Past is a foreign country - André DeBattista

Past is a foreign country - André DeBattista

Valley of Fallen near Madrid, Spain. Photo:

Valley of Fallen near Madrid, Spain. Photo:

Approximately one hour’s drive from Madrid, a giant 150-metre cross towers over one of the most controversial monuments of the 20th century. The Valle de los Caídos – the Valley of the Fallen – has become a rallying point for Spanish history wars.

The site includes a basilica hewn in the granite ridge and a Benedictine monastery. It is the final resting place of approximately 40,000 individuals who died during the Spanish Civil War. One particular grave, however, is the most controversial of all.

Buried behind the High Altar, under a simple slab bearing his name, lie the remains of General Francisco Franco. His final resting place is divisive since this complex was built over two decades by prisoners who fought against Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Many from the left of the political spectrum view it as a monument to the excesses of a tyrannical regime. Others see it as a historical monument – one which still manages to be the fourth most visited site in Madrid.

It is a rallying point of sorts. Visitors include curious tourists, left-wing protestors, nostalgic Francoists and, on one occasion in 1999, Maoist terrorists. If there is one thing that the monument commemorates and encapsulates perfectly well, it is the divisive nature of memory and remembrance.

Previous administrations have gone to great lengths to remove traces of Franco’s hold on Spain. Equestrian statues were removed and streets renamed. The last public monument to Francisco Franco is his grave.

The Spanish Parliament has recently voted to exhume his remains and reinter them elsewhere. Supporters of this move argue that this could bring healing to the divisive memories of the civil war. They point out that, paradoxically, General Franco himself never wanted to be buried in the Valle de los Caídos. Some argue that his remains should be moved next to those of his wife as he had initially willed. His family disagree.

General Franco still elicits strong reactions. Some look with nostalgia over a period where Spain made giant economic leaps forward while the country remained a bulwark against communism. Others point at his authoritarian streak and his poor human rights records.

Beyond the Spanish borders, he is perceived as a fascist. A closer look at his actual record makes it hard to pin him ideologically. He never joined the fascist-inspired Falangists and was scathing of them in private. Supposedly a monarchist, the throne remained vacant during his time in office thereby avoiding a conflict with the Carlists while keeping the much-disliked Duke of Barcelona at a distance.

His nationalism depended on the suppression of strong regional nationalisms such as those of the Basque region and Catalonia. He was no great democrat. Nor could he grasp the subtler aspects of policy.

To judge historical events, we must divest ourselves of the prejudices of the present

However, his authoritarianism is often used to mask, or even excuse, the excesses of the Republican front. Reading about the crimes and atrocities committed on the republican side isn’t for the squeamish.

The divisions are not likely to be healed by reinterring his body. If anything, they are likely to open other wounds and to hinder a neutral, non-ideologically charged appraisal of Spanish history.

The ongoing debates about the Valley of the Fallen are just examples of how contentious, painful and divisive collective memory can be. Ideology and partisanship exacerbate the problem.

Every society has its painful memories with which it must come to terms. Malta is no exception. Two events from recent history still evoke raw emotions.

The interdict imposed on the executive of the Malta Labour Party in the early 1960s still stirs painful emotions. The fact that this narrative is still subject to partisan narratives does little to help heal the wounds. Instead, partisanship stokes the flames to keep the raw emotions alive.

Similarly, the turbulent period of the 1980s saw widespread violence and human rights abuses. The relative impunity for the crimes and the highly partisan tone of the debates led to these abuses to be depicted as partisan failures rather than utter institutional collapse.

To divorce these debates from their historical milieu and to seek to engage in continuous one-upmanship distorts justice, prevents closure and makes reconciliation impossible. In 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger proposed a study to the International Theological Commission titled ‘Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past’.

While this document deals specifically with the Church, its central arguments are particularly useful for societies that cannot reconcile painful historical memories with the realities of the present. Such an exercise depends on correct historical judgement. One must attempt to understand what occurred to a high degree of precision.

To ensure that the interpretation is correct, one must account for the relationship between the researcher in the present and the event from the past. David Lowenthal’s observation that the ‘past is a foreign country’ is not just an over-used phrase. It is a fact which points to the different and complex realities within which events occur.

To judge historical events, we must divest ourselves of the prejudices of the present to critically reconstruct the environment, the thought patterns, the economic conditions and the social dynamics in which events took place.

There is a degree of solidarity – a ‘relationship of reciprocity’ – between past and present. Those who committed acts of wrongdoing still affect the lives of individuals in the present. In this context, whitewashing or rewriting of history won’t help.

To purify memory from wilful distortion, ideology and partisanship, one has to work towards “eliminating from personal and collective conscience all forms of resentment or violence left by the inheritance of the past”.

This is only possible if we acknowledge that concepts such as truth, reconciliation and justice are not superfluous to the entire process. Thus, “the memory of division and opposition is purified and substituted by a reconciled memory”. To choose to live with partisan and ideological narratives only serves to keep on perpetuating past injustices.

André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.

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