The Mysteries of History

Franco's Cryptby Jeremy Treglown

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336p $30

I read this book about Spain, a Catholic country with a complicated 20th century history, during a three month sojourn in the Republic of Ireland, a country with a similar history. The setting and the text combined to help me, as a historian, to realize that in these nations the attempt to make a just remembrance of the past is not only an academic exercise. It is a project essential to contemporary domestic tranquility. Toward the end of my Irish visit, the death of Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5, 2013, introduced a third country’s complexities to my reflections.


Jeremy Treglown, a British scholar and writer with extensive residency in contemporary Spain, wishes to refute a thesis that nothing of intellectual or creative worth emerged there during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939 to 1975). Treglown worries that Anglophone readers linger in their own language’s excellent literary and cinematic reflections on the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and its aftermath. He also feels that Spaniards themselves are too inclined to assume that meaningful reflection on the war began again only during the post-dictatorship years. In a sense, he writes for two audiences, strongly encouraging Anglophones to immerse themselves in Spanish language and literature and urging Spaniards to become more familiar with their own heritage.

Treglown’s approach in Franco’s Crypt is microscopic rather than macroscopic. He wants his international readership to see behind the Spanish Civil War’s role as a prelude to World War II, so he focuses narrowly on specific events within Spain itself. Knowledge of the war’s course is assumed. An introductory section broadly surveying the conflict and the ensuing dictatorship would have been helpful, even for readers who know the war itself, as well as readers not so familiar with Spain.

The Civil War remains painful for Spaniards to discuss but they live amid its physical mementoes. In a moving section, Treglown describes the efforts to find the hidden graves of people massacred during the conflict. He juxtaposes this account with vivid descriptions of the public monuments to Franco’s supporters and the burial place of the dictator himself. All the graves must be acknowledged if the war is to be fully understood. Treglown recognizes that many Spanish people do not want to persevere in opening the hidden graves, but he hopes that the effort will continue.

The role of the Roman Catholic Church during the Franco regime reflected the diversity of opinion within Spain as a whole. Opposition to Franco from within the church generally came from a faction that felt that the preservation of the old feudal order was essential to protect Spain’s Catholicism. Franco found a helpful counterbalance to these ecclesial opponents in Opus Dei, whose membership of largely middle class professionals understood Franco’s goal: to situate a strongly Catholic Spain within a modern economy. El Caudillo (“The Leader”) had substantial success with economic reconstruction, especially through water conservation and sustainable energy projects, all pursued by the Catholic middle class he fostered.

The Jesuits receive Treglown’s tentative attention. There is a reference to a fateful decision of the Second Republic (1931–39) to drop a plan for strict separation of church and state. Instead, it focused on the goal of forcing the dissolution of the Spanish Jesuits that seemed to present one incentive to civil war. Despite the experience of persecution, alumni of Jesuit schools later offered nuanced reflections on the period. Several intellectuals and artists whose testimony appears in Treglown’s text had Jesuit educations, and they invariably had a broad sense of perspective. This is a thread in the text rather than a clearly argued theme. Treglown notes the coincidence without connecting the elements.

He offers detailed coverage of fiction, poetry, cinema, sculpture and other fine arts. Treglown’s topics will probably be instantly comprehensible to specialists in any of these areas, but once again there is a danger that the general reader might feel swamped by all the data. It is worthwhile to persist, however, for the sake of Treglown’s provocative thesis that a transition to a post-Franco period began as early as 1943 with a decision by former opponents in the war to colloborate in the field of visual arts. He also believes that the transition greatly accelerated in the 1950s and continues today.

As a historian, I recognized familiar professional controversies in a chapter on historical memory. A project for a national dictionary of biography strives to include entries and themes from beyond the upper class elite. School curriculums struggle with how to present the war and the dictatorship to contemporary youth. Academic debate rages among professors who condemn the Franco regime, those who seek to restore its reputation and those who would rather form a synthesis of all writing on the regime. The task of reflecting on the Franco legacy is far from over.

Franco’s Crypt left me with a haunting question: how well do Americans remember our own history? This is not just an issue for Spain or Ireland or South Africa. Events like the American Revolution and our own Civil War are remembered quite differently by various political factions within the United States. Our own domestic tranquility may someday demand coming to grips with this phenomenon. That is why I wish Treglown’s excellent book were more accessible to general American readers—he can teach us much about our own national selectivity.

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