Public Lecture Abstract

For Europe, the Great War of 1914-18 famously ‘changed everything and nothing’. Empires had fallen, but established social hierarchies re-emerged, often politically retooled. For progressives of the 1920s/30s the continent constituted a terrain where everything was still to play for. These struggles between ‘old’ and ‘new’ across Europe would produce a series of wars of social change in the years between 1936 and 1948 – dense and fraught confrontations over identities and values, which from 1939 would escalate under the impact of the Nazis’ own war of imperial expansion.

The first of these wars of social change to erupt in arms would occur in Spain in July 1936, where a military elite, in part representing the social and political values of pre-1914 hierarchical Europe, launched a coup against a democratising civilian society that was designed to halt change in its tracks. But the coup only succeeded because the Spanish conspirators secured almost immediate military backing from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The besieged Republic in Spain came thus to symbolise a possible new society, with a more open, democratic culture, now under attack simultaneously from the old order within, and from outside, by a brutal new order of European fascism. This dual assault brought into being a wave of support from progressives inside Spain and across Europe and the world – fighters and writers who saw the Spanish Republic as their place to stand.

In this lecture, Helen Graham will discuss the lives of five such figures, of diverse provenance and politics, in order to explore the Republic’s broader significance in these continental wars of social change. She will also look at what the Spanish Republican defeat of 1939 meant for all five over the long term, as they suffered physical displacement and psychological and existential estrangement. Theirs were ‘lives’ that had been salvaged, but, like millions of others, the people they had once been lived on only as ghosts. It was a predicament much intensified by the post-1945 myth-fuelled distortions of public historical memory – whether under dictatorships or democracy, in the Eastern or Western European blocs, or throughout the political West more broadly. With this in mind, the talk will conclude by exploring some still open questions about what might constitute an honest reckoning today with the history and memory of Spain, and of Europe’s dark mid-twentieth century.

The conference is made possible through the support of:

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