Guernica Spain civil war

The Long Shadow of Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism: These days it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Ukraine is on my mind. It feels far away, and at the same time, so close. A friend in Germany, a doctor, has been called to the NATO Medical Corps, to be ready in case his help is needed. Another friend here in the U.S. has in-laws living in Ukraine. People in Europe and America worry about Putin’s threats of using nuclear weapons. The images of the destruction brought to Ukraine’s cities fill our news and remind me of similar images from Spain’s civil war in 1936-39.

In the featured photo on this post, you see the ruins of Guernica, a town on the north of Spain. In April of 1937 it was bombed to smithereens by the German Condor Legion. Hitler supported the military coup d’état of Francisco Franco, who had started a war to oust the legitimate Republican government (called Republican to differentiate it from monarchists; no relation whatsoever with the Republicans in the U.S., as in Spain the Republicans were leftists). The attack killed mostly women and children.

Guernica Picasso

Immediately after, Pablo Picasso painted an enormous mural reflecting this horrendous war crime, commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. This painting remains today one of the most incisive condemnations of the horrors of war, with the figure of the bull head symbolizing the onslaught of fascism. Today we have another bull, Putin, creating chaos and destruction in Ukraine. Franco went on to rule Spain as a dictator for almost 40 years. What will Putin do if he wins this war? He won’t stop there. That’s why protecting democracy should be a priority for all of us, in the U.S. and in the world.

Authoritarianism, be it from the right or from the left, has deep and terrible consequences for the citizens of any country, which can last generations. I know because I was born and raised under Franco’s rule.  If you have seen the latest movie by Pedro Almodóvar Parallel Mothers, which opened in the U.S. a couple of months ago, you know that even today Spaniards are trying to find the bodies of their ancestors, thrown into mass graves by the Franco regime who executed them during or after the war.

The repression inherent to any kind of authoritarianism shapes our lives even when we don’t want to. It colors the way we think and act, even if we don’t support it. During Francoism, for example, all languages other than Spanish were forbidden for decades (Spain has four official languages today). I wasn’t able to study Catalan—the language of the Northeast of Spain, including Barcelona—until I was in my 20’s, when Franco had already passed away. I will never be as fluent in Catalan as I am in Spanish. The close link between the regime and an extremely conservative Catholic church meant that many of us grew up thinking of sex as a tool for procreation and of masturbation as a sin. This point of view created many a sexual dysfunction and trauma. The machismo of our society relegated women to second class citizens. Even though Spain is now as modern and liberal as any other European country, some of us who grew up under that dictatorship got deep scars that took a lifetime to heal. You can’t separate the public sphere from the private. They are intrinsically connected.

As the events in Ukraine unfold, I still have hope that the pressure of the international community closing ranks against Putin will help end the conflict and preserve Ukraine’s independence.