Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

A portrait of General Francisco Franco at the celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of his being proclaimed generalissimo of the Nationalist army and the Spanish head of state by the leaders of the military rebellion against the Spanish Republic, Madrid, October 1, 1971


On August 19, 1936, militiamen loyal to General Francisco Franco murdered Spain’s famous poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. Afterward, one of the killers, the Falangist Juan Trecastro, burst into a local bar and said, “We’ve just killed Federico García Lorca. We left him in a ditch and I fired two bullets into his arse for being a queer.”

In Salamanca there is an archive of the Nationalists’ files, including over 2.5 million “Social” and “Political” cards on their enemies. Here is what the British writer Jeremy Treglown found on Lorca’s: “Poet [;] his works treated of popular poems [a mistake for “themes”?]. Died in––Granada.” “How tantalizing the dashes are!” Treglown comments.

In recent years, there has been much controversy over Lorca’s gravesite. Spain’s Law of Historical Memory, passed in 2007, led to a campaign to exhume corpses from ditches and fields throughout the country as part of a wider effort to reckon with the past. In October 2008 a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, widely known for issuing an international arrest warrant for former Chilean president General Augusto Pinochet in 1998, took up his own country’s transition from dictatorship. He announced that Franco and thirty-four others were guilty of crimes against humanity, responsible for over one hundred thousand killings.

Included in his sweeping decree was a call to exhume nineteen mass graves. One of them was Lorca’s. While the media widely reported these events, some demanded that the deceased rest in peace. These included the poet’s niece, Laura García Lorca, who was accused of complicity with a cover-up. “But no,” she told the New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson, “it seems it is conservative to not open a tomb, and progressive to open it.” She broke down in tears; later she told Anderson: “We don’t want this to become a spectacle. But it is very difficult to imagine that the bones and skull of Federico García Lorca will not end up on YouTube.”1

The controversy surrounding Lorca’s remains is part of a global debate about whether to reckon with past atrocities by recuperating memories and sacralizing the victims. After the Greek dictatorship fell in 1974, there were hearings on the brutal actions of Greek military officers. The work of the Argentine Truth Commission, which sponsored mass unearthings of graves and led to crucial trials, encouraged other countries to excavate bodies, memorialize victims, and inform the public in order to prevent future atrocities and heal traumatized societies trying to build democracy after civil war.

Jeremy Treglown has ventured into such controversies and exposed some of the limits of using historical memory or forgetting to reconcile bitter social divisions caused by civil wars and dictatorships. Franco’s Crypt, his most recent book, is a fascinating journey into Spain’s little-known, sometimes underground, literary and artistic recent history. A biographer of Roald Dahl, Henry Green, and V.S. Pritchett, Treglown was a longtime editor of The Times Literary Supplement. He spends time on a small farm in Spain. He brilliantly captures the ways that circumstances affect writers’ lives and work in accounts of his own visits to gravesites, in his stories of monuments and archives, and in profiles of novelists, historians, filmmakers, and architects grappling with an autocratic regime.

In contrast to Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, Treglown’s is a history of the afterlives of the Spanish civil war. Like Orwell’s, though, the stories that Treglown recounts are intensely local—the dead are buried in particular places with local histories of anger and resentment. This is no less true, Treglown reminds us, of the survivors. Those who endured the war and its aftermath to write novels or make films about it drew on local experiences that had been buried in collective amnesia.

The fight over memory was part of the political history of modern Spain. The Second Spanish Republic came into being in April 1931 and lasted eight turbulent years. On July 17, 1936, General Francisco Franco led a military rebellion against the leftist government. Hitler and Mussolini sent munitions and money, thereby tipping the scales in favor of Franco. Both the US and Great Britain refused aid to the Republic, and Soviet shipments of arms and other assistance proved insufficient.

Franco’s dictatorship, inaugurated in April 1939, put an end to the civil war; over four hundred thousand defeated Spaniards were locked in concentration camps until 1947; half a million fled the country. The regime lasted until Franco died, in 1975. The human toll is as contested as the memory of the violence. Somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 were deliberately executed by Franco’s army and police. They did not die in battle, but were for the most part killed during Franco’s campaign to exterminate supporters of the Republic. As many as 50,000 were killed after the civil war. The dictatorship imprisoned hundreds of thousands more. Among Franco’s Nationalists between 130,000 and 145,000 are estimated to have been killed in battle or executed by the Republicans.


As with so many transitions from dictatorships, civilians who wanted to restore constitutional rule made a deal to send the soldiers back to the barracks after Franco’s death. In 1977, Spain’s parliament passed an amnesty law, the so-called pacto del olvido (the Pact of Forgetting), which protected members of the Franco regime from prosecution. For progressives, that law was illegitimate; for the right, it is a deal that can’t be undone.

This was more or less the situation until October 2007, when the Congress of Deputies passed the Law of Historical Memory. It recognized the victims on both sides of the civil war, conferred rights on the victims and the descendants of victims of the war and the dictatorship, and formally condemned the Franco regime. Outvoted, the right objected that the law would damage the political consensus that had been the foundation of Spain’s transition, its integration into the European Community, and the economic boom that went on for decades before the crash of 2008. Ever since the passage of the law, the country has been locked in a battle over the past.

To Treglown, this contest over memory has often resulted in forgetting. In exhuming forgotten debates and works of those who labored under the pall of an authoritarian regime, he kept running into “a politically manipulated, culturally amnesiac obsession with ‘memory.’” With each side defending its version of the past, this unresolved argument prevents Spain from moving forward—despite the fact that this is what the polarized leaders on both sides claim they are doing.

One site under dispute is the awesome Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen. As Treglown shows in his tour of Spain’s museums and commemorative places, the valley is the most notorious example of irreconcilable histories. A vast necropolis—including Franco’s crypt—is centered on a basilica built into mountainside granite. Franco personally ordered it erected at the end of the civil war with the slave labor of Republican prisoners.2 Every year, Franquistas pay homage to their heroes, though technically visitors are forbidden to carry banners of any kind. Those bizarre occasions, Treglown writes, give you “an idea of the durability of the divisions involved.”

While the valley is supposed to commemorate the fallen on both sides (as long as Republicans buried there could be proven to be Catholics), it is above all a monument to the Generalissimo’s own version of history. But what is to be done with it now? Some want a museum dedicated to the study of the civil war—an idea opposed by many on the right. For Franco, many of the interred carried on a “Crusade” to protect the Spanish “race.” The obsession with blood purity is an old one in Spain; Franco gave it a new twist. The valley would, in his words, “have the grandeur of the monuments of old, which defy time and forgetfulness.”3

This version of history has its devotees, many of whom have been indoctrinated by textbooks, movies, and other media about the heinous acts of the “red hordes” and the virtues of the dictatorship. Treglown recounts the official cultural history for two reasons. First, it led to a polarized country. Around 2000, when the grandchildren of victims began to call for an official reckoning with the past, Franquistas accused the recovery campaign of “raking up ashes”—which only convinced many that there was indeed something to hide.

Second, it left little room for nuance. Lumping the right into the forgetting camp and the left into the rememberers overlooks the defects of the Republic itself. Orwell’s Catalonia was riven by feuds among loyalists. Independent groups were opposed by forces under Communist influence. Albert O. Hirschman, one of the first foreign volunteers, was appalled by the self- defeating disputes behind the lines. When André Malraux visited Madrid in May 1936 to support the Popular Front, a dinner in his honor fell apart for lack of agreement. Many of Spain’s greatest intellectuals, including Pío Baroja, Miguel de Unamuno, and José Ortega y Gasset, detested both sides.

Treglown points out that portraits of Republicans as true patriots struggling against Franco and his German and Italian backers, without whose air support the Nationalists would have failed, overlook the increasingly powerful influence on the Republican government of Stalin and his agents. It is true that Republicans suffered by far the most casualties, that Nazi dive-bombers attacked both civilians and combatants, and that Franco’s gunmen stooped to forms of sadism. But Republicans went out of their way to persecute and desecrate too—especially in their actions against priests and nuns.


Most recent museums and monuments avoid this kind of complexity in favor of sentimental versions of the Republican quest for peace. One of these is the museum of the beleaguered Republican naval base in the ancient port of Cartagena. It might, according to Treglown, “be more stimulating, if less ‘positive,’ to draw attention to the site’s role in a continuum of human violence involving the castle above it and the naval ships that still use the harbor.”

Behind the lines, Treglown observes, many artists and writers refused both to act as propagandists or to be silenced. This is where his book is especially powerful. His inquiries into the Spanish past recover experiences and efforts that don’t fit neatly into the rival rhetorics. Franco’s legacies had deep effects throughout Spain but were more complex than has been acknowledged. What Treglown calls Spain’s “commemorative paralysis” has clouded what many writers and artists actually did during times when they were alleged to have done nothing but resist or submit.


Franco’s Crypt questions both the fabrication of Franco’s legitimacy and the one-dimensional view that his regime crushed all creative voice and expression. It would be impossible to tell the story of twentieth-century art without attention to Spanish (or Catalan or Basque) painters such as Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso. Luis Buñuel was one of the most influential avant-garde filmmakers. Most of their work was done outside Spain, contributing to the view that Spanish artists and their viewers had to leave to make or appreciate the art.


Marco Cristofori/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

The Museo del Arte Abstracto Español, Cuenca, Spain, 2007

Of those that remained in Spain, much less is known. One of the most fascinating of Treglown’s stories involves the making of the Museo del Arte Abstracto Español and the work of Fernando Zóbel, an intrepid collector, impresario, and painter. The Harvard-educated connoisseur had a sharp eye for talented young artists. Visiting a little gallery in Madrid in 1955, he found the work of Antonio Saura, Eduardo Chillida, and the Catalan abstract painter Antoni Tàpies. He became the patron of a new generation of artists who went on painting and making sculptures in the shadow of the dictatorship. Amid the capital’s ruins (the rebuilding from the civil war was far from complete), these artists not only exhibited their work but drew considerable crowds to see it, despite official denunciations of Godless modernism.

Within a few years, Zóbel wanted to create a permanent home for his swelling collection. He joined with the engineer and sculptor Gustavo Torner to build a breathtaking museum in the Hanging Houses overlooking the Huécar ravine in Cuenca, some one hundred miles east of Madrid. It was opened to the public in 1966, nine years before Franco’s death. Alfred Barr, then director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, declared it the world’s most beautiful museum. It has continued to expand, but its core is the work of Spaniards who painted and sculpted during the dictatorship.

“Clearly any notion that Franco’s Spain was an artistic desert is the opposite of the truth,” Treglown concludes. He is unsparing in his indictments of the regime, but this does not prevent him from showing how Spaniards created art and literature even in the depths of the dictatorship, with much independent work accomplished before Franco’s death.

Treglown’s account overturns the conventional view that the transition to democracy had to wait until Franco’s death. He describes the traces of democratic and pluralistic thinking—and even piecemeal, gradual change toward more open institutions—that were already beginning in the 1950s. The writer Juan Benet once recalled that life after Franco was imaginable long before it became reality. In sometimes hidden ways, Benet wrote, Spanish culture began “experiencing something like a clandestine democracy, even though democracy didn’t exist.”

Benet himself was able to bridge the divide between Franco and post-Franco culture. He is only one of the “transitional generation” figures who sought to free culture from the Franquista ideology of submission. His novel Volverás a Región (1967) was a disturbing exploration of memories of war without heroes, a struggle without honor, where the landscape of the fictive “Región,” lodged between Galicia, Asturias, and Castilla, is bleak and shattered. It is often not quite clear what had happened. “Life can be like that,” Treglown reminds his readers; limited understanding can be more than enough to know that suffering took place. Benet—an engineer by training—had been working on the Porma reservoir at the time he was writing Volverás, so his fiction was also an eyewitness account of the regime’s effects on the countryside. The novel’s allegorical indictments were not lost on the guardians of official memory, who scorned the work as “incorrect literature.”

Some writers aimed to render the experiences of the 1930s in ways that neither eulogized the losing side nor glorified the crusading victors. One of Treglown’s examples of a work that directly addressed the war and dictatorship is the historical novel Tres días de julio (1967), by Luis Romero. Focused on the period of Franco’s uprising, Romero experimented with such devices as quotes from participants on both sides as well as photojournalism. As Romero explained in his prologue, in order to capture how a moving chronology can look different to different people, “I’ve tried to position myself not in the middle ground, but at every point along the line through which the events traveled.” Leading figures of the plot included Francisco Franco and family members of the Falangist founder, Antonio Primo de Rivera. Section headings read like newspaper headlines. There was a list of men from both sides killed in the war. The reader was invited to understand more closely the experiences of both Franquista and Republicans and, at least for a moment, to suspend judgment.

Another example of a writer who resurrected complexity and contradiction is Camilo José Cela, perhaps the best-known novelist of the Franco era, who won the Nobel Prize in 1989. Cela was a Franquista, briefly a censor, and a young member of the Spanish Royal Academy who published daring books that concentrated on sexual experiences and were not overtly political; it was the absence of moral standards that fascinated Cela. His San Camilo, 1936, about the onset of the war, published in 1969, looks at ordinary Spaniards, the dead who went unremembered and unheralded, leaving an impression of unredeemable, indiscriminate slaughter. A leader of what became known as the “Generation of ’36” writers, Cela became one of the authors of the democratic constitution of 1978; he then became even more famous for his scatological public outbursts. He denounced the prestigious Cervantes Prize as “covered in shit.”

During the starched Franco years, this kind of in-your-face behavior was, of course, proscribed and officially unheard of. What was unorthodox, questioning, or even subversive circulated underground or through allegory. Censorship made some creative people even more creative. When it came to Spanish moviemaking, according to Treglown, “there was never a pacto de olvido.” The 1960s films of Carlos Saura drew the attention of censors for their uncompromising social realism and unvarnished depictions of urban squalor. But even his bleakest movie, The Delinquents (1960), was eventually released in Madrid. Víctor Erice’s portrait of rural Spain of the 1940s in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) examined a child’s solitude, lovelessness, and the shadow of the civil war on the generation of his parents. The war had just ended, but it was barely mentioned.

Another who wanted to keep the war and dictatorship at arm’s length to reveal its more nuanced, personal effects has been Pedro Almodóvar, the major figure of post-Franquista culture. Raised in a Catholic boarding school, Almodóvar has made a career of satirizing religious pieties and macho norms. But he is equally noted for avoiding explicit mention of the dictatorship—as a subject—altogether, while also conveying an inherited atmosphere of anxiety and fear. His Volver (2006), inspired by Fellini and Pasolini, takes its title (meaning “to go back”) from Carlos Gardel’s nostalgic tango. When the main character returns to her town, she encounters memories of sexual abuse and loneliness; the ghosts of the past are estranged family members. Penélope Cruz lip-synced the Argentine classic: “Tengo miedo del encuentro con el pasado que vuelve a enfrentarse con mi vida…” (I am afraid of the encounter with the past that returns to confront my life).

Of course, not all Spanish films and TV series have so subtly dealt with the mixed feelings, indeed dread, that emerge from looking at the past. They tend to fall into conventional good guy–bad guy stereotypes. Franco himself was a fan of crusader movies that explicitly played upon threats to the Spanish nation and the derring-do of its conquering heroes.

Treglown argues that Spanish culture is heavily influenced by two recent trends. The more common is “mythologizing.” An extreme example of this is the haunting Academy Award–winning film Pan’s Labyrinth by the Mexican Guillermo del Toro, which elevates the drama to a realm of fantasy, in which sadistic Spanish officers pursue and haunt the innocents who are played by, and portrayed as, children.

The second is a painstaking pursuit of “authenticity.” The subject of Franco’s era dominates popular nonfiction books and documentaries. Even the stodgy Spanish Royal Academy of History felt the need to accommodate the recent past in its Diccionario biográfico español (2011), an archaic effort that reflects the traditionalism of the organization. The academy became riven by controversy, with journalists and professional historians criticizing the new entries. The one for Franco, by Luis Suárez Fernández, whose veiled sympathies Treglown shrewdly exposes, came in for special scrutiny. All of this resulted in unusual public debate about an institution better known for its buttoned-up obscurity.

Treglown describes a cacophony of competing stories and accounts bearing the labels of “memory.” It is easy to see why he worries whether Spain will ever emerge from so much confusion. He quotes Benet as having observed that memory yields to “illusions which grow with distance and time until they transform into grandeur and honour things that in their day weren’t short of arrogance and destruction, poverty and fear.” That’s one risk of a certain model of reconciliation.

Another is banality. As Treglown notes in his postscript, “recovering” memories has at times degenerated into a national sport of changing street names every time a government switches hands, or replacing museum exhibits and displays to draw more visitors. Lonely Planet guidebooks now feature gravesites and memory museums from Madrid to Buenos Aires as part of human rights tourism.

Fatigue is setting in. Young Spaniards and Argentines can now be heard saying “Basta!” They want to stop living in their elders’ world, free of their parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ obsessions and their melange of truths and falsehoods. The relentless return to the war and dictatorship impedes younger generations from finding their own pathways to their present. One senses that Treglown has them in mind in his efforts to liberate fiction, films, and history from “the simplistic paradigms of party politics.”

Can recovering hidden dissent and creativity create a spirit of what Treglown calls “commemorative reconciliation” to replace a long-standing “paralysis”? In trying to separate history from memory, may he just be adding to the noise? But for those less identified with the partisans on either side, Treglown’s book is a cultural history of Spain that offers possibilities for open exchange that does not require taking sides or forcing a consensus.

Transitions do not always move forward; they can backslide, run off course, spawn reactions. Ghosts of the past have a habit of hanging around. “As I write,” says Treglown,

new forms of conservative nationalism, xenophobia, and isolationism are on the rise throughout Europe, and there are signs of a revival of socialist ideals in opposition to them.

He worries that the paralysis might degrade Spain’s and Europe’s democracies.

Increasing numbers of Spaniards may now prefer to forget not because they want to pardon the sins of the past, but because the future looks so bleak. With Spain’s unemployment rate over 25 percent, many wonder whether the past is the issue at all. Whatever optimism greeted European integration, the end of the cold war, and Spain’s self-congratulation over hosting the Olympics and the World’s Fair (to coincide with the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landfall) has long since faded. The once-glittering pavilions of those events are now surrounded by empty apartment complexes repossessed by bankrupt banks; the homeless of Seville live in tents and sleep in alleyways.

Some may see this as Franco’s ultimate revenge. But his is not the only ghost around. When Pablo Picasso painted Guernica for the Second Republic, it went on tour as a propaganda device to London, Paris, and after the fall of France to New York, where it was on display at MoMA and became a universal symbol of terror. After World War II, it went on tour again. Even the Franco government, while loathing the painting, had to concede that it could get some mileage from the work as distinctly Spanish. So it began negotiations to bring it to Madrid. In 1981, Picasso’s heirs gave the rights to the painting to Spain; it now hangs in the Queen Sofía Museum in Madrid. The disputes that greeted its arrival eventually subsided, and Spaniards generally seem pleased that it is there.4