Historical Objectivity

Gerda Taro. Crowd outside morgue after a

It would be foolish to think there is such a thing as historical objectivity. Many insist there is always something to be learned from history; a way to make sense of senseless atrocities such that occurred in the Spanish Civil War. As tempting as it is to frame the Spanish Civil War as a proxy war between communism and fascism, or democracy and dictatorship, abstract conceptualization is no worthy substitute to the very concrete, and deeply human, struggles and circumstances that constituted the meat of the conflict. The Spanish Civil War was indeed an omen of things to come, but the causes of the war were uniquely Spanish and rooted in the suffering and desperate motivations of the Spanish people. After the death of Francisco Franco and the fall of his regime, the Pact of Forgetting upheld by the Spanish government until 2000 continued to suppress the collective memory of the Spanish people (Tremlett). Even in the United States, members of the International Brigade were persecuted and silenced by the government, with many volunteers destroying records of their experiences in the Civil War for fear of persecution.

Robert Capa. Gerda Taro on the Cordoba f

These trends following the war exemplify how victory following a savage, bloody conflict can impose chilling effects on the collective memory of a populace. Memories that remain, such as the stories of Don Henry and Ken Graeber, can disproportionately impact how the conflict is remembered, and the rest of the gaps are filled in with anthropomorphic abstraction, like the desperate struggle of democracy against the tyranny of dictatorship. While most historians agree that the International Brigades were militarily insignificant, they undoubtably had a large effect on how the war was framed ideologically. After all, “idealism alone is not enough to confront a determined and savage enemy” (Overy).

Don Henry may have died fighting for his democratic ideals, but the reality was that the Spanish Civil War was born in the ash of a failed republic and by the outbreak of the Civil War both sides of the conflict had lost their faith in democracy. In fact, both the republican and nationalist coalitions were severely fragmented due to disagreement as to what might be the best alternative to democracy, whether it be fascism, communism, anarcho-syndicalism, monarchism, or a military dictatorship. Ultimately, Franco’s greatest success was unifying the competing fractions of the nationalist coalition under the iron fist of military conquest and unconditional victory over the republican coalition. The Spanish Civil War was much bigger than any one person, most of all a young student from the University of Kansas fighting for what he believed in. And yet, the Spanish Civil War ought to be remembered not for the ideals it was fought for, but by the blood of the dead and the living.