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  • Writer's pictureLeo Corry

Vencerán o convencerán? España 1936, Israel 2020

La situación en Europa en la década de 1930 se menciona con bastante frecuencia en el discurso público en Israel y suscita intensas emociones. Hay quienes mencionan el tema como una advertencia relevante a nuestro presente. Hay quienes se ofenden profudamente ante la mera comparación. Ambos suelen asociarlo con la situación en Alemania y la transición de la república de Weimar al Tercer Reich. A pesar de su evidente relevancia, el destino de España en 1936 rara vez es un punto de referencia en tales debates. Yo creo que bien podría serlo.

En ocasión de cumplirse ochenta años de la sublevación militar encabezada por Franco en julio de 1936, se organizó en la Universidad de Tel Aviv un simposio académico bajo del título "España 1936: el año cero." Como eventos internacionales semejantes organizados en nuestra institución, también éste reunió un grupo destacado de ponentes y un programa de charlas muy interesante. Invitado a decir algunas palabras de apertura, me referí al famoso incidente en que Miguel de Unamuno enfrentó a los militares presentes en el acto de apertura del año académico, quienes lo acusaban de "antiespañol" por no atacar enfáticamente, en su rol de intelectual destacado, a los críticos de los sublevados y de la tremenda violencia que se había despertado en España al transcurrir tan sólo un par de meses. Pensé que nosotros, miembros de la comunidad académica israelí, teníamos algo que aprender de ese incidente y de las palabras de Unamuno.

Copio aquí abajo el texto con que abrí el simposio (en inglés), 16 de enero de 2017.

"Venceréis pero no convenceréis. Venceréis porque tenéis sobrada fuerza bruta, pero no convenceréis porque convencer significa persuadir. Y para persuadir necesitáis algo que os falta en esta lucha, razón y derecho. Me parece inútil pediros que penséis en España."

A little more than a year ago, I had the pleasure to stand here and greet the audience attending a similar workshop organized at our institution, that one dealing with the topic “Spain’s Road to Modernity”, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel. The opening lecture was by Professor José Álvarez Junco, from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and it dealt with the Spanish transition to democracy after Franco’s death. The opening sentence of his insightful lecture was a kind of reminder of what should pass as obvious, but a kind of obviousness that is always worth repeating and stating explicitly time and again, and from which anyone with an interest in Spanish history, has much to learn. He reminded us, namely, that in order to understand the transition to democracy in Spain one must always keep in mind that Franco died peacefully in his bed while he was still the Generalissimo, and that he remained the Caudillo, the undisputed military and political leader of Spain, until his death in 1975, after ruling for 36 uninterrupted years.

The workshop that we are opening today takes us back from 1975 to 1936, the year zero, and I am sure that the talks to be presented will offer many important and interesting insights about the dramatic events of the Spanish Civil War and the early stages of the Franco dictatorship. As someone who is far from being an expert in Spanish history but wants to learn more about it, I dare to guess that in light of the complexity of the events that led to the uprising of July 1936—and then to the cruel war that was to tear the Spanish society into pieces over the next four years—a similar one-sentence with the power to summarize the situation the way professor Álvarez Junco did in his talk a year ago for the case of the end of the Franco regime, is a much more difficult challenge.

The situation in Europe in the 1930s is a topic that comes up quite often nowadays in the public discourse in Israel and it raises many deep emotions. In general, people who raise this topic as a cautionary tale, or those who react strongly against anyone who mentions it in relation with the political situation in this country, typically have in mind the situation in Germany and the transition from the Weimar republic to the Third Reich. In spite of its obvious relevance, the fate of Spain at the time is seldom a point of reference in such debates. I will not be the one to raise the topic here and to analyze its relevance, certainly not as part of my opening greetings, nor will I try to connect it to the current, heated debates about local political processes in Israel. Still, there is one significant event that took place in 1936 in the Spanish context, which from the titles of the talks I assume that is not going to be discussed in the workshop, and that, in my modest opinion, makes sense that it will at least be mentioned here today.

What I mean is the famous incident of October 12, at the Universidad de Salamanca, involving the distinguished rector Don Miguel de Unamuno. Unamuno, as is well known, initially supported the July uprising. Soon thereafter, however, he changed his mind in view of the rising violence, political arrests and executions. His views about the events in Spain after July 1936 and until his death in the last day of that year, 1936, have been the subject of interesting and heated debates. I want to refer briefly to that famous incident.

On the opening day of the academic year 1936, on the Día de la Raza, a solemn act was held at the University’s majestic Paraninfo. Among the audience and the speakers were distinguished guests, including academics, politicians, high-rank officers and priests. The speeches pronounced at the event were full with pathos and direct attacks on, and even threats to, all those who did not share the ideals of Franco’s uprising at the time. They were consistently condemned as being antiespañoles. Breaking the protocol, the enraged Unamuno took the stage and reacted strongly, with the following words:

Callar, a veces, significa asentir, porque el silencio puede ser interpretado como aquiescencia. … Se ha hablado aquí de una guerra internacional en defensa de la civilización cristiana. Yo mismo lo he hecho otras veces. Pero esta, la nuestra, es solo una guerra incivil. Vencer es convencer, y hay que convencer sobre todo. Pero no puede convencer el odio que no deja lugar a la compasión, ese odio a la inteligencia, que es crítica y diferenciadora.

Silence sometimes means assent, because silence can be interpreted as acquiescence. … There has been talk here of an international war in defense of Christian civilization. I have myself said that at other times. But this one, our war, is just an uncivil war. Winning is convincing [Vencer es convencer], and convincing is what is needed above all. But the hatred that leaves no room for compassion cannot convince, that hatred towards intellectuals, whose attitude is always critical and nuanced.

Unamuno was interrupted by General Jose Millán-Astray, with the infamous call,

¡Mueran los intelectuales! ¡Viva la muerte! Down with the intellectuals! Long life the death!

And then came the oft-cited reaction by Unamuno:

Este es el templo del intelecto y yo soy su supremo sacerdote. Vosotros estáis profanando su recinto sagrado. Diga lo que diga el proverbio, yo siempre he sido profeta en mi propio país. Venceréis pero no convenceréis. Venceréis porque tenéis sobrada fuerza bruta, pero no convenceréis porque convencer significa persuadir. Y para persuadir necesitáis algo que os falta en esta lucha, razón y derecho. Me parece inútil pediros que penséis en España.

This is the temple of the intellect and I am its high priest. You are desecrating its sacred precinct. Despite what the proverb says, I have always been a prophet in my own country. You may possibly win but you will not convince [Venceréis pero no convenceréis]. You will win because you have plenty of brute force, but you will not convince because to convince means to persuade. And to persuade you need something that you lack in this fight, reason and justice. It seems useless to me to ask you to think about Spain.

Unamuno did not live long after these events. He was spared the suffering of Spain in the years to come, not only the years of the war, but also in the years of the dictatorship.

“Viva la muerte” was to prevail, and they won the day—vencieron, there is no doubt about it. The question whether they also convinced, convencieron, is a much subtler one, which calls for sophisticated historical analysis in order to be sorted out. Unamuno had thought that, in order to convince, it is necessary and sufficient that reason and justice be on your side. He was a man of words who was easily persuaded by the poetic power of his own rhetoric. But reality was much more complex than that in 1936, and today in 2017, the heyday of Post-truth, it is even much more so.

And here we are, still in the temple of the intellect, as Unamuno called it—now in cosmopolite Tel Aviv rather than in the majestic Salamanca. The Spanish Civil War and the events that led to it in the year zero of 1936 will continue to be a topic of great interests for historians. To be sure, it is still a topic that arouses sour debates within Spanish society. For us in Israel, it is more of a distant event, which we can analyze with due academic detachment. But as the Unamuno incident in Salamanca in October 1936 shows, with the confrontation between the worship of death and the open attack on intellectuals on the one hand, and the questionable assumption that being right and having justice on your side will be enough to convince and eventually win, on the other hand, the year zero in Spain, 1936, continues to be relevant well beyond its time and its location, and it is certainly relevant for us here.


Foto credit: Unamuno, 1925. Agence de presse Meurisse.

Public Domain. Reproduced (cropped) from Wikipedia.

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