood. The PP is the natural heir to five centuries of governmental efforts to centralise and homogenise the question of what – and indeed who – counts as properly Spanish. Diverse groups who might disagree with this monolith vision of Spanish identity have historically been silenced, and still are today; from geographical and cultural groupings of the Catalonians, Basques to religious and ethnic groups such as Muslims and Sephardim.

We must understand contemporary wranglings over Catalonian independence as part of a longer historical struggle, even if this articulation of separatist groups only mobilised in the early 20th century. Equally, this tradition of control inherited from Franco by the PP, stretches back from the first rulers that pioneered the formation of modern Spain.  To look at the formation of the nation itself contextualises current devisions over the answer to the question of who is Spanish. 

The Alhambra is a palatial fortress sitting on the hills of Granada in Southern Spain. Before Spain claimed this region, it sat within the lands of the Iberian Peninsula, and was part of the regional Moorish kingdom of the 13th century.  The buildings geometrical patterns and Arabesque aesthetics were constructed by Muslim, Jewish and Christian craftsmen. These religions lived in the Iberian Peninsula in a complex, pluralistic society: three cultures under Muslim and Christian rule. Conflict existed between the groups, but there were no forced conversions. When the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile united in 1492, the compound identity of the Iberian Peninsula became Catholic. The monarchs had been slowly claiming the lands of the Peninsula from its Muslim rulers, until the inquisition of the 15th century when the remaining Moors fled. The Catholics had demanded conversion, or expulsion. With the clearing of the peninsula, the process of the formation of Spains nation-state identity began. Isabelle and Ferdinand eventually made the Alhambra their royal court, and its symbolic power as a testament to a multicultural society was co-opted. Spains identity formalised with the union of the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile in 1492.

The Castilians gradual imposition of a national identity expanded to its neighbours. The laws of Castile were eventually imposed on Catalonia in 1716. Castilian, one of the many languages spoken within Spain, came to mean SpanishSpanishness became synonymous with being white, Castilian and Catholic. After two short-lived republics, and a long line of Catholic monarchs, Franco intended to continue writing this story into the 20th century:

The costs of not being considered ‘Spanish’ were steep, when these characteristics became pre-requisites to being incorporated into the nation’s corpus. I spoke to Victor Sorrenson, in his office in the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Barcelona, about post-Inquisition Spain: “It is not surprising that in the period after the expulsion the notion of “blood cleansing” appeared, where forced conversoes with a Jewish past were ‘stained’.”

This act, lead by the Catholic church, entailed the systematic torture and interrogation of suspected Jews up to the 18th century:

In the twentieth century, the discourse of pure blood especially nourishes the undemocratic right, like the Falange española

Franco brought the propagandistic discourse of Castille’s pure blood and a rigid cultural prototype into the 20th century. During and after the Civil War, large-scale concentration camps housed ex-Republican servicemen and political dissidents. Those seen as ‘un-recoverable’ were shot.

In a history where race, religion, ethnicity and cultural-geographic groupings overlap with each other, we shouldn’t attempt to map Catalonia’s marginalisation onto patterns of racial and ethnic oppression. But they do offer us a glimpse into how profoundly committed the Spanish central government is to maintaining a unitary identity by using force and sanction to bring to heel all those seen to deviate. A unitary identity becomes a powerful way of exercising control over a population; a false idol of monolithic so-called Spanishness to unify a population in a time where many have staked their political and economic futures on a unified Spain. Catalonia is one of the nation’s wealthiest regions, and independence might threaten to plunge the remainder of Spain into economic chaos. In these circumstances, a tool as urgent and powerful as a sense of unified Spanishness is one worth defending at a high cost. Though it has shocked many in the international community, Spain’s move to starve Catalonia’s budget into de facto submission is by no means beyond the pale of this logic.

Plastic national identities.

That the state remains invested in heavily policing Jewish and Muslim life in Spain chimes to the same anxiety; that repressing certain groups has proved so politically and economically useful, any identity which granted them full Spanishness threatens to undermine a project of exclusion. To guard Spanishness, white Catalonians must be forcibly brought in, whilst racial and ethnic ‘Others’ are cast out. Under the PP today, the ease with which groups can be included, or excluded, from Spain’s national identity evokes the power of Spain’s historic leaders to manipulate at will the concept of Spanishness.

Last year, Spain offered a Law of Return to the many expelled Sephardic Jews, officially claiming they were a crucial component of Spanish identity. The law is designed to make the naturalising process highly expensive and complicated, despite it being a Law of Return, which many see as a way to filter out less affluent Sephardim. It is important to note that this same definition of Spanishness was not expanded to include the many Muslims expelled from the land in the 15th and 16th century.

Bayi Loubaris, the president of the Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus, took offence at this double-standard: The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist. The rigid definitions of Spains identity were felt more recently in Catalonia. In Place de Jaume of Barcelona, there is a man ensangrado (bloodied) most days of the week (or to use the Catalan for bloodied, ple de sang). He stands with posters of mauled bulls, slaughtered by a matadores. Catalonias regional government passed a law in 2010 which banned bull-fighting in the region. But Spains government annulled the ban in October of last year, deeming bull fighting a “national heritage”

These cultural battles become the shibboleths for grander – and altogether more violent – battles over which kinds of government have the right to make and enforce laws on the territories of Spain. What can be seen as a paranoid enforcement of a unified, centralised identity fuelled the notorious Basque separatist terrorist group, ETA, standing for “Basque Homeland and Liberty”. Between 1986 and 2010 they killed 829 people, both politicians to civilians.

Just as laws prevent history textbooks from teaching diverse understandings of the 20th century, the will to limit a pluralist understanding of Spains national identity can be seen in the academic field. I spoke to a recent PhD graduate, Angy Cohen, from Madrid University. She specialises in Sephardic Jewish identity, through which she explores the historically shifting identities of Spanishness. She is frustrated at a culture still hostile to deconstructing definitions of Spains identity, reflected through funding restrictions:

It’s interesting that Spain has some of the best historians Ive ever seen, the level is extremely high but Spains national identity is blocked – so if you trying to re-define Spains national identity – it will be a struggle. It’s all bound up because these questions lead to the claim of certain regions of Spain for self-determination. Its a very complex question that has to do with this inability – this very long history of persecution and repression of Spains national identity.

Tanks in Barcelona?

Under the PP, a centralised identity enforced through multiple legal and institutional formations has become a conduit for re-articulating deeply conservative values; the heritage of Franco’s reactionary governance. Thus, it is unsurprising that the fight for independence is seen by many Catalonians as the fight for a more progressive, democratic Spain. Spain’s current constitution states that for any regional law in Catalonia to be changed, the Spanish parliament must vote. Catalonia, with a small minority of representational seats in the national government, will side-step legality to ensure a referendum goes forward this October 1. Its draft legislation is clear:

If the Spanish state effectively impedes the holding of a referendum, this law will enter into effect in a complete and immediate manner when the [regional] parliament has verified such an impediment.

Catalonian’s are far from unified in their opinion on independence. Reasons for wanting national autonomy vary widely; from the primarily economic, to those of a more cultural or historical nature as discussed above. But many Catalonia’s are uncomfortable with voting for an independence that has no clear independence plan. To anyone spectating the fallout from Brexit, this may seem hauntingly familiar.

Though Carles Puigdemont does not have the unanimous support for the illegal vote that he claims, Catalonians are largely unified in their belief that they are entitled to a vote. Despite the fact that the vote is unlikely to swing the way of independence at this stage, the very fact of the referendum re-articulates lines of division and in declaring autonomy and difference, even as it looks to re-sign up to the uneasy contract at the heart of the modern Spanish state, a detente between the unified state and its fractious regions.

If the vote goes ahead, Spanish tanks have been promised on the streets of Catalonia during the voting period. Once again, central state power has failed to fully realise itself through a monolithic cultural identity and so has resorted to the old reliables; money and guns. Catalonian independence is no guarantee of prosperity or liberty for Catalonians, many of whom would likely face just the same ethnic or religious discrimination as is handed down by governments past and present. But the simple fact of holding the referendum tests the limits of what states will do to protect their territorial integrity. A firm fist on the national wallet, and tanks on the streets of Barcelona’

Published 16th September 2017

This work by Novara Media is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

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