On 28 March 1939 the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco marched into Madrid, two-and-a-half years after the siege of the city began. Four days later the Spanish Civil War was officially over, marked by Franco’s triumphal radio communiqué: ‘Today, after having disarmed and captured the Red Army, the Nationalist troops have secured their final military objective. The war is ended. Burgos, April 1, 1939. Year of Victory.’
75 years later the University of Sheffield is marking this date with a conference dedicated to current academic study on the Civil War and its legacy and we were surprised to learn that ours is one of the very few events which will mark this anniversary.
This surprise was perhaps provoked by being based in Britain in 2014. In contrast to the preparations in Britain for the centenary of the First World War (in which Spain did not participate) there is a near absence of public commemoration of the end of the Civil War in Spain. Aside from a large academic conference in Madrid, it is hard to find examples of anything related to the Civil War in Spain which is comparable to the amount of time, efforts and words that are now dedicated to the period 1914-18 in Britain.
There was slightly more interest in Spain on the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in 2011, an anniversary perhaps more comparable to the centenary of 1914 in Britain. Yet commemoration of the beginning of wars seems unusual. In Britain we are accustomed to the annual marking of Armistice Day on 11 November, a day each year when we are called, as a nation, to reflect upon the First World War through a settled discourse of loss and remembrance. The outbreak of war on 28 July 1914 appears to have a far more contested meaning, brought about by the uncertainty about what it is that we are commemorating on this date. For many – ‘commemoration fatigue’ aside – 11 November 2018 will seem like a far more natural centenary to mark.
In Spain it appears that the opposite is true. Looking to the outbreak of the Civil War as explosion of conflict and tragedy sidesteps the need to approach the war and its aftermath. There seems little to commemorate in the protracted, messy and bloody final collapse of the Spanish Republic and the brutal Francoist ‘justice’ of concentration camps, execution, torture and exile which followed the Nationalists’ advance through Republican territory from 1936 onwards.
This has the potential to leave a sense of absence: there are no museums, little in the way of memorials, no dates comparable to 11 November in which Spain as a whole can reflect upon its past. To do so would provide an official ‘meaning’ to the conflict which remains contested on a national level.
What did we want to achieve by placing our conference on this date? We have used it as a means of bringing together some of those who study the countless avenues of scholarly interest in the Civil War, to draw in those who had perhaps not thought about the Civil War before, and to encourage those familiar with the conflict to explore what they know from a different perspective. Tomorrow’s event will bring together scholars of Spanish history, culture, music, archaeology and politics, all of whom have their own approach to the conflict: from shattered buildings to evacuees, radical sexual reformers and conscription, exile, mausoleums and memory. The intention is not to provide a ‘settled’ or ‘true’ account of the Civil War but rather to draw out its complexities and address the contestation that remains over its legacy.
Perhaps this is the most fitting commemoration of the Civil War that we, as academics and researchers of modern Spain, are able to provide, 75 years on from the fall of Madrid.
James Yeoman is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on his thesis, which focuses on anarchist print culture in Spain from 1890-1915.
The conference 75 Years Since the Spanish Civil War: Perspectives from the 21st Century takes place on 28 March 2014, University of Sheffield, Jessop West Exhibition Space, 9:00-18:00. Accompanying the conference will be a poster exhibition on PGR research on Modern Spain (Jessop West Foyer, 24-28 March) and a video exhibition, ‘Women’s Voices from Franco’s Prisons,’ (Jessop West Exhibition Space, 26-28 March). This event has been organised by four PhD students at the University of Sheffield: Ángela Lavilla Cañedo, Ruth Littlewood (Hispanic Studies), Matthew Kerry and James Yeoman (History).
Image: Nationalist troops arrive in Madrid, 1939. ©Teresa Avellanosa via Flickr