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Stanley Payne on Weaponizing the Past

The great historian of 20th-century Spain muses on what that country's troubles can (and cannot) teach us in uncertain times.

On the Guadalajara front, a soldier of the Spanish Republican army looks out for airplanes. April 1937. (By Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In a career of over half a century, historian Stanley Payne has written more than twenty books about modern Spain, Portugal, and the history of European fascism. A pessimist might call him an expert in the disintegration of democracy. His recent piece on the Spanish Civil War in First Things, “The Road to Revolution,” chronicles the comparatively drab—drab by comparison, say, to Picasso’s Guernica or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls or Robert Capa’s famous photograph The Falling Soldier—story of the breakdown of Spain’s democracy prior to the outbreak of Civil War.

Sometimes ministerial appointments and the formation of multiparty governing coalitions are just as consequential as bombs and bullets. An undercurrent of Payne’s piece—alluded to, if not directly stated—is that the banalization of Spain’s dissolution into chaos and violence prior to the outbreak of Civil War is largely by design. Whether it’s Picasso, Hemingway, left-of-center academics, or contemporary filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, the temptation to oversimplify Spanish history into clear-cut categories of salt-of-the-earth democrats and evil fascists is too great to resist. The truth, as Payne points out and TAC senior editor Rod Dreher quotes approvingly in a recent blog post on the Spanish Civil War is more complicated:

Revolution is not an event but a process, and a complex one. Radicals who fail to overthrow a constitutional system by force may find it useful to exploit that same system. Though their intention is to destroy the regime, they can purport to defend it when its institutions serve their short-term interests.

The coup led by Francisco Franco against a nominally democratic government is without argument more well known than the systematic dismemberment of Spain’s Republic by the socialist left, which itself had initiated a major coup attempt in 1934 and, immediately prior to the uprising, murdered the right-wing leader of the parliamentary opposition, Jose Calvo Sotelo. Payne’s list of factors contributing to the dysfunction of Spain’s Republic well before the military coup challenges the short attention span of our soundbite culture. Spanish democracy’s death by a thousand cuts—which included the “miscalculation of non-revolutionary enablers,” expropriation of private property, political violence, politicization of the justice system and arbitrary arrest, and electoral fraud—can hardly be put onto a bumper sticker (or, apparently, accurately depicted in cultural media).

When I saw the news footage of mobs storming the Capitol, causing elected officials to drop to the floor or flee to safe rooms, I couldn’t help but think of the botched coup attempt in Spain in 1981 in which members of the paramilitary Guardia Civil stormed the Spanish Cortes, guns drawn. The coup’s leaders sprayed bullets into the ceiling of the Cortes, causing Spanish MPs to dive to the ground—an eerie parallel to the images circulated on Wednesday. They were then held hostage for 18 hours. As with January 6th’s “insurrection,” the event was caught on camera and broadcast to the world. Just like that, Spain’s image as a model of peaceful democratic transition after Franco’s death was thrown into question, albeit briefly. The king and the military failed to back the coup and order was fully restored in less than a day.

In my interview with Stanley Payne I mention the comparison only to be politely chastised. “Only at the vaguest, most superficial level,” Payne explains, did the 1981 coup and last Wednesday’s riots bear resemblance to one another. “There was no organization, no intentionality, and no ultimate goal” on the part of the rioters, Payne points out. The rioters were “cleared away with minimal violence” while what happened in Spain “was the beginning of a potential coup.” Payne takes issue with the term ‘insurrection’ itself to describe January 6, which he tells me is either misdefined or defined so broadly as to become virtually meaningless in any historical sense. “A riot is a riot.”

Even if Professor Payne dismisses out of hand my comparison of the desecration of two secularly sacred spaces of democracy, the Spanish Cortes and the American Capitol, he does allow for other potential parallels between Spanish and American democracy, as well as cautionary tales of where America could be headed if the hard left succeeds in pulling democratic moderates down the road to revolution. As contemporary Spain’s socialist government shows us, it would definitely be as much “process as event,” as much bland legalism as tear gas and barricades.

After almost 40 years of dictatorship, albeit one in which the regime incrementally liberalized over time, especially beginning in the 1960s, Franco died in 1975. Within the framework of the existing government—and with the crucial support of King Juan Carlos—Spain held free elections and by 1978 drafted a new constitution. In his book Spain: A Unique History Payne argues that Spain’s own Glorious Revolution (my words, not Payne’s) became a template for Central and Eastern European countries transitioning to liberal democracy after  the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (He calls it the “Spanish Model.”) Crucial to the success of this model was a rejection of what Payne calls the “politics of vengeance”—the temptation by the previous era’s dissidents, now in a position of power, to seek a form of “justice” that can come to look more and more like retaliation.

In the immediate aftermath of the transition to democracy, Payne explains, both left and right for the most part welcomed this measured, restrained path to democracy. For even if the right had committed atrocities under the Franco regime, the left had too—during, and even prior to the outbreak of Spain’s Civil War. Neither side wished to air the other’s dirty laundry, for fear they might be confronted with their own. The new Spanish historical revisionism derisively calls this rejection of the politics of vengeance a “pact of silence” and insists that it is meant to whitewash the crimes of Franco’s dictatorship. Payne states otherwise in Spain: A Unique History:

‘Pact of Silence’ is simply a propaganda slogan. No such thing ever existed. The very opposite characterized the Transition, which was grounded in a keen awareness of the failures of the past and a determination to avoid them […] What was agreed upon was not ‘silence’ but the understanding that historical conflicts would be consigned to the labors of the historians and journalists, and that politicians would not make use of them in their parties’ mutual competition, which would direct itself to present and future problems.

As Payne points out in his book, the refusal of Spanish politicians to weaponize the past as a political battering ram was not accompanied by censorship or institutional repression. On the contrary, a boom in journalism and historical writing about the Civil War and Franco era took place. Free and open historical inquiry and its politicization need not, and perhaps should not, be indissolubly linked. But such disassociation of scholarship and politics, as we know, runs counter to the goals of the New Left, which sees academia as a base of revolution and indoctrinated students as the new proletariat.

Starting with Spanish socialist Felipe Gonzales in the 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s and 2010s under Socialists Jose Luis Zapatero and Pedro Sanchez, as well as communist minister Pablo Iglesias, the temptation to profit politically from the past became too alluring. The socialists began to label the center-right party as crypto-Fascist. Instead of fighting back, the Partido Popular was “terribly afraid of doing anything that would label them Francoist,” which in turn emboldened the radical left and fueled the rise of a populist-nationalist party, Vox. A feckless center-right, an arrogant cultural left and the rise of a populist movement should all sound familiar to anyone paying attention to American politics over the last five years.

Soon it became commonplace on the Spanish left to delegitimize the 1978 Constitution as a product of Francoism and not the result of careful compromise and consensus, much as today certain Americans take for granted that the federalist balance of power between states and national government, the electoral college or even the Constitution itself are all eloquent articulations of the base impulse to preserve and propagate chattel slavery. In 2007, under the leadership of Socialist President Zapatero, a “Law of Historical Memory” was passed, which eventually led to, among other things, the exhumation of Franco’s remains and expropriation of his family’s summer estate, both documented in these pages by Rod Dreher. This literal digging up of the past also included government sponsored excavations at mass grave sites of Republican victims of the Spanish Civil War, but without any equivalent plan to dig up the remains of rightist victims of the Spanish Republic.

As Santiago Abascal told me in a previously unpublished excerpt of an interview for this publication “He [Zaptero] brought back to Spain the memory of a war that had been forgotten, reopening old wounds… [and obligating] Spaniards to denounce their own grandparents.” At the time I interviewed Abascal, I thought it strange that he would use the words “forget” about history. Isn’t history always supposed to be remembered? “Never forget,” right? Or in Marx’s words “always historicize!”

The socialist promulgators of the Law of Historical Memory were hellbent on making forgetting impossible. Different provinces of Spain piled law upon law, creating their own “laws of historical memory” and categories of thought crime which violated the “democratic memory”—that is, the memory of the Second Spanish Republic. In 2017 parliamentary discussions, Socialist members of parliament and their enablers discussed further amendment to the 2007 legislation that would include 200,000 euro fines and, in the case of journalists and teachers or professors, banishment from their profession. This is a foretaste of where the American left could be headed on issues of race, gender and sexuality: outright criminalization of political differences.

The very concept of a “Law of Historical Memory” is, in Professor Payne’s view, an oxymoron. “Memory is individual and subjective, history as a serious knowledge enterprise is impersonal and collective… it relies on hard data and primary sources.” The intellectuals who coined the term “collective memory” such as Maurice Halbwachs and later Pierre Nora, upon which the theoretical framework of the 2007 law is based, never understood the term to convey objective knowledge. Rather “it’s a series of contemporary attitudes shaped by the politics of the moment… collective memory is an artifact of the present, not the past.”

The distinction  between memory and history, Payne points out to me, is fundamental not just in historical disciplines. It was surprising for me to hear from a historian loaded to the brim with facts and data that forgetting is as important a part of life as remembering. “Human life is based on a certain amount of forgetting. You have to forget certain kinds of things or you won’t be able to get ahead. That’s a fundamental fact and rule of life.” The very concept of the rule of law is itself a tool of forgetting: “You have to agree  when something has been decided upon then accept that and move on…. The rule of law is supposed to transcend vendetta and the vicious cycle of permanent revenge.” Spain’s socalist party has “been good at forgetting its own crimes, but not other people’s.”

I ask Payne about America’s current proclivity towards toppling statues and renaming public spaces in light of the distinction he makes between history and memory, and the need to forget. He readily identifies a “2020 iconoclasm” movement and points out that in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a professor for decades, a monument to a Union War hero was defaced. Such acts, Payne tells me, are assaults on the concept of history itself. His term of choice is “anti-historical nihilism.” This is not to say that historical monuments should never be removed. He acknowledges that in the case of Spain “some of these changes were understandable” when it came to monuments to Franco, but he also points out the busts recently erected to two socalist firebrands in Central Madrid, Indalcio Prieto and Largo Caballero, that merely honored “one set of victimizers in place of another.” Payne makes a distinction when it comes to historical memory that the modern left, American and Spanish, doesn’t seem capable of: one between naked sectarianism and statue toppling on the one hand and “adding positive commentary” and historical dialogue on the other.

What is the end game of digging up the dead, for instance, or seizing the private property of Franco’s heirs? Unfortunately, the weaponization of history does have a rational objective that emerges from its incoherent nihilism: “They [Spanish leftists] hope it will stir up more feeling which will bring more votes… This is a matter of creating turbulence and stirring something up.” The turbulence is “artificial” because the political left creates it. It doesn’t “exist on its own.” I am again reminded of previously unpublished words from my interview with Santiago Abascal of Spain’s Vox party: “They [the left] want to divide, that’s what really motivates them, because communism feeds off of division and conflict.”

I ask Dr. Payne if it’s possible for America to adopt the “Spanish model” with regards to our own past, leaving history to the historians and individual judgement, with politicians focusing on problems present and future. Payne agrees with my premise that the American left, like its Spanish counterpart, has attempted to weaponize history. “The left has tried to maintain historical vendettas about past grievances,” Payne states matter-of-factly, and “weaponizing history is very destructive” of political coexistence.  The problem with leaving history to the historians is that “if a society is totally polarized you will not have a consensus” to separate politics and history. “If the polarization is too intense” the unanimity in public will to forget history in the context of politics eludes the nation in question. America is no exception.

As we wrap up our interview I bring up the issue that, in light of the riots or “insurrection,” is perhaps most fraught: election fraud. Historians have long acknowledged that electoral fraud existed prior to the outbreak of Spanish Civil War in 1936, but one of the unassailable premises upon which the Republic’s legitimacy rested was that the first round of elections that year, called in February 1936, were in fact legitimate. Payne and other historians have long worked under the assumption that this was the case. But in 2017, a bombshell of a book—inasmuch as history books can be bombshells in the era of “my truth”—came out. Historians Roberto Garcia and Manuel Tardio uncovered widespread electoral fraud, conducted entirely at the local level of the Spanish provinces, which tipped the election, just barely, to the political left. Without a national conspiracy, without any “plumbers” or Spanish Watergate, the nation’s history was nonetheless irrevocably altered. Over the course of two and a half days, beginning on election day, polling stations were ransacked and ballots removed or “recounted,” oftentimes with the complicity of sympathetic officials in local government. 80 years later the myth of the democratic Republic had finally been debunked. Three quarters of a century in which elections were deemed free and fair while opportunistic ballot stuffing and vote shredding occurred without any need for a top-down conspiracy—not the perfect crime, but a good run indeed. Long enough, for instance, for a doctrinaire Law of Historical Memory to be founded at least partially on false premises. Time, while never the ally of memory, can in certain cases come to the aid of history proper.

I am reminded of another point in the interview when Payne mentions that the 1619 Project’s founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, upon learning that this date commemorated not slavery but indentured servitude, refused to change the project’s name. Her defense; “The 1619 Project explicitly denies objectivity. We stated in the intro this was a reframing of history… The fight here is about who gets to control the national narrative, and therefore, the nation’s shared memory of itself, one group has monopolized this for too long in order to create this myth of exceptionalism.” Note Hannah-Jones’ invocation of collective memory (the “national narrative”) as opposed to history. In this case, as earlier, objective truth is less important than the struggle of competing narratives. Payne is right, collective memory is indeed an “artifact of the present,” which Hannah-Jones acknowledges when asked, but do her readers recognize and understand this distinction between competing “narratives” and objective truth, between history and memory

Why didn’t the political right take action short of a coup to stop the left? “Under those circumstances the right was very intimidated… There was no way to contest the election under the existing distribution of police and military power and constitution of the time… The right initially thought they should just not get involved and hope for the best.” In subsequent elections the electoral fraud became more brazen and conspicuous. The assassination of Sotelo, leader of the political opposition, was, for the military plotters—including a previously reluctant Franco—the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a PhD in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.

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