The Valley of Cuelgamuros (Photo By Alejandro Martinez Velez/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Choosing hate

Does exhuming the remains of a nationalist icon represent progress or division?

Artillery Row

On Monday last week, the Spanish authorities were confronted with one of mankind’s eternal dilemmas: resolving to choose revenge over redemption and hate over hope. To mark his 120th anniversary, the left-wing coalition led by PM Pedro Sánchez had legislated earlier last summer to disinter the bodily remains of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the icon behind the far-right Falange party and a mainstay of the country’s turmoil leading up to the 1936-1939 Civil War. The exhumation fits into a larger law that claims to restore “democratic memory”, which built on an earlier and similarly aimed “historical memory” law passed by Sánchez’s socialist predecessor in 2007. Both laws amount to an Orwellian rewriting of History, one that overturns the “pact of forgetting” that underpinned Spain’s democratic transition upon the death of the war’s victor, strongman Francisco Franco, in 1975. In its stead, on the pretext of honouring the memory of Franco’s victims (many of whose families are being compensated for recovering their bodies from unmarked mass graves), these two laws propound a slanted account of the war and the ensuing 40-year dictatorship as a Manichean contest of good (the republicans) versus evil (Franco’s nationalists).

De Rivera’s flirtations with fascism followed the cadence of a seesaw

Yet the logic of repairing past wounds seems, in Primo de Rivera’s case, to be working in reverse, with his desecration a redux of his execution after living through the war’s initial months from prison. Up until Monday, his corpse lay in the Valley of the Fallen, a complex encompassing a memorial and a basilica near El Escorial, in Madrid’s northwest. Franco had intended the complex as a “national act of atonement and reconciliation” following the war, but Sánchez’s law has renamed it “Valley of Cuelgamuros”, exhuming Franco and evicting the basilica’s Benedictine monks. Though their relations were strained — and Franco’s so-called National Movement was distinct from Primo de Rivera’s brand of fascism — it is hard not to see the latter as having laid the ideological groundwork for the strongman’s 40-year rule. The two men were more in competition than in tandem, with Primo de Rivera angling to position Falange in the epicentre of any potential rebellion against the Republic — which Franco would come to lead — and corresponding with other chieftains. Until it made his death public in 1937, the regime referred to him as “the absent” (el ausente), moving his remains to El Escorial at the war’s end and to the Valley of the Fallen in 1959.

His desecrators are right that Primo de Rivera’s deeds leading up to the war do merit greater scrutiny. He was in his 20s under the rule of his father, the right-wing strongman Miguel Primo de Rivera, becoming later convinced that his 1920s regime had failed for lack of a clear ideological foundation, something he single-mindedly put his mind to fashioning. In October 1933, along with two acolytes, he founded Falange as a four-legged ideological stool seeking at once (1) a Spain united by its universal destiny transcending class war and nationalism, (2) the idea of a new man carrying eternal values, (3) social justice availing everyone a dignified and humane life and (4) a sense of Spain’s Catholic roots. Profound as though they may seem on paper, De Rivera’s flirtations with fascism followed the cadence of a seesaw. In 1935, he was known to be paid a salary by Mussolini’s fascist Italy to produce various reports on Spain’s political situation. His single visit with Hitler, however, had no import in his life. Starting in 1934, he gradually began to forswear fascism, claiming Falange would counter Spain’s decadent parliamentary democracy — which he saw as beholden to communists — by pursuing its own brand of right-wing illiberalism.

Equally illuminating in its ambivalence was Primo de Rivera’s approach to violence. Known to be hot-tempered, he indulged in rage when his father’s accomplishments were questioned and regularly quarrelled with magistrates and prison guards each time he was imprisoned. He once wrote that “war is absolutely necessary and inevitable” and cryptically extolled “the dialectics of fist and gun”. In March 1936, having lost his seat in that year’s February race — which the left-wing Popular Front won — and therefore his parliamentary immunity, he was detained for illegal possession of firearms and violent activities, leading Falange to be banned and 2000 of its adherents detained. The violent incidents featuring the party nonetheless continued in quick succession up until the war’s eruption in July, with Primo de Rivera seeking to position the party as a driving force of the looming insurrection. On March 14th, he authored a sombre manifesto from prison, claiming that “communism runs our streets”. On 4 May, he sent a letter to the army’s top brass — many of whom he had been regularly corresponding with — calling for an insurrection. The day before Franco rose up in arms, on 17 July, he expressed Falange’s unreserved adherence to the rebellion.

Primo de Rivera stands as a testament that a different Spain is possible

Yet, in a stark depiction of his epoch, Primo de Rivera falls on the peaceable side of his contemporaries. Stanley Payne writes of him that “he was, amongst the Falange leaders, the one who most shied away from employing violence and murder in a systematic way”. In the months leading up to his execution by firing squad in November, he markedly softened his views, not least on whether violence against the institutions of the Republic was warranted morally. In April, made aware of the plans to kill socialist doyen Francisco Largo Caballero, who had served as his father’s minister, Primo de Rivera disowned the plot. During those early months of the war, he became the object of various prisoner swap plots, all admittedly with the aim of breaking free from prison to broker an armistice that would put an end to the hostilities, ushering in a reconciliation government. He wrote that “Spain is undoing itself” and that “the absolute triumph of one side can bring back the Carlist wars”, the series of civil conflicts that rocked Spain throughout the 19th century. Even Payne’s nemesis, left-wing hispanist Paul Preston writes, “Primo de Rivera’s apparent transformation fed the idea that he could have incarnated the great, lost opportunity for reconciliation.

He would soon be sentenced with conspiracy and rebellion, all but assuring him an afterlife as a martyr for his many acolytes. Payne writes that “he became the object of the most extraordinary martyr’s cult in all of Europe”. Zira Box writes that “for the falangistas, he would be exalted as a prophet, and even hailed for emulating Christ himself, spilling his young blood for Spain’s redemption”. His last few words before death on 20 November ring ominously for eternity: “May mine be the last Spanish blood spilled in civil discord. He went on: “May all the peoples of Spain feel harmonized in an irrevocable unity of destiny. In the age of memes, these are often cited in contrast to a quote by Dolores Ibárruri, one of the Communist party’s icons, who said in a meeting in Valencia in 1938: “Rather than letting a single fascist free, we ought to rather convict 100 innocents.” Although celebrating Primo de Rivera can cue support for a deathly ideology, it can also be construed as the opposite spirit to Ibárruri’s avengement. For all his youthful ideological fervour, he stands as a testament that a different Spain is possible, one reaching for concord amidst dissent. His arm lies outstretched to any who dare shake it. Sánchez’s government chose not to shake it. It chose to hate.

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