Abuses of Memory

September 22, 2023 Memory Spanish Civil War Madrid Fascism History José Antonio Primo de Rivera

Madrid’s Gran Via, back when it was named after Fascist icon.Madrid’s Gran Via, back when it was named after Fascist icon.

Because I know how to have a good time, I spent some time over my morning coffee reading about fascism in Spain, during the time leading up to and following the civil war.

Spain is an interesting case in Europe, because it’s one of the few places where a proto-fascist regime survived beyond World War II, clinging on to power until the 1970s. The Franco regime also wasn’t just nationalistic, it was arch-Catholic, and used religion as one of the pillars of its power.

Case in point: Following the Civil War, the government installed plaques on churches around the country, memorializing local nationalists that had died for god and for Spain”. Curiously, each list was headed with the name of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falagist party.

Encyclopedia Brittanica has the mandatory background:

José Antonio Primo de Rivera (…) eldest son of the dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera and the founder of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange. (…)

Shortly after losing his seat in the Cortes following the elections of February 1936, Primo de Rivera was arrested. While in prison he was reelected for Cuenca, but his candidature was annulled by the Popular Front government, which then proceeded to dissolve his party, which had been responsible for the upsurge in street violence. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1936, Primo de Rivera was held in prison, given a summary trial, and executed by the Republican authorities.

General Francisco Franco’s party treated him as a martyr and merged the Falange party with other groups to form the Nationalist movement. Primo de Rivera’s articles and speeches formed the doctrine of Franco’s Nationalist movement in the years after the Civil War.

Here is where it gets crazy: The regime held the late Primo de Rivera in quasi-spiritual reverence, not just naming streets after him but frequently invoking his presence through an imaginary roll call where the crowd would announce the (already dead) Primo de Rivera as present”. It’s truly cult-ish, exactly how you would expect a crossover between faith and fascism to be.

A plaque remembering José Antonio Primo de Rivera with the phrase “Present”A plaque remembering José Antonio Primo de Rivera with the phrase “Present”

There is, however, some irony here: Just as I was extolling the virtues of memory (and of plaques!), I stumble upon this example where both are used to prop up a fascist system.

Memory may be a potent way to remember historical paths and injustices is just as easily weaponized. Dan Tabersky has talked about how an event can become a force to be marshaled” and that perfectly describes what happened in Francoist Spain.

I shouldn’t need to explain why Fascism in general or Primo de Rivera in particular are bad things, but I feel like it’s important to address the duality that I’ve grappled with before: How can something be good in one context, but not in another? Why is it important to sometimes memorialize history and sometime to accept change and move on?

The answer, as always, is that context matters. Those decrying a double standard don’t tend to take context into consideration but simple equate one thing with another: But memorializing a dead fascist v. a dead democrat are fundamentally different, particular if the former advocated for political violence, dictatorship, and an abolition of liberties.

Even if you were to disagree with that: It’s ultimately about what the memorializing is for: Are we talking about memory for remembrance’s sake or is the memory abused as a pillar of power? Dying for god and Spain” is the latter, because it claims that there’s a higher purpose: That of giving legitimacy to the current power structure.

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