Lapses of historical education: Spain edition

To readers of this blog, when you think of controversy over history education you may very well think of Japan first. The teaching of history in Japan has been a huge issue in recent years, with a certain infamous textbook even sparking protests in China and South Korea, but even as dismal as Japan’s teaching of certain dark aspects of their Imperial past can be, some other countries have it far worse.

According to the BBC:

But despite the importance of this Civil War, one survey shows that 50% of Spaniards have not talked about it at home. And 35% say they were never taught what happened in 1936, at school.

This amnesia has been actively encouraged at a political level.

Thirty years ago, Spain’s emerging new democracy felt so threatened by the ghosts of the Civil War and the recently defunct Franco regime that there was a ‘Pact of Silence’ between the left and the right of politics not to raise the issue or seek reparations for crimes committed by the dictatorship.

I find it somewhat mind-boggling that history classes in Spain have actually managed to keep the Spanish Civil War off the curriculum for so many years. What did they even talk about instead?

But Spain realizes that history can only be ignored for so long, and on the 70th anniversary of the rise of Spanish fascism they are preparing to address the past publicly for the first time.

The legislation will provide compensation for those who suffered under the dictatorship and is also expected to makes changes to General Franco’s most imposing legacy: The Valley of the Fallen, the former leader’s colossal burial chamber on the outskirts of the capital.

One suggestion is to convert part of the monument into an education centre about fascism. And, for the first time, the local authorities are expected to have guidelines to help people locate the bodies of family members, still missing, who were murdered during the Franco regime.

The government says its Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory is not about rewriting history, or making people responsible for crimes of the past. But for many Spaniards it represents a new willingness to examine the truth about their history.

The part about “not rewriting history” makes me wonder, is actually altering Franco’s monument a good idea? Despite all of the atrocities that he was responsible for, are the interested of a more accurate actually history served by altering a well known monument, or would it be better to leave it alone and simply build a new one?

I think of Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall. Built in the style of China’s Ming Imperial Tombs (which I think gives a fairly accurate hint as to Chiang’s aspirations) shortly after his death in 1975, this admittedly very attractive complex is dedicated to the memory of a man who’s name peppers the names of streets and schools in Taiwan as much as “The People’s” whatever does in the Mainland-a man who ruled Taiwan for decades with a brutality comparable to that of Franco’s, and whose policies were according to some responsible for the ROC loss of the Chinese Civil War, and later ROC/Taiwan’s UNSC seat.

After military rule ended and Taiwan democratized, what did they do with the memorial? Well, they kept it basically the same. Chiang is still deeply respected by much of the population, particularly supports of his former ruling party, and much like Spain (up until now) there has never been a truth commission, and the former dictator’s official public image may be tarnished, but hardly criticized on the level of Spain’s former-dictator. The memorial is given a military honor guard, still filled with memorabilia of his life, and and I believe still has text claiming that he was responsible for fostering Taiwanese democracy in the 40’s and 50’s (although I could be mixing it up with text I saw at his former house up on Yangmingshan- but more likely both have similar text.)

On the other hand, the lower level of the CKS Memorial Hall is used for a host of general cultural events, such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration and a children’s science fair (two examples I saw myself) and the grounds are used at least weekly for various performances and festivals. While these activities do not exactly undermine it as a memorial, they do subtly alter the perception of the memorial itself by creating an image of the area as a public space devoted to positive activities, and somewhat weakening its role simply as a place of veneration for a political figure. This could be seen as reflecting to a degree the way in which nationalism in Taiwan has itself shifted away from being so linked with political figures and the Nationalist Party to a popular nationalism today more based on an independent culture and political system. By filling the Memorial CKS Hall with unrelated cultural events, it comes to be thought of more as a convenient performance space than a political symbol.

Compare General Chiang Kai Shek in Taiwan with General Francisco Franco. According to Wikipedia:

Since Franco’s death, almost all the placenames named after him (most Spanish towns had a calle del GeneralĂ­simo) have been changed. This holds particularly true in the regions ruled by parties heir to the Republican side, while in other regions of central Spain rulers have preferred not to change such placenames, arguing they would rather not stir the past. Most statues or monuments of him have also been removed, and, in the capital, Madrid, the last one standing was removed in March 2005.

Will Spain follow up by also altering the Valley of the Fallen? Will the government pay restitution to victims? How will they teach the Civil War-just flip it around and focus on all the bad things Franco and the Nationalists did, or explore the divisions in society that led to the conflict? Choosing a balanced approach to the teaching of history is always difficult, and in conflicts like this one which are particularly bitter there is a tendency towards propaganda in favor of whichever side is in power. According to the Guardian News Blog, a survey conducted by a Spanish newspaper says that one in three Spaniards still believes that Franco was right to overthrow the Republican government. Finding a historical narrative that can satisfy the two-thirds and the one-third is going to be difficult.

5 thoughts on “Lapses of historical education: Spain edition”

  1. Interesting comparison. However, i think you’re overstating the case on Taiwan a little bit:
    “Chiang is still deeply respected by much of the population”
    Deeply? No. By much of the population? No. You’re right though that he is respected by some of the population. However, the vast majority:
    a) Dislike him, but it’s all in the past so want to forget, or
    b) Couldn’t care less (it’s history, so who cares?) [This is probably the largest group] or
    c) Hate him and would like his name/image/etc. removed from wherever.

    Any one of those three groups would probably outnumber the ‘respect him’ group. Of course, an inmportant point is that Chiang’s KMT party has never lost control of the parliament – which goes some way to explain the lack of any “Truth commission”.

    On a more general point – there are fierce discussions on how history should be taught in Taiwan – but it’s heavily politicized.

  2. OK, maybe “some” would have been a better word choice than “much.” I think there are also plenty of people who are conflicted about him-hate him for some things, respect him for others, and can’t quite decide how his legacy should be treated. That is, if they even think about it at all.

    You are certainly right that the teaching of history in Taiwan is heavily politicized, but that’s something to get into another time. Largely because my Chinese still sucks too much to actually read a textbook.

  3. Any rational review of the Spanish Civil War will convince most observers that Franco was the lesser of two evils, however passionate the protagonists on both sides were. George Orwell’s “Homage to Calalonia” pains the picture of the internal strife among those on the Republican side very well. As a professor of mine, a former major in the Republican Army, once commented. Spain’s middle class (within Republican controlled areas) did not become Communists because they wanted to see revolution, but rather because they feared the pogroms of the other far left parties, particularly the Anarchists.

    A point should be made between Franco and Chiang as military commanders. When Franco’s forces took control of an area, the able bodied males of military age had two choices, join Franco’s forces, or risk being shot. As regarded the sons of the middle and upper classes, there was no exemption. There, your choice was between carrying a rifle as a line infantryman, or becoming an officer. Franco set up 90 day courses to train lieutenants for his army, which kept expanding as he moved into new areas. The combat leadership provided by these new lieutenants is what carried the Nationalists to victory. My understanding of the Chinese Civil War is that the sons of the “better” classes were often exempted from military service. Perhaps someone here can correct or confirm this. Certainly Chiang’s control of the Chinese Nationalist Army, which still suffered from vestiges of war-lordism, was never as solid as was Franco’s hold over his own troops. But then, whatever Franco’s faults, he had earned his spurs as a competent combat commander.

  4. Lirelou, I am starting to think that I really must need Orwell’s writing about the Spanish Civil War, because I just don’t know enough about it to say anything more.

    Certainly the Nationalist side in the Chinese Civil War was heavily tainted by warlordism, but I don’t think that had too much of an effect on the KMT government of Taiwan. After all, they ruled as a strong one party military dictatorship, with no competing armies or significant political groups.

    As for your question, considering how corrupt the public reputation of the KMT/ROC government in China was during the period of the civil war, I think it is pretty certain that many rich sons were able to buy their way out of the draft. I’m not sure however if they were, as you said, “exempted” or simply bought their way out.

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