The memory of the crimes by the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War is still a controversial issue. A Basque activist tells us about about repression, new political alliances, and the power of art
Ana Barrena Lertxundi comes from the Basque Country. She is a member of Podemos and die LINKE and currently lives in Berlin.
Interview: Phil Butland
On 26 April, eighty years ago, the Basque city of Guernica was destroyed by German bombs. Is the bombing still an issue today?
Yes. Both in the Basque country, and also in Spain as a whole, the bombing is a symbol of a traumatic chapter of our history. A lot happened in the Civil War, but Pablo Picasso’s painting has prevented this event from being forgotten. We should not forget that the German army was responsible for the air attack. This shows the international importance of the Spanish Civil War.
In the Basque country the bombing also stands for a violation of the Basque identity. In this case, Guernica has as specific importance in the Basque country as it was there in 1476 that the Basque country was recognised as an autonomous area with its own rights,
Unfortunately in the commemoration, the background to the bombing is often forgotten. The destruction of Guernica is often presented as a completed part of history that has nothing to do with us.
The initiative for properly coming to terms with the bombing has always been led by the people who were affected, that is with the families of the victims of Francoism or civil rights organisations from below. Other parts of society are trying to suppress the issue.
How does the Basque Country remember the bombing? Are there any memorials to Guernica?
Yes, there are many memorials recalling the bombing. On top of this, the subject has been present in local culture for a long time. Examples of this are books like ‘El otro árbol de Guernica’ from Luis de Castresana (1967), and newer films and tv series like director Koldo Serra’s film ‘Gernika’ from 2016.
Basque activists have also tried to win international recognition for this memory. Many large cities in the world contain a “Euskal Etxea”, a Basque cultural centre. These emerged during the civil war with the aim of supporting the Basque fighters who had to flee the country. Today they organise cultural meetings and explain the history of the Basques.
You belong to the so-called ‘grandchild generation’ who grew up in a “democracy”. When you were born, Franco was long dead. But it seems as if your generation is more active in trying to remember the Spanish Civil War than your parents were. Is this correct, and if so why?
Even in the earlier generations many people were politically active – first against the dictatorship, and then against the attempt to be silent about their crimes. Without their struggle, it would have been much more difficult to organise demonstrations today, or to be politically active at all.
The opportunity of the younger generation is that we experience less oppression by state oppression and censorship than our parents and grandparents. The Spanish state has not organised against the memory of the Civil War, and this memory had been brought back to the surface by groups like 15M.
Through such movements we have learned that we need to connect with a diversity of social groups to be able to achieve anything. This includes the initiatives against forgetting the crimes of the Civil War, as they also want to change society.
The initiatives to learn more about the civil war came about more or less at the same time as the occupations of the squares and the 15M movement, which has now developed into Podemos. Are there connections between these movements?
Podemos, as the strongest opposition party, can use its power, together with Izquierda Unida [United Left, the old Spanish Communist Party, which has been fighting against the forgetting since its inception 30 years ago] to realise the demands of the social movements.
Do you believe that Germany has a responsibility to the Spanish and Basque population regarding Guernica?
International interests were in play in the Spanish Civil War. Without German intervention there would have been no bombing. So yes, Germany was responsible. The complicated question is, what this responsibility should lead to. My answer is: Germany must also do something against the forgetting. Additionally, the destruction of Guernica must be a starting point for a critical discussion of other wars and conflicts in Europe.
The Social Democratic PSOE in Spain now tolerates a government led by the party which used to support Franco. Has the right wing won?
There is little difference between the main Spanish establishment parties, the social democratic PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) or the conservative PP (Partido Popular), either concerning the crimes of the Civil War and the dictatorship, or women’s rights and the privilege of the church.
The PSOE as an organisation was never part of the resistance to the dictatorship, unlike the Communist Party, the anarchist trade unions, the Basque liberation organisation ETA, or many more organisations. Nevertheless, the PSOE later received support from large parts of society and became the strongest party in Spain in the 1980s and part of the 1990s.
This means that the party has tried to get along without remembering Franco’s crimes. They worry much more that if history is brought up again, it could lead to new divisions in society, similar to those in the Civil War. The problem with this strategy of avoidance is that it plays into the hands of the right wing, even if this is not their intention.
Nevertheless, fear of divisions dominates the public debate, which is why there is little progress. On the other hand, the PP has a genuine ideological interest in forgetting, as many of their founder members were themselves part of the Franco régime, and the still defend the dictatorship.
But now a younger generation has entered the debate. The 15M movement and Podemos’s struggle for political power could lead to a turning point. Nonetheless it will still be necessary to hold an open discussion so that we can overcome the fear of old conflicts re-emerging. We must differentiate between the PSOE as an apparatus of power and its voters.
One last question for you. You are not only a socialist and a member of Podemos – you are also a Basque. How does this affect the way that you remember Guernica?
Remembering Guernica – both through historical discussion and also through art represents for me the hope for political change.
The memory of the bombing of Guernica as a symbol of injustice has its roots in different ideologies and alliances. The initiative came equally from Communists, Republicans and Basque nationalists. This showed how different groups can successfully fight together for a concrete goal. Their struggle for remembering breaks with the normal political logic in Spain, which always places a nationalism in the foreground, as something which is differentiated from other identities, rather than talking about real common interests.
On top of this, dealing with the bombing makes it clear that the war has quite different meanings for each side: The Republican troops were on the defensive. The found themselves in the dilemma of having to wage war in order to bring peace.
Remembering the bombing of Guernica through Picasso’s painting shows me the power of art to universalise concrete events. The picture depicts feelings which all people would experience in the face of a bomb attack. The destruction is not presented as a unique historical event. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ also shows how an event can become immortal through artistic representation.
In the context of the international upsurge of the extreme right and the increased number of imperialist wars, remembering the barbarism of war is more important than ever. Art can offer resistance to the politics of forgetting.
The original version of the interview appears in a shorter form in German in marx21 magazine. A longer German version will soon be published on the marx21 Website