Miguel de Unamuno in Spain’s Memory Battle

As fascist armies conquered much of Spain, a writer publicly and famously denounced high-ranking officers right to their faces. Or did he?

It seemed that the fascists had already won in Salamanca. It was October 12, 1936, and Franco’s Nationalist army had controlled the city for months; today, they celebrated their vision of Spanish identity with a ceremonial event at the university. And yet, an influential figure was about to voice his dissent. As he listened to the proud speakers—invoking the splendors of the Spanish empire, railing against the threat of communists and socialists, and describing Catalans and Basques as constituents of an “anti-Spain”—the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno began to scribble notes on a piece of paper drawn from his pocket. He then rose to deliver an improvised speech of his own. He denounced the exclusionary rhetoric, reminding his listeners—high-ranking fascist officers among them—that he was Basque and the bishop sitting beside him on the stage was Catalan. Against General José Millán-Astray’s shouts of protest and repetitions of the Spanish Legion’s motto “Long live death!” Unamuno—allegedly—declared, “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis.” “You will vanquish, but you will not convince.”

This dramatic day—almost three months after the military uprising that marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War—is the subject of three recent films. Each one contributes to an ongoing debate about the importance of the episode, both at the time and for Spain’s democracy today. In 2019, internationally acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar released While at War, a historical drama that follows Unamuno through the tumultuous first months of the Civil War and culminates with the showdown at the University of Salamanca. Then, in the fall of 2020, Manuel Menchón released the documentary Words for an End of the World, which revisits the same period in an investigative mode. Menchón also directed the first biopic dedicated to the writer, 2016’s The Wind Island, which framed its account of an earlier period of political exile in Unamuno’s life as a flashback from the events of October 1936.

Why all this attention? Contemporary interest in this story about a long-dead writer has to do with the fact that while Unamuno’s confrontation with fascism is an iconic moment in the history of the Spanish Civil War, its meaning is also ambiguous.

His heroic stance in the storied encounter with Millán-Astray is cast into question by his initial support for the Nationalists, and by the fact that he lived in rebel-occupied Salamanca from the beginning of the war until he died on December 31, 1936. The Andalusian poet and playwright Federico García Lorca is often considered the key literary martyr of the Spanish Civil War (he was killed by Nationalist officers in August of the same year). But Unamuno’s early support for the Nationalist coup made him seem at best ambivalent and at worst a traitor to democratic Spain. As Menchón has put it, if García Lorca is the martyr of the war, Unamuno has often been seen as its Judas.

This ambiguity extends to the events of October 12 at the University of Salamanca. Since no recordings of the proceedings exist, there is no way to know what Unamuno actually said, or whether he ever uttered his famous phrase. He was placed under surveillance directly after the confrontation with Millán-Astray, which indicates that he was viewed as suspicious by the rebel regime. Yet the press continued to tout his support for the Nationalists, and Falangist officials carried out his burial when he died at home on the last day of the year.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that filmmakers wish to explore what really happened. And, for good measure, decide whether it all still matters.

On October 12, it was Unamuno who presided over the ceremonial event at the university. He was already internationally renowned for his philosophical works and fiction (Tragic Sense of Life, Mist), and had just been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But on that day, Unamuno was fulfilling his academic obligation as rector of the university. The gathering in the institution’s main assembly hall marked the holiday then known as El Día de la Raza, the Day of the Hispanic Race, which commemorated Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas.

Against the backdrop of the memory of colonial expansion, what occurred that day in the assembly hall reflected the wider struggle over Spanish identity that was unfolding in the country: military forces nostalgic for imperial glory had rebelled against the democratically elected government of the Second Spanish Republic. Salamanca had been occupied by the rebel troops, or “Nationalists,” since shortly after the coup in July, and their leader, Francisco Franco, had just set up his headquarters in the city.

As rector of the university, Unamuno thus represented the new head of state, who was not present. The writer shared the dais with Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo; the local bishop; and José Millán-Astray, a general in Franco’s army and an undeniably imposing figure. Founder of the Spanish Legion, Millán-Astray had made his name—and lost an arm and an eye—fighting against colonial rebellions in the Philippines and Morocco. By the fall of 1936, he had joined the fascist Spanish Falange and was running the Nationalists’ Office of Press and Propaganda.

Unamuno had initially supported the military uprising, viewing it as a way of bringing stability to Spain’s Second Republic during a time of ideological division and turmoil. But what he heard at the ceremony led him to make an unscheduled statement and break with this posture of tacit support.

An otherwise minor moment in a bloody conflict that killed a quarter of a million people, exiled another quarter of a million, and led to a four-decade fascist dictatorship, the encounter between Unamuno and Millán-Astray has become one of the most widely told anecdotes about the Spanish Civil War. What the image of Captain America punching a Nazi in the face has been to American popular culture, Unamuno’s “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis” has been to Spain’s intellectual culture. The story has been reiterated and reprinted in biographies, histories, and memoirs, and has entered the canon of Civil War lore alongside Robert Capa’s “falling soldier” photograph and George Orwell’s portrait of the POUM militia in Homage to Catalonia. Even as recently as 2019, politicians in Spain’s Congress of Deputies—notably from widely divergent ideological camps—were quoting Unamuno’s speech in their deliberations.

Indeed, over the last several years, as Spain has grappled with the rise of the extreme right in Europe and its own history of fascism and dictatorship, Unamuno’s clash with Millán-Astray has resurfaced in public discourse, sparking new debates about Spanish identity and the country’s relationship to its recent past. One arena in which this has occurred is the Spanish press: in 2018, a scholarly article garnered attention for its speculation that Unamuno’s showdown with the fascist general had been exaggerated. The publication prompted sensationalist headlines that questioned the veracity of the well-known anecdote (“What Unamuno Never Said”), as well as a stream of op-eds in which experts and high-profile Spanish writers rushed to defend the value of Unamuno’s legacy.

What the image of Captain America punching a Nazi in the face has been to American popular culture, Unamuno’s “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis” has been to Spain’s intellectual culture.

Each of the recent films dealing with Unamuno and the Spanish Civil War attempt—though not always successfully—to resolve this ambiguity. With The Wind Island (available on Amazon Prime Video), Menchón sought to link Unamuno’s clash with Millán-Astray to the writer’s history of political dissent. Opening and closing with the events of October 12, 1936, in Salamanca, the film flashes back to the period the writer spent in political exile in the Canary Islands in 1924—a consequence of his having criticized the then dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. By juxtaposing these two eras of Unamuno’s life, the film thereby suggests that his denunciation of Millán-Astray was consistent with both his character and his long-standing resistance to a dictatorship that served as the precursor to Franco’s regime.

Amenábar’s portrayal of Unamuno is quite different. In While at War (Apple TV), the director’s first movie filmed in Spain in over a decade, we see a complex figure caught by surprise when the war descends on Salamanca. Prominent Spanish actor Karra Elejalde presents Unamuno as an aging intellectual with strong principles, though not unalloyed by foibles and weaknesses. His fame has made him egotistical and self-centered, and he is consumed with grief for his wife Concha, who had died in 1934. A series of oneiric flashbacks show an adolescent Unamuno lying in Concha’s arms in the fields of their native Basque Country, and references to the pet names the couple used for each other are slipped somewhat awkwardly into the dialogue. All of this serves to build up a portrait of a man who, perhaps unsurprisingly, fails to see the coming dangers. In the numerous scenes that show him at home with his daughters and young grandson, we see an Unamuno who longs for an idyllic past and is initially unprepared to face the realities of the emerging civil war.

A sweeping soundtrack, composed by Amenábar himself, heightens the drama and sentimentality of the film. In the climactic assembly hall scene, as Unamuno concludes his speech and the crowd erupts in angry shouts of “¡Rojo!” (“Red!”) and “¡Hijo de puta!” (“Son of a bitch!”), violins start to play, time slows down, and Franco’s wife pleads with Unamuno to take her outstretched hand.

It has long been affirmed that Unamuno escaped the room unharmed only by taking Carmen Polo’s arm, yet the emphasis the film places on this interaction intensifies the uncertainty of Unamuno’s stance. Are we to understand this moment as the writer’s ultimate denunciation of the Nationalists, or as a sign of continued alliance with Franco’s followers?

The scene is emblematic of the film’s interest in appealing to a broad Spanish audience, aligning Unamuno with a Spanish identity common to all of Spain’s citizens even as it portrays a historic period when the nation was starkly polarized. The effort to revisit Unamuno as a figure whose moral compass ultimately prevailed over equivocal early allegiances might speak to a contemporary Spain where the extreme right-wing party Vox is on the rise. And yet, the film’s reliance on the notion of a unitary Spanish identity in a time of continued divisions makes its championing of Unamuno fall flat.

Where While at War attempts to win its audience over through sentiment and encourage viewers to identify with Unamuno as a common man caught up in a chaotic time, Words for an End of the World aims to convince its audience that the intellectual was consistent in his anti-fascism and that the ambiguity in his story is due to the intervention of Nationalist propaganda. While Amenábar’s feature opts for music and special effects, Menchón’s documentary quite literally foregrounds the archive, including numerous photographs of letters, newspapers, and other historical texts. All footage—both historical and present-day—is in black and white.

Words for an End of the World positions Unamuno against Millán-Astray from its outset, juxtaposing the general’s colonial campaigns with Unamuno’s anti-militarism as the backdrop to their clash on the Day of the Hispanic Race. The contrast hinges on the figure of José Rizal, the Filipino intellectual who was put to death by the Spanish at the end of the nineteenth century for defending his country’s struggle for independence. The documentary speculates that Unamuno’s invocation of Rizal’s name in Salamanca on October 12, 1936, is what provoked Millán-Astray’s outburst, citing the general’s animosity toward the Filipino writer. (The film notes that, as a young solider, Millán-Astray had been aboard the same ship that transported Rizal after his arrest.) The documentary also delves into archival evidence relating to the coverage of Unamuno’s activities in 1936 by a Nationalist press under Millán-Astray’s direction, indicating how rebel outlets exaggerated the writer’s support for the Nationalist cause, censored his statements, and generally manipulated and appropriated his image. Most provocatively, Menchón’s film presents new evidence relating to Unamuno’s death, showing that a Falangist who came to see him on the day he died was not, as has been claimed, a former student of his, but instead a journalist involved with Nationalist propaganda.


Past Dictators Never Die

By Carlos Varón González

With their distinct approaches to the figure of Unamuno, While at War and Words for an End of the World map onto two different attitudes toward Spain’s twentieth-century past found in the country today. Amenábar’s film leans into the ambiguity surrounding Unamuno and his fluctuating ideological affiliations, in an appeal to a common national identity that ultimately attempts to diminish the divisions of the Civil War by relegating them to history.

We see this at the very end of the film, where a series of closing titles narrate the historical events—war and dictatorship—that followed Unamuno’s clash with Millán-Astray. The final line, displayed over the backdrop of Spain’s red-and-gold flag, reminds the viewer that “on the 15th of June, 1977, Spain once again held democratic elections.” Though the film leaves Spain in a moment of strife and division, it implies that the transition to democracy successfully closed that chapter of the country’s history.

Menchón’s film advocates for a much more critical approach to the past, in line with the Memory Movement that has gained traction in Spain since the early 21st century, as victims of the dictatorship have called for recognition of the injustices they suffered and recovery of family members buried in mass graves. (On this movement, see another recent Spanish documentary available on Netflix, The Silence of Others, directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar.) Words for an End of the World carries out its own figurative exhumation of Unamuno from beneath layers of Nationalist propaganda, as does the book the filmmaker published in 2021 with literary scholar Luis García Jambrina, titled La doble muerte de Unamuno (Unamuno’s double death; Capitán Swing Libros).

At the presentation of the book in June 2021 at Madrid’s Cervantes Institute, a moderator asked Unamuno’s grandson, Miguel de Unamuno Adarraga, what he thought about the fact that there is still a street in Spain’s capital named for Millán-Astray. Unamuno Adarraga’s response was telling: “One thing explains a lot, and that is that Francoism didn’t end.”


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

Featured image: Miguel de Unamuno con un grupo de personas (1924). Photograph by Pascual Marín / Wikimedia