Spain — A Look Back

Here on Iconic Photos, we have seen many photos taken in modern Spain. The country loomed large in the twentieth century mythos and imagination — starting with a disastrous Civil War that drew in many public intellectuals of the day and now seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War.

In the 1930s, Catalonia attempted two declarations of autonomy, claiming itself a state within a federal structure. This, along with rising socialism, communism, and anarchism,  gave cause to the rightwing reactionaries and finally an all-out Civil War. As it took place as picture magazines are getting popular, the Spanish Civil War was covered by photojournalists and yellow journalists alike. The most famous images of the war were by Robert Capa and by Dora Maar, of her lover Picasso painting Guernica.

Post-civil war Spain was a hodgepodge of repressions and idiosyncrasies. The Castilian Spanish was declared the sole official language, with all foreign films (and films originally made in local regional tongues) were force-dubbed. Castilian names were the only ones allowed. Even the names of football clubs were changed into Castilian versions.

Deference to the Catholic Church was extreme; after all, Franco had ruled Spain as “Caudillo by the grace of God” as his coins proclaimed. civil marriage and divorce were made illegal and the Church was given power to censor any writing or speech it objected. Cleavages and legs in photos were covered up, James Bond novels lost its sex scenes, and over 4,000 songs were banned, mostly for hilarious reasons. The country’s main scientific body, CSIC, was left in the hands of Opus Dei. The leading primary school history textbook, Yo soy español opened with the retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden.

The Generalissimo himself was an odd patriarch in a medieval mold. A mummified right arm of St Teresa of Avila always traveled with him. The state media mentioned him in the same veneration as Augustus Caesar or Napoleon, and many towns changed or added to their names ‘Franco’. He embraced a Austrian con-man who insisted that petrol could be made from water and a secret herbal extract, and strove for years to ban the tomato-pelting festival in Valencia.

On his ugly deathbed, Franco was already an anachronism, but his rule was widely seen as the sole unifier of the fissiporous Spanish nation. The experts worried that old hatreds and new violence would flare up. (Indeed in the elections of 1977, Spain voted along socio-geographical lines almost identical to the elections of 1936). The improbable transition was completed by two figures: King Juan Carlos — Franco’s designated successor and Adolfo Suárez. Four months after Franco’s death, the king signaled that the old order was ending by speaking banned Catalan language. He also engineered centrist Suárez to become Prime Minister. Suárez, Franco’s director-general of state broadcasting, succeeded in ridding the government of the last members of the old regime and forcing through a democratic constitution.

It is this constitution, confirmed in a second referendum in December 1978, that is now in question as the Catalans move towards independence. Under it, the powers of the Church were rolled back: there was to be no official religion, although Catholicism was acknowledged as a ‘social fact’, and rights of autonomy were granted for the country’s historic regions, but under a proviso in the Article II, which outlined “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards.”

It was an exceedingly delicate and dangerous operation, for the threat of a new civil war loomed throughout. A series of bloody bombings by the Basque separatists marred the transition. Economic malaise was high and with Catalonia, the Basque region, Galicia and Andalucia all seeking separatism,  Suárez — now on his fifth coalition government — was pushed out by his own party in January 1981.

The next month, as the national assembly, or Cortes, convened to appoint Suárez’s successor, a Civil Guard colonel staged a coup attempt. Another general requested the king to dissolve the Cortes and install a military government. Juan Carlos, who had been carefully maneuvered to play a modest role within the Francoist dictatorship, firmly stood his ground and refused. The coup petered out, giving the Cortes an opportunity to cut the military budget and pass a bill legalizing divorce.


Suárez made a duke and a Grandee of Spain; in 2008 when Juan Carlos visited Suárez to invest him with the highest honor of the Spanish monarchy, the Order of the Golden Fleece, Suárez was already amidst Alzheimer’s disease. He could no longer remember that he had been prime minister. A poignant photo of Suárez with the king’s arm wrapped around him, taken by his son Adolfo Suárez Illana, was reproduced in all Spanish media and later awarded the paper El País‘s Ortega y Gasset Award. The photo had been an idea floated by singer Julio Iglesias to Illana, who passed it on to the king. The palace proposed to send a photographer, but Illana declined, taking it himself.

On Suárez’s death in 2014, the Economist wrote, “the burly king with his arm round the shoulder of his diminutive first prime minister, in shirtsleeves. The two men were walking away from the camera as if to say, job done. As indeed it was.” Their work is now being transformed by Catalonia’s move towards independence. Catalonia, which contains a fifth of Spain’s economy and a quarter of its exports, has strong economic reasons for going it alone (and legitimate historical reasons), but recent weeks have shown that it risks awaking Spain’s past demons.



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