Spain's regional conflicts are ages old

August 19, 1996|By William Pfaff

MADRID -- Sixty years ago the Spanish civil war began. The argument in Spain this summer is whether what one writer calls "the willed amnesia" of the nation about that war should continue.

Francisco Ayala, who fought in the government's forces in the war, wrote in the newspaper El Pais that "a kind of general armistice, tacit and reciprocal," has existed, which can be seen "as an expression of generalized good sense, contrasting happily and admirably with the stupidity which in the past launched a fratricidal conflict."

He asks whether this belief that Spaniards should "forget the past, and live," is appropriate today. Another writer in the same paper, who was on Franco's side when the war broke out, Pedro Lain Entralgo, says that the assumption that a civil war could never happen again must be made "a project" and not simply taken for granted.

Collection of regions

The civil war was culmination to a period of Spanish political turbulence that lasted from the early 19th century, when Spain was still a multinational empire, to that empire's destruction by the United States in 1898, on through some less than successful 20th-century attempts at building a Spanish "nation" -- a nation that, as Ortega y Gasset remarked, lacked a spine. Spain itself was a collection of regions.

In 1936 Spain was an insecure republic that had recently elected a popular front government, which included Communists. Francisco Franco and another general (later killed), commanding Spanish forces in Morocco, launched a rebellion against the republic. They obtained support from fascist Italy and subsequently from Nazi Germany.

Due in part to that foreign involvement, followed by indirect Soviet intervention in support of the republic, as well as the arrival of volunteers for the international brigades of the republican army, the war lasted nearly three years and killed some 400,000 people.

Franco ruled until his death in 1975. Many feared that the civil war would break out again when he was gone. It did not, in part because he had prepared a restoration of constitutional monarchy under the young Prince Juan Carlos, in part because of the emergence of a generation of young technocratic officials who during the 1960s and 1970s had quietly prepared Spain to rejoin Europe.

There was an attempted coup in 1981, by an officer who wanted to restore the dictatorship. He took the parliament hostage. Juan Carlos demanded the army's loyalty, received it, and the coup turned to farce. A year later the country elected a Socialist majority to parliament.

The civil war had become history. Economically and socially, the country was vastly changed. The old class divisions had eased. The ideologies of the civil war period were discredited. The war's memories were of horror and suffering. The decision the Spanish had made was to forget.

To do this requires a belief that Spain's solidarity and democratic institutions are so solid that national unity is no longer at risk.

Europe as nation

Many think that Spain's own problems and debates will fade as Spain is absorbed into a larger European political dialogue, in which nations will lose their importance and Europe itself will become a nation.

This strikes me as a dangerous assumption, although many across Europe believe it, confident that Europe's regional and ethnic rivalries, such as those which divide northern Italy from the Italian South, Basque nationalists from Spain and France, Catalonia from Castile, Walloonia from Flanders, even Northern Irish Catholics from Northern Irish Protestants, will disappear or become harmless as "Europe" advances.

Europe may indeed advance, but whether its advance will extinguish national sentiments and quarrels rooted in history and culture must be doubted.

Spain's own regional conflicts have ancient sources. The most important of these, the Basque and Catalan "nations," claim more autonomy than the rest of Spain has been willing to concede.

Those who remember the Barcelona Olympic games will recall that Catalan authorities presented them to the world's television viewers as the Catalonian games, to much annoyance in Madrid.

Spain's new conservative government has recently reopened what for years was a closed case, that of religious teaching in the schools. Under pressure from Catholic bishops, the new Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, said in June that religious or ethical instruction would again be part of the national school curriculum.

This provoked an angry reaction from those who saw a threat to the religious impartiality of the state.

Anti-clericalism was one of the driving forces in the civil war. The Aznar government pulled back, saying the school question was merely under study, but an unnecessary and dangerous controversy had been reawakened.

No anniversary

In 1986 Spain's Socialist government decided against any official notice of the civil war's 50th anniversary.

This year, in contrast, the conservative government bestowed Spanish citizenship to all of the surviving foreigners who served in the international brigades -- nearly all of them, of course, leftists at the time, and many of them Communists.

This was a generous gesture, and was approved by all of the parties. It was not only an act of reconciliation of past divisions but a measure of constructive union, directed to the future. This surely is the right course.

William Pfaff writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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