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The Spanish bloodlands: Ángel Viñas, warrior historian

Sebastiaan Faber- ALBA Volunteer, 4-01-2013 | 6 enero 2013

Entrevista al historiador Ángel Viñas


“There is not a single one among the conservative or neo-Francoist historians who does not manipulate or skew the historical evidence. They sell bold-faced lies. This sounds harsh, I know. But I have proven it time and again. In Spain, the myths propagated by Francoism have survived, conveniently freshened up, and are mobilized in today’s political conflicts. If the Spanish Civil War is still a source of controversy, it is due to the fact that the Right does not wish to stir up a bloody past that puts it in a deeply negative light. Just to give one example: one of Franco’s most sycophantic biographers is a member of the Royal Academy of History. As if it were the most normal thing in the world.”

Ángel Viñas is not afraid to say it like it is—and he doesn’t suffer fools lightly. One of the most prolific historians of the Spanish Civil War of the past two decades, Viñas has taken on enormous research projects and crossed swords with powerful adversaries. Still, since little of his work is available in English, Viñas is less well known outside Spain than his prominence in the field would appear to warrant. His energy seems boundless. Just in the last ten years, he has published or edited more than a dozen substantial books on the Spanish Civil War. These include a four-volume, 2,600-page history of the fate of the embattled Second Republic (2006-2009) which Helen Graham has called “magisterial,” and which Gabriel Jackson described in these pages as “without a doubt, the most detailed and fully documented archival studies of the international diplomatic and military reactions to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.” When, in 2011, the Spanish Royal Academy issued the first 25 volumes of its taxpayer-funded, controversial National Biographical Dictionary—whose text was riddled with errors and had never been properly vetted; the entry on Franco not once identified the generalissimo a dictator—it was Viñas who rallied a team of fellow historians to rapidly produce an alternative, more rigorous compilation. The 976-page counter-dictionary, entitled En el combate por la Historia (In the Battle for History), came out in April. This October, Dr. Viñas briefly interrupted the many projects piled up on his desk in Brussels—including new research on the bombing of Guernica and a Spanish re-issue of Herbert Southworth’s pathbreaking work—to speak with The Volunteer.
Historiography as battle, the historian as a warrior of truth: the image seems appropriate for the field of Spanish Civil War studies today and for Viñas’s work in particular. Born in 1941, Viñas thinks of himself as an old-fashioned historian. Throughout his career he has insisted on the need for rigorous research based on primary evidence from the time period. His main objective is clear-cut. He wants to find out what actually happened, why it happened, and explain it as clearly as he can to as wide an audience as possible. “To my mind,” Viñas says, “primary research is the only way to advance, to open new routes, point in new directions, and improve previous interpretations of the past. Primary research opens doors, it doesn’t close them. Of course it’s not the only way of writing history. Applying new paradigms can also yield new results. But I am an historian who likes to keep close to concrete realities, trying to find new answers to old questions.”

Viñas initially combined his research with a diplomatic career. He fell in love with the archives in the late 1960s, when as a young diplomat stationed in Bonn he was asked to write an article about Nazi financing of the Francoist war effort. “When I entered the archives of the Auswärtiges Amt (Ministry of Foreign Affairs),” he recalls, “I knew it was love at first sight.” This research project became Viñas’s doctoral thesis and first book, published in 1974 (La Alemania nazi y el 18 de julio). He next tackled the much-mystified episode of the “Moscow Gold”—the controversial transfer to the Soviet Union, by the Republican authorities, of part of the Spanish treasury. Viñas later worked on international relations, particularly the US-Franco alliance of the 1950s, spent twenty years working for the European Union, and five years as Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. He currently lives in Brussels. Happily so: “I am far from the Spanish din. Living here allows me to focus on writing—which I do ten or twelve hours a day, seven days a week.”

Viñas’s work makes for a refreshing read. He writes in straightforward, combative prose with little hedging. He is not afraid to introduce an occasional note of amused malice. In the La conspiración del general Franco (2011), for instance, he scolds the well-known and prolific American historian Stanley Payne for his lack of rigor. Payne and Viñas have been butting heads for a while. In recent years, Payne has often spoken dismissively of academic Spanish historians while championing rightist “revisionist” amateurs like Pío Moa or César Vidal. It is interesting, Viñas points out, that Payne, who “has extended his protective mantle to include some real historiographic pornography,” has himself almost never used anything but secondary sources.

Indeed, the key strength of Viñas’s work is his extensive use of primary sources from a large number of Spanish and foreign archives. Equally important is his insistence that no aspect of the conflict can be explained without taking into account the complex international context of the war—a context determined by powerful interests that were political as much as economic. Reconstructing the intense diplomatic efforts preceding and immediately following the outbreak of the war, for instance, he leaves no doubt about the tremendous difference between the categorical refusal on the part of the Western powers to stand by the besieged Republic, and the almost immediate willingness of the Fascist and Nazi regimes to pledge military aid. Based on extensive evidence, Viñas explains that difference primarily as a function of perceived national and political interest.

The author’s own background and expertise as a civil servant and economist helps him understand his material, but it also shapes his focus. He is ultimately interested in what drives the decision makers: political and economic leaders, as well as diplomats and other go-betweens. Having lived political institutions from the inside, he has no illusions about the moral caliber of their motivations. Viñas is also exceptionally good at reconstructing flows of information: the way in which letters, reports, and personal conversations shaped leaders’ perception of what was going on in Spain. This allows him, for instance, over thirty pages in the second volume of his series on the Republic, to give an unusually nuanced assessment of Stalin’s views and decisions regarding Spain.

Viñas strongly believes that writing Spanish history is the job of Spanish historians. “The battle for the truth is one that has to be fought in Spain, by Spaniards. There’s nothing strange about that—it’s the norm in all modern nations. Look at France, England, or Germany.” To be sure, he acknowledges the important contributions to Spanish Civil War history by historians from outside of Spain. But their relative prominence in the postwar years was an anomaly, due to the severe restrictions that the Franco regime placed on Spanish historiography. Fortunately, the situation has long been normalized. “The most important advances are now coming from Spanish historians. This is no more than logical; after all, almost all the archives are in Spain, and are now almost all accessible. That said, it would be far from me to deny the contributions of non-Spanish historians. I appreciate their work enormously.”

Why then his critical attitude toward Payne? “I used to have the highest respect for Payne as an historian, and I used to be an avid reader of his works. In scholarly terms, my level of respect has shrunk. Payne doesn’t do archival research. And what we need at this point is precisely to found historical interpretations on primary evidence from the archives. But that is not the worst part. Although he still operates under the guise of scholarly rigor, Payne today is little more than a product and defender of a conservative view that insists, against all factual evidence, on blaming the Left and the reformist Republicans for the outbreak of the Civil War. From a scholarly point of view, Payne’s methodology and presuppositions are simply unfounded. And the protection he grants to the neo-Francoist clowns who call themselves historians, is quite frankly repulsive.”

Indeed, few things irritate Viñas more than “the nonsense that some authors continue to propagate as if time hadn’t passed”: the set of fundamentally mistaken ideas about the Spanish Civil War that, despite having long been proven baseless, have been around since the 1930s and stubbornly refuse to die. The notion, for instance, that the outbreak of the Civil War saved Spain from a descent into social revolution and a future as a Soviet satellite. Or the idea that the non-intervention policies of France, Britain, and the United States—their betrayal of the Second Spanish Republic, in a word—were driven by anything else than “a savage policy of protection of national self-interest, seasoned with ideological, political, and class connotations, and skewed by mistaken or prejudiced analyses of Spanish reality.”

“Francoist historiography, which still wields a tremendous influence on conservative historians of the Civil War, operates through a mechanism that I, along with Professor Alberto Reig Tapia, have called an exercise in projection. By this I mean that the Francoists consistently attribute the behavior of their own side to their political or military opponents. Thus, they frame the Republican reaction to the military rebellion as the outcome of a revolutionary project, while in reality it was a spontaneous outburst in response to a carefully planned military uprising greatly abetted by civilian supporters. They accuse the Republic of requesting foreign—that is, Soviet—assistance in order to impose a totalitarian state, while in truth it was the Monarchists who contracted war material from the Italians before the uprising. They talk about the creation of a Communist-controlled ‘popular Republic’ avant la lettre, while in reality it was the Right that spawned the actually-existing Spanish fascism. They decry the massacre of patriotic Spaniards, when it was the military rebels who immediately began massacring their opponents. They denounce the supposed dependence of the Republic on Stalin, to distract from Franco’s much greater dependence on Hitler and Mussolini. We see the same mechanism at work in the case of the bombing of Guernica in April 1937. The destruction was long blamed on the ‘Bolshevized Basques’ or the ‘Asturian dynamite crews,’ but in reality the bombing was the result of direct orders issued by the command of the Army of the North to the Nazi Condor Legion.” All these assertions are founded on primary evidence painfully gleaned from Spanish and foreign archives.

Is it more difficult to be an historian of the Spanish Civil War than, say, of World War II or the Middle Ages? “Yes, it is. This has to do in the first place with the fact that it took so long for the archives to be opened up for research. It was only after the death of Franco that the freedom to do research and to write was consecrated. And then, as I have said, there is the problem of the ideological positions of Neo-Francoism, which continue to have an impact. To this day, an historian who disagrees with these positions is likely to be harangued by the Right. In the context of World War II that would be unthinkable. No one in their right mind would think of labeling as ‘anti-Nazi’ or ‘anti-Fascist’ the French, British, or American historians who have analyzed the workings of the Nazi and Fascist dictatorships.”

What does Viñas think of the grassroots initiatives around the “recovery of historical memory” that have sprung up all over Spain since the turn of the twentieth century? “The so-called memory movement is closely related with the collective effort to bring to light the hidden dimensions of the extremely harsh Francoist repression during the war and postwar period. These efforts are very important. What surprises me is that, despite all the work done, the majority of foreign historians still does not acknowledge the fact that Spain was part of what Timothy Snyder, in reference to Eastern Europe, calls the Bloodlands—the massive victimizing of civilians by powerful military and state structures—albeit under a different constellation and in a different part of Europe.” Fortunately, Paul Preston has brought the Spanish case to an English-speaking readership.

A year ago, Viñas retired from his position as full professor at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. Still, he continues to mentor young historians. Among his disciples is Fernando Hernández Sánchez, with whom he wrote El desplome de la República (The Collapse of the Republic, 2010) and who went on to publish a pathbreaking history of the Spanish Communist Party during the Civil War (El partido comunista en la Guerra Civil Española, 2010). Observing the Spanish present from his northern Brussels perch, Viñas sees little reason for optimism. He is worried about his country. The future looks particularly bleak for the Spanish university and academic research. “The Francoist university was corrupt. It was a byproduct of the country’s power relations, which were oligarchic and, in the best of cases, paternalist. The situation since the transition to democracy has improved somewhat, although not enough. This is a serious failure on the part of the Socialist administrations and even more on the part of the conservative ones. It has been possible to do good work within the existing structures, and many have done so—although this at times has required a considerable dose of civic courage. Personally I have no right to brag because for professional reasons I was able to work outside of the university for twenty-five years. This allowed me to gain a certain distance and, above all, not depend financially on almost anyone. But I am extremely worried about the future of the Spanish university. Spanish conservatism has entered a regressive, if not reactionary phase, in both economic and ideological terms. The current, ultraconservative government is a genuine disaster. The situation reminds me, mutatis mutandis, of the ‘black two years’ of 1934-35. A whole generation of young researchers will be left in frustration.”

Sebastiaan Faber teaches Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College and chairs ALBA’s Board of Governors.