I bring you a non-fiction book quite different from my usual reads, but totally relevant, unfortunately.
Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Second Transition by Sebastiaan Faber
What is left of Francisco Franco’s legacy in Spain today? Franco ruled Spain as a military dictator from 1939 until his death in 1975. In October 2019, his remains were removed from the massive national monument in which they had been buried for forty-four years. For some, the exhumation confirmed that Spain has long been a modern, consolidated democracy. The reality is more complicated. In fact, the country is still deeply affected–and divided–by the dictatorial legacies of Francoism.
In one short volume, Exhuming Franco covers all major facets of the Francoist legacy today, combining research and analysis with reportage and interviews. This book is critical of Spanish democracy; yet, as the final chapter makes clear, Spain is one of many countries facing difficult questions about a conflictive past. To make things worse, the rise of a new, right-wing nationalist revisionism across the West threatens to undo much of the progress made in the past couple of decades when it comes to issues of historical justice.
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), “Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War” (Vanderbilt, 2018), and “Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Second Transition” (Vanderbilt, forthcoming). He is editor, with Gijs Mulder, of Marcellus Emants’ “Schetsen uit Spanje” (2004); with Cristina Martínez-Carazo, of “Contra el olvido. El exilio español en Estados Unidos” (2009); and with Cecilia Enjuto-Rangel, Pedro García Caro, and Robert Newcomb of “Transatlantic Studies: Latin America, Iberia, and Africa” (Liverpool, 2019). He regularly writes for “The Nation,” “La Marea,” “Fronterad,” and “CTXT: Revista Contexto” (more at sebastiaanfaber.com). He serves as Chair of the Board of Governors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA, www.alba-valb.org), and co-edits, together with Peter N. Carroll, ALBA’s quarterly magazine, “The Volunteer” (www.albavolunteer.org).
I thank Edelweiss and the publisher (Vanderbilt University Press) for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
I read and reviewed one of Dr Faber’s books Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography (check my review here) a couple of years ago, was impressed by it, and I did not hesitate to read this book, published at a particularly complicated time, not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also due to the continued and increasing debates on fascism, the growth of the extreme right, the popular support for the movement of recovery of historical memory, and also the resistance to such initiatives. Even though the book, like the previous one, centres on Spain, the questions the book raises go well beyond its frontiers.
The book opens with the exhumation of Francisco Franco, that, after much debate eventually (and, for many, far too late) took place on the 24th of October 2019. Taking that recent episode of Spanish History as a starting point, Faber goes on to ask a number of probing questions to 25 individuals from a variety of callings (historians, journalists, writers, members of the judiciary, heads of associations, teachers…) mostly Spanish, although he also refers to the opinions of international experts. As he did in the previous book, the author wants to ensure that all voices are heard, and he describes the style of the book as “more journalistic than academic” and later states that although the format has drawbacks (the bibliography is more reduced than is usual in these types of publications, for example), he hopes it is “quite readable”. Rather than quite readable, I found it gripping, and although perhaps that is a strange word to use for this kind of book, even when I might have completely disagreed with the opinions featured (I won’t claim to be neutral on the subjects discussed, but my personal opinion is not relevant to this review), I found them all interesting, well-informed, reasoned, compelling and engaging, and they all gave me much food for thought.
Should the past be put to rest and forgotten, or should old wounds be examined and victims be given a proper burial? Has Spain (and many other countries with a difficult recent-ish history) truly moved on from the past, or are the vestiges of it still impinging on its present and future? Has the much Spanish Transition —which rather than breaking with the Francoist past and taking it to task for its crimes opted for simply moving on and building a new democratic order over the foundations of the old regime— truly worked? Are the remnants of the Franco regime and its legacy the main problem affecting Spanish politics today, or is it simply another example of the rise of extreme-right movements all over the world (and also part of a much longer historical trend)? Is the Spanish understanding of democracy peculiar in any way, and do its worrying characteristics (high levels of corruption, lack of transparency, lack of public confidence in the government, politicians, and institutions…) have to do with the way it came about, or, as the author suggests, each country’s understanding of democracy is as unique as its history?
There are arguments and counterarguments to answer these questions and many more, and it is sometimes surprising to realise that those whose positions seem more distant, at least in theory, come to pretty similar conclusions, at least in some aspects of the debate, even if their interpretation and reasons are different. The author also offers his own take on the question and also recommends further reading matter to those who want to dig further into the subject. Those include works by those whose interviews are featured in the book, but also others recommended by Dr Faber, a world-renowned expert. This is not a heavy academic text but reads rather like a collection of interviews or a series of specialized magazine articles, and that is another one of its many virtues. I have highlighted much of the text, so much that I wasn’t able to select quotes to share that would give a casual reader a fair idea of what s/he is bound to find. Therefore, and as I often do, I’d recommend checking a sample first to those not sure if the writing style would suit them.
This is a book that anybody interested in recent Spanish history and in current Spanish politics and social movements should read. It is also a text where anybody interested in international politics, the rise of the extreme right and populist movements around the world will find plenty of useful information, analysis, and opinions also relevant to the ongoing debates on those topics. I’d recommend it to anybody with even a passing interest in the subject. I’ve been shaken by many of the facts and opinions quoted, and I’ve learned a great deal as well. I’m sure I’ll keep thinking about this book for a long time, and I have to thank the author for his efforts in trying to contribute to the ongoing debate in a most constructive manner.
Thanks to the author and to the publisher for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to share with anybody you think might be interested in the topic, like, comment, and above all, keep safe and keep smiling.