World War 2 (Photo by: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

A new front in the memory wars

We should celebrate achievements, not just condemn vice

What would happen if, out of a change of heart, the statue-toppling rage ignited by the Great Awokening of 2020 suddenly went into reverse, giving way to a spree of statue-raising? What would the West’s cities look like if, instead of desecrating monuments to figures that failed the woke mob’s test, we erected new ones to honour other ambivalent legacies? If the aim were to signal that the unambiguously good deeds of these as-of-yet unsung heroes stand, and should be celebrated, despite their role in regimes and empires we now deem reprehensible, how would the statue-topplers receive the message? 

Spain has been undergoing a memory war since 2007

Spain could be about to find out. The country has been undergoing a memory war since 2007, when a socialist executive enacted the state-funded exhumation of about 10,000 of Franco’s victims. Its right-of-centre successor left the policy in place, orphaning its critics until the right-wing Vox party erupted around 2017. Back in office the year after, in coalition with the far left, the socialists upped the ante last year with a redux of the 2007 law. Vox, meanwhile, has decried the left’s paeans to the Second Republic (1931-39) for scuttling the reconciliation that Franco’s death in 1975 spawned.

On Tuesday this week, one Vox lawmaker met the left’s statue-toppling fire, raging for all of sixteen years, with his own statue-raising drive. MP Francisco José Contreras, on leave from a tenured post teaching philosophy in Sevilla, filed a bill to honour the memory of Ángel Sanz Briz. Nicknamed the “Angel of Budapest”, he saved anywhere between 5,000 and 5,500 Jews as Francoist Spain’s satrap in the city when Hungary was drawn into the Holocaust’s dragnet. 

At the bill’s hearing, Contreras stressed, “In Europe’s darkest hour, Sanz Briz used Spanish money, papers and laws to snatch 5,500 lives from the Nazi war machine. Whilst Hungary and Israel have paid tribute to his selfless heroism, Sanz Briz remains largely unknown in Spain. In 1966, Israel made him Righteous Amongst the Nations, a title Franco’s regime barred him from collecting. He was referred to in Golda Meir’s statement, “we recall the humanitarian conduct adopted by Spain during Hitler’s rule, when it offered help and protection to numerous victims”. In 1994, Hungary conferred him the Order of Merit, and in 2015 an avenue in Budapest was rechristened with his name.

Sanz Briz’s deeds are recounted in Arcadi Espada’s masterful history, In Name of Franco (2013). He rose to the rank of chargé d’affaires at the Spanish legation, the highest at the time, in the summer of 1944, with the Holocaust ruthlessly gaining speed and efficacy. The Nazis had occupied Hungary in March but had left Admiral Horthy (whose antisemitism fell shy of full-on collaboration) in office until September, when he was replaced by the Arrow Cross Party. During that year, Spain adopted a policy that Contreras labels of “discreet succour” towards Europe’s Jews, for reasons both humanitarian and self-interestedly strategic. Franco, who had sent the Blue Division east, was toning down his philo-Nazism to fall in the good graces of the war’s ever-likelier victors. On October 23, the day that Contreras’ bill would commemorate, Foreign Affairs Minister de Lequerica sent a telegram urging the embassy to “afford protection to as many persecuted Jews as possible”. Sanz Briz, however, had not awaited orders. Already by summer, he had invoked a law from Primo de Rivera’s 1920s regime to extend Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews.

Sanz Briz used everything in his power to save as many lives as he could

Sanz Briz’s policy extended far beyond the Jews who traced their lineage to Spain before the 1492 expulsion by Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabel. Using, in Contreras words, countless “tricks, pressures and bribes” to cover Ashkenazi Jews too, he initially invoked the policy to hand out 200 passports only, then grandfathered 200 families, and then kept re-invoking it to reach the 5,500 figure. He housed dozens of families inside rented apartments marked as belonging to the embassy, a placard that often meant the difference between life and death for those inside. He urged the Red Cross to put Spanish signs in hospitals, orphanages and clinics to protect the Jews therein. He left the embassy in December, fearful of what could await a Francoist satrap when the Soviets would roll across Budapest, which they did in January (although Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian who posed as the Spanish consul, continued his efforts). Sanz Briz’s fears were vindicated when the Red Army “disappeared” Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat credited with saving up to 9,000 lives. 

Ultimately, the bill’s fate — and that of Sanz Briz’s memory in a Spain increasingly at war with itself over its past — hinged on his links to Franco. The socialists, the left-regionalists and the far-left derided Contreras’ bill as an effort to “whitewash fascism”, citing Sanz Briz’s efforts to similarly hand out safe-conducts to nationalist activists in Madrid in the Civil War’s final days. Contradictorily, one far-left MP stressed that Sanz Briz acted against the Ministry’s orders, which, if anything, should be an even better reason to commemorate him. Contreras, conversely, has highlighted his embeddedness within Franco’s regime, stressing the October telegram and Franco’s interest in saving Jews to curry the allies’ favour. 

Sanz Briz’s loyalties, however, should be irrelevant. He had a net positive effect on Europe’s dark trajectory and used everything in his power to save as many lives as he could. He could be a rallying figure to the right, who looks at his loyalties not disapprovingly, and the left, which should admire his humanitarianism. Yet his association with Franco makes him toxic to the latter, and thus Contreras’ bill failed. This, if anything, reveals the corrosive nature of Spain’s memory wars.

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