Past Dictators Never Die

What happens when a regime founded upon exclusion, racism, nationalism, and an authoritarian leader ends? In Spain, such a regime never really ended.

It’s the end of 2020 on WhatsApp: here, a group of retired officers of the Spanish army are using the popular app to joke that they had better execute 26 million Spaniards. This is contemporary Spain, over four decades after the last legal executions of political prisoners by Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship took place, in 1975. Sure, things have changed since then. But as the WhatsApp chat showed when someone leaked it to the national press, some things haven’t really improved. You can just open the newspaper and point to the relocation of dictator Francisco Franco’s remnants, or the renationalization of the lands that his family held, or the removal of statues associated with the 1931 democratic regime in Madrid. Any of those news items in themselves would be quite telling. But it is the endless proliferation of new stories around the public memory of Francoism and its institutional legacy that speaks loudest of how a nation failed—and continues to fail—to move on to a future beyond the political violence that haunts its past.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news for my American friends. Today, they may be asking: What happens when a political regime founded upon exclusion, racism, nationalism, and an authoritarian leader ends? Well, briefly, it may be the case that such a regime never really ends.

Postdictatorial nations often get caught up in this sort of rough, cacophonous rhyme: they echo their past as they move away from it, no matter how eagerly. Those who complain that the nation is stuck in a lesser version of the violent past are met, alternatively and contradictorily, with resentment, accusations of being themselves stuck in the past, and nostalgia for such violence, dressed as “order.”

A number of recent books about contemporary Spanish culture tackle its slippery recent political past and its contemporary handling as a political problem in itself. Paradoxes of Stasis: Literature, Politics, and Thought in Francoist Spain, by cultural critic and theorist Tatjana Gajić, is a sophisticated exploration of political ideas about the (desired, feared, impossible, necessary) continuity of Francoism as a political culture. In A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence, and Social Division in Modern Spain, historian Paul Preston places Francoism in the context of a long-term, elite-driven effort, still ongoing, to found and rule a nation without its people. One of Spain’s most prominent families bears the brunt of its own success, and the end of its lineage becomes the stuff of its enduring legend in nonfiction author Aaron Shulman’s The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War. Novelist Javier Cercas, one of the most renowned storytellers of Spain’s recent past, reveals and tries to work through his own family ties to political violence in Lord of All the Dead. Finally, French poet Serge Pey’s short stories in The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War remember and honor the victims of history in a jarring work of imagination. Academic or nonacademic, theoretical or historical, factual or counterfactual, realist or oneiric, public or private: all these texts together point to the unruly temporality of the Spanish state.

“Stasis” means both movement and paralysis, but it has a deeply political valence: it reflects both the agitation and instability of the struggle among factions in a political community and the durability and permanence of their stalemate. As a case in point, Francoism was caught between the need to project a united facade and the reality that, behind it, the multifarious factions that identified with it vied for power. In that sense, Francoism was always fated to stasis. The dictatorship was supposed to provide stability above all, and there it was, fretting over the social instability that its legitimacy was ostensibly predicated upon, worrying about its unavoidable yet long-postponed end.

And so, “stasis” is the leading concept in Tatjana Gajić’s take on Francoist and anti-Francoist political culture in Paradoxes of Stasis. In foregrounding that concept, she aims to reflect the dynamism of both the effort to move beyond the dictatorship and the immobility of being stuck in the traumatic past it created.

Gajić examines the work of legal theorists and politicians José L. Arrese, Manuel Fraga, and Jesús Fueyo; poet Dionisio Ridruejo; and novelists Miguel Espinosa and María Zambrano. In doing so, Gajić threads together concerns over the foundation and fraught adaptability of the law, the uncertain movements toward progress, the indignant rebelliousness, and the hidden confusion between movement and immobility at the heart not only of Spain but of modern, Western political thought.

Gajić’s book walks the line between addressing a distinct time period (1939–75) and conveying the message that such a time period is not distinct at all: that the many anxieties and challenges of the dictatorship still linger on. Movement and paralysis together are still vivid concerns in Spain—and in all states wishing to leave behind a broken past—not in spite of, but precisely because of, authoritarian attempts at repressing them.


Politics and Play in Spain Today

By Sebastiaan Faber

The larger historical forces that shape such permanent tensions are laid out in Paul Preston’s A People Betrayed. The book is an ambitious retelling of the history of modern Spain since 1875. In reexamining this period, Preston zeroes in on the many iterations of the antagonism between the Spanish state and capital, on the one hand, and the people (or peoples), on the other.

What if, Preston asks, what characterizes modern Spain is not (only) Catholicism, imperial nostalgia, or the country’s liminal relation to Europe, but rather its government’s lack of accountability? If so, the story becomes one of relatively powerless reformers, incompetent kings, and authoritarian politicians whose impacts pile on and weigh down the nation to this day.

In Preston’s telling, a number of complicated political actors—torn between fighting against corruption and embracing it as unavoidable, beneficial, or a lesser evil than the social unrest that they associate with political accountability—come to the fore. Such actors include the powerful financier Juan March, who bought and sold governments leading up to the Spanish Civil War, and the populist politician Alejandro Lerroux, who went from incorruptible journalist denouncing police torture to perhaps the country’s most corrupt politician. Whereas individuals like these would receive only a passing mention in other histories of Spain, here they are the protagonists of an ongoing story of shady businesses, propaganda, and violent repression.

This never-ending story is, in a way, a family romance. Preston does not begin his history of modern Spain, as historians usually do, with the end of the War of Independence from Napoleon (1814) or the end of the Civil War (1939), but, instead, with the restoration of the monarchy in 1874. Alfonso XIII, the main representative of that 1874 regime, mirrors Juan Carlos I, symbolic hero of the current parliamentary democracy, in more ways than one. When Ramón Valle-Inclán claimed, in 1935, that when “Spaniards kicked out of Spain the last Bourbon, it was not because he was a King, but because he was a crook,” he could not have known that his grandson—Juan Carlos I—would himself flee Spain in the summer of 2020 to avoid a criminal investigation.

Spanish culture has always been acutely aware that the political permeates the personal, and that families often embody (and suffer) the ills of the nation. Many such families have animated the narratives through which Spain makes sense of the chaos of history, from the Peces in Galdós’s realist novels to the Alcántaras in the popular TV series Cuéntame. If you were to point to a single document that embodied the spectral nonending of Francoism, you could do much worse than Jaime Chávarri’s 1976 film El desencanto. In this documentary, the widow and sonless sons of a renowned Francoist poet, Leopoldo Panero, discuss the fraught relations within their family. In their own telling, their family’s hidden struggles suggest the violence hidden behind the idealized image of stability that Francoist Spain sought to project. And yet, the documentary soon became a cult film, as the story of the Panero family came to define an emotional atmosphere of disappointment not with the Francoist past but, instead, with the actually existing 1975 democracy. The Paneros saw themselves as the “end of their race,” but their names became legend through the film.

The real-life story of that family is unraveled by Aaron Shulman’s The Age of Disenchantments. The book examines the Panero family as resulting from, producing, and representing the Spanish nation. Shulman locates and discerns the lights and the (many more) political shadows of Spain and Europe, while remaining sensitive to the desires, self-delusions, and contradictions of the Panero-Blanc family members.

Like Francoism, but also like the parliamentary democracy that replaced it, the happy picture of the Panero family, on closer look, reveals rivalries, pungent but unspoken feelings, and, above all, emotional, cultural, and economic crisis. Such crisis was the regime’s ending, and its ending lives on.

Postdictatorial nations often get caught up in this sort of rough, cacophonous rhyme: they echo their past as they move away from it, no matter how eagerly.

The uncanny reflection of Shulman’s book might be found in Javier Cercas’s Lord of All the Dead. It is also a nonfiction book that explores a family saga; it is also, moreover, about a prestigious Spanish author dealing with the emotionally burdensome weight of an absent male relative highly identified with Francoism. Apparently, it is the story of Cercas’s uncle, Manuel Mena, who was revered by his family because he died a young, Francoist hero of war and was a member of Falange, the self-described anti-communist, anti-liberal, antidemocratic totalitarian political party that Franco appropriated for political purposes in 1937.

Readers of Cercas will recognize this fiction/nonfiction game. They will likewise recognize some of the problems of Spanish history that interest him: the possibility of a moral judgment of the past, the pitfalls of heroism, the desire to remember a concealed past.

Manuel Mena’s most adoring relative, his niece, also happens to be the mother of Cercas, a renowned literary author whose successful books are deeply identified with public debates about the memory of the war and Francoism in Spain. What does it mean that Cercas’s loving mother also loves unambiguously a politically abhorrent figure?

The two male characters drive the story, but the emotional core of the novel is Cercas’s mother, a migrant from rural Extremadura to Barcelona. Whether Cercas will sell the old family house in Extremadura after her death is as much a mystery and source of anxiety as the question of who Manuel Mena was and how he died. (This question is about the physiological and geographical specifics of Mena’s death as well as his moral ideas.) After doing so much work to reveal the truth, and after writing so much against the fictions that his uncle died for, Cercas concludes with a lie: they will not sell the house.

Much less reticent about the role of fiction in the reconstruction of the past, and yet firmly grounded in real experiences, Serge Pey’s The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War belongs to a very different literary register: it is lyrical, oneiric, wrenching. It is the kind of little gem that one can expect from Archipelago Books.

Pey is a “child of the war,” born in France to Catalan émigrés. As such, this collection of short stories seems to reflect the memory of an oral history of resistance shortly after Franco’s victory. Often, the reader’s access to the story is mediated by the child’s gaze. Scenes of torture, imprisonment, and poverty nonetheless hold beautiful images of hope. In one of the stories, a man bequeaths his nephew a tree orchard; on each tree, he has inscribed the name of a fallen comrade. He points out a tree to his nephew: “That one is me. You will inscribe my name on it when I’m gone.” Through labor and solidarity, the book’s wounded characters remain oriented toward the future. They build pockets of resistance whose languages might be secret but are embedded in bodies and grounded in nature.

Across time, borders, and languages, Pey’s diasporic identity preserves the generational survival of memory. Treasure’s wrenching beauty speaks to the collective, if precarious, survival of clandestine, resistant communities who, for all the violence they have suffered, refuse to be defined by it.


Spanish Civil Wars

By Bécquer Seguín

A coherent narrative of progress—whether it be the progress of a nation, a person’s emotional well-being, or a culture’s critical self-understanding—may be unavoidable as a sense-making tool: before came that, now comes this; before came our parents, now come us. And yet, facing an uncertain future under lockdown, as an electorally defeated Donald Trump insists that his movement has only just begun, it is hard to shake off the sense that nothing can change and, at the same time, that our times are unlike anything that came before.

The now seems caught up in the then, and there’s no after in sight. By looking at Francoism’s fixation on its own end, Gajić also hints at the end of the idea of an end (of Francoism), a permanent transition away from transition, but with no end in sight. The Panero lineage may well have come to a literal end, but Shulman’s book attests to (and embodies) the fact that it is far from being exhausted in literary and cultural imaginations. Cercas’s lie to his old mother may or may not disavow the insurmountable breach between Spain’s modern (urban) self-understanding and its crisis of rural reproduction, but in no way can the lie within the nonfiction solve it. Preston’s 2020 book finishes, in a way, in medias res: it mentions the 2014 abdication of King Juan Carlos I, and, while Preston could not have predicted the many scandals to come, I do not think that he is particularly surprised. Most dramatically, so much in Pey’s book could describe one of the immigration-detention centers holding as many as seven thousand people in Spain today, as well as detained immigrants’ everyday experiences of pain and beauty and their continual struggle to survive until tomorrow.

The future takes forever, but that may be a good thing: we have so much to make up for, so much to work through, so much that we have yet to live up to. Anybody hoping for a future—whether haunted, suffocated by the weight of an all-too-vivid past, or exasperated with a present falling far short of what it could be—would do well to take it one step at a time.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

Featured image: President Gerald R. Ford and Generalissimo Francisco Franco Riding in a Ceremonial Parade in Madrid, Spain (1975). Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library / National Archives and Records Administration