Exhibition explores dark era of the Spanish Civil War | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.04.2009
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Exhibition explores dark era of the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War is considered by many to have been a prologue to World War II. This is the topic of an exhibition at the Willy Brandt Haus in Berlin to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the civil war.

A young Republican fighter in Barcelona with a gun slung over her shoulder.

Guttman photographed Republican loyalists in Barcelona

On April 1, 1939 Spain became a land of winners and losers. With the capital of Madrid firmly under his control, General Francisco Franco officially ended the bloody Spanish Civil war, which had killed more than 500,000 people.

Much has been written about the role of German and Italian military support in Franco’s victory, yet the new exhibit in Berlin tries to paint a more complete picture, also telling the stories of Germans who fought against Franco’s forces.

The 70th anniversary exhibition includes photos by the German photographer Hans Gutmann, a volunteer in the International Brigade, and other photographs from the archives of the Spanish EFE news agency. In Spain, Gutmann changed his name to Juan Guzman and in 1936 he joined the anti-fascists. From within their ranks he began to document the war through his photography.

Germans fighting Germans in Spain

Nazi SS Chief Heinrich Himmler at a famous bullring in Madrid, October 20, 1940.

Nazi SS Chief Heinrich Himmler at a famous bullring in Madrid, October 20, 1940

Germans fought on both sides in this civil war: the International Brigade volunteers for the Republicans and the Wehrmacht soldiers sent by Hitler as the Condor Legion for the nationalists. About 2,800 Germans took part in the International Brigade while the Condor Legion became infamous for the deadly aerial bombing of Guernica in 1937.

“Without the German and Italian military support, Franco would never have won this war," Carlos Collado Seidel, a professor at the University of Goettingen and author of "The Spanish Civil War: History of a European Conflict," told Deutsche Welle. After the civil war ended, the right-wing Franco became the dictator of Spain, ruling until his death in 1975.

The city of Madrid fell to Franco’s troops on March 28, 1939. Four days later Franco wrote, "On this day, the Red Army has been captured and disarmed, and the national troops have reached their ultimate military objectives. The war has ended." In September of that same year, World War II broke out.

Supposed neutrality

The German Condor Legion marches through the streets of León in a farewell parade, May 25, 1939.

The German Condor Legion marched through the streets of Leon

Despite the help of Hitler and Mussolini during his own fight for power, Franco and Spain remained ostensibly neutral to the events of the World War II. But a previously unpublished photograph in the Berlin exhibition from the EFE archive shows Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler in the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, the famous bullring in Madrid.

"The historical research all comes to the same conclusion, that Franco was officially neutral, but that in fact he did everything to support the Axis powers and the Third Reich," explained Collado Seidel. "This included the supply of strategic materials, tolerating and supporting the German secret services in Spain, especially against Allied operations in the Atlantic, as well as supplying German U-boats from the Spanish coast."

Dealing with the past

After the war ended, many of those who had fought on the Republican side were persecuted and oppressed during Franco’s decades-long dictatorship. After Franco’s death and as Spain formed its democracy, all of the political parties agreed to bury the past. Those who had committed crimes under the general’s rule were granted amnesty. This "pacto de olvido" or " "pact of forgetting" has only recently begun to come undone.

Two years ago the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero passed the "Law of Historical Memory," which seeks to make amends with the victims of the civil war and Franco’s regime. Some have criticized the law for opening up old wounds, while others think the painful process is necessary.

Giving some dignity to the victims is "Spain’s duty, which it has not yet fulfilled, " Silvino Martin, the chairman of the Vallodolid Association for Historical Memory, told Deutsche Welle.

“It isn’t about opening wounds,” he added. “It’s about healing them.”

Author: Holly Fox/Luna Bolivar/Mirra Banchon/AFP

Editor: Trinity Hartman

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