Paul Preston and Ángel Viñas, in a photographic montage Xavier Cervera / Emilia Guetiérrez
Ramón Álvarez, July 18, 2021
Ramón Jáuregui, former minister of the Presidency and vice-lehendakari of the Basque Government, recently pointed out the desire of current Spanish policy to condemn an entire generation to live as grandchildren of the Civil War and Francoism instead of as children of freedom. Revisionism and civil war are two adjectives that are increasingly used, as an accusation, by actors on the political scene, where the appeal to the recent history of Spain, often with little or no rigor, marks the day to day in the public tribune. Paul Preston and Ángel Viñas, two of the great references in the study of these historical periods, reflect on this interested use of history in a debate, in online format, led by Fèlix Badia, within the Dialogues of La Vanguardia.
FÈLIX BADIA. It seems that in Spain history is being used, particularly in recent times, as a weapon of political debate. Is something similar going on in the UK, Mr Preston?
PAUL PRESTON- It’s a universal theme. We have seen it recently in the United States with Donald Trump. On the one hand we are professional historians who seek the truth, but others lend themselves to what is fashionable. Then there is another problem: when we talk about the role of history in political discourse we must know what we are talking about. Neither my books nor Angel’s have enough readers to influence politics. In the United Kingdom, the policy of the British Empire, the role of Churchill, are abused … and incredible stories have been told in the Brexit campaign, such as that we won the Second World War alone, without counting on the United States or the Soviet Union.
The dictatorship carried out a great national brainwashing that still persists “ Paul Preston
The same happens in Spain. I hear statements from Vox that are not based on any knowledge of history. That brings us to the debate about what history is, what is between what happened and what historians tell us. Sure there is a difference between what happened and what we professionals explain, but there are indisputable facts, such as when Alfonso XIII went into exile or when he died. Everything else is up for debate. We are two historians who are motivated to tell the truth and we hope that this is really history
ÁNGEL VIÑAS.- I basically agree with Paul. For me there are two things that must be differentiated: how the past is understood, because we cannot return to it. What exists are representations of that past that are nourished by multiple sources, also by deception, and by scholars who seek to know what happened and why it happened. Multiple perspectives converge on the past. The only reliable source is evidence, and what is said about the past must have some support, although the quality of that support can be debated. The more we inquire, the more we see that history has been manipulated since history has been written.
Spanish democracy has not known how to deal with the past “ Angel Viñas
If one analyzes the life of the Caesars, we do not know if Suetonius explains the truth to us. Suetonius was working on the evidence a century after the Caesars he wrote about died. Everything that has happened now has happened other times. The difference is that now, with the technological means that we have, hoaxes are spreading at great speed. There are people who try to make the best possible history, with evidence, and there are others who do not.
F.B.- Would you dare to point out some of the cases of manipulation of the contemporary history of Spain that are taking place now?
Á.V.- In recent years I have dedicated myself to dismantling hoaxes. For example, it has given me great pleasure to show that Franco became a millionaire in war and with bad arts. No one has refuted it and I rely on evidence. No one has found evidence to the contrary and it has been a few years since I said it. I also showed that Franco ordered the assassination of General Balmes [military governor of Las Palmas, who died on July 16, 1936], which makes him a murderer in the strict sense of the term, according to the current penal code of military justice. No one has said otherwise.
Another theme that was taken for granted: Franco was the last general to join the uprising of 1936. Well no: Franco was in the conspiracy from the first moment, I have shown it in my last book. In large part, the story we were told during Franco is a story that is essentially false. It is a story that is characterized by a singular fact that I cannot find in another nearby country: it is a narcissistic and projectionist story of Spain, which attributes its own behavior to the political and military adversary. As these behaviors were harmful, they are attributed to the adversary.
P.P.- I have dedicated part of my career to dismantling a series of hoaxes about Franco. Like he had been the great hero who had resisted Hitler’s pressures to enter World War II, when he was desperate to do so. Or that he was the architect of the economic boom of the 1960s, which actually happened despite him. Or the hoax that he was a great military strategist. They are myths that were built and spread throughout the Franco regime with the postwar terror policy and with the total and absolute control of the media and the educational system. The consequence was a great national brainwashing. There was an important part of the population that was in exile or that lived under terror in a kind of internal exile. The other half, and I am not speaking statistically, were subject to the idea that Franco had saved Spain from the clutches of Moscow and the atrocities of the Republicans.
The corruption of democracy is one of the defects of the transition “ Paul Preston
And what happened after November 20, 1975, when Franco died? Nothing happened. Throughout 1976 a very complicated process takes place, as if it were a great play with a businessman (Juan Carlos I), with a screenwriter (Torcuato Fernández Miranda) and an actor (Adolfo Suárez) who prepare the transition towards the democracy and the first elections. And then something happened? Nor, because that brainwashing had spread. In the countries of the Eastern bloc, the phenomenon was similar. In Germany there was a de-nazification process. But even in countries like France there are big disputes about the role of the French in the Resistance, which was actually the Spanish Republican Army on tour.
F.B.- Can it be said that the transition went well? Or all the good that could be done?
P.P.- I still think that it was a little wonder if the transition from Franco’s death to the first elections was judged, even though many mistakes were made afterwards. Apart from brainwashing, we must bear in mind that at that time there were an Armed Forces, a Civil Guard, an Armed Police, thousands of Falangists with weapons licenses … all against democracy. What are now criticized as limitations of the transition were necessary precautions.
For many it will be an electroshock to discover the truth of the Franco regime “ Angel Viñas
Now it is a very compromised point of view, but I would defend the role of the King Emeritus in those years, and everything that has happened afterwards does not change what happened then. Of course, there have been many mistakes afterwards. The corruption that has been seen in democracy is one of the defects of the transition, such as the deficiencies that we still see in the Law of Historical Memory. But the process from the death of Franco to the Constitution of 78 I think it was a miracle.
Á.V.- I think the transition was a success and what could have been done was done, although perhaps more could have been done; that will be examined by historians. The protagonists of phenomena like this move in a sea of opposing forces and do what they know, what they can or what they are allowed. The fundamental thing was to disrupt the institutional, political and legal structure of the Franco regime, and that was achieved. And the challenge of taming the Armed Forces, and sorry for the expression. The Armed Forces were loyal, in any case, to the Crown, but not to democracy. And this was also achieved. And to the public order forces, very close to the regime and despite the great problem posed by ETA terrorism, which seems to have been forgotten, but which conditioned the security policy.
It was necessary to enter the political and institutional Europe and it was necessary to remain in NATO, where Spain had entered badly. Because it was one thing not to have entered, but it was quite another to leave. All this was carried out with enormous political difficulties that are now not remembered or taken into account. It is necessary to say that the Spanish democracy has not known how to deal with the past. I would have opened all the archives of the Franco regime in 1988 and to the extent that I was able to influence a decision, I did so. I convinced Minister Fernando Morán to open the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a 25-year grace period, the shortest in Europe at that time.
The process between Franco’s death and the Constitution was a miracle “ Paul preston
Has Spanish democracy collapsed because people have been working on these archives? Absolutely nothing has happened. Doctoral theses, books and articles have been kicked out that have revealed the extent to which Franco’s foreign policy was a laugh. History does not kill.
F.B.- Could that be the reason why the transition is now being questioned, because the past was not dealt with well or did not go further?
Á.V.- I believe that all documents until 1975 should be freely accessible, and when I say all, I mean absolutely everyone, including those of the Civil Guard, the State Security Forces, the Ministry of the Interior or of the Ministry of Defense. Many are already open, but not all. Almost 50 years have passed, how to be afraid of Franco today, there is nothing to fear.
P.P- What you have to fear is those who maintain the myths and see the benevolence of Francoism. That is why there are so many closed archives. If you were a Vox leader or a military member of the regime, would you be interested in having everything open so that it could be discovered that your benevolent theses are not true?
All documents up to 1975 should be freely accessible, 50 years have passed “ Angel Viñas
AV.- I admit, with very strict restrictions, that some documents are reviewed before they are made available to historians. That happens in all countries. When you think about the documents that have been accumulated in the Civil War and the Franco regime … There are huge masses of papers, there will be three generations of historians to study them, it will be an electroshock for many people, you wonder if the officials and agents of the forces of order did something else than writing them.
The reception of history necessarily passes through the educational system. I remember an interview with Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, in 1952. He was asked about the limits of de-nazification. Adenauer responded that the FRG can be dedicated to settling scores or building democracy, but the two are incompatible. Twenty years later that incompatibility had already disappeared. As a defeated regime, Nazism could not survive. It is a very different situation from Spain. But what was done with the Nazis who had not been war criminals or had been in high positions in the Administration? Well nothing. Adenauer himself had a couple of Nazis in his governments. All transitions have their specificity. The Italian fascist regime was also defeated by arms and a Republic was built that was no longer inspired by fascist principles, but was anti-fascist. In Spain, 50 years have already passed to deal with the Republic and the Civil War and the Franco regime. It is time to do it.
F.B.- It could seem that the Franco regime, in one way or another, continued to protect the Spanish political scene
Á.V.- I don’t think so. Francoism does not arise overnight, it arises from a Civil War that does not arise from one day to the next. They are stages of a historical process and even today, in certain sectors of public opinion and the intelligentsia of the media, there are a series of principles that more or less subsist, I will not say in their textuality, but in a similar way. I have published an article comparing the things that are said today and that were said in 1931, before the proclamation of the Republic. They do not vary too much. Anti-communism – when saying it today is stupid, since it does not represent any danger today as it could have represented it in the Cold War – secularism, social assistance … all that is there, nothing has changed. It is disguised, not because they are Francoist principles, but because they are principles on which a part of the ideological Francoism was built. The cult of the superman personality was something very typical in the 30s and 40s that in Spain lasted longer than in Europe except in the Eastern countries.
We must not fear the Franco regime, but those who maintain their myths “ Paul preston
P.P- We live in mass societies and today we suffer the disastrous influence of social networks. Someone who throws a hoax that is funny and has a million followers. It is a serious problem. We have seen it in the United States with the Trump success. Liberals have laughed at the things he said, but there are millions of people who believed him and voted accordingly. As much as he is criticized in the West, Putin has his followers in Russia. In the UK they are now trying to shut down the BBC, there are people who believe the things that Boris Johnson says. What can a historian do against that? There is the desire of the human being to have a father figure to solve problems. That is why we all want a good government, benevolent, competent, honest … and what we have in general are incompetent and corrupt governments. It is an increasingly complex problem.
We are advancing towards a society of ignorant, half-slaves “ Angel Viñas
In Britain my wife always complains about the shortcomings of the opposition, but the problem is that the quality of politicians on the left is as bad as those on the right. There are no great politicians. In Spain it is the same. Where is Juan Negrín today?. Perhaps young talented people are no longer attracted to politics, because they can earn more money elsewhere. It is a mystery that afflicts me every day.
Á.V.- I prefer to focus on the past, because explaining the present is more difficult.
P.P.- Our mission is that people find out, like what you have done with the corruption of Franco. We are aware of how small our audience is, but we want to convey to people the things they should know. Devoting 12 hours a day to history is a good way to isolate ourselves from the horrors that surround us.
F.B.- You spoke that the role of education would allow people to have more historical criteria. But instead it seems that everything is going in the opposite direction. More and more social networks are in charge and the humanities are disappearing
Á.V.- This brings us to a society of ignorant people, of half slaves. I have never considered what to do, I have no idea. My hope is that what we do will help. Luis Quintana, Minister of Finance and Economy and Vice President of the Government, once gave me a 900-page book: the history of the Independence by the Count of Torreno. He wrote it in the 20s of the 19th century and it is still a reference. If I were to achieve half of the richness he included in his book, I would be absolutely glad. I can not to do other thing.
In Spain, history teachers have trouble finding suitable textbooks “ Paul preston
P.P.- I am possibly the only professor of History in my country who has gone from giving classes at all levels, from kindergarten to doctoral students. And in each age the teaching of history is different. What prevails is the national history, in the Franco regime a very rigid version of what the History of Spain had been was imposed. On the other hand, in the Anglo-Saxon systems the important thing was not the empirical content, but the acquisition of a thinking apparatus. If I gave classes on the Civil War, I constantly said that this was my reading, that they had to do their reading, and I recommended contradictory books to them. I think this works well at the university level, but if we go down levels we have to do it differently. In all Western languages, the word that defines history also defines the story, and to the little ones you can explain the history like a story. In the UK there were also projects to study the immediate, neighborhood or family environment. In 2010, when the conservatives returned to the government, they tried to impose a chronological history, that the Kings were studied chronologically. I pose a question: Why should a businessman employ a historian and not an economist? Because if the historian has been educated well, he has a capacity to analyze, to contrast opinions. If he has been educated well, the historian has a capacity to think, analyze and contrast opinions that is the basis for the success of many professions
My only hope is that what we do ends up serving for something “ Angel Viñas
Á.V.- Things are changing, but the idea of education in History to acquire skills has not been successful, except in Law, which is a discipline to solve problems.
P.P.- In Spain there are many good historians who have not obtained a position at the university, simply because they have not obtained a position, and they teach in institutes. Surely any of us could make a list of 20 or 30. They research, publish books and their work is commendable. I have a lot of contact with them and I have established a great network. We often talk about the problem they have in finding age-appropriate textbooks. It is a problem in Spain.