My review today is a bit different as is the book I share. When I saw it on offer in Edelweiss I had to request it and it proved fascinating.
Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography by Sebastiaan Faber
The ability to forget the violent twentieth-century past was long seen as a virtue in Spain, even a duty. But the common wisdom has shifted as increasing numbers of Spaniards want to know what happened, who suffered, and who is to blame. Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War shows how historiography, fiction, and photography have shaped our views of the 1936–39 war and its long, painful aftermath.
Faber traces the curious trajectories of iconic Spanish Civil War photographs by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David Seymour; critically reads a dozen recent Spanish novels and essays; interrogates basic scholarly assumptions about history, memory, and literature; and interviews nine scholars, activists, and documentarians who in the past decade and a half have helped redefine Spain’s relationship to its past. In this book Faber argues that recent political developments in Spain—from the grassroots call for the recovery of historical memory to the indignados movement and the foundation of Podemos—provide an opportunity for scholars in the humanities to engage in a more activist, public, and democratic practice.
“Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War is a fascinating, judiciously blended mix of interviews and portraits, cultural criticism, meditations, and reportage, refreshingly unlike any other book in the field that I’ve read. Sebastiaan Faber wears his erudition lightly, but brings a deep knowledge of a country he loves and of its struggles to come to terms with a tragic and violent piece of its past. It’s worth reading alone to hear the voices of historians about what drew them to Spain in this era—why don’t more people pose that question to scholars?”
—Adam Hochschild, author of Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939
“Faber’s collection of bracing, enjoyable, and provocative essays steps squarely into the middle of Spain’s ongoing (but, thankfully, bloodless) cultural civil war over the past. He plunges a finger into the country’s deepest and most durable sore with a series of sizzling critiques of how historians, writers, and intellectuals view Spain’s legacy of fratricide and a forty-year dictatorship that casts its long shadow over the present. Just how does (or should) Spain deal with the uncomfortable facts and emotions left behind by Francoism and the successful but imperfect transition to democracy that followed it? There is much to agree with, and much to disagree with, but the merit in Faber’s writing comes from the way it re-inspects and challenges many of the assumptions on which depictions of Spain’s recent past are based, obliging the reader to do the same.”
—Giles Tremlett, author of Ghosts of Spain: Travels through Spain and Its Silent Past and Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen
About the Author:
Sebastiaan Faber was born and raised in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he studied Spanish; his doctorate is from the University of California, Davis, and he is Professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. Sebastiaan is the author of “Exile and Cultural Hegemony: Spanish Exiles in Mexico” (Vanderbilt, 2002), “Anglo-American Hispanists and the Spanish Civil War” (Palgrave, 2008), and “Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War” (Vanderbilt, 2017), and editor, with Gijs Mulder, of Marcellus Emants’ “Schetsen uit Spanje” (2004) and, with Cristina Martínez-Carazo, of “Contra el olvido. El exilio español en Estados Unidos” (2009). He regularly writes for The Nation, La Marea, Fronterad, and CTXT: Contexto y Acción (more at www.sebastiaanfaber.com). A former Chair of the Board of Governors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA, www.alba-valb.org), he co-edits ALBA’s quarterly magazine, The Volunteer (www.albavolunteer.org).
Thanks to Edelweiss and to the publishers (Vanderbilt University Press) for providing me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.
I was drawn to this book because although I was born and grew up in Spain, I have spent the last 25 years of my life in the UK, and between the time invested in education and work, I know I have missed some of the big debates about the past that have taken place in the country. From personal experience, I know that living abroad gives you a different perspective, usually wider, on a country’s history and society, and I was interested to learn the opinions of a foreign Hispanist on the controversial topic of the book.
This book was illuminating for me. I’ve discovered that I need to catch up and read books, watch documentaries, and explore the memory movement in Spain. I know some details thanks to my mother’s family, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the many initiatives and projects that have been implemented. I learned about laws (helpful and, mostly, unhelpful), about controversy and debates, about the origin of well-known photographs and documents (including the fact that photographers shared cameras and subjects during the Spanish Civil War, and no matter what their intent, those photographs also had, even at the time, a commercial value), about the uneasy relationship between Culture, cultural objects, and History. Is fiction less valuable when it comes to documenting the reception and the collective memory of a historical event? Or more?
Although I am not an expert in History, I have read some History books over the years and one of the things I found more refreshing about this volume, which collects a variety of essays on topics that fit in well together, is the fact that rather than offering an authoritative version of events or pontificating about the right or wrong way of looking at a particular period in history, it asks questions. On relevancy: how can an academic book written in English discussing events and recent debates about Spanish history and politics reach a wider audience? Are academics simply talking to themselves without ever reaching the general public (unless given an “official” status)? On the approach and the position historians should take when researching and writing their findings: Can historical essays and books ever be “neutral”? And should they be “neutral”? Isn’t it better to be open about one’s point of view and allegiances? (As the author observes, WWII historians are clearly positioned when writing about the war, but in Spain, this is frowned upon). On comparative studies and the risks of conflating similar events in different countries and eras, thereby missing the most interesting and fruitful aspects for analysis: Is it legitimate to apply international models (like those developed through the Holocaust studies) to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist repression? On the position of the intellectuals and how politics and affiliations affect even those who try hardest to be rigorous. How can those intellectuals who were heavily invested in the Transition open up to other opinions and not consider them a personal criticism? On the memory movement, the hurdles faced by those trying to find out more about relatives or friends, and about the resistance of historians to see any value in memory narratives. Is forgetting the past the best option, or do the unhealed wounds and traumas that have been festering, no matter how long for, always find a way to resurface? About the boom in historical fiction novels about the Civil War and what they tell us about society and popular opinion. Although the author’s opinions are clearly stated, the questions hang there and readers can take them up and find their own answers.
As I said, I cannot claim to any expertise on the topic, and I suspect experts will have much to take issue with in this book, but for me, it helps provide the tools to answer some of the questions that inform the author’s work and that are the same that a large part of the Spanish population are asking. Quoting from the book:
How have history, fiction, and photography shaped Spanish memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and the Transition? And how have academics, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists in Spain and elsewhere engaged with a collective process that is central to the country’s future as a unified, functioning democracy?
In view of recent events, these questions are more pressing and relevant than ever, and I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible. I recommend it to anybody who is open to fresh perspectives on the subject and is up for a challenging — but ultimately rewarding— read.
Thanks to the author, to Edelweiss and to Vanderbilt University Press for this book, thanks to all of you for writing and remember to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW, and keep smiling!