Should historians try to change the world? Can we make a difference with our research? Do we want our work to be relevant in our society? How do historians pick their research topics? Why didn’t I choose I different profession?
These are questions that haunted me as I was struggling through my undergrad years in Spain. When I decided to apply to enter into a PhD program I thought that I had to do something. I came to believe while studying Public History at Loyola University Chicago that historians (without qualifying adjectives) must find a research topic that they are passionate about but that, at the same time, serves a higher purpose than a merely academic one, e.g. collecting dust in a forgotten shelf.
In 1975, Francisco Franco Bahamonde, dictator of Spain and victor of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), died after a long and painful illness. His death prompted a period of reforms within the regime that crystallized in the dissolution of its fascist institutions, and the call for democratic elections for the first time in forty-one years. In 1978, Spaniards ratified a new constitution, and their political representatives, from both sides of the ideological spectrum, agreed to build the new democracy not on the ashes of the forty-year old war but on the consensus that dismantled the dictatorship.
However, things didn’t run as smoothly as planned.
I grew up in Spain when this democratic project was firmly established. Two parties became hegemonic pretty quickly, the traditional “right”and “left.” They still coexist as both parties control most of the local, regional, and state institutions. Furthermore, Spain entered NATO in 1982, and the European Community in 1986. Most people in Spain didn’t want to remember the Spanish recent past.
Despite this appearance of normality, voices in the sometimes called progressive intellectualism demanded a revision of the political consensus. These groups advocated for the prosecution of war criminals as well as regime’s officials that participated in the repression during the dictatorship. The idea of punishing veterans of war wasn’t exclusive of socialists, communists, and anarchists. Indeed, former judge Baltasar Garzon, internationally known because of his prosecution of Augusto Pinochet, and more recently for being part of the defense team that represents Julian Assange, refused to investigate the genocide claims against communist leader Santiago Carrillo in 1998. He based his ruling on the 1976 and 1977 amnesty laws.
In the 2000s, mass graves began to be dug up at the initiative of individuals and associations for the “historic memory.” These unmarked burials had been purposely left out during the dictatorship, as they contained the remains of “rojos” summarily executed by Franco’s troops and sympathizers. The relatives of these victims had waited sixty-five years (and in many cases still waiting today) to find closure, to cope with grief, and to reunite with their loved ones.
These popular movements that remember the tragedy of the war in its most physical reality facilitated new legislation. The “Ley de Memoria Historica” of 2007 allocated funds for the exhumation and identification of remains, the removal of symbols related to the dictatorship from public spaces, and the creation of a national database of mass graves and victims.
One could think that the Spanish people were coming to terms with the dictatorship and the trauma of the war. Not a very surprising thing, this statement is far from being true.
I understand that Spain went through a tremendous traumatic experience. There were victims and there were perpetrators. Some of the perpetrators happened to win the war, and instituted a regime of terror. With democracy, politicians didn’t pay attention to the urgent need for reconciliation but rather to gain control of the state apparatus for their own benefit. Decades later, unmarked graves continue to exist while Manichean discourses flourish. If Franco was successful in discrediting the vanquished army, dehumanizing the dead and their families, and destroying every opportunity for forgiveness and acceptance, democratic Spain hasn’t done better as feelings of retribution and vengeance plague the media today.
How can Spaniards recognize the suffering of all the victims of the war as well as the dictatorship, despite of ideologies and political affiliations? My research is oriented to explore how specific sites of memory could help to tell this story through multiple voices, fostering discussion and facilitating mechanisms to overcome the still painful reality of survivors and victims’ relatives. Sites of memory such as Constitution Hill, in South Africa, would be a good example to follow in Spain.
In order to reach out to a larger audience, my intention is to work along new technologies’ specialists to develop applications that could be used in portable devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Spain needs to talk about the war and the dictatorship, and we need adequate forums to do so. To maintain these sites even heritage tourism represents an alternative due to the lack of public funding.
Historians in Spain have not necessarily walked out of this fight for memory, but their voices have not been loud enough or they have followed the ideological trap of alienating the record.
Will I make the difference? I am not trying to win prizes or recognition but rather spark interest and debate, and in that sense, I sure hope so. Can I influence my fellow country men and women for the better? Who am I to do so anyway? In my mind, historians should throw out of the window the idea of experts as the right to teach and rule over those who aren’t. We need to view ourselves rather as facilitators, advocates, and mediators.