WHAT IS THE POINT OF COMMEMORATIONS?

Diarmuid Breatnach

Summary: Fascism is mobilising across many parts of the world including the very Spanish state where it caused a war through a military-fascist coup and brought in four decades of a fascist dictatorship. The main point of commemorations of the anti-fascist resistance and of the International Brigades should be of raising the alarm and mobilising resistance anew. Why in some instances is this not happening?

What is the point of commemorations of the International Brigades? Or of the ‘Spanish Civil War’? Yes of course I believe these things should be commemorated but I still want to know what the point is.

I would think that most people would agree with two reasons:

  1. To remind us never to let fascism take over again

  2. To honour the memory of those who fought it, many who sacrificed their lives or their liberty or their health in the struggle against fascism.

I believe there is a third important reason though perhaps most people wouldn’t put it up there right away, though I doubt they’d disagree with it:

  1. To learn from the successes and mistakes of the past.

How is it then that one can go to an event to celebrate the the Irish International Brigaders but at the same time not hear a mention once in a number of hours about the mobilisation of fascist forces in Europe? How is it one cannot hear even a passing reference to the fascist forces that are stridently mobilising within the very Spanish state, at this moment? How is it that there is no mention of the Irish State bringing antifascists before the courts now for allegedly taking part in actions against the intended launch of the fascist Pegida organisation in February 2012?

Sure, we can all forget some very important point in a speech, forget to name somebody who should get a mention, etc. But all throughout the evening? And no placards or posters to challenge the rising fascism of today? That cannot be just a slip. Were it amnesia, it would be bad enough but if a tacit or tactical agreement not to remind us that would be worse, much worse.

Bob Doyle, the last of the Irish Brigaders to die, who is often mentioned at such events, would not have had it that way. In his nineties, I heard him speak a couple of times and he was always clear that the main point is to stop the fascists today. Frank Ryan, who regularly gets references at commemorative events (often without anyone mentioning he was IRA before he went out, as were many of the other Irish Brigadistas), would have agreed with Doyle, I’m sure.

TODAY FASCISM IS RISING IN THE SPANISH STATE – but then, it never went away.

          In the very territory where what is usually called the Spanish Civil War and less frequently the Spanish War Against Fascism (and other things)1 took place, Spanish fascists are openly organising, marching, threatening right now. A few weeks ago they were commemorating the dictator General Franco and Primo Rivera, founder of the Spanish fascist organisation, La Falange. Earlier in November they were provoking Catalans by having a rally in Barcelona. A little earlier still, they were provoking Basques by rallying in Altsasu, the town from which Basque youth got jail sentences of up to thirteen years arising out of a late-night pub brawl with off-duty Spanish policemen who provocatively went into an independentist bar and in which the most serious injury (if it was an actual result) was a damaged police ankle.2

Fascist organisation Falange women guard of honour for commemoration of the fascist founder of the Falange, Primo Rivera (Photo source: Internet)

All that would be bad enough if it were not that the Spanish State is actively tolerating them. Throwing fascist salutes, flying the Spanish fascist flag and shouting fascist slogans are all illegal under Spanish law; but the fascists brazenly do all these things and they do not get arrested!.

Fascist salutes and symbols at a recent fascist commemoration in Madrid (Photo source: Internet)

Of course, fascism was never defeated in the Spanish state. Fascism won there. We can shout “No Pasarán” (‘they shall not pass), the slogan for the defence of Madrid3 as much as we like but sadly, eventually sí pasaron (‘they did pass’), despite the enormous sacrifices of Castillians, Asturians, Andalucians, Basques, Asturians, Catalans and other peoples there, despite the bright internationalist spirit of the International Brigaders from well over 60 nations and states. And the victorious fascists tortured, shot, raped, humiliated, confiscated and stole food, valuables, businesses, imprisoned and half-starved the vanquished. And exported prisoners and jews to Nazi concentration camps.

Then the fascist regime consolidated their power, converting the schools to places of instruction in fascist and religious indoctrination, re-imposed a patriarchal ideology and ‘morality’ on girls and women, repressed languages other than Castillian, banned all trade unions except the fascist one, beat up and shot strikers and demonstrators, tortured independentist activists, shot some dead …. All of this went on for 40 years under General Franco.

During the first decade of that fascist reign of terror in the Spanish state, Fascism at first trampled over western and eastern Europe, North Africa, Asia …. until the tide began to turn, first in Eastern Europe and then in Asia and at last the fascist powers were defeated. Fascist leaders faced popular vengeance and Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals, executions and prison sentences. The societies they had sprung from were subjected to anti-fascist education. A great many of the guilty escaped but some were hunted down in following years.

During World War II on the other hand, Spanish fascism gave material and intelligence aid to the German and Italian fascist states and cooperated in hunts for the “French” (i.e Basque, Asturian, Catalan, Occitan and some Spanish anti-Nazi resistance, the maquis or maquisards4along the French-Spanish Border. It also sent back to the Nazis escaped prisoners, Jews and downed Allied airmen.

After the War, nothing happened to Spanish fascism (except that it sheltered hundreds of Nazi war-criminals, either permanently or on their way to South America, often with Vatican help). Fascism continued unimpeded in the Spanish state until ETA assassinated Carerro Blanco, Franco’s nominated successor and Franco himself died5 two years later.

Under internal pressure from Opus Dei and externally by European powers and especially by the USA, it was decided to modernise and rebrand the State6. The social democratic PSOE and its affiliated trade union the UGT were legalised under conditions and so were the Communist Party of Spain and its union, the Comisiones Obreras7. The conditions were that these would control their supporters (hence the trade unions) while the Transition was being carried through with repression; although republicans all, they would agree to the reimposition of a monarchy; that they – God forbid! — not go hunting fascists if they ever got into government; that they support the inviolability of the Spanish state union. The PSOE and the CPE agreed to the conditions and delivered, the latter even swallowing the fascist murder of five of its trade union lawyer members and serious injury to another four during the Transition and the PSOE swallowing the attack on the offices of the CGT.

The Transition took place in an atmosphere of hope and fear, repression against resistance: the new Spanish unionist and monarchical constitution was voted in, with regional autonomy to placate subjugated historical nations within the state; the new King, Juan Carlos de Borbón was installed. Ten years later, the Spanish State was admitted to the European Union8. That same year, the new Spanish Government under the PSOE was conducting fascist-police-military assassination squads against left-wing Basque independence activists9.

But all throughout those years and still, the fascists kept their plundered wealth. The fascist clergy, judges, civil servants, police, military and media all kept their positions and wealth. They just had to open up their ranks a little to let in the climbing social democrats and “communists”. Not one fascist was tried for any of the crimes carried out during the “Civil War” or during the Franco regime afterwards.

WHY THE FASCISTS ARE COMING BACK (but then, they never went away)

          Two things are exercising the Spanish fascists at the moment. First among these is the long struggle of the Spanish State to hold on to its forced union of the nations and regions conquered by monarchs of the Royal Houses of Spain and by fascist dictators, then maintained by both the mainstream constitutional political parties, the PP an the PSOE.

As a combination of factors combined with State repression to halt and disintegrate the southern Basque march towards independence, Catalonia took up its own struggle10. The independence movement there, which has left, right and centre elements but at base is popular and democratic and with wide support, has been steadily advancing. At institutional level, the ‘autonomous’ Catalan Government is a coalition of pro-independence forces (but with a numerous, strong, right-wing and Spanish-unionist opposition) and the majority of town councils have pro-independence majorities and Town Mayors. At grassroots level, the cultural organisation Omnium and especially the ANC (National Catalan Assembly) have organised massive independence demonstrations, a referendum on independence (disrupted with violence by the Spanish police11) and a protest General Strike. Some of the movement’s social and political leaders are in jail (four on hunger strike as this is published) and about to go on trial for their activism.

The union of the Spanish state is an article of faith for the Spanish fascists and reflected in the Spanish fascist slogan of España, Una, Grande y Libre!12 The “Una” is the forced unity, the denial of independence to the Basques and Catalans (or any others who might consider going for it).

But it is not only an article of faith for the fascists in the Spanish state, it also the case with regard to the Spanish ruling class. Catalonia and the southern Basque Country are two of the best-performing economic areas in the Spanish state and together account for a substantial part of the State’s exports and revenues, apart from land mass and extent of coast. Furthermore, the successful exit of these two regions would undoubtedly encourage similar plans among others, such as Valencia and the Balearic islands (which are also Catalan-speaking) and the Celtic nations of Galicia and Asturias. Uprisings might be the result in impoverished Andalucia and Extremadura …. None of that is a scenario which the Spanish ruling class is inclined to even consider and it has its Constitution to depend on, with legal punishment for any secession without a majority vote in its Parliament and the ultimate guarantor in the Spanish Armed forces.

All this is bad enough but a substantial section of the Spanish Left is also against any secession from Spanish State territory. The PSOE of course (which also means the UGT), since it takes its turn as the government of the Spanish ruling class, is one opponent but also the Spanish Communist Party (and the Comisiones union), much of the Trotskyist-Communist alliance of Izquierda Unida (the inappropriately-named ‘United Left’) and the populist Podemos, to which it gave unclaimed birth. For those, the argument against secession is about “the unity of the working class”13. That the “unity of the working class” against Spanish unionism, capitalism, imperialism and fascism might be achievable by agreeing to the right of secession and supporting it, while building a united front against all that is reactionary in the state, does not seem to have occurred to them. Of course their issue might be in reality about control.

DIGGING UP THE PAST

          The other issue exercising the fascists is the movement around the historical memory of the anti-fascist struggle and the effects of the 40 decades of Franco dictatorship.

Throughout the territory of the Spanish State, which currently includes the southern Basque and Catalan countries, there are graves of dead anti-fascists, usually unmarked and sometimes of many bodies together. The Catholic Church in most areas refused funeral services to the families of “los Rojos” (the Reds, i.e anyone who opposed the fascists) and the terror was such that often relatives were afraid for themselves and their children if they were too insistent with enquiries as to where their relative had been killed or buried. These burial sites are by roadsides, in quarries as well as in or near cemeteries and other places. Many of those were combatant and non-combatant prisoners who were executed, others fell in battle. Historical memory associations in different communities have been documenting the sites and trying to identify the occupants, an activity which fascists and some others consider as “causing divisions in society”.

Mass grave of executed anti-fascists in Burgos, one of many across the Spanish state.
(Photo source: Aranzadi, in El Pais newspaper — see Links).

In 2008 Judge Baltasar Garzón (since disbarred) ordered the opening up of 19 mass graves from that War14. Naive liberals and leftists (or perhaps those with very limited concerns) rushed to hail Garzón as a defender of democratic rights while ignoring his history as a judge presiding over repression of Basque independentists, including closure of newspapers and radio station, and prison sentences based on ‘confessions’ obtained through torture15. Despite Garzón’s repressive credentials there was an outcry from the Spanish right-wing and the exhumations were halted.

Also across the Spanish State’s territory there are plaques, monuments and street names dedicated to Franco and other fascist notables which in some areas have been the scene of protests. Most notable of all these sites is the mausoleum of General Franco and of Primo Rivera (founder of the fascist Falange), located within the Valle de los Caídos (‘Valley of the Fallen’). This monument, constructed in part by political prisoner labour,

covers over 3,360 acres (13.6km2) of Mediterranean woodlands and granite boulders on the Sierra de Guadarrama hills, more than 3,000 feet (910m) above sea level and includes a basilica, a Benedictine abbey, a guest house, the Valley, and the Juanelos four cylindrical monoliths dating from the 16th century. The most prominent feature of the monument is the towering 150-metre-high (500ft) cross erected over a granite outcrop 150 metres over the basilica esplanade and visible from over 20 miles (32km) away.” (Wikipedia).

The mausoleum, only 60 kilometres (just under 38 miles) from Madrid is the scene of many fascist ceremonies and demonstrations of adherence to the ideology of Franco and Rivera.

 

The Valle de los Caidos monument, containing the mausoleum with bodies of General Franco and Primo Rivera (Photo: Paul Hanna, Reuters, published in Washington Post — see Links)

 

For all of these reasons, varying forces on the Spanish Left and other antifascists spectrum have called for the removal of the cadavers of the two fascists to ordinary graves, the destruction of the mausoleums and the rededication of the whole area to the victims of fascism. When last in government, the PSOE committed itself to some of these objectives but did not carry them out. Now in government again, it has renewed that commitment which is another reason for Spanish fascist hysteria. The two main political parties of the constitutional Right (Partido Popular and Ciudadanos) combined with some smaller right-wing parties in abstaining from a recent Parliamentary motion “strongly condemning” the dictatorship and “any kind of exaltation” of the Franco regime. The motion was passed on 21st November 2918 with 97 votes of Spanish social democrats, Basque and Catalan independentists …. but there were 136 abstentions.

The Spanish Left has a serious difficulty in opposing fascism, committed as so much of the Left is to a central tenet of Spanish fascism, the current territorial integrity of the State. Also the Left in many other places besides the Spanish state is divided on how to respond to fascism in general; responses varying from replying with force by popular action to calling on the State to ban them, campaigning politically against them to generally ignoring their mobilisation.

Is it possible that some notion of preserving the ‘unity of the Left’ could be at the bottom of the silence about the growing fascism in the world and in particular within the Spanish state at some commemorative events?

THE WORTH OF COMMEMORATIONS

          The Friends of the International Brigades and other associations of what is often described as “historical memory” have done very important work in recovering the history of resistance to fascism. Not only that but also in tying that history not just to the territory of the Spanish state where battles were fought by the International Brigades but to places where those Volunteers came from in Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. That work helps the people of those areas to locate themselves within the continuum of history and to emulate the ideals of those Volunteers should they choose to do so. The narratives of the sacrifice made and risk taken by the Volunteers counter the capitalist ethos of greed and of self-preservation above all else and suggest an alternative.

Such commemorations and monuments, if they are to survive and if they are to have real practical meaning, must also serve as calls to action, to mobilise to stop the rise of Fascism and to drive it back. And to support those who are fighting fascism, here, in the Spanish state and elsewhere. If we are to shout No pasarán! let us mean: Ésta vez no pasarán – y nunca jamás! (‘This time they shall not pass – and never again!)

end.

FOOTNOTES

1Although there people of fascist mentality everywhere in the Spanish state, they were outnumbered in most places by anti-fascists and without the logistical and manpower assistance of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, fascism could not have succeeded. Therefore many argue that it was not a civil war but instead a coup, a military uprising though supported by fascists both native and foreign. In the southern Basque Country and probably in Catalonia, some view it as a military invasion rather than a civil war. In Nafarroa (Navarra), because of the reactionary Carlist movement there, it did take on the character of a civil war and the Carlists murdered 3,000 leftists and republicans – when the Falange got there, there was no-one left for them to kill.

2A debate in the EU on a ban in all its membership against fascist symbols took place in December 2012 but has not yet resulted in a decision. A Catalan independentis MEP contributed to the discussion https://www.greens-efa.eu/en/article/press/eu-wide-ban-on-nazi-and-fascist-symbols-and-slogans/ with perhaps a rather tongue-in-cheek declaration that the Spanish Government had no interest in fascist symbolism; the truth is more complicated than that (see WHY THE FASCISTS ARE COMING BACK and DIGGING UP THE PAST sections).

3This slogan is said to have been coined for the crucial antifascist defence of Madrid by Dolores Ibarruri, known as “La Passionara” because of text she wrote in her youth and later her speeches too. She was a Basque and a member of the CPE. The slogan has been repeated many times since in different parts of the world but in Cable Street in 1936 it became a reality when an alliance of forces, chiefly Jewish and Irish community with some local Communist leadership, stopped 20,000-30,000 of Mosley’s “Blackshirts” and their escort of 7.000 police, along with all the mounted police in London, from marching through a predominantly immigrant Jewish quarter.

4Maquis” is dense scrub vegetation consisting of hardy evergreen shrubs and small trees, characteristic of Mediterranean coastal regions” (Internet description) which is where the ‘French’ rural anti-fascist or anti-Nazi Occupation resistance fighters camped and hid. “Maquisards” was the word describing those Resistance fighters in French but “the Maquis” was erroneously later applied to the fighters and their organisation.

51975.

6The Spanish State was not a member of the European Union and there was concern in many quarters about admitting an unreconstructed fascist dictatorship into membership. However, under USA patronage, it had joined NATO in 1982 and US air bases were being built across the territory. Opus Dei is a Catholic association mostly of people from professional and upper-middle classes and, in Spain, with right-wing views but with a technocratic approach rather than ideological which pitched them against the fascist Falange in the “democratisation” of the Spanish State.

7Both the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero de España) and the Unión General de Trabajadores had been illegal and persecuted under Franco, as had the more militant PCE (Partido Comunista de España) and the Commisiones Obreras trade union (in acronym in Castillian usually shown as CCOO). Those two trade unions are by far the most widespread in the Spanish state with the majority of members (except in the Basque Country and Galicia). The PSOE is one of the two mainstream political parties in the state, alternating with the right-wing Partido Popular.

8The Spanish State was admitted in 1986 but negotiations had been going on for some time.

9See GAL and BVE assassination squads operating in the Spanish and French states (1983-1987).

10Catalunya is an ‘autonomous’ region under the post-Franco Spanish Constitution, as are the two divisions of the southern Basque Country, Euskadi and Nafarroa (Navarre, Navarra). The Popular Front Government of the Spanish State had recognised the self-administering right of both Euskadi and Catalunya and they were important parts of the anti-fascist resistance; their autonomous status was revoked under the Franco dictatorship.

11On 1st October 2017, one of a number of Spanish police invasions of Catalunya last year.

12The “Grande” refers to imperial Spain and its colonies and the “Libre” to the Jewish-Masonic-Communist alleged conspiracy imagined by fascists (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Una,_Grande_y_Libre).

13This argument has over the course of time been used by sections of social democrats, Communists, Trotskyist and Anarchists against liberation struggles in colonies and also in opposition to a boycott against South Africa or Palestine. The argument of class solidarity has been employed in a manner and in situations which have actually weakened the class struggle, bound the working class to their masters in common cause and also encouraged the growth of racism. As long ago as the mid-19th Century, Marx and Engels and others argued against this identification interest with the ruling class, encouraging the British workers in their own interest to support the Irish people in their liberation struggle against British colonialism.

15 And withdrawn immediately in the non-jury court by the detainees but to no avail.

LINKS

Irish Brigades Remembered: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1656646004567977/permalink/2269647039934534/

International Brigade Memorial Trust: https://en-gb.facebook.com/groups/7123291063/

Ahaztuak (“The Forgotten”), Basque historical memory association: http://ahaztuak1936-1977.blogspot.com/

Mass grave uncovered in Burgos, one of many across the Spanish state: https://elpais.com/elpais/2016/08/31/inenglish/1472638944_315923.html

 

 

 

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