Last week the Supreme Court of Madrid ruled that the monument to the International Brigades, the foreign volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight the Francoist forces during the Spanish Civil War, should be removed from the campus of the Complutense University. This sparked protest, including an Early Day Motion signed by 8 Labour MPs on 6 June.

Memorial_de_las_Brigadas_Internacionales_en_la_Ciudad_Universitaria,_Madrid_(España)This debate raises important questions about public history. How should the past be reflected in the streets of towns and cities today? What role should politicians play in shaping a vision of the past through public spaces?

There is a long history in Spain of the stamping of public space with figures and events plucked from history in accordance with contemporary attitudes and political projects. Street names were changed both spontaneously and by the authorities during the Second Republic (1931-1936) to reflect the values of the new regime, followed by a counter-revolution carried out by the Francoist dictatorship. More recently, the conservative Popular Party-led council in Madrid decided to name a street after Margaret Thatcher.

This ruling is part of a wider attempt to reverse initiatives from the last decade which had contributed to debate about how to deal with the legacy of the Civil War and Francoist Dictatorship (1939-1975).[1]

‘Historical Memory’ projects have been a target for cuts, with all government funding removed. The government has also opted to leave Franco’s remains in the Valley of Fallen, the gigantic mausoleum and monument to the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War, despite the conclusions reached by a committee of experts who called for the exhumation of Franco’s body and its removal from the site. Baltasar Garzón, the judge who became famous internationally for investigating Pinochet, was prevented from investigating crimes against humanity from the Francoist regime last year. Earlier this year, the city council of Oviedo decided to re-erect the statue of Teijeiro, a Francoist Lieutenant Coronel who ‘liberated’ the city from the besieging forces loyal to the Second Republic during the Civil War.

There are difficult questions to be asked about the role of the past in present public space. Living in a period in which efforts are made to save buildings from destruction as far as possible, what should be done to those monuments constructed by the Francois regime which arguably glorify a dark, dictatorial past? Should public space reflect contemporary values or should symbols remain as a reminder of the past, such as with Auschwitz?

Claims that the past has been overcome and wounds have healed when the Civil War and Dictatorship are discussed only serve to highlight the absence of official consensus about Spain’s traumatic past. Meanwhile, it is local authorities and organisations who battle to reflect their vision of the past on public space. The removal of the monument to the International Brigades will not erase the history of their fight against Francoism, but it does show a clear attempt to restrict certain visions of the past. Demolishing statues and changing street names does not change history, but it does influence how the past is viewed from the present.

Matthew Kerry is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield working on political identities in northern Spain in the 1930s.

[1] Over the last ten years grassroots organisations have been working to exhume the bodies of those killed from common graves in fields and at the side of roads, while in 2007 the ‘Law of Historical Memory’ included provisions for the removal of symbols from the dictatorship from public places, despite accusations of reopening old wounds. Such developments were envisaged as a just and necessary reparation for the dead by many, while others saw this is as opening up the healed wounds of Spain’s past and as a way of retrospectively winning the Civil War.

Tags : historyinternational brigadesMadrid monumentspoliticspublic spaceSpain
Matthew Kerry

The author Matthew Kerry


  1. Congratulations on a great article. After 25 years of living in Catalonia (or Spain depending who you listen to), I see you are right – the debate on what to do with monuments/street signs/symbols etc reflecting the recent past, is wide open. In Tortosa, where I live, for example, we have a huge (15 m high?) monument in the middle of the river Ebro celebrating Franco’s victory and his troops. Various arguments are made to maintain this kind of symbology, such as the fact that now it serves us as a reminder of the tragic past – such as the example you mention of Auschwitz. However, I’d say it’s quite different. The concentration camps were built and used for horrific reasons, and their existence today can educate us as to just how evil Nazism was. But, if the dictator Franco decided in “peace-time” (i.e. the 40 years of dictatorship, which can hardly be described as peace), to change street names or put up monuments, I believe that their continued existence only serves as a reminder that a lot of people (more than we like to think) actually agreed with Franco’s uprising, and the PP, conservative party was born of the embers of Franco’s government and regularly pulls in 10 million votes. A huge amount of these voters, and elected officials sees nothing wrong in celebrating Franco’s victory.

    I believe the transition to democracy post-Franco was never fully achieved, leaving lots of things unsaid and many doors unclosed, and Spain has a long way to go to become a 21st century modern democracy.
    Just a few weeks ago the Spanish civil governer in Catalonia, a high-ranking official, awarded a diploma to retired officials commemorating the participation of Spaniards in the Blue Division – volunteers who left Spain to fight for Hitler in WW2. When criticised on this, they defended the decision by saying it was just the same as recognising the historical fight of the International Brigades. This is where I begger to differ – there is a big difference, between fighting for Nazism and fighting for democracy and we cannot say, “for historical balance” that what’s done is done and all must be remembered in the same way.

    Hence, my anger at Madrid’s decision to remove the International Brigade monument on a feeble legal excuse. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Spanish republic, the fact is that the IB came here to fight for a democratically elected government, struggling against a coup d’etât, which through Franco’s incompetence or tactical genius became a civil war.

    Regardless of what happens to the public memories of Franco and fascism, a monument for democracy must surely offend no one!

  2. Thanks a lot for the response – I’m glad you enjoyed it. With the blogpost I was trying to highlight the issues and raise the questions. Now in the light of your own response, I’ll give my own personal opinion – and it seems to me that we agree for the most part.
    I believe the problem is one of a lack of consensus over the past and the consequent meaning of these monuments – they are still monuments to the Francoist victory and not reminders of the horrors of what Paul Preston recently termed the ‘Spanish holocaust’. The (disgraceful) actions of the delegada del gobierno in Catalunya with regards to the División Azul is symptomatic of this lack of consensus and the continued political use of the past, in my opinion. This is what I think the committee of experts who were trying to work out what to do with the Valle de los Caídos were trying to grapple with: how can you attempt to de-politicise the monument and re-inscribe it with a new meaning which is not that of the glorification of the Francoist victory? Their solution was to recommend moving Franco’s remains and turn it into a site of reconciliation. Difficult to achieve, I think, in the current context, but it’s important that there is debate about the way forward (and I share your opinion of the transition. Though I understand what was done in the 1970s, and I think one of the problems is the negation by some to re-open the debate with regards to these questions).
    I’m against removing the IB monument (especially given how small and unobtrusive as it is). I find it frustrating that there is a perception that the projects and movements around the idea of recovering memoria histórica are dismissed by some as trying to rewrite history as the retrospective ‘victory of the Republic’ or of digging up a past which is best left buried.

    The example of Auschwitz probably needs more explaining and perhaps I should have clarified this in the blogpost. Evidently it’s a completely different monument to the one in Tortosa, the Valle de los Caídos, the multiple equestrian statues of Franco… and what I was trying to highlight was the problem of what we do with the monuments if we remove them. I think the era in which we live in now places great emphasis (though not evenly) on the preservation of monuments (World Heritage Sites, museums, etc) and so what I’m asking is whether these monuments should be destroyed. In my opinion this would be a mistake – they form part of history and I’d like to think that at some point they could be displayed, when they have been re-inscribed with a meaning of horror and not of the glorification of the Francoist victory.

    Fundamentally, then, I suppose it comes down to history being a political matter in which the polarised nature of a largely two party system means that it largely turns into a political football. In Asturias, the area I study, the difference between the more conservative provincial capital of Oviedo (which until very recently had a División Azul street, continues to have a plaque with Franco’s face on it and recently re-installed a monument to Teijeiro – the Francoist ‘liberator’ of Oviedo during the Civil War) and the traditional leftwing strongholds of the mining valleys could not be more obvious. Incidentally, the Foro por la Memoria keeps a list of Francoist symbols from around Spain which still survive.

    Finally, I’d like to highlight the town of Belchite in Aragón as fascinating place in the context of all these issues (if you haven’t been, I’d fully recommend going). Destroyed in a battle during the Civil War it was left by Franco as a monument to the destruction wrought by the Republican side while a new town was built next to it. Old Belchite continues to slowly fall to pieces and demonstrates, I think, the inability for the current regime to work out its relationship to the past. Anyway, I think I’d better stop there, as otherwise I’ll keep rambling on, and again, thanks for the comments.

  3. Thank you so much for offering your opinions and expanding on some ideas – I’m really fascinated by this topic. Though not an expert (far from it), I form part of a social group who actually campaigned, unsuccessfully, for the removal of the monument in Tortosa. We brought the itinerant exhibition on Franco-ist symbology, prepared by Catalan govt’s Memoria Historica dept, to two nearby towns in 2011. But, “strangely” we never got any public backing to organise it in Tortosa or even show it in a private exhibition room!
    Don’t worry, I understand perfectly what you are explaining with the Auschwitz example – just what should we do with all this? Personally, on cases like the monuments etc, I’d remove them from public spaces and place them in relevant museums (in Tortosa we’d need a pretty big room!) where they could be properly explained rather than serving merely as a back-drop for sightseers’ photos.
    After posting my opinion the other day, I later regretted that maybe in my haste I’d given the idea that right-wing voters and politicians would probably agree with Franco and his dictatorship. However, 2 days of thought later and I’m afraid it is probably like this. A minority, I hope, but a noisy one – you’d be surprised by some comments I have heard from friends and acquaintances regarding this.
    From the little I know of Spanish history, I think it was an extremely divided country before Franco, and this was probably made worse during Franco’s rule, and has carried on to this day. There is no attempt by either “side” to work out how to overcome these divisions. I would like to believe that in another country, eg UK, all parties would work together on something like this, how to deal with the horror of their past, rather than changing policy every time a different party gets into power.
    Back to the question in hand; I know the history we are taught is subjective but I would like to believe also that certain facts are scientifically demonstrable such as the fact that the IB fought for democracy. However, I appreciate that this is not going to help the unifying of criteria I have just asked for, as many still think in terms of “better dead than red” and think those poor guys who lost their lives here were actually trying to impose a Stalinist dictatorship here.
    As promised (in a tweet!), when I get chance I’ll mail you a little information on the strange-looking and imposing monument we have in Tortosa.

  4. I was in Madrid and present at the ceremony last Saturday. Yes, history does matter. I would like to bring to your attention my historical novel about the life of William the Conqueror from his rise to power until the Battle of Hastings. If you are interested it can be found on my web site:www.1066TheConquest or at Waterstones or Amazon.
    Kind regards
    Peter Fieldman

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