Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The reign in Spain is plainly on the wane

As it prepares to welcome a new King to the throne, Spain is facing a difficult decade ahead. But with many of its issues recurring from previous generations, surely it is time for the nation to drop its ‘forgive and forget’ policy and to study its recent history in detail. Otherwise, what’s to stop the same things from happening again?

'The best cure for a civil war is to forget it ever happened'  Seneca the Elder

On Monday, King Juan Carlos I of Spain announced that he would abdicate from his position in favour of his son, Felipe. While 60% of Spain’s population voted in favour of such a move earlier this year, the 48-year-old Crown Prince is coming to the throne at a troubled moment for Spain. Time will tell whether Felipe can reconstruct the image of the monarchy in his country, or if he will find that the institution was ultimately built on sand, foundations fatally weakened by the misdeeds of his ancestors in preceding centuries. Either way, Spain’s current national policy of forgetting its recent history must surely be re-considered, since such ignorance could open the door to a repeat of previous mistakes.

In December 1931 Castilblanco, a Spanish village situated near the Portuguese border in the province of Badajoz, went on strike. At this time strikes were fairly common due to the bitter ongoing feuds between latifundistas (landed gentry), and the peasants who tilled the land. A new Republican government had introduced agrarian reforms, but these were being regularly ignored by the landowners, who were often supported by the church, the army and the Civil Guard (La Guardia Civil) - an armed police force with bases around the country; this was the force that was selected to deal with the striking villagers. When the detachment arrived, a confrontation ensued between the guardsmen and the villagers, and one overeager guardsman opened fire, killing a local man. The infuriated peasants then fell on the soldiers, lynching four of them. Not long afterwards, on the other side of Spain in the province of La Rioja, the Guardia Civil killed eleven local people and wounded thirty more, supposedly to avenge their brothers in Badajoz. Four and a half years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the divisions in Spanish society were already deeply apparent, as was the willingness on both sides to take life.

Mention this story to a Spaniard today, and it is likely that it will not be familiar to them. What’s more, their brow will furrow, and they might glance around furtively to check that you are not being overheard. The Civil War and the ensuing 35 years of rule by victorious General Franco is a controversial subject in Spain. The agonies of civil war, and the relatively painless transition after Franco's death in 1975, have convinced Spaniards that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie than to risk rekindling old tensions. The majority of the academic writing on the period has been done by British historians such as Paul Pressman, who are often denounced in the Spanish press as being biased or sensationalist. While forgive and forget has indeed been a successful policy in the post-Franco transition, the situation on the ground is now beginning to change. The latest financial crisis has left half of Spain's young generation unemployed and living with their parents, while the monarchy and the government have been wounded by scandals. A time may soon come when the country has to once again ask itself what kind of government it wants, and with today's Spain sharing many concerns with that of its 1931 ancestor, it is hard not to think that a population well-schooled in its recent history might be better prepared to make the decision wisely.

The two sides
There were many causes of the Spanish Civil War, and the roots stretch back several centuries. When the Nationalist generals struck in 1936 they were broadly supported by the landowners, the church, and the Guardia Civil; they also received significant military support from Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. The Republicans opposing them largely represented the peasant population, with anarchists, democrats and communists all squashed together into an uncomfortable alliance. The British and French awkwardly looked the other way while idealists, writers and poets from all over the world flocked to fight under the Republican banner; while the little support there was came from outside was provided by Stalin's Soviet Republic. As in the example of Castilblanco and in a later episode at Casas Viejas, the core source of tension was the friction between landowner and peasant, a reflection of the severe inequality in the system which often left rural peasants starving. With the monarchy and the republican government discredited, each having shown themselves unable to manage the collapsing country, Spain was facing its ever-present nightmare – regions slipping towards independence.

A country divided
In contrast to most of its European peers, Spain in 1930 was still a largely agrarian economy. With the exception of Catalonia and the Basque Country around Bilbao, where a thriving manufacturing base had been established, the majority of the country was living off the land in a manner akin to pre-industrial Britain. As a result of this, power still lay in the hands of the wealthy landowners who could make sweeping decisions about who they hired to bring in the harvest, keeping wages low. Meanwhile the use of antique equipment on difficult terrain resulted in a variable harvest output. Tensions between landowner and peasant racked the country, and stories abound of aristocrats letting their land go fallow in order to spite their workers. Starving peasants gathering acorns in Extremadura were thwarted by landowners driving their pigs over the area in order to deprive them. In short the atmosphere was deeply poisonous, mainly as a result of the inherent inequality in society.

Spanish Monarchs – diminishing returns
Issues with the Spanish Monarchy stretch back even further. The current ruling House of Bourbon has had a chequered past, particularly when placed alongside the glittering successes of the previous Habsurg dynasty. Great Habsburg rulers such as the unifying Ferdinand and Isabella, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the Armada-launching Philip II, were followed by a steadily decreasing quality of monarch, particularly from 1701 onwards when the Bourbons took over. On March 18th 1808, with Napoleon encroaching into Spain, the feckless Crown Prince Ferdinand led a revolt against his father Carlos IV, who was forced to abdicate in his favour. Two months later, with French troops occupying most of Spain, Fernando abdicated the throne and returned it to his father, who himself abdicated in favour of Napoleon after only two days; a sorry sequence of events which did not stop Fernando reclaiming the throne after the French had been driven out in 1814 (largely thanks to the courageous efforts of Spanish partisan guerrillas). He was a truly terrible king, first renouncing the liberal constitution of 1812 that had been signed in his absence, then accepting parts of it and offending religious rightists who subsequently gathered around the banner of his brother, Carlos. These so-called 'Carlists' ripped Spain apart in a series of civil wars throughout the nineteenth century, and were still a recognisable force in the Spanish Civil War. Ferdinand's daughter, Isabel II, was promiscuous and hypocritical, and although the monarchy was now only constitutional her indiscretions dealt still more blows to its image. Isabel's son Alfonso XII took the throne in 1875, before dying in 1885 and being replaced by his own baby son, Alfonso XIII. By 1916, King Alfonso had lost faith in constitutional monarchy as a system, and was building closer ties to the military. In 1923, he asked a General, Primo de Rivera, to become military dictator, effectively doing himself out of a job. When Primo resigned in 1930, the Second Republic was formed, and this was the shaky polity that would take Spain into Civil War. Alfonso was the grandfather to Monday’s departing king, Juan Carlos I.

United States of Hispania
Spanish regionalism, meanwhile, stems from the manner in which the country was formed. On 9 July 711, Tariq ibn-Ziyad landed in Gibraltar at the head of 7,000 North Africans. With this paltry force, and aided by a native population fed up with its Visigothic overlords, he galloped through Spain, conquering all but a narrow Asturian strip in the Northern extremity by 720 CE. But by 1000, this narrow strip had expanded to the extent that it stretched down into modern Portugal in the West, and to the East it had reached as far south as Barcelona. This 'reconquista' of spreading Christian force was not a unified effort however, and as the Arab curtain rolled back it revealed ever-lengthening separate kingdoms. Galicia and Leon were growing to the west, the former would eventually give birth to Portugal, while Castile and Pamplona (Navarra) were advancing through the centre. The French were reclaiming the East in what would eventually become Aragon (Catalonia and Valencia). This process continued and by 1200 Portugal, Leon, Castile, Navarra and Aragon between them controlled two thirds of the peninsula; in 1249 the Arabs had been contained in the small but highly defensible Emirate of Granada on the southern tip of Spain, and this would hold out until 1492. On that date, when Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabela of Castile finally rode into Granada as husband and wife to unify Spain, all of these separate regions had enjoyed long centuries of autonomy which allowed each to develop their own languages and proud cultures. Galicia in the northwest spoke Gallego, the father of modern Portuguese, the Catalans of the northeast spoke a language highly influenced by France, while even the region of Valencia had its own language. The Basques of Navarra meanwhile represent a unique case - an ancient race mentioned by Pliny and Strabo, it has been genetically proven that they were a formed society as early as 7,000 years ago, and their language predates the Indo-European roots of all the other languages on the continent. This history of division has created a regional desire for independence that has haunted Spain throughout its past.

The uprising
On 17th July 1936, General Franco received a telegram at his post in Gran Canaria. The telegram confirmed that the Army of Africa had risen in his support, and was now ready to be transported across the straits and onto the mainland (from where it was stationed in Morocco). Various towns and military and Guardia Civil bases around Spain itself had also risen, but the support was shaky, and without immediate reinforcement it would soon be mopped up by Republican forces. Unfortunately for Franco, the navy had not risen*, so his army could not cross according to its original plan. The rebellion would have been finished before it had begun, were it not for the intervention of Adolf Hitler, who sent German transport planes to effect a giant airlift operation, along with a pocket battleship to provide cover. Over the course of three years, the nationalists won battle after battle, constantly supported by the German and Italian navies and air forces. The Luftwaffe's obliteration by carpet bombing of the Basque village of Guernica is well known, but less famous is the naval bombardment of a refugee column numbering 200,000 unarmed men, women and children on the coastal road from Malaga to Almeria.
*The officers had actually rebelled as previously agreed with Franco, but the lower decks refused to follow orders. The only seaworthy battleship in the Spanish fleet, the Jaime I, was won back by its sailors after a struggle, resulting in a now famous radio exchange with the mainland: 'Crew of Jaime I to ministry of marine. We have had serious resistance from the commanders and officers on board and have subdued them by force...Urgently request instructions as to bodies.' 'Ministry of marine to crew Jaime I. Lower bodies overboard with respectful solemnity. What is your present position?'

Meanwhile, the Regulares of the Nationalist Army were gaining a terrible reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness. The soldiers had been de-sensitized by a bitter colonial war in Morocco the decade before, and they were soon committing similar atrocities against their own countrymen. Whipped on by General Queipo de Llano's murderous nightly radio broadcasts from Seville ('I want you to kill like a dog any queer or pervert who criticizes this glorious national movement'), standard practise upon arrival in a town was to kill a number of unarmed leftists, rape and shave the heads of the town's women and then force-feed them castor oil, to make them suffer the shame of publicly soiling themselves in agony. Paul Preston's 2012 weighty tome 'The Spanish Holocaust', itemises in some detail the various atrocities committed by both sides. Preston estimates the numbers of executions and disappearances at around 150,000 committed by the Nationalists, and around 50,000 by the Republicans, with the difference being that the Nationalist killings usually happened under orders, while Republican atrocities were usually committed when commanders had lost control of their men.

Franco’s Spain
The war came to an end on the 1st April 1939, when General Franco made a public radio broadcast proclaiming victory, and he soon set about creating a new Spain in his own image. The retribution and executions of leftists continued for many years, as did a guerrilla resistance in some mountainous parts of the country. Although Spain was in dire economic straits immediately after the war, Franco gradually managed to modernize the country, reinvigorating the old industrial heartlands around Barcelona and Bilbao with the help of a capital injection from the United States; this was in return for accepting US military bases on Spanish soil. Meanwhile, the dictator set about increasing a sense of Spanish unity in both positive and negative ways. Spanish traditions such as bullfighting were encouraged, and when the great Manolete was killed at by a bull in Linares in 1947, Franco ordered three days of national mourning, where only funeral dirges could be played on the radio. Regional identities were frowned upon, and the speaking of local languages such as Catalan, Basque and Gallego (Franco's own regional language) was outlawed. These actions were met with dismay in the regions, but received support from some centrists, notably in Madrid.

Viva el Rey!
In 1969, Franco seems to have become aware of his own mortality, since he began making arrangements for what was to follow him. He wanted to install a successor who would continue the work he had started, who would keep Spain unified and traditional, and he still believed in the institution of the monarchy. Alfonso XIII's son Juan, the self-styled 'Count of Barcelona', he perceived to be too liberal, but he saw potential in the Count’s young son Juan Carlos. For six years until his death in 1975, Franco trained Juan Carlos in how to be an efficient dictator to the repressed country. But, like the Emperor Claudius, Juan Carlos's true colours only became evident once he had taken power, and as soon as he was on the throne he set about liberalising his kingdom. He selected as his first prime minister the young Adolfo Suarez, another liberal who was hiding in plain sight within Franco's government (Suarez recently passed away in March 2014). Together the pair ushered in a period of liberation and freedom which is referred to as 'La Movida', bringing Spain some of the way towards catching up with its liberated Western European peers.

But the path to liberty was not without its obstacles, and on February 23rd 1981 the fledgling democracy survived a significant test of its mettle. At 6.30pm, 200 armed members of the Guardia Civil stormed into the the Palace of Congress firing submachine guns into the air, led by a Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero. Tejero shouted for everyone to be silent, and all but three deputies fell to the floor. The Minister of Defence and Adolfo Suarez, now outgoing President of Government, remained seated and instructed Tejero to desist, while the head of the Communist Party calmly lit a cigarette. The attempted coup was masterminded by old Francoist veterans, disappointed by the liberal direction the country had taken since the death of the Generalisimo, but they had underestimated the King. On hearing of the attack, Juan Carlos telephoned military leaders to ensure their support in resisting the coup, he then went on national television shortly after midnight to assure the population that the coup would not succeed. Tejero stood down, releasing the Cortes, and the crisis was averted. In the aftermath the King met with leaders of all Spain's parties and told them that a future coup would only happen over his dead body. Since that day, the hardiness of the Spanish democracy has never been in doubt.

Flash forward
To a modern visitor to Spain, particularly one on a beach in Mallorca or in a San Sebastián restaurant, it is easy to forget that Spain’s old men will have lived the first half of their lives under a repressive dictatorship. The fourth most visited country in the world exudes an aura of relaxed hedonism, and destinations such as Ibiza and Marbella have become a mecca for easyjetting Northern Europeans. But spend enough time in the less touristic parts of the country and it becomes clear that many of the old issues still remain, while others appear to be returning.

1981 to 2011, the King basked in the adoration of the Spanish public; though he was known to be conducting many extra-marital affairs, his misbehaviour received little more than an indulgent shake of the head in most corners of his country. Cracks started to appear in 2011 when the King’s son-in-law, a former Olympic handballer named Iñaki Urdangarin, was found to have evaded taxes totalling €240,000. The next year, the King himself was the subject of public disapproval for embarking on a hunting trip to Africa while his people struggled with mid-crisis austerity. The Crown Prince, Felipe, 48, has thus far managed to keep his nose clean but he has also never come through a challenge like his father did. With the people so divided on the merits of monarchy in the first place, Felipe’s popularity could fluctuate much more wildly than his father’s did, and calls for a republic might well be taken more seriously. The government, meanwhile, has recently faced a massive scandal of its own, with its treasurer of 20 years currently awaiting trial on a charge of embezzlement of €48m. Current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appears to have escaped unscathed thus far, but with monarchy and government both facing corruption charges, and the opposition party consistently underwhelming voters, it might be an opportunity for a new entrant to the political scene offering alternative solutions.

Meanwhile regionalism has been enjoying something of a resurgence. In Europe's most recent elections, France and Britain dominated headlines, as their anti-Europe parties (FN and UKIP respectively) achieved great gains in the polls. Less discussed was the fact that 55 per cent of Catalan voters took the opportunity to vote for parties committed to an independent Catalonia. Scotland's imminent referendum and Venice's secessionary attempts have brought regional independence to the front of mind in various parts of Europe, and the Catalans smell an opportunity to win the freedom they have sought for so long. The Basque Country, seeing the progress made by the Catalans, has abandoned its militant wing ETA and is now striving to pursue an escape through political means. In the Spanish nightmare, Catalonia will be followed out of the door by the Basque Country, Galicia and ultimately Valencia, leaving just a central stump remaining. This perennial fear pulls hard on the Spanish imagination. A powerful centralising figure who promised cohesion at the expense of new-found liberties might achieve some political traction in this climate.

Economic woes
But there is a key ingredient from the situation in 1936 that is still missing, and that is the poisonous atmosphere and desperation caused by internal divisions and inequality within the population. Spain's economy has now changed almost beyond recognition, with agriculture only making up 3% of GDP, and services contributing 70%, and this has eliminated many of the issues inherent in a landowner and peasant society. A new economy, however, brings with it new problems, in this case a construction boom and bust. In the last decade with construction soaring, immigrants were flooding into the country, while the demand for labour was such that building sites were recruiting 16-year-olds straight from school. Flash forward to the present day, and unemployment is over 25%, while youth unemployment has hovered around the 50% mark for several years. Many of those who are currently under 30 will have their careers permanently scarred by this period, as they fall behind their peer groups in other countries. Fifty percent of twenty somethings live with their parents, while friend networks have absorbed much of the financial impact by supporting the unemployed. Spain has also seen a great exodus of its youth to Germany and the UK, braving the dreary weather in search of employment. Though the Spanish economy has been sprouting some green shoots of late, the consensus is that current employment conditions will persist for many years. As the members of this generation all choose their different methods of coping with the crisis, divisions may emerge between those who had a job during this period and the largely uneducated group who were left unemployed; returning emigrés could stir the pot yet further. Intra-societal tension is an animal that has been kept under control for many decades, but that is not to say that it cannot ever return. In the shorter term, the country has been largely supporting its unemployed off private savings, but these must ultimately be finite; nobody knows what will happen when these funds are expended. Finally it should be noted a total Spanish economic collapse was only headed off in 2012 ECB Head Mario Draghi’s assertion that he would do ‘whatever it takes’, a backstop which provided financial markets with the assurance they needed to buy Spanish bonds again. Europe itself is a polity that is currently under attack from its own voters, and in the event that Europe did break up, Spain would again find itself deeply exposed.

What lies ahead
For Spain, a great many dangers lurk in the coming decade. Private savings could run out, leaving the many Spanish unemployed living entirely off an already-stretched welfare state. Spain, point of origin of the Occupy movement, could see civil unrest and frustration rising as its young unemployed take to the streets. Catalonia's independence campaign could reach a level of cohesion where it becomes impossible to ignore, as the centrists of Madrid clamour for not an inch of ground to be given. The government, already weakened by scandal, would be facing a country filled with conflict and might struggle to present adequate solutions. Felipe, a new king in charge of a shaky monarchy, would be badly positioned to provide the stabilising force his country needed. At this point a populist leader might find themselves in a position to seize power. A leftist in the mould of Hugo Chavez could arrive offering solutions to the employment crisis, or perhaps a centrist would rekindle old Francoist policies around unifying Spain by force. Both idealisms have of course been shown to be flawed, but the global historic failures of communism did not stop United Left (IU), a conglomeration of former communist parties, from coming third in the 2011 general elections.

The reason these possibilities are not often discussed is that they are deeply unlikely. Spain is now a modern Western European state with a liberal ethos that extends throughout its population. Though the country remains religious and extremely traditional, a peaceful accommodation appears to have been reached between church and liberals. The path to a violent leader seizing control of the country again would require an unlikely sequence of events with many opportunities for diversion, and an educated public should be capable of making the necessary judgements to prevent it. But a population ignorant of its own history is ill-equipped to avoid repeating its mistakes. It is hard to imagine 2014 Germany falling for an Adolf Hitler figure, partly because the circumstances of his rise and its repercussions are so well understood. With the difficult transition complete and Spain currently sheltering in Europe’s embrace, now would be a good moment to consolidate on the gains it has made and bring its dark past under the national microscope.