Europe this week marks a momentous anniversary:
70 years ago, Spanish generals rose in a revolt that led to three years
of civil war and ultimately the defeat of the elected republican
government and the establishment of a fascist dictatorship under
Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

The
Spanish Civil War polarised opinion worldwide. The Spanish fascists
were backed by Hitler and Mussolini, and also by the conservative
establishment across much of the western world (Australia’s own BA
Santamaria first came to prominence as a supporter of Franco). The
republicans were supported by leftists and democrats of various
stripes, but also by Stalin’s Soviet Union, which sent some military
aid and organised volunteer brigades from around the world to fight in
Spain.

It remains divisive today. A poll for Spain’s El Mundo this week found that 30% of Spaniards
still believe Franco’s revolt was justified, including fully half of
those who vote for the centre-right opposition. Although the
restoration of democracy in Spain was based on a tacit agreement to
forget the past, the current government has taken steps
to revive discussion of the war and rehabilitate the victims of
Franco’s rule. As one activist said, “it’s like a psychoanalysis
because we have to talk about our past to be a healthy society”.

It’s
a discussion that could usefully be repeated in other countries,
because there are lessons for both sides of politics from the Spanish
experience. The left needs to remember that in an important sense it’s
not “the economy, stupid”; what really fires people’s loyalties, what
they will fight and die for, is something much deeper. Democracy,
progress, secularism, the masses versus the elite – these were the
ideals of the left in Spain, and no party can claim to be on the left
if it abandons them.

The
right in turn has to question why so
many of its leaders were able to embrace fascism, just as in more
recent times they have supported right-wing dictatorships across the
world. If today they wonder why so many people are sceptical, for
example, of George W Bush’s claims to be spreading democracy in the
Middle East, they should look at their own history, and consider
whether the demon of fascism has yet been completely exorcised.

Peter Fray

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