Xosé M. Núñez Seixas and Memories of the Authoritarian Past

By Daniel Blanch

Spain still struggles with the memory of its authoritarian past. The question of what to do with Franco’s palace and grave have recently been addressed by the government and courts. The palace is no longer in the hands of the Franco family, and his remains have been removed from the colossal Valley of the Fallen and taken to a family plot. But the ‘ghost’ of the authoritarian leader lingers. Given that Spain’s transition to democracy avoided a clear rupture with the past, it is not surprising that the country is still coming to terms with the legacy of a man who died in 1975. 

With such a significant temporal lag, it is not necessarily helpful to compare Spain’s relatively recent confrontation with the Franco legacy to Germany’s very thorough judgement of Hitler. Franco lasted much longer than his contemporary despots Hitler or Mussolini, and the Spanish state has been cautious in dealing with the memory of the past. While some say this avoided opening old wounds, it was also due to the ongoing influence of the Spanish conservative party (Partido Popular), with its roots in the Alianza Popular party that arose after the Franco era. Professor Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, Professor of Modern History at the University of Santiago de Compostela, explains how the past influences the present in his insightful book, ‘Sites of the Dictators: Memories of Authoritarian Europe, 1945-2020’ (Routledge, 2021).  

Professor Núñez Seixas gave a fascinating talk at Saint Louis University Madrid, where he described how dictators base their influence on charisma but eventually a structure or system is required to keeps things going. This may involve state organisms or reinforcement of nationalism. After the death of an authoritarian leader, the challenge for the new state structure is to discern how to deal with the ongoing influence of their personality. 

Sites of Dictators

Many strong leaders are revered for inspiring nationalism or a revival of the ‘freedom of the land’, which is often anything but freedom. Cult-type followings around such leaders began, according to Núñez Seixas, with Lenin in the USSR and Sun-yat-Sen in China. Indeed, the cult to the founding fathers is still felt in relation to authoritarian leaders in Slovakia, Latvia and Croatia. Not only the corpse of such a leader, but the birthplace and other significant locations or events become almost sacred in the minds of people. In fact, they may lead to a state- or society-sponsored narrative of collective memory. 

Dealing with the sites of dictators is tricky when such places involve their private lives. Dictators are not born in palaces; their roots and family are generally unremarkable. Often, Núñez Seixas explained, the birthplace of a tyrant is reinvented in popular ways, as was the case with Hitler, Salazar, Mussolini, Hoxha, Stalin, Tito, Horthy, or Tiso. How to interpret other sites is even less straightforward: what should be done with their great public works, massive meeting places and plazas, and their ‘glorious deeds’ associated with the history of the nation?

Mausoleums and graves become sites of pilgrimage for those who admire the memory of these leaders, or even for dark tourism and its fascination with stories of evil. In either case, this can pose a problem for a country that is trying to overcome the damage done by those rulers. Both Fascist and Communist tyrants relied on the cult of personality, which may persist even after their departure from this earth. “This can indirectly contribute to reinforce the past ‘aura’ of the autocrats”, indicated Núñez Seixas. Even in countries like Portugal where the ‘strong-man’s regime’ was overthrown in a revolution from below, some citizens still demonstrate tolerance for the memory of Salazar. 

A democratic state will eventually address this issue, often by taking charge of the site of a dictator and creating a resymbolization in ways that foster an understanding of the damage done by that individual. This may involve expropriating properties connected with the leader or placing public plaques and signs that explain the tragedies unleashed by his domination. 

Securing the future starts with the present

Some sites are particularly meaningful for remembering the victims, who may have received no reparations or justice for the harm done to them. A particularly thorny issue involves dictators who were never held accountable for their crimes. And even dictators who died violently, such as Mussolini, have left a legacy of tragedy and suffering that can never be undone. Damnatio Memoriae, erasing all memory of the past in relation to a certain figure, hardly solves the problem. Besides, such a practice cannot be implemented in an era when the internet readily provides, even on the darkest of lives, information which may not be unbiased.

Statues are easier to remove, and recently in Spain those most connected with Franco have been taken down. In fact, even the memory of Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers or conquistadores demand a reinterpretation that also acknowledges the damage done. This connects to current challenges and issues in dealing with statues of confederate commanders in the US or slave-traders in the UK and elsewhere. One aspect yet to be developed here is the ‘Europeanization’ of the sites of dictators, in an effort to understand transnational effects and harm outside a country’s borders. 

Professor Núñez Seixas recently chaired a committee of experts seeking to deal with certain aspects of the Franco era in Spain’s past. It raises issues of how to give new semantics to a place, dissuade neo-fascist appropriation of it and help average citizens or tourists to grasp the legacy of this authoritarian leader and the Spanish Civil War. Some have suggested that historical events can simply be stated as facts, without attempting to interpret them, but this ‘easy solution’ remains quite controversial. It fails to address questions that arise regarding the current generation and the visitors to such a site. What is needed for a public to grasp the damage done to so many lives during that era? What are the conditions and circumstances that brought about the authoritarian period? Finally, what are the ongoing effects in society today? 

Daniel Blanch is the Coordinator of International Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at Saint Louis University in Madrid

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  D. Blanch (2021), “Xosé M. Núñez Seixas and Memories of the Authoritarian Past”. https://crisesobservatory.es/xose-m-nunez-seixas-and-memories-of-the-authoritarian-past/

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By |2021-12-01T12:18:08+01:00December 1, 2021|Democracy, Eastern Europe, European Union, Social Justice|0 Comments