Historical Narratives: The Glorified and the Silenced Narratives of Spanish History

The bare, granite landscape of the Sierra de Guadarrama in Spain gives way to a 3,000-acre woodland that is home to the country’s most controversial monument. Soaring an impressive 150-metres high is a granite cross, raised dramatically above the basilica and valley. Beneath the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, are the graves of 40,000 people, both Republicans and Nationalists, killed during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War.

From 1975 to 2019, Francisco Franco was also buried in the valley. Franco, dictator of Spain since leading the Nationalists to victory in the Civil War, was one of only two people to have a named grave there, which was placed behind the altar. 

The monument was constructed between 1940 and 1959 with the intention of honouring those killed on both sides during the Civil War and was approved by Franco as a masterpiece defying time. It claims a degree of neutrality through honouring all victims. However, the grandeur of the unique Spanish architecture, constructed under a fascist dictator, glorifies a narrative that tells of the power and splendour of the victors – the side that erected such an impressive monument. 

Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los Caídos). (Credit: Domingo Lorente, via Flickr.)

Spain battles with such narratives. Last year, Spain’s socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed to exhume Franco’s remains. He claimed that their presence glorified Franco, drawing attention to the dictator through the monument and allowing his followers to continually pay tribute. Millions watched ahead of the election as his remains were airlifted to a cemetery just North of Madrid. Whilst Sánchez remained Prime Minister post-election, Vox, a far-right party, made huge gains becoming the third largest party in parliament. 

The attempt to alter the narrative away from Franco’s power and grandeur was met with strong opposition calling for the former leader to continue to be glorified. The political battle was fought over such a visual representation in the Valle de los Caídos of Franco’s power, despite the years of oppression many suffered under his leadership. Some of those who built the monument were serving in forced labour under the regime. The political significance of the monument held power to sway the elections, marginalising both right and left of the spectrum. 

The imposing visibility of the monument differs greatly from the hidden past of the Civil War and Franco-era. The atrocities committed by both Republicans and Nationalists during the civil war era and beyond were intentionally left to rest in a politically organised Pacto del olvido, or Pact of Forgetting, intended to make the transition to democracy after Franco’s death as smooth as possible. Such a pact left behind trials, judgement and retribution, and served to hide a whole narrative of suffering and brutality. 

Significance lies in Spain’s hidden narratives as well as the glorified ones. As attempts to silence glorified narratives through the likes of removing Franco’s remains in the Valle de los Caídos occurs, so too does increased political conversation around the Pacto del olvido as narratives suppressed for decades are brought into conversation. Spain grapples with both, one pulling against the other in a country in conflict about all narratives of its history.

Maddy Burt

Does History Link to Geography?

Although separate disciplines, history and geography are tightly intertwined. While history attempts to examine human society, culture and experience through a temporal lense, geography does so through a spatial one.

A map of the world, surrounded by classical imagery. (Credit: Marzolino, via iStock.)

Physical geography and natural phenomena have undoubtedly influenced the course of history: the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, which caused massive global cooling, attests to this. It is human geography, however, which is more closely linked to history. History is, for example, an incredibly important factor in the development (or decline) of cities. The relative economic power of London, owing to it’s strategic location and history as the Roman capital of Britannia, encouraged the Hanseatic League to set up it’s main English trading post there. At this time the government was located in Westminster, but the relative autonomy afforded to the Corporation of London made it the main commercial centre on the island. Having its own government and liberal economic laws, and a notable lack of interference from the national government, made it attractive to traders. The wealth this generated caused an explosion in the urban population and forced the city to abandon the grid-iron street patterns favoured by the Romans to accommodate the growth. This led to an incredibly dense settlement with narrow winding streets, which in turn necessitated the development of public mass transit come industrialisation, now an essential component of every major city in the world.

In stark contrast to the wealth historical factors have helped to produce, an inability to develop regions of Southern Africa can, to a large extent, be traced to apartheid era debt afflicting the region. Not only must South Africans repay debts of a regime that oppressed them, but people in countries such as Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique have been saddled with enormous debts fighting South Africa’s apartheid wars. These debts have made Southern Africa the poorest region in the world. As poverty is closely linked to high birth and mortality rates, the region’s history has resulted in modern demographics unseen in other parts of the world, with incredibly young populations and rapid growth. This has resulted in dense urban developments and rapid land degradation as a result of overgrazing and the necessity of intensive agriculture. 

Migration, another incredibly topical theme in modern geography, has also been affected by historical European colonialism. Push and pull factors are a foundation of modern studies of migration, and yet colonial ties have only been appreciated as a significant pull factor in recent history. While much credence was traditionally given to economic and social factors, historical factors have recently been afforded more attention. The Caribbean is a region characterised by a diverse group of people – forced migrants (slaves) from Africa as well as indentured and voluntary migrants from Europe and Asia. In the twentieth century the migration flow reversed and citizens emigrated in large numbers – overwhelmingly to the colonial motherland. While Britain was notable in its extensive attempts to restrict the volume of migrants, France and the Netherlands welcomed and indeed encouraged migration from the French Antilles and Suriname respectively. This is responsible for rapid demographic and social changes in those nations in the late 1900s which have shaped their population pyramids and urbanisation to this day.

History is also an oft-cited reason for territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea. While geographical factors are the predominant reason why these islands are desirable, – with an abundance of oil and militarily strategic locations – a lack of clarity as to historical ownership has been used to justify claims. The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco failed to specify the status of the islands which left them open to competing territorial claims. China, following a border dispute with the Soviet Union, laid claim to all of the islands, not wanting Soviet ally North Vietnam to exert control over its coastline. After a minor naval skirmish with North Vietnam, China occupied Johnson reef and used this as a base to further its influence in the region. Today no less than seven nations compete for control over this trade passage worth $3.37 trillion.

Although it is obvious from these examples and countless more that history and geography are almost inseparable, historical geography remains a relatively new field with innumerable unexplored areas of research. Ultimately, it is only through an interdisciplinary approach that we can truly appreciate and understand that which we study. Hopefully, geographers and historians can move beyond their differences and appreciate this in future.

Michael Hendöe