Karl Marx once said that all great historical events occur twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” And certainly tragedy is a fitting concept to describe the war that tore apart Spain between 1936 and 1939. Much has been written about this conflict, which mobilized many people around the world. It was perhaps the first ideological war that raged on the soil of Europe, an essay for what was to come a few years later. But it was also the culmination of many unresolved conflicts that had stirred political strife in Spain for the last decades, indeed centuries. Crucial amongst these conflicts was the definition of the State. Was Spain a single nation, an essential entity that could embrace the diverse cultures and regional particularities under a Castilian-speaking umbrella firmly held at the centre of the peninsula? Or rather, as many Catalans or Basques would claim, Spain was no more than the historical outcome of the long-standing struggle between different nations, which had achieved a unified, but unstable political shape under the supremacy of Castile?
The war, amongst other things, gave an answer to this critical question. Of course, it was not an answer reached through dialogue and rational arguments, but imposed by the bullets and the bombs. Spain was one, great and free. And that was all. The sacred unity of Spain, which had been one of the key tenets of the Nationalist front that raised against the Republic in July 1936, became the central dogma of the new State that was born out of the war. The truthful and essential Spain, guided by the providential hand of the caudillo, had won over the anti-Spain, a demonic coalition formed by the red and the separatists, supported by the Jews and the Masons. Today, it may seem the rant of a paranoid. But this was the discourse of victory that served to legitimize almost forty years of dictatorship and repression. The war, within that discourse, was both the justification of Franco’s rule and the necessary ordeal that allowed the new Spain to live in order and peace.
Indeed, this order and this peace amounted to the exclusion of a large part of the Spanish citizens from the official memory of the country, not to speak of the absence of political and other basic rights under the authoritarian regime. Having to deal with this reality, one of the main objectives of the democratic transition was the reconciliation of the Spaniards. Not just to create the conditions for a plural and democratic society, but also to avoid by all means the repetition of a conflict that almost everyone, except for the most extremist in both sides, did not consider any more as a Crusade or a Revolution, but as a human and collective tragedy. Thus, the memory of the war loomed over the entire democratic process and facilitated the negotiations and transactions that were necessary to achieve a consensual constitution. Amongst the most successful agreements of the so-called “constitutional pact” was the recognition of the national and regional plurality of Spain and the decentralization of the State, which has been reasonably efficient in channelling the conflicts over identity and territory through political means.
It was thus the fear of repetition that facilitated the consensus. All parties, even before the death of the dictator, agreed that there could be no transition to democracy if everyone did not renounce to their own partial memories, in order to embrace a common and forward-looking project. In this sense, the Spanish transition had much in common with the Athenian amnesty of 403 BC, issued after the defeat of the Oligarchy. “It is forbidden to recall the [past] evils,” says the decree quoted by Aristotle. In Spain too, amnesty was built on amnesia. But amnesia does not mean silence or absolute forgetfulness. As I said, much has been written and discussed during the last thirty years about the war and the dictatorship. All this, however, has been largely confined to the discourse of historiography and has not allowed the full recognition of the moral and material rights of the victims of the repression, which were overridden by the need to achieve reconciliation. In order for the new democracy to be born, the civil war had to be definitively closed.
It is within this context that the first democratic government decided in 1979 to create the section “Civil War” of the National Historical Archive. The funds of this archive, located in the Castilian city of Salamanca, had been previously stored by the National Delegation of Documentary Services, an official organism of the previous regime. Their origin, however, was much less presentable.
Most of those documents had been seized from Republican institutions and individuals by the Office of Investigation and Anticommunist Propaganda, created by General Franco in 1937. Just to give you an idea, about 140 tons of documents, packed in 12 train wagons had been sent to Salamanca only from Barcelona. During the decades following the war, these and other documents seized all over Spain were systematically exploited by the authorities as a valuable source of information to carry out their repression policies. Out of the 800 tons of documents gathered in Salamanca, three million records were opened; tens of thousands of people were investigated for their political activity before and during the war; many of them were imprisoned or executed.
This was the archive that the new democratic authorities transformed in 1979 into a scientific institution, which was later renamed the General Archive of the Civil War. By then, though, the struggle over the so-called Papers of Salamanca was already underway.
The conflict was prompted by the Catalan institutions, particularly the re-established Generalitat or Autonomous Government, which demanded the restitution of the seized documentation as soon as 1978. During the following years, there were many political initiatives and a continuous technical debate over this issue. However, the negotiations between the Catalan and the Spanish governments could not reach a satisfactory settlement until 1995, when the Socialist government agreed to return the documents to the Generalitat. However, the fierce reaction of the city of Salamanca and the right-wing Popular Party aborted this agreement and left the situation in a stand-still. During the eight years of Popular Party government, although the negotiations were pursued, the restitution was systematically blocked. It was not until the return of the Socialists to government in 2004 that the question could be reopened. After the report issued by a commission of experts on December, the Spanish Parliament, with the sole opposition of the Popular Party, decreed the restitution of all the documents that had been seized from the Generalitat. There were massive demonstrations organized by the Popular Party in Salamanca and the council of the city tried to block the removal of the files through legal and other more extravagant means, such as starting public works in front of the door of the archive. In spite of all these actions, on the early morning of January 19 2006, 500 boxes with documents were taken from the Archive in Salamanca and left the city inside two escorted vans. The papers were detained for two days in Madrid, at the instance of a judge. But finally, after a dramatic operation which was passionately followed by the press, the documents arrived in Barcelona, where a public exhibition had been organized and was attended by a large public.
You might wonder why 500 boxes of documents, which only historians and other experts might have an interest in reading, aroused such a popular interest, attracting flocks of angry demonstrators to the main square of Salamanca and similar flocks to the Catalan museums where they were exhibited. Apparently, the conflict, as described by the commission of experts in 2004, was between two contending interests. On the one hand, the right of the Generalitat to recover the documents that had been forcefully stolen from its archives by Franco’s armies. On the other, the public interest in maintaining a unified archive of the Civil War, where experts could continue to work, not just for scientific research, but also to recover the memory of the repression. These are indeed serious arguments, which were weighted by the experts, who recommended the restitution of the documents, after ensuring that a copy was kept in Salamanca. But these technical arguments can hardly explain the passionate struggle over those papers, which lasted for thirty years, with a fierce press battle, massive demonstrations, political rows in Parliament and the sense that two Spains were again confronting each other.
Of course, more than technical, the battle was political. It was not a struggle over a few boxes of documents, but over the notion of Spain. In this sense, it was a re-enactment, a repetition, in the farcical mode, of the tragic events of the Civil War. In the course of the conflict, the Archive became a proxy for Spain. Its unity was defended, not so much for technical reasons, but in the name of an essential idea of the nation. The claim of the Catalans to recover their documents was seen as just another attempt to break Spain apart. The old arguments about the so-called “Catalan problem” were heard once again, but this time applied to something apparently as neutral as an archive. The Catalans wanted their papers as they wanted their State. They were separating their papers from the common archive in the same way that they wanted to separate Catalonia from Spain. But according to the demonstrators in Salamanca, Spain was one. One nation, one State. One nation, one archive.
In the lecture he gave here in London in 1994, Jacques Derrida pointed out that archiving is a form of violence: “It is in [the] domiciliation, in the house arrest that archives take place.” “Arkhe,” he says, “names at once the commencement and the commandment” (9). And then he goes on to deconstruct Yerushalmi’s reading of Freud – what he calls an “archivization.” He “trembles,” he says, before the scholar’s attempt to demonstrate that psychoanalysis is a Jewish science and that Jewishness has an exclusive relationship to memory and hope, because he sees in his colleague’s archival effort the constitutional violence of the One and the Unique. “The gathering into itself of the One is never without violence,” he says, “nor is the self-affirmation of the Unique, the law of the archontic, the law of consignation which orders the archive. Consignation is never without that excessive pressure (impression, repression, suppression) of which repression (Verdrängung or Urverdrängung) and suppression (Unterdrückung) are at least figures” (50-51). And he adds: “As soon as there is the One, there is murder, wounding, traumatism” (51).
One nation, one archive. And so it goes. Because it is not only Jewish exclusivity that produces dread, but all forms of uniqueness and exclusion, particularly those pressed upon our own history by the idea of the nation and the essential claims that nationalisms have made, with words, but too often also with bullets and with bombs.
Thus, the case of the papers of Salamanca comes to show that the act of archiving is far from innocent. One does not just archive for technical reasons, but also as a way of fixing memory – in fact, as a way of forgetting. When the new democratic government in Spain decided to transform the files used in the repression into an archive of the Civil War, it was trying to close the war, both symbolically and literally. “There is no political power without control of the archive,” says Derrida, “if not of memory” (10, n.1). The archive is thus an attempt to enclose memory, to give it a place and a meaning. Unlike the living or collective memory, which is constantly flowing and changing, the archive is fixed, controllable, non-threatening. But it is also not assumed, suppressed, denied. Thus, more than an act of remembering, the act of archiving is an act of repression.
As Sigmund Freud explained, “the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious.” This is what the secluded and detached space of the archive means. Not just a deposit of memory, where the historian can retrieve the past, but a sort of Unconscious where the past may be kept at a distance. The problem is, as Freud remarked, that the repressed tends to emerge again and again, not as memory, but as repetition. Only working through the past, understanding it, assuming it, might we avoid the repetition of the repressed trauma. It is thus the task of the historian to leave the archive and the enclosed system of what Nietzsche called “antiquarian” historiography, in order to participate in that process of working through in which society as a whole should engage if the past is to be overcome. As Derrida says, “effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation.”
Unlike previous debates in Spanish society, the current discussion over the historical memory seems to be an effort in this direction. The attempt to restore the dignity of the victims of the repression; the removal of the remaining symbols and statues of Franco from streets and squares; or the digging up of silenced, but not wholly forgotten, mass graves, are indeed signs that Spaniards are engaged in a process of working through. Hopefully, this opening of the archive will mean that the war over the Papers of Salamanca ends up being just another forgotten farce, and not one of those satiric dramas that the Greeks watched between two tragedies.
Derrida, J. “Archive Fever: a Freudian Impression”, in Diacritics, vol. 25:2, summer 1995.
Freud, S. “Repression”, in On Metapsychology. London: Penguin, 1991.
Marx, K. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Montana: Kessinger, 2004.
Nietzsche, F. On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. Montana: Kessinger, 2004.
Ricoeur, P. Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.