The Memory of War in Madrid

I recently came across the Spanish blog and online magazine Yorokobu, a Madrid-based publication that discusses historical events and narratives not typically featured in traditional media. According to their “About” page, the writers at Yorokubu aim to inspire their audience by prompting the discovery of extraordinary individuals and events that are not necessarily “famous” or featured in mainstream news. In their words, their blog, magazine, and social networks feature creativity, innovation, reflection, and humor… always from a positive and “slow” focus. Isabel Garzo‘s recent post on their blog, “Madrid not so long ago: Windows to the war in Google Street View,” features a project by Madrid-based (Chicago born) musician and artist Sebastian Maharg. Maharg juxtaposes historical images of Madrid during the Civil War (1936-39) with modern day photographs taken by Google’s streetcar. The results are both beautiful and haunting. As Garzo’s Spanish post describes them, Maharg’s “series of photographic montages… rattle the conscience of the spectator with disquieting flashbacks.”

Calle Montera (1937). Image via

Maharg explains that he got the idea for this project after seeing a series in The Guardian that fused current images from Google Street View with photographs of the First and Second World Wars. The city-subjects in The Guardian‘s series are multinational, and include both larger cities and smaller towns across Europe and North America: France (Paris), Belgium, the US (New York City), Canada (Toronto), and England (London), to name a few. I highly recommend viewing the entire series. Maharg’s project is essentially a replication – in a purely Spanish cultural context –  of this phantasmagoric endeavor. He found that those evocative photographs provoked such visceral responses in the viewer that they essentially caused one to feel as if they had traveled back in time; their present surroundings were transformed entirely. (I am paraphrasing Maharg’s Spanish commentary in Garzo’s original post.)

Both Maharg’s and The Guardian‘s fusion of historic photography and modern Google Street Views reveal windows into the past – a past that is in reality not as distant as we may consider it.  In images like these, we observe the way in which history remains in all corners of our contemporary cities and lives. Maharg explains: “I believe it is easy to forget the history that surrounds us. We associate the streets through which we wander with our lives, without perceiving the truly dramatic situations that were experienced by others in Madrid.” Not surprisingly, he speaks of contrast as a key factor of the project, noting that strength resides precisely in these unpleasant counterpoints that provoke pause. Our thoughts are interrupted, disquieted by the fact that “the background of cadavers, ruins, and hunger is fused with the almost banal daily existences of people walking about and shopping.” These images, and Maharg’s commentary, speak to the increasing presence of and debate surrounding historical memory in contemporary Spanish cultural production. In fact, Maharg had personal, as well as artistic reasons for pursuing this project – his grandfather fought and died with the Spanish National Front in January, 1939. This personal connection to Spanish national history (and memory) is a salient feature of contemporary Spanish cultural production, owing largely to the “Pacto del olvido (Pact of forgetting)” that followed the fall of Franco’s dictatorship in  1975 and to the “Ley de la Memoria Historica (Historical Memory Law)” which was passed in 2007. I’ll briefly discuss each of these below.

Puerta del Sol (1939)

Puerta del Sol (1939) .Image via

In 2007, Spain passed the Historical Memory Law (Ley de Memoria Histórica). The law officially recognized the victims of the Spanish Civil War, gave rights to the victims (and their descendants) of the war and subsequent dictatorship, and formally condemned the Franco Regime (1939-75), among other things. There were still groups that opposed this law, however, perceiving it as insufficient on the one hand, or a new form of political propaganda on the other. On the official page of the Spanish Government, Memoria Histórica, the stated goals of this law include acknowledging the rights of recognized victims, healing past wounds, and eliminating any element of division between citizens. The statement on the “Archive” page is especially relevant to projects of “memory” like Maharg’s: One of the priorities of the Historical Memory Law is the summary (review) and diffusion of historical information and relevant documents pertaining to the Civil War, exile, and the dictatorship. [“La Ley de Memoria Histórica tiene como una de sus prioridades la recopilación y difusión de la información histórica y de los documentos  relativos a  la Guerra Civil, al exilio y a la dictadura.”]

Puerta del Sol (1936)

Puerta del Sol (1936). Image via

While these would seem to be logical goals in many countries, the recognition and diffusion of the unpleasant historical past is of utmost importance in contemporary Spain, given that the Spanish transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was marked by the “Pact of forgetting(or forgetfulness),” or “El pacto de olvido.” According to Madeleine Davis in a 2005 article, this political agreement was “Spain’s way of dealing (or not dealing) with its repressive legacy” (p. 863). In essence, the pact promulgated a philosophy oriented towards the future of the Spanish nation that depended on leaving the violence, repression, and shame of the past behind. It has since been critiqued and characterized as “a deliberate, but largely tacit, agreement to ‘forget‘ the past—a pact of oblivion based upon an ‘erasure of memory‘ or a ‘collective amnesia‘” (Davis p. 863-64). This strategic position has certainly had a lasting impact on Spain’s collective consciousness and the individual historical awareness not only of those Spaniards living through the transition, but of those born during the post-dictatorship decades.  The “pacto del ovido” suppressed difficult questions about the (recent) past, and no individuals or parties were held accountable for or charged with any human rights violations, which were numerous during both the war and dictatorship (Davis suggests as many as 30,000 individuals were executed and buried in mass graves, p. 864)). Moreover, all Francoist symbols were removed from public buildings and spaces, and Franco had been highly visible in the public sphere (Hadzelek). The interplay of historical memory and amnesia has thus affected Spanish representations and discussions of the violence and trauma of war, exile, the dictatorship, and human rights violations.

Calle Toledo (1936)

Calle Toledo (1936), just off one of the entrances to the Plaza Mayor, the arch of which can be seen in the background. Image via

A note on the above/below images – The above contains the slogan, “No pasarán,” or “They will not pass,” a common phrase appearing on posters and propaganda defending Madrid…. Below, a large poster encouraging the evacuation of the city covers the façade of a building at the heart of the city center.  See my previous post on Civil War Posters for more examples of such propaganda slogans and imagery. To view Maharg’s entire project, visit the original Yorokobu site to which I have linked several times in this post.

Puerta del Sol (1937)

Puerta del Sol (1937). Image via

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, a large quantity of the literary and cultural production of contemporary Spain is centered on themes of historical memory and the recovering and remembering of the nation’s past. In his 2009 article, Julius Ruiz questions the “pacto del olvido” and notes that “Seventy years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the appetite among Spaniards for accounts of the brutal repression carried out by both sides during the conflict is evident. Books on Republican and Francoist terror… regularly appear in non-fiction bestseller lists [and] films depicting the experiences of victims have been commercial successes. Las 13 Rosas, a film that recounts the exectution of thirteen young women in Madrid in August 1939, was the third highest grossing Spanish pictures in 2007″ (459). A few other  contemporary examples are the novels La caída de Madrid (Rafael Chirbes, 2000)Soldados de Salamina (Javier Cercas, 2001) and La voz dormida (Dulce Chacón, 2002); and the films Soldados de Salamina (based on the novel; directed by DavidTrueba, 2003) and Las 13 Rosas (dir. Emilio Martínez Lázaro, 2007).

What narratives have you read, or what films have you seen, that deal with these themes? If you have taught contemporary Spanish literature, what texts and resources are you favorites?


Davis, Madeleine. “Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del olvido.” Human Rights Quarterly 27.3 (2005): 858-80. [Project Muse:]

Garzo, Isabel. “Madrid hace no tanto: ventanas a la guerra en Google Street View.” Yorokobu. 26 November 2014.

Hadzelek, Aleksandra. “Spain’s ‘pact of silence’ and the Removal of Franco’s Statues.” [Australian National University Press –,+Present+Histories/9961/ch09.html]

Ruiz, Julius. “Seventy Years on: Historians and Repression during and after the Spanish Civil War.” Journal of Contemporary History 44.3 (2009): 449-72. [JSTOR:]

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Art, History, Spain, Spanish Civil War and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Memory of War in Madrid

  1. ensondeluz says:

    Hola Rebecca,

    Conocía ya las fotos, pero tus comentarios las enriquecen.

    Sólo quería apuntar que no es verdad que haya habido un pacto para olvidar (“pacto para el olvido”). Desde la muerte de Franco ha habido muchos libros y revistas, muchos trabajos de historiadores y muchas películas y programas de TV sobre la guerra civil y la represión franquista. Quien quería saber ha podido hacerlo abundantemente. Lo que faltó es la oportunidad del duelo y de un reconocimiento colectivo para los familiares de los combatientes muertos y de los ejecutados y represaliados del lado republicano (aunque no han faltado homenajes).

    Eso se ha tratado de contrarrestar con la Ley incorrectamente llamada de la “Memoria Histórica”. Pero la afirmación de que hubo un pacto para olvidar no es cierta, aunque políticamente se decidió no perseguir legalmente ni a los criminales del lado franquista ni a los que aún no habían sido juzgados del lado republicano.

    En el contexto que siguió a la muerte de Franco hubo circunstancias que lo explican, pero eso no invalida el proceso de transición que fue difícil y que algunos tratan ahora de denigrar, utilizando entre otras cosas la excusa del llamado “pacto para olvidar”.

    Acabo con un extracto del relato “Juguetes” de Arturo Barea, que, motivado por el foto-montaje de la Puerta del Sol, he releído hoy :

    “El obús cruzó silbando y estalló allá, en el lado opuesto de la Puerta del Sol. La gente se disolvió. En segundos desapareció la muchedumbre que llena siempre la gran plaza, sin prisa, pero empujándose. Nos quedamos solos, el idiota, el chico y yo. Le cogí del brazo y, escoltado por el chico, le conduje a la inmediata calle de Correos, al abrigo de nuevos disparos.”

    (Arturo Barea, de los relatos de “Valor y miedo”, IX “Juguetes”. Cuentos completos, Barcelona, Random House Mondadori, Col.DEBOLS!LLO, 2001)

    Un cordial saludo

    • rebeccambs says:

      Gracias por su comentario, Ramón. Y claro que no había un pacto “oficial” del olvido; pero de lo que entiendo yo de todos los estudios y análisis que he leído de la cultural y de la literatura de las décadas de la transición y después, se usa la frase “pacto de olvido” en la crítica para referirse a la falta de discusión y de reconocimiento colectivo del duelo (como tú has notado) en el discurso público. Ve el titulo del articulo de Madeleine Davis, por ejemplo. Creo que el artículo que cité de Julius Ruíz quizás te interesa; Ruíz de hecho cuestiona este “pacto de olvido” y (a mi parecer) sugiere que es una construcción bastante “mítica” y sobrevalorada por algunos historiadores y críticos. Estoy planeando un proyecto próximo que tiene que ver con estos asuntos y esta epoca, entonces agradezco mucho tu perspectiva y observación. Si encuentro otros artículos interesante, te los pasaré (y si quieres una copia del artículo de Ruiz, me puedes enviar un email!). Saludos de Iowa 

  2. Pingback: Following the Footsteps of a Literary Hero: Personal Histories of Place | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  3. Pingback: Matilde de la Torre and the Republican Courts in 1930s Spain | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s