Today’s article on Garcia Lorca in The Times gives the lie to the old adage “History is written by the victors”. For the victors’ voice is no longer heard in any discussion of the Spanish Civil War and its key figures.
That narrative is dominated by the single-minded champions of the losing, Loyalist, side. Franco is universally reviled, with the excesses of his regime flagged as the only testimony to the brutality of the Civil War. The Republican cause is invariably portrayed as just.
One has to search high and wide for any balanced account, never mind one sympathetic to Franco. No one gives the Caudillo any merit points for stopping a communist takeover of Spain that, had it succeeded, would have turned the country into the Pyrenean version of Bulgaria.
Nor is Franco given credit for what’s colloquially known as “The Spanish Miracle”, the country’s economic revival in the late ‘50s, when Spain reversed centuries of decline to become a player in the global economic games.
History, in other words, is these days written neither by the victors nor by the losers. It’s written by socialists, or liberals if you’d rather, regardless of which side they supported in which war. They use powerful binoculars when looking at the atrocities suffered by the Left, then flip the instrument the other way around (or better still, put the lens covers on) to look at the atrocities committed by the Left.
In that spirit, the article in question waxes tragic about the execution of Lorca by the dastardly Nationalists, adding that he was one of the 140,000-150,000 people executed by Franco between 1936 and 1947.
I’m not going to dispute the numbers given, even though I could mention some history books that cite figures closer to 50,000. Nor am I going to exonerate Franco from even the lower number of executions – shooting defenceless people isn’t nice.
But ‘nice’ isn’t an adjective that can be honestly applied to any civil war in history. These are traditionally fought with bloodthirsty passions by both sides.
Some 200,000, for example, died in the English Civil Wars of the 17th century (out of a population of about six million). In the American Civil War, the country suffered almost a million casualties, more than in all her other wars combined. The internecine violence that erupted during and after the French Revolution claimed hundreds of thousands of deaths, tens of thousands by execution in the Vendée region alone. The Russian Civil war took uncountable (and uncounted) millions of lives.
No number of wrongs make a right, but Franco’s atrocities should be put in context. The left side of a broader picture must include the murders perpetrated by the Loyalist side, whose number was similar to Franco’s, but whose targets were different. For example, the Left murdered, in variously baroque ways, 6,832 priests (including 13 bishops), monks and nuns.
The article mentions casually but accusingly that: “Spain remains neutral as war breaks out in Europe but Franco’s sympathies lie with the Axis powers”. Fancy that, who could have thought.
Is the implication that Franco should have sympathised with Stalin, who had attempted to turn Spain into his communist colony, rather than with Hitler and Mussolini, who helped him thwart that tragedy? It’s the first part of the quoted sentence that’s significant, not the second, especially if left unqualified.
For Franco indeed managed to withstand the tremendous pressure applied by the Nazis to enter the war on their side. And he even refused the Nazis right of passage for an attack on Gibraltar. In fact, keeping Spain out of that war was one of Franco’s great achievements. (His Blue Division did fight at Stalingrad, but all its soldiers were volunteers who couldn’t forget Stalinist crimes committed on their soil.)
Coming from a country in which hundreds of great cultural figures were either murdered by the Soviets or forced into exile, I deeply regret Lorca’s death. He was a fine poet, although, having read his work in translations only, I can’t really judge how fine.
The Times writer knows no such limitations: “Alongside Picasso, Dalí and Miró, he was a key figure in a cultural renaissance of a stature that Spain had not seen since the 17th century.” This means one has to look at painters to find cultural figures of a stature comparable to Lorca’s. No other writers need apply.
That view is worse than wrong; it’s ignorant. For Lorca’s Spanish contemporaries included such seminal thinkers and essayists as Ortega y Gasset, Miguel Unamuno and George Santayana, along with poets as accomplished as Lorca himself, such as the Machado brothers, especially Antonio.
None of them could match Lorca’s iconic status as a martyr to the left-wing cause, but when one talks about cultural renaissances, such factors ought to be discounted. But they never are, are they?
Perhaps history is indeed written by the victors, even if they lost on the battlefield. For the Left have won their surreptitious revolution, a victory gained not by martial valour but by gradual subversion through the media and educational institutions.
And if you don’t believe me, compare The Times of 100 years ago with the same paper today.