Another Valley of the Fallen? The problem with the proposed civil war museum

Post date: 15/02/2023

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal, an (ethno)archaeologist specialising in the study of the contemporary past, writes about the issue of anti-fascist memory when it comes to the recently leaked plans for a Spanish Civil War museum in the city of Teruel. This article originally appeared in Spanish in Público on 9 February 2023, and has been reproduced in edited form below with permission of the author. 

Last Friday the project for the construction of the Teruel Civil War Museum was leaked to the press. One part of the project, the most controversial, contemplates the creation of a memorial space dedicated to those killed in battle. The proposal is frankly worrying, because it returns to some of the clichés that characterised the late Francoist memory. Thus, the authors of the report affirm that the strength of the monument will be based on not delving into the differences between the fallen, for which they propose mixing the names of the combatants of both sides ‘in a way that would never have been possible in life.’

It is clear that the fallen of both sides deserve a decent burial and public remembrance, especially if we take into account that many were recruits fighting for a side with which they did not identify. That recollection and memory happens to place their causes at the same level, on the other hand, is more than debatable.

In fact, it is nonsense, like all the speech articulated in the report in relation to the memorial. To begin with, the authors consider that the place should be conceived ‘with extreme caution’ so as not to offend ‘those who consider themselves heirs of one or the other side.’ That in a democracy we consider that we must be cautious so as not to hurt the sensitivities of those who are against democracy shows that we have not yet internalised the values ​​that sustain it.

And it is that the authors of the report believe that visitors who are supporters of one side or the other should not see themselves ‘neither excessively represented nor alien to the values ​​that the memorial extols.’ That is to say, if one defends a parliamentary democracy he should not feel too identified with the monument, nor excessively rejected if it is more of totalitarian dictatorships. Neither democracy nor dictatorship. Neutrality.

Because those who wrote the document understand that neutrality is not only necessary to respect diverse opinions today, but also because, after all, and that was ‘their common mistake’, all the fallen were victims and executioners. All the same. Those who remained loyal to the Republican government and those who took up arms against it.

However, whenever I read someone defending the ‘absolute vocation of neutrality’, as in this case, I wonder if there is still someone who does not know Demond Tutu's famous phrase: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the place of the oppressor’. A neutral monument of the civil war is a Francoist monument of the civil war. So much so that the first neutral monuments appeared during the dictatorship itself: the most important was the Valley of the Fallen. When it was inaugurated in 1959, it did so under very different premises compared to those with which it had been conceived in 1940. The idea in 1959 was that it would welcome the dead from both sides without distinction, since the ideologues of the regime knew well that this false benevolence did not imply any detriment to the dictatorship.

Throughout the late Franco regime and the transition, the idea of ​​war was imposed as a tragedy and a fratricidal struggle in which no one was right, and therefore, in which no one was completely guilty: a very comfortable position for the Francoists from 1975. The principle that prevailed then is that any memory is equally legitimate: both that which exalts aggression and dictatorship and that of resistance.

It is not the only point in common between the memorial garden that is proposed for Teruel and the Valley of the Fallen. The authors of the report write that ‘the Memorial must be a 'timeless' space in its own right, it should not 'get old', nor go out of fashion. If its mission is eternal, its formalisation must be, too.’ The language could have been used by any Francoist ideologue in the 50s: ‘timeless’, ‘eternal’ (the concept of eternity, in fact, is one of the most repeated in the official discourse of the Valley). In a democracy nothing is timeless because it is the citizens, not a God nor a caudillo, who decide how to remember and what is valued. That means things change. And nothing changes as much as memorials.

Beyond ideological issues there is a practical problem in the report. The document of the Agrarian Transformation Company (TRAGSA) was prepared by a ‘multidisciplinary technical team’. But this is not entirely true. All the members of the team are architects and engineers and no historians, anthropologists, art historians or heritage experts were involved.

In any case, it is worrying that in Spain when we try to think of the least offensive form of war memorial, the first thing that comes to mind is to replicate the Valley of the Fallen. Further proof that we have internalised Francoism more than we are willing to admit.

Posted on 15 February 2023.

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