Did you know? 

“Our top story tonight: Generalíssimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”

On the show we know as Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase says the line from behind the Weekend Update desk, and the audience laughs. In 1975, viewers had tired of news stories of Spain’s longtime dictator lingering on his deathbed. They kneweven in light, casual wayswho he was, what he ruled, and what he believed. 

The scene is comedy, but the reaction is true. 

The first time I watched the clip, I understood the joke, but not its specifics. Generalísimo Francisco Franco is one of a thousand names my parents knew but I struggled to pronounce. Like “Augusto Pinochet,” like “Ayatollah Khomeini,” the name “Francisco Franco” recalled a vague place and time. Limply. If that.

Did you know? 

In 1936, Spain’s military—led by General Francisco Francorevolted against its democratically elected government. The country split into liberal Republicans, who supported the existing government, and conservative Nationalists, who sympathized with the military. Violence ravaged cities and towns, and civilians (including clergy and children) died at the hands of both sides. 

Soon, foreigners began to participate in the growing chaos. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy sent planes and troops to help the Nationalists, and volunteers from the US, Britain, and elsewhere poured in to help the Republicans. 

Slowly, the Nationalists conquered more and more of Spain. Even the Soviet Union’s support for the Republicans could not stop Franco’s victory. After the fall of Madrid, the war officially ended on April 1, 1939. Spain was now a dictatorship. 

Did you know?

As I grew older, my mind struggled to untangle the Spanish Civil War from the Spanish-American War over thirty years earlier. I began collecting facts and figures, which the years would fade into questions. Doesn’t Picasso’s Guernica have something to do with the Spanish Civil War? Isn’t that the history behind Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls? Didn’t Orwell spend time in Spain, writing Homage to Catalonia? The conflict lingered just on the edge of contact. 

Finally, in a Literature of War class in England, I read more than just snippets. We read George Orwell, fighting with the volunteers; we read Martha Gellhorn, reporting from Madrid. These stories were just a few experiences distilled into ink or pain, but these experiences were true. 

Still, we couldn’t stay in Spain for long: the twentieth century held too many other horrors. 

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The world carried on, and war carried on. In September 1939, only a few months after Spain’s war ended, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and war erupted again—this time across the world. Franco’s fellow Fascists appealed to him, to Spain, to join with the Axis cause. But Spain was, for one reason or another, unwilling to participate in the Second World War. Besides, said Adolf Hitler, he’d rather have “rather have three or four teeth pulled” than meet with Franco again.

Did you know? 

In Maria Jose Ferrada and Ana Penyas’s Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War, over four hundred Spanish children flee Spain for the safety of Mexico. Their parents say the trip will last a few months, maybe a year. But for most of the children, this trip will turn Mexico into a permanent home. A home, but also an exile.

I had read stories about the war, but I had not thought so much about after the war: the refugees scattered across the globe because they (or their parents) disagreed with Franco. I had read a few stories, but my picture was so, so incomplete. 

The book was fiction, but the pain, the questions, the longing are true. 

Did you know? 

World War II ended, and Hitler and Mussolini fell, but Franco continued on. And on. Regulations loosened, but the regime continued. In the world of the Cold War, Franco’s Fascist Spain didn’t quite fit: not Communist or democratic, not beloved by the UN but not an eternal pariah. 

For thousands living abroad or in Spain, wondering and waiting, the years dragged on and on.

Did you know? 

In Ruta Septys’s The Fountains of Silence, set in 1957, a young American and a young Spaniard fall in love. Daniel is a nineteen-year-old from Texas, eager to prove his photojournalism skills; Ana is a nineteen-year-old from Madrid, eager to escape her family history. They discover that the children of Republicans—or others deemed dangerous to Franco’s regime—have been taken from their parents, brought to orphanages, and “adopted out” for money. When Ana’s brother is jailed and their friend is killed, the lovers must separate. But they reunite after Franco’s death as a new Spain is beginning. 

I read the book last week, sometimes taking a break to scroll Twitter and read debates about modern Fascism. The story was constructed, the plot part fairy tale, but many, many details are true. 

Did you know? 

When Franco died in 1975, Spain slowly transitioned into a constitutional monarchy, into democracy. The regime is still highly controversial; just search “The Valley of the Fallen” and read the articles. Franco’s body was exhumed from a memorial in 2019, and the country still struggles to speakat allabout almost four decades of its history. 

Did you know? 

Fascism, nationalism, political violencenone of these ideas will disappear in the near future. Even my explanations are just summaries; I want to explain the past in all its nuance, but as I condense, I struggle to find which details express what is true. 

I didn’t know; I don’t know; there’s so much we continue not to know. The Spanish Civil War is one of a thousand civil wars, one of a thousand stories of suffering from around the world and across the centuries. But this history is true. 

And we get to decide how to live with stories like this.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    “The pain, the questions, the longing are true.”

    We must live with the all of these. Sharing helps in more ways than people realize.

    Even if this was a summary, I think you successfully captured the important details, enough to drill feeling and pain into readers yet in such a beautiful and careful fashion. Of course, I am a sucker for history too, so that helps.


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