Jan 29 • 51M

🎧 Javier Cercas on How to Deal With Your Nation’s Past

Javier Cercas and Yascha Mounk discuss modern Spain's transition to democracy

Yascha Mounk
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Javier Cercas is a Spanish writer and novelist. The author of, among others, Soldiers of Salamis and The Anatomy of a Moment, his fiction and nonfiction works explore the concept of historical memory and the complex history of modern Spain. He is also a regular contributor to the daily newspaper El País.

In this week’s conversation, Javier Cercas and Yascha Mounk discuss Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, the movement for Catalonian secession, and how countries should approach their often complicated pasts.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: I'm a great fan of your work and I feel like my view of Spanish history is in large part influenced by your books. Tell us about how Spain managed to transition from the dictatorship of Franco to a modern democracy.

Javier Cercas: It is a very complex process, I think, and quite original, because history books say that the Civil War stretched from 1936 to 1939—but this is not true. The truth is that the Spanish Civil War lasted not three years, but 43 years. I mean, Franco's dictatorship was not peace: it was war by other means. That's the truth. The end of the dictatorship, the end of war, was in ‘75, when Franco died, or ‘78, when we had the democratic constitution, or ‘81, when the last coup d’etat—at least, the last classical coup d’etat—took place in Spain.

Everybody thought that there would be a war or a revolution, or something like that. But the transition was made, incredibly, by fascists, by Falangists, by Francoists, and by communists—people that theoretically didn't believe in democracy. It is very difficult, I would say almost impossible, to change a dictatorship for democracy peacefully. But they did it. 

Of course, there were a lot of problems. The anti-Francoist opposition were not powerful enough to impose justice. But at the same time, the Francoists were not able to stay in power. So there was a sort of equilibrium between both of them. That was so strange, so original. Poland, when they exchanged dictatorship for democracy, looked all the time at Spain, because they thought that it worked. Not in a perfect way, of course, because perfection doesn't exist in history. But in a reasonable way. And the fact is that this period, more than 40 years, is the best period in modern Spanish history.

Today, Spain is a democracy. Of course, we have problems, mainly because democracy is something dynamic, not static. I remember always this verse by Bob Dylan. He says something like, “If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying,” right? And democracy is the same. If it doesn't improve, it gets worse. And we have not been able to improve it. When the crisis came, in 2008, we discovered the problems we had. We hadn't done our job, which was to improve democracy.

Mounk: How is it that this set of people who weren’t democrats ended up creating a democracy? 

Cercas: I think that the context was very important. Europe helped to construct a European democracy in Spain. Compare that with the last experiment of democracy in Spain, in the ‘30s: in all of Europe, fascism and communism was growing up. That was the context. But in the ‘70s, democracy was there in Europe. That was important. First of all, the leaders had evolved: the leader of the Communist Party—featured in my book, The Anatomy of a Moment—who had been a Stalinist, very hard line, had discovered in the 70s that communists should evolve. He was one of the leaders of something called “Euro communism,” which was almost social democratic. They knew that it was impossible to sustain this dictatorship, and that it was necessary for the country to evolve into a democracy. 

So, it was a mixture of things: the context, the conviction of these guys, and many other things. For instance, the fact that Spain had a really modern economic structure, close to the economic structures of France, Italy, and all these democratic countries.

Mounk: The Anatomy of a Moment is about a coup attempt in February 1981, I believe, against the very young Spanish democracy. At the heart of the book is the defiance of the colonel who tries to overthrow democracy, who enters the chamber of the Spanish parliament with a pistol or revolver and tries to subdue them. 

We’ve lived through, on January 6 of last year, a kind of burlesque coup attempt. Why did the February 1981 coup in Spain fail, and are there any lessons we can draw from that? 

Cercas: Yes, I understand that lots of people, when they saw what happened in the United States, immediately thought of what had happened in Spain in 1981. But I'm not sure that this is a good comparison. Why? Because the people who entered the parliament in Spain in 1981 were people that didn't believe in democracy. They wanted to absolutely destroy democracy, and some of them wanted to go back to a dictatorship, or what you call a semi-democracy. As I understand it—you will know it better—what happened in the United States on January 6 was that these people who entered the Congress, or at least some of them, thought that they were for democracy. They were defending democracy. So it was a coup against democracy, in the name of democracy, which is completely different.

What is more useful is to compare what happened in the Congress of the United States with what happened in Catalonia in 2017. The Government of Catalonia told people that a fake referendum was democracy, a referendum without guarantees, and without anything like that. And they wanted power through that fake referendum that was against the laws, against the Constitution, against everything. I mean, that's really scary. That's what national populism has created. The new coups are not like the old coups, like 1981 in Spain, that were obviously against democracy. The new coups are against democracy, but in the name of democracy, and that's what is dangerous.

Mounk: I guess part of it is that in 1981, anybody who cared about democracy was on the same side. They all saw the nature of his coup. Across vast ideological divides they could unite in defense of democratic institutions precisely because the nature of the coup attempt was so openly and blatantly anti-democratic. 

Cercas: But the problem is that, at that point in 1981, Spanish democracy was in a bad place—I mean, it was six years after Franco's death. It was the beginning of democracy. And we were in a sort of collective depression. Historians talk about disenchantment at that moment, more with the functioning of democracy than of democracy itself. And so that explains something terrible: on that day, few people risked their lives to defend democracy. That's very hard to say, but it's the truth. People didn't go to the streets to defend democracy. They didn't go out. They didn't fight for democracy. 

And it's logical, because when democracy came after 40 years of dictatorship, people thought that democracy was something like paradise: “we're all going to be rich and beautiful and blonde, and we are going to be happy,” etc. But there was a big crisis, there was terrible terrorism by ETA, the secessionist Basque group. There were lots of problems economically. Well, people discovered that democracy is not paradise. 

So, The Anatomy of a Moment concentrates on these three men in parliament who stood there in their places and didn't look for cover, while these putschists were firing at them. These three men that stayed in their places are a symbol of the tiny opposition that these putschists found. Democracy is really fragile. That's the lesson. You should fight for democracy every day. Because if not, democracy is in danger.

Mounk: Why is it that, despite millions of people not coming out in the street in order to protect democracy, the coup attempt ultimately failed?

Cercas: In fact, nobody was in the street. We must remember that. Nobody was, and that's hard to say. But it's the truth. Why it failed… I mean, there are probably many reasons. You must remember that the response of the government of the United States was, “This is an internal affair.” So the States was not against the coup explicitly. That's very important to say. Ronald Reagan was in power and was scared about what was happening in Spain. They were not clearly supporting Spanish democracy. 

Why it failed: there are many factors, but there's one very important one—the King of Spain. I mean, today, after the many wrongs he’s done, he rates very low in the esteem of the Spanish people. But it is absolutely true that he was essential in why the coup failed. He was essential because he was appointed by Franco. Franco thought that after him there wouldn't be a democracy, and that the king would be autocratic. He was the chief of the army. Franco told the army, “you should obey him as you obeyed me.” The king made mistakes before the coup, but in the end, at that moment, he said, “Stop it. Don't go for it.” And the army obeyed him, because he was appointed by Franco. So that was absolutely essential in stopping the coup.

Mounk: The transition to democracy in Spain is different from that in most Western European countries after the fall of dictatorships or fascist governments, in part because there wasn't a clean break. In Italy or in Germany, the military defeat of the fascist regimes made for a post-war order built on an unambiguous rejection of what came before. In Spain, because of the strange evolutionary nature of the transition, there never was a clean break.

How has that shaped the debate about historical memory in Spain over the last four decades? 

Cercas: That's a very difficult question. The Civil War and dictatorship was a big collective trauma, like the Second World War in Europe. The difference between Spain and Germany, Italy, France, etc. was that in Spain, the bad guys won the war. That's why I say that the war lasted until the ‘70s. 

You put it very well. It is not completely true that Germany, for instance, changed everything after the war. I mean, Germany only began to look seriously at its past in the 70s. That's the moment in which a new generation of Germans began to digest Germany’s own terrible past. Spain was similar, in fact. When I was young, I thought that my country was different from all countries, and only my country had problems with its past. But this is not true. All countries have problems with their past, all of them, because we all have wars, we all have blood, we all have real problems. That's one of the main questions in my books: What do we do with this past? What do we do with our bad heritage? Do we conceal it? Do we invent a different past? Or do we look at it seriously? 

I think it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge complexities and to understand them. To understand doesn't mean to justify. It means exactly the opposite: it gives you the instruments not to repeat the same mistakes. In Spain, it was logical that people didn't want to look back. But in the end, you must do it, because the problem is still there. What is Faulkner’s sentence in Requiem for a Nun? “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Past is always here. Past is a dimension of the present without which the present is mutilated. 

Spanish people, as I understand it, began to deal with the past almost 20-30 years after the end of Franco's dictatorship. Our problem is that we didn't do it very well. That's our problem. We have not done it in a serious way. There's a book called The Impostor, in which I deal with the problems we have with our past. We invented a different past. The Impostor is about a real man called Enric Marco who invented a biography for himself—a biography of a hero of anti-Francoism, a victim of the Nazis, etc.—and it was completely false. He was for me a symbol of what we were doing with our past, which was to invent it.

Mounk: Walk us through this metaphor. What should Spain have done with its past, and how is this character a symbol for that failure?

Cercas: This character is a symbol of how we invented a beautiful past to conceal our hard past, our past of a dictatorship that lots of people accepted. Because Franco died in his bed. And he died in his bed because, until the last years, the dictatorship had lots of people who supported it.

Mounk: The beautiful past you’re talking about is, “We were all opponents of Franco and we—”

Cercas: Exactly. “We were all opponents of Franco. We were all heroes of the war.” And it was not true. This was not true. The truth was much more complex.

We haven't accepted, for instance, that there was a civil war, a terrible war in which people that were on the good side of history, the Republicans, also did bad things. The Republic was an excellent, wonderful experiment, but it made lots of mistakes.

Mounk: Where does that leave Spanish self-understanding today? What kind of sense of Spanish common patriotism exists today?

Cercas: Well, the idea of patriotism is suspect even for me. I must say that. The dictatorship used this word in such a bad way—and the nationalists inside Spain have used it in such a bad way—that it’s suspect. I prefer rational politics. I understand that you have stressed the idea that we also need this feeling, this sentiment, to put together a country, but I'm a bit skeptical about it. Because I've seen what can be done with feeling. When feelings invade politics, this is the end of democratic politics. Because you cannot discuss feelings. You can discuss reasons and issues, but not feelings.

I don't think that there are many people who still think that Francoism was not that bad. This is not a real political issue today. We have an extreme right that is dangerous, of course. They use the past for political purposes. And of course, there are people that are still nostalgic for the dictatorship, and some of them for the Republic. But it is not the real issue. In the ‘30s, the discussion between republic and monarchy was a discussion between dictatorship and democracy. That was the dilemma. Today, it is ridiculous to think about that. I mean, the best democracies in the world are also monarchies, like the Scandinavian monarchies. 

The dilemma today is getting a better democracy. That's the real problem. The point is that not only dictatorships, but also political parties, and especially populist parties, use the past to create artificial, fictional problems. We've seen that especially in the nationalist Catalonia, and we've seen that in many countries.

Mounk: Let me ask you about two other developments that are going on in Spain at the moment, and you've mentioned both of them. One is the rise of Vox, a far-right populist party, and then perhaps after that we'll get to talk about Catalonia. 

Vox is the first far-right political party of any real standing in Spain since the early 1980s, if I'm not wrong. What is the nature of it? 

Cercas: Well, I'm not a political scientist, I'm just a novelist and a citizen. So my opinion is just the opinion of a citizen. But I'm pretty sure that both problems—the rise of Vox and the rise of secessionists in Catalonia—are absolutely connected. You cannot think about one without the other. At the beginning of this century, the question for political scientists was why there was no extreme right party in Spain. Because everywhere in Europe there was an extreme right (except, I think, Portugal and Ireland) especially after the 2008 financial crisis. The main issue for Vox is Spanish nationalism. And why did this extreme Spanish nationalism appear? Because in Catalonia, there was extreme nationalism, a nationalism that tried to break the rule of law, that tried to break the constitution, that tried to put Catalonia in a terrible situation. In that moment, against that extreme separatist movement, Vox was born. So it is a reaction. Of course, there are many other reasons. But this is, in my opinion, the main reason. And it's very bad for all of us.

The 1929 crisis provoked the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, fascism especially, and ended in the Second World War. Well, the 2008 crisis provoked the rise of what we call “national populism.” It is one of the main reasons for that. This national populism is different in every country, as well. Some people forget the fact that fascism was also different in every country. The Nazis, or the Italian fascists, or the Spanish falangismo—they were different. So, national populism also has differences. For me, the symbol is Donald Trump in power in the States, but Brexit was also a perfect example of national populism. And in Italy, Matteo Salvini, etc. So, in Catalonia in Spain, the rise of this movement was our form of national populism. How to deal with that? Well, it's difficult because Spain is a sort of federal country, and the government in Catalonia has a lot of power.

First of all, this is a reactionary movement. That's what must be said. This is very important to say—this is not a democratic or progressive movement. I've called it “the revolution of the rich.” Thomas Piketty, the French economist, says something similar. Catalonia is one of the richest parts of Spain, and wants to separate from the poor parts of Spain, as happens everywhere in Europe: it's always the rich people that want to separate from the poor people. 

Anyway, the idea of a referendum, I was for it at the beginning. Now, I think it's a really bad idea. Why? They talk about self-determination. But what they ask for is self-determination understood as the right to separate from the rest of the country. And the international [legal regime] has serious reasons to oppose that. I mean, when they created this right to self-determination, they thought about colonies. Catalonia is not a colony. We are not at war. Human rights are respected. Spain's a democracy, not a perfect democracy, but still a democracy. 

Yes, at the end, the possibility of a referendum of secession should be there. But it's the last resort because it is a really, really bad possibility. You cannot go back. It is a very divisive, very destructive possibility. And that's one of the reasons why all constitutions, all democratic constitutions, don't accept this solution.

Mounk: What advice do you have for listeners who are trying to figure out what to think about the history of their own country? How do you face up to that history in a way that's both honest and productive?

Cercas: I think that I told you that the past is a dimension of the present, without which the present is mutilated. In the same way, the personal is a dimension of the collective: you cannot think of yourself without understanding your country, the place where you live. And so my idea of a personal past is similar or the same as that of the collective past. From a personal point of view, we all have both a bad heritage and a good heritage. We have it in our families, and this heritage lives with us, because the past lives in the present. My parents live in me. And so it is important, first of all, to know this heritage in all its complexity. This is extremely difficult. Our past, personal or collective, is not always beautiful.

Sometimes it's very hard, but it's good to know it and to understand it. I wanted to understand in my most personal book, Lord of All the Dead, why the hero of my family was a fascist. Why he went to war, why he became a warrior, why he became a Falangist, why he died in combat in the worst battle of the history of Spain, at the end of the Spanish Civil War. My family was not rich at all. He wanted to be an intellectual. He was very curious. For the first time my family had a boy that wanted to go to university. But it was a poor family, which is why he became a fascist, and why for my mother he was a hero, the man who went to the war to save the country, the homeland, to save the religion, save the family, save everything. So, for me, that has been very important. Because I see we all have a good heritage and a bad heritage. And if we know and understand our bad heritage, we can control it. If we don't know it, and we don't understand it, it’s this bad heritage that governs us. Then we have a problem with ourselves. And we also have problems with our collectivity, with our country. So I think it is very important to know and to understand.


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